Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Culture of Atari... told in T-shirt slogans.

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.

Now playing: They Might Be Giants - Particle Man
via FoxyTunes


dguzman said...

Shows you how far we've come--now you don't have to give the money back, you don't have to testify, and you can just lock the door to your Oval Office and tell the cops to stick it. All that and STILL be prezdint.

Man, I love this backstory, Matty. Don't you wish you still had some of those old t-shirts from days gone by?

Matthew Hubbard said...

Oh, yeah. Free t-shirts from companies are some of my favorite perks ever! (The Prima Donna shirts weren't free, and they weren't from the company.) Activision was absolutely fantastic about giving away free stuff when new games were released.

Along the same lines, when I worked for Apple in Software Quality Assurance (bug testers), we were given t-shirts with a cartoon of a beaver with a chainsaw standing over a very large bug, pleading for its life with the deathless line, "Not me! I'm a feature!"

Splotchy said...

You must empty every precious ounce of your experience at Atari onto this esteemed blog! I beg of you!


A 2600 Geek who still plays Adventure from time to time

Matthew Hubbard said...

Well, Splotch, every ounce would be a lot of ounces, but I do promise I have two more Atari stories which I will relate tomorrow and Saturday.

Anonymous said...

All of this must have happened before you met Padre Mickey. I remember you working at Activision, but I don't remember hearing about the Atari stuff. Then again, I was really young at the beginning of the 80's. It's really fun reading about this. Keep it up!

Matthew Hubbard said...

Actually, I met Padre Mickey before I left Atari. The first version of a band we had together was with a drummer who worked at Atari and a French guy who liked rockabilly who was a guitarist. I had to fire the drummer and Mickey cut the guitarist loose and we began looking for other bands that would take us in as a package deal, until we decided to go it alone.

Fran said...

These stories are pure pleasure, yes keep them coming. Wow, loving this. You got mad skilz wid da wurdz.

It is interesting to see the roots of bad management... The 80's set the the tone.

Deep sigh.

But I do luvz me sum Particle Man. Thanks Matty.

Hehehehe - my word is nucklz!

Padre Mickey said...

Mrs. Mobley was a likle teeny toddler when I met Matty Boy, and Annie was born just as we started The Wonders Of Science. I answered and ad on KFJC for a bass player. I didn't even audition; I just played Matty Boy a tape of Prologue's version of "Call It Off" and he told me I was in! We were the Generics for several weeks until we joined forces to fire the rest of the band.
Some day I may release the Living Room versions of "Let's Start A Rumour" and the best song we never released "Motive And Opportunity."

Unknown said...

Hi Matt,

My name is David Moncrief. I am the son of Rick and Carrie Moncrief. My Father was one of those coin-op guys. I am writing this because I recently had the red coin-op shirt stolen from me and am searching for a new one. Is there anywhere I could get one of them? It was my favorite shirt and sentimental, all of which mean nothing to the idiot that stole it.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hi, David. I've posted your comment and I hope it helps, though this blog is barely alive any more.