Al Alcorn (Atari) – Interview

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Needless to say, if this guy had ballsed up Pong, the video game industry may not have existed today. Now we’ve blown your mind I’m pleased to see he absolutely smashed Pong so let us introduce the gaming legend, godfather of the industry which we love, Al Alcorn.

This is our last interview/article for 2017 but stay tuned for reviews and a special top ten. Follow our rundown on our favourite articles of 2017 in our #AAtop30 tweeted every day @arcadeattackUK and also facebook.com/arcadeattackUK. See you in 2018!

 

Al, it’s an absolute honour to have you here at AA. Much is written about yours and Nolan Bushnell’s impact on/birthing of the industry, how did you first meet him and did you two click from day one?

I first met Nolan at Ampex Videofile Division in 1968. I was a junior at Cal Berkeley doing a work/study job and Nolan was starting engineer. I only met him briefly and he seemed like a nice guy. I went back to Cal and Nolan and Ted Dabney went off and started Syzygy and introduced Computer Space through Nutting Associates.

 

How exactly did the Atari opportunity arise and what were the company’s initial aims?

I came back to Ampex in 1972, after I graduated, and one day Nolan and Ted took me to lunch where they offered me a job engineering video games. At that time the goal of Syzygy, now named Atari, was to design video games and license the technology to game manufacturers.

 

Can you remember how the opportunity to create Pong first arrived and is it true Nolan used a fake contract to push you harder?

My first task at Atari was to design what became Pong. And to inspire me he told me he had a contract from GE to design a home ball and paddle video game. No one from GE ever called or wrote us a letter but I was 24 years old and I was busy trying to create the game. It was hard enough doing a coin-op version but a home version would have to have a parts cost of less than $15 and my design was already way more expensive.

 

 

How did you actually take the concept of Pong and turn it into a video game?

I had some skills at analogue video engineering and digital logic so Pong was a big digital state machine that made an analogue video signal. It turned out that the reason Nolan wasn’t upset at the cost overrun was because there was no contract and Nolan gave me the very simplest game he could think of to give me some practice. I would design a section and then build and try out that section. At first the game was very boring so I added the ball speedup circuitry to make it more fun. When I finished the design we put it in a cabinet that Ted made over a weekend and tried it out at Andy Capps Tavern.

 

Pong is one of the most loved video games of all time. What were your initial thoughts of the game are were you surprised how popular and iconic it has become?

I was a 24 year old recent grad of Cal Berkeley in the 60’s and my expectations didn’t go much beyond a paycheck. I did not set out to help start an industry. I thought we might sell enough of them to keep the company alive. I remember being on a tour boat at a beautiful lake in Japan with Nolan, Joe Keenan and Steve Bristow and seeing a Pong knockoff running on the boat! It blew me away! Nolan set about to create an industry, I hung on and helped.

 

What was it like working at Atari in the early days?

It was exciting!  We were young and liked to take risks if there was sufficient reward. There were no politics in management, we were friends and would always help each other. We had many of our ideas stolen but they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As a recent graduate from Berkeley I was all of a sudden thrust into a management role in one of the fastest growing companies in America. We had a tiger by the tail. I appreciate what we had at Atari more after experiencing other more traditional companies.

 

Why do you think Atari is not the force in the video game industry it once was?

Warner Communications ruined Atari.  Their management killed any innovation the company once had and they wrongly assumed the home video game business was dead.

 

Al with Ralph Baer

 

You helped pave the way for the entire video game industry. How does it feel that you have had such a huge influence on one of the biggest industries in the world?

It is great to have been at the right place at the right time with the right skills to do something that had such an impact on society.  I never set out to do this.

 

What advice would you give to anyone looking to enter the engineering side of the video game industry today?

Get as much education you can. Learn things outside your profession. Work with a successful company to see how it’s done. Then take a risk while you are young and you can.

 

Do you still play video games today and what is your favourite game of all time?

I used to play World of Warcraft but I spend my time with photography and micro controllers.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Nolan Bushnell.  He is fun to talk to.

 

He’s certainly a character who we’d like to talk to too! 😉 Al, thanks for a great chat and on behalf of gamers worldwide, THANK YOU.

Adrian

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