Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981
August 21, 2008 Page 17 of 20
Games and applications began streaming in immediately from outside sources as well. One of the best, Caverns of Mars, was created by Greg Christensen, a high school senior. He submitted it to A.P.X., and it sold remarkably well,
The game was a vertically scrolling, multi-level shooter that took the player deep into the surface of Mars, battling aliens until they reached the center of the planet. Much like Star Raiders, it set the tone for the abilities of the Atari 8-bit computers when it came to games and entertainment.
Christensen's game won a $3,000 prize from Atari, and his first royalty check was $18,000. He would go on to receive over $100,000 in royalties from the game. clxxxii In 1982, Atari converted it to its regular line-up of games for the computer line. Christensen went on to a healthy career making computer games, including two sequels to Caverns of Mars: Phobos and Caverns of Mars II.
As 1981 continued, more and more third party developers were learning how to program the Atari computers and releasing software. Where did they learn the technical information necessary to program a machine that was otherwise kept a total secret? From Atari insiders like Chris Crawford.
"Initially they had never quite defined what it was that had to be kept secret. I was the programmer at Atari who had come in from the outside world and had more contacts with outsiders. I'd be working on Atari software and the phone would ring and it was somebody in Indiana saying, 'Can I get any of the technical documents?' and I would go over to the main area and get a few of the technical documents, photocopy them and mail them off... there were enough loopholes that I was able to send out some documents and not get fired." clxxxiii
- Chris Crawford
Throughout the year, top-tier games began appearing for sale from some the biggest software companies of the era. In March, Automated Simulations (Epyx) released its first three games for the Atari 8-bit computers: The Datestones of Ryn, Rescue at Rigel and Invasion Orion. These were followed closely by ports of 10 Scott Adams text adventure games from Adventure International as well other games, such as an unlicensed Star Trek 3.5, that would net a $10,000 fine.
In May the shooter Threshold from Sierra On-Line was released, July saw the release of Chris Crawford's Tanktics through Avalon Hill, and August saw the release of another Sierra On-Line game, Jawbreaker (which resulted in a losing lawsuit from Atari, which thought it looked too much like Pac-Man, which they had just licensed for millions).
Later in the year, more software arrived, including Upper Reaches Of Apshai and Rescue At Rigel from Automated Simulations and the A.I. experiment Abuse by Randy Simon and Robert Freedman. Dozens of other games were popping up from boutique developers (such as A.N.A.L.O.G. magazine itself) and bedroom coders.
To further encourage new developers,The Atari Home Computer division created the Software Support Group, a new team that would help get developers for other platforms for work on software for the Atari 8-bit.
"Our job was to provide technical support to outside programmers. We had a whole package of goodies we provided for free. By the way, the main thing we did was this tour where I would travel around to cities all over the country. We would rent a hotel meeting room, and people could come-in to these seminars where we taught them all about how to program the Atari and I did almost all the work here. I had a real barnstorming style. My job was to wean people away from the Apple to the Atari. I was pushing that line really hard. Somebody in one of the magazines that had come to it said 'Crawford does a show like an old-time evangelist. You half-way expect him to start quoting the bible', and that is where the term 'software evangelist" arose." clxxxiv
- Chris Crawford
Finally near the end of 1981, the attitude towards third party software at the upper reaches of Atari took a complete 180. A group of Atari developers (including Chris Crawford) published a book named De Re Atari (through A.P.X) that laid out most of the technical details required to make software using all the bells and whistles the Atari 8-bit platform had to offer. Later, in 1982, the full set of technical documentation was finally made available.
"I was sending out some minor stuff and then one day it was sort of like 'the dam broke' and they had an official policy, 180 degree reversal, 'We want to tell everybody about this'. I immediately got on the phone and started calling a bunch of my contacts saying, 'Hey. would you like complete technical documentation on the Atari?' and we shipped a lot of those.".clxxxv
- Chris Crawford
Atari needed to get as much software as possible out for the machine, because the computer market they had entered was showing signs that it could become a battleground. Commodore, who already had its PET in the marketplace prior to the arrival of the 400 and 800 announced the VIC-20, a computer that was more powerful than the standard Atari 400, but priced much lower, at $299.
Atari came back in May by lowering the price of the 400 to $399 and doubling its standard memory from 8K to 16K. The plan appeared to work, as Atari computer sales skyrocketed throughout the year.
"They're still selling as fast as they can make them. What else can we say?"
- Robert Lock, Compute!, March 1981
Atari also worked in other ways to promote its computer line. In the second quarter, it launched its own magazine, named Atari Connection, which was aimed at the home computer user. Atari also secured celebrity endorsements for its software (i.e. novelist Robert Ludlum, who endorsed the Atari Writer word processor). These moves received kudos from the financial community as it looked like Atari was trying to break new ground.
"Atari Inc. is absolutely committed to the consumer business, and despite the fact that it is almost alone in believing that now is the time to do it, the Warner Communications Inc. subsidiary is betting its future on the home computer and ignoring today's high-flying markets."
- Business Week, June 15, 1981
Finally, Atari launched a TV ad blitz in the fall featuring Atari Book Keeper and Star Raiders on network TV. All of this led to strong sales by the end of the year.
"Atari's aggressive pricing moves, in the wake of Commodore's announcement of the VIC-20 last spring, seem to be bringing rewards. We hear that monthly sales now approach last year's annual sales figures. And the numbers are still growing."
- Robert Lock, Compute!, October 1981
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