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Ne obliviscaris — Atari

April 22, 2013.

Ne obliviscaris. If you have ever visited the lobby of the Parliament Building in Quebec City, you may have noticed this sentence on the Marquis of Lorne’s coat of arms: “Beware of forgetting”. Although this phrase was written over a hundred years ago, this warning has never lost its relevance.



And even in the information age, where virtually all information is just a mouse click away, many of the giants that once dominated the computer world have either disappeared or faded away over time. And yet, even today, some companies are repeating the same mistakes.

In the coming weeks, in a series of articles published on this blog, I will take a brief look back at some of the biggest mistakes in the computer world.



Atari (当たり) is one of the first empires to have collapsed. Created in 1972, Atari will be mainly concerned with the production of arcade bollards. The company quickly established itself with three very popular titles: the eternal classic Pong, Space Race and Breakout. A few years later, Atari realizes that its market is being eroded by the appearance of video games designed for the home, consoles with one or two controllers, allowing one or a few games to be played.


Atari 2600

It was in 1977 that Atari struck a big blow. It launches the first modern game console: the Atari 2600. It is revolutionary for three reasons:

  1. It consisted only of standard parts, readily available on the market at the time, which made it very inexpensive to build. It cost 40 US$ to produce, while the average selling price was 200 US$.
  2. It was the first console available on the market that allowed games to be played that were not available at the time the console was designed.
  3. Above all, it allowed programmers, both professional and amateur, to invent new games with a small investment and a little technical knowledge.

For six long years, an eternity in computing, the Atari 2600 dominated the market, with more than 30 million consoles sold. Its closest competitor at the time, the Intellivision, had only 3 million consoles sold. The Pac Man game sold 7 million copies. The pace of new game releases continues to increase. Practically all toy stores have a section dedicated to the console, its accessories and games.

The fall


But everything capsizes in 1983. The video game market imploded, and game studios began to destroy hundreds of thousands of unsold copies of cassettes that were clogging up their inventories. Stores stopped offering them to their consumers. Why did they stop?

As is often the case, its strengths slowly turned into weaknesses.

  1. The fact that the Atari is made of standard parts allows any manufacturer to build compatible consoles. But in many cases, these clones have flaws and peculiarities that the original console does not have, making some games, although designed according to the rules, unplayable or buggy.
    The countless amateur programmers who try their luck in the field of video games creates a phenomenon. The number of games available is becoming important, but at the same time the quality is not there. Many games come out on the market being of poor quality, buggy and extremely succinct. [1] 
  2. Apart from word-of-mouth (magazines and the Internet not being available at the time), it is impossible for players to know which games are worth their price. Consumers lose confidence in the console and its derivatives, and sales become anaemic.

The good students



If the video game market experienced a crash in 1983, it will take a few years to recover. Nintendo, a game publisher that until 1983 had essentially focused on arcade terminals, decided to tackle this market share left vacant by its former competitor. To restore consumer confidence, they take two important measures:

  1. They decide to exclude amateur programmers, leaving only professionals to write new games for their platforms.
  2. They decide to implement a system allowing only games that have undergone a positive quality evaluation [2] to be able to operate on their console.



When they launched their new platform, iOS, Steve Jobs was concerned about having a device that was free of defects. He imposed two limitations on the platform :

  1. Concerned about having applications that respect the new usability rules he created, he will ask his developers to make it impossible to directly port graphical interfaces. In this way, he wanted to force third-party developers to rethink their approaches in terms of graphical interfaces.
  2. It will set up a system for validating applications. While his most important mission was to exclude applications that would undermine the user experience he wanted to create, that didn't stop them from instituting a strict editorial policy that controlled the nature of the content the applications could display.

[1] The shortest game on Atari 2600 lasts 2 seconds, from start to finish.

[2] For those who know the Angry Video Game Nerd or Joueur du Grenier, you already know that Nintendo's standards have quickly become more flexible over time.