The Magnavox Odyssey was the very first home game console to be released, kicking off the first console generation, effectively beginning the video game industry and revolutionizing the medium. It was released in 1972 in America (1973 in Europe and never in Japan) and sold around 70,000-100,000 units in its first year on the market. The way it worked was that by connecting the “game box” to the television, certain dots and crude shapes would appear depending on the game you chose to play. You would then overlay a piece of plastic onto the screen, and that would primarily be the visuals for your game. Most of them were sports based (Table Tennis, actual Tennis, American Football, Hockey, etc) but there were a few oddballs thrown in for good measure too (various shooting themed games which could use the light gun accessory, Roulette, Simon Says, and something called Haunted House, a Clue-esque game).
Who made it?
A man named Ralph H. Baer was at the helm along with a small team of developers. Baer seemed to genuinely believe in the idea of some kind of home television gaming system, but many around him disregarded it. He finally got the opportunity from Magnavox in 1971, after multiple prototypes and failed business deals with other television and technology companies.
Why did they make it?
As Ralph himself puts it, “There were about 40 million TV sets in the US homes alone in 1966, to say nothing of many more millions of TV sets in the rest of the world. They were literally begging to be used for something other than watching commercial television broadcasts!”
He was fascinated by the idea of televisions having multiple uses and being a sort of ‘all in one’ entertainment device. There was just so much potential! Sadly, he didn’t end up designing most of the original prototypes for his ‘game box’ idea, though he helped. He only began truly heading the project in 1971, when Magnavox took the license.
What influence did it have on the art form?
Of course, it’s notable in that it kick started the very first console generation! At the time, games were still being played on big, clunky computers in labs, and were not something to be experienced in one’s own home. The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, claimed to be inspired by the Odyssey, specifically its Tennis game, which lead to the creation of the arcade game Pong, released later in 1972. Those are two pretty big accomplishments!
What can we learn from it?
That being said, the Magnavox Odyssey did not actually make it into too many people’s households. It only sold somewhere between 70,000-100,000 units its first year on the market at about $100 a pop, a pretty outrageous price for the early 1970’s. This, combined with a misleading marketing strategy Magnavox pushed (implying that the console would only work with a Magnavox Television, pushing the $100 price tag to $300-$400) is what led to it being a moderate flop. The moral there: don’t let your publishing company screw you over with terrible marketing. Sadly, many great games and consoles have both suffered from this sort of situation in years since.
However, this did not stop Ralph Baer and his fellow developers from essentially becoming millionaires. How did they achieve this? It was the result of Magnavox suing anyone and everyone trying to enter the video game industry for nearly the next decade.
I’m serious; many arcade games including the aforementioned Pong and even Tennis For Two (although in a novel way; Nintendo, before becoming gaming industry titans presented it as the ‘first video game’ in court, proving that Magnavox had no claim to the idea. They were, however, dismissed because Tennis For Two was never patented.) were taken to court by Magnavox, claiming that they were infringing on Baer’s patents. Considering the fact that this all boiled down to “if it’s a screen that displays an electronic game you’re stealing my concept”, there were many companies and developers that settled out-of-court because of how ridiculous the situation was.
The moral of that tale would be that maybe you shouldn’t try and have a monopoly on one singular industry, because even if you do end up being major patent trolls for a decade, you can’t stop the progress and creativity of others. You can earn an insane amount of money though, so your mileage may vary on that lesson I suppose.
The Magnavox Odyssey was vital to making video games and home consoles what they are today, and for that I’m deeply grateful. Sure, the games were simple and the controllers awkward and hard to use, but, hey, it was the first ever try at putting electronic games in one’s own living room. They were still figuring out what worked, and what came after them only improved on what they accomplished.
NEXT POST: Pong! I know I said I’d get to it this week, but it simply didn’t blend into this topic as smoothly as I thought it would. ‘Till then!