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Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981


August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 8 of 20 Next
 

Another game of note from 1979 was Superman, the first home video game ever licensed from movie franchise. Ray Kassar moved quickly get a VCS programmer to help create a game based on the movie that was released in late 1978. Warren Robinett had been developing a game based on the mainframe text game Adventure since the middle of 1978.

"I was finishing my first video game on the Atari 2600 console. I got a chance, at a Stanford research lab, to play the original text adventure game, which was called Adventure. (Thank you, Don Woods and Willie Crowther.) I decided that this idea -- a journey through a network of rooms, with objects you could move from place to place, and obstacles and monsters to get past -- could work as a video game." lxx

- Warren Robinett

However, instead of an generic adventure game, Atari's new brass asked Robinett to re-write it as a tie-in for Superman: The Movie (released in Dec. 1978).

"Atari's parent company owned the first Superman movie which was about to come out [and decided] that I was to change Adventure into Superman so as to ride on the wave of hype. Every time this came up I said I would do it if I had to, but I didn't want to. After a few weeks, my co-worker John Dunn volunteered to take my code and do the Superman game, leaving me free to do the Adventure game." lxxi

- Warren Robinett

Robinett helped Dunn get started by loaning him the kernel code from his Adventure to use as the basis for the game. Dunn, as an artist at heart, pushed to use 4K of ROM (almost unheard of at the time) to make detailed graphics for the game. lxxii

Even so, the game was a sort of "forced march" that the VCS team had not experienced prior. Instead of being allowed to create their own games in six months, marketing was now dictating which games would be made, and which ones would be released. For Dunn, the process of making the game killed his enthusiasm for Atari.

"Before Warner acquired Atari from Nolan Bushnell, the VCS programmers had the freedom to design their own games from concept to finish. It was an intense, joyfully creative period that did not survive the takeover." lxxiii

- John Dunn

Superman was released in mid-1979, beating Adventure, which was released for Christmas that year. However, no matter which one was released first, Adventure became a huge hit. Sales may have been piqued by the inclusion of the very first known "Easter egg" in a video game.

Since Atari was not keen to credit any development staff for their games, Warren Robinett inserted his name into the game and created an elaborate method to access it -- including a nearly invisible dot and a secret room.

"Each 2600 game was designed entirely by one person. But on the package it said basically 'Adventure, by Atari.' And we were only getting salaries, no cut of the huge profits. It was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting. But to make it happen, I had to hide my signature in the code, in a really obscure place, and not tell anybody" lxxiv

- Warren Robinett

Soon after the release of Adventure, Warren Robinett left Atari, and soon after that, Atari management found out about the Easter egg.

"My model in creating the secret room was the secret messages hidden in Beatle records ('I buried Paul') in the late Sixties, where you had to play the record backwards to hear the message... Atari manufactured several hundred thousand Adventure cartridges, sent them to stores all over the world, and sure enough, some kids here and there did discover the secret room. lxxv

- Warren Robinett

At first they wanted it removed, but soon realized that the "hidden secrets" could sell more games. Adventure ultimately sold more than 1,000,000 copies. lxxvi

"Finding that dot and then the secret room was one my first memories of playing video games. I read about the Easter Egg in Atari Age magazine, and worked for hours and hours to finally get the process to work. Seeing that secret room for the first time was like magic."

- Anonymous Atari Fan

Even though Atari eventually embraced the idea of the Easter egg, management still did not understand the reason why it was actually placed in the game. The programming team was disgruntled and something had to be done about it.

"We all were very unhappy with the changes Warner was making. We felt (correctly, I think) they did not understand that game programmers were creative types, not engineering types, and needed to be treated accordingly." lxxvii

- John Dunn

The most visible manifestation of this programmer unrest came in the form of "The Fantastic Four", a group of the four of the most tenured and best VCS programmers: David Crane, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan, and Alan Miller. The four were seen as the most senior and most knowledgeable programmers on the VCS staff.

There was good reason why the four had received that nickname. Their combined effort had been responsible for the majority of Atari VCS cartridge sales by 1979.

"At that time, David, Bob, Larry, and I accounted for about two-thirds of Atari cart sales." lxxviii

- Alan Miller

Most of these programmers had been borrowed for half of 1978, and into 1979, to write the operating system for the Atari 8-bit computer line. However, as the most senior members of the VCS team, they felt the need to speak up for the rest of the programmers. The morale of the VCS staff was running low in mid-1979.

Pay was low, especially compared to other jobs in Silicon Valley. In addition, the game designers and programmers wanted some credit and some kind of share in the profits of the games they produced. Bushnell had treated the programmers like rock stars, and had provided and environment that let them flourish.

"As time went on it soon became clear that there were rock stars, there were people of extraordinary talent that deserved to make a whole bunch of money." lxxix

- Nolan Bushnell

The new Atari management did not value them quite as much. The "Fantastic Four" put their concerns and needs into written format and submitted them to Ray Kassar. Their requests were not outlandish, and were based on the record industry, a business Warner Communications was well-versed in.

"I researched the compensation aspects of the recording industry and the book industry, drafted a contract that would allow me to be credited for my work and receive a very modest royalty, and presented it to Atari management. After a while, I told my three closest associates at Atari -- David Crane, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan -- what I was doing. They joined me in those discussions. We developed a growing impression that Atari was going to agree to some plan along the lines we proposed." lxxx

- Alan Miller

However, Kassar's response was less than what they were hoping for.

"They wrote a letter to Ray Kassar saying 'give us a share, give us a fair share'... they wanted a cut a royalty program or something. Ray wrote back this letter that basically dismissed them entirely, including one phrase that specifically said 'you're nothing but a bunch of towel designers, you're a dime a dozen.'" lxxxi

- Rob Zdybel

One by one, the group of four left Atari to set out on their own path... only to join together soon after.

"I told the truth too often and left in August of 1979." lxxxii

- Larry Kaplan

This did not stir anyone in marketing, because they did not really understand much about the engineering group or what it took to make a VCS game. They truly thought the engineers were a dime-a-dozen. However, according to Bushnell, "Their value to the company was such that you could easily see they would have value to another company." lxxxiii

The four had a plan. They decided to raise investment capital to start their own company. On October 1, 1979, David Crane, Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, and Bob Whitehead joined with Jim Levy, and formed Activision. Their plan was to create games for the Atari VCS as a direct competitor to Atari. It was a bold move that changed the landscape of the home video game business forever.


Article Start Previous Page 8 of 20 Next

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