Of Game Consoles, Home Computers, and Personal Computers

30 Mar

When I first started writing the historical narrative that’s ended up consuming this blog, I should probably have stated clearly that I was writing about the history of computer games, not videogames or game consoles. The terms “computer game” and “videogame” have little or no separation today, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s the two were regarded as very distinct things. In Zap!, his history of Atari written just as that company was imploding in 1983, Scott Cohen takes the division as a given. He states, “Perhaps Atari’s most significant contribution is that it paved the way for the personal computer.” In predicting the future of the two categories, he is right about one and spectacularly wrong about the other. The PC, he says, will continue up a steadily inclining growth curve, becoming more and more an expected household fixture as the years go by. The game console, however, will be dismissed in future years as a “fad,” the early 1980s version of the Hula Hoop.

If we trace back far enough we can inevitably find some common origins, but the PC and game console were generally products of different folks with very different technical orientations and goals. Occasional collisions like Steve Jobs’s brief sojourn with Atari were more the exception than the rule. Certainly the scales of the two industries were completely out of proportion with one another. We’ve met plenty of folks on this blog who built businesses and careers and, yes, made lots of money from the first wave of PCs. Yet everything I’ve discussed is a drop in the bucket compared to the Atari-dominated videogame industry. A few figures should make this clear.

Apple, the star of the young PC industry, grew at an enviable rate in its early years. For example, sales more than doubled from 1979 to 1980, from 35,000 units to 78,000. Yet the Atari VCS console also doubled its sales over the same period: from 1 million in 1979 to 2 million in 1980. By the time the Apple II in 1983 crossed the magical threshold of 1 million total units sold, the VCS was knocking at the door of 20 million. Even the Intellivision, Mattel’s distant-second-place competitor to the VCS, sold 200,000 units in 1980 alone. In mid-1982, the height of the videogame craze, games consoles could already be found in an estimated 17% of U.S. households. Market penetration like that would be years in coming to the PC world.

In software the story is similar. In 1980, a PC publisher with a hit game might dream of moving 15,000 units. Atari at that time already had two cartridges, Space Invaders and Asteroids, that had sold over 1 million copies. Activision, an upstart VCS-game-maker formed by disgruntled Atari programmers, debuted in 1980 with sales of $67 million on its $25 game cartridges. By way of comparison, Apple managed sales of $200 million on its $1500 (or more) computer systems. The VCS version of Pac-Man, the big hit of 1981, sold over 2 million copies that year alone. Again, it would be a decade or more before PC publishers would begin to see numbers like that for their biggest titles.

So, we have two very different worlds here, that of the mass-market, inexpensive game consoles and that of the PC, the latter of which remained the province of the most affluent, technology-savvy consumers only. But then a new category began to emerge, to slot itself right in the middle of this divide: the “home computer.” The first company to dip a toe into these waters was Atari itself.

Steve Jobs during his brief association with Atari brought a proposal for what would become the Apple II to Atari’s then-head Nolan Bushnell. With Atari already heavily committed to both arcade machines and the project that would become the VCS, Bushnell declined. (Bushnell did, however, get Jobs a meeting with potential investor Don Valentine, who in turn connected him with Mike Markkula. Markkula became the third employee at Apple, put up most of the cash the company used to get started in earnest, and played a key role in early marketing efforts. Many regard him as the unsung hero of Apple’s unlikely rise.) Only later on, after the success of the Apple II and TRS-80 proved the PC a viable bet, did Atari begin to develop a full-fledged computer of its own.

