Have You Played Atari Today?
Atari’s infamous entry in the programmable home video game system race begins in 1975. The first Stella prototype is developed 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 Stella chip at Atari’s Los Gatos plant. The finished casing measures 23.5″ by 13.45″, constructed of plastic with a simulated woodgrain 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 vascilates 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.
Pushing Bushnell Out
Running a 1.19 MHz 8-bit Motorola 6507 microprocessor, the VCS retails for $249.95. Initially, the designers of the system 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 no game at the time uses more than 1K and there is little hope that any program would ever need as much as 4K. Upon release, nine cartridges are introduced along with the system. While there is very little mark-up on the machines due to the high price of the components, the 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”, 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 so bad for the VCS that Bushnell dramatically stands up during an Atari/Warner budget meeting and suggests that the console have its price slashed and be discontinued by the company. It remains in Atari’s catalog, but under pressure from above, it is Bushnell who exits the company in 1978, with a multimillion dollar package, but 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 VCS 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. Belying 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.
By 1980, there are 36 cartridges available for the VCS, including a simplified version of soccer featuring three players a side, plus goalies. After signing Brazilian football superstar Pele in 1980 to a five-year contract as spokesman, Atari quickly changes the name of the game from Soccer to Pele’s Soccer, resulting in one of the earliest celebrity athlete video game endorsements. But the company is about to make a move that will truly blow the lid off the home videogame industry. In 1980 Atari becomes the first home videogame company to license an arcade game. It is Warner executive Manny Gerard who realizes the enormous home potential for arcade hit Space Invaders, originally made by Japanese game maker Taito and then licensed for North American release by Midway. He persuades Kassar to enter into an agreement with Taito for exclusive non-coin-operated, personal computer and handheld electronic game licences for Space Invaders, and the home video game version becomes the killer app for the VCS; people rush out and buy the system just to play the game. There are 112 different variations on gameplay available, including invisible aliens, moving bunkers and simultaneous two-player action. Selling over a million cartridges in its first year, the arcade adaptation rakes in over $100 million for Atari, as well as moving tonnes of VCS’s to people who want to play the game. Game designer Rick Maurer, however, only earns his $11, 000 salary that year, and eventually moves to the Atari arcade division and their more favourable bonus program. Atari’s attitude towards its game creators 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.
Over the next two years, the Atari VCS completely dominates the home videogame market, its only rival of any significance being Mattel’s Intellivision unit. Profits for the company jump from $6 million in 1979 to $145 million in 1981, on sales of over $1 billion. Bucking industry convention, the idea of keeping toy promotion only to the end-of-year Holiday season is thrown out the window ; Atari begins pushing the VCS and all of its games throughout the year, including a $75 million ad campaign through 1982. The company also spends $334,000 for a commercial spot during Super Bowl XVI. Combined with $25 million in co-operative ad dollars spent by Atari dealers, Atari figures this makes them the biggest spender in advertising for a single brand in America. This year also sees Atari provide full sponsorship of a prime-time science education series of TV specials produced by two alumni from the PBS series Nova, Graham Chedd and John Angier. Titled Discover: The World of Science, it is produced in association with science magazine Discover, and airs on around 75 stations across the U.S, covering more than 80% of American homes. Hosting duties for the show are carried out by Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane: The Movie fame. Atari co-produces some episodes at a cost of $1 million each which promote computer use and literacy, a nice bit of synergy with the company’s 8-bit home computer line. After the video game market evaporates in 1983-1984, the science series finds a home at PBS.
The VCS monopolizes family use of the television set to such an extent that TV pundits start referring to the “Big Four” networks: CBS, ABC, NBC and Atari. Over the course of its production run, over 200 games are produced for the VCS/2600 by 40 manufacturers. Approximately 120 million cartridges are sold, and there are 55 different compatible videogame systems eventually released world-wide. Atari, the company that had shrunk Warner Communication’s market share during the early days of the VCS is now responsible for half of the mother corporation’s profits, with revenues for Warner in 1981 alone amounting to $1.23 billion.
