Rules of play – game design fundamentals (preface)

People love pong.

They do. But why?

Really. What’s to love? There isn’t much to the game: a pair of paddles move two blunt white lines on either side of a black screen, a blocky excuse for a ball bounces between them, and if you miss the ball, your opponent scores a point. The first player to score fifteen points wins. Big deal. Yet despite its almost primitive simplicity, Pong creates meaningful play.

In video game years, Pong is ancient. Originally designed by Ralph Baer for the Magnavox Odyssey home video game system, in 1972 Pong was engineered into an arcade machine and a home console by Nolan Bushnell and Atari. It is no exaggeration to say that Pong was an overnight sensation. The first prototype was released to the public in a bar called Andy Capp’s, in Sunnyvale, California, near the Atari headquarters. According to computer game historians, the first night that the glowing TV monitor and cabinet were installed in a corner of the bar, patrons were intrigued but confused. The instructions read only, Avoid missing ball for high score. Someone familiar with quarter-operated pinball machines eventually plunked in a coin and watched the ball shoot from side to side as the scores racked up. One of the players finally nudged a paddle, and the ball bounced off with a satisfying “pong” sound. That was enough to tell them what to do, and they began to play. By the end of the first game, both players had learned to volley. By the end of the first night, everyone in the bar had tried a game or two. The next morning, a line had formed outside Andy Capp’s: people couldn’t wait to play more Pong.[1]

Pong is still alive and well today. You can play Pong via emulators and in Internet banner ads. Clever homages to Pong such as Battle Pong and Text Pong thrive on the web. Pong features prominently in classic gaming flea markets and fan con-ventions. The game publisher Infogrames released a souped-up, 3D version of Pong a few years ago. Most importantly, the original is still fun to play. When the Super Pong Games IV at gameLab is hooked up to the TV, it never fails to gather a crowd.

All of which brings us back to the question: Why? Why do people love Pong?

Although this is not a book about Pong, or about computer and video games, it is a book about game design. It is crucial for game designers to understand why people play games and why some games are so well-loved. Why do people play

It is simple to play. The one-line instructions and intuitive knob interface makes Pong approachable and easy to understand. There are no hidden features to unlock or special moves to learn.

Every game is unique. Because the ball can travel anywhere on the screen, Pong is an open-ended game with endless possibilities. Pong rewards dedicated play: it is easy to learn, but difficult to master.

It is an elegant representation. Pong is, after all, a depiction of another game: Table Tennis. The abstracted nature of Pong, where your avatar is reduced to a single white line, creates an immediately satisfying physical and perceptual relationship to the game.

It is social. It takes two to play Pong. Through playing the game, you interact with another human being. Pong’s social circle also extends beyond two players: it makes a great spectator sport.

It is fun. Simple though it may seem, it is genuinely fun to interact with Pong. Players derive pleasure from the game for many different reasons, from the pleasure of competition and winning to the satisfyingly tactile manipulation of the knob.

It is cool.

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Rules of play – game design fundamentals (preface)