If you are of a certain age (around 50-60), Atari made the first computer games you ever played. Pong, anyone? Joystick? If you are a hip gamester today, Atari is a retro brand. Now in its 40th year, Atari is still in the games game. Recently, I spoke to Atari’s design director, Kris Johns (whose team is responsible for the Atari timeline below) about the legacy, inventions, and future of this legendary brand.
What is it like being the design director of a company as iconic as Atari?
It’s pretty amazing to work with a brand you love so much. Having the opportunity to have pet projects like the 40th-anniversary infographic/timeline makes the job even better.
The design team (Kyle Medina and John Kauderer) is really talented and passionate about the brand as well. I really couldn’t do it without them. It is so important to have a team with talent that exceeds your own skills.
Forty years old, and with Pong, Asteroids, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and 400 other games under its belt. How does Atari plan on keeping up in the current digital gaming world?
Keeping the tradition alive—fun, innovative games that are “easy to play, difficult to master”—through mobile and online platforms is our main focus. We recently released Circus Atari, a circus-themed puzzle-platformer, and Centipede: Origins, in which players defend their garden from invading insects. Our mobile games have collectively achieved over ten million downloads. We have a pipeline of new titles based on our core IP [intellectual property] lined up, and some other large partnerships in the works that will support this strategy.
Did you ever play Atari?
Indeed I did. I had an Atari 2600 for many years, and later the Jaguar. I spent many hours playing Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar. I loved that game! I played a lot of arcade games when I was a kid as well. Tempest and Centipede were by far my favorite Atari titles.
You’ve worked with Nolan Bushnell, the original founder of Atari. What have you learned from him that sticks in your mind?
I think making intelligent decisions, taking risks, and being passionate about what you do is all that you can control in your life. He tells amazing stories and gives extraordinary insight.
In designing a timeline that begins in 1972, what were the high points that helped alter our culture?
Without a doubt, Pong was the most influential moment. Then I would follow with the Atari 2600, and a multitude of game titles such as: Asteroids , Centipede, and Breakout, both in the arcade and for the Atari 2600 console.
The Atari logo, I think, is the same as it has ever been. Is there any chance it might change with the times?
The logo actually has slightly changed over the last 40 years, but recently we switched back to the original mark George Opperman created. I think all brands make progressions based on brand awareness and cultural relevance. I foresee the mark simplifying at some point, but that is a ways off.
And while we’re on the subject of the logo, what does it mean, anyway?
Opperman’s original statement about the mark was: “The Atari logo, refereed to as the ‘Fuji’ (as in Mount Fuji in Japan), looks like the letter ‘A’, and was meant to represent the game Pong, with two opposing video game players with the center of the Pong court in the middle.”
(The posters below were created by the Atari design team to commemorate the 40th anniversary.)
You might also enjoy The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life: Or, The Video Game as Existential Metaphor, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.