Talking art and innovation with author Tim Lapetino on the anniversary of a Silicon Valley classic

By Charles Russo

Cover art for the Atari 2600 game “Surround,” by Cliff Spohn. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Atari home gaming console. Yes, the 2600, with its sleek design and many iconic games, is now four decades old.

The cover of Tim Lapetino’s book, published by Dynamite Entertainment.

In the years since the Atari 2600’s first arrival, video game culture has developed into one of the dominant forms of entertainment in the world, somehow surpassing even Hollywood in terms of both profit and reach. Amid this evolution, Atari was a key pioneering force, sparking the initial home video game craze that has laid the foundations for a generation of Wii U and Xbox playing fanatics around the globe.

The story of Atari is also a local one, an early and entirely classic Silicon Valley startup venture that indeed changed the world. Yet, for whatever reasons, it is rarely revered as such, possibly because Atari flamed out so quickly or maybe because video games are still slighted in status.

Mindful of both Atari’s lasting legacy and its current anniversary, we caught up with Tim Lapetino, author of Art of Atari, a gorgeous book that not only explains the glorious 8-bit history of the company, but properly celebrates the often-forgotten — yet entirely dynamic — design concepts which made the system a trailblazing phenomenon.

Retailer-focused advertising promoting the launch of the Atari Video Computer System in summer of 1977. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

How did you originally come to this topic and when did it take shape as a book?

I’m a writer and a graphic designer. I have a journalism background so I trained as writer, but when I got out of school I started doing graphic design. I grew up with Atari and the Atari logo has always fascinated me. Not just as a piece of nostalgia, but because it’s just a great piece of graphic design. It’s a cognitive thing where you can look at it and see a lot of different things. It has a lot of the features which we see as successful in logo design. As I got further along in my career I started to wonder — “who was responsible for that?”

The iconic Atari logo, designed by George Opperman. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

A lot of the logos that came out of that same era — you think of the original Apple rainbow logo or the original Nike swoosh — there is almost a mythology built around them because of what they represent. And I would put the Atari logo in that same camp, but no one has really told that story. So I started researching it and all I could find was a name — George Opperman. And all I really knew was that he worked for Atari. So for me, it was more of a personal quest, I wanted to know who did that.

On the other hand, I loved the Atari box art. It was totally an obsession for me as a kid. I remember very specifically, the art for Super Breakout: you had an astronaut with this rainbow field reflected on the curve of his visor. And it just blew me away.

Classic game, classic cover: “Super Breakout,” art by Cliff Spohn. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

I can even remember as a kid, telling my dad that ‘I want to keep all of these boxes’ … and my dad was a very practical guy who had already built me a case for all the cartridges, so he was like ‘What do you want to keep the boxes for? That’s like saving the box for your stereo or refrigerator.’ So, of course, we tossed them, and I think subconsciously that was directly responsible my interest, I sort of I pined after those images.

So I got interested…who were the people who drew those things? They usually weren’t credited in the manuals or on the boxes. So I started looking into it. I wrote an article about it on my blog. And a woman who knew one of those illustrators saw it, reached out and connected me with Cliff Spohn, who was the guy who drew 19 or 20 of the first Atari boxes for the 2600. He and I had a phone call, and he had some really interesting stories for me about the creative process. And after I hung up the phone I thought, ‘maybe if I can get other people to talk about this, there might be a book here,’ which kicked off a 6-year odyssey of getting this book done and into print.

Cover art for two Atari classics: “Asteroids” (left) by Chris Kenyon; and “Yar’s Revenge” by Hiro Kimura. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

I remember a lot of that art work really well, and I always thought that it played a role in effectively planting an imaginative seed in your mind about what the game represented, which then brought the concepts to life….

I agree, it’s hard to communicate that to people who didn’t grew up with it. The illustrations were a really important part of the gaming experience. It wasn’t like you had Youtube to show you the gameplay. Your first experience was walking into a game store and the art was what you had. It connected you to your gameplay, so you had a much more immersive world because of the art.

It did something that artwork today just does not do, just by virtue of the time and place. It transcended that gap in your imagination. And I think that’s crucial. Part of it is that this is great art which was technically done very well, but another part was that it had a very functional importance in terms of the overall gameplay experience for us.

Early innovators: (from left) Atari co-founders Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, CFO Fred Marinic, and engineer Allan Alcorn. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

So being here in Silicon Valley, I don’t get the impression that Atari is considered a key pioneer of the tech culture, even though…I think Atari goes back as far as the late 60s?

