Inside the Atari Coin-Op Divisions Collection: What’s in an Ad?

ICHEG’s assistant director Jeremy K. Saucier and The Strong’s archivist Julia Rossi examine a group of Atari arcade game advertising proofs, artwork, and mock-ups, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYRecently The Strong acquired a colossal collection of materials related to Atari’s coin-operated video game and pinball divisions. The task of processing and preserving such a collection is multi-faceted, and in the coming months, The Strong’s curators, conservators, catalogers, and archivist will continue to evaluate, stabilize, conserve, and archive the collection. When archivist Julia Rossi and I inventoried a portion the collection, I was struck by the Atari coin-op game advertising mock-ups and proofs—materials used to draft, edit, and demonstrate how advertisements would appear in print. As I carefully inspected prospective ads, I wondered what they revealed about the history and culture of electronic games. As I expected, advertising proofs and mock-ups for Atari’s Arabian (1983) arcade video game exemplify some of the ways in which Atari imagined itself and sold its coin-op games during the early 1980s.

In 1983, Atari released its new arcade game Arabian into a market with stiff competition from successful competitors like Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man (1981) and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981). That market also experienced turmoil from overexpansion, improved home consoles, and falling profits. Although Atari’s  Star Wars (1983) breathed life into the arcades, non-licensed titles like Arabian, which lacked the instant recognition and association with an immensely popular science fiction film franchise, needed a different marketing approach. Atari’s lead artist George Opperman, the coin-op graphic design department, and the marketing services group took on this challenge as they devised the ads for Arabian.

As its title suggests, Arabian was a Middle Eastern fairytale-themed platformer game conceived as one of Atari’s answers to Donkey Kong. Like Donkey Kong, players took on the role of an undersized hero (a prince, instead of a plumber, in this case) charged with saving a princess imprisoned in a castle tower. Along the way, the prince collected brass jugs which spelled out A-R-A-B-I-A-N, as well as fought back diving birds and snowball-throwing genies as he climbed a ship’s sails, crawled through a tight cave, or leapt from one flying carpet to another. Yet how did Atari capture these elements in a print advertisement? And how did Atari communicate the game’s appeal and potential benefits to distributors and operators who might purchase Arabian?

Print Advertising Concept Mock-up for Atari’s Arabian Arcade Video Game, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY.In her book Decoding Advertisements, critic Judith Williamson notes that advertisements must take into account not only the “inherent qualities and attributes of the products they are trying to sell, but also the way they can make those properties mean something to us.” Arabian, then, needed to appear as if it wasn’t just another video game. In both an early hand-drawn mock-up and in a final ad proof the image of an imposing genie battling a sword-wielding prince on a magic carpet super imposed on the image of a teary-eyed princess communicated the essence of the game’s experience. The stylized illustration, which could have been ripped out of the pages of the classic collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories, The Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a The Arabian Nights), associated the game with an exotic adventure.

Advertising Proof for Atari’s Arabian Arcade Video Game, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY.In contrast, the second page of the two-page ad included a photo of Millipede (1982) and Liberator (1982) world record holder Eric Ginner playing Arabian, as well as ad copy (or the ad’s text) that conveyed two core messages: Atari has an excellent reputation and Arabian will generate revenue. First, the ad used a common advertising trope, an endorsement from a “celebrity” or expert such as Ginner to suggest that “word of mouth” and competitive players like Ginner are “telling other players” about Arabian. The ad’s bold tagline, “The Atari Edge: Talk Isn’t Cheap . . . It’s Bankable” (altered slightly from the mock-up), drives home how Atari produced high-tech, reliable, and profitable games and how players talking about Arabian equated to more money in game operators pockets.

Advertising materials like these help reveal how Atari navigated a marketplace in flux. Unfortunately for Atari, Arabian failed to generate the same kind of popular following of Donkey Kong, but as Valve’s current Dota 2 championship tournament attests, attempts to capitalize on the culture of competitive gaming remain an increasingly important part of getting people to talk about and play new games.