Atari Charts

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Oct 2, 2018

Filed under: Column 60 comments

In my Escapist column last week, I spent a few paragraphs talking about the gaming crash of 1983. As part of my research for that section, I spent some time reading about the crash and getting a proper feel for the timeline.

(Aside: The new version of the Escapist is up! It’s still being worked on, but it’s up and running. This is a pretty big step in bringing the site back to life and I know the team put a lot of work into it.)

Anyway, I started scanning Wikipedia for articles about the crash and wondering if I could plug this data into a graph because that might be interesting. The standing narrative is that Atari suffered from a flooded console market and competition from the PC scene. On top of that, I suggested that a sharp decline in quality had made consumers shy about purchasing new games. Does the data support this? I guess so. Kinda. You’ll see. Unsurprisingly, nothing is as clear-cut as I expected and the timeline doesn’t totally match my memories.

First I just plugged in the number of first-party titles released per year:

Yup, that looks like a crash to me.
Yup, that looks like a crash to me.

To be clear, this is the number of game titles released each year. Don’t confuse this with units shipped or anything. I can’t even find those numbers. And even if I did find them, they would be misleading since in 1983 a lot of units “shipped”, but then wound up in a landfill in the desert of New Mexico.

I think that dip in 1981 is a bit curious. At first I assumed that’s when disgruntled designers left Atari to form Activision and invent the concept of a third-party title. But no, that happened in 1979. According to Wikipedia:

Atari programmers David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead met with Atari CEO Ray Kassar in May 1979 to demand that the company treat developers as record labels treated musicians, with royalties and their names on game boxes. Kaplan, who called the others “the best designers for the [2600] in the world”, recalled that Kassar called the four men “towel designers” and claimed that “anybody can do a cartridge.” Crane, Miller, and Whitehead left Atari and founded Activision in October 1979 with former music industry executive Jim Levy and venture capitalist Richard Muchmore; Kaplan joined soon. David Crane has said the name “Activision” was based on Jim Levy’s idea to combine ‘active’ and ‘television’. The original name proposed for the company was VSync, Inc.

I think history has firmly rebuked Kassar’s notions that “anybody can do a cartridge”. Last week when I leaned into the idea that “quality matters”, I was specifically thinking of this mindset that designing a game was like designing a towel and it’s a job you can hand to just anyone. Back then, games were often made by just one or two people. To make an Atari game you needed to have a bunch of arcane platform-specific knowledge to get the most out of the hardware, and you also needed to design the art and gameplay yourself. I’m sure Kaplan was right and that team of guys were indeed the best 2600 developers in the world.

So what caused that dip in 1981? Kaplan and friends departed in 1979. Those four people were collectively responsible for over half of all the games for the Atari 2600 up to that point. I’d expect the dip to happen in 1980. They lost their 4 best designers and half of their creative capacity, so it only makes sense that their output would sag the following year as they scrambled to hire and train replacements. Instead Atari’s output actually went up a bit and then fell sharply after that. Back then the development cycle for individual games might run for just a couple of months, so you’d expect the cause and effect to be very close together.

So then I theorized that there was a long post-development phase to fabricate the carts. Each title represented a unique piece of hardware and maybe the year-long gap between the departure of the Activision guys in 1979 and the drop in games in 1981 represents the delay in the fabrication cycle. But that doesn’t fit because the Big Four left Atari in 1979 and released their first batch of games the very next year.

Or maybe I’m missing other information. It’s actually hard to draw any conclusions here.

The Classics

I went through the list of first-party games and counted up the number of “Classics” each year. Heads up: These numbers are bullshit. They’re based on nothing more than the subjective opinion of a bunch of 12 year old kids in 1983-ish. Carts were pretty expensive back then, so we did a lot of swapping. You could judge the perceived value of a title by how readily people would trade for it. Yar’s Revenge and Adventure were always in high demand. Maze Craze and Missile Command weren’t as popular, but they might trade 2-for-1 with one of the classics. At the low point of the spectrum was stuff like Basketball and Night Driver. Nobody wanted those. Then there were outliers like Space Invaders and Asteroids. These games were worthless for swapping, but only because everyone already owned them. They were still classics, even if you couldn’t swap them for anything.

Obviously this is a pile of subjective opinions as filtered through 40 years of nostalgia. I’m sure there were kids out there who loved Night Driver or who just couldn’t get into Adventure. Still, I went through the list of all first-party titles and counted up the number of “classics” for each year. For the purposes of this chart, a classic is something that’s either in high demand in the swapping market or in no demand due to ubiquity. Here’s what I got:

This isn't data, it's an anecdote in graph form.
This isn't data, it's an anecdote in graph form.

