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Q&A: Beyond Pong: Hacking Allan Alcorn

What does the future hold for one of gaming's founding fathers? In this candid interview, we talk with Pong creator Al Alcorn on how 'finagling' his way to adulthood led to the creation of the seminal arcade game, and where he's headed next.

drew taylor, Blogger

March 21, 2008

11 Min Read

[What does the future hold for one of gaming's founding fathers? In this candid interview, Drew Taylor talks with Pong creator Al Alcorn on how 'finagling' his way to adulthood led to the creation of the seminal arcade game, and where he's headed next.] He's done non-stop interviews, Q&A sessions and media press conferences, but in the three days that IT entrepreneur Allan Alcorn has been in Melbourne to take part in ACMI's Game On exhibition, this is the first time I've seen him physically withdraw from a question. In a small, crowded Japanese restaurant, Al closes his eyes and places his thick-set hands over his face; and for a long moment he's silent. It's evident that Al's revisiting a time in his life that has haunted him for the last five decades; a memory so personal that out of simple respect I already know I'm not going to ask him to describe it. 'Honestly,' he says, slowly opening his eyes, and pulling away his hands. 'What scares me is running out of money. I come from a poor family and actually going broke and having to go back to [that] lifestyle... 'I don't want to do that.' Al's reply confirms something I've long suspected. By creating Pong—the 'world's first successful video game'—Al may well be relegated by media to a particular slice of gaming history and culture, but as far as he's concerned, the achievement and its significance is but a blip on a much larger screen, and neither defines nor motivates him. Al is not a video game designer, a cultural beacon for all things retro and gaming. He is a hacker, a finagler, a ring master and a businessman. He always has been. And he always will be. 'My wife could tell you that it can be a real problem, but for some reason I see things differently to other people,' explains Al. 'I don't see the same things as them. I'll see what things aren't, and that works well, but not in a social situation. I'll make the wrong connections. I know they're wrong, but they're much more fun than the right ones. 'When I was a little kid, I was always curious about how things worked, so I'd take stuff apart and not put it back together. My neighbor was a repairman at a TV repair shop and I was fixing televisions at a very young age. But even with photography I was, "How does it work? Why does it work?" So I went to the store and bought an old Tri-Cam pack—an old, clunky camera that was almost being thrown away, with film that you couldn't even buy anymore. And I developed it. I read the instructions and figured it out. I wound up taking photographs simply to have something to do in the darkroom and not because I cared about the images. It was just the process. 'I want to know how it works,' Al re-emphasizes. 'I can't understand how some people can drive a car and not understand what's going on in it; why it doesn't go when they ease up on the gas. So that's just been a part of me...' Al quickly smiles; the look of an uncle about to bestow a gift on a small child. 'Oh yeah,' he says, as a matter of leading. 'I also wanted to know how explosives worked, so we got into that. We got a contact with a big chemical supply company, so it wasn't a problem, and we had everything and did lots of neat stuff. Nobody got injured... Okay, so one guy got injured, but he's still got one eye that works. True!' 'I was always precocious with science,' admits Al, who got into electronics because 'it just seemed really cool'. 'When I first got started I was working with vacuum tubes, then the first transistor came out when I was in Junior High School, so I bought one just to see if I could make it work. I just loved that stuff, and it really helped when I finally did video games and TVs. When we came to [do Pong] it was all, 'Oh, that's not the right way to do it!' But our way was cheaper, so that was how I learned about hacks. 'I've always been a hacker, to that extent,' says Al. 'A hacker to me is defined as somebody who takes something that was built for something else and does something really cool with it. Like taking a computer and using it for games, instead of for something serious, like building bombs. They get mad at you for doing it,' confirms Al, 'but it's more fun.' -If Al sounds like a misbehaving teenager, it's with good reason. Breaking the rules, scamming and 'finagling' (obtaining something that's hard to get by using unfair or unusual methods) has long been a survival technique for Al. 'When I grew up, I came from a relatively poor family,' confides Al. 'My mother and my father were divorced, and I never got an allowance. So I finagled. 'At the age of 17, a friend of mine managed to buy an Aston Martin—this was when the James Bond movie came out. And I was really into photography and knew somebody and got a deal on this really cool, really hot-shot camera. So here I am and we've got this cool camera and I'm driving an Aston Martin and I'm flat broke. 'I remember going to a drive-in movie at the time. We had a Chevy motor in the damn thing and way too much power, and brakes that worked on one side, but not the other. And people would go, "Is that an Aston Martin?" '"Yeeeup", I said. We're sitting in the lot eating hamburgers and whatever. 'And the guy said, "Is that like James Bond?" And I'd go, "Yeah." '"Wanna race?" he asked. And I'd go, "No-no-no!" 'We managed to finagle a deal where—get this—we actually had two Aston Martins. One ran, but the other was just a chassis with a motor in it. And the guy who was the manager of the Playboy Club in San Francisco had an Aston Martin, but the motor was shot. So we made money selling him the engine which I had to swap out in his back yard in one day, and I got it to run. So I had all this money and my mother was totally frustrated because she couldn't withhold an allowance, because she wasn't giving me any money to begin with. 'I learned from that: don't tell me we can't do something, just how can I finagle to do it.' Being resourceful is one of Al's greatest traits; almost every time he talks, it's about taking something and finding a way to make it more valuable. Even—or perhaps, more accurately, especially—Pong. Despite being released in 1972, Pong is still a doorway, an opportunity to exploit. 