How a Failed Atari Addon Led to EA Sports

In 1981, two former Atari employees Craig Nelson and Bob Brown met to form a new company to produce Atari Video Computer System games. The two had been inspired by other, similar groups which had left the company to form independent software publishers, most notably Activision and Imagic. Brown was intimately involved in the creation of the VCS, but had been let go in 1979 while researching future new products for the company. Nelson along with his brother Stephen had been part of the programming group, leaving around 1980. Brown and Nelson knew intimately – both from his own perspectives and that of the programmers they still corresponded with – that the VCS was running up against its own limitations, yet the market was still growing precipitously. If only they could attach themselves to that market and go beyond it, they could make something out of the results.

Bob Brown with one of Arcadia’s first products.

The company Arcadia Corporation was formed on June 11th, 1981. The team, with Brown’s hardware expertise and Nelson’s programming strength, set about creating an extension of the VCS’ capabilities in the form of an addon. In all ways, Arcadia determined to set itself apart from the competition. They would operate for nearly a year in secrecy until they had enough titles to utterly overwhelm the competition. They would offer their games more cheaply than a cartridge by making their addon run off of audio cassettes, a common storage platform on home computers. The games would also be far more influenced by computer games and elaborate console games like Adventure, providing the player with expansive gameplay rather than purely with fast action.

An illustration of how the Super Charger fits into the VCS.

The addon would be known as the Super Charger, a custom cartridge which hooked into the VCS and housed 6K of memory, 49 times that of the VCS natively. Hooked into the addon cartridge was an audio cassette loader from which players would load their games into memory to be played through the Atari console. It wasn’t an entirely new piece of hardware all on its own, but the ability to offload the functions in RAM opened up a huge new world of possibilities for the aged platform. It was a potential second wind for the most popular home gaming system in the United States amidst the coming saturation of that market.

Super Charger ad.

Arcadia debuted the Super Charger at the June 1982 Summer CES at the same time that Atari was readying its 5200 Supersystem and Coleco was ready to ship Colecovision. All three of these potential futures launched more or less simultaneously, and with Arcadia as the new company in the mix it was going to be hard for them to cut through the market noise which was becoming deafening. The Super Charger cost $70 on release, about half the price of a VCS itself, but the additional games only cost $14. They would position this as a greater value in terms of investment than the new consoles, a concept that had been a difficult sell in the 1970s.

Super Charger and its game cassettes.

When Atari first sold the VCS – and indeed when Fairchild first hawked the Channel F – getting consumers on board with the idea of buying multiple games for a system when nothing had previously worked that way. A system in itself was seen as the item, a tradition that Atari broke by not including an in-built game with the VCS due to cost. Over time, consumers had come to realize the value in constant new releases keeping their platform relevant. Gaming reviews and magazines often emphasized a number of games above anything else. As things were moving into the first major hardware battle, it seemed perfectly logical that consumers might prefer upgrading their older system and benefitting more firmly from the technological advances that had been made in the past few years.

However, the history of console addons post-Super Charger has shown a clear lack of interest for anything that does not directly enhance the gameplay experience. While the extra fidelity was welcome, the games by Arcadia still very much looked like Atari games. They were expertly crafted, including Frogger, The Official which matched the Colecovision and 5200 versions in every way that mattered, but the increased graphical depth made for a new look and style. The game players were always looking for something truly new and not simply incremental.

It also didn’t help that the North American Video Game Market Crash was taking effect just as they were getting going. Even the more traditional companies like Activision and Imagic were hurting so the room for something untested like Arcadia’s offering was tightening quite a bit. Super Charger provided a potential solution to the market woes with its cheaper games on a cheaper format for the buyer, but it again was stuck on an expensive peripheral which wasn’t going to penetrate the whole market. Even with this, they continued to fight that uphill battle and push their technology into as yet unseen limits.

Italian advertisement for the Super Charger.

