Articles - Main Menu

Inside Atari Games (From "The One" Magazine 1990)

The video game celebrates its 18th birthday this year, and Atari Games, the company that started it all with Pong, is still going strong.  His pockets bulging with quarters, Gary Whitta takes a look inside the video game industry's greatest innovator.

It's said that the Japanese take everyone else's ideas and do them smaller, better and cheaper.  But when it comes to arcade games, it's everyone else who follows in their footsteps. These days you can't go into an arcade without overdosing on games from the land of the rising coin slot, with giants like Sega, Taito, CapCom, SNK, and Konami all household names to the arcade aficionado.

But while the Japanese seemingly continue their domination of the coin‑op industry, and (almost) all others are crushed in their attempts to stop them in their tracks, there is one American company that not only manages to hold its own against the great oriental steamroller, but also carries on as one of the arcade industry's great innovators   That company is Atari Games.

While the name Atari might suggest a company of Japanese origins, it prefers hot dogs and Mom's apple pie to sushi and Mama‑Sans' lychees any day of the week.  Founded by electronics wizard and visionary Nolan Bushnell in the early 70s, Atari takes its name from the classic Japanese board game Go.  Anyone who's played the game will know that an Atari is the Go equivalent of check in Chess. The well‑known logo is a representation on Japan's famous volcano Mount Fuji ‑ Bushnell chose it because he was a great fan of the Japanese genericism, and wanted to give his firm an oriental flavour.

Atari erupted in 1972 with the bat 'n' ball classic Pong.  What is generally accepted as the world's first video game was designed by Bushnell himself, and was a runaway success ‑ for the simple reason that nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before.  Since then, Atari's enjoyed massive success with games like Breakout (1976), Asteroids (1979), Missile Command (1980), Centipede (1981), Pole Position (1982), Star Wars (1983), Marble Madness (1984), Paperboy and Gauntlet (both 1985), Super Sprint (1986), and Hard Drivin' (1989) ‑ all of which served to ensure that Bushnell's baby was no one‑game wonder.  But even so, the company served up its fair share of obscurities in its time ‑ ever heard of Cloak & Dagger, Arabian, Canyon Bomber or Smokey Joe? No?  We thought not.  (AEX – Most of the “obscure” games mentioned were not widely available in Europe).

Before long, Atari moved out of the arcades and into the homes with the launch of the VCS 2600 console and, later, its first home computers in the form of the 400 and 800 range.  Since then Atari's been responsible for the forgettable XL/XE machines and of course the more memorable ST range.

(AEX – We apologise for the use of the word “forgettable” with reference to the XL and XE computers by the author!)

Unfortunately, these days Atari isn't the one big happy family you might think ‑ in fact it's practically divorced from itself.  Bushnell sold Atari to movie giant Warner Communications in the late 70s, and it wasn't until the early 80's that ex‑Commodore boss Jack Tramiel arrived on the scene to buy it back but only half of it.  The story goes that Tramiel was only interested in the home computing side of Atari, as he was hoping to buy the Amiga from its developers and release it as an Atari machine.  For this reason, he only bought the computing arm of the company (known as Atari Corporation), leaving Atari Games as a separate company.

Today, Atari Games and Atari Corporation rarely interact ‑they are even based in completely different offices, and in a sense they are actually in competition.  When Atari Games decided to move into the expanding home market by producing software, Atari Corporation stepped in to tell its 'sister' that it wasn't allowed to use the name Atari in the home computer market. For this reason, Atari Games came up with its own publishing label - Tengen, which again comes from the board game Go.  The Tengen is the name given to the centre of the board. And as Domark's General Manager John Kavanagh explains, that's why you won't find the Atari Games name or logo on any of Domark's long line of Atari coin‑op conversions ‑ Tramiel bought the rights to use the Atari name on consumer products as part of the terms of the sale - Atari Games, therefore, has to market its software under a different name.  (AEX – Domark were a UK software publisher and marketed practically all the Atari Game home computer conversions under the Tengen name).

That, however, hasn't put Atari Games off in the least.  With over 140 (count 'em) coin‑ops under its belt, a string of its own arcades in the USA and over 400 people employed worldwide, Atari is one of the most prolific games manufacturers in the world today ‑ and one of the wealthiest, with the company expecting to rake in over 100 million dollars this year alone!

It's at Atari Games' headquarters in Milpitas, California, that the games are conceived, developed and produced. You name it ‑ Star Wars, Paperboy, Gauntlet, Super Sprint, Hard Drivin'… they are all the work of the development personnel based there.

One member of that team is the man behind some of the company's biggest successes over the last few years ‑ 31‑year old Mark Stephen Pierce, one of Atari's principal games designers, who comes from a rather unlikely background: he was an artist long before he ever went near a computer.

