Once Upon Atari

I recently viewed a videotape made by Howard Warshaw about the history of Atari. Its production standards are impressive, and it is rightly being offered as a commercial product at http://www.scottw.com. However, the video disturbed me in a number of ways. It provides an object lesson in revisionist history.

The first striking thing about the video is its extremely narrow point of view. Atari was a company with 3 major divisions, dozens of buildings, and over 10,000 employees, yet this video relies almost entirely on the testimony of a small group of friends who worked in one building over the course of about four years. Granted, the activities in that one building were of greater interest than, say, what went on in Manufacturing or Accounting. Nevertheless, Atari was a very big place with all sorts of creative activities going on, and the video makes no attempt to communicate just how narrow its focus is. I think this reflects the narrowness of the world view of its creators. A soldier in the middle of a battle never gives a useful report of the overall events of the battle -- all he can describe are the events in the very short range of his view. So too with this video. The difference is that the soldier on the battle recognizes just how limited his field of view is, while the creators of this video seem to see themselves as the center of the Atari universe. I do not fault the interviewees for telling their story as they knew it -- that’s their role to play. It is the task of the narrator to place all this in its proper context, and this video fails completely in this regard.

I was also struck by how the video paints a rosy aura around the past. The emphasis is on how wild and crazy everybody was, on the parties, the fun, the good clean sweat of hard work, and so on. I was there, in that department, in 1979-80; I shared an office with one of the interviewees. I can corroborate the rosy parts of the image -- but there were other parts of the image, less romantic parts, that were glossed over. There was lots of immature antagonism between Engineering and Marketing. Some of that spleen is vented in this video, but what is not depicted is the great patience and maturity that Marketing people showed throughout all this. Sure, they didn’t know what they were doing -- but neither did the Engineering people. We were ALL making this up as we went along. In such an unsettled situation, frictions between groups with differing approaches were inevitable. What was not necessary was the childish antagonism nurtured by the Engineering people. There were plenty of interpersonal clashes -- some people just didn’t get along.

As Rob Zdybel rightly pointed out in the video, money was ruinous to the people at Atari. There was so much money sloshing around that lots of jealousy and anger rumbled just beneath the surface.

Another manifestation of this selective memory is the pussyfooting around one of the uglier events of those days. If you know the facts, then you can see plenty of indirect references to it in the video, but without knowing those facts, you’d never catch on to what really happened. Here’s the story as I heard it:

Tod Frye was assigned the task of converting the smash hit arcade game, Pac-Man, to the VCS. This was before programmers were paid royalties. It was an immensely important assignment. Towards the end of the project, the Atari Marketing people made the mistake of emphasizing just how many millions of dollars were riding on his timely completion of the game. Realizing his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Tod put a gun to the head of his managers: pay me royalties of ten cents per cartridge for this, or I walk. You’ll have to start all over with a new programmer, and the game will be delayed by months, costing you millions in wasted marketing expenses. Atari was caught in a terrible position. They had presumed that, having agreed to take the project, Tod would finish it in good faith. Now they were caught in a trap. They had no recourse -- they had to cave in to Tod’s demands. His ploy gained him several million dollars.

Another great story that didn’t make it into the video is the story of the "E.T." videogame. When Ray Kassar saw the movie in May, he realized that it would be a smash hit, and spent much of June working to secure the videogame rights for the movie. In late June, he had a signed contract and called Engineering with instructions to have an "E.T." game ready for Christmas. This was an impossible task. To have the game on the store shelves by Thanksgiving (the start of the Christmas buying season), it had to go to the chip-making factory by September 1. That gave them something like nine weeks to design, program, debug, and tune a complete game. Howard Warshaw, the maker of the video, was given the unenviable task. He plunged into it with wild energy and actually got something working. The contract required personal approval of the game by Steven Spielberg, who duly came to the Atari lab to see it working. At the presentation, Howard introduced his creation as "the game that would make the movie famous". Granting that the comment was made in jest, it still strikes me as monumental cheek.

But it doesn’t stop there. "E.T." was a lousy game; people who had forked out $40 for it felt cheated. The same was true of Pac-Man, the game that had earned Tod Frye so much money. The consumers, realizing that Atari was pushing junk on them, stopped buying the games. "E.T." was so bad that Atari ended up burying millions of copies of the game in a garbage dump. The video blames the collapse of Atari on bad management, and I won’t disagree with that, but it does not acknowledge the undeniable truth that these two games contributed mightily to the demise of Atari.

The title sums up all up: "Once Upon Atari" is a fairytale, peopled with simple heros, heroines, and villains. It’s certainly not history.
P.S. The best part of the video was seeing all my old compatriots: Carla Meninsky, Bob Polaro, Rob Fulop, Rob Zdybel, Tod Frye, and Jim Huether. It was good seeing them again. They’ve all grown older and wiser in these twenty years since I last saw them. They look good.

PS August 12, 2003. Howard Warshaw, creator of the video, weighed in with some corrections to the points made here. Herewith his observations:

OUA was never intended to be a history of ATARI, it was merely an effort to capture a very special moment in time in a very special workplace. You are right, there were many other facets to ATARI, way too many to cover in the scope of a simple documentary.That is why I targeted my material to something that could be covered in some depth.

Episode two goes extensively into the animosity between the departments. I invited several marketing people to participate, but they declined. I think it would make it even stronger to get their side in, but alas.

Your recounting of Tod in the royalty issue is simply not true. Tod never demanded anything, he merely told George Kiss the truth, that he and I were going to another company. Ray Kassar was the one who launched the royalty program. And it did change things as discussed in the series.

Once Upon ATARI is about a fantasy, a fantasy that came true for a little while.With ups and down, but a deep camaraderie between the participants and a unique bond for those that shared. I’m sorry that you were not more a part of that group, but this is simply about the VCS programmers and never makes any claim to represent ALL of ATARI. And it is the most honest and open representation about the events that transpired there that I have ever seen.