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Interview: Ralph Baer

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We all know about Nolan Bushnell and how he made video games the industry it is today, but did he single handedly do this? No! I, KingKRool, got a chance to interview the real hero of video games, Ralph Baer. Ralph Baer can be thanked for a lot of things like making Simon (that handheld electronic device with the colors you had to hit and memorize) and the Chat Mat (the creepy welcome mat that talked when you stepped on it). Today, he is thanked for his biggest invention ever that really made the game industry the way it is now. Ralph Baer created the first ever video game console.

What inspired you to create a T.V. that could play video games?
I am a TV engineer by degree and a prolific with 150 patents world-wide. There were 40 million TV sets in the US alone in 1966 so it was natural for me to come up with the concept of using for playing games.

What exactly did you have in mind with the Odyssey?
All of the videogame systems we built in the lab in the 1960’s (ending with the Brown Box whch became the Magnavox Odyssey game) were designed to give people a chance to play interactive fun games with their TV set. Nobody else had that idea before I came along. It was also a concept that was capable of developing into an industry…and it did, with much shoving and pushing on my part. Read my book, “Videogames, In the Bedinning”. Look for it on my website [and read the Blogcritics book review].

Was there any time where you just felt like quitting on creating the first video game console?
No. We spent two years off and on developing successive versions of game systems. That cost money! The object was to find a licensee and quitting was not an option.

I saw a special on you on G4TV’s show, Icons. The special said that Nolan Bushnell stole your fame with Pong. At the time, were you mad at him?
Please… read “The Story of how Videogames invaded the Home TV Set” on my website. It’s all there! Better yet, get my book! You’ll find out that Bushnell / Atari opted out of the first lawsuit about videogames and became our first licensee. I did not appreciate his sticking his face in front of the cameras and calling himself the father of videogames… but he IS the father of the arcade videogame business and deserves credit for that. Yes, Pong is a knockoff of the 1972 Odyssey game which he played at a Magnavox dealership in May of ’72. But he became a licensee and that took care of that legally. It did nothing to change the popular perception that Atari tried to spread around, namely that videogames were solely the result of Atari’s efforts. 350,000 Odyssey were out there by 1974; obviously, more than a million people had played ping-pong games on the Odyssey by then. Common sense should tell you that there is enough credit to go around for both Magnavox (and me) and!

Atari (and Nolan B.) so as to make it unnecessary to try and hog the credit exclusively, but that doesn’t keep certain people from trying.

What do you think of him now?
I have not met Nolan Bushnell for decades. I have agreed to meet him at one or two videogame expos so that we could have a friendly ping-pong/Pong game competition, but to chose not to make an appearance.

Have you ever thought of a video game handheld?
When I invented early handheld microprocessor controlled games such as Simon (which I did in 1978), the technology was not advanced enough to attempt building cost-effective handheld video. Handheld videogames are a technical deveopment problem that was solved by using available technology of the 1990’s. I had nothing to do with that product progression.

How do you feel about video games today?
That question is equivalent to asking Edison what he thinks of music CD’s. If you know of anyone who can read a crystal ball, I would be interested in his address and phone number.

Do you collect and play video games today?
No. I occasionally watch them being played by my grandchildren.

Do you like the way video games are heading?
From what I see, videogames are heading many different directions. I like some, dislike others. I can marvel at the technology (with the insight of an engineer who really understands what it takes to do the fancy graphics, great sound, etc.) but it I don’t have to like the subject matter or the popular culture in which a particular game operates. Remember, I am several generations older than most videogame players. It does seem, though, from what little I read about new games, that many games out there may be graphically spectacular but have little play value.

Have you gotten a chance to enjoy a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP?
Only by watching my grandkids play these…they are technically fantastic.

What do you think of online gaming?
It will grow and become a commonplace activity, especially sports games. I like the idea a lot.

How much do you think video games have matured?
Technically, obviously tremendously. In terms of the culture many games represent, many games have descended into the muck right along with what passes for popular music nowadays.

Which of the next gen consoles exites you the most?
Ask someone else..I have not idea what new features either the next gen Xbox or PS might have… and I don’t plan to worry about this subject. Obviously, the next gen machines will be still faster, have still better graphics and sound. Just the same, they will probably still play their share of of lousy games….and certainly along with some really good stuff.

What do you do today?
I have never stopped developing new ideas and licensing them in the toy-and-game industry. I am currently concentrating on totally novel accessories for popular videogame consoles. Over the past two years I have also worked with the Smithsonian Institute which will be permanently exhibiting all of my original 1960’s videogame hardware at the National Museum of American History. I have also built replicas of the 1968 Brown Box (the predecessor of the commercial 1972 Odyssey game) for museums around the world and in the US. Finally, I have built replicas of each of the 1960’s videogame systems which we developed, ending with the Brown Box. These will be featured in hands-on displays at various museums over the next several years.

Any words of advice to our readers?
Game ON! Enjoy playing games but don’t let them take over your life.

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About Kevin Cortez

  • Very cool – thanks for the rare look at gaming history

    Any of these consoles available on eBay?

  • Thanks for publishing the interview and mentioning my book.
    I hope bloggers interested in retro videogame history will take a look at some of its pages by clicking on it.

    It is full of documents, photos, charts and technical data that describe how the home videogame industry really started . It definitely is not just another story consisting of undocumented fairy tales.

    Ralph H. Baer

  • There is one Aaman. I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find some more.

    And Ralph, I’ve said this too many times already: Thank YOU!