Gaming Literacy: The Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first game console

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures.

What was the first console you owned? The SNES? NES? Some of you might be old enough to remember the Atari and Commodore 64. My first console was the Intellivision, but even that ancient piece of tech was part of the second generation of console gaming. What came before? Where did the concept of the console come from?

Like many technological advances in the good old U.S. of A., it started with the military.

The First Console Generation

In 1951 Ralph H. Baer (you can and should read more about him), an engineer for military contractor Loral Electronics, was working on a series of early television sets and monitors. It was then he had the idea for a television that would allow the viewer to control the picture as they watched; a sort of interactive viewing experience. He wouldn’t pursue the idea until 1966, after he had become the head of Equipment Design at Sanders Associates, which was another military contractor.

His idea was to use the television as a sort of improvised board game. A “game box” would hook up to the TV, and that would feed the players information about the game they were playing. The box would output a TV signal that would override a normal TV channel, and users would tune to this channel to play games. His original name for the device was “Channel LP” with LP being short for Let’s Play. Baer was the world’s first Let’s Player.

This wouldn’t be the first digital game by a long shot. Several computer games had already been created at this point. However, the computer technology that was requires to play these games was expensive and hard to come by. In fact, the world’s first personal computers wouldn’t be introduced to the general market until 1975. Baer’s idea was to simplify things by only including the bare-bones needed to play games. Instead of playing on expensive computer equipment, Baer’s game box would allow the common consumer to spend less – 20 dollars in his mind – and have a similar gaming experience. It could be argued that this was the beginning of the computer and console split, with computer gaming focusing on heavy tech and hardware and console gaming focusing on accessibility and affordability. Sound familiar?

Baer would spend the next few years prototyping, and managed to produce some interesting devices. His prototypes had some relatively sophisticated tech for the time, featuring scorekeeping, random number generation, and the ability to display color on color TVs which were still new. However, his greatest innovation was a simple light-gun, which could sense when it was aiming at a lighted part of the screen. It was this light gun that eventually impressed his superiors at Sanders, granting him the funding to continue working on the project.

The Hard Sell

There was just one problem. This box was going to be expensive, and Baer was convinced that he needed to keep the cost of the box down or else it wouldn’t sell. There was essentially no market for video games in the late sixties and early seventies. This was before the explosion of home pong systems, so the very notion of a game that used your TV was new to the market, and putting it outside of the common price range would be a surefire way to see it fail. 20 dollars was already asking a lot, as 20 dollars in 1966 is approximately equivalent to 150 dollars in today’s money.

Baer started cutting features to keep the cost low. Random number generation and basic calculation functions had to go. The ability for the game box to keep score also had to go. Function after function was gone until Baer was left with as barebones a console as he could imagine selling.

His revised prototype could display four graphics on the screen: three dots and a line. Two of the dots would be controlled by the players, the line would be positioned at the start of a game and wouldn’t move, and the third dot would be controlled by the system itself. The box had three games which were selected by a dial – a ping pong game, a chasing game, and a light gun game – all of which used the same basic coding with only small alterations in dot movement distinguishing them. The real way Baer managed to make the games feel different was by using different controllers. Players would use dials for the ping-pong game, joysticks for the chasing game, and, of course, a light-gun for the light-gun game.

Unfortunately, Baer had problems selling his idea. In 1969 he approached several different television companies, but they all turned him down. Though the technology was cutting edge, the games were still rather primitive, and few companies were convinced that people would spend money just to be able to play simple games on their TV. The light gun game continued to impress, but it alone was not enough to sell the console.

The only television company that showed interest was RCA, but Baer and his team could not come to an agreement. However, their box made an impression on RCA executive Bill Enders. Later in the year, Enders would leave RCA for Magnavox and he convinced them to take a look at Baer’s device. Once again, the company was largely skeptical, but a few key executives including Vice President of Marketing Gerry Martin were impressed by the technology, and eventually decided to produce the machine. Unfortunately, negotiations were so complex that an agreement was not reached until 1971, only a year before Atari would introduce their breakout hit “Pong” to arcades.

The Cost of Doing Business

Magnavox changed Baer’s design drastically. Instead of selecting games via a dial, they added “game cards” which would alter the way the console played. While many refer to these as some of the first “game cartridges,” there really wasn’t any programming contained within. Instead, they consisted of printed circuit boards whose circuitry alone altered the way the console operated. Essentially, everything was “coded” in hardware. While these cards did give the console a sense of variety, in reality they only changed the way the on screen dots moved in minor ways.

