All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Chapter 2 - So Easy, A Drunk Could Play

-Instructions seen on the first Pong arcade game, September 1972

Nolan Bushnell was a dreamer who dreamed big dreams. In his dreams, he imagined the finest things that money could buy: expensive cars and massive homes and the prettiest girls. Yet his greatest dream surrounded a game so simple, so utterly straightforward, so easy to learn that even a stinking drunk in a bar could learn to play it. The testing ground for Pong, the very first arcade game, was a newly opened bar in the Silicon Valley. Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, wasn’t the kind of place where fights would break out every night. But the hole, named for the surly British comic- strip slacker, was shadowy and dark. Cigarette smoke swirled so thick that it rivaled the fog that rolled in over the Santa Cruz Mountains. You might bring your girlfriend to Andy Capp’s, but not on a first date.

The story goes this way. After designer Allan Alcorn made Pong’s circuitry and Ted Dabney crafted its case, a lowly sawed- off plastic milk jug was placed inside beneath the coin slot, to collect quarters. Pong was put in a truck and delivered to an anteroom in Capp’s that also included a pinball machine. Then the drunks played. Not only did they play, they lined up to play. Their egos wouldn’t take being beaten by a machine. They fed so many quarters into the slot that the machine jammed up. Then the bar’s usually genial manager, Bill Gattis, phoned Bushnell in a booming voice that carried the length of the bar.

It’s a wonderful creation story for Atari, but it might not be exactly true. Loni Reeder, Bushnell’s longtime assistant, claims the tale was a well- crafted myth. “The Atari guys (and I don’t remember if Nolan personally went over there along with the guys or not) went to Andy Capp’s and stuffed the coin box to the point that the machine wouldn’t work—then just sat back and waited for the bar to call to say the game wasn’t working.” Reeder says the fabrication was completely in keeping with Bushnell’s “carny” personality.

Whatever the true story, the age of the videogame arcade was born.

Nolan Bushnell was a master showman from the get- go. It wasn’t just an act; it was part of his very phylogeny. More a smart, calculating marketer than a brilliant game designer, Bushnell was born in Clearfield, a northern Utah town created because people flocked to the region to work at a cannery factory in 1907. Bushnell was the epitome of a strapping young lad, more than six feet tall before his thirteenth birthday. His Mormon father was a successful cement contractor whose motto was said to be “Work hard. Play hard.” Which is exactly what the younger Bushnell did through much of his life. He loved to play practical jokes with a science twist. One night, he went out into a field and, in a feat that was part Ben Franklin and part P. T. Barnum, attached a battery- operated light to a kite. As it flew high and proud in the night wind, some residents briefl y believed the light was an alien spaceship. At Clearfield High, he honed his skills on the debate team and was entranced by board games that required strategy, like Clue. His charming nerdiness bloomed at the University of Utah, where he spent way too much time in a then state- of- the- art computer lab playing Spacewar!, the fascinating precursor to the more well- known Asteroids.

Spacewar! was created by Steve “Slug” Russell and his engineering school friends at MIT as a lark in February 1962. On the then- futuristic, enticingly round screen of a massive PDP-1 computer, two green dots representing spaceships flew in zero gravity. They shot at each other on the ebony background of a star- filled galaxy. Players captained the ships by sitting at a panel and moving switches up and down. It was a transporting, transformative experience, and for players like Bushnell, it was a vision of the future, a future in which you could be Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon in your own imaginary science fiction universe. In Spacewar!, you even had to avoid planets that rushed in your direction as you tried with all the energy your brain and body could muster to annihilate your opponent’s ship. Viewing the minimalist screen with such early graphics, Bushnell’s neurons fired thousands of excited messages to his axons and millions of vesicles struck his synapses. Spacewar! was it for Bushnell. He just couldn’t get it off his mind. When he lost his tuition money in a card game and went to work as a barker and weight guesser on the midway at Utah’s giant Lagoon Amusement Park

(where everyone from Count Basie to the Rolling Stones played), he schemed about it. He thought about it when he was rejected for a job at Disneyland because he didn’t have enough engineering experience. He began work on what he called Computer Space when he toiled at Ampex, which made tape recorders, recording tape, and an early VCR, as a research designer for $12,000 a year. He didn’t like the gig much, feeling that the only way to make real money was to become an entrepreneur who made his own games for an audience that had yet to be targeted or mined.

At Ampex, Bushnell and straight- shooting former navy man Ted Dabney got to know each other during lunches. They ate their brown bag ham sandwiches, turned over a wastebasket, put a Go game table on top, and played the strategy game almost daily. When he created the oddly named Syzygy, his first company, in late 1971, Bushnell’s vision for games was all he could talk about. Syzygy would be primarily based around pinball arcade routes in the Bay Area and a deal to make double- wide pinball machines for Bally in Chicago. Videogames weren’t exactly an afterthought, but they certainly wouldn’t be the primary cash cow in those early months of existence.

Superiors like Charlie Steinberg, a future Ampex president, thought Bushnell had gone mad and tried everything to rid him of the idea of starting his own company. He wanted to keep Bushnell at Ampex as a career man. All this made Bushnell even more obsessed with forging his own path. When he had trouble with his wife and the two divorced, a prime reason was that Bushnell was spending too much time on his plan for world domination through games.

It has been widely written that Bushnell began work on his first arcade machine in 1970 in his daughter’s bedroom. Soon, the story goes, there were pieces of wood, wires, tools, and parts of a black- and- white TV set strewn about everywhere. The work proceeded with such passion and zeal that Bushnell’s child had to sleep elsewhere in the house. In fact, Bushnell worked on the game in his partner Ted Dabney’s daughter’s bedroom. It was young Terri Dabney who had to bed down in the master bedroom, which she shared with her parents. In that cramped inner sanctum filled with a child’s stuffed animals, the two inventors spent ountless hours burning the midnight oil. The elder Dabney, a balding beanstalk of a man with a mustache, horn- rimmed glasses, and a penchant for plaid shirts, worked hard to make a charily crafted, handsome cabinet for Bushnell’s Computer Space that looked somewhat like an arcade version of Munch’s The Scream. It certainly appeared alien. Inside it was, as in Baer’s prototypes, a mess of wires. But a small Texas Instruments computer was in there, too.

After it was made at Nutting Industries, where Dabney and Bushnell consulted, the machine was sent to pinball arcades in the region. However, the black- and- white Computer Space was ahead of its time and deemed too tricky for an industry that was just being born. It needed a joystick, not those confusing buttons, to make it easier to play. Yet the game had a tantalizing pitch line: “A simulated space battle that pits computer- guided saucers against a rocket ship that you control.”

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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