Today in 1972, Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn demonstrated the first stand-alone Pong coin-operated arcade unit into Andy Cappa’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. Pong, a simulated table tennis game, will go on to be the first commercially successful video game in history, overshadowing pinball games and jukeboxes. Bushnell: “To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.”
Atari went on to sell more than 19,000 arcade units, helping launch the video game industry. Today, video game sales are expected to grow from $66 billion in 2010 to $81 bilion in 2016, and every student in video game design school aspires to supersede and surpass Alcorn’s and Bushnell’s success.
In February 1974, 19-year-old Steve Jobs came to Atari and told the personnel director, “who was startled by his unkempt hair and attire, that he wouldn’t leave until they gave him a job” (this and the following quotes from Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs). Jobs became one of the first fifty employees at Atari but left a few months later “to search for a guru in India.” When he came back he got back his job, and in the summer of 1975, Bushnell asked him to design a single-player version of Pong: “Bushnell knew that Jobs was not a great engineer, but he assumed, correctly, that he would recruit Wozniak, who was always hanging around. ‘I looked at it as a two-for-one thing,’ Bushnell recalled. ‘Woz was a better engineer.'” Indeed, Wozniak did it, in only four days, using forty-five chips instead of fifty.
Issacson concludes the Atari chapter in Jobs’s life by stating “The Atari experience helped shape Jobs’s approach to business and design. He appreciated the user-friendliness of Atari’s insert-quarter-avoid-Klingons games. … Jobs also absorbed some of Bushnell’s take-no-prisoners attitude.”
In yet another example of digital tipping points, online sales of games are today the fastest growing distribution method and could surpass retail sales as early as 2013.
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