Back in Your Court, Software Designers

Steve G. Steinberg (steve@wired.com) is an editor at Wired magazine

When you trace the history of home computing back to its roots, you arrive at a surprising place. You arrive at Pong.

Introduced in 1972 by Atari, this primitive electronic version of table tennis was in many ways the progenitor of the PC. It was while designing new versions of Pong at Atari, after all, that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak honed their skills that would result in the Apple II.

More important, Pong was the first time people saw computers as friendly and approachable. It launched a video game boom that made thousands of kids want to become computer programmers, and prepared an entire generation for interaction with a blinking and buzzing computer screen.

Primitive as it seems when compared with today's flashy 3-D video games, Pong is enjoying a resurgence. People are snatching up old machines at garage sales and in attics, and refurbished consoles are turning up in hip bars. For an industry that is based on unrelenting progress, where next year's product is always faster-stronger-better, this kind of nostalgia is a dangerous sign. Are consumers sick of the technological treadmill, or are they just reminiscing? A look back at the rise, fall, and rise again of Pong provides some intriguing answers. Think back to the 1970s. Interactive entertainment meant pinball machines and computers still filled up entire rooms. Now, insert into the scene protean entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell. He had seen an early video game called Space War that was developed at MIT and decided to make a scaled down version. The result bombed--it was popular with engineering students, but too complicated for most people. But Bushnell remain convinced that video games were the Next Big Thing, and he hired on a 24-year-old engineer named Alan Alcorn. Then, just as a test, as a way to get Alcorn ready for more complex projects, Nolan asked him to build the simplest game possible: a small ball that bounced between two paddles.

Because Alcorn had recently graduated from college he was up-to-date on the latest in transistor logic and was able to quickly hack together the simple game using a TV set for a display. "At first it wasn't a whole lot of fun" admits Alcorn. "But it's like crafting a piece of art--you have to go in there and wrestle with it." That meant adjusting the speed of play, adding some sound effects, and tweaking the basic design until it was so fun to play that it was positively addictive. The final game was a mix of artistic inspiration and technological necessity. For example, says Alcorn, "due to a bug in the hardware, you couldn't move a paddle all the way up to the corner. But actually that turned out to be a feature, because otherwise two good players would have been able to play forever."

The resulting machine, with just the Zen-like instructions of "avoid missing ball for high score," was put in a Sunnyvale, Calif., bar and became an immediate hit.

Atari, founded by Bushnell with $250 in 1972, was sold to Warner Communications for $28 million just four years later. The video game industry was born. Game designers outdid themselves in developing fancier, more complex games. Pong begot Space Invaders, which begot Super Mario, which begot Sonic the Hedgehog, which begot Mortal Kombat II, which begot . . . Pong?

Twenty-three years later, if you play Mortal Kombat II well enough, you're rewarded with a free game of Pong. Why the revival? Just ask Chris Nicolella, associate editor of GamePro magazine. He tells of an office mate's recently bringing in an old Atari 2600 console and half the magazine's staff staying till 10 p.m. on a Friday playing old classics.

"I don't think games today have the same addictive drive as the old ones," Nicolella said.

Even game designers can be heard agreeing that current games too often concentrate on fancy graphics rather than on that elusive quality known as playability. David Fox, who has designed video games for companies like Lucas-Arts and Rocket Science, admits that "you can get lost in the same way you can get lost in a special-effects movie. You end up concentrating on the technology instead of the characters."

And there's another common complaint: Video games have become more complicated. The street fighter games that are popular today require you to memorize complex sequences of commands.

Chris Crawford, a noted Silicon Valley game designer, points out that this partly has to do with the popularity of video game sequels like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat III. Each sequel has to attract the people who bought the one before, so each adds new features and becomes more complicated. "Gamers insist on a level of complexity that is inaccessible to the general public," Crawford says.

It's called "featuritis," and it's a situation increasingly familiar to anyone who has tried to keep up with the yearly revisions of programs like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. Each year, these programs get larger and more complicated, often adding features for no practical reason.

Indeed, Stewart Alsop, a longtime industry pundit and editorial director of InfoWorld, recently wrote that he has become "spreadsheet-challenged." He is no longer able to figure out how to use a spreadsheet program, even though he has worked with them for the last 14 years. As he put it, "I've gotten stupider or spreadsheets have gotten too smart." The nostalgia for the simpler days of Pong is a sign that a lot of people are feeling the same way.

What's the solution? Alsop believes that companies need to come out with smaller, stripped-down versions that don't have all the fancy new features but that do what most people want. Software for the general public, not just computer hobbyists. Of course, that's going to require software companies to figure out new ways to generate revenue streams other than through a constant line of program updates. But companies had better find a solution fast. Or, as with Pong, users may start digging their old software out of the attic.

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