It wasn't the very first, it wasn't the best available, but when Atari released their 'Home' version of Pong in 1975 they basically kickstarted the home video gaming phenomenon, which shows no sign of stopping 40 years on.
The original Pong coin-op machine was released in late 1972, it was so popular that dozens of imitation units were developed by an array of companies, and pinball machines in bars & arcades around the world quickly began to give way to this new electronic tennis craze.
Game designer Allan Alcorn and the original Pong prototype.
The original prototype for the coin-op machine was constructed from a $75 black & white TV, mounted into a wooden case with wires soldered from the game board directly in to the TV itself. Theorising that everyone at home had a TV set already, an Atari engineer by the name of Harold Lee came up with the idea of scaling the game board and controls down a bit and repackaging Pong for use at home. Atari realised that if Lee could pull it off it would be a massive boost for the fledgling company, by offering high tech custom integrated circuits direct to the consumer, they would be one of the pioneers of the industry. And so in early 1974 the Home Pong system began development under the codename Darlene (named after an attractive female employee at Atari - hey, it was the 70s!).
Lee, along with Pong designer Allan Alcorn and fellow Atari engineer Bob Brown, developed a Home Pong prototype which consisted of a device attached to a wooden pedestal containing over a hundred wires, which would eventually be replaced with a single chip - only trouble was the chip hadn't been built yet! Eventually, towards the end of 1974 Alcorn and Lee designed the groundbreaking chip, which, at the time, was the highest performing chip to be used in a consumer product.
In 1975 Atari signed an exclusivity deal with Sears, they would sell Home Pong under their own specially created Tele-Games lable, and placed an initial order for 50,000 units. Demand was so high that this number was soon raised to 150,000, and so in the 1975 Christmas season alone Atari sold $40 million worth of Home Pong units! Making this new form of home entertainment Sears' most successful product at the time.
Just like the coin-op version, several companies released clones to capitalise on the home console's success. Magnavox re-released their Odyssey system with updated versions of Pong; Coleco entered the video game market with their Telstar console featuring three Pong variants; Nintendo released the Color TV Game 6, which played six variations of electronic tennis; and many more dedicated home Pong consoles appeared in stores and markets around the world. Pong went on to appear on countless machines and platforms, including being amongst the launch titles of the Atari 2600, where under the name of Video Olympics, 50 different Pong variants were playable.
Many people who have never encountered technology shy away from it, and that must've been even more true back in the 1970s, and so Pong really could've been a glorious failure. But as impressive as it must've been to see this new style of electronic entertainment for the first time, I believe it's Pong's simple, intuitive gameplay that made it the success it was.
I remember my brother and I playing Pong on our new Atari 2600 and my grandparents joining in - these were the same people that never bought a microwave as it was too complicated! Although you played against the person sat next to you, Pong always had a feeling of cooperation about it. You wanted to win - and when you did you rubbed it in the other ones face - but it was more satisfactory to keep the action going, rallying for as long as possible as the 'ball' speeds up. Congratulating the other when they return a particularly tricky angle.
Simple to understand, and ridiculously addictive, how could Pong not be a success? Of course, it's beyond basic now, but if you have an old Pong console or cartridge somewhere dig it out and you'll see that it still remains a rewarding experience - in small doses.
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