Allan Alcorn

Name: Allan Alcorn
Occupation/Title: Chief Technology Officer, Integrated Media Measurement, Inc.

Birth: Al Alcorn was born sometime between the years of 1947-1949.

Early Life / Family: Al Alcorn grew up in San Fransisco, CA. He describes himself as coming from “a relatively poor family. My mother and father were divorced, and I never got an allowance.” This may have contributed to his resourceful nature later on in life. Al was fortunate enough to have a T.V. repairman for a neighbor, and so was exposed to electronic devices from a young age, eventually learning how to fix T.V.s himself. He was obsessed with taking things apart and putting them back together, from cameras to cars. “Even with photography I was, 'How does it work? Why does it work?'”

Education/Training: Mr. Alcorn graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Surprisingly enough, he did not have a large amount of programming experience.

Career Outline: Al Alcorn was lucky enough to be hired right out of college by Ampex, a company centered around video technology. It was there that he met many of the people who would go on to become the giants of the new industry. One of these men, Nolan Bushnell, decided to leave the company in 1972 and found his own business, which would come to be known as Atari. He offered Alcorn a thousand dollars a month plus company stock to work for him, and Alcorn accepted. For his first project, Bushnell wanted Alcorn to have the opportunity to get some experience programming something easy, so he asked him to make an electronic version of ping pong, without planning on ever marketing it. This project would of course go on to become the iconic Pong. The wild success of Pong was followed with many other Atari hits, until in 1976 Alcorn left the company due to creative differences.

He went on to found Cumma Technology, which enjoyed some success until the video game crash of the 1980's. Mr. Alcorn has since acted as a consultant for numerous Silicon Valley startups, and vice president of engineering at Digital F/X and a Fellow for Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group. In 1994 he founded Silicon Gaming and served as Chief Technology Officer for the next 7 years, when the company was acquired by International Gaming Technology. He co-founded Zowie Entertainment in 1998 and helped to design a playset that could track the movements of a toddler inside. Mr. Alcorn currently holds the position of CTO at Integrated Media Measurement, Inc. and speaks at major industry events.

Impact on Gaming: Al Alcorn helped to create the video game industry that exists today with the extremely popular Pong and Atari 2600 home video game system; in fact, Pong is often referred to as the “world's first successful video game.” Before Alcorn, Bushnell, and Atari, there were no video game companies and thus no business model. They pioneered and defined the market. As Mr. Alcorn recalls, “We didn't have any venture funding, clearly, because there wasn't a lot of venture funding back in 1972. Banks wouldn't even give us a line of credit. 'Videogames? Isn't that the mafia? The mob?" In addition, in designing the ill-fated holographic Cosmos system for Atari, Alcorn paved the way for mass-produced holograms. “The problem was, at that time all holograms were original images made with a laser on film and developed, and there was no way to mass produce them. And we actually had to solve that problem. We actually created the first embossed holograms, which you [now] see on Mastercard.”

Influences: Mr. Alcorn's work was influenced perhaps most heavily by the limitations of space and funds. Having grown up in difficult times, he was comfortable with making the best use of his somewhat meager resources. Due to the limited amount of space on chips, Alcorn and Bushnell were forced to come up with new programming techniques – many of which are still used today. “You can't just be lush about it – you have to leverage things, double up.”

Personality: Even though he does not play video games, Mr. Alcorn loves creating them. He believes that those in the industry have a responsibility to push the limits of what they can do, to keep searching for new ideas and gameplay. As Mr. Alcorn states, “...wouldn't that be cool? To be able to sit in your chair and play World of Warcraft... and actually interact like the goddamn holodeck from Star Trek? But no-one's doing it because they're too busy working on the next generation of Halo, because of the money they've got invested in Halo.” This sacrifice of creative spirit for the sake of the bottom line is one of the main reasons he left Atari. He also has a great passion for creating the companies themselves, as evidenced by his status as founder or co-founder of a great many companies from the tech boom era.

It was not just his creative spark that made Mr. Alcorn a revolutionary video game designer, however. His desire to create was supplemented by a hunger for knowledge and a persistence that served him well during the infant years of the technology boom. “I want to know how it works... I can't understand how some people can drive a car and not understand what's going on in it; why it doesn't go when they ease up on the gas.” Mr. Alcorn's intimate understanding of computers and adaptability to new ideas allowed him to come up with the tricks and techniques to make video games fun.

Anecdotes: Mr. Alcorn first realized how big of an impact Pong had while on vacation in Japan. He visited an old fashioned town by a pristine lake, and decided to take a ferry ride to enjoy the natural setting. Upon boarding the ferry, he was shocked to find Pong on the main deck.

“...One of my lessons learned, is that if you can't fix it, call it a feature. The paddles on the original Pong didn't go all the way to the top. There was a defect in the [circuit] – I used a very simple circuit, I had to, to make the paddles, but they didn't go to the top. I could have fixed it, but it turned out to be important, because if you get two good players they could just volley and play the game forever. And the game has to end in about three or four minutes otherwise it's a failure as a game. So that gap at the top, again – a feature. So that was sort of a happy accident.”

Gameography:
Pong, 1972.
Space Race, 1973.
Gotcha, 1973.
Home version of Pong, 1974.
Atari 2600 Home Video Game Machine, 1977. Cosmos (unreleased holographic game system).

References:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3qzCxhxH-E
www.imdb.com/name/nm1349607/bio
www.gamesetwatch.com/2008/03/column_jump_button_beyond_pong.php
www.spike.com/video/legendary-creator-of/3043573
www.smartcomputing.com/editorial/dictionary/detail.asp?guid=&searchtype=&DicID=16324&RefType=Encyclopedia
www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/feature_pioneer_part1
www.atarimuseum.com/videogames/arcade/arcade70.html
retro.ign.com/articles/858/858351p3.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_Cosmos
www.linkedin.com/pub/0/104/244
www.pong-story.com/odyssey.htm

Contributors To This Listing: Tina Wang

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