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:
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  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.
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 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.
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”.
 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.
 The salary of one or two people for a few months.
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