Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981
August 21, 2008 Page 3 of 20
1978: The Languishing VCS
The VCS group started 1978 with a crew of about 12 programmers, many of them new hires -- including David Crane, Jim Huether and Warren Robinett. They all found the consumer division to be a rewarding place to work.
"We had a lot of fun, Warner had owned it for a while, but Nolan was still running it. He's an engineer, and he ran the company as an engineer would run it and that's why Warner bought it. But he would still isolate the engineering department. He'd say, 'You guys go over there and have a lot of fun. We'll come back and talk to you every once in a while.'" xv
- David Crane
"It was all sort of started by Nolan Bushnell who was the founder and he kind of instilled this family friendly feeling, parties every Friday... but you had to get your job done or otherwise you didn't hang around too long." xvi
- Jim Huether
"It was a cool job to have. For me, it was like dying and going to heaven." xvii
- Warren Robinett
The pressure in the consumer division to come up with new games and get them to market to support the platform created a department with a different face than the R&D heavy Coin-Op division. While it was still a casual environment, there was a cut-throat edge.
"People in the engineering group worked very hard. It's true that it was a casual environment and the kind of clothes you wore was not important in the engineering group. Results were what counted." xviii
- Alan Miller
"(It was) an environment with little discipline, but yet with clearly stated goals." xix
- Nolan Bushnell
VCS games took roughly 6 months to create from start to finish, with each programmer working mostly alone on their projects.
"When I started they just said, 'We want you to do a game in about six months... you have no set hours, we don't even want to see you until the game is almost done'... It was great." xx
- Jim Huether
Since the VCS was so difficult to program, only people truly dedicated to their projects were successful.
"I believe that Atari in the early days succeeded because the games were labors of love by the programmers who worked on them. At least that was the case with my games for me. In those old far-off days, each game for the 2600 was done entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics." xxi
- Warren Robinett
The dedication of the programming team started to show as the sheer number of releases for 1978 rolled out (eleven titles in all), even if the games themselves didn't set the world on fire.
Since most of Atari's original coin-ops were simulated in the VCS launch titles, the second wave of games suffered by comparison. While there were still a couple of notable coin-op translations, many games from second wave were based on traditional games, and not their coin-op brethren.
Space War, programmed by Ian Shepherd xxii and released in May, was a version of the original Computer Space coin-op. However, the button controls of the coin-op version did not prove to translate very well to the VCS.
"The game is uncontrollable. Joystick movement is sluggish and clumsy, and likely to drive an experienced player to irritation."
- The Book Of Atari Software, 1983
Hangman was also released in May. Programmed by Alan Miller, it was notable because it required more ROM to store data for the game than any previous cartridge.
"My game, Hangman, was the first 4K byte cart for the VCS, but the extra space in that cart was simply used to store additional words. Being the first one to use that part, I had to electronically qualify it with the ROM vendor, Synertec, to make sure it met the timing and current requirements of the VCS." xxiii
- Alan Miller
Home Run, released in June 1978, was one of the first home versions of baseball ever attempted. Programmed by Bob Whitehead and David Rolfe, it was a simplified version of the sport that, for nearly five years after its release, remained the only 1-player version of baseball available on any home video game system.
"Jamming a baseball program into 2K of memory forced the designers to prune away many of the elements of real sport. There are lots of factors that worry Earl Weaver that won't lose managers in Home Run a minute's sleep." xxiv
- Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel
Codebreaker, also released in June, was a version of classic game Mastermind plus the logic game Nim, Hunt & Score, released in June and programmed by Alan Miller, was another attempt at a traditional game brought to the VCS.
"The title of an Atari VCS game I programmed called Hunt & Score was also later marketed by Atari under the title A Game of Concentration. In the early days of the VCS, Atari frequently changed the cart titles for games marketed under the Sears Tele-Games brand. Hunt & Score was called Memory Match for Sears." xxv
- Alan Miller
Slot Racers, programmed by Warren Robinett, was released in July. On paper the game sounded exciting: "A pair of skillful drivers with the killer instinct drive up and down the streets of a city firing hood mounted cannons at each other." xxvi However, the execution left a lot to be desired. The cars resembled shoes, and the "city" was no more elaborate than the maze in the Tanks variation of Combat!, a game that all VCS owners already played for free.