Trouble In the Ranks
After the VCS has launched, Atari director of consumer engineering Kerry Crosson has a discussion with president Joe Keenan and newly installed CEO Ray Kassar. The idea is to provide an incentive bonus plan for his department, responsible for creating console hardware and designing games for it. It is agreed that a pool of profits will be set aside for bonuses; 50 cents for every system that sells, and 10 cents for every cartridge. When spring rolls around the next year, with VCS units having moved off the shelf during launch and games to go with them, Crosson inquires as to the state of the bonus pool. He gets a point-blank “What bonus plan?” from upper management, and is told that any agreement for one must have been a case of misunderstanding by Crosson and his department. Thus, Crosson must go back to consumer engineering and inform the department that no bonuses are forthcoming. This announcement causes a massive revolt in the department, forcing consumer engineering VP John Ellis to offer incentive deals under the table to those whom management deems key personnel. Atari game designer David Crane sees his salary rise from $18,000 to $25,000 during this period, but the broken promise from management over the evaporating bonus pool leaves a bad taste in his mouth. Then, one day in 1979, Crane finds himself intently analysing a list of numbers on piece of paper. It is a memo from the marketing department, a part of Atari that has flourished with the ouster of engineer Bushnell and the instalment of salesman Kassar. The list, circulated throughout consumer engineering, ranks game sales figures for 1978, with each game as a percentage of overall sales for the company. It is Marketing’s not so subtle advice to the programmers: make more games like those at the top of the list, and less of those at the bottom. It also has an unintended effect on Crane and fellow game creators Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead… they learn that the four of them are responsible for all of the top-selling games, 60 percent of cartridge sales for the year. With the knowledge that Atari made 100 million in sales that year, you don’t need a degree in computer mathematics to know that the four of them, each pulling in a salary of $25,000 – $30,000, have accounted for $60 million in sales for Atari. Armed with this evidence, the four meet with Kassar to request more financial compensation for their efforts. The CEO is unmoved, suggesting that making games is a team effort and their contribution on par with the assembly workers on the line who fit together the cartridges. Soon after this exchange, the group get in touch with an attorney about incorporating their own business, making software for game consoles. Kaplan leaves Atari soon after the meeting with Kassar, with Crane, Miller and Whitehead not far behind. The Gang of Four has left the building.
Via their attorney, the group is put in contact with former music industry executive James H. Levy. Armed with a business plan that predicts explosive growth in the video game and home computer markets over the next several years, on October 1, 1979 the four game designers and Levy form the first third-party manufacturer of videogame software, with Levy running the company. As president, Levy comes up with the company name Activision, invoking the idea of ‘Active Television’, as well as the rainbow logo and a unified packaging design. Also on board is venture capitalist Richard Muchmore providing funds. With around $700,000 in venture capital, the Mountain View, CA upstart starts releasing product. Dragster, Crane’s adaptation of the 1977 Atari/Kee coin-op Drag Race, is the first game independently released for the VCS, in mid-1980. It’s followed closely by Checkers, Boxing and Fishing Derby. Atari launches the obligatory lawsuit over the company, to the tune of $20 million, which ostensibly concerns patent rights and non-disclosure agreements the former Atari employees had signed, but is really about Atari losing its ability to monopolize its share of a market that would have 3.5 million installed systems in the U.S. overall by Christmas. In December the two companies settle, with Activision paying Atari for a “technology license” to produce games for the VCS. By 1981 Activision posts sales of $65 million in software, placing it second only to Atari.
52 games in total are released by Activision between 1980 and 1988, with the designers’ identities prominently featured in all packaging. Not afraid to land some attention with publicity stunts, to promote Stephen Cartwright’s Barnstorming at the 1982 Winter CES the company taxis a bi-plane through the streets of Las Vegas to the convention centre, press in tow. Anything to stand out in a rapidly crowding market, where 15 million consoles have been sold, accompanied by 65 million cartridges. To increase its stable of programming stars, Activision adds a new Eastern Design Center in New Jersey, swelling the company’s design ranks with the likes Dan Kitchen, who is joined there later by his brother Garry, coming over from the Quaker Oats-owned U.S. Games. At his former company, Garry had created probably their most popular game, the shooter Space Jockey. John Van Ryzin also joins the Eastern Activision team. Another addition to the Activision crew is Carol Shaw, a former Atari programmer who had made early VCS games Checkers and 3D Tic Tac Toe for the company. At her new digs, she creates the hit River Raid, as well as Happy Trails for the Intellivision. Also on board is Stephen Cartwright, with yet another Kitchen brother, Steve, joining the company in 1983. With their names and faces featured on game boxes and manuals, these game creators become so famous they’re stopped in the streets for autographs by game aficionados, and collectively receive around 12,000 fan letters a week. On Dec. 18, 1981, Jim Levy cuts the ribbon on a new, 92,500 square-foot factory in Milpitas, CA., and Activision sees its production capacity increased by 1000%. By March of 1982 the facility has shipped more than 1 million cartridges.
Some well-known Activision releases: Stephen Cartwright’s Barnstorming, Megamania (1982), Hacker (C-64 1985) and Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers (Atari ST 1987) David Crane’s Freeway (1981), Laser Blast (1981), Grand Prix (1982), Decathlon (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984) Larry Kaplan’s Kaboom! (1981) Garry Kitchen’s Keystone Kapers (1983) Steve Kitchen’s Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space (1983) Alan Miller’s Tennis (1981), Starmaster (1982), Enduro (1983) and Robot Tank (1983), John Van Ryzin’s H.E.R.O. (1983) Carol Shaw’s River Raid (1982) Bob Whitehead’s Stampede (1981) and Chopper Command (1982). Activision promotes its games heavily, including lavish theatrical ads run in movie houses in 1982 for Starmaster and Chopper Command.