Yes, it began in the late 60s and early 70s. Both of the co-founders, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, came from Ampex, which was huge in video and audio equipment. You know…it’s funny, as soon as Atari gets classified as a video game company, for some reason it seems like Silicon Valley and even the design community write it off.

At one point, Atari was the fastest growing company in U.S. history. It was a huge huge deal. And they did some amazing work. And even more so, they kind of started and definitely popularized, what we now think of as Silicon Valley culture: work hard-play hard, beer Fridays, foosball tables, arcade machines. Nolan Bushnell was really a hippy at heart and he wanted to bring this culture of easy going fun, this prototype for what we think of as the stereotypical Silicon Valley startup, with young tech people blowing off steam and doing these crazy things. They invented it.

A Cliff Spohn illustration for an early Apple Computer manual. His artwork was personally commissioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

Bushnell seems like this really colorful character, who draws a wide range of opinions on his legacy….

In some circles Nolan gets a bad rep, and some of that is justifiable because he likes to take credit for a lot of things that weren’t necessarily his idea, but at the same time this is a guy who was often just really far ahead of the curve. He started one of the early tech incubators after he left Atari and they were working on computerized color matching and even an early version of GPS for your car. Way way ahead of his time…And sure, he was a shameless self promoter — no doubt about it — but he hired great people, especially creative people, and he got out of their way. He was such a champion for the artists, and you’ve got to give him credit for it.

So if you go back to the earliest days of the company, they are credited with producing the first commercial arcade game…

The game that started it all: PONG. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

That was Nolan and Ted Dabney doing that with another company, Nutting Associates. They created Computer Space. But that was almost like their prototype. Like — ‘will this work?’ It wasn’t a huge success, it definitely wasn’t PONG. But it proved to them that PONG could be done.

Well…it leads to PONG, which is this game-changing moment that video game culture springs from, yet it’s a history that doesn’t often get ascribed to Silicon Valley.

No, it doesn’t, and I can’t quite figure that out. I don’t know if it’s because they weren’t the typical Silicon Valley startup. PONG was sort of the first hit for Atari, and they created some great arcade games, but then they ran into some money trouble and were purchased by Warner. Then they became big and then maybe it was seen as — now they are part of the establishment.

What about the fact that you also have a young Steve Jobs looped into this history?

Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple not long after Jobs left Atari. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

Yeah, I get asked about that a lot. And frankly, Steve Jobs didn’t do a lot. If you ask Al Alcorn, who was the head of engineering at that point, he’ll say point blank — ‘this guy was not an engineer.’ But that’s what he was hired to do. I think Nolan saw a bit of himself in Steve Jobs, and I think if you make that comparison it’s pretty obvious. They both had a visionary aspect to them and they both knew just enough about the technology to know what was a good idea and what wasn’t. But they couldn’t execute those ideas on their own.

There’s the whole story of him working on Breakout, where Jobs said “Oh I can do that,” knowing that he can get Steve Wozniak to come in by saying “Hey Steve, come play free video games.”

And it’s funny, because I think Steve Wozniak has said, “I came in and helped because he let me play the video games as much as I want.” He said he was spending half his salary at the time on quarters playing video games in the arcade. But here, he could come in and play whenever he liked, so that was a real draw.

Early Atari design concepts for arcade game cabinets. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

Well…it’s fascinating in the sense of early Silicon Valley and how the orbits intersect…

I think its most interesting for the things that didn’t happen. When Steve Jobs starts out he didn’t have a large circle of Silicon Valley friends. So he calls up Nolan and says, “Hey, I’m starting this company called Apple.” And he gave Nolan the opportunity to invest in Apple. And I mean — what kind of crazy elseworld story would that be?

What can you compare the advent of the Atari 2600 to? Is it like an iPod kind of moment?

I would compare the 2600 to the iPhone. It was moderately successful at first and people said ‘Ok, its just a phone.’ But what we realize in retrospect, ten years in now, we realize that it’s a complete game-changer and it spawned a new industry, a new way of thinking about stuff and a new way of working.

When you look at Atari, that totally happend. There was no video game industry. The idea that it wasn’t just this business to business thing, where you sold arcade machines to operators who were trying to squeeze profit out of quarters.

