If you ask co-founder Nolan Bushnell, the main reason for Atari’s ultimate failure in 1983-1984, a failure so dramatic that it helped drag an entire industry down with it, was sowed back in ’78. That was the year he left the company, and new CEO Ray Kassar changed Atari’s focus from innovating in the video game space to marketing what they had already had. Sure, in the short term this strategy might have aided in Atari becoming the fastest growing company in American history, but it left the video game giant on a foundation of sand as the technology of video games and the tastes of players progressed through the years. Nothing quite crystallizes this attitude of marketing over innovation so much as the story of how the first third-party game maker for the VCS, Activision, was born. The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive:
One day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analyzing 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. Knowing 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.
Activision went on to great success, producing hits like Pitfall! and Keystone Kapers for the 2600, as well as cartridges for Mattel’s Intellivision. Their pivot in 1983 to games for the home computers of the era allowed them to weather the storm of the Great Video Game Crash of 1983-84, and today remain as one of the largest video game companies around.
For more history of Activision and the Atari VCS/2600, consult your local Dot Eaters article.
Long before online gaming hit the mainstream in the mid 1990’s, there was MUD. Standing for Multi-User Dungeon, it was an online version of the Adventure text game, created by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University in England in 1979. It would later be greatly expanded on by Richard Bartle, sparking an entire genre of game that still thrives today.
You can directly tie the existence of today’s MMOGs such as World of Warcraft to the original MUDs, which proved to the world that gaming online with fellow adventurers was and is incredibly compelling. For the history of the trailblazing MUD, please consult your local Dot Eaters article.
Out of Namco in 1979 came soaring Galaxian, a take on the Space Invaders formula where the little alien critters are not content to shuffle left and right across the screen, but break formation and come tearing down at the player, shooting at them all the way.
They’re coming for you in Galaxian
Galaxian not only helped usher in full RGB colour to arcade games, but also pioneered the use of sprites as graphical objects, allowing for the furious action that made the game so popular. It was as influential to video game design as its own invading inspiration, and spawned a set of sequels, such as 1981’s Galaga, as well as a plethora of remakes and ports. A particularly awesome port was made of Galaxian for the VCS/2600 in 1983, so good that it seems almost impossible to have been done within the stringent programming confines of Atari’s warhorse video game system. Of course, we can’t forget the game’s treatment at the hands of Coleco, featured as one of the company’s popular tabletop LED mini-arcade games.
Bring the arcade home with you!
Down another path of sequels was handheld LED game Galaxian 2 by Entex, as well as the monstrous Galaxian 3 theatre games constructed by Namco in the 90’s. These giants, starting as 28-player motion ride experiences and eventually tapered down to 6-player walk-in arcade games, give the Galaxian player a suitably epic experience.
Galaxian set the mold for the shoot-em-ups that followed in its colourful wake. For a full history on the game, please consult your local Dot Eaters entry.
Back in the heady days of 2011 I posted about a movie version of the classic Atari coin-op Asteroids, being developed by Universal as a project for Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich. I haven’t heard much about that project since, but I’m thinking it ought to be just scuttled right now, because THIS version looks way better:
As always, for more information on the history of Atari’s seminal arcade game Asteroids, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.
Indelibly mixed in my memory with blasting rocks in Atari’s Asteroids and shooting Space Invaders at the local arcade, as well as seeing video games coming home with the Atari VCS and the then newly-minted Mattel Intellivision, is Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was released to theatres in North America on Dec. 7 1979, 33 years ago today.
Detailing the return of “Admiral” James T. Kirk to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, as a giant cloud menacingly approaches Earth with unknown intent, the film was savaged by critics at the time, calling it over-long, glacially-paced and too full of itself. The film series righted itself commercially in the next iteration, the rollicking Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, but I’ve been swayed over the years that TMP is a more pure Star Trek movie. Later films narrowed plots to episodic TV dimensions, but the original movie seems more true to the idea of exploring the unknown, grandiose nature of the universe. The effects by visual master Douglas Trumbull also seemed barely constrained by even theatre-sized screens.
Star Trek was my pop-culture obsession before video games beamed in, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a milestone on that journey.