Once Upon Atari

Howard Warshaw was kind enough to send me a copy of the documentary Once Upon Atari. It’s a collection of interviews with some of the programmers, artists and managers who were in Atari’s consumer games group in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the division that did games for the 2600 console (and later, the 5200); these are the folks who gave us Yars Revenge, Warlords, Pac-Man and E.T.

Some of the people who are interviewed I later worked with in other divisions of Atari. It was pretty cool to hear the stories they had to tell (most of which I hadn’t heard).

The Home Computer Division (which is where I was during the Warner years) was a lot more conservative than the consumer games group. We didn’t have people coming into work at the crack of noon, or lighting up mid-afternoon spliffs in offices next to senior management. Few of us stayed until midnight or (much) later, and none of us were capable of carooming along the walls of our halls at great speed. Our work days were pretty dull, now that I think of it; if anyone lit up at work they didn’t tell me about it, and some of us wore ties.

In a word, my division was boring.

Then again, nobody in HCD had to program the 2600. I occasionally get to tell “young folk” what this machine was like: 128 bytes of RAM, no frame buffer at all, CPU clock-synced to the video output so you could do stuff in real time as the beam crawled across the screen. You had to be clever, smart and driven to get code working on this platform. The people capable of doing this were not your average Joe Programmers.

The people in the documentary have tales to tell: The infamous wall-walking escapades of Todd Frye, the aforementioned spliff-lighting (as told by the senior manager himself), the misunderstandings and impossible schedules that led to failed products and landfill material.

As the documentary shows, the machine took its toll. Making anything resembling a game on the 2600 was a remarkable accomplishment, and squeezing actual, playable fun was an act of wizardry. It broke some people, it certainly changed all of them. There were clashes between outsiders and the culture that had been built in the shadow of the machine’s limitations; Management often didn’t understand what ultimately drove the money machine, and outsiders — the movie producers and other wheeler-dealers — definitely didn’t get it.

Certainly it was the case that Atari’s marketing did not understand the 2600 or the people who could write for it. To the marketing department, the programmers were weirdos (well, they were) who could be safely ignored; an attitude that ultimately resulted in Atari’s failure. You have to listen to your wizards.

Nearly everyone interviewed was proud to have worked for Atari, and I don’t think it’s a case of time making the memories better.  It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.  While Atari was unique in several respects, the class of experience you can have working under great pressure with very good people is not unique, and I recommend (to you youngsters 🙂 ) that you find one or two of these in your career.

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13 Responses to Once Upon Atari

  1. christopher says:

    “you have to listen to your wizards.”

    that is so my new email sig (with accreditation of course)! brilliant.

  2. landon says:

    Well, you also have to listen to your necromancers, but that’s a lot less poetic.

    (Necromancers = corporate lawyers and other ugly but utterly necessary people).

  3. Adam says:

    Sounds like a fascinating documentary, where can you get it?

    Chris Crawford worked in the HCD at the time as well, if I recall, do you have any recollections of him?

  4. landon says:

    @Adam:

    http://www.onceuponatari.com/

    My roommate worked in Chris Crawford’s group, and I knew some other people (Doug Crockford, Aric Wilmunder, etc.) who were there. I didn’t talk with Chris much, though [and didn’t like his games much, either].

  5. Dougie says:

    You mention landfills, was that really the case? I saw an interview years ago where Jack Trameil denied it but have seen it mentioned elsewhere too and have always wondered if there are a load of ET carts buried somewhere…

  6. peterb says:

    You might want to pass on to Howard that there are at least some of us out here that would like to see his documentary, but don’t particularly want to buy a DVD. It would be awesome if he’d make it available for digital download (and to be perfectly clear here: I’m more than willing to _pay the same price_. I just don’t want the disk.)

  7. landon says:

    @Dougie

    Yes, the landfills were real. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_video_game_burial

    [Yeah, Wikipedia, but I remember seeing news footage of kids with cartridges].

  8. Adrock says:

    128 bytes of RAM…The people capable of doing this were not your average Joe Programmers.

    No doubt, us youngsters are so spoiled. I get to pass around 64-bit integers with no penalty. I don’t know how you guys did it. There’s still plenty of stress in the environment though, but the tools at our disposal are so enormous and unless you’re working in embedded or real-time environments, worrying about memory and/or disk space isn’t that large of a concern. I have no doubt its leading to bloated programs and lazy programmers (myself included.) Come to think of it, having limitations is probably a good thing.

  9. ShaneG says:

    A quick question (the contact page for Once Upon Atari is blank and the remaining pages aren’t clear on the issue) – is the DVD region locked or not? I would love to see this documentary (and show it to a few of my younger co-workers) but being in AU I don’t want to order something and find it only works on DVD Zone 1 players.

  10. Oisín says:

    Wall-walking? I did a quick google for this intriguing-sounding trick but found nothing. Care to elaborate?!

  11. Anon says:

    Doug Crockford? As in Yahoo’s Doug Crockford – http://www.crockford.com/ ?

  12. landon says:

    @Anon: Yes, that Doug Crockford.

  13. Mike T says:

    “Then again, nobody in HCD had to program the 2600. I occasionally get to tell “young folk” what this machine was like: 128 bytes of RAM, no frame buffer at all, CPU clock-synced to the video output so you could do stuff in real time as the beam crawled across the screen. You had to be clever, smart and driven to get code working on this platform. The people capable of doing this were not your average Joe Programmers.”

    I think that style of programming is still alive and well when it comes to programming some of you smaller PIC micro-controllers 😀

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