Category Archives: Atari

Connecting the Dots: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Break Out

After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon,  in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:

In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured. 

Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines.  Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.

For more information on Breakout!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

PONG Announced 42 Years Ago Today

Beloved comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams postulated in his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42.

This may or may not be the case (we’ll have to find the question first), but the answer to fun, video games, and everything is indeed 42, as in 42 years ago today on Nov. 29, 1972.  That was the day an upstart venture in Santa Clara, California called Atari announced a crazy product: a ping-pong game played on a TV screen, mounted inside a wooden cabinet.

It was the second attempt by the company to carve out a new entertainment genre: the first was Computer Space, a video coin-op game the company had produced the previous year under the uncomfortable business name Syzygy. Sketched out by co-founder Nolan Bushnell and assembled by Al Alcorn, PONG would go on to massive success, creating an entire industry that, within a decade, would be worth $3.2 billion dollars.

For more information on Atari and its revolutionary PONG, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Connecting the Dots: How a 1979 Atari Marketing Memo Started Activision

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.

Activision Pivots (1983)

The original 3rd-party video game maker for the Atari 2600, Activision apparently saw the writing on the wall in 1983. That was the year they made their move from consoles onto computer platforms, such as porting Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line as seen in this ad. Moving to computer platforms helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies still around today.

Activision makes their move.

Activision makes their move.

For more information on Activision and the Atari VCS, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial video game cartridge, unearthed after Atari burial over 30 years ago

Atari’s E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash

Microsoft and a documentary film crew have today unearthed some cartridges of Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game for the 2600, buried as “defective materials” by the company some 30 years ago as the video game industry was crumbling like so much cheap cement.

The only thing “defective” about E.T. was its inscrutable and endlessly frustrating gameplay.  Atari mother corporation Warner Communications paid Steven Spielberg 21 million dollars for the home console and arcade game rights to the movie, and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw hammered out the game in a breakneck six week deadline to get it out in stores for Christmas 1982.   Warshaw was present today among spectators viewing the excavation of his most infamous creation. 

Box art for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a video game for the Atari VCS/2600 1982

Box art for the dreaded Atari E.T. game

A run of five million cartridges were released to stores: only one million eventually sold, becoming a well-publicised flop that tarnished Atari’s reputation with retail game buyers and furnished another nail in the company’s coffin. Along with surplus cartridges for other games, as well as various hardware prototypes, a convoy of tractor-trailer trucks shipped the unsold copies of E.T. to the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where they were literally swept under the rug.

E.T. wasn’t solely responsible for the video game market cratering in 1983 – 1984, as a lack of technical innovation and the booming home computer market also took their toll. But it remains a touchstone of the hubris and failure that helped bury the greatest video game company in the world, and with it an entire industry.

For more information on E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Photo of unearthed E.T. cartridge from the Twitter account of Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, @majornelson

Oscar Week at TDE: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Tonight’s the big night!  Overly primped celebrities engage in vapid self-congratulatory masturbation.  Still… we’re excited! Wrapping up this series of articles covering games based on movies either nominated for or winners of Best Picture, we have perhaps the most infamous: Atari’s adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982, the movie concerned itself about the story of a young boy who befriends a lost space alien and attempts to return him home.  It was an immediate hit, and through various re-releases the movie ended up taking around $435 million over its box-office lifetime. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983, but lost to Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic Gandhi.

Atari saw E.T. as a natural video game hit. Steve Ross, head of Atari owners Warner Communications, negotiated a 21 million dollar deal for the home video game rights to the movie. The problem was that negotiations took so long that Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was left with only six weeks to get a game for the VCS/2600 out the door in time for Christmas 1982. Within that crushing deadline he attempted to create an involved adventure game featuring the lovable little alien, but the result is confusing and endlessly frustrating.  Players strive to guide E.T. around an abstract landscape, searching for the three pieces of the interplanetary telephone that he can use to phone home. With only a certain amount of energy to complete this task, E.T. is chased by government agents and scientists, who will delay his progress. Also on hand is young Elliott to lend assistance during the mission.

The game is at least interesting, with invisible power zones positioned around the different screens giving E.T. special powers, such as teleportation and the ability to scatter his pursuers. The real problems are the holes that are scattered about, into which the alien falls over and over and over and over and over again. My gosh, the holes. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Atari’s E.T. cartridge has so many, many eyes to gaze so very, very long into you.

For more information on the E.T. game and its role in the great video game crash of ’83 – ’84, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
Star Wars (Arcade, Atari 1983)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

 

Oscar Week at TDE: Star Wars (1983)

George Lucas’ movie Star Wars doesn’t require much of an introduction. The science fiction epic was released in 1977 and forever changed the film industry. The fact that it didn’t snag the Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony (that honour went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) the following year is often considered a bit of a robbery. Star Wars buffs can take consolation that John Williams won for Best Score, which also features prominently in the arcade game.

