Allan Alcorn was an integral part of Atari Inc’s early success as he was heavily involved in a great many of their early games, including Pong. Here he talks to us about the early days of the industry, what it was like working with Nolan Bushnall, and puts to rest a number of myths about Atari’s first big coin-op.
We want to start by taking you back to September 1972 and Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, the location of the very first Pong machine. Did you personally lug the thing over there?
Nolan [Bushnell] and I took it over after work, on a Monday or Tuesday I think, because the cabinet was built by Ted Dabney over the weekend. It was in a side room with about four pinball machines and I remember there was an original Computer Space right next to it. That prototype was a tabletop machine, with just the word Pong on, a coin slot and no instructions. We popped it on top of a wine barrel, bought a beer and watched what happened.
In the book Zap! The Rise And Fall Of Atari, there’s an incredibly detailed description of how two of the regulars put in a quarter and slowly worked out how to have a rally. Then everyone in the bar had a go, people were queuing up to play it the next morning and the machine crashed that night because it was so full of quarters…
Unfortunately the guy that wrote that book [Scott Cohen in 1984] never travelled west of the Mississippi river. Many of the facts and names in that book are wrong, which is kind of sad, as it was great to have someone write about what we’d done, but the guy just based it on articles he’d read and just made stuff up.
So what really happened that night?
In the half an hour it took to drink our beers, a couple of guys came over and played the machine. They managed to play a game – it didn’t need instructions, it was so obvious what you had to do. Nolan went over and said, “What do you think?” They started bullshitting right away, saying, ‘Yeah we know the guys who made this.’ I was thinking, ‘Why don’t you save the bullshit for the ladies?’ I guess we were in Silicon Valley and nothing surprised these guys. I don’t think it got played again that night.
So you didn’t get an angry call from the bar owner the next day saying the machine was broken?
Yeah, that’s bullshit too. When we started Syzygy [Bushnell and Dabney’s original company that became Atari] we had a route of about 50 pinball machines and driving games that Nolan had bought with the royalties from Computer Space. We had them at maybe 20 locations and I learned a lot about arcade machines from doing that route. Andy Capp’s was one of our better locations. We knew the owner, Bill Gattiss, and he was very co-operative. If anything went wrong, he’d call.
So there weren’t people queuing up outside the next day, desperate to play Pong?
Actually, that was the first inkling something was weird. Bill told us that a certain set of customers turn up at nine in the morning: alcoholics drinking right after breakfast. All of a sudden, Bill said people started showing up that didn’t even drink beer, just to play Pong. Turns out they were from another company and proceeded to make a copy of the game – Ramtron, I think they were called. It was an honest clone in that they built it themselves from our design. The other sleazy companies just copied our board to build machines; they didn’t even know how it worked.
And did the coin box ever get so full the machine stopped working?
About a week or ten days later, I did get a call from Bill saying that the machine wasn’t working. It didn’t surprise me. That prototype was so poorly made, if you’d banged on it, it would’ve stopped working. I went down to fix it after work and some people were there waiting and were quite upset. It had gained a following, which surprised me. I opened the coin box to get a free game and saw the problem – it was packed with quarters.
How much money do you think was in there?
About $100. That was a surprise, too. 400 games of Pong in a week. I told Nolan and he said, “That’s interesting…”
Is that the moment you realised that videogames were the future?
God, no! We were just a small engineering company. There were five of us: Nolan, me, a secretary named Cynthia, Ted and his brother. The plan was to do contract work for companies like Bally, but Nolan had crazy ideas. He told me Pong was actually a design for a home game for General Electrics, which was a lie. It was bullshit but was supposed to inspire me to work hard and make this simple, primitive game, which he didn’t think was going to be any good. He was going to throw it away!
Did it bother you when you realised Nolan had lied to you?
Oh no. You have to know Nolan! I’m an engineer and this was an interesting challenge. Then Nolan wanted to make 100 a day right off the bat! We had no money, no manufacturing, there were only five of us… my wife remembers me coming home and saying, ‘he’s f***ing crazy!’ But we grew so fast it was kind of unworldly. I was 24 years old and I’d been at Berkeley in the Sixties. This whole capitalism thing, I didn’t really take it seriously. By the time I realised it was a lie, we were all too busy making these machines. I might have been pissed if it had been a flop, but we had a tiger by the tail.
You were born and raised in San Francisco. Did you wear flowers in your hair?
AA: Throughout my high school years, I lived right near the corner of Haight Ashbury.
Wasn’t that the centre of Flower Power?
I’ve been at the centre of all types of shit! I’ve had a very interesting life.
They say if you remember the Sixties you weren’t really there…
I remember Ken Kesey and the Kool Aid acid test, though I was too young to go to one. Thank God. I was involved with People’s Park, which was like a student hippie commune, and I was there when they dropped tear gas on it from helicopters, which was kind of funny. There was rioting and shootings…
So did you turn on, tune in and drop out like a proper hippie?
I actually started out as a football jock. That’s what helped me get into the University of California at Berkeley. I played football for Cal for one week. It was either be a football player or an electrical engineer and I chose the latter.
Was that a tough choice?
Oh, I was always a nerd. I fixed televisions from the age of 12. I worked my way through college fixing TVs for repair shops. I always wanted to be an electrical engineer… whatever that was.
So did you end up playing Space War in the computer labs all night?
No… we had mainframes at Cal but you couldn’t touch them! Nolan had graduated from Utah, which in the Sixties was one of only places to have a PDP-1. He saw Space War on that machine and he had also worked at an amusement park in Utah in the summer. He started to connect the dots… how can we translate a game on a million-dollar computer to the arcade?
You actually met Nolan Bushnell at Ampex. How did you end up working there?
I landed this great job in my third year at Cal: six months at Ampex and six months in school. The plan was to make enough money to pay my way through college. Did I? No, I pissed it away on beer and women. I still had the TV repair job though, so it was fine.
What were your first impressions of Nolan?
He was an engaging, talkative guy. He didn’t impress me as a great engineer but he was an entrepreneur. I mean, in the late Sixties, he set up a club to buy and sell stock at a time when you had to be a rich man and know somebody to buy stock. He started to work on this game Computer Space in the evenings and he left Ampex to join Nutting Associates. We thought he’d made a terrible mistake. If you got a job at Ampex, you worked there for life. You got your gold watch! To throw that away and go and do something called videogames… the president of Ampex, Charlie Steinberg, even called Nolan in and told him he was making a big mistake.
So when Nolan and Ted Dabney asked you to leave Ampex and join them at Syzygy, surely you were making the same big mistake?
I was young and thought, ‘Gee, this is crazy,’ but I thought if I join a little company, I’ll have to learn about the entire process, not just engineering – buying, manufacturing, hiring and all that stuff. I figured it would fail in a year or two and then I’d come back to Ampex. What the hell? This was the Sixties, we had the Cold War… live life!
When you began at Syzygy, we’ve read that Nolan first suggested doing a driving game…
I think that was made up. Computer Space was reasonably successful but not a big splash. Nolan thought the winning game might be something more complex, maybe like a driving game. But once Pong took off, he realised maybe the games don’t have to be more complex, they need to be simple and pleasing. That’s where the sweet spot is!
So how did Nolan actually describe the game that became Pong to you? Did he give you a detailed design document?
Oh no, it was just a very general goal: let’s create a ping pong game on a TV screen where you’re looking down on it. One spot that moves, two paddles… just to get that on the screen with the limited technology we had was pretty exciting for me.
It’s been well documented that Nolan Bushnell visited the Magnavox Profit Caravan
in May 1972 and saw Ralph Baer’s tennis game playing. Were you aware that that was what he was basing his description on?
What people don’t realise is, you know that movie The Producers by Mel Brooks? This was just like that! He picked a game that he thought was a dog but was very simple. He was going to throw it away! Copying someone else’s game isn’t a problem if you’re never going to sell it, right? Well guess what? It became a f***ing hit, just like in the movie!
Notable Allan Alcorn Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Allan Alcorn in issue 83. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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