Atari, Inc. - As A Subsidiary of Warner Communications

As A Subsidiary of Warner Communications

Bushnell knew he had another potential hit on his hands, but bringing the machine to market would be extremely expensive. In 1976 Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for an estimated $28 – $32 million, using part of the money to buy the Folgers Mansion. He departed from the division in 1979.

A project to design a successor to the 2600 started as soon as the system shipped. The original development team estimated the 2600 had a lifespan of about three years, and decided to build the most powerful machine they could given that time frame. By the middle of the effort's time-frame the home computer revolution was taking off, so the new machines were adapted with the addition of a keyboard and various inputs to produce the Atari 800, and its smaller cousin, the 400. Although a variety of issues made them less attractive than the Apple II for some users, the new machines had some level of success when they finally became available in quantity in 1980.

While part of Warner, Atari achieved its greatest success, selling millions of 2600s and computers. At its peak, Atari accounted for a third of Warner's annual income and was the fastest-growing company in the history of the United States at the time.

Although the 2600 had garnered the lion's share of the home video game market, it experienced its first stiff competition in 1980 from Mattel's Intellivision, which featured ads touting its superior graphics capabilities relative to the 2600. Still, the 2600 remained the industry standard-bearer, because of its market superiority, and because of Atari featuring (by far) the greatest variety of game titles available.

However, Atari ran into problems in the early 1980s. Its home computer, video game console, and arcade divisions operated independently of one another and rarely cooperated. Faced with fierce competition and price wars in the game console and home computer markets, Atari was never able to duplicate the success of the 2600.

  • In 1982, Atari released disappointing versions of two very publicized games, Pac-Man and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, causing a pileup of unsold inventory and depressing prices. (In 1983, in response to a massive number of returned orders from distributors, Atari buried millions of unsold game cartridges (the bulk of them consisting of those same two titles, Pac-Man and E.T.) in a New Mexico desert landfill.)
  • In December 1982, Atari executives Ray Kassar and Dennis Groth were investigated for allegations of insider trading (later found to be false).
  • Larry Emmons, employee No.3, retired in 1982. He was head of research and development of the small group of talented engineers in Grass Valley, California, who had designed the 2600 and home computers.
  • The Atari 5200 game console, released as a next-generation follow up to the 2600, was based on the Atari 800 computer (but was incompatible with Atari 800 game cartridges), and its sales never met the company's expectations.

These problems were followed by the infamous video game crash of 1983, which caused losses that totaled more than $500 million. Warner's stock price slid from $60 to $20, and the company began searching for a buyer for its troubled division.

Still, Atari held a formidable position in the world video game market, and was the number one console maker in every market except Japan. A Japanese video game company by the name of Nintendo was going to be releasing their first programmable video game console, the Famicom (later known to the rest of the world as the NES), in 1983. Looking to also sell the console in international markets, a partnership with Atari seemed a good match and Nintendo approached Atari to offer a licensing deal whereby Atari would build and sell the system, paying Nintendo a royalty. The deal was in the works throughout 1983, and the two companies tentatively decided to sign the agreement at the June, 1983 CES. Unfortunately, Coleco was showcasing their new Adam computer, and the display unit was running Nintendo's Donkey Kong. Atari CEO Ray Kassar was furious, as Atari owned the rights to publish Donkey Kong for computers, and he accused Nintendo of double dealing with the Donkey Kong license. Nintendo, in turn, tore into Coleco, who only owned the console rights to the game. Coleco had legal grounds to challenge the claim though since Atari had only purchased the floppy disk rights to the game, while the Adam version was cartridge-based. In the coming month, Ray Kassar was forced to leave Atari, and executives involved in the Famicom deal were forced to start over again from scratch and the deal eventually languished. With Atari's further financial problems and the Famicom's runaway Japanese success after its July 16, 1983 release date, Nintendo decided to go at it alone.

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    It is fortunate that each generation does not comprehend its own ignorance. We are thus enabled to call our ancestors barbarous.
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