Mark's career as a binary Boticelli began while studying at the School Of Arts Institute in Chicago. It was here that the two vocations he currently excels in came together... " In my final year the school got a ZGrass computer which I started playing around with, drawing and animating with it.  I did some animations of talking faces, which were seen by the guy who invented the machine.  He asked me to come and work for him, so I did, writing animation demos for trade shows, like the Consumer Electronics Show.  I was just making characters run around on screen to show off the capabilities of the Astrocade machines."

"I also co‑wrote a game in 1982 called Professor Pac Man, which was basically a multiple choice questions and answers game with animated sequences. The Astrocade was very similar to the hardware inside the Bally coin‑ops of the time.  Professor Pac Man sold about a thousand copies, and after that, in 1984, I started a company called Macromind, writing productivity tools, basically music and art utilities, for a while, and then I sold out my share in the company, and then wrote the platform game Dark Castle for the Macintosh.”

The move to Atari Games came about in 1986 when Mark moved to California: "I knew that there are more computers per square mile there than anywhere else in the country." California is the home‑base of just about every major developer and publishing company in the States, including Cinemaware, Lucasfilm, Epyx, Spectrum HoloByte, Electronic Arts, Activision, hardware manufacturer Apple ‑ and of course Atari.

Atari has earned itself a reputation for originality since its inception, with innovative wares such as Lunar Lander, I Robot, Marble Madness, Gauntlet, and Cyberball all breaking new ground and inspiring many ‑ including Mark: "I joined Atari because I wanted to produce something different something more challenging.  There are so many shooting and fighting games in the arcades, and that just wasn't the thing I wanted to get into."

Mark's first project for Atari was the ageing race‑and‑destroy classic RoadBlasters, for which he produced the graphics and co‑designed with programmers Bonnie Smithson and Richard Moore over the course of a year.  "I still play RoadBlasters," Mark confesses. "I think it's a great game because it's so simple. I really like the combination of driving and shooting.  Ever since we did RoadBlasters I've been really into race games, but only in the arcades. I think racing games at home lose the feel because of the lack of a steering wheel."

After RoadBlasters, Mark set about with RoadBlasters programmer Bonnie Smithson producing his biggest and most time‑consuming project to date ‑ Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters (which, for the record, boasts the longest game title in coin‑op history). From conception to completion, Mark and his team spent over two years on Escape.  But the inspiration for such an escapist concept has been around for even longer ‑ since Mark's childhood in fact.

"My Dad sells comic books for a living, and has done since I was a boy, so I grew up with them.   I've always been fascinated by them, and in particular the concept of an interactive comic book something where you could actually influence the story rather than just following along with it.  That's what I was trying to do with Escape ‑ it's not perfect, but I think it's getting close to the idea.

As for the scenario, I was influenced mainly by the 60's Science Fiction B‑movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Day The Earth Stood Still and all those other really terrible movies."

While Escape doesn't offer anything radically different in the gameplay stakes ‑ it's just a matter of shooting the robots and rescuing the prisoners Mark believes the presentation sets it apart: "The isometric viewpoint is perfect ‑ it works so well because by looking down into a room from the corner you can see just about everything there is to see.  It worked in Zaxxon, 720° and Populous and I think it works here too. It was easier for us to do as well ‑ we just took the old Isometric Playfield Generator that was written for and used in Marble Madness and put it to work here ‑ the basic routines that run Escape and Marble Madness are one and the same."

After working on Escape for over two years (which Mark puts down to the sheer size of the game), he's now a little tired of the project and was glad to see it completed.

Even so, he still feels there's room for improvement: "Looking back on Escape, I'm pleased with it.  But if I was starting again on it now, I'd like to do things a bit differently.  For a start I'd want more flare and more action to make the whole thing more hectic. At the moment it's not as pacey as I'd have liked.  And I would have liked to have given the player more control over Jake and Duke by giving them more combat‑like moves, rather than just shooting away.  I like the games where you've got a whole array of fighting moves, and that would have worked and added atmosphere to Escape." The chance of a second attempt seems unlikely: "It took over two years to put together ‑ there's no way I want to go through all that again just to produce one game. All I wanted to do next was produce something playable, compact and relatively quick to develop."

So he did. The result was the comparatively serene Klax, aimed at the same market as the classic mental agility test Tetris.

Our Marketing people saw that Tetris had created a niche in the market, and I could see the same thing by watching people play it in the arcades.  What I noticed most was that it was attracting older players ‑ probably because it's more of a thinking game.  And I could see that people were getting satisfaction out of playing it. Tetris has a strange appeal ‑ it's simple, and the gameplay is well balanced between the tension of building something up and the relief of removing lines."

