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Nebulon

Two Activision founders discuss the Atari 400/800 computers

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Interesting how they said the engineers were making a games-playing machine while management wanted a business like PC...

 

Of course Warner wanted to keep the VCS around for games only w/o any updates so that bit them in the butt.

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My understanding was the 400 was to be a console and the 800 the computer. Then somebody decided to stick a keyboard on the 400. After the engineers finished with the 800 hardware, they started working on the next generation games console which became the Amiga. Imagine if pac-man first came out on a 400 console rather than the 2600.

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My understanding was the 400 was to be a console and the 800 the computer. Then somebody decided to stick a keyboard on the 400. After the engineers finished with the 800 hardware, they started working on the next generation games console which became the Amiga. Imagine if pac-man first came out on a 400 console rather than the 2600.

 

I think releasing Pac-Man for the 400 as a console instead of the 2600 would have really helped the image of the home port of Pac-Man and video game quality at the time.

 

Seeing Pac-Man running on the 400 and 800 machines back in the day was pretty mind-blowing.

 

Apparently Star Raiders was one of the reasons that Atari decided to build a keyboard into the 400. Of course, both were in the same year, so if that was the decision -- it was cutting things pretty close.

Edited by Nebulon
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Supposedly the 400 and 800 referred to the target retail prices in dollars, but in practise those were released for $550 and $1050 respectively.

 

If Atari had managed to package the 400 as a video game, this is some of its competition:

 

Atari 2600: Launched in July 1977 at $199

Bally Astrocade: Launched in October 1977 at $299 which was considered a rather high-end and expensive console

APF MP-1000 (M-1000 ?): Launched early (?) 1978 at $130

Odyssey^2: Launched in December 1978 at $199

Intellivision: Launched 1980 at $295

 

Clearly the 400 outperforms all of those, but even if Atari had met the price tag of $399, it would have been a very expensive console for its day, twice as much as the Odyssey^2 and a good $100 more than the upcoming Intellivision.

 

Eventually Atari managed to drop the prices on the 400 and 800 but it took until mid-1982 or so before they saw significant price drops. If anything, the console version of the 400 may have killed off the VCS before it even officially got named 2600, but at the expense of other competitors gaining a larger market share unless Warner had subsidized the 400 a lot in an aggressive move to maintain and increase market share.

 

As for the Amiga reference, Jay Miner and others got fed up with Atari, left and formed Hi-Toro where they started to work on the Lorraine (later Amiga). So yes, those were the same engineers but no longer employed by Atari. A couple of years later, the by then Tramiel owned Atari for a short while held onto the rights but that is another story.

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If the adverts were anything to go by, the Atari 800 was still $999 when the C64 launched in August 1982 at $595.

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I've based some of my research on this FAQ, combined with other sources. It says the 16K Atari 800 was down to $899 in December 1981. The next reference is not until March 1983 when the 48K (!) Atari 800 was down to $679. Two months later the 800 was discontinued and when the 800XL was launched in the fall of 1983 (hm, I thought it was released earlier), it supposedly cost $299 which would be competitive to the C64.

 

http://www.atarimania.com/faq-atari-400-800-xl-xe-what-is-the-history-of-atari_92.html

 

But even still, the Atari 800 was sold with increasing amounts of RAM, had a full travel keyboard and expansion options that a video game really doesn't need. Actually I imagine the 400 as a console could have skipped the SIO entirely which might have reduced its price a little. The 5200 was planned to be launched at $299 but it appears to have been launched at $269 in October 1982 which of course is nearly three years after the 400. If Atari had met those $299 in the end of 1979 which had been equal to the upcoming Intellivision - sure, it had been attractive but that is over $200 less than what the 400 in its full computer version was sold for, and I don't know if skipping the touch keyboard, SIO and possibly something more had nearly halved the price.

Edited by carlsson

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I think you're right that $300 would have to be the maximum. They might have lost money on each console but they would have made it up in volume. Seriously, at higher volumes and 4kB ram rather than 8kB, no keyboard and other simplifications they could hit that price point; if not 1979 then 1980, or 1981 at the latest.

Edited by mr_me

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I think you're right that $300 would have to be the maximum. They might have lost money on each console but they would have made it up in volume. Seriously, at higher volumes and 4kB ram rather than 8kB, no keyboard and other simplifications they could hit that price point; if not 1979 then 1980, or 1981 at the latest.

 

This is all speculation, but why eat into the 2600 market share with another product losing money? I think the 2600 didn't make money until Space Invaders came out in 80 anyway...

 

Commodore killed everyone in the price wars of 83. Nobody else could sell a computer for less than $200 and make money except them.

