All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Chapter 2 - Pt. 2

Computer Space wasn’t the key to the kind of Ali Baba–type riches Bushnell knew were within his grasp. Only three thousand machines were made and fewer than a thousand were distributed. Few at the penny arcades and bars wanted to play. The fact that the saucers made an annoying, high- pitched whine when they emitted laser beams probably didn’t help the game’s popularity. Yet the fifties retro futuristic machine made it to the silver screen to be forever part of the B-grade science fiction message movie Soylent Green. In its
thirty seconds of fame, there was much sexual innuendo as a giggling and ravishing Leigh Taylor- Young begged her much older gift giver to “come on and play” Computer Space. Then she begins to kiss him. It was the kind of scene that led a young moviegoing nerd to fantasize.

Bushnell and Dabney each put $250 into their Syzygy company, but a California roofing contractor already bore the odd moniker. Undaunted, Bushnell changed the name immediately. He loved Go, the strategy- oriented game from ancient China—everything from the way the smooth stone game pieces felt to the way the board looked. So for his company’s name, Bushnell settled upon a word from Go, the game he loved so much: Atari. The definition is the equivalent of the word “check” in chess but also means “you are about to become engulfed.”

The twenty- seven- year- old’s first employee was a former Ampex engineer, twenty- two- year- old Allan Alcorn. Alcorn was a genial, hefty award- winning high school football player with a carefully trimmed beard. Obsessed with learning, he was an engineering whiz with a bachelor of science degree out of the University of California Berkeley, who worked his way through college by fixing TVs while the older guys in the local shop got drunk and played cards in the back room. Alcorn, who grew up on the corner of Haight and
Ashbury, enjoyed the San Francisco psychedelic music scene, and fell in love with computers in college. But he had a mischievous side and almost got in trouble for hacking into and using a college professor’s access, which was very expensive at the time.

Bushnell impressed Alcorn with a free lunch and his turquoise Buick station wagon. He offered Alcorn a $1,000-a-month salary, which Bushnell hoped to pay from the contracts he was aggressively seeking. Alcorn’s pay was $200 less than he made at Ampex, but the package included a generous 10 percent of the company. At their meeting, Bushnell started telling Alcorn of all the contracts he had suddenly amassed. In actuality, he had only planned on getting those deals. Alcorn took it in stride, understanding that there was something entrepreneurial about Bushnell that made him utter the most outrageous things. While some were offended by that, Alcorn saw it as a talent. In their small office lab in one of the shabbier districts of Santa Clara, Bushnell walked back and forth and gestured with his hands as he told Alcorn, “I want to make a game that any drunk in any bar can play. Simple. Simple enough for a drunk to play.”

Alcorn thought the idea was simplistic, not simple. He had believed that their first project was going to be a spiffy driving game, maybe with sleek- looking cars. After all, Bushnell had originally recruited the computer expert by saying he was doing a racing game for Bally in Chicago. Alcorn also dreamed of doing something
computer- based that was a bit more of a challenge. The arcade game the Atari founder proposed was primitive, not cutting edge: It included no computer whatsoever. Instead, it would just use old- fashioned TTL logic, a series of transistors and resistors with a different circuit for each function of the game.

“Get started on this. We want to make it for the arcade and then for the home. So keep the costs down.” Bushnell gave Alcorn some tortured, haphazard schematics to help, and Alcorn complained, “What the heck is this? I can’t read these.”

“Look, everyone’s on board with this,” said Bushnell. “I’m almost sure I have GE on board. Just do this and more will come out of it. Everything’s going great. Don’t worry, because we’re on our way.”

“OK, boss, OK.” Bushnell’s magical enthusiasm continually won Alcorn over. The boss’s most valuable quality was to make people believe in him and in his sweeping vision. During the gestation of Atari, Alcorn loved listening to Bushnell as he espoused his grand hopes. Alcorn, who didn’t come from money, looked to the
Utahan as a philosophizing mentor more than a peer in engineering, because Bushnell’s design chops were middling. But as he listened to the founder’s big plans, Alcorn began to dream big dreams himself.
Just as important, he worked extremely hard on the three- month project, although years later, he thought, “It’s got one moving spot. It’s got scoring digits. It’s got basically one sound. It’s the de minimis of a game. It’s really lifted from what Nolan saw in the Magnavox Odyssey game.”

But at the time, Alcorn hadn’t seen or played Baer’s tennis game—the Odyssey wouldn’t appear on retail shelves until later that fall—nor was he aware of Bushnell’s early knowledge of the device. Bushnell sometimes stated to the press that he never saw the precursor to Pong. But Baer, the ultimate stickler for detail, had squirreled away a signed attendee log that proved that Bushnell viewed a demonstration
of the invention—along with Baer’s table tennis game— on May 24,1972, at the Airport Marina in Burlingame, California. Atari was formed a month later, on June 27. A pattern was forming: Bushnell was being inspired by (or possibly taking) ideas for games he had seen and even loved in the past and trying to distill them for
a mass audience.*

* In fact, Bushnell and Atari were involved with a lawsuit brought by Magnavox for patent infringement, which included Baer testifying before Judge John Grady in Chicago’s Northern Illinois Federal District Court in early June 1976, long after Pong’s release. The suit never made it to trial. Bushnell and Atari settled with Magnavox on June 10 and Atari became an Odyssey licensee.

Yet whether the boisterous founder was unconsciously motivated by Baer’s idea or blatantly pilfered it ultimately didn’t matter when it came to marketing the game and getting it out to arcades beyond the
Bay Area. With Pong, Bushnell, Dabney, and Alcorn were stepping into a shaky car for a wild roller- coaster ride that no videogame could ever imitate, even today. Something inside Bushnell needed to ride
that ride more than anyone. He wanted so badly for Atari to show “Jack and the Beanstalk”–like growth. At night, he schemed: “If we do this right, it could take off. But if this really takes off, I’m not certain we’re prepared.”

Early in the gestation of Atari, Bushnell, who many thought wasn’t a good manager, sent a lucid eight- point document to the engineering staff. There was no joking and no spin; it was serious business in which he laid down the law. Bushnell’s one- page charter, as he called it, asked the slim staff to build four or more Pong
machines by December 31, along with a Chicago- style coin box for those machines; to add more staff for emergency projects; to design packaging for Doctor Pong for dentists’ offices; and to create packaging
for a possible home version of Pong. At the end, he wrote, “Statements concerning our manufacturing capacity are inapplicable to the above design schedule.”

The pragmatic Alcorn wrote back, “Is the fact that we have no money a reason not to do this?” Manufacturing costs were indeed huge bugaboos.

Bushnell quickly replied with a handwritten “NO!!!” and sent the memo back.

Once it hit the arcades and was distributed beyond the borders of California’s Bay Area, Pong took off around the country. From town to town, Bushnell preached his gospel of selling machines. At the peak of Pong mania, there were thirty- five thousand of Atari’s machines in the United States. Each machine brought in an average of $200 weekly, a staggering amount. Merely carrying the quarters from a machine on Atarite Steve Bristow’s Berkeley arcade route was a pain in the, well, back. Seven days of quarters could equal one hundred pounds from each machine.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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