Well here is a rarity for us, a book review. It’s not that there aren’t any books about arcades out there, just that I have not got my hands on one until recently. The book I’m taking a look at here is one that was released last year and was given to me as a birthday present very recently; I realize that I need to get my hands on a few of the other arcade-related books, but all in good time I suppose.
The subject of this review is Atari Inc. Business Is Fun by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. In terms of other similar books I have read, I have owned Phoenix: The Fall And Rise of Videogames for a number of years, which offers a good, albeit much less detailed history of the industry than Atari Inc. gives us.
For my own background in the subject, I was much too young to remember details of “The Golden Age” as it is usually known but I still grew up playing what are called retro consoles these days, starting with the TI 99/4A and soon after the Atari 2600, a few years later the NES. I had few opportunities to visit arcades in the 80s but despite living in those times, the history of it all plus that which occurred in a few years before I was born has always been a subject of interest to me. I learned some from the Phoenix book, some from game magazines I’d read and when the internet came into bloom in the 90s, there was plenty of stories to take in on websites or forums. I thought I knew a lot about Atari, but what I didn’t know until I read Business is Fun, is that a lot of what I thought to knew wasn’t exactly right and in some cases completely wrong, which is something I will get into.
To start off, there is a lot of the history of how it all got started that I wasn’t really aware of, such as the importance of a company known as AMPEX had. The engineering talent that company brought together had a huge effect not just on Atari but the ripples would have an effect on companies like Apple. But until I read this book, I can’t recall ever really hearing about it. I also never really knew much about one of the co-founders of the company, Ted Dabney and what his involvement was until Bushnell cut him out. Among things I had heard stories about that turned out not to be exactly right was the story that Bushnell had moved his daughter out of his room to build the Computer Space prototype when in fact that all happened at Dabney’s home and that daughter was involved to a certain degree, being one of the first play-testers for the game they had. I also always had the impression from what I had read that Computer Space bombed just because it wasn’t a good game and was too complicated but in fact those factors were not as big as they have been spun – in fact it was Nutting Associates firing a good sales manager that had been pushing units, after that the game stopped moving units. The legend about how the Atari logo came about was also wrong – its not actually representing two players playing Pong, it was just a sketch a couple of Atari employees came up with among many and they liked that one. That’s not as romantic in how to come up with trivia but truth is truth. How Atari Japan essentially became Namco is also a great story(also explains a bit about the relationship the two companies would have through the 80s). There are too many to count here but fortunately this book exists to compile them into one place. I should note however that as the name of the book states, Atari Inc. , that is all this covers – the regeneration of the company into Atari Corporation after it was sold to the Tramiel family is not covered although that leaves plenty of material for another book or two as you also had Atari Games coming along because of that sale. (Note: A follow-up book is planned for later this year to cover the Tramiel era)
One thing to note about the book as well is that at 800 pages, its not a quick read if you are busy. I normally finish books pretty fast but this one has taken me a little longer than usual. That also is perhaps because I am reading more to absorb the information as opposed to just getting through it. My wife jokingly calls it my “Atari Bible”. I can understand now why they missed their initial release date, as it takes a while to get this stuff not just written but edited. I had hoped to have my own book ready this past September but it’s mid-January and not 100% (although I have finished writing and the editing is done, just getting a few images together so that will be soon). Not all of that in the 800 pages is text – at the end of each chapter section they have a “Review In Images” which offer up some pictures that some diehard Atari fans may not have seen before.
Not all of it involves Atari’s consumer stuff either, there are some sections which cover the coin-op side in great detail. While I knew about the existence of the Wolf Pack submarine game prototype, I did not know that the game used liquid to create the appearance of a real water level to appear over the graphics. Such a shame that the game was cancelled because one guy in management didn’t like boat games. The work of Al Alcorn, Owen Rubin and Ed Logg is discussed the most although there are stories there I had not heard of such as Ed Logg’s ingenious way at including fraud protection in his code with morse code. As the history evolves with Warner taking the reins you begin to get a feel for the friction that existed between the coin-op and consumer divisions with many of the coin-op employees feeling that Atari was originally a coin-op company. One part that stands out is how the bonus system at Atari under Warner/Ray Kassar was screwed up and how the coin-op guys would create some hit game that the consumer division would take and create a playable but inferior version of that same game and get some huge bonus out of it – the coin-op guys (and original game creators) being left in the dust in that regard. It is good that the book does not gloss over the negative aspects that would creep up in the company as it was certainly not a perfect place as no place you will work is. As such not everyone is painted in a saintly light but the book is not unfair to anyone, any imperfections that come through are due to the actions that they themselves took.
I won’t get into too many nuggets to save for the book but overall there is a lot of insight like it that you get from reading this. As such, it’s a fascinating look into what happened in the early days of the video arcade industry as told from people who were actually involved with it. The book does not use footnotes, it simply integrates the stories that many of these people had in their work at Atari blended with narration to guide the reader. Occasionally the book switches gears to cover something specific that was a part of Atari but dedicates a section to the subject to give it proper attention such as Cyan Engineering (which came up with a lot of the neat projects from the Kermit Robot or the video phone Ataritel product) or the pinball division where people like Steve Ritchie, Eugene Jarvis and George Opperman put their talents into practice before they would move on to other things that they became quite well known for.
Overall the narrative flows well and it keeps you entertained. While there have been a few typos, they aren’t too numerous which is something that is always difficult to nail down 100% on the first run on a book of this size. The insight you get into business, video game and arcade history as well as development is invaluable and so I would highly recommend it.