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Plugged In

Pong turns 40

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"Insert quarter. Avoid missing ball for high score."

That was the extent of the instructions for Pong, the first video game blockbuster.

Pong wasn't the very first video game, by any means (that honor arguably goes to 1947's "Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device"), but it was absolutely the first commercially successful one and remains of one the industry's most iconic titles. Released on November 29th, 1972, it turns The Big Four-Oh today.

While Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is often credited for Pong, it was actually the creation of engineer Allan Alcorn, who in early 1972 had no prior experience at all in the gaming world. Pong, in fact, was built mainly as a training exercise.

Once they realized it was enormously fun to play, Bushnell and Alcorn took it to Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. Popular legend takes the story from there: Within a few days, the story goes, the manager called Alcorn to tell him the machine was malfunctioning. It turned out that there was nothing wrong with the game, but the machine was jammed due to an excessive number of quarters.

It's worth noting there are questions about the validity of this story. Author Harold Goldberg, in his book "All Your Base Are Belong To Us," quotes Loni Reeder, Bushnell's longtime assistant, as saying it was actually the Atari team who stuffed the machine themselves to build a buzz around it.

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Either way, Bushnell soon began beating the bushes for financing, eventually convincing a local Wells Fargo bank to take a chance. Atari formally announced the game on Nov. 29, effectively kicking off the video game industry.

To call it an instant hit is a massive understatement. Atari had to recruit people from the local unemployment office to help assemble the machines. It wasn't fun work: Goldberg describes them as "Hells Angels, parolees, addled high-school dropouts, alternative-minded hippies, and drug addicts, who earned $1.75 an hour and who were put on an assembly line of sorts for up to 18 hours a day in an old roller-skating rink."

Two years later, Pong hit the home market. Again, it wasn't the first -- Magnavox's Odyssey had released a similar game around the same time Pong showed up in arcades. But it was another monster hit, and it propped open the door for Atari's next big move, the equally iconic Atari 2600 system (which celebrated its 35th birthday earlier this year).

As we celebrate Pong's 40th, here are a few things you may not have known about the game that started it all:

One play per quarter
Before Pong, players were used to the pinball standard, which gave three games for a quarter. The quarter per game standard started with Pong and would last throughout the arcade's heyday.

It earned a LOT of quarters
In its heyday, the coin-op version of Pong was seemingly everywhere. At one point, there were 35,000 Pong machines operating in the United States, each earning an average of $200 per week. That's over $360 million a year...in the mid-'70s.

It was built by…creative…types.
Due to Atari's haphazard recruitment of assembly line workers, early production of Pong machines was a bit chaotic. Black Sabbath music blared. Workers smoked joints. Many went barefoot. But they still managed to hand produce about 12 machines per day (though many failed quality control testing).

It had sequels. Tons of 'em.
Even a bare-bones game like Pong spawned sequels, including Pong Doubles, Super Pong, Quadrapong, and the ridiculous Pong-in-a-Barrel. Bushnell even created a weird dog-themed spin off called Puppy Pong that he featured in his Chuck E. Cheese restaurants throughout the 80s.

Got some fond Pong memories? Share away in the comments!

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