Have You Played Atari Today?
Atari’s infamous entry in the programmable home video game system race begins in the latter part of 1975. The first prototype begins development this year by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner, of the Atari consulting firm Cyan Engineering. Cyan is part of the company’s far-out Grass Valley, CA think tank, located northeast of Sacramento. A further prototype of the programmable system is then created by Cyan employee Joe Decuir, with Jay Miner (who later designs the ground-breaking Amiga computer) further refining the hardware at Atari’s Los Gatos plant. When Decuir is developing software for the system, he is required to create a password for the time-sharing computer Atari is leasing time on to compile the code. Thinking of his trusty bicycle with the label of its French bike manufacturer Stella printed upon it, he uses that for the password. This is then co-opted by Miner as the name of the chip that is the centre of the system, and then used for the overall project name, and thus solidifies a long tradition of naming Atari systems with women’s names (never mind that it was really Joe Decuir’s bike). Miner would eventually rename the chip the TIA or Television Interface Adapter. It is responsible for generating on-screen graphics, sound effects, and handling joystick control inputs. Miner would also lead design on the chipset for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, as well as the groundbreaking Amiga computer sold by Commodore.
The finished casing holding all this hardware for Stella measures 23.5″ by 13.45″, constructed of plastic with a simulated wood grain panel on the front to help the machine fit in next to family TV console sets. Two banks of three silver toggle switches perch near the top of the device, controlling power, B&W or colour display, difficulty levels for each player, game select to navigate through the various modes offered by some games and a reset switch to restart an inserted game. Named the Video Computer System (VCS), it barely arrives in stores in time for the 1977 Christmas season. It comes with the pack-in cartridge Combat, designed by programmer Larry Kaplan, along with DeCuir and Larry Wagner. Under the initial design of the console, Combat had been planned to be integrated right into the ROMs of the machine as a built-in game. The included cartridge combines two early Atari arcade games, Tank by the Kee Games subsidiary, as well as Atari’s Jet Fighter, released to the arcades in 1975. A dedicated home version of Tank, the name of which vacillates between just Tank and Tank II, is also announced by Atari for release in 1977. The console comes with two joysticks, rounder variations of the controllers that will eventually ship with the VCS, with a single fire button and a flared tip. These sticks can be placed into two holders in the Tank II unit, allowing one player to control the left and right treads of the tank separately. In two-player mode, the sticks can be taken out for each player. Tank II is quietly canceled by Atari after the release of the VCS and its Combat game. With the VCS setup, there are two rheostat paddle controllers included as well, to facilitate comfortable play of the various PONG-type games to be sold for the console. Along with the included Combat, the library of nine launch titles to accompany the console is composed of: Air-Sea Battle, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Video Olympics, Blackjack, Surround, and Basic Math.
Mr. Bushnell, Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry?
Running a 1.19 MHz 8-bit MOS Technology 6507 microprocessor, the designers of the system initially figure that it would only be playing tank battle games and PONG–esque titles, so the allocated ROM memory for the programs is 2K. It is eventually decided to bump that to 4K, even though Combat itself is only 2K and there is little hope that any program would ever need as much as the allowed maximum. Upon release, nine cartridges are introduced along with the system. With an initial retail price of $249.95, there is very little markup on the machines due to the high price of the components, although the game carts cost very little to produce and sell for around $40 each. Sound is sent through the speakers of the television hooked up to the device, allowing users to hear the action as loud or as soft as they like.
