Atari Inc. – How Agile Was It?


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I recently read the book 8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command by Alex Rubens. One of my hobbies is to collect, and of course work with, Atari 8-bit computers (such as the Atari 800) and peripherals. I heard about this book on an Atari discussion forum so thought that I’d read it. The story behind Missile Command itself is definitely interesting. For agilists the book covers some history about Atari’s culture and way of working (WoW) that provides some interesting background about Silicon Valley in the late 70s. This short blog explores both of these topics.

The Missile Command Story

Dave Theurer was the lead developer on Missile Command, working with Rich Adam (who went on to develop Gravitar) to do so. Although the game is long in the tooth now, it was incredibly innovative at the time using bright colours and a track ball. At the time Pong was leading edge, although new games were emerging that used colour and the joysticks and buttons that were soon to become ubiquitous in arcade machines.

Screen shot from Missile Command

An interesting aspect of the Missile Command story was that it was developed at the height of the cold war, with the threat of nuclear armageddon hanging over everyone’s heads. Dave wanted to send a message that there was no winner in a nuclear war. This message was implicit throughout the game in that there was no way to win, all you could do was stave off the inevitable. Instead of ending with “Game Over” as other games did at the time, it ended with “The End.” These subtleties were often missed by players who were more interested in being entertained than being educated, but some people did receive the message. A game that did more than merely keep you entertained for a few minutes was also an important aspect of Missile Command’s innovativeness.

How Agile Was Atari?

In the late 70s and early 80s Atari was the company to work at in Silicon Valley. For every open job position they received hundreds of resumes, not unlike some of the leading firms today. Atari had a work hard, play hard culture that we still see today at many Silicon Valley firms. Atari employees did not work at a sustainable pace, and in fact the book goes into detail about the health problems Dave Theurer suffered from as a result of the stress and overwork. So in that respect Atari was far from being an agile company.

Many employees dealt with the Atari culture through the use of drugs. In fact some of the mythology surrounding Atari is that the employees managed to stave off an acquisition by IBM by openly smoking Cheech & Chong quantities of marijuana the day the IBM executives toured the Atari facilities.

On the positive side of things the development teams were allowed to work autonomously, getting support from other groups for testing, marketing, and deployment as needed. Remember that they were building physical arcade game machines, and were on the leading edge at the time and were creating a multi-billion dollar industry. Development of the machine required a holistic design approach because the team was developing the game software, the hardware it ran on, and even the design of the artwork for the arcade cabinet. Atari development teams were very aware of the overall design, realizing that the look and sound of the machine were key to attracting people to play, whereas the actual gameplay itself was key to keeping people coming back. Given the level of competition in arcades, it was a lot harder to earn the quarters of the players than you would think.

Development proceeded incrementally. The team would build something, test it internally with their own people, and once they thought it was ready they would take it to one or more local arcades to test their game in the field. To do so they would basically take a test machine to an arcade, plug it in, and watch what happened. Atari had people in the arcades observing players with the games under test, and often talking with them about a game after they played it. Very often the developers of a game would go out in the field to be actively involved in this testing. This gave them critical insight into whether people liked a game and what aspects they (didn’t) like about it. They would then act on this feedback and update their game. The book describes how Missile Command went through a series of such iterations until they finally homed in on the final version. Very similar to the Exploratory lifecycle and experimenting through a series of minimum viable products (MVPs).

Atari developers inherently knew that for a game to succeed that it had to delight its customers – if not the player would move on with their fistful of quarters and play another game. For Atari as a company to succeed they had to continuously release new games that delighted customers because Atari wasn’t the only company competing in this market space.

You can’t possible blog about Atari without mentioning that Steve Jobs was one of Atari’s early employees. And yes, he was a total jerk then too. Another important part of Atari mythology is how Atari paid Steve Jobs to develop a circuit board for the game Breakout which he then outsourced most of the work to Steve Wozniak, without telling Woz about the hefty delivery bonus associated with the work (which Jobs kept).

Parting Thoughts

Yes, I’ve been looking for a reason to blog about Atari for awhile. 8-Bit Apocalypse is in fact a good read and there is some very interesting history surrounding Atari. I hope you enjoyed this blog.

Recommended Reading About Atari

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2 comments on “Atari Inc. – How Agile Was It?

Gary K Evans

Scott, This was an interesting read. I did not know about your interest in Atari. You are such a tool! 🙂 The story of the devs observing actual users was whimsical for me: this is so important yet I have had such limited success in achieving this with some of my clients. Thanks for this reminder that I should continue fighting on this.

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Atari had some leading-edge stuff back in the day. Unfortunately they got caught up in the video game implosion in 83-84 and learned the wrong lessons from it. I’ve been collecting, or perhaps hoarding is a more accurate term, 8-bit Atari computer hardware for awhile. Once I finally pick up an Atari acoustic modem, I’ve lost a few eBay bids already but will win one eventually, then I’m going to start putting out a few videos on the various toys I’ve collected. Did you know that people are still running dial-up bulletin boards? That’s hard core. Probably just a bunch of old farts like us talking about their uber-cool 8-bit computers.

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