INDUSTRY: Space-Age Pinball

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In the make-believe world of the penny arcade, pinball was once a game without peer. For a teen-ager with a pocketful of dimes, there was no better way to while away idle hours than maneuvering a steel ball through a maze of obstacles, while lights blinked and a noisy digital Scoreboard recorded points with a distinctive bong. But pinball, alas, lost some of its cachet in high-speed modern life—until 18 months ago when there appeared a new breed of coin-operated games that use sophisticated electronic technology to simulate everything from playing table tennis to driving a race car. Besides giving birth to a nationwide fad, the games have also revived the sagging coin-game industry, boosting its revenues and ushering in a new era of cutthroat competition between manufacturers.

Typical of the new games is Pong*, a popular version of electronic table tennis manufactured by two-year-old Atari, Inc. (estimated fiscal 1974 revenue: $14 million) of Los Gates, Calif. Atari sold some 8,500 games to U.S. amusement parlors and other businesses last year, in addition to a substantial overseas trade. Pong is played on a standard television to which a simple circuit board has been added. This device projects images representing a "ball," two "paddles"—four for doubles—and a "net" onto the screen (actually, all are beams of light). By turning knobs, each player can use his paddle to strike the ball and send it back across the net. The rules are similar to those for standard table tennis, but have one crucial difference from standard pinball: players soon learn how to manipulate their paddles so that the ball travels faster or veers off in unpredictable directions.

Other screen games use different means to add to the challenge. A race driving game now being test-marketed by Atari projects the view from the cockpit of a Grand Prix car negotiating the hairpin curves of the track at Le Mans. Manning a phony steering wheel, accelerator and gear shift, the player tries to complete the circuit as many times as possible without "spinning out" before the time limit expires. The simulation, complete with the sounds of squealing brakes and revving engines, is so realistic, Atari executives report, that "we've watched guys leaving the wheel with sweat pouring down their faces."

Video games seem to have caught on fastest with college students. On some campuses, playing them is the second most popular pastime after streaking. They are popular, too, at bowling alleys, skating rinks and the like. But they also appeal to the proprietors of staid businesses that would never have permitted a standard pinball machine through the door, including some high-class restaurants and hotels. The reasons: despite a high purchase price (about $1,100), the machines are cheaper and easier to maintain than mechanical games.

They are also more profitable. Atari executives report that Pong games frequently take in $200 to $300 per week. Each game costs a quarter, v. only a dime for most pinball machines; the total take from all the machines now in play is estimated at more than $900 million annually.

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