Today is the fortieth anniversary of Atari, which ties in nicely with the fact that I’m now reading a book about the history of video games. Founded by Nolan Bushnell and named after a term from the game Go roughly meaning “check,” Atari was the first truly significant video game company. I never had an Atari system growing up, but my wife did, and some Atari games did eventually make it to my family’s Texas Instruments computer.
From what I’ve read and heard, Atari started out as a very informal company, where people could dress however they wanted and drug use was common to the point where parts of the building reeked of pot. Parties with lots of alcohol were common, as were conferences in hot tubs. While probably a fun environment for some, it was also kind of scary, as it attracted thieves and scofflaws. It was in these early days that a grungy young technician named Steve Jobs came to work for the company. He showed signs of genius even then, but also of unscrupulous business practices, as seen when he screwed him partner Steve Wozniak out of his bonus for working on Breakout. Back in those days, video game making was a job for engineers, technicians, and programmers. While it still largely is, in the earliest days the stories were generally afterthoughts made up by the programmers. Nintendo’s Donkey Kong is cited as probably the first game where the story and characters were planned out independently of the programming. Another interesting story about Atari is how Bushnell created another company, Kee Games, and talked them up as a competitor. Certainly sounds like it was an interesting place.
After being forced out of Atari by more traditional businessmen, Bushnell managed to gain success with a new venture, Chuck E. Cheese. This chain of restaurants was based on the idea that, if you let kids play games, they won’t so much mind waiting for terrible food and that an hour of skeeball would win them no more than a novelty plastic comb. Atari continued on, putting out games and systems every once in a while (remember the Lynx and the Jaguar?), but largely being surpassed by other companies that beat them at their own game. They’re still around now, albeit with poor finances. And strangely enough, Bushnell rejoined Atari as CEO a few years ago. Strange how these things come full circle.
Here’s a song about Atari that you can listen to.
And here’s Frank Black’s classic “Whatever Happened to Pong?”: