In January 2013, after 41 years, Atari filed for Chapter 11. Most people who saw the news reacted, “Atari is still around?” The home console company had been sold many times, licensed and relicensed by increasingly obscure entities over the years. The restructuring plan? To break free from its most recent French owners. The strategy? To sell off Pong®, Asteroids®, Centipede®, Missile Command®, Battlezone®, and Tempest® and to move into mobile gaming. Sad.
I wrote a piece for Zócalo Public Square’s “Who We Were” section, reflecting on the power that games had over the generation that grew up in the 80s. Seeing the Atari news underscored for me the value of being first into uncharted waters.
The first coin-operated game, the Galaxy Game, debuted…wait for it…on the Stanford campus in 1971. Over the next few years, coin-operated games were popping up in every bowling alley and 7-eleven® across the country. And in 1977, Nolan Bushnell brought the Atari 2600 into the living room. Kids who had turned over every sofa cushion and reached into every crumb- and gum-laden cranny for even the hinkiest quarters could now game at home.
It was Atari’s blue ocean moment. They recognized a completely new, undiscovered territory and occupied it. Atari’s blue ocean? Channel 3, the unused station on the dial. Plug in the Atari, flip the dial to channel 3, and the TV became something else. Until then, people took what TV gave them, when TV gave it. For many, their Atari was the first time they got to be in command of what was happening on a screen. It was powerful. It was engaging. It was immersive. And people wanted more.
All that passion directed at moving bits around a screen seems a little silly today—now that every game ever made is one touch away on our smartphones. Yet even the console, mobile, and PC game markets are far from their heydays. Atari’s desire to move into mobile is doubly sad, because the real fight probably won’t be happening in the phone at all. I submit that the next blue ocean, the next big thing, probably will not be on our phones. It will be in some uncharted territory, some new and unused channel 3. And if it’s truly a game changer, it will be exactly what Atari was 40+ years ago: powerful, engaging, immersive. And people will want only more.