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All roads lead to Atari.

Jim Huether did the first American Football game on the 5200 gaming system. And since the 5200 was actually the Atari 800 home computer there was vastly more computing power than we were used to on the 2600. So Jim set out to make a very complete game, one in which each player had its own algorithm for motion and action. Jim was quite proud of this fact and if you talk to him for more than ten minutes he will probably tell you about it. The fact is this was a breakthrough way to approach a team sport game and served as the basis for sports game evolution. If you take the latest Madden football from EA, they are really only elaborating on the fundamental themes Jim first developed on the 5200. Remarkably the good people at EA have not seen fit to include Jim in their revenue stream.

Particularly if by “roads” you mean “moments,” and if by “lead to” you mean “suggest,” and if by “Atari” you mean “some past experience in your life.” So it goes with poetic license (and pedanticism). Before I get my license suspended I should say that the broader and weirder a person’s background the more likely one is to encounter a situation that brings past occurrences to mind. And backgrounds don’t get much broader or weirder than at Atari.

That said, I was involved in a delightful moment of just such situational recall the other night. In point of fact I had gotten together with a friend of mine and we were sitting in the hot tub having a lovely time. I had just shown an episode of “Once Upon ATARI” (www.onceuponatari.com) to some people earlier that day (the first time I’d seen it in quite a while actually). We were soaking away and enjoying a particularly insouciant port (Warning: Drinking alcoholic beverages while immersed in warm water is very dangerous and can lead to many adverse outcomes including death. I do not advocate or condone this act in any way, I simply do it occasionally) when suddenly the classic 1970 Brewer & Shipley hit “One Toke Over the Line” came on the radio and thrust me into retro-seizure and I flashed back to Atari. It made for a fun hot tub story and so I thought I would share it with you.

Way back in 1980 the entirety of the vast Atari empire consisted of two buildings on Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale, California, each of which was know simply by its street number. 1265 housed corporate management, marketing, sales and human resources. 1272 was devoted entirely to engineering, with VCS/2600 and Home Computer development upstairs and on the first floor was coin-op development and a good sized work out area which included a hot tub room. 1265 was by far the drier of the two buildings and this had nothing to do with the location of the hot tub.

The hot tub wasn’t the only form of recreation we had at Atari, nor were video games for that matter. We would occasionally actually leave the building and do something outside. A game or two of ultimate Frisbee used be good sport now and then. Sometimes while sitting in the hot tub now I look down and think “This stomach used to be much smaller and better defined.” In fact, there was a time when I was actually sporting a solid 6-pack. Of course, I don’t know how to phrase that in the UK. What’s the metric conversion for 6-pack?

Some of the best stories took place in the hot tub, where something was always happening. Two of the steamier events that come to mind are the executive birthday surprise and the great security uncover-up.

One incident occurred during the birthday celebration of a VP who shall herein remain nameless, but it might have been the one who used to keep a canister of Nitrous Oxide and another of pure Oxygen in his office (the purposes for which are the subject of another column entirely). A small crew of revelers had gathered in the small but accommodating hot tub room. Various intoxicants were being consumed in celebration of the special event. (although by this standard, nearly every day was a special event at Atari) (and in looking back I realize that actually was the case :) As the party rolled on, inhibitions were shed along with numerous articles of clothing. At one point the birthday boy was adjudged to be in dire need of a tubbing as he had not lost sufficient layers to keep pace with the party at large. The birthday boy disagreed, and the ensuing negotiation took the form of a lively chase around the area. The VP ran out of the hot tub area and headed for the workout room with a wet posse in pursuit in varying stages of undress. As this whole crew emerged into the workout area they were confronted by a collection of executives who had usurped the workout room for a meeting. I don’t think the birthday party was on their agenda.

The other one that came to mind, and this one (as do most hot tub stories, including the last one) involved Jim Huether, creator of Flag Capture and American Football for the 5200 and the man whose face adorns the cover of Warlords. Jim was actually the model for the knight wearing the helmet on the box art. This one was a somewhat more private affair. It seems that Jim, who was (in the vernacular of 80’s America) an absolute chick-magnet, had somehow found his way into the hot tub with a female security guard (one of Atari’s finest). Now Jim had been found many times, how shall I say it. . . in flagrante developmento by security at Atari in various locations (and configurations) around the facility. So when Jim got caught with a security guard, well, it was a crowning achievement in annals of irony. Naturally Jim weathered the episode far better than did the security guard.

Thankfully, there was always a good deal more latitude and benevolent forgiveness available to those who regularly produced multi-million dollar revenue streams. It was one of the clearer policies at Atari and we definitely took advantage of that fact. I think Elizabeth Taylor said it quite well, “Success is the best deodorant.”

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