[Following his article on Atari's genesis, game historian Fulton returns with an amazingly detailed piece on Atari's 'golden years', from Asteroids through Battlezone.]
Atari was founded in 1972, but its crowning accomplishments in console gaming and computers were the Atari Video Computer System (or 2600) and the Atari 400/800 line of personal computers.
This four-year period -- from 1977 to 1981 -- contains some of the most exciting developments the company ever saw in its history: the rise of the 2600, the development of some of the company's most enduringly popular games (Centipede, Asteroids) and the development and release of its first home computing platforms.
This comprehensive look back, filled with quotes from the original creators and other primary sources, offers a detailed peek into the company that popularized video gaming as the '70s turned into the '80s, and created the first viable market for home consoles.
For more detail, be sure to read Gamasutra's first Atari history article, which covers the period of 1971 to 1977 -- the latter date being the year that the Atari VCS was first released.
Innovate, Kind Of Like You Did Last
"One of the guys at Warner said... I
had made a proposal to make a really interesting set of games. I can remember
him not even blinking and looking at me and saying 'Nolan, why don't you
innovate kind of like you did last year, none of this new stuff?' He did not
understand what he said, he was so out of tune with what the nature of
innovation is, and I've been thinking I was going to get that put into
needle-point sometime." i
- Nolan Bushnell
Innovative leisure. It was a concept that Atari, under guidance of Nolan Bushnell, had
cultivated for its entire existence. The engineer entertainers of Atari either
invented or were driven to invent by competition, some of the most mind-blowing
gaming creations of the 20th century.
"These people were my friends
and co-workers and we were sort of united in this quest for cool stuff." ii
- Nolan Bushnell
up ideas is only one part of a successful business -- you also need to find
customers to buy them. The objective pursuit of engineering cool stuff is
almost entirely at odds with the subjective nature of marketing it.
"The marketing department had
never played a video game... marketing thought the programmers were lazy, the
programmers thought marketing was stupid... we didn't like them, they didn't
like us." iii
- Rob Fulop (Atari VCS game
was focused on coin-operated games, marketing was not as much of a factor. The
small audience that needed to know about its games (arcade operators and
distributors) could be reached fairly easily through publications like Replay
magazine and Coin Connection, mail-outs of advertising flyers, and trade
with the Atari VCS effort, the company was firmly working outside the confines
of its old business, and it required a more sophisticated marketing effort
than Atari could manage on its own. Warner Communications brought this
marketing focus to the table -- as well as the vast amount of money needed to
make Atari's ideas come to life.
"Warner put a lot of money into
the company, which certainly helped pay for marketing and manufacturing the
games and computers." iv
- Alan Miller
sudden oil and water mix of engineers and marketers at Atari almost
single-handedly created a computer age cliché that is now common place in many failed
technology companies: engineers and marketers can't coexist peacefully for very
"If there is anything engineers
despise, it is dumb marketers defining the impossible." v
- Nolan Bushnell
celebrating the successful launch of the VCS in 1978, Atari was lamenting missed
opportunities and mistakes that held sales back. While management scrambled to
find ways to save the consumer business, programmers struggled to come to grips
with the new technology, and R&D looked towards the future.
struggle of the marketing and engineering was set alight, and put on course to
explode within the company, taking many of the pioneers along with it.