The Rainmakers

A Natural Born Inventor


Videogames entered the world not with a bang, but as a series of stutter steps that culminated in the humbly-named Brown Box. From such humble beginnings, a dynasty strides forth, a multi-billion dollar a year industry birthed almost entirely by a persistent television engineer named Ralph H. Baer . His idea was a simple one: Make a box that attaches to television sets and provides some kind of additional entertainment, the kind that people will pay for, and if even 1 percent of TV owners purchase one, a business is born. It was a simple idea, but the execution took quite a bit of work.

The idea first came to him in the summer of 1966 , but from there, it was a start and stop affair. The late ’60s weren’t a good time for playful things, especially among weapon-makers not working on making weapons. His work started at Sanders Associates (a defense contractor), in “late ’66,” Baer says, but progress moved in fits and starts. This was largely because Sanders had bigger projects on hand, Baer’s was “a couple guys in a room, and they were called away half the time to go do more important work. … [We had] engineers and techs worrying about military programs [and] putting stuff on the moon. Not games. The only reason I did it was because I’m a TV engineer by degree.”

The business logic was easy to see, he said. “If I can license somebody to build a box that attaches to 1 percent of [TVs], in any sense, we’ve got a business. It turned out to be a lot more than 1 percent.” They made progress through the years, and “for the better part of two and a half years, we went through a series of models, which finally wound up with the Brown Box.” A problem remained with the prototype, which was: “Now that we’ve got it, what the hell do we do with it?”

Convincing TV set manufacturers that the Brown Box would make them a mint took some work, he says. A number of deals fell through with big television manufacturers, like RCA and Zenith. “Everybody was impressed, but only RCA tried to give us a contract,” Baer said, adding, “But they tried to snooker us, and we finally decided to walk away from that.” Fortune smiled upon them after “somebody [Bob Enders] on the RCA team left and became a VP of marketing for Magnavox.” Enders worked to arrange a meeting at Magnavox, and the company executives were impressed enough to start production. The humbly-named Brown Box would create an industry, in 1972, as the Magnavox Odyssey, the first widely-available, commercially-backed game console.

“The Odyssey came out in May of ’72,” Baer says. “By December, 100,000 of them had been sold. That probably means that 2-300,000 people had [access to] one,” though they shared his earlier dilemma. “They had to figure out what the hell videogames were in the first place, simultaneously.” The arcade business soon followed. “The Pong arcade game showed up in fall of ’72. It was a knockoff of the Odyssey game, because Nolan Bushnell, he’d played an Odyssey game at a dealership, a Magnavox dealership, in May of that year, and he started the arcade business going.” Magnavox would go on to win a patent infringement lawsuit against Bushnell, but the electronic gaming genie was out of the bottle. “By the time ’74 came, the Odyssey was already obsolete,” Baer says. “We’d sold 350,000 of those, which wasn’t too shabby,” especially considering it was the first of its kind.

Unlike the cutting-edge consoles of today, Baer describes his first effort as “primitive. We repurposed stuff with discrete transistors when integrated circuits were already available, but we couldn’t use them. … It was too expensive. So, in a sense, we already built the stuff one generation behind [the] current technology. Now, four more years passed before we could get a license fee. Now we’re two generations behind.” That gap has narrowed over time, he says. It’s “extremely small nowadays, compared to what it was 20 years ago,” though that’s largely because “so much money is thrown into every product.”

With the Odyssey at the forefront in the home and Pong leading the charge in the arcade, the electronic gaming industry was off and running. Magnavox reaped most of the profits, though in an earlier interview Baer said, “I was well taken care of. I have no complaints.”

And Baer went right on inventing things, like the first light gun for home games, Simon, and a number of other electronic toys and games. Indeed, on the day we spoke, he said he’d “just signed a contract with a major manufacturer.” While he couldn’t tell me exactly what he was designing, it is supposed to be something to communicate with both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. He’s not doing videogames, but he stays busy, describing himself as “a natural-born inventor, apart from 50 U.S. patents and 100 foreign ones. I’ve invented hundreds of things over 30 or 40 years.”

Looking back, Baer sees an industry still grappling with the very first challenge he faced all those years ago: making games fun. “All we have now is a bunch of interactive movies,” he says. “And any challenging part is not necessarily fun to play, which is why so many people go back and play regular games, especially now that they’re available on media like cell phones and handheld stuff. When people play, they don’t play complicated modern games, they play real stuff.”

I asked if he had a favorite company that did things right. “I can’t really answer that question. Look at the bottom line, who sells the largest number of games? And clarifying that, they all do many things right, and lots of things that are not so great, but what do you expect? People have been publishing books for hundreds of years. Some are great, some are lousy, some in-between. And that decision making is in the eyes of the beholder anyhow. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, and I don’t even know about it. What I know about present games is what I watch over the shoulders of my grandkids.”

However, he will offer some advice to the developers of today. “Make games that people like to play.” He elaborates, “If you want to stop right there and think about it, we still play boardgames we played in 1880. We play other boardgames that were invented 5,000 years ago. They’re totally different and a hell of a lot simpler than all this electronic stuff.”

He cites the pursuit of graphics over gameplay, saying, “In the beginning, yes, things were so primitive that there was a definite need for things to improve the graphics. But now, the graphics … have taken on a life of [their] own. It’s one generation from having total reality out there.” Additionally, “the idea of playing games over the web, it’s just taken hold and it’s pretty prevalent right now. It’s a hell of a good idea.” However, the pursuit of graphical realism means designers have lost focus on gameplay, and the anonymity of the internet means people don’t get quite the social experience they used to have. “[That] was the concept in the very beginning. You don’t play Ping Pong with yourself, you play it as another person. In these massive games, you don’t even see the other person; they are an idea. They don’t want to be known, because they’re not playing themselves. They’re playing the avatar they created, the guy or gal they want to be. That’s not really socializing.”

With that said, though, he urges the industry to “keep going. Who am I to tell an industry where to go and what to do? I expressed my opinion earlier that there should be a little more stress on having fun. The quest for being king of the hill in some bloody game doesn’t sound to me like socializing or something very fun. That seems like work to me.”

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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