Pitfall! is David Crane’s sixth game for Activision. A tour-de-force run-and-jump game released in September of 1982, it features on-screen Indiana Jones wannabe Pitfall Harry running through 255 similar-looking screens of jungle and underground, in search of the Treasure of Enarc (read that last word backwards). The game goes on to become the best-selling third-party videogame cartridge of all time, selling well over a million copies and holding the #1 spot on Billboard’s videogame sales chart for an astounding 64 weeks. The game is also ported over all the major console systems, as well as computer platforms. Pitfall! is followed by Pitfall II: Lost Caverns in 1984, and Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure for PC, NES, Sega Genesis and several other systems of the era in 1994. A Playstation make-over Pitfall 3D: Beyond The Jungle appears in 1998. Pitfall Harry even surfaces in the arcade in Pitfall II: Lost Caverns by Sega in 1985. Of course, there is a translation of the game made for Apple’s lucrative iOS market, simply called Pitfall!, by developers The Blast Furnace. Pitfall Harry also graces the small screen as the star in the Pitfall! segment of the Ruby Spears-produced 1983 animated series Saturday Supercade, which runs for two years on CBS. Harry and Pitfall!, however, are dropped for the second year of the show. David Crane is credited with having sold more than six million copies of his original games by 1984.
Activision itself has its best year financially ending in March 1983, with income peaking at $157 million. The company has five video game titles with sales over a million units each. The next month, Activision goes public, selling four million shares at $12 per share. Unfortunately, the ensuing three months are kind neither to Activision nor the video game industry in general, resulting in an announced loss of $6-10 million, before tax, by the company. Following this announcement, company stock price is halved to $6 a share, and subsequently drops to under $2 a share. The obligatory class action lawsuits are then filed by disgruntled investors.
Imagic Enters the Fray
Inspired by the great success Activision is enjoying in its early years, Los Gatos-based Imagic becomes the second third-party software manufacturer. Former Atari vice president of marketing Bill Grubb forms the company under a $2 million business plan, founded on July 17 1981. He is joined by Dennis Koble, who in 1976 was one of the first programmers hired by Atari. Also part of the founding team is ex-Mattel Electronics alums Jim Goldberger and Brian Dougherty. Dougherty asks Pat Ransil, a classmate of his from U.C. Berkeley, to come along for the ride. Imagic Corporation’s staff is initially made up of 10 employees, consisting mostly of former Atari and Mattel crew. The list of programmers include Rob Fulop, who at the tender age of 21 had been hired by Atari in 1979. While toiling in obscurity at the company, in 1980 Fulop created a VCS version of the 1978 arcade hit Night Driver. He also pumped out a version of Space Invaders for Atari’s 400/800 computers the same year. Next came his masterful adaptation of Missile Command to the VCS in 1981, into which he also hid his initials as an easter egg for astute gamers to find. That same year he leaves Atari to join Imagic, and there Fulop designs Demon Attack over a five month period. It debuts at the 1982 Winter CES in Las Vegas as one of the three initial cartridge offerings from the company, along with Star Raiders knock-off Star Voyager and pool game Trick Shot. Demon Attack becomes the best-selling Imagic cartridge, moving over one million units and ported to numerous video game and computer platforms. It also plucks the 1983 Videogame of the Year award from the pack, awarded in the pages of Electronic Games magazine.
Out of the “gamestorming” sessions held to create new game ideas, Fulop also creates hit Cosmic Ark for Imagic, along with the idea of linking the game with Koble’s Atlantis; when the player loses at the end of Atlantis they’ll notice a ship taking off amid the destruction. This is the Ark from Cosmic Ark, charged with collecting species from new planets to help the Atlanteans repopulate. Fulup also populates the Imagic catalog with the lesser-known Fathom and a very rare Rubik’s Cube game called Cubicolor. Also on board at Imagic is VCS Video Pinball creator Bob Smith, who’s output for the company includes Riddle of the Sphinx and Dragonfire. The company expands to a staff of 250, with sales of over 125 million dollars. Not one to be outdone by “the other” third party game maker, Imagic moves into an ambitious 123,000 sq. ft. office and manufacturing plant in 1982. Part of their plan from the beginning, Imagic expands their roster of games from just the Atari 2600, to include cartridges for the Intellivision and the Odyssey² as well as Atari’s 8-bit computer line.
Activision survives the crash by pivoting to the booming home computer market, starting by converting and expanding Carol Shaw’s River Raid and Larry Kaplan’s Kaboom! for the 400/800 Atari home computers in October of 1983. Co-founders Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead leave in 1984, eventually forming their own development/publishing house Accolade. Their first product is a home-run: popular computer baseball game Hardball!, released in 1985. Their old team Activision misses at bat in fiscal year 1987, losing $14.6 million. The company changes its name to Mediagenic in 1988, hoping to ride the multimedia wave opened up by the emergence of disc-based storage media, while still retaining the Activision label for its video game products. It also signifies a branching out to business productivity software. At the helm is president and CEO Bruce Davis, and the company release the first ever PC entertainment CD-ROM, The Manhole, for the Apple Macintosh. Originally a B&W point and click adventure game for the Mac classic, the program is designed by Robyn and Rand Miller of game company Cyan. They would later create waves by making the phenomenally successful game Myst for computers. Tallying up losses upwards of $60 million, Mediagenic eventually sinks in 1991, and the company is resurrected later that year with the name returning to Activision, and Bobby Kotick running the company.
