Activision, Atari, Absolute: How Video Game Companies Once Gamed the Alphabet for an Inside Joke
The Atari 2600, or Video Computer System (VCS), introduced in 1977, would ultimately become the first commercially successful video game console that accepted plug-in ROM cartridges, allowing the consumer to expand their library of games without having to buy a new console.¹
The system made inroads into the home video game market for its first couple of years despite a much higher price than its predecessors, thanks in large part to its removable game cartridges. However, the event that propelled the Atari 2600 into the stratosphere was the release of the Space Invaders cartridge in 1980. Space Invaders, a massive arcade hit designed by Tomohiro Nishikado of the Japanese game company Taito, was the first significant license of an arcade megahit to the home video game market.
When Space Invaders arrived on the Atari, not only did the cartridge sell like crazy, but the Atari 2600 machine quadrupled in sales overnight as the crowd of enthusiasts needed the game console to play the cartridge. A niche electronics product was quickly becoming big business.
The Atari 2600 platform’s meteoric growth caught the eyes of many, including a team of top game developers at Atari, namely David Crane, Bob Whitehead, Alan Miller, and Larry Kaplan.
It all started when Atari management made the ill-advised decision to internally publish a list of the sales of the top game cartridges for the previous year, apparently with the intent of educating the development team on what type of games were selling well. Of course, management could have achieved this same goal without including actual dollar amounts of sales generated by the game.