Published January 23, 2013
Eventually, all of one's childhood idols fall on hard times. Now, it's Pong.
Atari's U.S. subsidiary, the creator of Pong, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, slain by a flock of Angry Birds and a school of Fruit Ninjas. The company has gone through numerous owners in its 40-plus-year history, adapting to the vicissitudes of the video game market along the way. And it will probably resurrect itself once again, but the glory days of gaming and Pong will probably never return.
Synonymous with games like Breakout and Centipede, Atari was once a suburban phenomena and as much as a part of American culture as disco and earth shoes. During the first season of Saturday Night Live back in 1975, Tom Davis and Al Franken used Pong as a prop for several sketches (all the viewer saw was the rather inept game play on the black-and-white Pong screen). Who would have thought that Franken would become a U.S. Senator, or that in the years to come people would rather post pictures of their food online rather than play games?
But while no one misses polyester leisure suits (well, almost no one), many of us long for the early days of video games.
A large portion of the appeal of these original games was their low-fi approach. The controls didn't have elaborate physics programs behind them. They were crude and inaccurate as all getout. And that was half the fun. If you wanted accuracy, you could go out in the backyard and throw a football around.
Of course, Pong isn't quite dead, but it sure isn't the same. Consider Atari's own update of Pong called Pong World, available for iPads and iPhones. Its glitzy iridescence is intended to compete against the Fruit Ninjas of today, but the very fact that it's more sensitive to accelerometer and gyroscopic movements means that it's, well, less fun. In case you were wondering, there's also Centipede Origins for iPhones and Android devices, but its 3D graphics are blasphemous to anyone who played the original.
The trouble is as computing power increased--and thus graphics engines and programs gained in sophistication--the fun got sucked out. Video games got to be, well, just too good. Never mind the troubling issues about violence and realistic bloodspatter patterns thanks to state-of-art physics engines and millions of polygons. By improving the sound and graphics of games, the games required less imagination. It's something Marshall McCluhan pointed out in his distinction between hot and cool media. As video games got hotter, they became somehow less interesting. Pong was cool; Descent and Halo were red hot.
The other major change was that video games went from faux wood-paneled basements to objects of public annoyance and kid soothers. ("Here, take my iPhone and quit bugging daddy.") In other words, video games have come out of the closet and into public. They're on smart phones and tablets, on the subway and on the bus. Along the way, they lost their allure.
Of course, big companies with big investments in video game consoles don't think so. Nintendo introduced its Wii U before Christmas. Sony is rumored to be on the verge of announcing a PlayStation 4, and Microsoft has been ramping up for a new Xbox for quite some time. However, they face competition from TV makers, who now include casual games in connected TVs. And there are inexpensive streaming media boxes like Roku that include popular games like Angry Birds.
The real market killer, however, has been the mobile handset. And Atari says it's seeking bankruptcy protection so that it can regroup and focus on the mobile market. It's certainly where the customers and culture is going (if it's not already completely there). Rather than sketches using Pong, today's Disney and Nick shows feature SMS jokes on smart phones and Twitter popularity competitions.
So can Atari make a go of it as it approaches middle age? It already has Pong World and Centipede Origins on the iPhone. There's just one problem, both games are free. Sure, there's still some money to be made in video games. Halo 4 sold roughly 4 million copies at $40 a pop leading into the holidays, but hits like that are extremely rare nowadays. It's incredibly risky for a gaming company to invest $1 million in a new console game when they can develop 20 new mobile games for the same price.
As for me, you won't catch me playing Temple Run on the bus. But I admit that I still throw on the original version of Centipede every once in while, except that now I play it on my PlayStation 3.