So what was the world of Atari like during the heady days of its beginning? To see its rise and rise then to when it dipped in the 80s and never really recovered.
World 1:1 - Directed By: Daryl Rodriguez, Jeanette Garcia
There is no greater way to find out by talking to the people who were there at the time. This movie started at the beginning - before Atari was even born. Post-war then space wars - this was all about with the advent of computers and technology in the 50s and 60s. Students who used computers in the 60s – played with many options from robotics, to machinery but also computers which began to carry out more complex tasks. MIT geeks amongst the world’s greatest made this the first thing that affected the minds of the potential gamer.
A working computer that could play a very basic game. With SpaceWar! which with a lot of control and patience from the clever guys at MIT could operate as a game of sorts. Nolan Bushnell who leads up the narrative in the movie by being a key interviewee - saw the earning potential from these early attempts (and there were a few) and work that Steve Russell had created at MIT. The key was to bring it to the masses and make it easy - put it as a coin slot game into his amusement arcade in the early 70s and make it a success as part of his role at Nutting Associates. It did something new here - for it was the world's first commercial arcade machine to take money. Along with Ted Dabney and it set the ball rolling for what would become Atari.
This was the game Computer Space – the concept of a device that ran one game – without any network – it became the very first arcade game – ahead of it’s time but too early as it existed in a world with very little understanding of video games. In commercial terms it failed. Something that had an idea and a design that looked amazing like this was not for the mainstream. The game was unsuccessful due to its control method – only those who were part of the project really grasped it. The idea of a videogame in the early 70s like this came from different world – one that goes back 40 years ago. We hear from Patrick Scott Patterson, Jared Petty (IGN) and Nolan Bushnell himself – where he recollects the future of innovation he felt back when the early arcade machines came out. The design of the arcade cabinet for Computer Space was crazy in many ways from colour to shape, and yet to look at it now it is something to be admired. But games are all about playability as we know and not just the look and presentation even in the cabinet– the idea that you can pick up a game easily is critical as is the addictive quality and Nolan understood this. The failure of Computer Space was going to make him work harder with seeing the possibilities of a game and what it could deliver. So the lesson was learnt with Computer Space – it had to be simple. Technology back in the early 70s started to cater for the everyman and Nutting Associates was to evolve or fall by the wayside. But for Nolan and his friend and colleague Ted Dabney it was time to leave.
So back to the drawing board – what could be simpler than Ping-Pong Nolan thought…so on came PONG. And from the game GO came the name ATARI – the move before the winning move. ATARI a name that would set the bar high when it came to videogames. So from the learning project of PONG at Atari came a revolution – just 2 weeks to build the prototype and put it to market. And most important of all it created something that was fun! As games should be. How to test this ‘fun factor’ and playability Simple – take it out to a bar to the people! Famously it broke on too many quarters being pumped into the machine because of the sheer addictive quality and popularity. It made money and that made Nolan very happy. Onto production they went. 100 machines a day – so ambitious back then – no space to move – no manufacturing processes and Nolan pulled it off. $1,000,000 in that first year – 1973 it was the beginning ATARI had created the idea of a game for the people. Instructions for game were not even thought of and they came into the design and development on the arcade machines and eventually a key part of the ‘package’ when designing console games later.
And PONG was the revolution - but PONG became a cloned machine like you wouldn’t believe at the time - there was always someone trying to make the better version of PONG. So Nolan wanted a vision – something that would take them further beyond the arcade and big in the wider world. Let’s try and bring PONG home he thought and become a company that wouldn’t be afraid of a new direction. Atari wanted to have fun. They were not serious at times but they made it happen when it mattered.
Circling around before ATARI was Magnavox with its own system and it in later years challenged Bushnell in court and in terms of the idea that Ralph Baer had established with the games and the console behind the concept. But Nolan wanted not to replicate it - but beat it and make it better – as in the interview he says – “Knock it out the park.” This wasn’t the first console idea that sprang into someone’s’ head– Ralph Baer created the first commercial console Magnavox Odyssey from the original invention the brown box.
