In hindsight, the video game crash of 1983 could have been avoided. Foolish decisions as well as excitement and inexperience over a burgeoning new market largely defined this era and while the industry managed to recover, consumers still feel its effects today.
There is an inclination by the majority to put a lot of the blame for this crash on Atari. While they aren’t entirely responsible, it is fair to put a portion of the blame on them; they did a lot of stupid things. We’ve all heard the stories about the landfill full of E.T. cartridges but closer inspection indicates a larger philosophy publishers of the time had concerning games. Atari had only 10 million consoles installed at the time of the games creation. What they decided to do with that number was to invest in 12 million copies of the game, assuming everybody would buy one and then 2 million more would buy the Atari 2600 for the singular purpose of playing the game. They pushed the game out within 6 weeks to meet the holiday season. This was far from a successful launch.
This notable surplus of hubris and surprising lack of quality control continued with Atari’s version of Pac-Man . The title had been a huge success in arcades, so Atari operated under the assumption that the brand name alone would translate into impressive sales figures. This wasn’t to be the case, however. When the prototype for the game was brought to them, they decided it was good enough. Weeks later, once again motivated by the holidays, Atari released an abysmal version of the popular game. Consumer faith was shaken.
Atari also lacked any means of controlling what games were released for its platform. Companies realized that they could throw together games and market them to consumers with ease. Purina, the pet food company, even made a game entitled Chase the Chuck Wagon. The logic behind this was that with minimal effort, they could create a product that would serve as advertising for their primary source of income; dog food. Consumers obviously didn’t like paying for advertising and before long the software market was saturated with absolute crap.
Speaking of saturation, the console market itself was utter chaos. It’s hard to imagine, since we’ve experienced so many subsequent generations where there were primarily 3 contenders for the console space, but in the 80s there were literally dozens of options. This was a time where it was hard to inform the consumer, and people really didn’t know what console to buy. Further complicating the issue was the fact that the hardware in many of these consoles was legally reproducible and some companies sold add-ons to their consoles that would allow people to play, say, Atari games on a Colecovision.
As faith in the industry continued to drop, so did the price of the home computer. Advertisers started telling consumers that video game consoles weren’t an economical choice. Why not buy a computer, which can play games and facilitate work, instead? They had a pretty good point, and many families opted to spend their money in this way.
Video games, which went for 30 to 40 dollars at the time, started to get thrown in bargain bins for around 5 dollars. Millions upon millions of games went unsold and retailers began trying to return unsold copies to the publishers. Unfortunately, most publishers didn’t have the funds to buy the copies back. Retailers began to lose faith, too. Then came Nintendo.
Nintendo came onto the scene with clever marketing and smart tactics to salvage the industry. They designed a console that looked unlike other game systems. It had a modern feel to it and would look at home in an entertainment center. They didn’t brand themselves as a game console but as an “entertainment system,” hence, the NES— Nintendo Entertainment System. They installed a lock-out chip so they could control what games got published on their system in the interest of quality control. They also marketed peripherals as toys, trojan horse-style, putting ROB and the Zapper in toy aisles everywhere. This last bit also had an interesting effect.
You see, 80s culture in America is when toys and fashion started getting separated by gender again. As such, Nintendo products ended up in the boys isle of the toy store. Previously, games appealed to both genders. Many programmers at the time were women. But the crash necessitated a new approach, and due to the culture of the time, games started to become a bit of a boys club.
If it wasn’t for the crash, it’s hard to say what the gaming industry would look like today. Can you imagine consoles that could play the games of their competitors? What about the absence of the Nintendo’s Official Seal on their titles? What about the Xbox or PlayStation equivalents? Would the PC versus console war have reached its current level of craziness? Would the term “girl gamer” have been invented? What would console gaming have been like if development hadn’t primarily migrated to Japan for over 20 years? It’s hard to say for certain but one thing is undeniable: the video game crash of 1983 was one of the most impactful events of gaming history.