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The People's History Of Atari: "Atari Inc: Business Is Fun" Book Review

The People's History Of The First Video Game Company: "Atari Inc: Business Is Fun" Book Review

Steve Fulton, Blogger

January 3, 2013

14 Min Read

Gather around here children, I’m going to tell you fairy tale.  It’s called “The Legend Of King Pong” and it’s about the rise and fall of the world's  first successful video game company.   

Once upon a time a prince rode into Silicon Valley from the far far away land of Utah. He was  named Nolan and worked at Carnivals during college while playing a game named Space War on the the University’s computer.   One day an idea was sparked in his head that he could put the two things together and make it into a business.   While working late at night in his daughter’s bedroom, he created the very first video game named Computer Space and sold it to Nutting Associates.  The game was too complicated for the unwashed masses and was not a success.  Because of this, Prince Nolan started his own company named Atari, and set out to design a much simpler game that any mere mead-swilling peasant could master.   That game was named Pong, and it was the very first successful video game.  Because of this, prince Nolan was crowned King Pong.  Under King Pong,  Atari  produced many more video games for arcades, and then the first home video game version of Pong.   They were very successful, but King Pong was not satisfied with the size of his realm  He decided that Atari should create the first programmable video game system named the Atari VCS  However, he did not have enough gold in his coffers, so King Pong made a fateful decision to join his company with the evil empire known as Warner Communications.   This made King Pong  rich, and it helped Atari produce the Atari Video Computer System.   Everything was going great until an evil wizard named Ray Kassar took over the kingdom of Atari, banished King Pong to the land of Chuck E. Cheese, and began his own reign of terror.  For many years Kassar wielded his iron fist, calling his servants “towel designers”, and flushing all of King Pong’s success down the drain.  Kassar used short-term marketing-based magic spells that helped Atari grow into the biggest video game company in the world.  However, without the long-term vision of King Pong, they were doomed to fail.  One fateful day, the wizard Kassar signed a deal in blood with two licensing demons, one named Pac-Man, and the other named E.T.   Atari produced games for both, and no one bought them because they were terrible.   This caused the entire video game industry to crash in fiery explosion.   Thwarted, the evil Wizard Kassar slipped out the back of castle Atari with wagonloads of Pac-Man and E.T. cartridges that he buried in the far off sands of Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they were lost forever.  The Wizard Kassar was never heard from again, and Kingdom of Atari fell into financial ruin.

The End.

The previous story is basically the “myth of Atari”, as told and retold over the past 40 years.  However, according to a new book by Atari historians Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel, most of it is a complete fabrication.  Their self-published book ,  Atari Inc: Business Is Fun  is an exciting, messy, sprawling tour-de-force that fills in a lot missing gaps for Atari fans worldwide.   The book reads like 800 page manifesto attempting to right-wrongs and clear-up misconceptions about Atari.  At its’ core, this 800 page behemoth aims to prove one main fact to Atari aficionados:  That Nolan Bushnell, “King Pong”,  was not solely responsible for the success of Atari.   If that is, indeed, its’‘ primary goal, the book succeeds famously.

The text weaves somewhat asynchronously, with various levels of detail,  throughout the history of Atari, treading ground that has rarely been covered before.   The authors unearthed documents, memos, company newsletters, and legal settlements that have never been previously published.  They also interviewed dozens of people: everyone from Atari engineers to executives and their secretaries, so they could form a full picture of the first successful video game company.  For accuracy, they cross-refereneced interviews and tried to only use stories that were corroborated by 2 or  more people. What emerges is a tale that attempts to correct inaccuracies and bust the myths of Atari’s past.

According to Curt Vendel, the research went like this:

"One thing I did in all of the face to face and phone interviews is I never read from questions, I simply told each person 'tell me the John Smith story, how did you find out about Atari, how did you get hired and tell me what you did from there and until you left? What were your best and worst moments and memories?' and each person was left to talk for as long as they wanted, some interviews were 45 mins, some were 3-4 hours. But we never directed or railed any part of the interviews. When a key event was mentioned with a name, then when that named person was interviewed as well, we waited to see if that person on their own would reiterate the same event. If it happened, then we knew we had an event that was not one persons perspective, but a multiple person sourced event. Others were more concrete with internal memo's, letters and court docs."

