Searching the 'Net for an old Atari t-shirt worn by the programmers, I found a picture of several shirts, with these two side by side. Both tell important stories, so I will make this post a two part story.
Coin-Op The REAL Atari. Atari is one of those Silicon Valley companies that fits the archetype of a multi-million dollar corporation started by a couple engineers in a garage. The story was repeated many times in the 1970s, but the original "guys in a garage" stories started before World War II with Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard. With Atari, people remember the name of the founder Nolan Bushnell, but he had help. His co-founder was Ted Dabney and the first employee was Al Alcorn, the inventor of Pong. Bushnell invented a cool game called Computer Space that pre-dated Pong, but the game was a little ahead of its time and didn't become a giant hit. Later, a variation on the Computer Space theme would become the classic vector graphics game Asteroids.
By the time I worked for Atari starting in 1980, Bushnell and his partners had sold out to Time-Warner, and the engineers were split into two groups working in the same building, the coin-op division downstairs, and upstairs the people working on the home products, the Atari 2600 game programmers and people writing applications for the first Atari home computer systems, the "high end" Atari 800 and the cheaper Atari 400.
The split was more than just who would sit with whom at lunch in the cafeteria. Coin-op, besides being the original group, had a royalty plan. They would get extra checks based on how many units of the games sold. It didn't turn them into millionaires - that day would come for some of the game programmers - but they did tend to drive nicer cars than the guys who worked upstairs.
I don't want people to have the impression that coin-op guys were stuck up. There were some very nice guys who worked downstairs, including Ed Rotberg, designer of Battlezone, and Owen Rubin, who worked on a lot of the vector graphics games. Owen set up the home consumer vs. coin-op racquetball challenge, which was to say me, the best racquetball player upstairs, vs. Dave Theurer, the designer of the great game Missile Command, and the best racquetballer downstairs. I remember that it was tough setting up the match, because Dave played at a private club where it was hard to get visitors in the door. I played at a club where anybody who could pony up the $3.50 an hour to play was welcome.
I remember Dave, who drove a Porsche, whined about the price.
I also remember I school'd him.
Just Another High Strung Prima Donna From Atari. The real tension at Atari was not programmer vs. programmer, but instead worker vs. management, where the engineers quite rightly saw themselves as the money makers and the suits were just along for the ride. The TV sitcom 30 Rock has Alec Baldwin playing a guy from General Electric's microwave division put in charge of running TV programming. The real life example of this sort of management was Time-Warner bringing in Ray Kassar, a CEO with experience in textiles, to run their new high-tech branch, Atari. He knew nothing about the product, the process or the industry. Who needs that when running a business?
Besides sitting on a mountain of ignorance, Kassar ran his mouth a lot. In an interview in the San Jose Mercury News, he called the programmers "high strung Prima Donnas" and boasted of his experience working with creative types, since he managed the people who came up with the designs on bedsheets at Burlington.
The article went up on the bulletin board and was being defaced on an hourly basis. I personally underlined his pride in saying he was "very good" at Asteroids, having achieved a high score of 21,000. (For gamers, that was a truly pathetic outing.)
Very good? I wrote in pen.
He's the best you've ever seen. Came the sarcastic reply.
Merely putting a clipping on a bulletin board wasn't enough for us, of course. The programmers fired back in our best "we hate management but like our paychecks" way. The blue "High Strung Prima Donna" t-shirt was designed and everybody bought at least one and wore them to work on a regular basis. To Kassar's credit, there was no action taken against this act of rebellion, but then again, it really was everybody who bought these things and wore them. (Mine went the way of all t-shirts at least two decades ago.)
Not only was he a pompous jerk, he was a corrupt pompous jerk. Atari grew like crazy under his management, but it would have grown like this if a monkey ran the place. (No offense to Monkerstein or Zaius intended here.) To prove my claim, note that Kassar was also the CEO when the bubble burst at Atari. Days before Time Warner would report that their cash cow Atari would actually lose money one quarter because of several stupid business decisions, Kassar sold a boatload of stock. He was forced to resign and the SEC investigated. He gave the money back without claiming he was guilty. The SEC cleared him.
Kind of like the story of our corrupt current president. Except Bush didn't give the money back.
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