Thursday, May 30, 2013

Video Game Mythbusters?? - The Malfunctioning Pong

One of the most oft-told stories from the annals of video game history involves the first Pong game and its legendary "malfunction". You've probably all heard this one. Ted Dabney and Al Alcorn put their prototype Pong game on location at Andy Capp's Tavern. Some time later (from the next day to about two weeks, depending on the account, though the latter seems to be the more accurate timing) the bar's owner, Bill Gattis, calls Alcorn and tells him to come and fix his "malfunctioning" machine. A worried Alcorn hurries over to Andy Capp's to take a look and when he opens up the machine he breaks into a broad grin as he sees the source of the problem. The coinbox is so full that quarters have backed up all the way to the coin slot.
The story is told in just about every history of video games out there and with good reason - it's a great story. But did it actually happen?

I was recently reading an article on the history of Gottlieb in the November, 1978 issue of Loose Change magazine (a magazine aimed at slot machine collectors) when I came across the following passage about the early pinball game Bingo (quick summary - Bingo was released in 1931 by the Bingo Novelty Company. That summer, they sold the rights to Gottlieb. Gottlieb later renamed the game Bingo Ball and followed it up with Baffle Ball). On to the story…

"The following story is one of many of this type that were often told about BINGO. The tale usually tells of a man, during the depression, who invested his last dollars in a BINGO machine. Friday afternoon, after installing the machine in a bar owned by a friend, the man returned to his dingy hotel room to contemplate how he could come by funds enough to provide food that would last until the end of the week. It was to be Friday of the coming week he was to return to his friend's bar, empty the BINGO game of pennies and split the week's take. To his dismay, Saturday night about midnight, an acquaintance of his friend began pounding hard enough to knock the rickety hotel room door off of its rusty hinges and informed him that his coin operated machine was malfunctioning. Down hearted at the thought that his last dollars had been wasted on a device that would break down on its second night of operation, the man accompanied the messenger back to the bar. Upon opening his BINGO game the man was elated to discover that the machine's malfunction was due to the fact that machine was so glutted with pennies that it simply would not accept another coin!"

Sound familiar? Of course, the fact that this story has many close similarities to the Pong story doesn't meant the either or both of them didn't actually happen. Such an event could have occurred more than once.

But there's more. In the book All Your Base Are Belong To Us, former Nolan Bushnell assistant Loni Reeder claims that someone from Atari went to Andy Capp's and stuffed the coin box.

Whether the claim is true or not, I can't say. Personally, it doesn't really ring true with me. First of all, how exactly did they do this. Did they break in at night? Did they have a key? It seems hard to believe they could have done it during business hours without Gattis noticing (unless the machine was in a back room and out of sight). Or maybe Gattis was in on it? (if so, who was the target audience). And what did they hope to accomplish? If it was a publicity stunt, who would have known about it? Was there some kind of coin-op grapevine that would have spread the word throughout the city?

As far as I can recall, the incident is not reported in Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg's Atari Inc. Business is Fun - and Reeder was their editor - which leads me to believe that either they had knowledge that the story (the box-stuffing story, that is, not the original story) was false or that they couldn't find a second source to back it up.

I don't think either the Bingo story or Reeder's claim is enough to render the original story "BUSTED". Al Alcorn seems pretty insistent that it happened (I don't recall if any other witness has ever confirmed his story or not or if he was the only one there - besides Gattis - and I don't think anyone's tracked him down).

Finally, here are a few photos I found interesting, plus a couple of un-TAFA'd games
First up is this picture of Bill Nutting standing next to a Computer Space machine. This photo is circa 1979 when Nutting was working for A-1 Supply (courtesy Loose Change magazine):

Here's a couple of others from Loose Change.

