These simple instructions are all you need to know, when you're playing PONG for the first time, but is it really that simple? Is it just the mindless task of not missing the ball, or is there more to it?
Is PONG the ultimate "Video Skill Game" as it was advertised by its inventors back then?
I'm asking not entirely out of curiousity as I've recently started learning a new programming language and been delving into the theories and practices of Game Design. One of the first projects I want to undertake is a PONG game, but instead of just coding something in a few minutes, I really want to understand how PONG really worked.
That's why I'm trying to examine and understand everything about the mechanics and ball physics of the original PONG, cause here I'm sure to find the answers to my questions.
But sadly I never got the chance to play a real PONG machine (I started gaming in the early 90s) and finding info on this subject on the net turned out to be more difficult than I first thought and most of the stuff I've found is also quite irritating and incomplete.
That's why I'd love to receive some help from people who played the original PONG rather extensively (I'm sure there must be some folks here who played this in their youth) and/ or know the ins and outs of the game and help me fill out the blanks.
Aquiring an actual Atari machine is rather tedious (cause of their expensiveness and rarity here, where I live) so Emulation is the only way to play for me atm. There's an Atari 2600 game called Video Olympics, that has some PONG variants on it, but I don't know how accurate those are in regards to the original PONG arcade machines.
Nonetheless I've been able to gather a healthy amound of info, here's what I found out:
At first there's the question of the size and form the objects and the playfield.
The playfield of the original PONG seems to be as large as the screen itself and there aren't any visible borders. It's notable that many later versions and variants of PONG have visible borders (in the Tennis variant the borders are generally placed at the top and bottom of the playfield). So what happens, when the ball reaches the top or the bottom of the screen? I've no idea, but I guess that the ball just reappears at the other side of the playfield with its trajectory being otherwise unaffected, but of course I could be wrong and the ball is repelled (just like in all the versions with visible borders), so that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.
The size of the paddle is something that could be altered in later versions (I don't know if it was possible to alter the paddle size in the original arcade version). In the pic above, you can see that the paddles are rather small, the Ball looks like a diagonal line, but that's just because it moved relatively fast when the photo was taken (the pic is from system16 and according to them, shows the original 1973 Atari Arcade version of PONG).
After that, maybe the most important thing to know for me is how you, as a player, can determine the trajectory of the ball and more importantly, how to influence it with your paddle.
Compared to the Odyssey
The home version of Pong was mainly based on the arcade version. It contained only one game: tennis. Unlike consoles that appeared later, the controllers couldn't be separated from the device.
A revolutionary phenomenon was that Pong displayed the score on the screen. Players on the analogue Magnavox Odyssey had to write the score down or remember it. Also unlike the Odyssey, where the controllers contained an extra button to add spin to the ball, Pong automatically added spin. The amount of spinning depended on the segment of the paddle that hit the ball - like the arcade model each paddle contained eight segments.
The speed of the ball doesn't seem to be affected by these segments. I've read elsewhere, that the speed increased automatically over the course of the game, when the ball was hit by each players. It would be really interesting to know, how fast the ball could ultimately move in relation to the paddles. (Could the ball go even faster than you could move your paddle?)
It's also interesting to note that, when they're talking about "spin" the writers generally seem to only refer to the angle at which the ball reflects off the paddle.
Afaik the ball doesn't curve, it still travels in a straight line. I haven't seen anyone ever mentioning a PONG Tennis variation, where the ball curves, it would be interesting to know if there exists one. While those curve physics may seem complicated, afaik a PONG variation called "Rebound" (a Volleyball like game) offered curved trajectories and even gravity, so it was possible to realise this at the time.
As said, the paddle was divided in eight segments and afaik the further away from the center of the paddle the segment with which the ball was hit, was located, the bigger the angle would be, something like this I'd guess:
I've no idea how big the angles are and how much they differ between the segments, though I've stumbled over many PONG clones that offered the option to choose between 20° and 20°-40° angles before the game started so I suppose that the paddle could've been segmented like this (from top to bottom) when the 20°-40° option had been selected:
As always I'd like to know if someone could confirm or disagree with this. I've also no clue how big those segments were in relation to the ball or if some segments were bigger than others.
The last picture also only shows, what happens, when the ball travels horizontally and collides at an 90° angle with the paddle.
I don't know exactly what happens, when the ball already has some "spin" applied to itself, but imo there could be two possibilities:
a) The angle is "reset", as if the ball would travel exactly in a horizontal motion so that it doesn't actually matter at what angle tha ball hits the paddle.
b) It could also be culmulative (up to a certain degree at least), so that you could deflect the ball at the same angle, if you'd hit it with the centre, raise the angle even more, or lower the angle (so that the ball would travel horizontally again).
Doesn't sound so simple anymore, but it gets even worse.
I've found another description of the mechanics, which hints to another way of controlling the angle of the ball:
The ball would normally reflect off the paddle at the same angle it approached it from, but if the paddle was in motion it would impart some extra vertical motion, or "English" to the ball, adding an element of strategy to the game.
It's also interesting to see someone saying that PONG incorporated an element of strategy (although it may seem a little exagerated). So it's not just a pure reaction test?
The ball's motion was affected by how and where it hit a paddle, and the longer a ball was in play the more quickly it moved.
How is it that so many people seem to remember a different behaviour of the games mechanics? Is it because of the miriad of PONG clones, that offer subtle differences in comparison to Atari's original? Is it because it's just too long ago and memory isn't always that accurate or are the underlying principles of the balls behaviour just so hard to grasp?
"Players liked Pong because no luck was involved and the more you played, the more skillful you became."
I've posted this thread on two other forums, but only with mediocry success, ragarding to my questions. I've found this forum recently, so along with my newfound passion for the original PONG and all it's variants, I decided to register and post the thread again, hoping for more reactions.