The Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles. The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to line up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced around the screen, into nearby wall or mines, spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. (Kee Games [Atari], 1974)
Memories: In the early 1970s, arcade distribution was a closely-guarded, exclusive thing. And to an ambitious guy like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, this represented a problem. Atari wasn’t an old-school pinball outfit like D. Gottlieb & Co. or Bally, and was bucking the system just to land a deal with regional distributors across the country anyway. The distribution system – which allowed one distributor to represent Gottlieb games exclusively in his area, while a competitor would be the only game in town for Bally/Midway fare, for example – was created in the pinball era; many arcade operators would deal exclusively with a single distributor, and of course there were franchise arcades owned by companies like Bally, such as Aladdin’s Castle. It was entirely possible, and not uncommon, to see some manufacturers represented only at one or two arcades in a given area, and their rivals represented only at others. Which was fine with pinball manufacturers, but Bushnell wanted to place Atari’s video games everywhere.
The solution was sneaky, and something that almost certainly couldn’t be done with the level of scrutiny on corporate America today. Bushnell set up a competitor for Atari called Kee Games, headed by his friend and neighbor Joe Keenan. If anyone had bothered to do their homework, it was no secret that Bushnell and Atari engineer Al Alcorn sat on Kee’s board of directors – that sort of thing had to be disclosed, at least on paper. But Bushnell, master showman that he was, created a smokescreen by making a public fuss about the “defection” of several key Atari engineers and programmers to Kee, raising hell about their departure and denouncing Atari’s new crosstown “rival.” Whichever distributors were not carrying Atari, Kee approached and gained access to their market.
As was the case so much of the time in the formative days of the video arcade industry, the games released by Atari and Kee Games were essentially the same, with different artwork and different names, so that in itself wasn’t exactly a dead giveaway. There were already plenty of Pong clones on the market, and Kee was a way for Bushnell to control some of that market while also skirting the distribution system. One planned game, Xs and Os Football, was put on the back burner, and instead Kee’s engineers focused on a new game, Tank! (The postponed football game would later emerge under Atari’s banner, of which more in a moment.) Simple and yet compelling, Tank!‘s double joystick controls and monochrome graphics offered gamers their first taste of modern-day combat simulation (prior to this, the arcade was filled either with Pong clones or volleyball-like variations on the Pong theme, or the abstract space combat of Computer Space). Arcade goers flocked to Tank! and Kee Games had a hit on its hands.
In the months ahead, Kee Games actually pulled ahead of Atari; Keenan’s business experience saw him managing things at Kee a little more tightly than Bushnell was handling Atari. Ultimately, Bushnell exercised an option to bring Kee under Atari’s umbrella (as if it wasn’t already) with a public announcement of a “merger” that would make Kee a “wholly owned subsidiary” (which, of course, it already was). Keenan was appointed the CEO of Atari, and the merger made redundant the rivalry of the distribution system established in the heyday of pinball; many distributors abandoned any attempts at exclusivity, and the decks were cleared for the next round of arcade hits.
(images shown are from Ultra Tank; images from the original Tank! game are unavailable at this time.)