How Video Games Invaded The Home TV Set – Chapter 14

Odyssey Makes Its Entrance!

During the month of April, Magnavox put on simultaneous demonstrations of their 1972 product line for their dealers and for the press in many parts of the country. I was pleased to be invited to one of their product line introductions on the 22nd of the month. It took place at the Bowling Greene Restaurant in the middle of Central Park in New York City. I remember walking slowly across the park from the 5th Avenue side to reach the restaurant, still a little sore from my operation and limping a bit.

The Magnavox line that spring season included several new TV sets, a new color camera for personal use and, finally, Odyssey Model ITL-200. Sitting in the audience on folding chairs among dealers and reporters, it was obvious to me that the Odyssey game was the undisputed hit of the show! I was more than pleased and hard pressed to keep my mouth shut and keep from jumping up on the stage and yelling “That’s my baby!”

s_story_baer07The OdysseyWith a couple of weeks, Magnavox began supplying their dealers with production units. They also started shipping a very nice looking pump action plastic “rifle”, for which they provided a separate, large, in-store easel display. And they supplied their dealers with six additional game packs containing a game plug-in card and an overlay, instructions and other goodies.

Unexpected problems soon began to haunt the program: First off, Magnavox featured Odyssey in their fall TV advertising in such a way that everyone got the impression that Odyssey would only work with Magnavox TV sets. Then they set the price at $100 for the game unit plus six program cards (which could play twelve different games using overlays). Finally, they charged another $25 for the rifle, which discouraged its sale.

Unfortunately, they mismanaged the sale of the six additional plug-in game packs. These featured some of the best games, such as Volleyball, Handball, Baseball, Wipe-Out, Invasion, and Fun Zoo. All those packs wound up under the store counters for after market sale … but Magnavox evidently neglected to train sales personnel to “push” the packs so that very few of them were sold.

s_story_baer10In spite of all of these marketing and sales gaffes and with a little help from an ad campaign featuring Frank Sinatra, Magnavox sold nearly 100,000 Odyssey ITL-200s that season … Who knows how many more would have moved off the shelves that season, or next, if Magnavox would have had broader distribution … at that time, only “authorized” Magnavox dealerships could carry and sell the product. It was a marketing set up Magnavox was forced to eliminate a couple of years later, when they were sued by the government for restraint of trade.

While I was watching the demonstration of the Odyssey game at Bowling Greene in New York, and during the May and June, other Odyssey demonstrations were taking place at Magnavox dealerships all over the country. One of these was open to dealers and invited public in Burlingame, California at the Airport Marina. On the 21st of May, Nolan Bushnell, later president of Atari, signed the visitors log and attended that demonstration. There he played an Odyssey unit hands-on … including, of course, its ping-pong game.

Years later, during various depositions and in federal court, Mr. Bushnell would allow as how the Odyssey ping-pong game he had played in Burlingame wasn’t very interesting. However, history proved otherwise: Shortly after that demo, Nolan Bushnell hired Alan Alcort from Amperex, where Bushnell had worked some years earlier. He put Alan to work on a coin operated arcade ping-pong game: Pong.

Alan Alcort had the freedom to build a game with some 100 integrated logic circuits – 7400 series T-squared L ICs, to be precise – a perfectly sensible way to go with a design for a coin-op machine costing many hundreds of dollars but a totally inaccessible route at the time for the home TV game designer. Alan Alcort did a great job, vastly improving on the basic ping-pong features of the Odyssey machine by providing a segmented paddle for vertical ball control (in place of Odyssey’s “english” control), adding scoring and, most effectively, that pong sound that gave the game real life.

As just about everybody knows, Pong eventually became a great hit in the bars and arcades of America. That game can clearly be credited with starting the coin operated arcade video game industry with a bang! Video games, both of the home TV game variety and coin-op arcade video games were launched.

There is also no doubt in my mind that Pong helped Odyssey sales in 1972 … after all, an Odyssey game system was the only way you could have at least some of the Pong experience at home. The rest, as they say, is (video game) history.

Let me hasten to say that Sander Associates – and my – involvement with video games, and interactive video systems in general, didn’t stop there. In fact, it was just the beginning.

Winter Of 1972/73 – Upgrading Odyssey

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