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GDC: Baer, Alcorn Talk 'Brown Box' Beginnings, Industry Birth

In their joint GDC session, Odyssey creator Ralph Baer and Atari VCS designer Al Alcorn split an hour to sit and reminisce about their roots – how their lives and social contexts conspired for them to design and build the two seminal video game consoles.

Game Developer, Staff

February 21, 2008

6 Min Read

Ralph “Papa Game” Baer and Atari VCS designer Al Alcorn split an hour to sit and reminisce about their roots – how their lives and social contexts conspired for them to design and build the two seminal video game consoles. Baer started off by leaping back to the late ‘30s, the time before “electronics” was a noun. Back then, it was all about radio. Radio enthusiasts were radio hobbyists, and radios were simpler to build than a model Gundam. They were also a cultural phenomenon. Baer showed off an advertisement that read “Big Money in Radio – become a Radio Serviceman!” “Hey,” the young Baer realized. “I think this could be me.” So he spent the next few years dangling off roofs, installing wires through people’s windows. Then came the 1939 World’s Fair, and television. From there, Baer graduated to clambering around Manhattan rooftops, installing aerials. Later, while working at a medical electronics company, Baer began to throw materials together and build his own devices – intercom systems, wave monitors. While he was in college on the GI Bill, Baer was asked to repair his parents’ television, which had completely ceased to work. When he opened the top, he found a blackened, burnt-out tangle. In the process of isolating and wrapping up the wires, trying to repair the signal, Baer began to think about other uses for the technology. “Manipulating stuff on-screen was fun,” he said. Coming from that experience, Baer took a job in a military electronics company, hoping for an opportunity to build a TV from scratch. Eventually he and a few co-workers did in fact build their TV. Though it took months to complete then quickly exploded, they learned a lot from the experience. Over the next several years, Baer grew absorbed in his work, designing electronics for the military. In 1966, while stationed in Iraq, Baer remembered his old idea about manipulating TV images. On the first of September, he wrote a paper on how to play a long list of games with just a few crude symbols. This led to the notorious “480 patent”, a big stick that Baer would use frequently over the coming decades, describing the concept of playing games on a television set. From ’67 to ’69, Baer and a few associates spent a few weeks here and a few there to assemble and perfect what would become the “Brown Box”, the prototype for the Magnavox Odyssey. From there, for the next ten years, Baer moved on to tinker with videotape, video disc, video pinball – popping back into the console business to defend his patent against a legion of imitators, from Activision to Coleco. Fielding some questions, Baer said the biggest hurdle to development was “making sure things don’t cost too much.” Did he ever imagine that videogames would become the industry that they have? “No.” Mass laughter. “Can anyone look in a crystal ball and tell what’s going to happen?” Does he still play? “On occasion, my grandkids bring a game with them, but I don’t do too well.” Al Alcorn also started off by repairing TV sets, and fiddling with the interiors in the process. “Some of the stuff we did was not the proper way to drive TV – but it worked.” He fell into a technical crowd, divided by age. His older friends were all interested in videotape, while the kids were all interested in microprocessors. One of the latter group, a certain pinball arcade operator named Nolan Bushnell, had an idea for crossing his coin-op business with computers. A few well-documented steps later, Computer Space -- Bushnell’s arcade clone SpaceWar! – was a bit of a complicated flop. So Bushnell hired Alcorn to his newly-founded company, Syzygy, to design something simpler and cheaper, using digital logic. Though Bushnell gave Alcorn the basic template and a checklist of details to include, what he failed to mention was that the game was just meant as a quick throwaway project, for Alcorn to cut his teeth on before progressing to the more complicated game that Bushnell really wanted to publish. So for months, Alcorn felt the pressure to keep adding features that went above and beyond Bushnell’s brief – sound, a score counter, varying ball speed, reflections – thinking all the time that he was failing to produce what was being asked of him. The project grew more and more expensive When Nolan revealed that none of this work was really supposed to matter, Alcorn was less than thrilled with his employer. Still, the game that Alcorn produced was well-polished, was indeed simple to play, and – as he relayed in the famous quarter-jam anecdote (where they were called in to “repair” the prototype in its bar installation, only to find that it was clogged with money) – wildly successful in its test case. Citing a later soccer game that the “customers” (read: arcade operators) demanded yet the players did not want to play, Alcorn advised developers to go with the market, yet never to listen to the customer. He suggested the success of Pong was largely due to its open and social nature; it requires two to play, and there is no gender bias. Soon the arcade market became glutted, and Bushnell looked for new markets to conquer. Following the above logic, in placing the end user before the gatekeeper, Bushnell and Alcorn shifted to the consumer market – which was, owing to Magnavox’s reluctance to sell directly to the end user – pretty much a blank slate. Nobody at Atari (as the company had become) knew a thing about marketing, so they went to Sears – which was ecstatic about selling Alcorn’s VCS (as the retailer had already tried and failed to court Magnavox). That suited Atari fine, at least for a while, as all they had to do was field royalty checks. Though the VCS was not the first, and certainly not the last, cartridge-based system, Alcorn feels it is in some ways – due to its huge, budget-influenced technical constraints – one of the most flexible platforms around. That it demands super programmers to take advantage of any of that flexibility is a reasonable trade-off, he feels, for the imagination it requires in order to develop anything in the first place. “Too much hardware support,” Alcorn said, “constrains creativity.” Along a similar train of thought, Alcorn was initially resistant to listing instructions on his arcade games. “If you have to read instructions” – his voice began to rise – “it’s a bad game.” Furthermore, he says, current game design is getting out of hand. “Now, it’s a problem. You’ve got too much.” Back when you had one to three people working on a game, design was more personal. It was far easier to be focused, and creative. To send off the panel, Baer and Alcorn played a game of Odyssey Ping-Pong, each consistently missing the return. Occasionally they would bounce the ball back and forth once, twice. “Geriatric video game players...” Alcorn muttered, to raucous laughter from the audience. As everyone began to stand up, a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records commanded attention. He had a surprise for Ralph Baer, in the form of an award for “Inventor of the First Home Video Game Console”. He also used the opportunity to plug the new “Gamers Edition” Guinness book. Cue another standing ovation.

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