September 21, 2022 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What was it like working at Atari between 1983 and 1992? I dunno, but if you want to know what sort of emails employees sent each other you should browse atariemailarchive.org
posted by Going To Maine (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
posted by capnsue at 11:02 AM on September 21

I'm already hooked by "On Being a Jerk to the Janitor."
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 11:17 AM on September 21 [3 favorites]

I think it is obvious that video games were a fad and that
the fad is over. There are, however, two kinds of fads. These
are exemplified by the Frisbee and the hoola hoop. [...] Is
the video game a hoola hoop or is it a Frisbee? For all our
sakes I hope it is a Frisbee.
From 1984. FWIW, the global video games market had been at its peak in 1982, at about $42b. It didn't recover to an inflation-adjusted equivalent until the late 2010s, but now we've surpassed that mark by quite a bit (about $180b in 2021, or $59b in 1982-equivalent currency).
posted by uncleozzy at 11:23 AM on September 21 [7 favorites]

I would think that if you warped back to 1983 and showed the staff at Atari what the video game industry is like now, they'd tell you it's just the movie industry in a different box.

And, judging by some of the budgets for modern games and how their revenue can exceed a typical Hollywood release, they'd be right.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:14 PM on September 21 [7 favorites]

This is so great.
posted by latkes at 2:19 PM on September 21

I like "I don't mind if most of the games we make are empty calories, but it would be nice if occasionally we could contribute something, however small, to the culture. I don't know what or how, but something" in the Challenger email exchange.

And the reminder system.

The spellchecker correspondence is good too. "This is the final word on contractions vs. possessives".
posted by paduasoy at 4:22 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

I scheduled this to go up on our gaming blog in a couple of weeks, nice find!
posted by JHarris at 8:55 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

(before you ask, ENGINEER includes programmers too)

Programmers get no respect from engineers :-(
posted by milnak at 11:16 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

I was born just after the Great Videogame Crash and I've only ever known the world that Nintendo rebuilt from it's ashes. And by the time I started using computers, IBM compatibles running MSDOS were dominant and the only electronic mail system I've ever known is SMTP (I missed out on BBSes, UUCP, ccMail, etc).

So this is like the intersection of three long forgotten civilizations: Atari game developers presumably using Atari 8-bit micros communicating electronically in some sort of proprietary mail system. It's like discovering everyday messages the Romans sent to China using Celtic-bred carrier pigeons.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:55 AM on September 22 [3 favorites]

For some more background on Atari VAX email, Jed Margolin (the Atari employee that saved and donated the archive in the first place), wrote a small history.

Something to know is that in the very early days of Atari, they used mainframe computers to assemble the code for the coin-op games.
"When I arrived in 1979, software for the games was cross-assembled on two DEC PDP-11/20 systems in batch mode. We had two computer operators who would take your marked-up listing, do the edits, and run the program. If it actually ran without any fatal errors, it would produce a listing and a paper tape."
Using PCs as development machines wasn't really a viable thing until later in the 1980s. Other shops used expensive things like Motorola EXORcisers to compile and debug code. Atari did not.

Jed's website has a number of other interesting artifacts if you are into old Atari history. The articles about the design and operation of vector monitors is extremely well done.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:47 AM on September 22 [6 favorites]

Holy moly this is like someone took the chaos knob on folklore.org and cranked it directly to fifty (“NOT to FIFTY!”)
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:16 AM on September 22

$1,200 for custom PCBs with under 3,000 holes.
$70 for a switching power supply.

Before inflation.

Sometimes I forget how things have changed from having to schedule time at the $1,000 EPROM programmer at the lab to ordering an overnight box of counterfeit Arduinos for $3 each.

Reading the memos and status reports in chronological order just made me sad. You can see the excitement, the disappointment, the slow metamorphosis from being a creative engineer working on cutting edge stuff to spending your working life trying to save a penny here and there, manage unreliable suppliers, and deal with stupid internal policies and management. (You don’t get a manual for the hardware you designed because manuals are only for leads and you are not a lead. You could order one if you know the part number, but the only way to know the part number is to have the manual).