The Imagic’s Over
As for Imagic, they don’t quite make as successful a transition, a result of over-reaching, underperforming and just plain bad timing. Looking to raise capital to maintain their ambitious game release schedule, in late 1982 the company files with the SEC to make a public offering of stock in the company. The problem is that during the review period for the IPO, Warner Communications makes its fateful announcement that Atari has underperformed in the fourth quarter of the year. This sends a shock wave through the markets and Warner shares plummeting. This has such a detrimental effect on Imagic’s financial footing that the IPO filing has to be pulled. In the wake of high-profile game failures such as E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, buyers and distributers begin demanding that video game companies like Imagic buy back unsold inventory. The company capitulates in order to keep preferred positioning on store shelves, but must burn up $12 million worth of their privately held stock to pay for it all. An announcement in the later part of 1983 indicates their intent of adding home computer software to their library of games. Another announcement in October, however, reveals that Imagic has laid off most of its staff. The intention of the company is to drop the manufacturing and distribution part of their business and become a video game design house only. In the end, after having producing 25 or so games for various home consoles, Imagic folds up shop in 1986, another victim of the big crash.
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 Arcadia 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, costing $44.95, 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, and then later for the 2600. Others games, such as Escape From the Mindmaster and Communist Mutants From Space, are released for the system by Starpath. The company is eventually bought out by computer game maker Epyx.
In the Key of Atari
A few companies also try to make good on the “computer” part of the name Video Computer System, developing prototype computer add-ons with keyboards and storage devices. In 1983, Atari announces an under-$90 attachment that fits easily into the 2600 cartridge slot, offering users a 56-key, chiclet-style keyboard and 8K of RAM, expandable to 32K with add-on modules. Inside the add-on is the vaunted 6502 microprocessor, also seen in Atari’s 8-bit computer line. The system will output a 192×160 graphics resolution, and a text screen format of 32 columns by 24 rows. It also has two sound generators.
Initially called My First Computer, built into the system is the Microsoft BASIC programming language, combined with specialized graphic and sound statements from Atari BASIC. There is also a connection for any regular cassette tape recorder to allow data storage. The unit can also accept standard 2600 game cartridges through a slot on its side, as well as a planned new library of around 20 new cartridges at launch, featuring entertainment and educational programs. some enhanced to take advantage of the keyboard. In addition, the expansion module will also be able to accept Atari’s planned storage system utilizing high-speed, 1/16 ” wafer-tape cassettes holding 128K of data. Eventually renamed The Graduate, other peripherals are announced for the keyboard, such as a 40-column thermal printer, as well as a modem. The whole shebang is promised by Atari for September of 1983, but ultimately postponed indefinitely by the company after the introduction of their XL computer line. At $150, the 600XL is priced only slightly higher than the projected cost of the Graduate.
The planned Entex Piggyback Colour Computer add-on stands out by sporting 70 keys that travel when pressed like a real computer keyboard. In spite of the name, the unit sits in front of the VCS as opposed to neatly on top of it. The keyboard contains nine function keys, as well as four cursor keys to control movement. The computer add-on contains a Z80A CPU, along with 8K of ROM to hold the internal instruction set. Only a meagre 3K of RAM is available for the Piggyback out of the gate, although an expansion module is offered for boosting the Piggyback to a respectable 18K of RAM, as well as an access port to allow a cassette tape for program storage. Other keyboard attachments for the 2600 are announced, such as Unitronics’ Expander (16K RAM), but only Spectravideo’s membrane keyboard Compumate (2K RAM), with its included music composition and Magic Easel drawing programs, makes it past the prototype stage and onto store shelves in 1983, only to disappear along with the videogame market by the end of the year.
Reach Out and Play Someone
One of the more interesting and far-reaching of the third-party manufacturers is Control Video Corporation (CVC), with a service called Gameline. The company is created by online information technology visionary William F. Von Meister, who had founded the first commercial online service The Source in June of 1979. He was eventually forced out of ownership of The Source that year by financial supporter Jack Taub in a power struggle, although receiving a million dollar payout for his trouble. In 1980, a controlling interest in the online service itself is eventually sold to Reader’s Digest for $3 million.
