Everyone knows about Pong, the legendary table tennis-based video game by Atari that took arcades and bars by storm before invading living rooms around the world and paving the way for in home video games and even Apple. What you may not know is that the idea may have been stolen…
Yesterday we looked at the creation of Pong and how it was never supposed to be seen by the public since its development was just a skill test for a new Atari employee, Allan Alcorn, dreamed up by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell (this whole story is fascinating to us). The idea for Pong, however, may not have come out of thin air:
Bushnell may or may not have gotten the idea for Pong from a previously developed table-tennis game made by Magnavox. Specifically, Magnavox alleged that before Atari developed Pong, Bushnell played their table-tennis game on the Magnavox Odyssey, which was the world’s first home video game console. He had supposedly played it a few months before at a trade show in San Francisco, though he denies even being at the event, let alone playing the game. The only witnesses to the event that claimed they saw him there and saw him play the game were all Magnavox employees. Whether he was there or not, Pong’s success resulted in Magnavox suing Atari for supposedly infringing on their patents. It is important to note here that there had been previous electronic table tennis games out long before Magnavox’s and which Bushnell had played (going all the way back to his college years). So it was thought Atari would have won the battle in court due to prior art invalidating Magnavox’s patents (although, Nintendo unsuccessfully later counter-sued Magnavox on these grounds and lost). However, the case never went to court because Atari didn’t have the money to defend themselves at the time (it was estimated it would cost about $1.5 million). Due to the fact that the legal issue was in doubt, Magnavox instead gave Atari extremely favorable terms for settling out of court, requiring only $700,000 in cash, among a few other stipulations. They also agreed to then go after all the Pong copy-cats out there and force those companies to pay high royalties, which would help Atari’s Pong sales. Unlike the Pong competitors, Atari didn’t have to pay royalties after that initial $700,000 license was purchased.
Pong may have won the mindshare for table tennis style video games, but it sounds like ping pong was always on the cutting edge of technology.