I saved all my code, emails, and IRC logs from a startup I worked at in the mid 2000s. We never made it big enough to be interesting, but when I read them back I can see how much has changed (just like old mefi, it was an openly hostile boyzone we’re getting someone to flame out was considered harmless entertainment) and how much remains the same in the industry (passively hostile unexamined-privilegezone, only way for engineers to move up is to stop doing what the know and like (engineering) and start doing what they don’t know or like (management), etc)

Also I really liked the hoola hoop and frisbee analogy.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:17 AM on September 22 [3 favorites]

Using PCs as development machines wasn't really a viable thing until later in the 1980s.

At Intel in the late 70’s, we did software development, in my case I was working on the 8086 assembler, on the Intel Development System - 8080 processor, 64k of RAM, ADM 3 monitor, two 8” floppy drives, and a humongous, hard drive, with 3.5 MB built in platter, and a 3.5 MB removable platter. I think the platters were 12”. During this time they released an all in one system with built in monitor, and floppies. The OS was called ISIS, the app was written in PLM, Intel’s high level language. There was a brilliant line editor written by a coworker, as well as compilers, assemblers, etc for building apps. Other than there was big corporation to support the development systems, there wasn’t much difference between these machines and other microprocessor based general purpose computers that were appearing during this time. Main difference was the software. Intel had software engineers, a lot with PhDs (not me), designing and developing the software. While I was there, they got a VAX, but I don’t remember it ever having much to do with what we were doing.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:38 AM on September 22 [2 favorites]

I take back my earlier musing about them sending emails via 8-bit Atari computers. I guess everyone had a terminal connected to a VAX.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:07 AM on September 22 [1 favorite]

Also, the Atari 8-bit line got severed from the arcade Atari when the company was split up into Atari Corp. and Atari Games. Atari Corp was founded by Jack Tramiel, formerly head of Commodore, to hold the Atari computer assets he bought from Warner. They went on for awhile, and made the Atari ST line, but ultimately didn't last as long as the arcade company, which got bought by Namco and eventually Williams, which is how it got to be renamed to Midway Games West right at the very end, to avoid confusion with the Atari that Infogrammes had rebranded itself as.
posted by JHarris at 11:14 AM on September 22 [3 favorites]

(I feel like I've explained that many times, and surely everyone must know by now?.)
posted by JHarris at 11:28 AM on September 22

You get a sense reading these emails that coin-op didn't want much to do with the consumer side, and in fact they were routinely betrayed by AtariSoft and the like.

There's one rant in there where the game developers lament that licensed titles got better attention and care since Williams, Stern, Bally/Midway, etc could withhold final approval on the console ports whereas the titles ported from Atari coin-op just got rammed through, mistakes and all, without any say from the original designers.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:29 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]

[Creator of atariemailarchive.org here]

I poked around the site's stats randomly this week and found this mention. This was so nice to see :-). I love it when people enjoy the archive -- getting folks to spend some time spelunking through it and chuckling a lot was basically the goal of this whole project.

If you want to read a bit about how I created the archive, I've written about that here: https://vikramoberoi.com/how-i-made-atariemailarchive-org/.

Thanks for posting it!
posted by voberoi at 2:08 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]

Thanks for dropping by! I didn't make this post, but if I had originally found it I definitely would have.

I miss the days when projects felt like they were everywhere, although there's definitely a chance that's just observation bias, assuming things I don't see don't exist. Part of Metafilter's purpose is to find things like this and tell others about them.

Not to jinx anone, but it's kind of amazing that so many of the old Atari guys are still with us. I wish we lived in a universe where Atari Games could have continued on making marvelously inventive arcade games for decades after. Sadly, these archives end right around the time Atari seemed to stop doing that.
posted by JHarris at 3:13 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

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