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[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with 2600-era Atari exec Ray Kassar.]
A reluctant recruit from the textiles industry, Ray Kassar took charge of Atari in the late 1970s and led it to its height. But while he turned the scrappy but pioneering game firm into one of the world's largest companies and got millions to buy VCS 2600s, his legacy is tempered by Atari's spectacular collapse, the infamous E.T. disaster, and his description of Atari game designers as "high-strung prima donnas".
In this interview, Kassar explains why his reputation as an enemy of game designers is underserved and why Atari needed him.
You had been working in the textiles industry prior to Atari, so how did you end up being offered the Atari job, and what was your reaction to the offer?
Ray Kassar: The Atari job was offered to me from a recommendation of a friend who was working at Warner Communications. My reaction was that I had no interest at all in what he was offering.
If you weren't really interested, why did you accept it?
RK: My friend insisted that I meet with Manny Gerard, who was one of the presidents of Warner. And, after four hours of talk, I said I would only take it under certain conditions. They agreed to all my conditions. I said I'd only go for a couple of weeks.
What was your opinion of video games at the time? Had you played them before?
RK: I really didn't have any opinion about video games. I had not played video games before.
Manny told me you were hired to try and bring some much-needed management discipline to Atari. How in need of proper management was the company at the time you joined?
RK: The company had no infrastructure. There was no chief financial officer; there was no manufacturing person, no human resources. There was nothing. The company was totally dysfunctional.
Did you know it was that bad when you agreed to go in?
RK: No. I had no idea.
Must have been a bit of a shock, then...
RK: That's to say the least. To give you an example, when I arrived there on the first day, I was dressed in a business suit and a tie and I met Nolan Bushnell. He had a T-shirt on. The T-shirt said: "I love to fuck." That was my introduction to Atari.
One of the legends about Atari is that Nolan Bushnell offered you a cannabis joint at a management meeting shortly after you joined the company. What was your reaction to that, and how did you deal with the wider culture of drug use at Atari?
RK: Yes, this is true. I told Bushnell that I was busy. I got up and left the meeting... It was unbelievable. Dealing with the drug problem was an ongoing challenge. You know, we did the best we could, but it was a tough problem: we had 12,000 people at one point.
Do you think it was a problem particular to Atari?
RK: No, no. It was California: everybody smoked pot. It was not an endemic problem, it didn't -- in my opinion -- affect anybody's work. But it was a bit of a problem and every company had that problem.
How was the 2600 console performing at the time when you joined Atari in February 1978? From what I can tell its success was far from guaranteed at the time.
RK: The 2600 was selling but not in any great volume. The problem was quality, which was terrible. The return rate was excessively high.
The quality of the machines, or the games, or something else?
RK: It was the hardware.
For Christmas 1978 you decided Atari should throw everything it had at making the 2600 a success. How much of a "do-or-die" situation was that Christmas for Atari?
RK: The key decision we made was to advertise the product and, with strong follow-up by the sales reps, it wasn't a do-or-die situation. And I had the full support of Warner on this.
Nolan felt Atari should give up on the 2600 and said so at a Warner board meeting just before Christmas 1978. Why did you feel he was wrong?
RK: I had a strong belief in the product, and I just focused on fixing all the problems.
Nolan left Atari very soon after that meeting in what seemed a fairly mutual parting of ways. Why did he need to go?
RK: I couldn't have accomplished what I did with Nolan in the picture. Atari couldn't have two bosses. Well, two people can't run a company. I mean, one person has to have the final responsibility. Nolan would say one thing and I would say another thing. How do you resolve that? Either they're going to have faith in him or me. You have to have either him or me.
Why did you stay? You said you only came for a couple of weeks originally.
RK: I came out there very reluctantly. I mean, I live in New York, I love New York; I had no interest in living in California.
So was it a relief to have Nolan out of the way?