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

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 14 of 20 Next

1980: Coin Ops

Atari's coin-op business at the start of 1980 was still dominated by Asteroids. At least two new versions of cabinet were created so that the game could fit into spaces that were not ready for a standard arcade cabinet. The sit-down "cocktail" version was released in April 1980 and sold nearly as many units itself as most other arcade games did in their normal runs (8,725 units manufactured and sold for $1746 each cxlvii).

As well, a new "cabaret" design was also released in May. This was a stand-up machine with a much smaller footprint that would allow owners of laundromats, convenience stores, and other establishments with less space to offer Asteroids to their customers.

The record-breaking success of Asteroids highlighted a feature of the game that was fast becoming an issue: the high-score list. While not the first game to allow it (that honor goes the Exidy's riff on Star Wars, Star Fire) Asteroids was the first very popular game to summon players to enter their initials for posterity.

This high-score list coupled with the addictive game play of Asteroids showed a downside in the first part 1980. As more and more players got better and better at the game, driving towards high and higher scores, arcade operators saw a drop in profits.

Players just got better and better at the game, exploiting flaws in the design. By April, the first 1,000,000 point Asteroids game was recorded at U.C. Berkeley by Paul Wollam. While Atari loved to promote these high scores, engineers were secretly working on a fix that would make the game more difficult. A mod-kit released in May of 1980 made the small saucer more intelligent, with a better fire-rate.

Aside from the 1979 carry-over of Asteroids, the first great new game of 1980 for Atari was Missile Command. Playing on the fears of the Generation-X kids who were filling the arcades at the time, the game simulated a nuclear warhead attack on six cities that had to be defended by the player. Designed by Dave Theurer and Rich Adam, some of the suggested early titles for the game were "World War III", "Armageddon", and "Edge Of Blight".

Upon release in April 1980, Missile Command was a great success. While certainly not the size of Asteroids, it was still a huge hit with almost 20,000 units sold. cxlviii

The game certainly caught the imagination of the Cold War generation, and may have even acted as a kind of release for subconscious worries about nuclear annihilation.

""Everybody I know who really got into the game had nightmares about nuclear war." cxlix

- Steve Calfee (Atari coin-op designer)

"There is a little bit of a spooky message in that whole game when you have that final cloud at the end." cl

- Ed Rotberg

Also released in April was Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo was another in Atari's long running series of single-person racing games. Designed and programmed by Norm Avellar and Dennis Koble, Monte Carlo featured top-down, scrolling driving action.

Not too long after, in September, Atari released another advanced war-based game, this time a revolutionary 3D, vector-based tank simulator named Battlezone. The game was championed by Morgan Hoff cli, designed by Ed Rotberg and utilized a math-coprocessor named "the math box" for 3D calculations, developed by Jed Margolin and Mike Albaugh. The erupting volcano in the background was created by Owen R. Rubin.

"It (was) actually developed in one of our company brainstorming sessions. We had recently developed the vector display technology, thanks to Howard Delman, and of course our first thoughts were to do a first-person 3D perspective game. I honestly don't remember who first proposed the tank format concept at those meetings." clii

- Ed Rotberg

Battlezone was another sizable hit for Atari (more than 15,000 units sold cliii), its third in less than a year. All of the sudden, the Atari the coin-op division had entered its golden age. It appeared as though it could do no wrong -- even, it seemed, to the U.S. Government. At the time, Atari was approached by the Army to help create a version of Battlezone to use for combat training.

"There was a group of consultants for the Army -- a bunch of retired generals and such -- that approached Atari with the idea that the technology for Battlezone could be used to make a training simulator for the then-new Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The idea was that such a simulator could be made into a game that would encourage the soldiers to use it. They would learn not only the basic operation of the IFV technology, but would also learn to distinguish between the friendly and enemy vehicle silhouettes." cliv

- Ed Rotberg

While information on the Army Battlezone project is freely available today, in the early '80s it existed as only the reflection of rumor passed around by magazine editors and kids on the playground.

Without any formal information, even more scurrilous rumors evolved pertaining to other Atari games and C.I.A. conspiracies.

"The rumor goes something like this: the Pentagon (or the CIA or the FBI) collaborated with Atari in the development of a realistic video war game. What they were after isn't clear, and the reasoning differs from rumor to rumor. Either the Pentagon wanted to subliminally train future personnel in the art of video. Or the Pentagon wanted to locate and recruit -- immediately -- those talented gamesters with the most impressive war-game skills. Whether they found what they were after -- or whether the story is even true -- is certainly top-secret information. The game was real enough, however, and was appropriately titled Missile Command."

-Matthew White, Joystik magazine, Sept. 1982

Today these conspiracies seem like little more than quaint fantasies, but in 1980s, the era of Reagan, the USSR, War Games and Red Dawn, they were dead serious. While it has never been proven that the U.S. Military was going to use these games for finding the most adept '80s teenage arcade denizens to man 21st century weaponry (that prospect was left to the aliens in both The Last Starfighter movie and in Robert Maxx's book Arcade... and America's Army) it has been substantiated that the Army did want to use early 80's video games to train its troops.

"The Army has noticed that the young people they work with like these types of games, so they've been asking themselves, 'Why can't we use this thing?'" clv

- Donald Osbourne, Atari coin-op sales VP

...and the brass wanted both Battlezone and Missile Command.

"An agreement is being drawn up whereby Atari will produce training prototypes for both the Army's M60A1 Tank and its Chaparral Missile Air Defense System."

- Nathan Cobb, Globe Staff, September 3, 1981

However, Atari's work on these types of military projects did not last very long. It turned out that some of the key engineers at Atari had chosen their profession in the game industry to avoid this type of government contractor work. It went against almost everything they believed in.

"I was vehemently opposed to Atari getting into this sort of business at all. Remember, the world was a very different place in 1981 than it is now. There was still a Soviet Union who was perceived to be our nation's biggest threat. My contention was that many of us engineers had the option to go to work for companies doing military contracting, and we consciously chose to work at a company that was not so involved." clvi

- Ed Rotberg

For the Atari coin-op designers, creating an alternate reality was much more important than simulating the real one. In fact, creating a hit game that took people out of the real world, at least for a short amount of time, was the ultimate satisfaction.

"The best feeling for a game designer is to go out into an arcade and see people having fun playing the game that they created. There is nothing better than that. To walk around and see all the other games, and know that people can choose from anything in there, but they are playing your game. That is pretty heavy stuff." clvii

- Ed Rotberg

1980: Year End

The Space Invaders game for the VCS, along with the success of Asteroids, Missile Command and Battlezone in the arcades, netted Atari Inc gross proceeds of $512.7 million for the year. Suddenly Atari was a major portion of Warner Communications' total annual income, and was deemed the "fastest growing company in the history of USA".

All told in 1980, Atari spent $2.1 million on TV advertising. Even though nearly all the products that made Atari a success in 1980 had been started under Nolan Bushnell, or were products of the teams he had put together, the events made Ray Kassar look like a hero to Wall Street. Predictably, Ray Kassar took full credit for Atari's good fortunes.

"When I came in the product was perceived as a fad, a Christmas item. What we did was try to convince the trade and the consumer it was an everyday product with a long life." clviii

- Ray Kassar

Article Start Previous Page 14 of 20 Next

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