Behind the scenes at Atari

We love Wireframe magazine’s regular feature ‘The principles of game design’. They’re written by video game pioneer Howard Scott Warshaw, who authored several of Atari’s most famous and infamous titles. In the latest issue of Wireframe, he provides a snapshot of the hell-raising that went on behind the scenes at Atari…

Behind the scenes at Atari Wireframe magazine
A moment of relative calm in Atari’s offices, circa the early 1980s. There’s Howard nearest the camera on the right

Video game creation is unusual in that developers need to be focused intently on achieving design goals while simultaneously battling tunnel vision and re-evaluating those goals. It’s a demanding and frustrating predicament. Therefore, a solid video game creator needs two things: a way to let ideas simmer (since rumination is how games grow from mediocre to fabulous) and a way to blow off steam (since frustration abounds while trying to achieve fabulous). At Atari, there was one place where things both simmered and got steamy… the hot tub. The only thing we couldn’t do was keep a lid on the antics cooked up inside.

The hot tub was situated in the two-storey engineering building. This was ironic, because the hot tub generated way more than two stories in that building. The VCS/2600 and Home Computer development groups were upstairs. The first floor held coin-op development, a kitchen/cafeteria, and an extremely well-appointed gym. The gym featured two appendages: a locker area and the hot tub room. Many shenanigans were hatched and/or executed in the hot tub. One from the more epic end of the spectrum comes to mind: the executive birthday surprise.

Behind the scenes at Atari Wireframe magazine
Those prizes look pretty impressive

It was during the birthday celebration of a VP who shall remain nameless, but it might have been the one who used to keep a canister of nitrous oxide and another of pure oxygen in his office. The nitrous oxide was for getting high and laughing some time away, while the oxygen was used for rapid sobering up in the event a spontaneous meeting was called (which happened regularly at Atari). As the party raged on, a small crew of revellers migrated to the small but accommodating hot tub room. Various intoxicants (well beyond the scope of nitrous) were being consumed in celebration of the special event (although by this standard, nearly every day was a special event at Atari).

As the party rolled on, inhibitions were shed along with numerous articles of clothing. At one point, the birthday boy was adjudged to be in dire need of a proper tubbing as he hadn’t lost sufficient layers to keep pace with the party at large. The birthday boy disagreed, and the ensuing negotiation took the form of a lively chase around the area. The VP ran out of the hot tub room and headed for the workout area with a wet posse in hot pursuit, all in varying stages of undress. 

Behind the scenes at Atari Wireframe magazine
Refreshments were readily available at Atari in its heyday

It’s important to note here that although refreshments and revelry were widely available at Atari, one item in short supply was conference rooms. Consequently, meetings could pop up in odd locales. Any place an aggregation could be achieved was a potential meeting spot. The sensitivity of the subject matter would determine the level of privacy required on a case-by-case basis. Since people weren’t always working out, the gym had enough places to sit that it could serve as a decent host for gatherings. And as for sensitivity, the hot tub room was well sound-proofed, so intruding ears weren’t a concern.

As the crew of rowdy revellers followed the VP into the workout area, they were confronted by just such a collection of executives who happened to be meeting at the time. I don’t think the birthday party was on the agenda. However, they may have been pleased that the absentee VP had ultimately decided to join their number. It was embarrassing for some, entertaining for others, and nearly career-ending for a couple. The moral of this story being that Atari executives should never go anywhere without their oxygen tanks in tow.

Behind the scenes at Atari Wireframe magazine
Between developing games, Howard and Atari’s other programmers found time to play a bit of Frisbee

But morals aside, there was work to be done at Atari. In a place where work can lead to antics and antics can lead to work breakthroughs, it’s difficult at times to suss out the precise boundary between work and antics. It takes passion and commitment to pursue side quests productively and yet remain on task when necessary.

The main reason this was a challenge comes down to the fact there are so many distractions constantly going on. Creative people tend to be creative frequently and spontaneously. Also, their creativity is much more motivated by fascination and interest than it is by task lists or project plans. Fun can break out at any moment, and answering the call isn’t always the right choice, no matter how compelling the siren.

Behind the scenes at Atari Wireframe magazine
Nice hat

Rob Fulop, creator of Missile Command and Demon Attack for the Atari 2600 (among many other hits) isn’t only a great game maker, he’s also a keen observer of human nature. We used to chat about just where the edge is between work and play at Atari. Those who misjudge it can easily fall off the cliff.

Likewise, we explored the concept of what makes a good game designer. Rob said it’s just the right combination of silly and anal. He believed that the people who did well at Atari (and as game makers in general) were the people who could be silly enough to recognise fun, and anal enough to get all the minutia and details aligned correctly in order to deliver the fun. Of course, Rob (being the poet he is) created a wonderful phrasing to describe those with the right stuff. He put it like this: the people who did well at Atari were the people who could goof around as much as possible but still go to heaven.

Get your copy of Wireframe issue 53

You can read more features like this one in Wireframe issue 53, available directly from Raspberry Pi Press — we deliver worldwide.

Wireframe 53 store cover

And if you’d like a handy digital version of the magazine, you can also download issue 53 for free in PDF format.

6 comments
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(per the picture) I remember those days. Though I was working at K-Byte (not as much female influence). Thanks for the flashback. My memory of “break time” was shooting baskets in the parking lot, while waiting for the compile to finish.

Reply to Jack Chaney

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Howard became a psychotherapist.

Reply to Anders

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I miss the wine cellar, the great chef in the cafeteria, and the water polo team! And I signed the Sweetest Earthworld and Fireworld carts without the solution! I even write my own solution books, and patented then before Atari finally shared their little bit in Atari Age magazine. Wild days then. I was even with Sierra On-Line, when they were still in the mountains of Coarsegold! 😊

Reply to Robert Ruiz Jr

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Wow, this looks exactly like I thought. It must have been really interesting to work in that Atari in the first boom phase of video games (before the doomed area of video game company bankrupties). There was still some anti-mainstream spirit left from the sisties and seventies, but new things were happening and people were really excited to see what computers had to offer for average families.
Today, the markets are bigger, the budget and teams as well. But the revolutionary spirit is long gone. But the next big thing will come for sure.

Reply to Weyersberg

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I expected the interior decor to be beige, orange and warm yellow..

Reply to Shmuple

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