Interview by Lauren Gonzalez
In 1951, Ralph Baer, an engineer for the military electronics company Loral, came up with the idea for interactive TV-based entertainment, but was under directive to focus on other things, like computer components for Navy RADAR systems and other military-use technologies. Baer laughs when he says he “didn’t use the word ‘interactive’ because back then,” because no one would have understood what he meant. His idea surfaced again in the mid-sixties, while he was a division manager at Sanders Associates. “The math was simple,” Baer says. “Forty million TV sets in the U.S. Multiply that by one percent. If I could plug something into 400,000 sets, hell, that’s a business.”
Baer, Sanders and Magnavox produced the first home console system in 1972, the Odyssey, the marketing name for Baer’s “Brown Box,” which has been at the Smithsonian Museum for years. While most people refer to Baer as the “Father of Video Games,” you don’t have to search too long to find someone who will argue that Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder, started the whole shebang.
Joe Santulli, the editor of Digital Press, finds the question of who fathered the video game a tough one. “I look at Ralph Baer as the father of the video game—the home game system, the video game that you play on your TV set,” he explains. “I look at Bushnell as the father of the video game industry. He really kind of got everything going in the arcades and got a business started out of it first.” Baer, who takes us back to the roots and forward to the future here, tells his side of the story in a book Rolenta Press will publish in Summer 2004.
High Times: How do you like the title, “Father of Video Games?”
Ralph Baer: Well, if somebody wants to give me credit for that, I’ll take it.
HT: A lot of people give you credit for that.
RB: I hope so, but you know about that long battle with you-know-who from California. He had a knack for getting his face on the cameras back in the ‘70s.
HT: Nolan Bushnell.
RB: Yeah. He can’t remember from one year to another what he says, but I like the guy; he’s a nice guy. But he’s also a promoter.
HT:: Anyone who understands the developer and publisher dynamic knows that you were the creator of the technology that made the industry, and he was the one who brought the industry to the public.
RB: I still wonder how much of what he did back in ’68 and ’69 actually made it. When he finished building Computer Space in his daughter’s bedroom, he handed the schematic to Alan Alcorn [Atari programmer] and told him to build a Ping Pong game. Alan Alcorn took one look at his schematics and said, ‘I think this is crap’ and threw them away.
HT: What was Bushnell doing then?
RB: I don’t know what the heck he was doing, and he would never let on. I don’t know how good an engineer he was. Let’s say he was a terrific engineer. So what? He’s one amongst many - myself included. It’s what you do with it that counts.
HT: Let’s talk about you. You came up with the idea of interactive TV entertainment--playing games on the TV set. How did that start?
RB: I had that idea way back when, when I built the [complete black and white] TV set receiver in 1951. I didn’t use the word “interactive” because back then; nobody used that word [laughs]. It was just a vacuum tube then. But I wanted to do something with a TV set other than turn it on and off. I think it was by the fact that we used test equipment and connected two television sets and put a pad on it so you could straighten out the linearity, focus, convergence of the colors, and all that stuff. But this wouldn’t mean a thing to people today because of course they think TV sets have always been like they are, right? You turn them on and they produce a beautiful picture and there aren’t any knobs on front on the back for that matter. But it hasn’t always been that way, you know, it’s like the Model T…you crank to start the thing.
HT: Did the idea come from what you were doing with technology at the time or had you seen something similar? Was it total science fiction at this point?
RB: I think being able to put up patterns and move them around on the screen must have prompted the idea. Here was something you could do with a set, other than stare at it. Chief engineer Sam Lackoff hired Leo Beiser and me to build a TV. Leo and I produced these TV sets based on a one-inch projection—imagine a one-inch tube projecting it on a 70-inch diameter black and white picture because thick tubes were expensive. Then, in 1951, I said to Lackoff, ‘When are we going to start doing something interactive?’ He said, ‘Forget it. We’re already behind schedule. Let’s get this finished.’ That was the end of that. That was the last time that I had television work for many years. The next thing I know, I’m building an analog computer piece for a military RADAR system for the Navy [to track submarines].
HT: How did you get involved with Sanders, the company that you eventually produced the Odyssey or “Brown Box” with?