This doesn’t fit my expectations at all, but there it is. Atari put out a total of 6 great games in 1982, well after the Big Four had departed to form Activision. On the other hand, 1982 was also the release of Atari’s two great embarrassments: Pac-Man and E.T. The Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man was an ugly abomination with none of the charm of the original. Likewise, E.T. was a hideous chore of a game. And yet these two gaming lemons got all the big marketing dollars while gems like Vanguard and Yar’s Revenge didn’t.

Just for the sake of completeness, here’s the second chart divided by the first, reflecting the total percentage of supposedly classic titles released each year.

I guess that makes sense.
I guess that makes sense.

This is sort of what I expected. I did expect a drastic drop in quality around the gaming crash, but I kinda expected it to appear sooner.

1983 was Atari’s most prolific year, and also the year with the fewest number of “classic” titles. Those two facts produce the plunge in quality we see in 1983.

I think maybe my original idea of comparing the ratio of “classics” to “regular” games is missing the important part. What we’d really want is a measure of how many of those “regular” games were actually complete garbage. How many games were lemons, and how many lemons were given a marketing push by Atari? I have no idea how I could research that. I think answering this would require someone a little older and with a greater familiarity with the full Atari lineup. Even with visiting other kids and swapping carts, I was never able to play more than half of the commercially availableWikipedia lists a lot of strange one-off titles that never got commercial release. Given the difficulty of building a cart back then, I’m surprised at how common these were. titles in the 1981-1983 era.

Still, 1982 would have been an incredible year if they’d just shelved some of the obviously terrible games. Remember that this is a strange moment in history where it costs more to fabricate copies of a game than it does to develop it. If a game reaches the end of development and it’s no fun then you have a strong incentive to avoid putting it into production. Your sunk costs at the end of development are pretty trivialThe salary of one or two people for a few months., so it shouldn’t even be a big deal. This means if a company publishes a terrible game it means they either thought it would sell anyway, or they couldn’t tell it was terrible.

Obviously all of this information is too wishy-washy to make for a proper column with a clear thesis, but I thought it was worth looking at and talking about. Just don’t read too much into those “classics”.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Wikipedia lists a lot of strange one-off titles that never got commercial release. Given the difficulty of building a cart back then, I’m surprised at how common these were.

[2] The salary of one or two people for a few months.



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60 thoughts on “Atari Charts

  1. John says:

    I have some very, very dim memories of playing Night Driver at a friend’s house as a kid. As I recall, the game was a mostly black screen with two series of short white posts representing the sides of the road. I can’t remember if the car appeared on the screen or if it was one of those driving games where you’re supposed to be looking out through the windshield from the driver’s seat. Nor can I remember what the point of the game was. (It was probably something banal like “don’t run into the posts”.) I do remember that there was a constant and very annoying ticking or buzzing sound intended to represent engine or road noise.

    It was not a good game, though I don’t know that I would have put it in those terms in those days. Video games were such an interesting novelty to me back then that if it had been the only game available I would have happily played it for as long as I could. Fortunately for me, my friend was keen to show off the more interesting games in his collection and we quickly moved on to, I think, The Empire Strikes Back, in which you fly a snowspeeder and kill AT-ATs. Forever. Because that’s just how early video games worked.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      Night Driver was first-person, sort of. You could see the front of your car at the bottom of the screen. The car got gradually faster and you had to avoid crashing for as long as possible.

      YouTube: for all your old-game nostalgia needs.

  2. Lee says:

    The Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man was an ugly abomination.

    Maybe it was, but as a kid who never owned an Atari 2600, and only got to play one or two games when visiting family members who did, those sounds really bring me back. Obviously I didn’t have your palate, so to speak, but I loved that game. Also the game where you played one of 4 players in the corner of the screen in a variety of mini games, which might have been “Combat”. Oh, and yes, Yars Revenge was my favorite Atari game ever.

    1. Shamus says:

      The 4-corners game is Warlords.

      Combat was the most common pack-in game for the 2600. It had two major game modes. The first is one is a top-down PvP tank battle, and the second is a side-view PvP plane fight. It was pretty good.

      I’ve pretty sure one of the background images here on the site is from the tank mode of Combat.

      1. Daimbert says:

        What was great about Combat was that while it had those two general modes, it had a pretty wide variety of different variations on them, with different mazes and rules and different combinations of crafts in the plane mode. There were even modes in the tank game where the shots bounced off the walls. I know that at least the tank on the right — I think, it could have been the left — if you rotated quickly enough and hit the right wall you could fire a shot that bounced off the walls and hit your opponent before they could even move [grin].

  3. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    One thing that seems to be missing from your timeline is that when Activision was created, Atari sued them at first to prevent them from creating third party games. They lost the case in 1982, allowing every third party developers to develop for the Atari console, not just Activision. That would explain the massive increase of games from then on no?

    1. Shamus says:

      That seems like a reasonable assumption, but the graph only includes stuff listed as first-party titles, meaning directly from Atari. Activision et al are not included on these charts.

  4. Asdasd says:

    Obviously all of this information is too wishy-washy to make for a proper column with a clear thesis

    Don’t worry about it. I actually think articles are more interesting for this element of mystery. Sometimes when the data points in a clear direction all it does is encourage a writer to overstate their claim.

  5. Infinitron says:

    Underrepresented opinion: The 1983 gaming crash was less about quality or classic vs non-classic, and more about console gaming as a whole being an inevitably temporary fad at that point in its history.

    Put another way, none of the Atari games were good enough. Some sort of crash or downturn would have happened even without the high profile disasters like Pacman and E.T.

    1. Lino says:

      That sounds interesting. Were DOS games really that much better than what consoles were putting out? Even though I’m a very avid PC gamer, the years before 1990 are kind of a blur for me (maybe it’s because I was born in 1993 :D ) – I just know that there were some console-style platformers, adventure games, some RPGs and experimental stuff like Rogue. But wasn’t the PC even more niche than consoles? Also, weren’t PCs more expensive and viewed mainly as machines used for work?

      1. King Marth says:

        Funny story: Console games being bad at that point in time doesn’t automatically mean than computer games were good.

        Of course, computers had reasons to exist outside of gaming, so if the games sucked (as everything did, this was ye olden days) then the device wasn’t automatically worthless. However, an expensive, purpose-built machine which is bad at its primary purpose is not long for the world.

        1. Lino says:

          So why did consoles become so popular after the crash? Were Nintendo games THAT much better than PC games at the time, or were there just more new games available for it? Was it because consoles being easier to develop for (i.e. less spec variations)?

          1. John says:

            Compared to the various home computers of the era, the NES was significantly cheaper, easier to store, easier to use, and featured competitive if not outright superior graphics. It was designed to run games and it ran them well whereas the ability of home computers to run games was–at least at the time, as I’d argue that things have changed since the invention of the discrete GPU–something of a happy accident. I would also say that it had better games in more accessible genres. Finally, it was a toy. People who didn’t see a use or the need for a home computer were perfectly willing to buy a toy for their kids.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              I guess it synergizes with the whole “is a toy” thing but there is also the general convenience of it (that Shamus teaches us is a Very Important Thing), some examples:
              -you don’t have to learn about computers, you buy a NES, plug it in, it works and runs the games (this is still a big factor for many people today);
              -it was a box, some cables and a few smaller boxes, small enough to put it on a shelf or in a drawer in the TV cabinet if it wasn’t in use, a computer required its own shrine;
              -if you, or more likely the kids, learned how to run one game you could basically run all of them, DOS (or other system that required you to, you know, type things) games could be a bit more complex to get working (and so on some days kids would keep calling you over to switch games all the time);

              1. John says:

                Well, I did say “easier to store, easier to use”. I guess I should have been more specific.

                Incidentally, some computers of the time did have the “insert game in machine, turn machine on to play game” functionality that we now associate with consoles. When my family finally got an NES, I was impressed by the graphics rather than the ease of use because I’d been using Apple IIs, which worked the same way, for years by that point. I know that the Commodore 64 required a little command-line mumbo jumbo before it would run a game, as did IBM PCs. I don’t know how Tandys, Ataris, or Amigas worked.

                1. Daimbert says:

                  Tandys had a cartridge slot. Amigas usually just let you put the disk in and autobooted until they built the desktop.

                  1. Sleeping Dragon says:

                    Very, very late but just to add. I HAD an Amiga, I nearly forgot about it, Amiga 500 to be exact, and while the booting from floppy is true I would not describe it as handy in storage or setup.

          2. Karma The Alligator says:

            I’d say it’s because not a lot of people had computers at home, and using computers was a lot harder than plugging the console in the TV and inserting a cartridge (from what I remember of the NES Vs Commodore 64).

            1. Daimbert says:

              Plus, you might not be willing to let your kids play with that expensive computer and possibly break it, whereas the Nintendo was cheap enough that if they broke it trying to put the cartridges in it didn’t matter as much.

              Also, being able to buy small TVs and so let the kids have their own complete system might have helped as well.

          3. Decius says:

            Yes. NES games were significantly better in many ways than the prevalent DOS games. For comparison, look at the ‘classic’ titles from Apogee (now 3d realms), available at https://3drealms.com/catalog/ .

            Mega Man (1987) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzevrsWrwUc
            vs Duke Nukem (1991) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz6cnwZi0Go

            You can see the differences in the hardware limitations; the PC games have art and level design that aren’t subject to the NES limits on sprite size and number onscreen, (visible on the MM trailer at 0:23- the boulder exceeds the number of sprites possible, so some of them aren’t drawn, at 0:27through 0:30- When too many sprites are on at once, the health and energy bars have parts render every other frame.)

            But the sound on the NES could rely on having the dedicated hardware (it’s in the box already) while PC sound design had to deal with the fact that there were dozens of competing standards for the hardware, and lots of users had the IBM PC speaker as their sole audio output. Most PC games in the early 90’s had to design their audio twice: Once for the PC speaker and once for people with sound cards (and probably some tweaking to make it work on all the competing sound cards, until Creative Labs Sound Blaster won the standards war).

      2. silver Harloe says:

        The alternative wasn’t DOS/PC, it was the Apple II or the C64 or the Atari 800.
        Ultima II came out in 1982, Ultima III the year after.
        Wizardry put out its first games in 1981-1983.
        M.U.L.E. came out in 1983.
        Those are just highlights from my memories, but there were other good games for these 8 bit computers.

        1. Michael Anderson says:

          Exactly – I always read about the ‘crash’ and maybe because I was in the middle of high school (‘84 grad) it didn’t mean much to me … I was busy working, school, band, sports, activities, etc.

          But while I didn’t have an Atari, I DID have an Apple ][+ … and aside from word processor and spreadsheet stuff, I had Castle Wolfenstein, Wizardry and Ultima games … plenty fun for me in my limited time!

          1. Kyle Haight says:

            Yes, in the mid-80’s, the dominant home computers for gaming were the C64 and the Apple II. I had a //e that my parents bought around 1984, so after the crash. I was 12 in 1983, so my memories of the crash are mostly of having difficulty finding ‘good’ games for the 2600. But the games on the Apple were so much better that I didn’t really care. Technology, from my pre-teen perspective, had marched on. The games on those early 8-bit computers were an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything you could find on the 2600. Compare Ultima I with Adventure.

            I remained a loyal Apple II gamer until the platform died around 1990. In 1992 I bought my first PC, a 486/33, and gamed there. I never looked back at consoles until 2007, when I picked up a PS/2 Slim and then an Xbox 360.

        2. Joe Informatico says:

          I don’t know if the Atari 800 was successful, but I remember two of the kids I played with having one, and it had some pretty good games for the time. Star Raiders, Midway Battles, some World War III strategy game I can’t recall the name of–all good stuff.

      3. Joshua says:

        I didn’t get my first computer until 1990 or so, but playing a few older games like Ultima 1-3 (1980-1983)lets you know the games were a hell of a lot more sophisticated on the computer than consoles. Plus, you know, you had more than ONE button for actions.

  6. Matt Downie says:

    If only they’d invented Tetris…

  7. Lino says:

    Very interesting! I wonder, there must be a way to see what the general opinion was about the quality of these games. Although we obviously can’t look at their Metacritic scores, maybe someone could do a poll on one of the retro gaming communities, and we could put it in a graph, similar to the second and third ones in this article.

    Of course, the problem with this idea is that we couldn’t gauge what the consensus was at the time… Alternatively, someone could get Atari itself to share its sales numbers. They’re probably about to start a big marketing push about their new… thing, and they’re very likely to try hearkening back to the “good old days”. Maybe some gaming news outlet could get them to share that data.
    Unfortunately, we don’t know anybody that works at such a news outlet… If only…

    1. John says:

      I’m not so sure that those sales figures still exist. If they do, I’m not so sure that the bankrupt French shell corporation currently calling itself Atari has them. Atari has never been particularly well-managed and has been through roughly half-a-dozen corporate restructurings since 1972. It’s been acquired, split in two and sold-off, acquired again, and basically liquidated to the point that I’m pretty sure that all that’s left is the name and maybe some IP.

      1. Lino says:

        Maybe the internal documents are gone, but there’s probably still data from their tax returns, and other documents they’ve had to provide to the government. That could still give us a general idea of where they were at the time.

        1. Decius says:

          Don’t look for numbers from Atari. Look for numbers from the retailers.

          Not quite as comprehensive, but they will show only the actual sales, not ‘sales’.

  8. ccesarano says:

    I was born in 1985 and thus have no possible memory of the actual time period. I barely remember my family owning a Colecovision that broke somehow, and all I recall playing on it was Donkey Kong. The strongest memory, of all things, was the scent of the controller. So I’ve read up and watched interviews and documentaries about the crash, but ultimately I can only offer conjecture.

    Nevertheless, for some reason while reading this and seeing mention of “first party”, I could only think of the Nintendo Wii. The system sold gangbusters, but the brand new audience was satisfied with just a handful of titles. Some crossover/core games like New Super Mario Brothers Wii sold, but that in part was a result of appealing to nostalgia. Nintendo’s efforts to modify their games so that these new players could segue into core type titles failed because the new audience simply lacked the interest. They had their Wii Sports, Just Dance, and New Super Mario Bros. Games to play socially when they weren’t outside having a barbecue. It was a party machine.

    While I’m not suggesting Atari would have been a party machine for anyone, I’m wondering if there was a large portion of the market that hit that same wall. Eventually the only people buying games on the Wii were dedicated gamers. Wouldn’t the number of dedicated gamers have been smaller?

    And now for speculation that really does rely on those old enough to have lived through it: how many kids “grew out of” gaming? My generation saw gaming remain pretty steady for a lot of people, but nevertheless as I entered high school and especially entered College, I knew a lot of people just stopped gaming. It was a tertiary or lower priority for leisure and entertainment, and so it got tossed aside. I’m wondering if a lot of kids in the early 80’s that grew up with games started to drop off the hobby, being more involved with extra-curricular activities at school or other such shifts of interest.

    So to sum up, I’m wondering if an additional contributor to the crash is unrelated to the games or their quality, but simply to some families feeling content with their library and some children moving on to other interests. Clearly there was still a dedicated gaming fanbase, as PC gaming itself never died. However, just as children’s cartoons are coming in and out every few years, it would help explain why Nintendo would make such a splash outside of just being fancy new tech (and looking back, seeing Super Mario Bros. compared to what was on Atari 2600… huge difference in performance and capability). You now have a new generation of kids being introduced to gaming for the first time, be it from parents that never gave gaming up or just figured it would be a nice toy for their kids to have.

    Just guesswork on my part. Of course, I’m also just a sucker for nostalgic writings about childhood gaming experiences these days so maybe I’m just baiting a more detailed post of Shamus’ game swapping youth.

    1. Daimbert says:

      I had a Wii. I mostly bought it for Wii Fit and figured that I could always get games for it, too. I also had a PS2 and eventually a PS3. I rarely used the Wii beyond Wii Fit, mostly because there were extremely few games for it that had any interest for me. As a Not-So-Casual Gamer, it’s not a good sign for a system when it doesn’t have games that interested me, especially considering that I DID buy some of their adventure games (and never got around to playing). You don’t need FPSes, but you should be able to find SOMETHING that I might want to try …

  9. Dreadjaws says:

    There are many things to consider, as obviously the crash was the product of many factors, but I think you’re overlooking a simple fact: quality vs. quantity. Going by your Graph, and comparing total first party games released to the ones that turned out to be classics and looking at the percentages and relative numbers.

    1980 ->10+ — 2 — 20%
    1981 -> 5 —– 2 — 40%
    1982 -> 20+ — 6 — 28%
    1983 -> 30+ — 1 — 3%

    Yes, 1982 saw the release of 6 classics, but it was also a dip in relative quality from total games released from the previous year. Also note that while 4 more games turned out to be classics that year than in the previous one (a 200% increase), they had to release 15+ more games (a 300%+ increase) than in the previous one to reach that number.

    Then, of course, 1983 plummets like an Assassin’s Creed character jumping on a cart of hay.

    Edit: Oh, I just noticed you did mention this. I don’t know how I missed that third graph. D’oh!

  10. Lino says:

    Although there really are a ton of factors going into this, now that I’ve given it more thought, I think that a main one was the fact that no one at the top thought they were creating an artistic product (or at least most of them didn’t). Since producing the cartridges was such a big part of the cost of making games, I think most executives saw games as just a standard consumer discretionary product. Their line of thinking was probably along the lines of “As long as the product works, and we keep production costs low, we just need to keep up with demand.”
    At least that’s the most plausible reason I can see how Atari’s CEO just scoffed when he lost his best talent.

  11. Lars says:

    As you mentioned: To make a copy of any game was more expensive than developing it. To get this money back Atari had to sell lots of games or at a high price. Atari preferred the high price because the 1980-ish market was a fraction of today’s market. Which led to the swapping-market, where Atari didn’t earn anything.
    In 1983 they invested a massive amount of cash to produce those 30+ games, which nobody wanted to buy/could afford. (Specially kids).
    And to develop 30+ games even the development costs got “recognizable”. The crash of Atari is no surprise: They grew too large too fast. That way Pacman and E.T. did really hurt.
    THQ, once upon a time 4th largest publisher in the world, went bankrupt on one do-not-sell-hardware. A drawing controller nobody wanted. Nintendo nearly had the same fate with the WiiU directly after the enormous success of the Wii. The story of Crytek is another example.
    A crash can happen anytime, to anyone. Quality is only 1 of many factors.

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      What are the likely development costs? According to this:https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1537/the_history_of_activision.php?print=1
      an engineer was paid $20,000 a year to create (on his own) games that generated $20 million in revenue. If those thirty games took 1 man-year of work each, the total development cost of 30 games was $600,000. That’s pretty small compared to $20 million for the rights to ET or the cost of manufacturing 5 million ET cartridges.

      1. Matthew Downie says:

        That article I linked does offer an explanation for the crash. Dozens of developers tried to get in on the market. They made too many copies of too many bad games. These games all ended up on sale for $5. Once $5 games existed, no-one was willing to spend $40 on games, even ones that might have been better quality.