The Atari 400 and 800, released in late 1979, were odd ducks in comparison to other microcomputers. The internals were largely the work of three brilliant engineers, Steven Mayer, Joe Decuir, and Jay Miner, all of whom had also worked on the Atari VCS. Their design was unprecedented. Although they had at their heart the same MOS 6502 found in the Atari VCS and the Apple II, the 400 and 800 were built around a set of semi-intelligent custom chips that relieved the CPU of many of its housekeeping burdens to increase its overall processing potential considerably. These chips also brought graphics capabilities that were nothing short of stunning. Up to 128 colors could be displayed at resolutions of up to 352 X 240 pixels, and the machines also included sprites, small graphics blocks that could be overlaid over the background and moved quickly about; think of the ghosts in Pac-Man for a classic example. By comparison, the Apple II’s hi-res mode, 280 X 160 pixels with 6 possible colors, no sprites, and the color-transition limitations that result in all that ugly color fringing, had represented the previous state of the art in PC graphics. In addition, the Atari machines featured four-voice sound-synthesis circuitry. Their competitors offered either no sound at all, or, as in the case of the Apple II, little more than beeps and squeaks. As an audiovisual experience, the new Atari line was almost revolutionary.

Still, externally the Apple II looked and was equipped (not to mention was priced) like a machine of serious intent. The Ataris lacked the Apple’s flexible array of expansion slots as well as Steve Wozniak’s fast and reliable floppy-disk system. They shipped with just 8 K of memory. Their BASIC implementation, one of the few not sourced from Microsoft, was slow and generally kind of crummy. The low-end model, the 400, didn’t even have a proper keyboard, just an awkward membrane setup. And it wasn’t even all a story of missing features. When you inspected the machines more closely, you found something unexpected: a console-style port for game cartridges. The machines seemed like Frankensteins, stuck somewhere between the worlds of the game console and the PC. Enter the home computer — a full-fledged computer, but one plainly more interested in playing games and doing “fun” things than “serious” work. The Atari logo on the cases, of course, also contributed to the impression that, whatever else they were, these machines weren’t quite the same thing as, say, the Apple II.

Alas, Atari screwed the pooch with the 400 and 800 pretty badly. From the beginning it priced them too high for their obvious market; the 800 was initially only slightly less expensive than the Apple II. And, caught up like the rest of the country in VCS-fever, they put little effort into promotion. Many in management hardly seemed aware that they existed at all. In spite of this, their capabilities combined with the Atari name were enough to make them modest sales successes. They also attracted considerable software support. On-Line Systems, for instance, made them their second focus of software development, behind only the Apple II, during their first year or two in business. Still, they never quite lived up to their hardware’s potential, never became the mass-market success they might (should?) have been.

The next company to make a feint toward the emerging idea of a home computer was Radio Shack, who released the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1980. (By the end of that year Radio Shack had four separate machines on the market under the TRS-80 monicker, all semi- or completely incompatible with one another. I haven’t a clue why no one could come up with another name.) Like so much else from Radio Shack, the CoCo didn’t seem to know quite what it wanted to be. Radio Shack did get the price about right for a home computer: $400. And they provided a cartridge port for instant access to games. Problem was, those games couldn’t be all that great, because the video hardware, while it did indeed allow color, wasn’t a patch on the Atari machines. Rather than spend money on such niceties, Tandy built the machine around a Motorola 6809, one of the most advanced 8-bit CPUs ever created. That attracted a small but devoted base of hardcore hackers who did things like install OS-9, the first microcomputer operating system capable of multitasking. Meanwhile the kids and families the machine was presumably meant to attract shrugged their shoulders at the unimpressive graphics and went back to their Atari VCSs. Another missed opportunity.

The company that finally hit the jackpot in the heretofore semi-mythical home-computer market was also the creator of the member of the trinity of 1977 that I’ve talked about the least: Commodore, creator of the PET. I’ll try to make up for some of that inattention next time.



9 Responses to Of Game Consoles, Home Computers, and Personal Computers

  1. Captain Rufus

    March 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    I think you basically covered most of the major reasons consoles always seem to beat out computers in mindshare for gaming and ownership.

    Abysmal to nonexistent marketing, usually much higher prices.

    And when the prices did get cheap nobody knew or cared.

