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Reflecting on Pong's video game success, 50 years later

A display at the Computer Game Museum in Berlin, Germany features a standing console of Pong, one of the earliest commercially successful video games.
Sean Gallup
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Getty Images
A display at the Computer Game Museum in Berlin, Germany features a standing console of Pong, one of the earliest commercially successful video games.

Two lines move on either end of the screen, a pixelated dot volleys between them and a score displays at the top. That's really all there was to Pong – and that was really all it needed to become the first widely played commercial video game.

50 years ago, Atari released the original Pong as an arcade game. To mark the anniversary, Atari co-founder and Pong designer Allan Alcorn spoke with NPR about the game's development, its success and its connection to a big name in the tech world.

Interview Highlights

On where the idea for Pong came from

Well, it came from Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of Atari. The idea was to give me something to practice on because I had never designed a video game before. No one else ever had either, except Nolan. And so he thought of the very simplest possible game that could ever be. And I never thought it would be a financial success.

On Pong and Atari's success

Well, when we put the thing on location just to try it out, because I tried to make it as fun to play as I could. And all of a sudden, the thing went nuts.

I didn't think the company would last long because most startup companies didn't. And so I thought it would fail after a while, but it'd be a lot of fun, and I'd learn a lot doing it, and then go back to work for a real company. But that never happened and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

On developing the sounds for Pong

Nolan said he wanted the roar of a crowd of thousands. And I didn't know how to do that. So I said, okay, I'll be right back. And I just poked around in the circuit itself, in the vertical sync generator, for appropriate sounds and piped them out.

Remember, this was 1972. There was no Internet, there was nothing. And so I just poked around, and it took me about 2 hours and Nolan said "I don't like it." I said, "Well, if you don't like it, Nolan, you do something better." So he said, "okay, okay." That's how the sounds were done.

On Pong's connection to Apple

We were a rapidly growing company, and I needed a technician. And one day the personnel lady came in, says, "You like to get these strange ones. So here's one. This young guy out in the lobby." I said, "Sure, bring him in." And he was a dropout of Reed College. He was kind of a hippie, pretty disheveled. But, you know, the kid was really enthusiastic. And when you're hiring somebody – and this was for a technician, the lowest rank in the engineering department, you know – enthusiasm counts for a lot. So I figured, okay, he's got to be cheap. But we didn't have much money, so I hired him.

It was a guy named Steve Jobs. You may have heard of him.

Edited by Mallory Yu

Audio story edited by Ashley Brown

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Megan Lim