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The History of Atari: 1971-1977

November 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 12 of 20 Next

1976: Coin-Op Business

Coming off the success of home Pong, Atari did not rest on its coin-op laurels. It started the year releasing more games based on TTL discreet logic. The first came in February with Stunt Cycle.

“Now the people who brought motor sports racing to a video track brings your customers a fantastic motorcycle jump and stunt attraction.” - Stunt Cycle marketing flyer

The action in Stunt Cycle was influenced by the then reigning king of motorcycle jumping and crushed pelvic bones, Evel Knievel. Much like Shark Jaws though, inspiration was enough -- no license was acquired. The cabinet included realistic motorcycle handlebars, and a handle-grip throttle.

Stunt Cycle
was followed by Quiz Show and Indy 400 (a cheaper, smaller 4-player version of Indy 800) in April, and the racer LeMans in July. However, it was the March release of Outlaw that was more significant... for the wrong reasons.

Inspired by the success of Midway’s Gun Fight from 1975 (the first game to use a microprocessor), Outlaw was a discreet logic TTL game, and the technology was showing its age. The difference between the sharp graphics from Gun Fight, and the blocky designs of Outlaw were unmistakable. And while the two-player action in Gun Fight was thrilling, Outlaw’s simple quick-draw seemed ancient by comparison. Atari’s game looked behind the times, and they needed to act fast. Atari engineering was already working on games that used 8-bit microprocessors, but before any were released, the last and greatest TTL discreet logic game would take the arcade by storm.

“Nolan Bushnell wanted a game that was like a single player Pong with bricks that you would hit and the ball would go behind them”lxxii - Steve Wozniak


Atari’s Breakout coin-op was released in May of 1976, and it was an instant classic. Designed by Nolan Bushnell, the game was engineered by Steve Wozniak in a 4-day challenge to see how few TTL chips could be used to create a fully functioning game. Wozniak’s forte was designing systems with as few chips as possible. His friend, Steve Jobs, had been working as a technician at Atari for a few years, and asked Wozniak to see if he could design a game with as few parts as possible. There was incentive, in the form of bonuses for Jobs -- who shared part of it, but not all, with Wozniak -- but also incentive on Atari’s part to move away from cumbersome designs that used hundreds of TTL chips.

"The reason Atari wanted me to design it is they were tired of their games taking 150, 200 chips, and they knew I designed things with very few chips, so we had incentives for getting it under 50 or under 40 chips."lxxiii
- Steve Wozniak

The final design used 46 TTL chips, and was so intricately created that it had to be sent to Grass Valley to be re-engineered for manufacture.

“The design was so minimized that normal mere mortals couldn't figure it out.”lxxiv - Al Alcorn

Breakout generated sales of over 11,000 units priced at $1095 each.lxxv However, it did more than just that. It made people want to go back to the arcade. The game was also a worldwide success. Atari sold the Japanese rights to their old partner, Namco. Since supplies were so low, Atari could not get enough units to Namco, so the company made their own knock-off (everyone else was doing the same) and it helped make them a huge player in the Japanese game industry.lxxvi

Even though Breakout was a huge success, and showed how few TTL chips could be used to create a great game, the days of discreet logic design were nearly over. 8-bit microprocessors had come down in price to the point where they were a feasible alternative, and could provide much more power with a standardized architecture. The first two chips Atari engineers used were the MOS 6502 and the Motorola 6800. Plus, there were things that you could do with microprocessor that were nearly impossible with a TTL logic design. A.I. , for example, was so difficult to recreate with discreet logic, that Atari’s games had continued to increase the amount of human players they could support to compensate, and in turn increased the games' size and cost, while decreasing the ability for an amusement operator to buy them or find space to display them.

Developing a microprocessor-based game was much different than designing one with only TTL chips. Most of the early microprocessor-based gamed were hybrids of TTL and microprocessor, and it made the job that much harder. Owen R. Rubin was one of a new breed of coin-op designers hired around 1976 to help move Atari into the microprocessor age. His first game, the unreleased Cannonball, was one of Atari’s initial forays into microprocessor based games.

“The hardware was rather simple. You have a number of 'motion objects' which could be placed anywhere on the screen. Early version simply took graphics from a PROM and the programmer simply set a value in a register to select which picture. There were missile graphics, 2x2 or 1x1 objects to use as bullets. The playfield was a "stamp" based graphics made up of 8x8 or 16x16 graphic stamps that were also pulled from a PROM.”lxxvii
- Owen R. Rubin

The power of microprocessor-based hardware could be seen almost immediately. Cops ‘N Robbers, released in July, was essentially a modernized version of Gun Fight. Two very detailed cars were controlled by the players as they attempted to shoot each other across a roadway.

“New programming and electronic design give the players more action, movement, and larger, more animated figures” - Cops ‘N Robbers marketing flyer

Fly Ball, a two player baseball style game (more “over the line” than baseball actually) featured animated players of a kind Atari had never produced up to that point. Sprint 2, released in November, was a major update on the Gran Trak-style game. It included multiple tracks, on-screen text, and for the first time, A.I. cars to compete against the player.

“A solo driver sprints against the clock in a white car, but he is not alone. He competes against a black car and two grey cars that drive automatically.”-
Sprint 2 marketing flyer

Arcade operators saw $200 - $300 a week from the machine.

“Sprint 2 is earning extremely well... we feel it will surpass many of the other video games” - Ray Galante of Music Vend Seattle in Coin Connection Feb. 1977

Sprint 2
went on to became a huge hit, selling more than 8200 unitslxxviii, and spawning multiple sequels.

Also a success was an update of Tank! for 8 players named appropriately enough, Tank 8. However, it was the October release of Night Driver that really showed the power of the microprocessor. One of the very first games viewed from a first-person, 3D perspective, the game was designed by Dave Shepperd. It featured a winding road at “night” (you could only see white dots that represented the side of road) that needed to be traversed by the player.

“I have fond memories of spending time watching the white lines in the street and fence posts whiz by my car as I drove to and from work, trying to work out in my mind's eye what kind of math I can use to make little squares on a TV kind of do the same thing.”lxxix
- Dave Shepperd

The game was a sizable hit for Atari, and it proved that advanced technology could not only improve video games, but could open up new styles of play that were once nearly thought to be impossible to produce.

Article Start Previous Page 12 of 20 Next

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