    When the Amiga, a machine that in 1985 had roughly the same gaming capabilities as the Sega Genesis which came out FOUR years later, as well as being one of the most advanced computers for its time while still being a good value was practically ignored in the US, you know something is wrong.

    The Atari computers were great. I’ve started collecting and playing around with one since October and I am very impressed. While in general the C64 was a much more capable machine, the 130XE is still really good, especially when most of its technology is from 1979. (And most programs were made with 48K RAM in mind instead of the 64-128 the XL and XE line all had as pretty much standard for roughly 300-100 dollars.)

    It utterly demolishes what the CoCo and Apple 2s did, not even getting into how it is superior to the UK’s beloved Spectrum.

    In some ways it had better performance than the C64 did though the 64 had more default RAM and better AV qualities. I’ve been doing a little off and on series on my blog about the Ataris, coming from never owning the machine before now. I am overall impressed with them. (Plus given the UK/US split for the C64’s program base and its popularity, its usually a little easier to collect for the Ataris. So far only ONE dead floppy disk. And it was a sealed game no less! Most of my Amiga and DOS 3.5s are dead just being in storage.)

    I barely remember seeing ads for any of these machines on TV. I think I saw more of the Jeff Goldblum iMac ads than I have classic computers COMBINED.

    People want what their friends have and what they know about and see in stores. Which was basically consoles. The C64 had a decent scene but you could get them at TRU and Sears. More people owned them so people saw them and wanted what their pals had. Its why I got a 64.

    I have seen one TI 99 and one CoCo “in the wild”. I knew 3-5 people who owned C64s. Apples were merely in schools. Macs were only seen in tech schools. One guy claimed to own an Atari ST. 3 other people I knew over the years had Amigas.

    Two people had early XT PCs otherwise they were just business/school machines as well. (And neither one made me regret owning a C64 instead. Monochrome or CGA? Bleah.)

    Makes me wonder how the PC really became the home system, or how Apple ever survived given their eternally inferior hardware with much higher prices. Apple 2s were usually 2-5 times the price at any given time of what the Ataris and Commodores were, and the 68000 machines the same.

    • matt w

      March 31, 2012 at 3:21 am

      I had a TI 994A! Not sure why.

      • Keith Palmer

        March 31, 2012 at 2:36 pm

        My own family stuck with “Cocos” to the end of 1992; it might have had something to do with my father having bought a TRS-80 in 1979, when they were cheap (to start with) and widely available. To tell the truth, I can’t recall any of the friends I did visit having owned a Commodore 64 or other “home computer” in the 1980s, until MS-DOS machines started showing up in their houses… I never did quite understand what the point of running OS-9 was, though. The Color Computer magazines ran regular columns on how to navigate its command line, but never quite seemed to mention the kind of “turnkey” applications you could buy for the regular Disk Basic.

        Anyway, I seem to have survived, although my not being much of a video gamer might spring from that… Still, despite being a first-time poster, I’ve been enjoying this trip through computing history.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with the Atari machines.

      Just one thing to quibble with here: when we talk about a given computer being “better,” we always have to remember to also ask for what and for whom. The Apple II had the best graphics and sound on the market in 1977, simply by virtue of having graphics and sound at all. Five years later, it had been pretty thoroughly outclassed. However, there were still very good reasons to choose an Apple II over a Commodore 64. Its expansion slots allowed for 80-column cards (pretty much essential to running a serious word processor), its development tools were much more advanced, and there was a hell of a lot more applications software. And then there was Woz’s magnificently fast and reliable Disk II system. Storage was the Achilles heal of the Commodore machines; some CASSETTE systems could actually transfer data faster than the Commodore floppy drives. This factor alone was enough to take them out of consideration for many businesspeople who just needed to get stuff done, and quickly. And then there was the issue of support. You bought an Apple from an authorized dealer who would be there to answer your questions and solve your problems. You bought a Commodore from K-Mart, and got a cheery “Good luck with that!” as you walked out the door. Many were willing to pay the higher prices for Apple for the support and peace of mind they got along with the machine.