    2. Chris says:

      to pin THQ’s death on just the drawing controller is a bit much. Just like the crash it’s multiple factors that kill a company. They didn’t just make the controller, they also invested a lot in homefront which flopped, and made money of licensed games which were getting less and less attractive.

  12. Adamantyr says:

    Speaking of things from the home computer side…

    I was around for the crash, although I didn’t get my TI-99/4a until July of 1984, over a half a year after it. That was when every store was selling the stock of computers and consoles at cut-rate prices to move them out. My parents, sadly, didn’t realize they were buying an unsupported system. (Still got it, and the box with the Jafco sticker on it. Runs great.)

    Was the crash entirely the fault of Atari though? Jack Tramiel’s ruthless price-cutting of the Commodore VIC-20 to undercut both TI and Atari’s home computer lines also had an impact. You could argue that Atari was spreading itself out too far, trying to dominate both the home computer market and the console market.

    The blog of Landon Dyer (http://www.dadhacker.com/blog/) offers some great perspective of life working at Atari both before and after the crash.

  13. Wiseman says:

    As I mentioned previously, when you told me to watch the Atari/ET documentary I did watch it and searched for more info. There are alternate versions of how that crash went down.
    According to the doc, ET and Pacman were well received games. They sold really well. However, because Atari would bear the cost of unsold copies of games, retailers usually overstocked on their most anticipated games. Because of that both those games lost money to Atari, who became unable to turn a profit from their biggest releases. That’s why their stock value plummeted.

    The reason why people retroactively remember those games as horrible is because ET depends on information found on the manual to be played well, and Pacman used a flicker trick to display more sprites than the 2600 actually allowed on screen, which isn’t reproduced by emulator. The media also played a part in this mythos by stating that millions of ET cartridges were buried in the desert, probably a detail added only because it was one of the most popular games of the time. When the place was dug for the documentary, nowhere near that number was found, and it contained many different titles, with ET not dominating the discarded games. It was just a cost effective warehouse cleaning.

    Not saying that quality doesn’t matter, but I find it hard to believe people hated Pacman that much, considering you could probably not get any better version of the game on consoles at the time, and it was a tremendously popular game, which displays correctly in real hardware.

    There is also a common argument that there were too many games and consoles around at the time, but the same problem didn’t stop Nintendo, SEGA, nor Sony when their consoles released. Regular consumers usually don’t even know about failed consoles so they don’t have an effect on them.

    Of course I wasn’t even alive at the time so if you could disprove any of the info on the doc, I’m glad to hear it.

    1. Shamus says:

      I realize it’s just an anecdote, but I remember a general distaste for Pac-Man 2600 among my peers. The flickering wasn’t just ugly, it was uncomfortable. On top of that were the flat sounds, the simplified maze, the sluggish movement, and the complete lack of color. Also, the board itself was sort of unpleasant to look at. Bright yellow on bright blue background provided contrasting color but not contrasting brightness, so the whole screen was pretty bright. That’s not too bad today, but on the televisions of 1980 it hurt to look at.

      Of course, as a kid I wouldn’t have zeroed in on those flaws as the reason why nobody wanted to play it for too long. We just bitched about the flickering and lack of color.

      I’m not surprised the game sold well. Atari put a lot of marketing behind it. My thinking is that people dropped $40 on this game, discovered the lack of quality, and then became very cautious about future purchases.

      1. Steve C says:

        I will confirm your recollection as a fellow kid in the 80s. Pac-Man was awful for exactly the reasons you state.

      2. Jason says:

        I’m not going to argue that Pac-Man was a good game, but I remember renting it from the local video store one summer and playing it a lot. I’m guessing it was 1982, since according to Wikipedia, Pac-Man was released in March. I would have been 10. We liked it enough that we eventually bought a copy (probably at a deep discount later). At that age, I couldn’t really go the the arcade, so the 2600 version was my only option. I knew the real game enough to recognize how different it was though.
        I kind of remember playing ET, but it was probably at a friend’s house because I don’t remember owning it.

    2. guy says:

      My understanding was that ET and Pacman got good sales for videogames of the era but not good sales considering what they were licensed from; ET could reasonably have sold enough to be profitable if it’d been well-recieved as a game.

      The further inference in the usual narrative was that, as the adaption of a wildly popular movie, gamers took it as a barometer of the industry rather than as one bad game, hence why it cratered the industry rather than just Atari.

      1. Matthew Downie says:

        Atari decided to make 12 million Pac-Man cartridges. They had only sold 10 million consoles so far, but they reckoned they’d sell to 100% of the existing market, and a couple of million people would buy the console just to play Pac-Man.

        So, yes: the sales were quite high by conventional standards, but not compared to the wildly ambitious targets they set.