RB: At that point in my career, I moved strictly into military electronics-production. I worked my way up the line and wound up at Sanders Associates, where, in the sixties, I became a division manager with five other engineers and technicians. I left New York for New Hampshire (Sander’s home base), and thought, ‘How about doing something useful?’ The math was simple: 40 million TV sets in the U.S. multiplied by one percent. If I could plug something into 400,000 sets, that’s a business.
HT: So, you wrote the original paper on the video game system in 1966, and the Magnavox Odyssey, or the “Brown Box,” as you had named it, arrived in 1972. Technophiles say that “technology arrives when people are ready.” What was going on culturally at this time that made the system’s arrival possible?
RB: The technology was almost ready, and like anything new, there was a 50-50 chance that it would go over. I didn’t think of it as particularly important. The plan was to have a gadget with a TV set on top of it. I’m working for a company that only builds military products, and I’m an engineer exercising my freedom because I’m a division manager thinking I can do whatever I damn well please. That’s how that came about. Numerous people, including my boss, an executive VP, took great pains for several years to tell me that I was screwing around with things I shouldn’t be screwing around with. Then, ten years later, money started coming in as a result of various trials and court cases that we had won, and everybody stopped asking me if I was still screwing around with that stuff. On top of that, under contract, everybody reminded me of how supportive they’d been. Supportive my ass.
HT: Money aside, were you aware at this time that you were creating a renaissance in entertainment?
RB: No. I just thought it was a good idea. I had no idea it would grow into anything like this. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that life is totally different today than it was a lifetime ago. It’s easy to see what youth take for granted today - things that were completely unknown in my lifetime. Horse and buggies were still around when I was growing up. I remember horses drawing milk wagons and falling in the ice in the winter and being lifted up by slings in Germany. Now think about technology. Until the war came along, primitive forms of radio, phonograph, and telephone were it in terms of entertainment or communication.
HT: How do you remember WWII affecting budding technologies?
RB: Technology was accelerated, because science is science, right? You can’t do anything in one place without it affecting other places. That was going all through the war. Everything was speeding up. It’s unbelievable what things are going to be like ten years from now. I hope to stick around for a couple more years because these things are so damned fascinating.
HT: When you think of games today, post-128-bit and the technology that goes into them, and then you look back at classic games…
RB: Yeah, look at the stuff we made! It was all a big joke, but it was serious at the same time. We started building the hardware in 1967, we were done by ’69, and it took until ’71 to find licensing in Magnavox. Then the engineers are tasked with putting this piece of equipment out for the public in less than a year. In 1972 the first home video games were produced with technology dating back to 1956. It’s like going into a store today and buying a computer from 1995. What kind of a piece is that?
HT: A lot more useless than it should be.
RB: It’s unbelievable how different things are now. That system had maybe 128 KB of memory. But we were on the cusp of extreme and rapid change. We were two years away from dedicated microchips. Nobody has a clue how radically things have changed in the last fifty years.
HT: What about the people playing games today who have never seen anything smaller than a 32-bit game at best? What are they missing?
RB: I don’t play too many games anymore. The only ones I see are the ones my grandkids play. I’m an engineer. I see10,000 things other people don’t see. I look at games and say this, that, and the other still need work, but in terms of today’s technology, the graphics are utterly fantastic and they’re going to become more fantastic within the next ten years.
HT: Like real, dimensional objects and spaces with depth, unlike what we see on TV and think of as 3D because it looks life-like. Some game critics today, especially serious, classic gamers, say that too much technology goes into graphics and not into game play.
RB: Oh, that’s a fact!
HT: You believe that, too?
RB: You can say that for every toy out there. For every ten toys, there’s only one that really has play value. It’s just a law of averages. Hundreds of games come out. Can every one of them be Stella? Ten thousand books show up every month, but is every one of them readable? Not so. So yeah, a lot of those games are lousy games when it comes to play value.
HT: Do you think people play classic games, particularly the 8-bit games, strictly for the nostalgia or do you think there’s more to it?
RB: Oh, I think it’s very simple. A lot of those had real play value. You’ll find that that kind of play is simple and obvious. There’s a beginning and an end, and it doesn’t take 14 levels to get from here to there. It’s More fun, at least to older people who can’t manage today’s stuff. Anybody over 35 can’t play today’s games. Who has the patience? Anyone at that stage in life has too many pressing things on their minds to sit there and remember the10,000 necessary things. I look at my grandkids, and they’re walking encyclopedias. They can tell you 10,000 facts about some stupid game. Is this necessary? It’s fine. Obviously they’re exercising their minds. There’s a little bit of hand/eye coordination, but is that really better than your 2-D games, like Frogger or something simple like that? I don’t know. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s idle speculation. You’ve got to be thrilled by today’s sports games. We were tickled pink when we could put two players up there, maybe four players up there in a hockey game and make the puck move like a real puck bounces off a sidewall, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. A kid would look at that today and say, “Who wants that?”