It’s to the great credit of Atari’s Star Wars arcade game that it lives up to the original material. Designed by Mike Hally, it was based off an earlier unfinished game by Battlezone creator Ed Rotberg. Utilizing Atari’s colour Quadrascan vector graphics hardware, the game totally immersed players in a galaxy far, far away… especially if they were playing the sit-down cockpit version. The game covered the action that takes place in the film’s final reel: Luke Skywalker as Red Five, joining the attack against the dreaded Imperial Death Star. Controlling Luke’s X-Wing fighter, gamers fended off a wave of enemy TIE fighters, then swooped down into the famous Star Wars trench scene in a race to deliver the final shot into the exhaust port, then out in time to watch the great conflagration as the deadly technological terror explodes. Then rinse and repeat, as the TIE fighters became more numerous and active, and the surface defenses of the Death Star increased in complexity and difficulty.

Not only did we have detailed and fluid vector graphics, we also got snippets Williams’ aforementioned rousing music score, as well as well-done and dramatic voice synthesis straight from the film. Add to that famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek’s great-feeling flight yolk controller, and you had the makings of an undisputed classic. Atari’s Star Wars arcade game deserves its place as one of the greatest games of all time.

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Breakout

30 years ago, in January of 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple presented the Macintosh computer to an astounded public. Utilizing such exotic technology as a mouse and a 3.5″ floppy drive, the Mac helped transform the personal computer landscape, from arcane commands to easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces. While it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when first introduced, the Mac design would forever influence how computers were made, sold, and perceived by the public.

10 years before unveiling the Macintosh, Jobs got his start in 1974 as the 40th employee at Atari, as a $5 an hour technician refining the design of video games developed at the company. After returning from India on an Atari service call, in 1976 Jobs was tasked by Nolan Bushnell to build a new game the Atari boss had designed, based on the company’s premiere game PONG. In it, gamers would hit the ball up against a wall of disappearing blocks, as opposed to batting it back and forth with another player. Offering an insane deadline of just four days to get the job done, Jobs enlisted the help of his friend Steve Wozniak to engineer the game. It was called Breakout, and was a major hit for Atari.

An excerpt of a screenshot from Breakout, a video arcade game by Atari.

Breaking Bad

 

Jobs eventually left Atari, and along with Wozniak founded Apple Computer. With the release of their Apple II computer, they helped establish the personal computer industry. With the release of the Macintosh, Jobs would further popularize and refine computers. As a bombastic carnival barker and charismatic distorter of reality, you can see more than just a bit of Bushnell in the man.

For more information on the history of Breakout, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Long Lived Is The New Flesh

There’s certain movies that immediately tickle my memory of those days of my youth, hunched over in front of the TV, tightly gripping the joystick of my Atari. Sure, there’s the ones from the early 80’s dedicated directly to the subject of video games, such as Tron or WarGames,  which I’ve covered in my series of Games on Film articles. And there’s some that are simply of that era. Then there are some that cause a deeper itch in my psyche.

There’s Videodrome.

I was a teenager when I first watched Videodrome, which actually celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.  It wasn’t my first film by Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg; Scanners had come out a couple of years earlier and had definitely made an impression on me.  Videodrome, however, changed something inside of me. It wasn’t some earth-shaking epiphany, though, where you crane your neck and cry “Eureka!”.  The movie is like the video virus portrayed in its story. It doesn’t influence you, it infects you. It literalized viral videos before anyone ever heard of Internet memes.   Before most had ever heard of the Internet, even.

photo of Marshall McLuhan, 1966

McLuhan, 1966 photo by Henri Dauman

The movie is itself heavily influenced by the works of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media analyst and philosopher who famously coined the term “The medium is the message”.  McLuhan’s warnings of the invasive power of television to shape reality in its own images, of how it was becoming a complete electronic extension of man, so impacted Cronenberg that the character of Brian O’blivion in the film is based on the media critic. The film is more viscerally prescient than McLuhan’s casual statements of dehumanization. Videodrome is about the first “reality” television show.

It is also about the battle of hearts and minds fought through the arena of the television set, so it’s no wonder that protagonist Max Renn, played by James Woods, has an Atari 2600 setup plugged into his TV.  What more literally represents a battle through the TV more than a video game?  They have a place in the New Flesh, as shown in this iconic scene from the film:

Cronenberg would again probe the idea of the mating of reality and fantasy, of technology and the flesh, in eXistenZ (1999). Dealing directly with video games and virtual reality, the movie would not be quite so prescient this time; its thunder would be stolen by the mind-bending, time-stopping pyrotechnics of The Matrix, released earlier the same year.

With crushing casualness, McLuhan said “The medium is the message”. Cronenberg has a rejoinder:  “The medium is the flesh”.  Long live the New Flesh.

For anyone interested in director David Cronenberg and his wonderfully weird body of work, I highly recommend picking up the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.

 

Gameplay from arcade version of Asteroids

This Asteroids Trailer Will Rock Your World

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.