        1. Adamantyr says:

          My cousins owned an Atari 2600 and had both E.T. and Pac-Man. I also played a lot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was actually similar in gameplay to E.T. (Equally frustrating though. Damn tsetse flies…)

          Besides Atari having an inflated estimate of how many units they would sell, Activision was really starting to show them up, producing far superior graphics with the exact same hardware. Pitfall! looks like it was developed for a completely different platform.

          Pac-Man on the 2600 just FEELS cheap, like minimum effort was put into it. Everything is nearly the same color (ghosts and pac-man both yellow, blue ghosts are such a pale blue they’re easy to mistake), the eating sound is a sharp unpleasant ping, and the flicker gives you headaches after awhile.

          As for E.T., it’s just a frustrating game to play. The edge detection for pits is off and just about when you have the communicator assembled that damn FBI agent shows up and takes everything away.

    3. Matthew Downie says:

      Wikipedia on Atari ET (edited for length):
      While reviews of the movie were highly positive, the game was negatively received by critics, with common complaints focused on the plot, gameplay, and visuals… In 1984 Softline readers named the game the second-worst Atari program of 1983, after Congo Bongo.

      Nevertheless, the game also received some more positive reviews… Vidiot’s Kevin Christopher criticized the protagonist’s repeated falling down back into holes, but considered it “about the only flaw with an otherwise A-1 game.” Arcade Express scored it 6 out of 10 in December 1982.

      Wikipedia on Atari Pacman:
      At release, critics negatively compared the port to its original arcade form, panning the audio-visuals and gameplay. On May 11, 1982, Electronic Games Magazine published its first bad review ever for an Atari video game, saying, “Considering the anticipation and considerable time the Atari designers had to work on it, it’s astonishing to see a home version of a classic arcade contest so devoid of what gave the original its charm”. Video Magazine admitted it was “challenging, and there are a few visual pluses”, before lamenting, “Unfortunately those who cannot evaluate Pac-Man through lover’s eyes are likely to be disappointed”. The premiere issue of Video Games Player from Fall 1982 called Pac-Man “just awful”.

      In 1983, Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games reviewer Danny Goodman commented that the game fails as a replica of its arcade form: “Atari stated clearly in it description of the cartridge that Atari’s Pac-Man ‘differs slightly from the original’. That, perhaps, was an understatement.” Conversely, he stated that such criticism was unfair because the hardware could not properly emulate the arcade game. Goodman further said that the port is a challenging maze game in its own right, and it would have been a success if fans had not expected to play a game closer to the original. That year Phil Wiswell of Video Games criticized the game’s poor graphics, mockingly referring to it as “Flickerman”

    4. Dan Efran says:

      Actually, the reason people retrospectively remember those games as bad is because they were bad games.

      (I was 12 in 1983, for the record; didn’t own a 2600 but played most of the well known games at friends’ houses.)

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that Pac-Man only flickers in emulation. The flicker was very real on the 2600 in 1983. They couldn’t display all the sprites at once so they cycled through them. It looked bad. The effect made it obvious that the console was struggling even to approximate the arcade classic. It made you feel like you’d bought an outdated, underpowered console. Yay! It’s a playable game, but a sorry substitute for the real deal. And E.T. was a rushed, sketchy movie tie-in that had janky controls, no real relation to the movie (pits???), and no particular fun to be had.

      Perhaps it’s been forgotten by now just how huge a cultural phenomenon PAC-MAN was, and E.T. too – the arcade game and the Spielberg movie, that is, not the 2600 games. These things were huge – like Star Wars popular, or nearly so. These were very hot IP that came with expectations of top-tier entertainment, and when Atari released these games they were promising to bring these classic experiences to your console. These games are reviled because they underdelivered and disappointed so thoroughly in that context. Especially E.T., which was barely a finished game and was insultingly crude and random as a tie-in for a beloved blockbuster.

      1. Wiseman says:

        What I meant about emulation is that early emulators didn’t reproduce the flickering, making Pacman less good.

  14. Joshua says:

    Even though I grew up in that era, I have little nostalgia for any of these titles. Judging by how poorly the Atari Flashback consoles sold compared to the NES/SNES classics, I’m not sure how many other people did either. Of course, I only played the games on my Atari 7800, which could play the 2600 games and they didn’t compare well. One game I do remember enjoying though was Wizards of Wor.

    1. Joe Informatico says:

      When you compare the 2600 to its peers (e.g. Intellivision, Colecovision), I really feel like it was the inferior machine. I can only assume being first, brand recognition, marketing, and snagging more arcade ports (which it usually sucked at) is what made it the household name. Even the 2600 games I remember being decent, like Pitfall II and River Raid, had their basic concepts done better on other consoles. (I knew a couple kids with Atari 800s though–that had some good games: Star Raiders, some good strategy games.) I had a 2600, but it was rare any game would hold my attention for more than 15 minutes before I quit to play outside. Meanwhile, I could easily spend an hour or two in an arcade, and there are still a lot of arcade games from that era I enjoy.

