March 28, 2012 at 3:42 PM ET
"Pong," one of the most iconic video games of all time, turns 40 this year. To bring attention to this, as well as add a fresh new coat of paint, Atari is holding a contest for anyone who can create the best version possible for iOS. The grand prize is $50,000.
The Pong Indie Developer Challenge commenced one month ago today, February 28, and runs until April 15. The total amount up for grabs exceeds $100,000; second place gets $37,500; third place $15,000; and $5,000 goes to the remaining seven finalists.
A panel of game industry veterans, including Nolan Bushnell -- who not only founded Atari but also brought electronic table tennis to the mass market in the first place -- will judge the games. In addition to the cash prizes, any game (not just first prize) Atari sees fit to publish will reward the developers with revenue sharing, for up to three years according to The Unofficial Apple Weblog.
For many years, Atari has attempted to update "Pong" in various ways, but most have never caught on. When the initial "Pong" craze started to subside, a number of follow-ups were produced: "Super Pong," "Pong Doubles," "Quadrapong," and "Pin-Pong." Only its one-player variant, "Breakout," was received warmly by the public. But it plays so differently most are unaware it has a predecessor.
In 1999, Atari produced "Pong: The Next Level" to help reignite interest in the franchise, with power-ups and new gameplay modes added to the formula, but the reception was cold. Since then, the original formula has remained untouched. It appears regularly in compilations, alongside other titles from the game's easiest days.
One example is "Retro Atari Classics" for the original DS; the visuals were updated by a prominent street artist, as were all the other offerings, but the game played exactly the same as it did in 1972. That will be the real challenge for today's indie developers: to see if they can teach an old dog a new trick, while staying true to its original essence.
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.