Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pong designer at ACMI

I just received a bulletin about a non-film event at ACMI that interests me; maybe it will interest you also. As a teenager, I loved pinball machines, which is of course how any self-respecting juvenile delinquent wasted his (and it was almost always his) time pre-internet. Then along came Pong, a table-based video game that was the beginning of the end of pinball machines. Mind you, I still like pinball machines. There was a great one in a video store in Albert Park when I lived there several years ago - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There's another one worse for wear at Polyester Records in Brunswick St, and I've been known to spend a couple of dollars there from time to time.

Back to ACMI and Pong. I post in full ACMI's announcement that as part of Game On, its latest exhibition on the history of video games (opening 6 March), the creator of Pong is giving two lunch-time talks. They're on Thurdays 6 and Friday 7 March. I'll be going out of my way to get to one of these.

Al Alcorn, original designer of PONG, coming to Melbourne for Game On opening

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is delighted to announce that Allan Alcorn (USA), original designer of Pong, will make the trip out to Australia to attend the opening of the Game On exhibition.

Released in 1972, Pong was the very first arcade game to achieve widespread popularity, its success ushering in the ‘golden age’ of arcade games, with hugely successful hits such as Space invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.

“Allan’s work in designing Pong has made him one of the most influential figures in the development of videogames,” says Conrad Bodman, co-curator of Game On and ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions. “Pong was the first arcade game hit which was massively popular with the public and led to the development of a brand new form of entertainment which flourished in the arcades in the 70s and 80s. Allan has made an enormous contribution to and we are happy to welcome him to ACMI.’

Based in San Francisco, Alcorn has been working at the heart of the videogame / IT industry for over 30 years.

Alcorn was a young electrical engineer working at pioneering video company Ampex, when he first met Nolan Bushnell, a fellow employee who ended up leaving to start his own company, Syzygy – later renamed Atari.

In 1972 Alcorn joined the Atari as the company’s second employee (the first being the 17 year old receptionist, hired to give the impression to callers that the company was much bigger than it appeared). At the time the company had already produced the world’s first coin-operated videogame Computer Space, which, although a historical milestone was a commercial failure due to its complicated instructions.

Bushnell therefore decided Atari’s next game should be as simple as possible – something ‘people already knew how to play, something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play". He decided to train up his rookie programmer by asking him to design an electronic table tennis game, which was named Pong, after the sound the balls made when hitting the paddles.

Once completed, the original Pong prototype was given a test run at Andy Capps, a bar near the Atari office. It had only two instructions: “Deposit Quarter” and “Avoid missing ball for high score”.

Indications of the games forthcoming popularity were evident almost immediately. The day after Pong was installed, Andy Capp’s owner arrived to open up the premises and discovered people were lined up outside, waiting for the bar to open, so that they could play the game. Then, a couple of weeks later, Atari received a phone call the bar, telling them their game was broken. When Alcorn came to make repairs, he discovered the machine had short-circuited due to the huge amount of quarters jammed in its coin box.

In 1975, after the massive success of the arcade game (which, in turned, spawned an avalanche of Pong imitations), Alcorn designed a new home version of Pong which could be played on Atari’s early home consoles - entertainment units that plugged into the TV and enabled the user to play videogames in their own lounge room. The home console version of Pong was so wildly successful (at Christmas time, several shops had people queuing up just to put their name on a list to order it) it established Atari as the market leader in the early home videogame market, with a turnover of over $40 million in its first 3 years of operation.

After leaving Atari in 1981, Alcorn became a Fellow at Apple Computer where he did early work that led to the MPEG standard and QuickTime. In the mid ‘90s Alcorn established the company Silicon Gaming, which was driving force behind the advance of manual casino slot machines to the computer-based systems that are now standard in all casinos. He was also VP of Engineering at Digital FX, consulted at Interval Research and is currently Chief Technology Office at Integrated Media Measurement Incorporated (

Among the many staff Alcorn hired during his tenure at Atari was a young college drop-out called Steve Jobs who would go on to found Apple computers and Pixar Animation.

This will be Alcorn’s first visit to Melbourne.

Game On, the world’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the history and future of games and gaming, will be presented exclusively in Australia at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and opens on Thursday 6 March, 2008.

A playable big screen version of Pong, an original Pong arcade game and an early Pong home console will be exhibited as part of Game On (ACMI Screen Gallery, March 6 – July 13, 2008). Alcorn will be giving two free lunchtime talks at ACMI in Melbourne on Thursday 6 March and Friday 7 March. For more information and tickets details for Game On, Alcorn’s talks and many other Game On activities, please go to the ACMI website:

No comments: