Atari's Golden Years


Read Gamasutra's 20-page history of Atari's golden years. I'm four pages in, and already fascinated. It's the disaster that never stopped making money – until it did stop making money.

Here's a delicious quote from Nolan Bushnell, regarding the policies of corporate owners Warner Bros., which thought it absurd to develop a superior replacement for the 2600 or allow anyone to develop software for their new line of home computers.

"I felt that the computer system should not be a closed system, we needed to have third party software developers. I could see Steve Jobs out evangelizing, and Atari was saying that if you write software for the Atari computers, we will sue you. I just thought that was foolhardy. They were from the record world, where you sue people."

So they fired him, and new CEO Ray Kassar reorganized the company to match how he'd done business in the textile trade, implementing dress codes, canceling next-gen R&D projects, and describing the engineers that created the wealth as "spoiled brats."

Selling 2600s like socks was highly profitable until the market realized that games and consoles weren't much like socks. Kassar was eventually kicked out after selling thousands of shares 23 minutes before the publication of an earnings report that wiped almost half of their value.

Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981

Published by Rob Beschizza

Follow Rob @beschizza on Twitter.

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  1. It’s just incredible to me how much someone from one industry can screw up when they get involved in another industry.

    And actually, at this point, they’re screwing up while staying in their own industry.

  2. There’s an analogy between Busnell and Jobs, but I’m struggling to make it. I think if you could quantify Business Savvy and Engineering Genius, I’d assume that Jobs, Bushnell, and Wozniak are all gifted with the same overall talent, but the sliders are tweaked a bit. Jobs is on the Business genius side, Wozniak’s on the engineering side, and Bushnell skews more towards the business side, but has more engineering know-how than Jobs.

    It’s probably fair to say that I’m a Bushnell fanboy to an overwhelming degree. To the level where when I meet somebody that gives the same level of respect to Jobs, I scoff at them and call them Apple Fanboys. (I’ve, uh, got a son named Nolan. And I didn’t get the name from the pitcher.)

    That said, I can recognize the fact that Bushnell is incredibly good at spin,and most of his stories have to be taken with a grain of salt. The Atari Business model when he was there NEEDED to be tempered- it was ridiculously out of control. Kassar might not have been the best fit for the market, but working with him to find a middle ground rather than going with the scorched earth policy might have helped to strengthen Atari. (Easy to say, with the benefit of hindsight. And not having the product of my efforts being torn apart by a faceless entity fronted by a marketing idiot.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that my perception of Nolan is that he’s like that old relative that you’re sometimes embarrassed to sit by at the Thanksgiving table. He says a bunch of incredibly ridiculous things that you find reasons to excuse, but there’s more than enough nuggets of truth and genius there to warrant a lot of respect.

  3. Thankyou for this – fantastic nostalgia, and a poignant case of big company boys vs the evolutionaries

  4. #2: I’ve always respect for Bushnell. Hell, I respect any guy that can make a good money-making descision after doing lines of blow off of the back of a stripper in a hot tub.

    In all seriousness, the first person I thought of when the state of California deemed non-compete clauses unlawful and unenforcable this week (again) was Nolan Bushnell. What a screw job.

  5. damn, and I just sold my atari on the craigslist.
    well heck, I bought it only a few months ago. I’m only 19 after all. all this is grandpa stuff to me

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