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Interviews With the Greats: Eustev Pawloski

Eustev Pawloski, the star of Pong, was a seminal figure in video game history. I was granted an interview with the enigmatic and reclusive figure, who talked at length about emigrating to America, the earliest games, and the personalities involved who launched the multi-billion dollar industry we take for granted today. Pawloski is opinionated and not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

I called on Pawloski at his home in Palo Alto, CA.

 

The legend at work

 

Joe Fathead: Mr. Pawloski, it's a privilege to meet you. I know how guarded you are about your privacy, so I really appreciate you making the time for this interview.

Eustev Pawloski: That's alright.

JF: Now, you're originally from Poland...

EP: That's correct.

JF: How did you come to America?

EP: Well, Poland took a long time to adjust to the Industrial Revolution. They lagged behind Western Europe for quite a few years. My father was a circuit breaker in a burlesque theater, and my mother was a stage lighting fixture.

JF: Is that where they met?

EP: Yes. My father had seen my mother during a performance shortly after she had been brought in. He always said she made the brightest light on the stage. One night, there was a lightning strike, and my father cut off the power just in time and saved the whole row of stage lights. That was his chance to introduce himself, and she fell for him right off. They got married, and when they were expecting me, they decided that a seedy burlesque theater - as much as they loved it - was no place to raise a kid. Of course everyone knew that America was the land of opportunity, so they packed up and made their way to England, where they stowed away in a steam-liner's fuse box on its way to the U.S. When they got here, they headed for Times Square. For an electrical device, Times Square was the place to be. They had to start at the bottom, but they knew there would be a better chance for me here than in Poland.

JF: What was your early life in the States like?

EP: Well, there was quite a bit of tension between me and my parents. I became enamored of movie theaters, while my folks were a little more old fashioned. My dad thought I should take a job in a nice, reliable marquee, but I had stars in my eyes. I heard more than once about the sacrifices they made to get me here, and that I should respect that and abide by their wishes. But I was having none of it. I left. Broke my mother's diode.

JF: What did you do?

EP: Well, I had heard of this company called Atari, which was experimenting with making electronic games. As I had no other leads, I was off to California. Pretty ballsy move, but I was young and stupid. I marched my sorry butt right into their headquarters and asked for a job. There was this guy named Allan Alcorn who was a whiz at that stuff. He was working on a secret project that Nolan Bushnell gave him, that he frankly swiped from a company called Magnavox. It was supposed to be a training exercise, but Alcorn couldn't understand the layouts Bushnell gave him. So he scrapped them, and made them better. It was a tennis game, and Alcorn was looking for someone to play the part of the ball. Being a little white square myself, it was a perfect fit. He hired me on the spot, and the rest is history.

 

Gaming simplicity: Two dials and a quarter slot

 

JF: How was it working for Atari?

EP: Pretty good. Nolan and Al were cool, and Pong was a smash hit beyond what anyone thought possible. I was a star overnight. But that led to some problems.

JF: What kind of problems?

Here Pawloski paused. He sat back, lit a cigarette, and took a couple puffs before he answered.

EP: You have to remember the culture at the time.The 60s had recently ended, and there was a serious national hangover. The Beatles just broke up, and Yoko Ono was in the headlines for some God-forsaken reason. People were moving from optimism to big time disappointment, and there were drugs everywhere. I was in bars every night, and I had quarters coming out of my a**. Of course something was gonna happen. After Pong was introduced to people's homes, I became richer than someone with my level of maturity could possibly handle. The game went from tennis to hockey, four paddles, all that. But it was still about me. They were nothing without me. I began partying, and got into booze, cocaine, and loose electrons. It got ugly for a while. Friggin' cliche.

JF: How did you get out?

EP: I crashed, man. Just crashed. Atari released the 2600 console, and just like that I was yesterday's news. I should have saved money, had a damned investment adviser or something, but I thought it would last forever. Most of what I earned either went up my nose, down my throat, or to the sharks. You find out pretty damn quick who your real friends are when you got no money left, and it turns out I had none. I was forced to detox because I couldn't buy nothing. Saved my life, though.

JF: You seem to be doing well, now. This is a very nice home.

EP: Speaking tours. The nostalgia circuit works pretty well - just ask the Rolling Stones. I'll never be rich like I was, but that suits me fine, 'cause I don't want it again. But it turns out people still want to hear about how it all got started. Ain't no Call of Duty without me. And that whole multiplayer thing? You're looking at it, kid.

JF: Would you do it again?

EP: Knowing what I know now? I'd say yes, except I keep thinking about my mother. I don't know, man. I don't know.

 

Pawloski had much more to say. The full interview sees him talk about Steve Jobs (doesn't like him), Electronic Arts (doesn't like it), and Game Informer Magazine (can take it or leave it). He also documents his reactions to Breakout, the proliferation of "Super" games, and his relationships with the stars of Space Invaders and Centipede. Look for it in the August issues of Playboy and Better Homes and Gardens magazines.

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