HT: This sounds contrary to someone who says he wants to stick around and see the future of technology.
RB: It’s not that I don’t participate in advances in technology. Think about sports games. What about putting a famous guy’s face on a sports game? Who did that first?
HT: I don’t know, the Madden series?
RB: You’re talking to him. I was issued a patent, but we never pursued it because the patent was in Marvin Glass’s name and they weren’t litigious and didn’t want to go after anybody. The first game, and arcade game, had a camera in it so you could stand there and could have your mug in part of the game, or at least in part of the credits, instead of just your initials up there. I had visions of every game player running around from arcade to arcade, Chicago, or New York, or San Francisco, and get his mug up there, right? Well here’s what happened. We put the game up on trial in an arcade and it didn’t take one day for some idiot to get up on the chair, drop his pants, and moon the camera.
HT: You’ve had a lot of situations with companies and individuals wedging in on your inventions. How have you managed to win in the cases where you and Sanders/Magnavox pursued litigation?
RB: I’m a fanatic when it comes to keeping records, keeping paper. I’ve got tons of paper on the subject of digitizing faces and the very first sheet is a telephone conversation between me and Morrison at Martin Glass, one of the game designers I worked with, who did Simon and other things, and what’s the last item on the first page? “Digitize famous person’s face.” And then the next page says we could put a camera into a machine and put the player’s face up there. A few years later, Nintendo put cameras in the Game Boy.
HT: Right, as an external attachment. What about your light gun? You made the first one of those, too, right? When?
RB: 1967. That was with the Odyssey. The very first thing we did was shoot at the spot onscreen. In fact, I just reproduced the gun again.
HT: Why are you replicating it?
RB: What I’m doing is making it so that it will play on modern TV sets. It worked fine with the1950s and 60s television sets, but it doesn’t work with today’s sets because they have a processor. The old games were in color, right? We played hockey against a blue background, Ping Pong against green. None of that survived, though, because they wouldn’t play on the TV sets. So there’s a new board built with a processor that emulates every game the way it played on the old Brown Box, except now we’ve got color.
HT: And you’re doing this for museum purposes?
RB: For museums, and for shows like the Classic Gaming Expo. I have a display of a Brown Box for a show at the Heinz Museum in Germany. I have one in Bozeman, Montana, too, at the American Computer Museum, where it was inducted last year with SteveWozniak doing the honors.
HT: What will you do with the replicas?
RB: Right now I’m working on a replica of game number three, and number two is in the works. I have all that stuff so that when I drop dead there will be a set of hardware available that shows what happened, how things developed, how it went from one spot chase games and gun games to more complicated games like Ping Pong, hand games, and sports games. It’ll all be there. Maybe a movie will be there. I just got contacted by a guy who wants to option my upcoming books.
HT: So, it looks like your book will come out at the end of the summer?
RB: Hopefully, yes.
HT: You called the system the Brown Box, how did you feel about the name Odyssey?
RB: Magnavox came up with it. I thought it was a good name. It translates well into European and South American names by changing the spelling a little bit.
HT: Do you think games being made today will be remembered as fondly in 30 years as Atari games, for example, are today?
RB: No way, because there were much fewer Atari games. Many people grew up on them. Today, there are thousands of games out there, many indistinguishable from one another.
HT: Do you think games have gotten too expensive?
RB: That’s another thing, and that’s just part of what’s going on. When we built games in the ‘50s like Simon, Smon was a big risk. It came out at 30 bucks and that was a hell of a lot of money. 30 bucks in 1979, that’s more like 55, 60 bucks today. Would you spend 60 bucks for Simon? I don’t think so. Not even today.
HT: I don’t know about that. It was a great, dedicated game system, and even having grown up in a relatively lower-income family, I had one.