So Atari had to be different, better and stand out. They spun some stories and the marketing was the stuff of legends in the early days – at events they would make a noise too. They had a lot of crazy at Atari…so who did they have working for them? This Kid, a hippy of sorts with little experience started and his name was Steve Jobs and Stephen Gary “Woz” Wozniak (from HP) With Steve – well he had this passion – and with Steve he just loved electronics. And boom along came the game breakout from Woz and sold in internally by Jobs. These guys were soon to breakout (excuse the pun!) themselves and along came Apple and Jobs and Woz made their way away from Atari. Atari continued – a fun fast ride but with hard work and long hours, sleeping and working but they were making games and producing pieces of art – games that were creative and had huge playability.
And the games kept coming in the arcade – with the advent of the microprocessor – Pac Man and Space Invaders with a couple of K of memory this was on the screen and you were playing and you were addicted .The arcades – and so many legendary games – Robot Ron, Ms Pac man, Sherriff, Centipede, Robotron, Battlezone, Defender, Crystal Castles.the list goes on. Games were exciting – there was no web and it was all about being the best amongst your friends. Everyone in the arcade would watch the guy who could play and get the high score in the arcade. The colours in the Arcade, sounds and feel of the place stood out and mesmerised you. Back to the consoles – they needed cash to grow as the desire for videogames grew. So in came Warner – who wined and dined Atari – then they bought Atari. Up against the Fairchild Channel F and Intellivision spawned the Atari 2600. In came the Atari 2600 – the classic gaming console designed my Joe Decuit (who features in the movie).
The Woody as it is commonly referred to crammed in a lot into its shell and was a wonder for the developer to work with. The software made the machine rather than the hardware so the developers had to make this work! A programmer had to condense their source code in something tiny and that limited challenge made the thing sing. So this thing just sold and sold and sold – and really did sell on a huge level – millions and millions of units – 30 million in the end, which even against today’s standards is huge. And remember video games were a niche hobby compared to now. But kids would queue one after the other for new games when they came out – a generation of kids were transfixed. From 77 to 87 this thing rocked! Playing the VCS was easy – the joystick was defining – no paddles or trackballs. And the games made the system. And then there’s the box artwork – just WOW, it got you excited.
Adventure made the most exciting game - it sparked our imagination. It impressed from the box and the game was wonder. So the idea of a game became a world not just that was on the screen. You had objects to pick up and use throughout exploring the game – this was unheard of and it was never done before. And that was Atari in the 1970s – making new concepts emerge from nowhere. The name went in the game - the name of the designer, Warren Robinett (of Adventure) and the Easter Egg was spawned. Other designers started to do this from then and now in 2015 it continues. But things changed around this time – Nolan quit. Warner Communications were running the shop.
Then David Crane and his crew started to get restless. Activision was made from this situation – the designers weren’t appreciated and they had to make their own way. The first 3rd party company was up and running as a gang of 4 guys who wanted to created original games. Crane brought his art skills to the game and made some crackers. This almost put Atari against a 3rd party competitiors as much as they were developers but they were publishers too (and many formed after Activision) – but it was all good competition for gamers. Well most of the time.
There are so many stories of this early 80s period and what crashed Atari but the movie tells it well and in simple terms. A 6-7 week games development schedule made in 5 weeks. Amazing that the designer of Yars revenge made ET – time was just too much against them. ET was a killer for Atari. Millions were spent on it but millions were sitting around waiting to be sold and didn’t. This wasn’t just the only garbage around at this point – Atari had lost its seal of quality – everything was against them. Word of mouth (with the little gaming press there was) was getting around that games were not selling. Games got cheap and the quality hit hard to the gamer too. It felt like a factory and the essence of Atari from the beginning was leaving the charm of the company – less about gamers – more about making money and that alone. The heart had gone and with it the innovation.
But the consoles and the games live on. They have a life now in our world with the games that broke the mould. 1983/84 was the end of it all for Atari in most respects– the beginning of the end for Atari and the games market at that time even though they still kept bubbling along. Tough to hear now as a gamer and then for Atari fans even tougher still. But to finish off the movie delivers a strong and powerful message: “As any Videogamer knows - death is not permanent”
We live in a world where videogames are more popular than ever and surround everything we are and do. Success has even meant that in the US they make more money than the music and film industry combined. But even with that success we must remember one thing. The most important morale of the story from Atari and why it prospered. Be creative.
Watch the full movie: www.worldoneonemovie.com/