The story starts with a pair of protagonists (instead of just one) dreaming big in the Silicon Valley.  Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell meet at Ampex in the late 1960’s, share an office, and dream-up ways to make it big on their own.  Bushnell is the young gun full of ideas and ambition, while Dabney is the old hat with technical skills to make things happen.  The story goes on to counter Nolan Bushnell “mythology” as it ties significant events in Atari’s early history to Dabney (and later, others) instead of (or as well as) Bushnell.   For instance, the often-told story that Nolan Bushnell moved his own daughter out of her bedroom to work on Computer Space is rebutted by Ted Dabney (through quotes and paraphrases) when it is revealed that the bedroom taken away was not Bushnell’s daughter’s at all, but Dabney’s own daughter Terri’s.   

This re-written Atari history (with a stronger focus on Ted Dabney) was curiously verified after a strange event on the Atariage.com forums back in 2010.  Just after the new Atari named Nolan Bushnell to their board of directors, a forum thread was started and Atari fans commented on the event.  The posts got very heated, attackers and defenders of Bushnell voiced their thoughts loudly, and like most internet arguments, few opinions were changed  This would not have been newsworthy, except  that someone named Nolan Bushnell decided to show-up and defend himself.  Then a guy named Ted Dabney showed up (sent there by this books' very authors), as well as a few other ex Atari employees, and the whole forums went ballistic.   When someone mentioned that Ted Dabney was the one who moved his daughter out, not Bushnell, Bushnell came back and said something like  “Ted Dabney did not have a daughter”.  This bewildered Dabney because, not only did he have a daughter, but Bushnell knew her very well. Ted Dabney came to the forums to defend Bushnell, but this very public slight appeared to dull his enthusiasm for it.  It was a weird occurrence that caught a lot of Atari fans off-guard and made them question the history of Atari as they had known it for decades.  While Goldberg and Vendel had been planning a book that focused on the Dabney/Bushnell relationship for many years, this event brought the conflict into full view for Atari fans to see for themselves.

(You can read the thread here: (http://www.atariage.com/forums/topic/161774-nolan-bushnell-appointed-to-atari-board/page__st__400 )

This Bushnell/Dabney relationship is the cornerstone of the book’s myth-breaking. It shows that a very simple fact Nolan Bushnell has repeated for the past 40 years, is in itself, possibly not true (Bushnell has stated elsewhere that they BOTH moved daughters out of bedrooms) .  A theme arises in the pages and it appears to be this: if that one simple fact is not true, what else is in the “Atari Fairy Tale” is also not true?  

In the book, instead of Nolan Bushnell being the mythical “King Pong”,  the authors paint him as a talented and visionary opportunist who, at the first sign of success, transformed into an aloof, egocentric, tinkerer who disappeared from Atari when it was no longer "fun" to be there.  The subtext is the assertion that he developed an Atari  “creation myth” over the years that squeezed others out  (including his former partner) so he could have all the glory and most of the money, for himself. While the book succeeds in this regard, at times the parts of the story that focus on Bushnell  feel a bit one-sided, like a tell-all, unauthorized biography.  In parts of the stpry, the authors can only speculate on his motives. This is most likely because Bushnell opted out of contributing to these parts of the book.   Apparently, while Bushnell was interviewed for other parts of the story, his perspective on the Ted Dabney issue was not captured formally, and he declined to endorse the text or write a forward. The authors allude to this fact in one of the multiple existing “forwards”  While not naming Bushnell outright, they point out that the “absence” of some “well known people” that did not contribute to the book.  In short, it appears that Bushnell did not like the way he was portrayed, so he did not participate in the book. It's easy to see why that mikght be the case.  If there was any question as to the the “placement” of Bushnell in this Atari story, the two “Forward” sections (besides the author’s) were written by Ted Dabney himself, and by long-time Bushnell rival, Ralph Baer.  

While the focus of most previous Atari histories is Nolan Bushnell, this book proves its’ main theme by *not* focusing on him.  While Bushnell is credited and praised often in the text, the perspective and accomplishments of other Atari employees are given just as much if not more space in the text.  This is where the book is at its’ best.   Sections on the development of the Atari 8-bit computers, GCC, Atari Grass Valley Think Tank,  Ataritel, and The Atari Pinball Division crackle with intensity and interest, mostly because they are histories that have never been printed before.  The book goes a long way to make sure the names, effort and input of even the most remote personnel related to Atari are brought to the forefront.   The detail here is amazing, and in some cases overwhelming. The book is filled with images (all black and white) of cancelled Atari products, prototypes, security badges, facilities, after work parties, etc.  The images are so interesting in fact, that a full-color coffee-table book of them would be welcome follow-up.

