"What Went Right at Atari"
by Bill Haslacher hash@doglover.com
The Atari Historical Society (www.atari-history.com)

Hi-Res was a short lived Atari Computer magazine. The handwriting on my galley proof says, "Deadline for Issue 4 is Dec. 19, 1983."

Well, to make a long story short, Hi-Res folded and my unpublished column lay burried under a stack of papers.

Until now.

"Have you been playing video games?" It's 1980, my first week at Atari and the boss wants to know if I'm playing video games.

"Um ... a few but I've a good start on the assignment you gave me," I mumble. "Forget the assignment. You like chess?" Steve Harding, my boss, rushes around, finds a chess cartridge and shoves it into the Atari Home Computer on my desk. "And you've got to go to the picnic this afternoon ... no use staying around the office because everyone is going to be at the park eating hamburgers and drinking beer."

Lately, I've been thinking about my two-year adventure at Atari. It's the small things about Atari that have stayed in mind.

HALLOWEEN. Everyone dresses up in costumes. Mine was a jester-fool outfit complete with bells that kept dripping down into my eyes. Milt was a Rock and Roll singer, Embee was Cleopatra, and Glenda was a road (a white center strip went up the middle of her bodysuit). A Ubangi warrior marched with a large group of strange looking characters through the Atari marketing department. The warrior kept pointing to a roll of toilet paper on his spear saying, "Atari software, Atari software."

CAFETERIA. The engineering building had its own cafeteria. Great place to. Programmers used to play word games with the movable letters on the "soup of the day" sign. They would try to make a word or words that used all the letters in "chicken soup," for example.

SCHLADGE CARDS. These handy cards got you in and out of the various Atari departments. If you were not allowed into a department, the Schlage card device would make a clicking sound and your attempt was recorded on a computer somewhere. Rumor had it that Atari engineers tried to figure out how the cards worked. They succeeded in making fake cards within 15 minutes. Steve Harding says one of the founding engineers forgot his Schlage card one weekend day and kicked the door down to get in.

APPLE SIGN. One bright and sunny day an Apple Computer warehouse appeared next to the cubic monolith that was Atari's engineering building. Some of the Atari people grabbed a brightly colored sign with an Apple on it and placed it in the Atari engineering department. Two months later, uniformed police officers showed up to reclaim the sign.

T-SHIRTS. T-shirts and jeans were something of a status symbol at Atari. I swear my boss had a whole T-shirt wardrobe. He even had a T-shirt with a tie painted on it. A young lady named Carlina came up with the idea and design of the "I'm a high strung prima donna T-shirt." The shirt had a picture of an opera singer and was in response to a Kassar interview in the San Jose Mercury-News. I remember my friend Milt made several outrageous prototype T-shirt designs for Carlina to consider. But Milt's designs, clever as they were, lost out to Carlina's own design.

ASTEROIDS. In the lobby of the engineering building, someone changed the flying saucers to flying turtles. OK, who changed the shape table in the Asteroids game?

RUMORS. I'm not sure I believe it, but there was a rumor about two ladies wrestling on the floor for the right to be a certain boss's secretary.

Alas, that was before I got there. Steve Harding and others tell me the Atari I knew was a shadow of its former self. "Times are changing," they would say.

Someone at Atari showed me an old newsletter entitled "The Gospel According to St. Pong." It gave Nolan Bushnell's vision of what a company should be like. I don't remember much of the philosophy except that it seemed concerned mostly with worker happiness.

In conclusion, let me give you an opinion -- Atari has done some things awfully right.


A shakeout is happening in the video games industry. Shakeouts are to electronics what earthquakes are to nature. Fox Video Games has decided to call it quits. But Activision and Imagic seem to be weathering the storm.

There has been a flood of video games in the marketplace and a lot of price cutting. Experts say this comes about because video game are not a mature industry. In a mature industry like the cigarette industry, companies often agree price cuts are like cutting each other's throats.

This predatory pricing means on can find some deals on video games right now. I saw video games priced two for $2.95 at a recent electronics show. Better shop for your video game bargains now. After the shakeout, video game makers might start acting like the "mature" cigarette industry. Hint: The new Atari chairman used to be an executive vice president of marketing at Phillip Morris.

Recently this Silicon Valley Reporter had a fun conversation with Jan Martin-Risk of Activision's consumer division. She finds it interesting that, historically, man has used his highest technology to amuse himself. To Martin-Risk, games are an art form and entertainment. The test of the success of a game is a question each person can ask. Is it fun? If you think the answer is yes -- then the game you are playing is a success.

There is a rumor that when Atari's Steve Wright was on the "TODAY" show with Martin-Risk he got very nervous about something. It's hard to imagine Steve Wright (Mr. Confident) nervous about anything.

What evidently happened was the host asked about Activision's policy of giving game designers credit for their games. Martin-Risk explained the author of a game program is like the author of a book and deserved his or her name to be known. In voicing the opinion a video game is a corporate product, Wright became a little tongue-tied.

A programmer recently gave this reporter a photocopied masterpiece ... "Real Programmers Don't use PASCAL:"

Highlights include:

Real Programmers don't need comments -- the code is obvious.

At a party, Real Programmers are in the corner talking about operating system security and how to get around it.

At a football game, the Real Programmer is comparing the plays against his simulation printed on 11-by-14 fanfold paper.

No Real Programmer works 9 to 5.

Real Programmers don't know how to cook. Grocery stores aren't open a 3 a.m. Real Programmers survive on Twinkies and coffee.

It seems video game players and programmers fit the description quite nicely, too.

The author, Bill Hashacher, would like to hear from you. Email him at: hash@doglover.com