First, the C.A. Robinson showroom in 1977 (C.A. Robinson was one of the country's largest distributors):

And the same showroom in 1943
Here's an interesting sign from the 1982 ATE show in London (the Amusement Trade Exposition was one of the largest coin-op shows in the world at the time). Copyright laws in Great Britain wren't as defined as they were in the U.S. This sign is from Competitive Video's booth.
I think this game actually is on TAFA.
Zaccaria's Sea Battle at the 1980 Milan Fair (another Euro coin-op show).
Speaking of the Milan Fair, here's Bacchilega's (an Italian manufacturer) Dino Ferrari, from the 1981 Milan Fair (Augusto Alberici also designed Imola Grand Prix).
The following screenshots are from Chameleon and Amazon - two games made for a 1984 "system game" called Select-A-Game made by Bresnahan Technologies of Denton, TX. I don't know if the system ever made it into production. There was also a third game for the system called Airport and they planned to release more.
Finally, to end on another Atari note, here's a shot from the first Atari Adventure, opened in November, 1983 in the Northwest Plaza mall in St. Louis. Atari Adventure was a combination arcade and computer learning center.


  1. I suppose it's one of those wish fulfillment type deals to persuade potential buyers to consider buying Pong for their establishments. At least it somewhat worked.

  2. Stuffing the coinbox would be easy. You just send someone in to the establishment and "play" the game a lot. I remember reading about businessmen being spotted dumping quarters into their machines on test. In the Atari Inc book though Bushnell and Dabney actually talked about having to lie about how much Pong made... because it made too much for Midway to believe them. So maybe Bushnell had it stuffed before he knew how popular it would prove, I wouldn't put it past him.

    I also seem to recall Alcorn mentioned in a Retro Gamer Magazine article that when he was called in to fix Pong, he went in thinking he needed to replace the potentiometers they were using as spinners. They were indeed bad since they were used way more times than they were rated for. Since he was in there he figured he might as well empty out the quarters too. Upon doing that they spilled out all over the floor. So I think the legend is based on a half-truth.

    1. Stuffing the box by sending people in to play the game does make a lot more sense (Since Atari was so small at the time, I was thinking that one person went in and filled the box but I'm sure they could have scrounged up enough fake players to make it look like the game was really popular).

      From what I remember, replaincg the potentiometers was a separate service call that occured about a week or so after the stuffed box incident, but I'd have to check my sources.

    2. Yeah, those were two separate service calls. I think this story is probably true. As you know, they never planned to actually produce Pong originally, and I think they wanted an accurate gauge of whether the game could be successful. The time to stuff the box would be when they did the more formal location test with 10 machines after the original prototype at Andy Capps proved successful. Even then they were probably not stuffing the box since they felt the need to reduce their earnings reports by two-thirds when talking to Bally. If they felt their numbers were already that unbelievably high, I doubt they would be trying to force them even higher.

  3. So is Dino Ferrari Monaco GP or Turbo?

  4. Keith, regarding the material attributed to Loni in All Your Bases. Loni was never interviewed for that book. The author, Harold Goldberg, stole some personal emails off Ralph Baer's computer during a visit, some of which included personal off the cuff emails between Loni and Ralph (we double checked with Ralph to see if he gave Harold those emails and he emphatically stated no). When we confronted Harold regarding not having Loni or Ralph's permission to use personal emails, he responded with a threat to publish the emails in full publicly and blocked us from his facebook group for the book. Classy guy.

    We of course were aware of the claim, but as you correctly surmised, we could not find any corroborating evidence to support it. Basically, Loni had been told it by someone else in management in the company, and we could go no further than that. Nobody else could verify it, and none of the principles involved at Syzygy at the time admitted to it. In fact, it seemed an odd claim given the fact that Ted emphatically talked about needing to cut down the earnings numbers reported to Bally so that would believe them and wouldn't think he and Nolan were making the earnings up.

    There were lots of stories like this in the book, that while cool stories, were so unverifiable we thought it better not to include them. Such is the case with Ray Kassar's claim he was in negotiations with Steve Jobs in 1979 to have Atari buy Apple (with support from Warner's cash) and that Warner chair Steve Ross nixed it. Manny Gerard, who was the actual person overseeing Atari from the Warner side and reported directly to Steve Ross, had never heard of any of that, nor could we find anyone else that had.

  5. Where and when did the coin box story originate?