What would eventually become Gameline had originally been developed for Home Music Store, which had hoped to offer song selections to cable services via satellite. Audio music channels later become standard offerings on Cable TV, but at the time music retailers balked at the idea of this kind of distribution, and lobbied the music industry to refuse participation in such a scheme. Von Meister and company then head back to the drawing board and turn to video games as a venue for their technology. Gameline offers downloadable games for the VCS over conventional phone lines through a modem which operates from between 900 – 1200 baud, in order to compensate for varying connection quality. This versatile yet inexpensive-to-make modem was the key to a viable dial-in video game service, and a large part of CVC’s $2 million R&D budget is devoted to building it, developed by vice president of engineering Ray Heinrich, as well as Hartsville, AL-based consultants Seven Systems. The games are stored on the 8K memory bank inside a special, $49.95 cartridge called the Master Module, which connects to the phone line. After dialing into the system via a toll-free number, the phone line is typically tied-up for about a minute while retrieving a choice from the rotating roster of 30 games to be offered each month. Customers get a free subscription to Gameliner magazine, where currently available games are listed. There is a one-time hook-up fee for the service of $15, with a $10-$12 annual fee coming into play in the second year of membership. Charges are approximately $1 for up to an hour of play, and the system offers on-screen instructions for the chosen game, as well as a library of instructions for other games on the system. Parents can also set a weekly or daily limit, to prevent kids from overindulging. GameLine is the first stage of a planned comprehensive online BBS type of system for the VCS including MailLine, offering text messages pecked off an onscreen keyboard with a joystick at 15 cents per 8,000 characters, sports news and scores via SportsLine, and home banking and financial management through StockLine. The two-way nature of the data connection also allows large, nation-wide video game tournaments. High scores are recorded by the system if the customer pays an additional 50 cents, and tournament prizes such as college scholarships, sports-cars cars and $100,000 in gold bullion are promised for the winners of the system’s World Video Game Championship. Downloading of games also comes to the Intellivision via PlayCable, and Coleco also announces a partnership with AT&T to deliver games over the phone lines to the ColecoVision. Also touted is The Games Network, where players would rent a special box from their cable providers with a $20 deposit. With this equipment, an initial catalog of 20 games from various manufacturers would be available to gamers.
Gameline launches wide by mid-1983, but licensing disagreements with most of the big cartridge makers such as Atari, Mattel and Coleco prevents many of the biggest 2600 hits from appearing on the system. At launch, Imagic is the sole major manufacturer of games available on the system. In a repeat of what had happened at The Source, CVC president Von Meister again is relieved of his duties, but not before he brings Marc Seriff and Steve Case into the company. The Gameline system is shut down in early 1985. Renamed Quantum Computer Services, the company develops a telecommunications network package dedicated to the Commodore C64/128 computers, based on tech licensed from an already existing online entity called PlayNET. QuantumLink is set for launch on October 1, 1985, and the system is operated jointly with Commodore International. Offering connectivity for a flat fee of $9.95 a month, a registration charge of $25 is put into place at the beginning of 1986. A disk drive is needed to load the system software, and if you already have a modem for your 64/128, you get a month of free service. If you need a modem, you are provided one free if you sign up for a four month term. User are also billed six-cents a minute for “Plus” features such as online chat, email, head-to-head games like Chess and Hangman, and the ability to download demo programs and public-domain software. You do get an hour of “Plus” time free every month, however. Operating hours for the service are 6pm to 7am on weekdays, and 24 hours a day through the weekend. Users, or Q-Linkers as they’re called, can use up to five different accounts; great for parents, who can set time limited profiles for their kids. Or perhaps for those who want to juggle a few different online personalities. Q-Link eventually adds support for Apple and IBM PC computers as well, under the AppleLink and PC Link banners. In 1989, QuantumLink morphs into another little online service…America Online. Von Meister does not share in the billion dollar success of AOL, and succumbs to cancer in 1995 at the age of 53.
End of the Line
Atari itself milks the system for all it’s worth, trying to stave off the obvious obsolescence of the VCS by redesigning the same basic technology into smaller or more gimmicky versions, as well as sundry peripherals to “improve” gameplay. One such attempt is the CX-2700 Remote Control VCS, sporting wireless hand units with a radio connection to the game console, allowing gamers to control the onscreen action as well as pause or reset games without getting off the couch. The controllers also feature a combination joystick and paddle configuration, along with heat sensitive, finger-touch fire buttons. The 2700 is unveiled at the 1981 Winter CES, and then quietly shelved by Atari. Voice recognition for the 2600 is also dabbled with, via a device called the Voice Controller, manufactured for Atari by Milton Bradley. Surfacing at the Summer CES in 1983, the module plugs into the controller port of the 2600, with a headset attached to it. With this headset players will then be able to speak commands in supported games such as RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berzerk. Sporting a proposed retail price of $100, the system only supports one player; the other must use a regular joystick in the other port, and hopefully will refrain from shouting false commands and screwing his more technically advanced “friend”. Perhaps because of this fatal flaw in human gamesmanship, the Voice Controller does not make it to store shelves in October as planned. Even a system to play games by mind-control is prototyped, but never released. In 1982 the original VCS is remodelled, and given the new official name the Atari 2600 Video Computer System. The new title is based on the console’s model number and done to put the console’s name in line with the new 5200 console, released that year. This name is popularly just condensed down to the 2600. The pack-in cartridge becomes Pac-Man, an arcade license that the company figures will send the 2600 back into the top-sellers list. With Pac-Man in the title, the game sells over 10 million copies, but it is apparent Pac-Man is a rush job and critics declare it a creative disaster. It takes the development of Coleco’s graphically advanced ColecoVision to prompt Atari to offer more advanced technology with their 5200 Supersystem machine, although even this new unit is only a repurposing of Atari’s 8-bit computer line in console form. In early 1984, Atari releases 12 original and licensed games for competing computer and video game systems, under the Atarisoft label. The games include Centipede, Defender, Dig-Dug, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Robotron, Stargate, Picnic Paranoia, Protector, Shamus, Super Storm and Galaxian. They are released for systems such as the Apple II and IIe, IBM PC, C64, VIC-20, TI 99/4A, ColecoVision and Intellivision.
