The dark age of the video game industry

There might be people who think that the days before Nintendo were the glory days of the video game industry. To those people, I would say that this is completely wrong. Before the video game industry was the nigh unstoppable juggernaut we know it as today, it was basically a stagnating swamp where very little companies did anything new, and video game companies saw video games as little more than consumer products.

old atari poster

That has to have been one of the biggest overstatements of the 1980’s.

Back when Atari released Pong in the early 1970’s, Magnavox sued Atari because of its perceived similarities their console, the Magnavox Odyssey. What they actually wanted was to monopolize the new industry that wouldn’t have been possible without competing companies. Eventually, the Magnavox Odyssey got killed in the marketplace, due to the mass proliferation of “Pong consoles”, home consoles that could only play Pong, and costed less to make and purchase than the Magnavox Odyssey.

After the advent of the Atari 2600, Atari dominated the video games industry, and they were determined to preserve status quo, but in doing so, they became exactly the kind of entity that Magnavox was in the previous decade. In the early 1980’s, Atari attempted to gain complete control over the video games industry. They didn’t allow third-party companies to make games for their consoles, and they didn’t credit the game designers who worked for them, and I suspect that it was mainly because they wanted all the credit and all the money. Before Activision were one of the big monoliths of the video game industry, they were a bunch of Atari employees who got tired of their employers not giving any credit for designing the games, which would prevent them from putting that on their resumés if they wanted to get new jobs in other video game companies.

Of course, in the early video games industry, there were very little rules. Video game companies could make the same kind of game over and over again and still make money from it (and to be honest, not much about that has changed). If that wasn’t enough, the early video games industry was plagued by lawsuits, with Atari suing Commodore over the design of the joystick, Atari suing Coleco over the ColecoVision Expansion Module (which allowed the ColecoVision console to play Atari 2600), Coleco suing Atari back, and Atari suing Activision over the production of games made for the Atari 2600.

Of course, in spite of all that, Atari still managed to maintain their grip on the video game industry, until the video game market began to crash in America. Consumers were so spoiled for choice when it came to video games and consoles that to them, the majority of video games released at the time were just inferior copies of other titles. It was also becoming apparent that Atari was cutting corners on licensed titles. Because Atari knew that Pac-Man would be a hot-selling game on the system, they cut corners as much as was necessary to release the game as fast as possible, because back then, video games were seen only as consumer products. Of course, Atari also faced heavy competition from the early home computers, which not only offered better graphics than the Atari 2600, but were more flexible, meaning they could do more than just play video games, whereas consoles like the Atari 2600 began to seem so linear by comparison.

amiga 500

Just like today, where PC gaming is more popular than console gaming.

Many video game journalists credit the Atari 2600 for being the console that “the entire video game industry is founded upon”, and they’re pretty damn foolish if they think that, because the video game industry is founded upon multiple consoles, and the games played on them. Besides, Atari could only relevant during the unenlightened era where video games weren’t considered an art form. After Nintendo rose from the ashes of the video game crash, Atari wound up being nothing more than a relic of the days when money was the only motive for making games and consoles.

Today, there are only three major players in the console race, and each one at least tries to do something different, and there’s an enormous variety of games out there. I can understand how some would prefer the NES days, since I myself enjoy plenty of NES titles, but given how far the video game industry has progressed since the last video game crash, the idea that the Atari days were somehow better than today just seems really baffling to me. Those were the days when the video game industry was like a freshly baked pie, and businessmen would do anything just to get their slice. It took until the early 1990’s for video games to evolve into the new art form we recognize it as today, but before that, many people saw it just the next craze of the early 1980’s, and that mentality almost caused the putrefaction of the video game industry.


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