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

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 20 Next
 

1978

As 1978 started, Atari was having trouble on several fronts. While the VCS had sold well during Christmas 1977 (upwards of 350,000 - 400,000 units), sales were stunted because of production problems that had the VCS units delivered late to retailers, resulting in a $25 million dollar loss for the period. vi

Atari was also hobbled with warehouses filled with unsold dedicated Pong units, the stagnation of the coin-op business, and an increasing divide between Warner brass and existing Atari management.

Even so, Bushnell was positive that, with the VCS, Atari had a winner on its hands. It just needed to find enough talent to make games for the system.

"I see us as having built a record player and now it's up to our creative people to decide how many records there will be." vii

- Nolan Bushnell

In his mind, if he could make it work, the sky would be the limit for Atari's game system. The profit potential for a system like the VCS was one of Bushnell's crowning achievements for Atari.

"The thought of taking something that cost $3 and selling it for $20, or selling it for $40, I take great pride in that as a concept." viii

- Nolan Bushnell

At the same time, Bushnell found himself butting heads with Warner's executive VP, Manny Gerard. Bushnell and Joe Keenan disappeared from Atari for some time after the VCS was released, but popped back in at times to give their opinions on the business. This frustrated Gerard.

"You can't disappear and walk in six months later and say 'let's do this.'" ix

- Manny Gerard

Also, Gerard was positive that Atari was spending far too much effort on engineering and R&D and not enough time trying to sell and market its products.

"They had no sales, no advertising, no marketing, nothing but R&D." x

- Manny Gerard

"We had a very powerful engineering team working on a lot of projects -- a lot more than Manny thought we should have." xi

- Nolan Bushnell

In February 1978, Manny Gerard encouraged Bushnell to find some help marketing Atari's products. When Bushnell was slow to respond, Gerard suggested Harvard educated Ray Kassar, an ex-marketing VP from Burlington textiles. Kassar was exactly the button-down, straight-laced businessman that Bushnell was not. Kassar began as a consultant, with his directive from Warner to find out if Atari should be dumped altogether. What he found was not encouraging.

"It was a disaster." xii

- Ray Kassar

However, Kassar was impressed with one thing at Atari: the VCS xiii. Instead of recommending liquidation to Warner, he set out to develop an integrated marketing plan that would save Atari.

At the same time, Bushnell and president Joe Keenan found themselves struggling to hold on to the company that they had created. Instead of leading Atari in new directions that would build the business even further, Bushnell was constantly clashing with Manny Gerard and Ray Kassar over the future of Atari's products and especially R&D.

"Where we became unglued was when Manny started killing the research projects. I saw that as building a very fragile company." xiv

- Nolan Bushnell


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Comments


Clay Cowgill
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Mr. Fulton-- you officially owe me about an hour and a half of my workday!



Thanks for the great article, although I must say that I find the claim that the VIC-20 was more powerful than an Atari 400 a bit tough to swallow... ;-)



-Clay

Steve Fulton
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Clay,



Thanks. That probably should read "arguably more powerful" or "perceived as more powerful". In retrospect, it wasn't.



-Steve

Bruce Atkinson
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The Vic-20 had a real keyboard and similar processor. It didn't have the memory, graphics chips, or operating system that the 400 and 800 had. The Atari OS was much better than most people give it credit it for. It was general purpose with loadable device drivers, before most other home computers had that.

John Abbe
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I couldn't stop myself from reading this through either. And i'm so glad i did, because i'm pretty sure i played that game Nightmare that GCC made for Atari, at 1001 Plays in Cambridge - it was a *great* game, which i tried to find again for years. Too bad they never released it, i've e-mailed GCC to see if i can contact any of the developers to see if they have ROMs for MAME. I also updated their Wikipedia page, and referenced this article.

Thomas Djafari
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Great article!

Having worked at Time Warner, back in the SF Rush / Rise of the Robots era, I totally recognize the pattern that has also poisoned most large developers :)

Jason Cumming
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Enjoyed the article immensely.

Sorry to be a pingeek but I think there's a misplaced comma: Superman the pinball, more like 3500-5000 units sold according to the ipdb. 10 K sales from the late 70's on was blockbuster.

Mark Delfs
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This is another fantastic article--it felt as though I was there (We used our neighbor's 2600 because my parents wouldn't buy us one!) for the whole thing based on what you are reliving. Excellent, and please keep them coming!

Simon Carless
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We've fixed the misplaced comma on Superman pinball sales, thanks Jason.

shayne johnson
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Atari was not the first console to have Baseball



http://img409.imageshack.us/img409/7749/fairchildchannelfcartrihz
0.jpg



Channel F's Videocart 12 was baseball, released in 1977.

Steve Fulton
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Shayne,



Good catch, but I believe it says that it was the first "single player" baseball game. I believe the Fairchild game (which I played many times at my friend's house BTW...but my favorite game was Alien Invasion) required two-players. I was trying to highlight the A.I. of the VCS game.



-Steve

Tomasz Primke
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Hello,



We'd like to translate a decent articles "The History of Atari: 1971-1977" (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2000/the_history_of_atari_1
9711977.php?page=1) and "Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981" (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3766/atari_the_golden_years
__a_.php) into Polish language and publish it on a popular portal jakilinux.org (and/or osnews.pl). Do you mind us doing so? Obviously proper attribution would be paid to you as the author.



Please let us know what you think about such re-publication. (My e-mail address is tprimke_at_gmail_dot_com.)



