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The History of Atari: 1971-1977

November 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 16 of 20 Next

1977 Atari Pinball Division

Even though Atari had been making coin-op video games for 3 years, the industry itself was at a crossroads in 1975. The average video game was only making about $43 a week, which was far less than a pool table could make in the same period, and much less than the first Pong machines made.xcviii Amusement operators were getting nervous, and Atari decided to try its hand at an age-old staple of the arcade: the pinball machine.

“I got in because I felt there was a market for a novelty pinball. There was a lot of innovation that pinball needed and in those days in the coin-op world you really wanted to be a full-service supplier. There were places that just wanted pinball, period. We knew that we had such a large market-share of video, so we felt that it would make sense to do pinball.”xcix - Nolan Bushnell

However, Atari did not want to just make typical pinball machines. In 1975 Atari created its Pinball Division with the hope of using the type of innovation it put into their video games for new and different types of pinball machines. Atari needed to do this, because the margins on standard pinball games were very low. If Atari was going to get into pinball, it would have to price their games higher than the competition, and to do this, it needed to offer something different.

“So we had about $100 cost differential and the pinball machines in those days were kind of commodity priced. I felt we could make a business, but we could not do a commodity pinball, one that looked like it was the same size, so we created these wide bodies and these various other innovations which allowed us to price them anywhere we wanted to” c - Nolan Bushnell

After merging with Kee in ’75, Gil Williams (who had “left” Atari with Steve Bristow to help form Kee in the first place) was put in charge of the new Pinball Division. The first decision was to make the games “solid state”. This meant that they would use electronics instead of the electromechanical parts of standard pinball machines. This meant they would be cheaper to maintain, and offer video-game like features such as digital sound effects. Starting with five employees, Williams set out to create the best solid-state pinball games ever produced.

“You need steel balls to play Atari pins.”ci - Gil Williams

Atari’s first solid-state pinball game, The Atarians, was finished and test-marketed in late 1976, after nearly 2 years in development. Besides a solid-state design -- like all Atari pinball games, The Atarians utilized a Motorola 6800 processor -- it included a wide-body with a much larger playfield than standard pinball machines, and ball sensors under the playfield instead of switches.cii

The Atarians introduces a new generation of advanced coin operated amusement products. Two years of research, planning and development and an extensive field-test program has verified strong player acceptance of the game.” - The Atarians marketing flyer

The game was released in February 1977 to early success. Early tests of The Atarians showed that the game drew players who usually did not play pinball games. The Atari name was now known by the arcade-going public, and they were eager to what Atari had to offer in the pinball arena. In December 1977, Replay magazine cited Atari’s entry into the pinball arena as “clear proof that pinball is the industry’s number one favorite."ciii

Two more pinball machines were released in 1977 -- Time 2000 in September, and Airborne Avenger in October. Airborne Avenger had a playfield designed by Steve Ritchie, who would go on to design the legendary Black Knight for Williams, and was programmed by Eugene Jarvis (creator of the Defender and Stargate video games for Williams).

1977: Chuck E. Cheese

One of the more interesting ideas spawned by the engineer entertainers of Bushnell’s Atari was The Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater. The idea was spawned in about 1974 when Atari was having trouble getting games placed in the limited arcade space of the day. In an attempt to appeal to families, Atari came up with the idea of a pizza restaurant with animatronic animals, and as large an arcade as they could build. While families waited for their pizza, they could play Atari’s video games. The concept took a very long time to establish into an actual business. It was not until May 16th, 1977 that the first Pizza Time Theater made its debut in San Jose.

“The grand opening on May 16th was a great success. Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, together with many other prominent people from the community and the press, came to welcome Chuck E. Cheese and the Pizza Time Theatre to San Jose. This new concept in family entertainment is another amusement innovation from Atari.” - Coin Connection, June 1977

The restaurant was filled with animatronic figures developed originally at the Grass Valley Think Tank. Besides Chuck E Cheese, they created Crusty the Cat, Jasper T. Jowels the singing dog, Pasqually the Italian chef, and a team of three singing magpies known as the Warblettes.

The brass at Warner Communications looked the other way over Chuck E. Cheese because it kept Bushnell busy as they went about discovering all the ins and out of the new company they had acquired.

“They sort of tolerated it but they figured it was going to be something that would go away. They didn’t understand it.” civ - Nolan Bushnell

Article Start Previous Page 16 of 20 Next

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