With the seed implanted, Mark set about producing ideas for gameplay ‑ by which time clones wore already appearing.  They were mostly just the same game presented differently and any twists in the gameplay failed to generate the same kind of tension as the original ‑ let alone improve on it: "With Klax I wanted to produce something along the same lines, and so create a similar sort of appeal, while giving it a gameplay style all of its own.”  No easy task.

"I knew that to create a game similar in style to Tetris, the rules had to be simple, but I wanted to do something with, a little extra to ft as well."  That little extra manifests itself in the shape of gravity.

With Tetris, blocks fall when fines disappear, but only by a single line ‑ there's no real gravity, and so it's impossible to set up 'chain reactions'.  With Klax however, Mark did Newton proud by incorporating a true sense of gravity.  The tiles are supposed to be stacked as they would for real, so when you take some away, the tiles above fall down until they land on another, this allows the player to create a Klax that in turn creates another by the very act of the relevant blocks disappearing and causing others to fall.

The idea of making lines of three or more came from Tic‑Tac‑Toe, which is why Atari is calling Klax the 'Tic‑Tac‑Tile' game.  "I think it's got enough original elements of its own to not be called just another Tetris clone.  One thing I really like about Klax is that it's a video game only ‑ there's no way it could be done in any other format."  (AEX – We think the Atari Lynx conversion is probably the best, but we could be a little biased in that opinion!).

It probably won't come as any great surprise to learn that even though Mark is pleased with the way Klax has turned out, he still feels that there's room for improvement. "When we came to giving Klax a name, I wanted to call it something that reflected its simplicity ‑ something short, and in complete contrast to Escape.  So I sat down with Dave Akers and said: 'Okay, we've got five minutes to come up with a title.'  Dave just came out with Klax, and we liked it because it was short and it also sounded like the klack‑klack sound of the tiles as they roll down the screen.  Looking back, I think that's an idea that could have been taken further."

From the amount of knowledge we have of how arcade machines are developed, we might as well just assume that Mr Atari comes along, sprinkles his magic pixie dust on an empty cabinet and presto! A new game…  No such luck ‑ putting together a coin‑op is much the same as putting together a home computer game... but on a grander scale, as Mark reveals: "When we're thinking about designing a new game, we have to listen to our Marketing people, who inform us of what's popular and what's likely to make money in the arcades, which is what happened with Klax."

But that's not to say that Mark and his team don't have freedom when deciding what to do, and if they want to create something totally off the wall they can ‑ look at Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters.

With a game concept 'invented' a Project Leader has to assemble an interested party of half a dozen or so people, comprising a programmer, graphic artist, animator, musician, and hardware engineer. The PL gives them all an idea of what has got to be done.

"The first thing that's done is that the project is sketched out in rough ‑ game type, objectives and so on, and a schedule is made up for the team to work to, as it's vital they have the game finished by a certain time."

This might sound like the Project Leader has an easy time of it, but Mark is quick to prove otherwise: "A Project Leader oversees all the work on the game, but he often also contributes to it in his own way.  I was Project Leader on Escape and Klax, but I also designed both games and did the graphics. And believe me, you have to take care of everything from making sure the work goes according to schedule to checking that the heating duct above the programmers is running at the correct temperature!"

Now that the idea has become a real game design, the team can start work actually writing it.  Even during the technical stages there's not a great deal to differentiate between coin‑op and home computer game development...

"All Atari coin‑ops today are written in C ‑ that's the most popular language with the programmers here, I guess. The actual programming work is carried out on standard terminals, and then transferred into our VAX machines where it's compiled and compressed.  Finally it's downloaded from there through an EPROM burner and onto the hardware for the game that the engineer has put together. Every coin‑op's hardware is different partly because each game is different, and partly as a form of copy protection.

Mark's graphics are produced on a PC ‑ but using Atari's own specially written utility: RAD (Rendering and Animation Design). "It's basically a standard paint tool with some animation facilities. I design and draw on the PC before uploading everything to the VAX to be compressed."

An Atari game takes, on average, around a year to produce ‑ but then an average can come from two extremes, which is certainly in Mark's case - Escape took over two years to put together, whereas Klax was written in just four months!

Mark feels that game design is the most difficult and time‑consuming, and yet most rewarding task: "With an arcade game you have to be very careful with the design. What you're trying to do is create something that people will want to play and keep playing.  If you go to see a movie, you pay your six dollars and go in ‑ if you decide halfway through that you don't like it, there's not a lot you can do about it as you've already paid to see it.  If you buy a piece of software, you pay your 30 dollars then take it home, and again, if you don't like it, it's too late you've already paid.  But with an arcade game you only have to put in a quarter, and if you decide in your first game 'Urgh, this sucks', you can leave it and you've only spent 25 cents."

So if an arcade game is to recoup its investment it's got to hook people from the very beginning and hold on tight. "You have to keep the task simple, so that the potential player will look at it and say "I can do that', while graphically it has to look sexy and inviting. That's really all you need to get somebody playing, but keeping them playing is the hard part.  It's vital that you get the level of difficulty right ‑ if a game's too tough, the player will give up, and if it's too easy you could have one person playing all day on just one quarter.  The ideal level of difficulty is one that makes a quarter last about a minute and a half."

But unlike appearances, the level of difficulty is a much more demanding deception, as arcade players vary greatly in their levels of skill and patience. So before a game is released it's played extensively by the teams at Atari and then put on 'field test', where a few prototype machines are placed in arcades around the country and the reaction to them is graded.

"You can normally tell at the very start if a coin‑op's going to sell ‑ we always keep one test machine running in the lab, and if it's rarely played by the people here, it's probably not going to do well in the arcades either.  Fortunately Klax, which has just been released, has always got a queue of people waiting to play it here, so we have a pretty good feeling about it!"

Only when a machine goes on field test can the public's response be gauged, so naturally Atari makes the best use it can of the time that the machine's 'out on trial'.  The prototype machines used are equipped with special video recorders that videotape the games played on it.  When the machines are recalled the tape is played back so that the team can see if players are exploiting any potentially disastrous bugs or unexpected design flaws and iron them out before the machines go on release. In addition, a computer printout provides pages of statistics that are dissected to find out just how good people are at playing the game.

But at the end of the day, all that counts is the amount of money a machine takes ‑ or 'coindrops' as Mark refers to them. "A machine has to make money within its first six weeks or it's not going to be successful.  If an arcade owner orders a few machines, and they don't start making money quickly, he won't order any more ‑ and he could well tell his arcade owner friends who won't order any at all."

So just how 'big' does a coin‑op have to be to be classified as a success?  "These days, anything that sells over 10,000 units is fantastic," Mark reveals. "Although back in the early days of the industry, machines could be expected to do a lot more than that. Tempest, for example, took over 30,000 orders in its first DAY on release! Williams' Defender has sold over 50,000, and Ms Pac Man 123,000!

So why the slump?  "I think because when this business first started, we were dealing with a brand new technology, so there was a lot of excitement and a certain amount of novelty value.  And also at the time, the people who played arcade games were a lot older ‑ around 18 to 25, and so they had more money to spend than the average 14 year‑old arcade player of today. Now the big novelty is gone, but I think at least the business is much more sane now.  And there's still the occasional massive hit, Gauntlet is probably one of the biggest sellers that Atari has ever had."

Mark admits to being a great fan of the classic coin‑ops of yesteryear. Defender, Tempest and Galaga rank amongst his favourites, but what does he think of the machines commonly found in today's arcades?  "Most of the games over here are either horizontally‑scrolling blasters or sideways scrolling combat games, which I think is a shame.  I think that while they're not at all original, they'll always be a market for them, so the companies will just keep on making them.  It's like rock 'n' roll, most of the popular music in the charts today isn't too good, but they'll keep cranking it out because that's what is in demand."

"I'm not sure about the Operation Thunderbolt style gun games. I don't believe that playing those games is going to turn anyone into a killer or anything like that, but even so I don't think it's a good idea to make people feel comfortable about the idea of having a gun in your hand and shooting things."

At home, Mark's recently been up to his elbows in SimCity. "I like it ‑ you get a certain kind of satisfaction out of playing it.  It's kind of like tending a garden."

And the future?  What kind of technology is going to be eating coins in years to come?  "I'm not sure, but I do have a few ideas about the kind of thing I'd like to see.  I'd like to expand what's playable in the arcades by moving away from shoot 'em ups and the like and do something else.  One idea that might work would be an RPG coin‑op ‑ each player would buy a card that would be inserted into the machine to start the game. That card would have the player's character stored on it ‑ all the information about strengths, skills, objects carried ‑ and the machine would read from and write to the card accordingly.  With that system you could carry your character around in your back pocket and carry on your game whenever you see a machine." 

Sadly, we aren't likely to see anything like that for a while yet, and for the moment, Mark prefers to look more to the immediate future. "Klax has just started to ship, and from what we've heard so far, it's already doing well. One machine in Manhattan is taking 400 dollars a week! I don't want to jinx anything by saying that Klax is going to be as big as Tetris, but I certainly hope that it will."

So what's next?  "I'm really not sure. After Klax I think I'd like to do a bit more of an action game." Beyond that, Mark doesn't really know ‑ but it's a sure‑fire bet it's worth waiting for… Even it he spends two years writing it!

 Inside Atari Games
 Topic sub-menu
 Music by Atari Games
 Go to the Forums