'It's great having done it' admits Al, 'because people are like, 'Oh, you invented Pong' and they'll want to talk and listen to me for a minute or two. So it's given me access that I don't deserve sometimes,' says Al, modestly; 'many times. 'People will think that I know a lot about stuff that I don't know shit about and I'll get away with it for while, until they figure it out, or I pick up what they're talking about!' 'It's fun to share and bounce ideas off others' continues Al. 'The best moments for me are when I'm in a small room with a team of really, really bright engineers, that are smarter than me, and we work together to build something that none of us could create, to synthesize something new. I'm lucky I can do that. It's fun. I enjoy it.' That joy is never more evident than when Al is talking on-stage or being interviewed; when he takes on the role of mythical story-teller, a skilled campfire narrator recounting decades of Silicon Valley history. 'I'm told that for most people, getting up in front of a big audience and talking is one of the most frightening, nerve-wracking things that can happen,' says Al. 'But for some reason I'm at ease getting up in front of a group. It's fun to have people who don't know you like you. And it's fun to tell stories that are true. I'm good at that.' Indeed, in just the 35 minutes we have together over lunch, Al manages to discuss (among other things) his role in the invention of Firewire, how he sneaked a jug of liquid nitrogen into a fancy hotel and body-tackled an executive vice president of Apple, how financial constraints breed creativity, his disappointment with his slot machine business, his biggest mistake ('turning down founder stock in Apple that Steve Jobs offered me'), why there's no leadership in universities in Europe, how he shared his son's childhood and discovery of the world, and why Stanford University got it wrong with their artificial intelligence research. All the while, Al name drops more frequently than a gossip mag. Not because he's trying to make himself look good, but because these are the people he associates with. Fortune 500 CEOs, Stanford and MIT professors, think-tank geniuses, revolutionaries and visionaries. Even... cartoon superheroes, such as Space Ghost. 'I was at this classic gaming convention,' explains Al, 'and this guy came up to me and said he was from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. He said he's got a suite upstairs with a blue screen, and would I mind if he interviewed me for the show. I thought, “What the hell is that?”, but I did it, and he asked me all these weird questions. The next thing I know, my daughter's boyfriend has found it and sent it to me. And, my god, look what they've done to me! I didn't know, but apparently I'm Zorak's father. And my daughter said, “Oh, no! I'm Zorak's half-sister!” -'Honestly, though,' says Al, debunking any idea of being a retro icon, 'in Silicon Valley it's a different thing. It's what you're doing lately. This is old stuff that's interesting, but things are moving so fast. It's the shiny stuff, it's the new stuff that's coming out. It's the whole idea of what's going to be hot, what's cool, what's new, what can be done with the technology.' For Al, this is invariably where it's at. The cutting edge. The entrepreneurial leap of faith. The place where new technology is able to realize the dreams of the past and the future. Revisiting the topic of games, Al launches into a passionate dissertation on VR consoles. 'Think about it,' he says. 'Remember Atari in 1983 said that the video game business was over. Everybody thought it was over. But Nintendo said no. And guess what? It's not over. 'Do you know Jaron Lanier? He was the guy who popularized the first VR stuff and put two silicon graphics computers together and lashed it with a glove and goggles and a helmet. And that was a clue. It was really hard to do. But did you play with one of those VR machines?' Another rhetorical question. One of many to come. 'It was kind of fun,' continues Al, not missing a beat. 'It had a few problems. But how long ago was that? Now here we are, 15 years later, and people aren't looking at it. But what if you could do something, like put a little something on your head, like glasses, and go back to it? When Jaron did it, it required a silicon graphics computer to just do fong shaded shit, nothing technical. Now the Xbox can do better, real world stuff. 'So, wouldn't that be cool? To be able to sit in your chair and play World of Warcraft—or whatever the hell it is—and actually interact like the goddamn holodeck from Star Trek? 'But no-one's doing it because they're too busy working on the next generation of Halo; because of the money they've got invested in Halo.' There's too much risk for them, says Al. And to do it, 'you'd have to hi-jack the technology'. 'Have you ever tried to write a program for the PlayStation on your own, just for fun?' asks Al. 'It's not something you pull together with just a little basic program. And it's all because of this greedy mentality where they close the box and protect what they do. They limit everything that's going to happen because they think all the wisdom comes from them. Nuh-uh. That's where the Google phone comes in; read up on it. I love their approach, because they say—they actually say—we're going to make an open platform phone and we think we're really smart and we're going to write apps (applications) for it that are better than anyone else's apps. But we also know that we can't do all the best apps, We can't think of them all. So we've got a 10 million dollar prize—no strings attached--that we will pay to the person who writes the best app in the next year for it. Because they want it to be open, they want that to happen, because that's where fucking innovation comes from. 'I think there's gold over there,' says Al, his mind already analyzing the technological and financial possibilities yet again, 'but nobody is looking at it.' [Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines and online columns. He's not ashamed to admit that Hackers (starring Jonny-Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie) is one of his favorite films of all time.]

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