For two years the VCS struggles to find a niche in the marketplace, and Atari profits drop precipitously, substantially dragging down parent company Warner Communication’s stock price. There are major production problems, including defective chips and cases, and the easy-going Zen attitude of Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell, who describes himself as “a bizarre manager”. This extends to throwing big “kegger” drinking parties for employees every Friday in the company parking lot, and even going so far as having an oak beer tap in his office. The Coors would flow freely everyday after work, during informal manager meetings where the gang would peruse the latest game prototypes. Bushnell’s antics at Atari starts to wear out his welcome even with Warner head Steve Ross, himself a chairman noted for having a laissez-faire management style. Things get a bit rough with sales numbers for the VCS, so much so that Bushnell dramatically stands up during an Atari/Warner board meeting and suggests that the console has its price slashed, in order to increase market share and enlarge the market for the games the company also sells. Dismayed by the direction the company has decided to take, and himself increasingly absent from Atari offices as he loses interest in running things the way they are, Bushnell steps down from formal duties as chairman in late 1978, with a multimillion-dollar package. When his successors are named in early 1979, with former Burlington textile executive Raymond Kassar as president and Joe Keenan as CEO, the company announces that Bushnell will “continue to serve Atari in the development of coin-operated games,” but that he also will “devote more time to his personal affairs, investments and other interests, including politics.” His ultimate exit package comes with strings attached. A 5-year “no-competition” clause is cited by Atari for a later lawsuit launched against Bushnell and Sente Technologies, a video game company he starts in early 1983. Atari and Bushnell eventually reach an agreement in the fall of that year, with his former company gaining the consumer rights to any arcade games released by Sente.
After Bushnell’s exit, the work atmosphere changes perceptively as new head Ray “The Czar” Kassar cracks down on the relaxed attitude towards dress and work hours that the ‘hippies’ at Atari had previously enjoyed. Following a $120 million infusion of cash from Warner, in 1978 Atari produces 800,000 VCS units. The console is selling; Atari moves over a million units between 1977-1979. Still, that’s only on the cusp of the kind of mass-market penetration Atari is looking for to be a real success. Indicating his allegiance to marketing over technical innovation, Kassar quickly halts funds for R&D and pours $6 million into an advertising campaign to help move VCS consoles off the shelves. As a whole, 1979 sees about 1-1.5 million U.S. homes with some kind of game console. These systems require games, so somewhere between 3-4 million cartridges are sold for them this year. The projected explosive growth of the VCS market also spawns an industry for third-party video games for the system, starting with Activision in 1979. Founded by disgruntled former Atari game programmers Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, David Crane and Larry Kaplan, their venture is quickly followed by others entering the lucrative market, including Imagic in 1981.
Atari’s attitude towards the authors of games for their company is that they should remain anonymous and that the games are identified as a corporate creation rather than the effort of individual employees. In a response to that, Warren Robinett hides his name within his VCS game Adventure, a graphical version of Will Crowther and Don Woods’ text adventure Colossal Cave, aka Adventure. This is widely recognized as the first hidden “Easter Egg” within a video game, although it does attract the ire of upper management.
Riding the Digital Wake
The VCS also becomes a cottage industry for third-party developers of hardware add-ons for the system. The SuperCharger is released by in August of 1982 by Arcadia Corporation and designed by former Atari engineer and home PONG co-creator Bob Brown, also serving as executive vice-president of the company. Another former Atari employee, Craig Nelson, is also involved in the venture. They are forced to change their company name to Starpath after threats of litigation from Emerson Electronics, maker of the Arcadia 2001 home game console. The SuperCharger, initially offered at $69.95 and eventually dropped to $49.95, is an outsized cartridge that plugs into the VCS and adds an extra 6K of RAM memory available to the system. It also boosts the graphics capability, allowing for hi-res output. A cable comes out the side of the SuperCharger and ends in a 1/4 inch audio jack, which users plug into the headphone jack of any regular cassette recorder. They can then play games sold by Starpath on audio cassette tape, with each priced at an attractive $14.95. Loading a game in via this procedure usually takes about 30 seconds, and a clean duplicate version of the game is offered on the other side of the cassette if something goes wrong with the original. Phaser Patrol is the tape packed in with the SuperCharger, a graphically advanced version of the popular game Star Raiders for Atari’s 400/800 computers, then ported later for the 2600. Others games are released for the system, such as Escape From the Mindmaster (working title: Labyrinth), Rabbit Transit (working title: Harebrain and Hopalong Catastrophe) and Communist Mutants From Space. The company is also actually able to produce an official version of the arcade classic Frogger for the 2600, in the face of another version released for that system by Parker Brothers. This is because Parker Brothers only has the cartridge rights for the game from Sega, opening the door for Starpath’s version on tape cassette.
12 games are eventually sold for the SuperCharger, including two sold via mail order after Starpath declares bankruptcy. The company is eventually merged with computer game maker Epyx. One prototype product never released by Starpath, called Sweat: The Decathlon Game, ends up as the basis for Epyx’s hugely popular sports extravaganza Summer Games.