After the surprise announcement on Friday, January 13, 1984 that Jack Tramiel is stepping down as the President and CEO of Commodore, he and a group of investors buy the ailing consumer division of Atari for $240 million, taking the reins of the newly renamed Atari Corp. as CEO on July 2. The next day Atari presents its new CEO, holding a press conference at the 1984 Summer CES in Chicago and billing it as “The Day the Future Began”. The future of the coin-op division is that it is spun off the next year to Atari’s old arcade game partners at Namco America, and is renamed Atari Games, Corp. Tramiel remodels the 2600 into the even smaller $50 2600jr the year after. Production of the Atari 2600 ends in 1991; its 14-year run marks it as the longest lasting home video game system in history.
Rewinding back to 1976, Nolan Bushnell is getting tired of the day-to-day operations at Atari, and his constant run-ins with the suits at Warner. He finds his interest drawn to a new project within the company, to develop a national chain of pizza parlours/arcades that intends to be a more family-friendly place to play video games than seedy bars or bowling alleys. He convinces Atari to set up a new department called the Restaurant Operating Division, headed by Gene Landrum. On May 16, 1977 they open a prototype restaurant at the Town and Country Village in San Jose, the grand opening of which is attended by local dignitaries, including San Jose mayor Janet Gray Hayes. Getting as close as Bushnell ever will to realizing his youthful dreams of becoming a Disney Imagineer, the restaurant concept includes a cast of animatronic characters playing in a musical band for the customers. Atari is wary of expanding the restaurant experiment further, so Bushnell purchases the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre concept from Warners for $500,000 in June of 1977, and after he leaves the company the following year, Bushnell furthers expansion of PTT. After a successful IPO, share prices rise to over $25 per share through the video game boom. When Bushnell’s non-compete clause from his departure from Atari in 1978 expires, he forms new video game company Sente Technologies in 1983. Like his former company, the name of his new gaming venture comes from the game Go, this term meaning to make the first move. Plans for the new company include arcade games called SAC or Sente Arcade Computer, which would allow operators to change their offerings with just a swap of a cartridge. Riding on the coattails of smash laser game arcade hit Dragon’s Lair, the planned model III SAC games would be laserdisc machines. Sente manages to release a couple dozen conventional arcade games, such as hockey game Hat Trick and the roller-ball controlled Snake Pit, before being folded into Bally/Midway as Bally Sente.
Pizza Time Theatre eventually goes bankrupt in 1984, done in by the crashing videogame market and mounting debts via overzealous expansion and acquisitions. Bushnell’s company is then picked up by competitor Showbiz Pizza Place, and the two entities eventually merge into the modern Chuck E. Cheese franchise.
Bushnell engages in a myriad of other comeback attempts of varying success, including Androbot, a San Jose-based consumer robotics company that in 1983 produces Topo, the “world’s first personal robot”, with a price tag of $1595. Sporting dimensions of 36.5″ x 24″, the 33-lb, battery operated Topo can move and speak via a remote IR interface card inserted into an Apple IIe or II+ computer, controlled by either joystick or keyboard. Interfaces for the IBM PC, C64 and Atari 8-bit computers are also promised by Androbot. Topo’s speaking ability uses text-to-speech, to simplify the programming process. The robot comes with TopoBASIC, which includes intuitive movement commands such as TFD (forward) and TRT (turn right) and TLT (turn left). Also made available is TopoSoft, a programming language based on Forth, and a TopoLOGO programming package can be purchased for $125. This simplified language allows users without programming skills to easily input directional commands for the robot. The computer needed to program your new electronic buddy is not included in the price, but there is an emergency stop switch on the top of his head in case his programming goes wonky. Topo’s name is derived from the word “topology”, meaning the study of spaces or surfaces.
Part of an overall incubation think-tank called Catalyst Technologies, Androbot only manages to sell a few thousand Topos, as well as B.O.B.s (Brains On Board), Topo’s 43 pound, nearly four-foot high big brother that doesn’t require an external computer and runs about $4,000. The brains referred to in his name are represented by three on-board 16-bit CPUs, as well as 3M of RAM. Available options include the Androwagon and Androfridge, which BOB can pull behind him, weaving in and out between party-goers offering pretzels and beers. BOB has a certain amount of autonomy in comparison to his cousin, in that he contains five ultrasonic sensors, such as the autofocus sensors found in cameras, which allow him to move around freely while mapping the dimensions of his environment and the objects within it. He also has two infrared sensors to help him identify living things. Utilizing this feature, programming BOB’s movements can be simplified using his ‘Follow Me’ mode, where the unit will follow the user and remember the path and repeat it on command. Voice synthesis seems out of reach to BOB’s designers, so instead he draws on a pool of over 100 pre-recorded, digitized phrases. Cartridges are to made available for BOB soon after his release, such as AndroSentry, which turns the robot into a mechanical night watchman for your house.