Best regards,



Tomek

dz jay
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Your information regarding the Intellivision is not accurate. The Intellivision was not powered by a 10-bit processor, but by an early 16-bit processor. It did, however, performed 10-bit memory addressing, but this was due to the fact that the ROM chips it used were 10-bit. This happens to be purely an accident of history: a 16-bit microprocessor designed in an 8-bit and 10-bit world.



Moreover, it is very unlikely that the Atari 3200 was to be based on the same chipset as the Intellivision. The Intellivision was mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the Atari 2600 from Mattel, and therefore consisted of an pre-built, off-the-shelf game system created by chip maker General Instruments. In fact, it was an actual sku item on their 1978 parts catalog. It was later customized a little, mainly to allow for more ROM and custom graphic tiles, but it was generally an off-the-shelf product.



Therefore it seems unlikely that Atari would plan to replace their aging custom-designed Atari 2600 with an off-the-shelf product, whose technology, although having some more capabilities, was just as old.



-dZ.

Steve Fulton
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DZ,



Thanks for that!

I'd say that from your description, the Intellivision processor could have still been one of the chips that Bushnell had tied-up in development, especially if GI was one of the companies he used. Remember, the idea that the Intellivision was based on one of those processors did not come from myself, but from a direct quote that Bushnell gave to me in an interview. Still, it's a very gray area and this why that part of the story is painted as "not definite".



-Steve

dz jay
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Mr. Fulton,

Thanks for your response. You are right, the GI microprocessor could still have been the planned successor to the Atari 2600. However, I still think it unlikely due its many limitations (weird architecture, 10-bit memory addressing, etc.).



My point was that the only reason Mattel used it was not because it was considerably better, but because they needed a quick release, and chose the General Instrument's pre-built system in haste in order to jump into the new Video Game market.



The entire Intellivision console was indeed superior, with better graphics resolution and 3-channel DSP'ed sound (although the graphics were tile-based instead of pixel-based, limiting its practicality; not to mention the ill-conceived Disc Controller!), but its microprocessor and chip technology were the products of early 1970s technology, hardly state-of-the-art; and unlikely the first choice for a successor.



But, of course, we can't ever know, and I do concede it's possible.



I do agree that competition from Mattel could have been avoided if only Atari had adhered to Bushnell's strategy.



All in all, a very interesting and satisfying article; one that brought back wonderful memories. Please keep up with the thoughtful historical accounts of our wonderful technological roots.



Thank you,

-dZ.



P.S. Why, yes, I did (and currently) own a Mattel Intellivision, thank you.

dz jay
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P.P.S. My intention in the last comment was not to refute your assertions; I find your article very well written and accurate, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just wanted to enrich your historical account with further information from one of the little remembered competitors of the time.



Perhaps Gamasutra can showcase the Mattel Intellivision on a future article and fulfill my well of nostalgia, as it has already done with the Atari VCS, the Commodore 64, and Video Game arcades in general.



-dZ.

Mason Mccuskey
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Steve - great article, I especially like all the quotes. Thank you for going into detail, and including quotes from so many insiders.

Steve Fulton
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DZ,



No problem! Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree, the Intellivision story needs to be told. I'd love to try to tackle it someday, especially since it all went down near my home town (they used to frequent the local arcade here while making games), Keith Robinson from the Blue Sky Rangers draws a cartoon for the local paper, and Intellivision Productions is in the same office building as my favorite Sunday breakfast coffee shop)...plus, I currently work for Mattel.



mason,



I'm happy you noticed. The quotes, to me, are the most important part.

Ryan Ponce
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Although my first system was the Coleco Telstar Arcade. (Google it) Which had a drag racing game. Shoot the moving man on the screen and Pong. On one triangle shaped cart.



It was Atari that really changed my life. Starting with COMBAT. My brother and I played that till the wee morning hours and although it was simplistic. I never had so much fun in my life. That would be followed by Space Invaders. Asteroids, Adventure, which was the first game that gave me the sense I could explore a world in a game. I liked the Sword Quest series as well.



Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.



Atari is my childhood. I love Nintendo as well, but I'm not the Nintendo generation. I'm the Atari generation. Atari forever!

Thomas Djafari
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I can provide you more information about the Intellivision; I did a little bit of work with Keith Robinson and his office is pretty close to my place, so I can go talk to him again.

We re-developed 2-3 years ago Intellivision cartridges as Keith acquired the rights to unreleased games and wanted to release them for the retro crowd.

The carts are not simple ROMs, but use a time multiplexed bus for address and data, and the Intellivision hardware is definitely odd...

We've also re-developed a 2600 clone, for a product that hasn't been released (distributor problem), so I can answer a lot of questions about the 2600 hardware and some of its history if you want to do a followup.

you can contact me at: my first name that you can see on this post @ retrogamesllc.com

Steve Fulton
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>>Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the

>>box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home

>>and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into

>>your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.



Ryan,



That is exactly what I can't shake Atari from my mind. Somehow i want to recreate those moments, but it is very difficult these days.



-Steve

A D
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I have to know, is it possible to begin another era of amazing gaming with a similar gaming box? Are these "xbox" and ps/3 - whatever-s REALLY that good? I, too, cant shake Atari. The late 70s and early 80's were golden years for me with that stuff. I had a bedtime, back then, but in front of that Atari 800 I was developing games. Amazing.

Scott Stilphen
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Nice article, although one error I noticed is Lookahead was by Dave Johnson (not Bob Johnson).

Scott Stilphen
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Another error - VCS bank-switching was originally created for Video Chess, not BASIC Programming. Video Chess ultimately never used it (neither did BASIC Programming); the first game to take advantage of it was Asteroids.


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