In keeping with the idea of storing useful links in this space, click here to find the one-page version of Gamasutra’s history of Atari, 1971-1977, written by Steve Fulton. This appears to be the first of two articles written by Fulton about the company, with the second chronicling the “golden” years of 1978-1981 (that one you can find here, though I won’t talk about it today). There are innumerable pieces online and in print that discuss Atari in one way or another, but Fulton’s work includes a lot of interesting details that are hard to find elsewhere, and is well-sourced, with good quotations throughout.
The importance of Atari is the early history of video gaming is largely recognized, but, I believe, somewhat misunderstood. They are typically thought of as a titan in the industry that dominated for a time, then fell apart due to mismanagement and costly mistakes in their later years. Sort of like a Nintendo that ultimately lost it was way. Or maybe like an IBM without the (sort of) comeback. But a former might and power is generally assumed.
In truth, Atari was almost always struggling financially and competitively, getting by with lucky breaks, clever dealings, and ultimately a lucrative corporate buyout. Their corporate culture leaned more towards 1970s indulgences like drugs and hot tubs than it did buttoned-down engineering R&D. That’s not to say that they didn’t innovate — they certainly did, but much of their effort focused on getting working products out into the market ahead of the competition, rather than letting things bake in-house until they were just right. Yet somehow, they had a knack for success, at least for a while.
The Atari VCS/2600 home console is a perfect example of a product that had substantial technical limitations, but still managed to dominate the market for a time and grew to become a cultural touchstone. That might make sense if it had been the first home console to hit the home market, but that was not the case. The Magnavox Odyssey had beat in by five years (1972 vs. 1977), and the Fairchild Channel F had come about in 1976. Or maybe if it faced unimpressive competition, but by 1980 Mattel Electronic’s Intellivision had it soundly beat in terms of graphics and performance. It wasn’t even meant to be on the market as long as it was, hanging on until the North American video game crash of the 1983.
What’s most amazing about the 2600 is that it was really only made to play variants of Atari’s older arcade classics like Pong and Tank. It was only through various acts of programming wizardly that it was even able to simulate more sophisticated arcade entries such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man (though its version of Pac-Man was famously disappointing). Many of its most sophisticated titles came from competitors like Activision and Imagic, whose products Atari tried to block from even entering the market. Yet it was titles like Activision’s Pitfall that really got the most out of the creaking 2600 system in its heyday in the early 1980s. Atari had made a limited system for a narrow range of purposes, that grew to become much more versatile and capable than was originally envisioned.
Competition and copycat-ism were a major story for Atari and its rivals, especially in the early years. Atari’s first two arcade games – Computer Space and Pong – are well-known to be recreations of earlier works. Computer Space was a version of Spacewar, the campus mainframe staple that was originally developed in 1962 by Steve Russell and friends. By the early 1970s nobody was claiming exclusive ownership over the game, so making a for-profit version of it didn’t trouble anyone. The same can’t be said for Pong, which was directly inspired by the tennis-style games developed by Ralph Baer for the aforementioned Odyssey system. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had seen Baer’s system in action, and Magnavox even had documented proof of his presence at a demo session.
A licensing agreement and cash settlement ended the fight between the two firms, but Bushnell and Atari very quickly found themselves battling a variety of Pong imitators in the arcade space. Interestingly, Bushnell had patented the game soon after its release, but the company did not have the financial resources to fight its rivals while that patent was still being processed. Looking back on these events, that was probably a good thing in the long run, as a legal crackdown on variant versions of the game would have set a bad precedent. These days game companies tend to protect their audio and visual assets, but only rarely are lawsuits launched over similar game mechanics. It’s frightening to think of the potential alternative scenario.
One a successful game model was developed, moreover, Atari saturated the market with countless variants of the original design. Pong led to Superpong and Quadrapong, while Tank had several sequels. And all that time the company was typically in a tight financial situation, desperately trying to get product out into an increasingly saturated market. It didn’t even have enough money to launch the VCS itself, and required a buyout from Warner Communications 1976 to provide the necessary cash injection. Atari, in other words, was never an industry giant, or a fearsome corporate shark. Most of the time it was just trying to get by. And in retrospect, their products look somewhat weak and cheap as compared to the output of Japanese innovators like Taito, Namco, and of course Nintendo. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong are but a few of the titles that these firms produced that stood head and shoulders over most of Atari’s output. Yet Atari still had a pivotal role to play in the industry, and its history is worth knowing. I’ll look at Fulton’s second article on the company another time.