"It would have never gotten published in any normal situation, but Atari needed product and published everything the programmers produced in 1978." xxvii
- Warren Robinett
Brain Games was released in August and programmed by Larry Kaplan. It contained 6 different thinking games, including the VCS conversion of the Touch Me coin-op. It was successful in execution, but its subject matter did not pose to set the world on fire. Polo was developed by Carol Shaw as a cross-promotion with Ralph Lauren (also owned by Warner Communications). It played like a two-player soccer game with horses. The game was finished, but never released.
However among the misses and near hits and unreleased gems of 1978 were several classic VCS games that showed the system had real promise. Outlaw, programmed by David Crane, was more like Midway's Gunfight! than Atari's own Outlaw coin-op game.
Flag Capture was programmed by Jim Huether and released in August. Different from nearly all other VCS titles, it was an engrossing strategy-style game. Your job was to find your flag before your opponent on a grid of squares. Each time you clicked on a square it would give you a clue as to where the flag might be.
"This was the first game I did for the 2600, so it was a big learning experience. It was difficult to do a game in 2K bytes of ROM, 128 bytes of RAM including the stack, and writing to the screen on the fly. I wanted to do something like Stratego, but realized I couldn't do it on a single screen. So I turned it into a capture the flag type of game. It took about six months to complete. The graphics were pretty bad, but the gameplay was very good." xxviii
- Jim Huether
Basketball, programmed by Alan Miller (himself a basketball player) and released in December was a bit of breakthrough with its pseudo-3D playfield and furious 2-player action, even if the ball was a square and animated players looked a bit silly.
However, there was one VCS game that stood out among the rest: Breakout. Released in November, just in time for Christmas, Breakout was a mostly true-to-form translation of Atari's hot coin-op from 1976. Brad Stewart won the right to program the game by beating fellow programmer Ian Shepherd at the coin-op version of the game in the Atari break room. xxix
"Another programmer, Ian Shepherd, became available at the same time. Since Breakout was one of the titles we were going to do, and since there was a coin-op Breakout game in the coffee room, Ian and I decided to play for the coding rights. I can't remember which of us went first, but I managed to knock down both walls of bricks with one ball, then leave the game in "lock up" mode where the ball continues to bounce off the same place on a motionless paddle and retrace the same path over and over. Ian missed when it was his turn to play, so the coding rights went to me." xxx
- Brad Stewart
Ray Kassar's aggressive marketing plan for the VCS showed its fruit in Q4 1978, when Atari's first slogan-filled commercials ("Don't Watch It, Play It") arrived on TV screens across America.
Not only could people see Atari VCS games in their homes, but could see actual celebrities such as Don Knotts, Pete Rose, and Kareem Abdul Jabaar shilling for VCS games (Breakout!, Home Run, and Basketball respectively). In total, Kassar spent $5,000,000 on advertising in 1978. xxxi
Kassar also insisted on creating a QA program to help calm nervous retailers' concerns about defective returns, and used his extensive experience in manufacturing to ramp up VCS inventory for Christmas 1978.
However, it was not just Kassar that helped make the push to get VCS units manufactured for Christmas. Nolan Bushnell pulled out all the stops with his employees to get the products manufactured and shipped. Bushnell rounded up managers, supervisors, and other corporate, salaried employees to help fulfill all orders. Most worked four to eight hour shifts beyond their own work day. xxxii
The other good news for Atari was that Nolan Bushnell's strategy to tie-up the n-channel semiconductor manufacturers with Atari work to stave off competition was holding. No major for the competitor for the VCS arose in 1978, and Atari sailed into the Christmas season with 800,000 units ready for sale.
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