The company – renamed Starpath after a trademark issue – soldiered on with attempts at solving its deeper issues. They tried several different strategies. They dropped the price of the Super Charger to try and get a greater install base. They introduced the product into several different European countries, not just the UK. They courted outside developers to put games on the Super Charger; one accepted but then never actually managed to release a game for it. Over time they began to realize that they needed to stop playing at the platform market and focus on software. They would move to develop cartridge games for the Colecovision and Atari 8-bit computer line using the expertise they had gathered, but they continued to support the Super Charger to the end. During that time, they developed a focus within their development, primarily focused on new art and animation.

Just as Activision had brought a new level of visual fidelity to the VCS, Starpath was doing the same with each of its games. Whether it was a semi-scrolling 3D maze in Escape from the Mind Master, the leaping bunny in Rabbit Transit, or the articulated swimmer of Survival Island, the Super Charger games put a lot more effort into the flow of motion than the majority of their contemporaries. At the programmer’s chair were people such as Scott Nelson, Brian McGhie, and Stephen Landrum, all of whom would play a role in the next stage for their company.

Michael Katz, video game industry executive extraordinaire.

Starpath had to eventually abandon its proprietary platform and sell its last few games purely by mail order, but they seemed to inevitably be one of the oncoming casualties of the crash. However, their efforts had caught the attention of Michael Katz, the president of the computer game company Epyx. Epyx had been reinventing itself from a publisher of methodical RPGs into a company focused on the fast action capabilities now possible on platforms like the Commodore 64. Katz saw Starpath’s talent and their potential on these advanced platforms as the type of talent he needed in the company, particularly after a defection by the original founder of the company. On December 7th, 1983, Epyx bought up Starpath and commenced with moving their ten person design staff out to their offices in Santa Clara, California.

Two late term projects from the company focused on this idea of a sprite called the running man. This fixture in game graphics showed a somewhat proportional human moving with swinging legs and many distinguishable motions within a running stride. It had been the starting point for many games on the Intellivision as well as Activision’s Pitfall!, but it was very difficult to create even on the Super Charger. Starpath programmer Dennis Caswell took this demo, converted it to the C64 with relative ease, and began working on the game Impossible Mission with it.

Nearly released in the last line of Super Charger games was Sweat!: The Decathalon Game. Programmed by Scott Nelson, it was shown at the Summer CES with an anticipated release in the fall to pre-empt the excitement of the Summer Olympics to be held in San Francisco. Many game publishers were looking to take advantage of this even with athletic sports becoming a huge public interest. Sweat! had ten different events which players could compete in for a high score, all with their own version of a multi-colored running man. For whatever reason it had not been shipped with the last few Super Charger games despite being functionally complete.

The programming was an insane feat even with the boost provided by the Super Charger and at its core gameplay fit perfectly into Michael Katz’s vision for Epyx’s new product line. The Starpath team plus a few internal Epyx developers were immediately put to work on creating a game in the same style for the C64. They were working towards the January 1984 Winter CES, only a few weeks away from initial talks, and the game would be released later that year.

Summer Games premiered at the Winter CES.

The game they produced, Summer Games, had the hallmarks of simplicity from a console developer which was rarely seen on computer platforms. The events – only seven now – all utilized a single button and joystick which was prevalent amongst home computer game players. Tapping a button to run, launching into a jump, adjusting angles and moves were all controlled in a precise manner which took a long time to master. Each event was set up as its own distinct stage as a series of mini-games not directly tied together. This format provided a lot of value to particular types of gamers, though made the whole experience lack a general flow. Regardless, Summer Games was immensely successful and its format would be the basis for even greater sports games.

Some of the art tools used in the later Games series.

Development of a line of Games games became the most important part of Epyx’s bottom line moving forwards. Summer Games had been a very early example of a computer game developed by a real team with different specialties, but each new entry was going to draw in new talent. One of the artists who joined with Summer Games II was Mike Kosaka, a highly accomplished pixel artist and designer who headed the creation of the Epyx submarine game Destroyer among others. Kosaka, along with Stephen Landrum and Kevin Bunch, were actively courted by rival computer game publisher Electronic Arts for their expertise. Whether it was a financial, creative, or other desire, the three of them joined EA conjointly to create a similar game to Summer Games for that company.

