How Video Game’s Behemoth Failed at Tradition
While Atari’s legacy in the arcade revolution (away from pinball and towards video games) is well cemented, many today do not realize Atari tried its hand in pinball as well. The story itself is curiously brief and brutal, and its failure a fascinating case study on how reinventing the wheel can be a destructive enterprise.
The first thing to understand is why would Atari ever want to get involved with pinball at all. The company was trailblazing new arcade entertainment with video games, in direct competition with historic arcade entertainment. As documented in Steve Fulton’s detailed write-up on the history of Atari for Gamasutra, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell envisioned a future where video games would replace pinball machines, and the goal of Atari was to enact that vision.
So, what changed?
The need for diversification. While Pong, for example, brought Atari great success, future video games did not always generate as much interest. In 1975, the average video game earned roughly $43/week, which was less than what a billiards table could generate. This raised concerns with operators, so Atari decided a pinball division would be seen as something more acceptable to route.
Thus, Atari Pinball was initiated in 1975, with the goal of taking Atari’s video game innovation and infusing it into traditional pinball.
There were a couple reasons in taking this approach. The first was because the video game innovation was something Atari already knew. The second reason was because Atari wanted to charge more for its pinball machines than the industry standard and used the technology angle as the justification for the higher purchase price.
Ultimately, Atari Pinball released seven games (they also produced several additional concepts and prototypes).
Game Date Production Count Board Set Designer The Atarians November-1976 Unknown Generation 1 Bob Jonesi Time 2000 June-1977 Unknown Generation 1 Marty Rosenthal Airborne Avenger September-1977 3,420 Generation 1 Steve Ritchie Middle Earth February-1978 Unknown Generation 1 Gary Slater Space Riders September-1978 Unknown Generation 1 Gary Slater Superman March-1979 5,124 Generation 2 Steve Ritchie Hercules May-1979 Unknown Generation 2 Steve Bicker
Details from the Internet Pinball Machine Database (IPDB)
Atari Pinball’s ‘Innovations’
Atari set out to be different, and it definitely succeeded. However, not all its innovative efforts were appreciated.
Two standout features, that held true for all Atari pinball machines, were the decisions to use solid-state technology (no electromechanical, or EM, pinballs were ever developed; the pinball industry as a whole was moving to solid-state systems in 1976 but a lot of EM games were still being produced) and to go with a widebody design (which was quite unique at the time). When their first pin, The Atarians, was released late in 1976 after roughly two years of development, it featured electronic sounds and sensors under the playfield (rather than switches above), and early indications were the Atari pins attracted players who did not typically play pinball. The Atarians was seen by Atari as an early success in their pinball division.
However, other innovations resulted in problems, several of which were stressed by Steve Ritchie (who designed two pinball machines at Atari) when asked by the author during Ritchie’s seminar at the 2018 Texas Pinball Festival.
The first mistake was the creation of rotary solenoids. These were used for flippers and some kick-out holes for the first three pins released. The failure rates on the flippers was high, and Atari switched over to the traditional linear (or plunger-style) flippers after Airborne Avenger. Kits were also offered so operators could switch over to the linear model on the older titles.
A second mistake was the score display. Rather than place it in the backbox as all other pinball manufacturers did, Atari stuck the display on the apron. While this did not pose a problem for the active player, other players found it difficult to see the scores and keep track of what was going on. It also undermined the players’ expectations, as the ability to show off a great performance was removed (and that had long been a staple of the game). As Ritchie noted at 2018 Texas Pinball Festival, “It [a player’s score] needs to be displayed and celebrated.” Atari eventually realized this and corrected the practice when their Generation 2 board hit with Superman.
A third mistake, also resolved with Generation 2, was the location of the circuit board. With Generation 1, a single circuit board was mounted underneath the playfield. This made it prone to damage from pieces/debris falling from above (Ritchie recalled that one arcade in California saw their Atari pin catch fire due to metal parts falling onto the circuit board). When Atari released Generation 2, the boards (split from one to two, with an I/O board and a CPU board) were installed in the backbox.
The End of Atari Pinball
November 1976 was a special date to Atari for two reasons. The first is it marks the first pin made by the company (The Atarians). The second, and more notable, is that it was when Warner Communications acquired Atari for $28 million.
While this was a happy circumstance for Atari initially, Bushnell and the higher-ups at Warner started to conflict on a host of matters (one of which was regarding Atari charging a premium price on its pins). Bushnell was out in 1978, and Warner started to institute changes.
In 1979 Atari saw its last produced pinball machines, with both exploiting the Generation 2 system (which resolved several of the complaints about Generation 1 as outlined above). Hercules was more of a novelty than anything, as it stands over seven feet high and eight feet in length, but the gameplay was not broadly seen as compelling. Superman had the opposite problem; the game was a huge success but because of that Atari could not keep up with production. Atari eventually lost the Superman license, and rather than renew it the company just planned to retheme the game (no production units exist of the rethemes).
Atari lacked much in the way of assembly line experience when it came to pinball. Ritchie cited manufacturing as a major issue, with a core problem being that hardly anyone at Atari knew anything about building pinball machines. Don Osborne (Atari’s vice president of coin-op marketing) claimed it took Atari four months to produce what Bally could do in two weeks. Coupled with lacking Bushnell to push the division creatively, the wheels just came off. Atari closed the pinball division down rather than deal with its needed reforms, abandoning several games that were in development.
Atari’s legacy in pinball consists mostly of a list of things not to do. However, the history is not entirely negative.
Steve Ritchie did leave Atari for Williams and a lot of successful games were designed by him and released to great fanfare. Atari pins remain highly prized for fans of pinball art, particularly George Opperman’s style (Opperman worked on the art for every Atari pin produced except for Hercules). Atari’s decision to go widebody likely was a contributing factor to the other established manufacturers following suit to some extent (or, in the case of Gottlieb, to a large extent).
Nonetheless, Atari serves as a cautionary tale about how innovation and tradition require a give-and-take. Too much of the latter and a company offers nothing new, but too much of the former and one can be left with an unworkable mess.