RB: Well, everybody had one. There was a confluence of things that year. Simon came out the same year as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So here’s this thing hovering out there that looks like a Simon, blinks like a Simon and is making noises like a Simon, or vice-versa. Simon looked like a space ship coming in…
HT: And everybody had to have one…
RB: Everybody had to have one. It just plays well – and for good reason. Basically, it was a knock-off of Touch Me, an arcade game by Atari. It had the same basic game play, instituted really horribly. It was a big brown box with big knobs on it. It made raucous noises. So what tones would you pick if you had to pick four tones to go with those buttons?
HT: I guess I would think of the most common chords, like A, C, G…
RB: Close. You have to use notes that can be played in any sequence and sound pleasant, not raucous. So what do you do? You go to your kid’s encyclopedia, look up every instrument, and find one that plays only with four notes. I found the bugle. You play tips, taps, reveille, everything - four notes. It’s obvious they can be played in any sequence because there are four damned notes, right?
HT: That’s the difference between a good toy and a not so good toy. Someone thought through the good one; the bad one was just a copy or worse, a simulacra.
RB: Yeah. Simon was popular in no time. Tiger [Electronics] came out with a little handheld thing that made irrelevant noises, but it had none of the charm of Simon.
HT: The shape wasn’t right…nothing was really right about that one.
RB: They didn’t think about why the tones were the way they were. It’s a question of using the right math in the code. It wasn’t a matter of money; it was a matter of not recognizing what made that thing play.
HT: Do you think that sound is adequately developed in today’s games or do visuals get the greater focus?
RB: Almost everybody who has widescreen today has Surround Sound, so games will take advantage of that because that’s what you enjoy in the movies when you go to marvel, you know?
HT: What do you think developers haven’t accomplished in games yet?
RB: One thing is if you want to fly a plane in a game. You can buy an emulator joystick to get the feel for flying, but it won’t shake your seat because that would be too damned expensive. Maybe those things will become available to give you a more tactile feel for the game, like arcade games do.
HT: What’s up with arcades these days?
RB: Way back when, the arcade business was all mafia. I get this phone call around 1975 from the President of Centronix. They made the first printers for personal computers - with the parallel interface and such. He had just come back from England, where he attended an arcade game show. He had his lawyers look at who owns the patents in the video game arena and everything says Baer-Sanders, Baer-Sanders, Baer-Sanders all over the place. So he calls me up. What does he want? He’s running a little company inside the company called Gamex. One of the objectives of Gamex is to put electronics into Vegas.
HT: And what did he want you to do?
RB: He wants to build an electronic 21 game. There were no electronic games in Vegas then - only mechanics. So I walk away with a contract to do the display portion of a 21 game, with a little black and white monitor with color transparency overlays. Then we got a contract to do a horse race, and we were done with having the horses race past the fence, and we get a stop order.
HT: What happened?
RB: Bally got to them and they said, “Get the fuck out of this business,” in no uncertain terms. The engineer who was in charge of the program at Centronix took all the drawings and the hardware that was built by then and went off to Chicago and started working for Midway-Bally, and that was the end of that.
HT: Regarding your upcoming book, how do you think the video game industry is going to receive it?
RB: I don’t know… Industry doesn’t receive anything, people do. So classic game enthusiasts who can afford it will pick up the book and they’ll read bits and pieces in it.
HT: And what is the book primarily about?
RB: It talks about what I did with Coleco and with Magnavox, which is an untold story. Lord knows there’s been enough talk about what Atari did, and whether they did it or not. Somebody needs to present point and counterpoint. I have absolutely no problem with glorifying the early days of Atari. They did a hell of a job. Nolan is a good guy, a great promoter, and all of that. Why is it necessary to hog the limelight?
HT: Well, people, especially it seems in the States, have such brand loyalty that they can’t even explain why they have such nostalgia for certain companies.
RB: I understand that completely. That’s exactly what it is. It’s like a religion. It doesn’t make any difference what you tell them; they believe what they believe.
HT: Do you think classic games might ever truly come back or is it just a bygone era?
RB: Classics are there and you can certainly play them if you want to. Every classic game is available on the Web.
HT: Do you play Ping-Pong? The real life version?
RB: Yeah, I used to, but not anymore. I’m too old. On occasion I have and I’m not too bad. My reaction time is still fair. But as you get older, your eyes aren’t what they used to be and your hand/eye coordination ain’t what it used to be, your legs aren’t what they used to be, your knees aren’t what they used to be. It stinks. Getting old stinks on ice. Don’t do it.