At the Summer 1983 CES Androbot announces a cheaper robot version called Androman, a 12-inch robot buddy for your 2600. Controllable by joystick, a cartridge for the 2600 would put obstacles on the screen for the device to avoid, and interact with an included 6′x8′ cardboard game playing field and set of data coded game pieces. Androbot also announces an under-$300 robot named F.R.E.D. (Friendly Robotic Educational Device) that includes a drawing pen attachment and a keypad for programming. It can also talk and sense drop-offs so it won’t roll off a desk. Androbot, however, eventually rolls off a cliff and goes bust, along with the idea of personal robots running households. Bushnell tries again with the company Axlon, that had originally gotten its start making add-ons for the Atari 8-bit computers, including the RAMCRAM memory expansion module. They retool F.R.E.D. into a new robot named Andy, selling for only $120. Also from Axlon comes a line of robotic pets called Petster, as well as the stuffed animal A.G. Bear, which responds to a child’s voice in gibberish “bear language”, as well as converse with others of its kind when in close proximity. The company also makes Party Animals, a line of six hand puppets with a light sensor in the mouth that triggers noise as the child makes them “talk”. Selling for around $25 each, kids can pick such animal pals as Silly Goose, Tetrazzini Turkey and Dippity Dolphin.
Bushnell also gets in on the ground floor of in-car navigation systems, bankrolling the founding of Etak for $500,000. A pioneering company in the field, the idea behind Etak comes to electronics whiz Stanley Honey while navigating aboard Bushnell’s racing yacht. The Etak system uses the old-school method of “dead reckoning” navigation, using the vehicle as a static point and considering the relative speed over time through the landscape around it to determine its position. Since the Polynesians had used dead reckoning to travel large swaths of the Pacific ocean, Honey appropriates the Polynesian navigational term etak for his invention. In 1985 the company produces two versions of the first practical in-car navigational systems made available on the market, licensed to General Motors: one with a 7″ screen meant for commercial vehicles, selling for $1,595, and a $1,395 system for consumers that contains a 4.5″ display. Information on vehicle speed and direction is fed to the devices via a roof-mounted magnetic compass and magnetic sensors placed near the wheels. Various EtakMap videotape cassettes, sold for $35, are produced providing map coverage for the Bay Area in California, with an eye towards eventually covering SoCal and beyond. Drivers can input their destination via twelve buttons placed around the edge of the CRT display. The dead reckoning system can provide accuracy up to 50 feet, but errors accumulate over time which requires a position reset at the touch of a button. Eventually rendered obsolete by GPS navigation systems, Etak does pave the way for the later ubiquity of in-car mapping devices. After a series of acquisitions, Etak ends up being sold to Tele Atlas in 2000.
Bushnell later pins his hopes on a venture spawned from the failed startup Playnet Technologies, started on July 1, 1999 and called uWink.com, developing internet-based gaming kiosks. The focus of uWink moves to developing electronic kiosk dining bistros, and after the opening and closing of several restaurants, eventually ends up licensing its technology under the name Tapcode.
Bushnell’s contribution to the modern videogame landscape via the company he created and the console that company produced cannot be overstated, even though we now look back at the blocky graphics and limited colour palette of the VCS/2600 with nostalgic wonder that such a system could be the wellspring of today’s powerhouse monstrosities. It’s not often that a game console, or the company that produces it, penetrates the public consciousness to such an extent that a powerful Hollywood actor produces and stars in a film about its history. However, such a rumour is floated, concerning fervent video game player Leonardo DiCaprio producing and starring as Bushnell in Atari, developed by DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and optioned in 2008 by Paramount. It makes sense to put the breakneck, roller-coaster story of Atari to film, since the company and its VCS console marked the ascendancy of video games to the top of the entertainment market, along with the programmers that wrestled with the restraining technology to produce some of the greatest games of all time.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
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Video segment from local California, Bay Area TV show “Just Kidding”, featuring a look behind the scenes at Imagic in 1983, with Pat Ransil
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Money for Breakfast, Fox Business Channel, 2007 Bushnell interview
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Image of CompuMate box taken at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014, in Las Vegas
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Image of Activision 1984 CES booth courtesy of Steven Szymanski
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Omni magazine article, Oct 1982
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CompuMate image and information courtesy of the Spectravideo Campmate page
Omni Magazine article, Oct 1982
McComb, Gordon. “Personal Robots.” Creative Computing Nov. 1983: 196-204. Creative Computing Magazine (November 1983) Volume 09 Number 11. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. …Topo uses text-to-speech algorithms to allow easier programming.;B.O.B….draws on a ready set of digitized, pre-recorded phrases…he randomly chooses from over one hundred stored words and lines;image of Bushnell surrounded by Androbot robots. Old Computers
Compute!, “Androids and Robots” by David D. Thronburg, pgs. 18-22, Jun 1983
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Activisions newsletter,”Our Milpitas Family”, pg. 5, Vol. 3, Spring 1982
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Photo of Nolan Bushnell glancing to his left from kandinski
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Image of the Gameline Master Module and box courtesy of Atari Mania
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Electronic Games, November 1983, Hotline Article “Atari, Bushnell Bury Hatchet”, pg. 12
1982 Atari trade ad from Billboard magazine, retrieved from Google Books archive
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2012 Image of Bobby Kotick from de.wikipedia.org - http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kotick#/media/File:Bobby_Kotick_in_NYC_photographed_by_Jordan_Matter.jpg. Photograph by Jordan Matter
New York magazine, “On Madison Avenue: The Super Selling of Super Sunday” by Bernice Kanner, pg. 18, Jan 25 1982
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MetroActive News and Issues | Nolan Bushnell – www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.16.99/cover/bushnell2-9937.html
Videogaming Illustrated, “Focus on: Sturm Und Drang”, by E.C. Meade with contributions from Jim Clark, Martin Levitan, Dale Rupert and Samuel Lawrence, pgs. 19-23, 74-75, Jul 1983. “Lou Abbagnaro, director of engineering, CBS Games: …realize that no games at that time used more than 1K of memory.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sep 17 2015.
