Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari

I was in the library the other day, and it occurred to me to search for "Atari" in the card catalog, and I found this book by Scott Cohen. It has a very interesting perspective, given that it was written in 1984, right as the videogame crash was happening. The author, who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like videogames, and who suggests that everyone in silicon valley is an alcoholic and/or a drug addict, sees the crash as evidence of the end of a fad. I remember distinctly, in second grade, seeing a "Scholastic News" article (printed on that colored pulp paper back in the 70's) asking the question "Are videogames just a fad?" and I remember thinking that was absolutely impossible. And I guess I had it right, unlike videogame hater Scott Cohen. However -- he had some other things quite right indeed, that I'll get to in a moment.

Okay... what did I learn from this book?

1) A lot of details about how Nolan Bushnell ran his businesses. He was incredibly vision oriented, without a lot of focus on practicalities. Making a machine for $1100 and selling it for $1000, like he did with Gran Trak 10? We'll make it up in volume. Focus on one thing at a time? Nope... arcade games, home games, and even Chuck E. Cheese were all worked on simultaneously. I had always seen Pizza Time Theater as something that game later, but no, it was created in parallel with Atari.

2) Space Invaders was very, very important. As I mentioned here, I knew that it transformed arcades... but what I did not know was that it also transformed home video games! After all, The Atari, the Odyssey, and the Fairchild Channel F system were all out on the market in 1977, and mostly, people didn't care. But when Space Invaders hit in 1978, suddenly the world went videogame crazy, and not only did this change arcades, but suddenly people wanted home systems too, and Atari rode that to great success. And of course, the fact that they landed the first videogame license ever (Space Invaders) helped them enormously.

3) After Warner bought Atari ($28M) they managed it well at times, getting strong licenses (like Pac-Man) but other times managed it incredibly badly. It seems they were arrogant, and did not really understand the retail business, even though Atari had become 70% of their revenue! Their biggest mistake was 1982, when they didn't realize that retailers were cancelling orders all over the place, and they kept manufacturing anyway, which led to the famous ET debacle. They found themselves in a situation where they were creatively bankrupt (just LOOK at 2600 Pac-Man) and also had no grasp of the business they were in.

Again, this book was written 33 years ago, and so it is amusing to hear the thinking of the day on what the future will be like. Scott talks endlessly about the promise of holography (people really believed it was the future of displays), and how "nothing will surpass the laserdisk", which is all very quaint. But then he says something rather startling. He suggests that the next big thing might come out of Bell Labs. "Although a communications company like Bell is not an entertainment company like Warner, it can leap-frog the entertainment industry. People can be entertained by something outside the entertainment market; it's just a question of how you define entertainment... Look at what people spend their money on. If there were a neat little terminal and it put people in touch with everything they wanted to be in touch with, people would stop playing video games." That sounds an awful lot like a vision of the web browser to me, and back in 1984. I guess it should come as no surprise to me that his inaccurate projections come from looking at technology of the day, and his accurate ones come from looking at what people actually want... that is, after all, the only method that works!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America

I picked up this book by Michael Z. Newman at GDC this year because I am always interested in videogame history, and in particular, I'm an Atari fanatic. Lately, I've become obsessed with collecting every possible Atari 2600 cart, and stitching them all together into one giant game... but that's another story.

From this book, I hoped to get some insight into the story of how Atari happened, and how it defined videogames. And... I got half of that. This book is very light on business and software development history, instead focusing on the impact of games on popular culture. Specifically, it focuses on 1972-1983, a relatively narrow and interesting focus. I can't say I learned a lot of facts from this book, but I definitely took away some interesting perspectives. Basically, here are my big three takeaways from this book.

1) Space Invaders. I always understood that Space Invaders was very popular, I remember, I was there when it happened. But what had not sunk in with me is exactly what a tipping point this one game was. As Newman tells it, before Space Invaders, video machines were viewed as lesser novelties by arcade owners. I remember these machines well - various car race games, games like Sea Wolf, etc. Apparently, they broke a lot, and didn't pull in the big money that pinball tended to. Space Invaders changed everything. Suddenly, a video machine was pulling in WAY more money than pinball machines. The dozens of successful arcade games that rapidly followed were all drafting off of the success of Space Invaders. It is yet another case of a single hit giving legitimacy to an entire industry. In many ways I feel that at this moment, VR is in the "Sea Wolf" stage. We have some good games, but we haven't yet had a breakout hit. But it will come, and when it does, it will change everything.

2) Pac-Man. Until I'd read Atari Age, I did not fully comprehend that Pac-Man was expressly created to reach a female audience, and the fact that it succeeded at doing so was central to its success. I remember when Pac-Man appeared, and it was like a new level of arcade machine, like going from the PC to the Mac in 1984. I remember saving up three dollars worth of quarters, riding my bike all the way out to Pavolo's Pizza one day, and carefully playing each game, studying and trying to master it. I was stunned and amazed when I finally saw the first cut scene -- no videogame before had contained that level of whimsical storytelling. We all wondered what other secrets this complex game might contain. I remember my babysitter was so proud to introduce me to her girlfriend who was good enough to get up the key screen. So, Pac-Man was notable in that it may have been the first game that intentionally sought a female audience, and actually succeeded in doing so.

3) Selling the Future. Atari Age spends a LOT of time analyzing advertisements for early computers. At first this seemed kind of ludicrous to me... the ads are cute, but why are they relevant? But soon it started to dawn on me -- what is really being analyzed here is what the psychology of the home computer really was. What was being sold was, yes, a business machine, and yes, a game machine, but something else, too: a gateway to intellectual mastery of the future. The possibility of becoming a "computer whiz" was central to these advertisements, and all that entailed. I remember these ads because they had me enraptured. I wanted to be that computer whiz, to own the future that way, so very badly. Looking back, a lot of it was false promises. But then, really, a lot of it wasn't. Sure, one was unlikely to get a job programming the VIC-20 or the Atari 800, but these things were a doorway to programming. And I, for one, stepped through that doorway, and it changed my life. Honestly, I don't think any product is sold under this premise any more... it is a difference in generations. There is no product today that promises that you will become a genius and master the future if learn to use it. What would that product even look like today?

So, anyway, I got some good things out of Atari Age, just not what I expected. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Yars' Revenge to play.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Writing

I was excited when I found this "On Writing" book of Charles Bukowski letters edited by Abel Debritto. It is a collection of his letters that relate to writing and creative process. I was assuming it would be letters full of good, solid, thought provoking advice. I've always connected with Bukowski's writing, especially the poems. There is a raw power, and a kind of brutal honesty that I always enjoy.

Unfortunately, I think this book might have ruined Bukowski for me! They say you shouldn't get too close to your heroes, and I think THEY ARE RIGHT. I had always lived with the illusion that he lived his life like he tells it in his many poems. One day at a time, focused on hedonistic pleasures until life catches up with him, and then trudging through the dull parts of life until he could break away and live in the moment again, and occasionally banging out a poem along the way. Instead, these letters paint a picture of a neurotic, obsessed with how people see him. He talks endlessly about comparisons to other poets, making clear that his uneducated affect is just an act. Instead of a happy-go-lucky drunk, instead we see an obsessed, neurotic drunk, whose self-esteem is defined by how his poems are received. The way he paints his life in the poems always seemed a bit too good to be true, and these letters make clear that it was. I can't decide if this make Bukowski a more complex figure, or a simpler one. It does make clear, though, what he was wrestling with... a desire for immortality.