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Feature: Atari's Golden Years, 1978-1981

Following his article on Atari's genesis, game historian Fulton returns with an amazingly detailed piece on Atari's 'golden years', from the rise of the Atar
Game historian Steve Fulton's previous Gamasutra feature about Atari explored the company's genesis from 1971-1977, spanning the early dreams of a young Nolan Bushnell, the conception of the iconic Fuji and more. Now Fulton returns to continue his fascinating look back on one of the industry's first giants, recalling in detail the company's 'golden years,' from 1978-1981. During this period, Atari birthed its Video Computer System -- or 2600 -- and the Atari 400/800 lineup. Those four years also saw the development of some of the company's most recognizable titles, like Asteroids and Centipede. In 1978, Nolan Bushnell turned to former Burlington Textiles marketing VP Ray Kassar, a proper straitlaced businessman, for marketing aid. Kassar began as a consultant, bearing instructions from Warner to find out if Atari should be dumped. "It was a disaster." - Ray Kassar However, Kassar was impressed with one thing at Atari: the VCS xiii. Instead of recommending liquidation to Warner, he set out to develop an integrated marketing plan that would save Atari. At the same time, Bushnell and president Joe Keenan found themselves struggling to hold on to the company that they had created. Instead of leading Atari in new directions that would build the business even further, Bushnell was constantly clashing with Manny Gerard and Ray Kassar over the future of Atari's products and especially R&D. While butting heads with marketing over the VCS, Atari also looked to arcades. Coin-op only brought the company about $50 million as opposed to the $200 million from its consumer division in 1978-1979, but Space Invaders set the thematic standard for the entire marketplace. But despite that surprisingly successful Christmas for VCS in '78, Bushnell came to feel as if he no longer had control of his company, and whether he was fired by Warner or asked them to fire him, Bushnell was on his way, negotiating for the rights to Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time Theater. "You can spend your life doing woulda, shoulda, coulda. I wish I hadn't sold to Warner, because I think that the world would be a very different place with Atari being the preeminent video game company today." The Kassar reign that followed saw the rise of the 2600 plus the permanent installation of key titles, like Adventure, into the annals of gaming history -- complete with the first-known easter egg of designer Warren Robinett's hidden initials. You can now read the full Gamasutra feature, rich with Atari history and fascinating details, quotes and perspectives from this turbulent era (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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