Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981
August 21, 2008 Page 7 of 20
1979: The Kassar Reign Begins
1979 started as the first full year that Atari did not have Nolan Bushnell at the helm. New president and CEO Ray Kassar moved very quickly to shake things up around the company. One of the first things Kassar did was cancel many engineering projects that he felt unnecessary.
Unfortunately for Atari, this included the "tied-up" N-Channel projects Bushnell had used to stave off VCS competition. This opened the door for a multitude of competitors that would soon challenge Atari for dominance in the home video game arena, including Bally and Mattel.
"Since there were only six labs in the world that could do N-Channel, you created a virtual monopoly with a series of contracts. It was so simple. Ray Kassar was not a technologist, so he had no clue about what was going on" lxi
- Nolan Bushnell
At the same time, Kassar made several moves to break the hold engineering had on Atari. Aside from cancelling Friday parties, instituting dress codes and core working hours, installing security doors, and hiring a former Secret Service agent to head security for the company, lxii Kassar cut Bob Brown's 30-person R&D staff completely, leaving Atari with a huge gap for developing new products.
"In fact, when Al (Alcorn) told me what had happened I didn't understand what he was saying -- I couldn't conceive of Atari cutting off its future by chopping off its R&D work. It will always be my opinion that being engineering-oriented was what made Atari successful." lxiii
- Bob Brown
Kassar's view was simple: Why did Atari need R&D if the company could not sell the VCS units already stocked in warehouses? It was a logical question, but also one that showed Kassar had little respect for Atari as a creative or pioneering company.
The executive's dire view of Atari's entertainer engineers showed in the contemptuous things he called them in private and to the press. Kassar used terms like "spoiled brats", and "prima donnas" to describe a group that had once been Atari's most valued resource.
To make up for the lost focus on engineering and R&D, Kassar hired a slew of marketing MBAs and increased advertising spending to levels Atari had never seen. The new crop of Atari executives knew nothing of games, and in fact hardly played them.
"Ray Kassar wouldn't be caught dead in an arcade." lxiv
- Howard Delman
Kassar quickly shifted Atari's focus from dreaming up new ideas to selling the ones the company already had. Bushnell had created Atari as company where creativity and innovation could flourish.
"It became this almost passionate religious quest, and the more religious fervor, the better and more interesting the games turned out to be." lxv
- Nolan Bushnell
On the other hand, Warner and Kassar were designing a company that could market the existing product line at the expense of everything else.
"They kind of ripped the core out of what created Atari's brilliance and excellence." lxvi
- Nolan Bushnell
1979: Atari VCS
As 1978 ended and as 1979 began, things were looking-up for the VCS's line-up of games. Night Driver (Larry Kaplan, Rob Fulop) and Adventure (Warren Robinett) were coming along nicely. Those titles were shown at the January CES and were very well received.
At the same time, it looked like Bushnell's push in 1978 to augment the VCS programming team to produce for as many games as possible had paid off, at least in numbers. Many new titles were released in 1979, even while some of the core VCS programmers like Kaplan, Crane, Miller, and Whitehead were busy preparing the OS for the home computer division.
Still though, the quality of the games was an issue. Besides the exceptional Bowling, Canyon Bomber and Sky Diver cartridges, there was nothing earth-shattering in the line-up: Casino, BASIC Programming, Backgammon, Football, Human Cannonball, Miniature Golf, and Slot Machine.
" (Sky Diver) also took about six months as I recall, and I started it before I even knew there was a Sky Diver coin-op game...This was the best selling 2600 game until Space Invaders came out." lxvii
- Jim Huether
Video Chess was created when a consumer from Florida sued Atari because there was a chess piece pictured on the system's box, but no game was available. The VCS programmers did not think a chess game would be possible on the VCS, but with some alternating scan-line tricks they got it to work.
"I do remember discussions in the lab of how 'stupid' it was to assume we can do a chess game and how 'impossible' it was to do. And that's all I needed... you see the word 'impossible', it seems, has always been one of my 'igniters' -- it gets the puzzle solver in me going." lxviii
- Bob Whitehead
Also, Warren Robinett finished the rather bizarre entry into the VCS line-up, BASIC Programming, in June 1979.
"The higher-ups at Atari wanted a cartridge that would allow the user to learn simple programming, and I had been vocal in expressing my interest in doing a programming language before management came up with this. I was the only 2600 programmer who had studied computer science." lxix
- Warren Robinett
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