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One of the things that made the 400/800 expensive was the amount of shielding they required to meet FCC standards. After the FCC relaxed the standard, Atari built the cost-reduced XL line.

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This is all speculation, but why eat into the 2600 market share with another product losing money? I think the 2600 didn't make money until Space Invaders came out in 80 anyway...

 

Cannibalising existing sales is always a tough decision for a manufacturer but you don't want to make the mistake of having the replacement system come out too late. Atari might not have lost the next generation console battle to Coleco had they replaced the 2600 sooner. They may not have lost to Coleco had they handled the 5200 better, but part of the problem was Atari rushed the 5200 in response to coleco vision. Pac-man sold millions of 2600s, many more consoles than Space Invaders sold. That could have been millions of 400/5200s instead.

 

The Atari 2600 was so difficult to program at the time, we would have seen better quality games on the replacement console. There still would have been shovelware but it wouldn't have been as big a problem as it was. Developers were waiting for Atari to replace the 2600 and were surprised it wasn't happening.

Edited by mr_me

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That certainly explains all the business & finance related titles that were announced initially.
Management thought it was a business machine.

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We should not forget all the prototype systems developed in the time between the 2600 and the 5200. As seen elsewhere there were a number of models, some perhaps more shortlived than others, but in the end Atari decided to reuse the 400/800 chipset to make the 5200. Sure if Atari had made the 400 into a high end console already in 1980 or latest 1981, in practise it had become the same system as the 5200 in October 1982. Perhaps the prototype development resources had been aimed directly at the third generation video games instead. I don't know when development on the 7800 begun, what had happened if it was ready to be launched in 1983, if there ever had been a "crash" if the 400 with better quality graphics and sound had replaced the 2600 earlier on. The number of shovelware games probably had been as high even on the 400.

 

Since the thread started with an interview of Activision founders, what if Atari had been better at promoting their developers, in combination with putting out the Atari 400 as a console earlier on? Would they have left Atari to form Activision anyway? I understand that Activision was the first 3rd party to publish video games in larger scale, all formats considered. Would anyone else have become the first without Activision? On the computer side, there was 3rd party software earlier on but apparently not on the consoles. Without third party games, we would get far less shovelware, pr0n and what's not. It could also have affected what happened with Nintendo in Japan. While the Famicom wasn't locked so eventually everyone and their dog published Famicom games, the Western edition the NES has the lockout chip and all games were supposed to be released through Nintendo to ensure quality and royalties to Nintendo.

 

There is this theory that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly will cause a tornado or earthquake in the other end of the world. While there are a lot of "what ifs" here, one could extrapolate that the fact the Atari 400 was sold as a computer instead of cutting it down to make a console to replace the VCS/2600 early on also was a butterfly move that changed the entire industry over time, and perhaps the first move to damage Atari as a company.

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The Atari 7800 and it's cartridges were developped by GCC, an outside firm. There's some politics involved in that decision and I think the management responsible for that was fired just before Atari sold everything in 1984. Atari management was a real mess in the early 1980s.

 

First party developers were responsible for some of the shovelware too, but generally retailers could return those cartridges. But one cartridge, 2600 Pacman, may have done more damage to consumer confidence in the industry than all the third party shovelware. That could have been avoided had the 400 version been promoted instead.

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True, in particular if Pac-Man really was manufactured in a larger volume than the number of consoles sold to that day. Sure, the 2600 was still in production and future customers might want Pac-Man as well but the lead costs for making another batch of one game could not have been prohibitively large.

 

I understand that Nolan Bushnell wanted to replace the VCS/2600 as soon as possible while Ray Kassar and Warner wanted to let it have its go. I'm not saying that Bushnell's Atari was a more productive and profitable company but if his way of running the company had remained, perhaps people like Jay Miner also had stayed? No Amiga as we know it, perhaps Amiga-esque concepts with improved display and copper lists in the next generation Atari hardware. Again a butterfly flap in one or another direction. Commodore would've gone ahead with the 9000 series, whether it could be used for gaming or only been a business computer struggling against the IBM PC and Macintosh behemoths. It could have lead to the C128/65 with better gaming graphics to stand a chance or Commodore going out of business at least 5 years earlier than they did. Butterfly flap. Barely any decision has been an isolated event without bearing on everything else IMHO.

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I think the Bushnell approach would have led to more incremental computer/console updates, but the company was bleeding money under Bushnell
Without some effort to control spending, they might have gone under and would have been sold anyway.

The biggest possible change, might be the Amiga hardware would have been a game console a year or two earlier, and a more powerful computer would have followed.
I can't say it would have lasted any longer than the Amiga did with Commodore.

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