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Computer pioneer Jack Tramiel relied on, then dismissed, video games

Computer and video game veterans reflect on the late Jack Tramiel's brushes with video games, from his controversial cancellation of the Atari 7800 console to his immortalization as the avatar in Jack Attack.

Tristan Donovan, Blogger

April 13, 2012

7 Min Read

What more could a pair of early 80s teen game makers want? After showing a Commodore rep a work-in-progress version of their homebrew creation Cubic Critters at a computer show, Kevin Kieller and John Traynor were invited to the computer giant’s Toronto offices to discuss terms. There they struck a deal to publish their Commodore 64 game, but there was a problem: the name. "Commodore legal felt Cubic Critters was too close to Q*bert," recalls Kieller. "We then renamed the game Critter Crisis. Commodore legal also had some issue with this name. Anxious to get the completed game published, and a little frustrated, we suggested that Commodore come up with a suitable name." Commodore’s team looked at the game’s red-faced hero who spent the game stomping on heads and thought of none other than the company’s founder Jack Tramiel, who died earlier this week at the age of 83. The game, they decided mischievously, should be called Jack Attack. "We were led to believe that certain people at Commodore felt Jack Tramiel looked like the red-face critter when he was upset," says Kieller. "According to our Commodore contacts, if Jack Tramiel was upset and yelling at you it was known as a Jack Attack. I was never sure if anyone had the guts to tell Jack this." It turns out that Tramiel did know. "He chuckled when we named one of the games Jack Attack, which was an inside joke," says former Commodore marketing strategist Michael Tomczyk. "Jack was short and round in stature but had a deep booming voice that could shake the walls. I don’t think he realized the meaning of Jack Attack but he knew it was about him. He never said much about it, he just allowed it to happen."
Tramiel -- a round man whose face was said to turn red when he was angry -- was forever immortalized in Jack Attack. Games were important to Tramiel. While the likes of Steve Jobs and Clive Sinclair were dismissive, even snobbish, about having their computers viewed as game machines, Tramiel embraced the appeal of videogames. "He liked games," says Tomczyk. "He was amused by them and saw the value in them." Games were in fact crucial to Commodore’s early 80s success, helping the VIC-20 turn the company into the leading home computer maker of its day. Built around Tramiel’s vision of a color computer "for the masses, not the classes," the VIC-20 put computing within the price bracket of most families. Its $299.95 price tag was revolutionary, democratizing even, at a time when an Atari 800 would set you back more than $700 and an Apple II required at least $1,000.
Under Tramiel's leadership, Commodore's affordable VIC-20 micro computer finally made the vision of a computer "for the masses" a reality. With the VIC-20 you no longer had to be rich to own a computer and Commodore’s rivals were soon forced to slash their own prices. But while many computer users at the time felt embarrassed about using their cutting-edge micros to play games, Commodore made computer games out to be a virtue. "We were shooting for the home environment, not schools or business," says Tomczyk. "People in the home were much more familiar and comfortable with Atari and Mattel game machines, TI Speak & Spells and other electronic devices that were very much game-ish. They were familiar and comfortable with those, so it made a lot of sense to pry open the whole market by providing a very strong set of games." In keeping with that philosophy, Commodore added a cartridge slot to the VIC-20. "We also had software available on tape and disk but this was slow and not efficient for game play, so we developed cartridges similar to the Atari game cartridges used in their game machines and these really helped jump-start the market for our home computers," explains Tomczyk.
Inspired by home video game consoles of the time, the VIC-20 accepted game catridges such as this one. Commodore also struck deals to get big name games from coin-op giant Bally-Midway and text adventure pioneer Scott Adams to help its computers compete with consoles. As the VIC-20’s William Shatner-fronted adverts declared: "Why buy just a video game?" Tramiel’s embrace of games helped the VIC-20 become the first computer to sell more than a million and paved the way for even greater success with 1982’s Commodore 64, which remains the biggest selling home computer model of all time.
Tramiel and Tomczyk celebrate the one-millionth VIC-20 sale, the first computer to ever achieve this feat (photo courtesy Michael Tomczyk). Between 1980 and 1983 Tramiel and his willingness to embrace games reshaped the computer business, driving down prices and cementing the idea that games are part and parcel of computing. "Jack recognized that entertainment is one of the pillars of computing – which it remains today," says Tomczyk. But while his decisions at Commodore pushed games forward, his impact on videogames after he was pushed out of the company in January 1984 was more controversial. While Commodore was hitting the big time with the Commodore 64, the Warner Bros-owned Atari was hitting the skids. The Atari 2600-powered North American video game bubble had burst, and Atari, once the toast of Wall Street, was becoming a legendary corporate failure. The enormous profits it once made had been replaced by eye-watering losses that threatened to drag down the whole of the Warner Bros empire. In May 1984 Atari announced plans to launch a new console, the Atari 7800, to try and bring itself back from the brink. But the executives at Warner had other ideas. Instead of saving the company they would break it up and sell it off.
In a controversial move, Jack Tramiel canceled plans to launch the new Atari 7800 console upon taking over the company. For Tramiel the timing was perfect. He wanted a new computer business and Warner wanted rid of Atari. Tramiel bought Atari’s computer and console divisions, which became a new company – Atari Corporation. On taking over Tramiel set about imposing the same brand of financial discipline that he used at Commodore to undercut his rivals. He fired around three-quarters of the employees he inherited and put all new products on hold, including the 7800, while he decided which to keep. In November 1984 he announced that Atari would focus on creating 16-bit home computers and that the 7800 would not be launched after all. It was a move that probably made business sense. Atari Corporation had inherited huge debts and was operating at a loss. On top of that, many in the industry believed the console era was over and Tramiel’s own background was in home computing, not consoles. But it was also a missed opportunity. As Manny Gerard, the Warner executive who oversaw Atari, put it: "Tramiel bought it and he basically abandoned the games business. It’s one of the great mistakes in history because there was still a business and his walking out left it wide open for Nintendo."
Jack Tramiel and sons in a press photo issued soon after taking over Atari Corp. Two years later in 1986, after Nintendo’s NES proved that the console era was anything but over, Tramiel dusted off the 7800 and finally put it into production. But it was too little, too late and Atari’s later attempts to recapture the success of the 2600 with the Lynx handheld and Jaguar also struggled. Tramiel passed away surrounded by his family on Sunday. He was 83 years old. He is survived by wife Helen, their three sons, Gary, Sam and Leonard, and their extended families.

About the Author(s)

Tristan Donovan


Tristan Donovan is the UK-based author of the book Replay: The History of Video Games and a freelance games journalist who regularly writes for The Times and Stuff. He has also written about games for Game Developer, Edge, The Guardian, Kotaku, The Gadget Show, GamesTM and many others.

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