I’ve been furiously working on the follow-up to my History Of Atari :Part 1 for Gamasutra (it’s been so long since the first one that they’ve probably given-up on it), and I dug up a couple quotes for something that struck me as quite interesting. It seems that Atari might have designed a version of their hit coin-op Missile Command for the military. It has been well reported that Atari worked on a version of their 1980 coin-op hit Battelzone for the U.S. Military. Sometime in 1980 Atari was approached by the Army to help create a version of Battlezone to use for combat training.
‘There was a group of consultants for the Army a bunch of retired generals and such that approached Atari with the idea that the technology for “Battlezone” could be used to make a training simulator for the then new Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The idea was that such a simulator could be made into a game that would encourage the soldiers to use it. They would learn not only the basic operation of the IFV technology, but would also learn to distinguish between the friendly and enemy vehicle silhouettes. ‘
-Ed Rotberg (Battlezone programmer) http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/BOOK/ROTBERG.HTM
While information on the Army Battlezone project is freely available today, in the early 80’s it existed as only the reflection of rumor passed around by magazine editors and kids on the playground. Without any formal information, even more scurrilous rumors (or are they?) evolved pertaining to other Atari games (i.e. Missile Command, released at the same time as Battlezone) and C.I.A. conspiracies. I recently dug up this quote from an issue of Joystik.
‘The rumor goes something like this: The Pentagon (or the CIA or the FBI) collaborated with Atari in the development of a realistic video war game. What they were after isn’t clear, and the reasoning differs from rumor to rumor. Either the Pentagon wanted to subliminally train future personnel in the art of video. Or the Pentagon wanted to locate and recruit immediately those talented gamesters with the most impressive war-game skills. Whether they found what they were after or whether the story is even true is certainly top-secret information. The game was real enough, however, and was appropriately titled Missile Command.’
-Matthew White, Joystik magazine,Sept. 1982
Of course, Joystik was a Larry Flynt publication, and the magazine was never known for it’s “subtle” reporting, but still, is there something to this rumor? Today these conspiracies seem like little more than quaint fantasies, but in 1980’s, the era of Reagan, the USSR, War Games and Red Dawn, they were dead serious. While it has never been proven that the U.S. Military was going to use these games for finding the most adept 80’s teenage arcade denizens to man 21st century weaponry (that prospect was left to the aliens in both The Last Starfighter movie and in Robert Maxx’s book Arcade’oh, and America’s Army), but it has been substantiated that they did want to use early 80’s video games to train their troops’
‘ The Army has noticed that the young people they work with like these types of games so they’ve been asking themselves, Why can’t we use this thing?’
-Donald Osbourne Atari Coin-Op Sales VP
‘and they wanted both Battelzone and Missile Command. The following quote from the Boston Globe in 1981 seems to support this idea.
‘an agreement is being drawn up whereby Atari will produce training prototypes for both the Army’s M60A1 Tank and its Chaparral Missile Air Defense System.’
– Nathan Cobb, Boston Globe Staff, September 3, 1981
So my question is this: Did Atari ever design a version of Missile Command for the army, the same way they designed a version of Battlezone for them?
On System16.com there is a description of an unreleased game named Missile Command Deluxe/Missile Command 2. From the description, it sounds a bit like cooperative 2-player air defense simulator:
“In the early ’80s there was a test prototype of a 2-ended MISSILE COMMAND, in a cabinet like an elevated cocktail game you would stand at each end of. The screen was oriented longwise, the planes & satellites came out from the middle, and enemy fire was sent down in both directions to cities at each end of the screen. You had to concentrate on your own cities first, of course, but if you killed the current wave and had rockets left, you could help the other player by launching against enemy fire threatening *his* cities!”
Was this a prototype for a game comissioned by the military? Or, was all this work for the U.S. Army stopped before it got off the ground by people like coin-op designer/programmer Ed Rotberg?
‘I was vehemently opposed to Atari getting into this sort of business at all. Remember, the world was a very different place in 1981 than it is now. There was still a Soviet Union who was perceived to be our nation’s biggest threat. My contention was that many of us engineers had the option to go to work for companies doing military contracting, and we consciously chose to work at a company that was not so involved.’
-Ed Rotberg http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/BOOK/ROTBERG.HTM
So what really happened with Atari and the military in the early 80’s? Did they work on more than just a version of Battelzone? Someone knows the answer. The question is: are they allowed to tell us?