Magnavox felt that increasing variety would be the key to making the console sell. They packaged the unit with board game accessories like dice, play money, cards, and even scoreboards for games like football. They also included colored plastic overlays, which would stick to a TV via static cling in order to give the games a little bit of color. This also allowed them to repackage the same game multiple times. For example, Baer’s simple “chase” game was re-implemented again and again as a variety of maze games, math puzzles, and even educational games using these overlays and the included board game pieces. They eventually managed to release the console with 13 separate games, and allowed consumers to expand that library to 28 games by buying even more game cards and peripherals.

But while Magnavox found themselves adding trinkets to the package to increase variety, they also found themselves chopping down at the consoles core capabilities to further lower cost. The joysticks were completely removed, as the dial controllers could control the dots in chase style games well enough. Color televisions were still rare, so Magnavox decided to remove the console’s color capabilities. Magnavox even removed the most loved part of the system, the light-gun, and packaged it as an additional add-on peripheral to be sold separately.

But despite these omissions, Magnavox could not get the price down to Baer’s suggested twenty dollar price point. Instead, they ended up retailing the system for a cool hundred dollars. That might not seem like much in today’s money, but in 1972, that was roughly equivalent to 599 U.S. dollars today, a price point well proven to be too high for a console. Baer blamed all the board game trinkets for the high price point, saying that Magnavox vastly over-engineered his otherwise simple design, and that most of these components would eventually go unused. Despite his protests, the console, now dubbed the Magnavox Odyssey, was released to the general public in 1972.

A Disappointing Debut

Though Baer was correct in his assumptions about the Odyssey’s high price point, price wasn’t the only obstacle. Rather, Magnavox themselves refused to take the Odyssey seriously as a standalone product. Instead, they treated it as a marketing tool for their televisions. They thought that having the world’s first home video game console would drive people to buy their TVs, and so they purposefully misled customers into thinking that the console would only work with Magnavox brand TVs.

Magnavox also harshly restricted the sales of the Odyssey. Their original production run was only 120,000 units, a small run even for 1970’s standards. Magnavox also sold the unit exclusively at their distribution centers, making them unavailable to anyone shopping at a common electronics store. They attempted to entice the public into buying them at a discount – only fifty dollars – provided they bought a new Magnavox TV, but the combined price of the TV and console proved too steep for the public.

The Odyssey sold approximately 70,000 units in its release year, a disappointing number to say the least. Magnavox considered dropping the console after its first holiday season, however the small demand for the new technology pushed Magnavox to commit to another small production run. The small trickle of sales also led them to release the console to an international market in 1974. This proved to be their biggest year yet, selling over 150,000 in that year alone. When Magnavox eventually discontinued the console in 1975, they had sold 350,000 units in total.

The Odyssey was considered a general failure with its meager sales numbers. For comparison, the Atari 2600 sold 30 million units over its lifetime, literally 100 times more than the Odyssey. The light-gun peripheral, the very thing that kept people interested in the machine, only sold 20,000 units, and the board game additions, as Baer predicted, did little to increase the console’s value. Baer attempted to spurt sales of the system by introducing new add-ons that would introduce sound, color, and new controllers and games. He even developed follow-up console ideas, which could be produced cheaply and that even supported four-player gameplay. However, Magnavox rejected each one, seeing the Odyssey as nothing more than a gimmick.

An Important Piece of History

The Odyssey’s biggest game was “table tennis,” essentially pong without sound or the ability to keep score. Unfortunately, when Pong hit arcades, several companies began developing their own dedicated pong consoles. While they released after the Odyssey, they offered much better graphics, sound, and mechanics, making the Odyssey seem almost immediately obsolete. While the Odyssey attempted to sell itself on flexibility, it simply did not have enough game variety to warrant its expensive price tag. Consumers would much rather have purchased a system that did a single game well than a system that did multiple games poorly.

These dedicated systems would shape the video game market for years to come. The market became saturated with consoles that played only one game, and this saturation lead to the first video game crash of 1977. We wouldn’t see another multi-game console until 1976 with the release of the Fairchild Semiconductor Channel F, and we wouldn’t see multi-game consoles become popularized until after the Atari 2600 and the NES’s breakout success.

But despite the Odyssey’s failure and Baer’s frustrations at Magnavox’s marketing policies, it's a clearly important part of video game history. It introduced the idea of the home console to the masses. It was the first console to support multiple games, the first console to support light guns, the first console to connect to a TV, the first console to use detachable controllers, and much more. If not for the Odyssey, we may not even have a video game industry today, and it would certainly be drastically different.

Baer’s contributions to the industry are so important that he was honored in 2004 with the National Medal of Technology. In addition, the Odyssey itself is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art, and two prototypes for the Odyssey are on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

The Odyssey’s release can be viewed as the start of the very first console generation, the first point in which console technology became widely available to the public, and the beggining of the modern video game industry. 

And, if that wasn't enough, it also gave us this delightfully archaic commercial-