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[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.
"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
However, dreaming 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 developer)
When Atari 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 shows.
However, 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
However, the 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 long.
"If there is anything engineers despise, it is dumb marketers defining the impossible." v
- Nolan Bushnell
Instead of 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.
The eternal 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.