Authors Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel are well known in Atari “circles” as the guys with “the goods”.  Curt is famous for purchasing boxes full of equipment and documents from shuttered Atari offices, operating atarimuseum.com and running his own company named Legacy Engineering that has designed new products based on classic Atari intellectual property including the Atari Flashback 1 and 2.  Marty works in the game industry as a programmer, has written dozens of articles on classic gaming, and formerly ran a website named atarihq.com.   They are well known as having the “last word” on Atari history, often visiting message boards and comment sections to set the record straight. (I would not be surprised if they showed-up here.) This book represents almost two decades of their research and efforts.   It’s an impressive undertaking and they deserve kudos for attempting such a gargantuan project.

While the detail here is impressive, and the depth staggering, there are also some issues.  As much as I admire people that self-publish their own work, there are a few typos, the text changes tenses often, repeats passages, includes a few too many exclamation points, addresses the reader directly, and is filled with the kind of awkward sentences a good editor would stamp out immediately. I personally know how easy it is for these kinds of issues to slip in when you are writing large amount of text, and I feel sympathy for the author’s efforts to stamp them out without the help of a copy editor. Furthermore, few publishers appear willing to touch video game history books these days, so the authors probably had no alternative but to go it alone.  In that case, the text just needed a few more passes to get cleaned-up. 

There are also some organizational issues that can’t be ignored. Certain detailed asides, technical run-downs, and minor points scream for placement in breakout boxes, page notes and/or appendices.  This is not because they aren’t fascinating or useful, but because there is just an overwhelming amount of content to consume within the 800 pages presented.    When there are literally 100’s of opinions and many years of facts and events to cover, organizing the content in a book like this is of the utmost importance. There have been other, very long, and  informative pop-culture-based books that have dealt with the same massive amount of information in a different way.   I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum solved the issue by using an oral history format.  The basic facts were laid out per chapter, and then key figures were quoted to tell the story.   Live From New York, An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller used a similar format.   Both books made a massive amount of history digestible by offering-up the words of their primary sources to move the story along.  Sometimes the quotes agree, sometimes they don’t, but it helps tell a full, well rounded story that doesn’t appear biased or like a tabloid piece. 
Also, the expert level of the information presented might leave casual readers bewildered. The book is written as a kind of counterpoint to existing Atari histories in books like Game Over by David Sheff, The First Quarter by Steven L. Kent, and especially Zap! The Rise And Fall Of Atari by Scott Cohen.  In some cases, the authors appear to expect the reader to have already read these sources and be familiar with the previous misconceptions they are trying to clear-up.  A short introduction that explains the “Atari Myth” would have helped rectify this situation, and ease less ardent Atari fans into the fold.  However, the most glaring omission are references. Without an index,  footnotes or bibliography, the book reads like a long, multi-chaptered, blog-post.   If adding a fart joke to Wikipedia requires at least 3 citations, an unprecedented 800 page book about the history of Atari Inc. needs, at  the very least, to have some documentation of where the facts came from, even if it’s a list of first-party interviews and official Atari documents.

According to Curt Vendel, these things were omitted becasue the simply ran out of space:

"We had to cut out the index which would've been 12-14 pages and references may have been quite a few pages, what we may do eventually is post both onto Ataribook.com for people to download a pdf and print out,we simply ran out of room .We had to cut out and reduce sizes of a lot of photos because I think we were actually at 927 pages and it was just getting insane and with the Createspace limit of 828 pages, we needed to leave a buffer for future additions in the 2nd edition, so we had to trim some things, it was not an easy choice"

Even with these flaws, the book is still an essential text and begs to be read. Any video game enthusiast interested in the history of Atari needs to experience this massive set of eye-opening content first hand.  The book is like the People’s History Of Atari, written from the perspective of key Atari contributors and employees that have been forgotten by time. Goldberg and Vendel have done what no one else has ever accomplished before: they managed to tell the full tale of Atari Inc. from 1972-1984, warts and all.   In the end, whether or not you believe their alternate-to-Bushnell take on events doesn’t really matter.  You will come away from the book with a much fuller picture of the people, events, and products that helped form the legends and myths of Atari, the world’s first successful video game company.

7 stars out of 5 for the massive, unimaginably detailed, unprecedented, text and photos
2 stars out of 5 for organization, text issues, missing references, etc.
for total of 4.5 stars out of 5.

You can purchase the book here: https://www.createspace.com/3928085   Two more volumes are planned, one focusing on  Atari Corp (ST, Lynx, Jaguar. etc.) and one focusing on Atari Games (Marble Madness, Tengen, Hard Drivin', etc.)

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