  15. Mephane says:

    After that redesign of the Escapist, they changed the header of your column there. Now your portrait is nowhere near to be found. Not sure if intentional, but I liked having that there as a quick glance confirmation that I am reading your column and not someone else’s (I have little interest in the rest of the Escapist at this time).

  16. Erik says:

    When you’re wondering why 1981-82 was a dip, don’t forget it was a *huge* recession, the biggest between the Great Depression and the recent financial crisis, and the second in three years. (1979-80 was caused by the second OPEC boycott; 1981-3 was the Volcker disinflation.) 1983 was the start of the recovery, and people had more money for things like games. There’s some lag time, because companies have long lead times, but sometimes the environment is bad enough to cause odd variations in apparently unrelated economic data.

    1. smileyninja says:

      Wasn’t the S&L Crisis starting up around this time as well? A lot of people were getting hammered by high interest rates on their mortgages and were scrambling to make house payments.

  17. Vinsomer says:

    I have a couple of theories as to why the data doesn’t necessarily match the timeline of the common narrative.

    Obviously, as others have mentioned the recession played a part in limiting Atari’s output. But, just as developing games takes time, so does consumer confidence changing. Consumers were likely not aware of the departures of Atari staff and bad games weren’t exactly rare before. It was only after a sustained period of nothing but bad games that confidence plummeted.

    On top of this, scheduling is a thing. Games might not be released as soon as they’re made but rather released during an opportune moment, i.e the Christmas period, or alongside a tie-in movie etc. So not only might the Activision guys have essentially left complete projects for Atari to slowly release after their departure,

    And, finally, as you said creating games is a creative endeavour. It’s entirely possible that the new team started well, producing good games before they just ran out of ideas/burned out after a period of a few years with high workloads. Honestly, consistently producing good games on a schedule is difficult and Kassar probably thought that if the current guys could do it, then everyone could. In other words, he had One Piece, and thought everyone could be an Oda, but instead he could only find Kishimotos and Kubos instead.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      That certainly makes sense to me, especially the delayed consumer reaction. Especially given that many of those consumers were either kids, or (more frequently) those kids’ parents, who had little detailed knowledge of what their children would make of a particular game.

      The other factors that may explain a lot of this (all made up by me, based on what makes sense to me — I’m not an authority!):
      After those 4 people left, Atari continued production, and the remaining developers were probably not so bad and at least partially rose to the challenge of replacing the people who had left. A few new hires also worked fairly well. So maybe developers weren’t quite the rock stars they thought they were. But then, management started believing the towel hypothesis a bit too much, hiered tons more people to churn out tons more games. This failed for two reasons: 1: The market just wasn’t big enough. A child can only play that many games per year, and most won’t get twice as many just because there are more on offer; 2: Quality vs. Quantity. Obviously, people started to be annoyed with the amount of lemons. Especially when some of them were accompanied by huge PR campaigns. So even back then, the problem of “management doesn’t understand what gamers want” was alive and kicking.

      Oh, and a third one: In 1982, the Commodore 64 started selling*. So by 1983, sales of the Atari 2600 would have probably started declining, further reducing the growth of the market for Atari games. I’d imaging that especially the more well-heeled customers would have switched systems quicker than others. So really, it was one company prioritizing quantity over quality, at a time when they started to have way more advanced competition.

      * full disclosure: I’m a C64 kid. I knew nothing about Atari other than that it existed. Some of my friends had C64s, one had a Schneider CPC, and I guess someone had an Atari, but the people with C64 were my favourites, until my brother and me finally convinced our parents to get one in 1986 or so — it was dearly beloved until well into the 1990s, when my mom got an 80486 PC and PC games started to finally catch up.

  18. Cilvre says:

    Missed title opportunity: “Atari Charts for Atari Carts”

  19. Grimwear says:

    I’ve looked at the new escapist site and frankly it’s terrible. Everything is too small for the screen and there are just an insane amount of squished boxes and words are cutoff halfway. Is this because I’m on an old version of firefox or does it look this way for everyone? Because if they want to fix it great but as it currently stands I don’t want to go near it with a 20 foot pole.

  20. ElementalAlchemist says:

    Shamus, an aspect you touched on in this week’s Experienced Points column that might be useful to expound on as a full article here in the future: interior mapping.

    http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoostVanDongen/20180925/327159/Interior_Mapping_rendering_real_rooms_without_geometry.php

    http://interiormapping.oogst3d.net/

  21. Rob says:

    I am almost exactly the same age as Shamus. I recall cutting grass when I was 12 all summer so I could afford a Commodore 64. I so very lusted after having one, and an Atari, or Odyssey (which is what we had) would not scratch that itch. I wonder if the Commodore explosion isn’t getting enough attention to Atari’s demise.

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