The game the team created at Electronic Arts would be released in 1987 as Skate or Die, a skateboarding game which mimicked the Summer Games formula with a central hub to connect all the different minigames. The same stylish presentation and precision gameplay followed them over from Epyx and formed a new bar for the depiction of real world activities on 8-bit computer platforms. For Electronic Arts, Skate or Die was a renewed commitment to their on and off again interest in sports games for broader audiences.

The Earl Weaver Baseball cover, note the “Sports Legends” at the top.

Even from the company’s earliest days, they had pursued the sports genre with games like One on One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird. They hadn’t quite committed to it as a focus for the company, but in addition to Skate or Die in 1987 they also got the title Earl Weaver Baseball. Affixed to this by marketing man Don Traegar was a potential brand for these games called Sports Legends. He had hoped that celebrity-led sports games would carry this title but only one other game was ever given the honorific, and it was a racing game. However, as sports games development at the company continued to escalate due mostly to interest of the game designers, a marketing hole seemed to open up as well.

EASN original logo.

Mike Kosaka was one of the most involved players in this, providing art not only for games like Lakers versus Celtics but also the original John Madden Football on the Apple II. He loved competitive sports as much as anyone and he one day decided to sketch a logo as a riff on the famous broadcaster the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). His stylized letters spelled out EASN, Electronic Arts Sports Network. This simple doodle was seen by Don Traeger who picked up on the potential significance of this idea as a marketing tool.

Though EA’s sports games were not always in the game series as Epyx’s Summer Games successors were, they could potentially be connected through this idea of a “network”. This diegetic means of putting context to sports games had been used by the computer game company Cinemaware in a series they called TV Sports. The TV Sports games would have the amenities of a broadcasted football or basketball game with announcer commentary, a half-time show, text on screen, and shots of the crowd. To one degree these were just enhancements in the realism, but on another end they were a deliberate choice which bound together these games as being from the same company.

The EASN logo in the NHLPA Hockey cover.

With the product to back it up, Traeger pushed through the new marketing effort and the began labelling games with EASN at the end of 1991 with new console game versions of their biggest sports games like John Madden Football II, NHLPA Hockey ‘93, and Bulls vs Lakers. While they would have to change the name due to ESPN getting on their back, the rebranded EA Sports continues to persist to this day as a well known unifying brand within video games.


The ambitions of extending life to console games eventually drove talented programmers towards the articulation of fully-realized human characters within computer games. This necessarily required artists to pull together, and as the games expanded into every conceivable sport there came the need to unify them into something larger. A perfect merging of design, art, and marketing created the brand we all recognize today. It would have been very different without that janky cassette tape attached to the Atari VCS.

Sources:

1982-06-25 The Indianapolis, page Star Magazine 5

1982-12 Mart, page 20

1983-01-22 Cash Box, page 14

1983-02 TV Gamer, page 56

1983-03 Electronic Games, page 10

1983-06 Radio Electronics, page 65-66

1983-06 Electronic Fun with Computer & Games, page 98

1983-06 The Logical Gamer, page 1 + 6

1983-07 Electronic Fun with Computer & Games, page 16

1983-07 Computer & Video Games, page 20

1983-07 The Logical Gamer, page 13

1983-08 The Logical Gamer, page 5

1983-09 The Logical Gamer, page 2

1983-11 Tilt, page 12-13

1983-11-09 San Francisco Examiner, page C-1

1984-01-09 Infoworld, page 30

1984-02-27 Infoworld, page 66

1984-03 Video Games, page 55-56

1984-05 Electronic Games, page 9

1986-05 Tilt, page 16 + 18

1989-08 Commodore Magazine, page 70

1990-09 The One, page 81

From Automated Simulations to Epyx

The Minds Behind Sports Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers, pages 23 + 173-175

Starpath Corporation documents from the California Secretary of State records online

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