Today, a lot has fundamentally changed. The delivery model has changed, technical things have change, but really we’re looking at the same kind of model that Atari started with how the video game industry works: how games are marketed, gamers relationships to them. Atari started something huge, an industry that now makes more money than Hollywood. That’s crazy.

Original console packaging for the Atari Video Computer System. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

How did the design of the console itself factor into the appeal of Atari?

I was able to track down the industrial designer who designed the console, his name is Fred Thompson. He came from Heath Electronics, who made stereo equipment.

Atari said, ‘Ok, we’re gonna put a video game system in the living room. It needs to not look like a crazy UFO object. It needs to look like something that people don’t have to be scared of, but familiar and nice.’ So you have things like the faux wood grain and these nice industrial metal switches that come from the world of high-end stereo. You have plastic that has a sort of toothy texture to it. These are all things that came from home stereo. They really wanted it to be in that world and be taken seriously and have a touch of the familiar. So it was very interesting talking with Thompson about what they did. Even the size of the cartridge. Atari did not invent the video game cartridge. But it is no accident that it is roughly the shape and size of an 8-track. They were always drawing on familiar things to sell something really nice, and in the end it became pretty iconic.

Why did Atari stand out? There were other home systems at the time.

Cover art for Atari’s “Space Invaders.” (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

The 2600 wasn’t super successful for almost 2 years. It was an interesting idea but it wasn’t the first, the Magnavox Odyssey was out there. But when Space Invaders came out and was a legitimate craze, Atari had the first killer app. And people wanted that…the game they had to have.

But also, Atari under Warner did everything really well. They were different in that they were really a creative company. They knew had to advertise and how to market. Atari understood they were marketing pop culture.

From a design point of view, how would you characterize the success of the Atari logo?

I think the logo has an interpretive quality. Even back in the early 80s, there were questions, ‘What does it mean? What does it stand for? Is it an A? It kinda looks like Mount Fuji.’ And then George Opperman said in an interview that it was meant to represent Pong, with the two paddles on the side of a centerline and they were bending because there was a ball flying back and forth.

Also they used it really consistently, they used a lot of color and they built a brand identity in a nascent industry. Atari was always at the forefront of building their brand and making. Atari stuff looked differently from everybody else.

A page from Lapetino’s book “Art of Atari” showing different concepts and art for Atari’s version of “Centipede. “(Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

If I looked at all this ten years ago, I would have seen it more as nostalgia, but now I see it in terms of the video games that are popular on mobile phones, and how it now seems like more of a renaissance for simplicity and minimalism in video games. The concepts are strangely relevant again…

I think you’re right. The phone games are interesting, because they double down on the things that Atari did really well: making a game that is really easy to play, but it’s hard to master. That ethos was what Atari games were being all about.

And I think people aren’t just being nostalgic for those games, they are also realizing that they represent a fundamental sort of gameplay. Most people are not gonna sit down and invest 40-50 hours into playing a huge campaign. And sure there will always be a market for people who want that long form adventure…but at the same time the rest of the world is a huge untapped market. And if you can find that sweet spot of a game that is fun to play and pretty simple with repeat value, there is money to be made there. And I think people are realizing that maybe that wasn’t just a historical quirk, but it’s something that is worth looking at.

Trade flyers for Atari arcade cabinets. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

What are your favorites games?

I like the fast twitch games. One of my favorites is Ka-Boom, where you use the paddles for the bucket and catch all the bombs, where you just had to go into pattern recognition mode.

Warlords is a blast, it’s feels like a party in a box when you have three or four people playing it. Indy 500 is one that most people don’t talk about for the 2600, but it’s just a really fun driving game.

In hindsight….how would you characterize the impact and legacy of Atari?

One is just being a pioneer of the video game industry, and showing that it did have commercial viability. But two, it’s a class of games: easy to play, difficult to master. And I think that is still important.

The iconic Atari joystick. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

Also, they just had a legacy of great design, which often gets overlooked. They did great work in terms of design and illustration. Their industrial designers were figuring things out. Look at the one-button joystick — that’s an iconic piece of industrial design.

So that legacy of great art and design is a huge one, and I think companies still ignore that at their peril. That’s a key part of this, and that was part of my reason for wanting to tell this story. I really look at the book as a design history; obviously I’m a designer so I look at things through that lens, but I think that is a very helpful lens for looking at Atari.

Tim Lapetino’s book Art of Atari is available through Dynamite Entertainment.

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