      I was a Commodore kid myself and still have a lot of love for those systems, but there were very good reasons for someone interested mostly in running business software or programming to choose an Apple II over a Commodore or Atari. If you wanted to play games mostly or exclusively, or to code them, or you just didn’t have the money for an Apple II, the Commodore was of course the smarter choice.

      Well, maybe, depending on what kind of games you wanted to play. Thanks to the faster disk drives, Infocom games for example were a much better experience on the Apple II. Choosing a computer can be… complicated. :)

      • Stirner

        December 31, 2015 at 7:11 am

        “torage was the Achilles heal of the Commodore machines; some CASSETTE systems could actually transfer data faster than the Commodore floppy drives”

        The Epyx Fastload cartridge took care of that problem (yes, Epyx, the same company that release Temple of Apshai!). Anyway, while the Apple // floppy was praised for its ‘revolutionary’ bare-bones design which made it cheap and fast, the C64 floppy had a cpu in it which made it very easy to implement RWTS, and RWTS made the drive super-fast even without the Epyx cartridge. Blue Board BBS for the C64 used RWTS for its message base and was so fast most people thought it was either running on an IBM PC’s hard drive or a ramdrive; it was at least twice as fast as any Apple // BBS’s floppy message retrieval. The C64 was also way easier to program assembly with. My family had an Apple //+ but everyone else I knew had a C64, and within a couple years of its release the C64’s software base was nearly as robust as the Apple //s, probably due to the much less steep learning curve to program the C64. Of course at the time I always defended the Apple // and insisted it was superior, but in the back of my mind I was pretty jealous of all those C64 games my friends had access to. The one thing I thought truly set my Apple system apart from the C64 systems was our Apple-Cat modem and its ability to produce 2600hz tone and multi-frequency keypad tones. But I still had to learn how to use those blue box tones from C64 people who could generate all those tones out of the C64 speaker… and as I recall the Apple-cat modem cost more than an entire C64 system!

        • Stirner

          December 31, 2015 at 7:15 am

          Oh and by the way, that cut-rate Apple // floppy was much cheaper for the company, but not much of that savings was passed onto the consumer; it was used to maximize Apple’s profits. So at least with the C64 drive, you got what you paid for…

  2. ZUrlocker

    March 31, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Might be interesting to take a side trip at some point to discuss the development of UK micros like the Acorn Atom, Sinclair Spectrum, etc. There’s a great BBC story on this called “Micro Men” which I’ve written about here:

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Yes, I saw that post and noted it for future reference.

      I’m going to talk briefly about the first Spectrum in my next post, although it’s not the main focus. Down the road a bit I’ll get much deeper into the UK and European scenes. We’re currently mired in late 1981, however, which is just a bit before they really started to take off.

  3. Narsham

    November 21, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Late to the party here, but you’re wrong about Ataris lacking slots. The 400 (in almost every way a terrible mistake) had one awkwardly placed external expansion slot in the back. The 800 (which I owned and used until 1990) opened up about as easily as the Apple to reveal four long slots which accepted cards built like cartridges, making them a breeze to insert and remove.

    To my knowledge, though, Atari never bothered to produce anything to go into them. The system ROM was on one card, leaving up to three 16K RAM slots for the system. Third-party manufacturers designed an 80-column card and a 32K RAM card, and we had both along with Wordstar for word processing and a Daisywheel printer.

    This was an unwieldy arrangement, however, as the 80-column card needed to plug into a monitor while the wonderful built-in graphics required a TV. Atari never showed an interest in rectifying any of that.

    Add too the baffling decision not to make the 400/800 able to play VCS cartridges. If memory serves, the Intellivision received a VCS adaptor while the Atari home computers remained incompatible with the VCS system despite being theoretically capable of adaptation. (The 800 even accepted two cartridges at once, which would have allowed easy VCS emulation.)


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