Hunter, David. “Robots Come Home.” Softtalk Aug. 1983: 144-57. Softalk V3n12 Aug 1983. Internet Archive. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. Half an hour after opening the box and removing the thirty-three-pound plastic and steel robot…;Topo is controlled at this point through a remote radio link that connects to the Apple via an expansion board in slot 5.;Programming Topo in its TopoBasic is a snap…the commands are easy to remember – TFD moves Topo forward…TRT turns Topo right; TLT turns topo left…;Topo also works with Androbot’s special version of Logo – TopoLogo.; …the robot can also be programmed with TopoForth…;With AndroSentry, on of the planned plug-in cartridges, B.O.B. with reportedly be able to patrol and safeguard your house.Ahl, David H. “1983 Summer Consumer Electronics Show.” Creative Computing Sept. 1983: 200-22. Creative Computing Magazine (September 1983) Volume 09 Number 09. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. Androbot also introduced AndroMan…designed to be used with an Atari VCS and comes with a game cartridge, transmitter, 6′x8′ cardboard game playing field, set of game pieces imprinted with coded data…“Hotline: Atari to Market Robots.” Electronic Games May 1984: 8. Electronic Games – Volume 02 Number 12 (1984-05)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2016. Atari has entered into an agreement with Nolan Bushnell to market a line of products from his new company, Androbot, Inc. Image of Stan Lee playing Spider-Man from Blip: The Video Game Magazine, “Spider-Man Plays SPIDER-MAN!”, photographer Michael Tweed, pg. 3, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Mar. 1983
Herrington, Peggy. “The Robots Are Coming.” RUN Aug. 1984: 70-76. Bombjack.org. Web. Dec. 2016. B.O.B. stands just under four feet tall… One of it’s [B.O.B.] best features is a Follow Me mode, which makes teaching it to follow a path very easy – you walk and it follows. It will remember the route and repeat it by itself on command. …F.R.E.D., which is programmable with its own seperate keypad… [F.R.E.D.] can talk, draw and sense a void so that it doesn’t fall off the table. It sells for under $400.
Image of Etak navigational system, as well as other information, from New York magazine, “Star Tech: Directional Signals” by Phoebe Hoban, pgs. 14-16, Jul 15 1985
Leyenberger, Arthur. “The New Atari.” ANALOG Sept. 1984: n. pag. Web.Byte, “Byelines: Reader’s Digest Buys The Source” by Sol Libes, pgs. 214-215, Dec 1980. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Byte magazine collection
Antic, “Dial-A-Game” by Deborah Burns, pgs. 82,84, July 1983
Discovery Online, You Shoulda Been There — Pong – www.discovery.com/stories/history/toys/PONG/birthday1.html
Electronic Games, Kaboom! ad, Winter 1981, back page
Compute!, “Atari’s New Add-On Computer For VCS 2600 Game Machine” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 44-46, May 1983
New York magazine, “On Madison Avenue: The Grant Tinker Show” by Bernice Kanner, pgs. 16-20, Nov 29 1982
Atari 2600 History and Commentary – www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Heights/9176/2600essy.html
Newsweek, “It’s All Fun and Games” Bushnell Interview, pg. 12, Aug. 18, 2003
Bushnell, Nolan. “How to Do It Your Way.” MicroKids Mar. 1984: 40-43. MicroKids – Issue 02 Volume 01 No 02 (1984-03)(Microkids Publishing)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. Image of Bushnell holding pizza and tokens, and image of Bushnell at Catalyst Technologies, photos by Roger Ressmeyer.InfoWorld, Androbot advertisement, pg. 26-27, dec. 26, 1983
Popular Science, “New add-ons turn video games into computers”, by Myron Berger, pgs. 114-115, 166, Oct 1983