The Irish computer and video games industry has always been an interesting one as anyone trying to make a career in it will be able to tell you. With very little content produced on our shores, it has not stopped the country making an impact in a broad range of other areas. While the obvious successes of Havok and Demonware in the middleware space highlight Irish entrepreneurial spirit and talents, we’ve also had a brief stint as a Playstation content producer with Norwegian company Funcom developing Speed Freaks during their time in Dublin’s Sandyford Industrial Estate during the 1990’s. We also have our fair share of quality assurance with a number of companies doing games localisation for the European market and many Xbox 360 disks “Made in Ireland”. More recently, customer support for online games like World of Warcraft have located in Ireland.
The country has a longer history in the video games industry than most believe, and this feature highlights one of the country’s biggest success stories. It does not take place in Dublin, but in 1970’s rural Tipperary. The company? Atari. Why were they there? To manufacture tens of thousands of Atari arcade machines for export to the European market and beyond.
This story has only come about thanks to a number of interviews with Kevin Hayes, former Managing Director of Atari Ireland from 1979 to 1984, a period called by some, the Golden Age of Video Games. His invaluable interviews allow the story of why Tipperary was chosen as a manufacturing base for one of the oldest and most recognisable brands in the industry to be told and highlight Ireland’s long-established presence in the global games industry.
Atari’s early days
Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc. in California with $250 on June 27th 1972. Within a decade, the company would go on to become the fastest growing company in US history (at the time) with revenues of up to $2 billion a year.
It all began with Pong, a tennis-for-two game that was prototyped in Andy Capp’s Tavern close to Atari’s building in September 1972. Within a fortnight, a service call on the broken machine found that the fault boiled down to one thing: it was jammed with coins. The company knew it was on to something and ultimately decided against licensing the game for manufacture by established players in the entertainment industry. They decided to go it alone and in 1973 the company established its international division to sell Atari products outside of the United States.
Magnavox, creators of the first home games console, the Odyssey, brought Atari to court over a number of patent infringements including playing games on a television set, as well as an electronic ping-pong game. This was eventually settled out of court in June 1976 with very favourable terms for Atari.
For a once-off licensing fee of $700,000 and rights to any game the company produced for the next 365 days, Magnavox essentially gave Atari a distinct competitive advantage: every other manufacturer would have to pay Magnavox royalties for their patents while Atari did not. Atari also sat on their new games for the next year to keep them from reverting to Magnavox under the terms of the agreement.
The same year, Warner Communications (now Time Warner) was looking to expand its reach into areas outside its traditional entertainment remit. After four months of negotiations they purchased Atari outright for $28 million and over the next number of years would plough around $100 million into the company to allow it to grow into a $2 billion a year entertainment giant it would become. A huge part of this growth occurred because it had the finances to grow outside its main market in the United States.
The Irish connection
Around this time the company began looking at a number of locations in Europe where they could locate a manufacturing base to help with speed-to-market issues. A number of locations around Ireland were considered. Ireland, before the Celtic Tiger, had a few things going for it . Ireland was a member of the EEC (now EU) and that allowed for easy export within the European Community. The tax regime was advantageous, especially for manufacturing companies and the IDA were marketing Ireland well. While a number of locations were considered, the IDA had an advance factory ready in Tipperary town that was close to one of the main Atari subcontractors based in Ardfinnan, 30km to the southeast.
As Atari was in a hurry to get set up, it took less than a year for Ireland to be chosen, the factory fitted out and the first Atari arcade cabinets to roll off the assembly line. Cabinets were manufactured in Youghal, Co. Cork by Murray Kitchens in Ardfinnan, which Atari would later purchase outright. Wiring and components were supplied by Waterford based Kromberg & Schubert as well as other suppliers. The final product was assembled in the Tipperary town factory and shipped for export via Bell in Waterford in 40-foot containers.
Once up and running, Gil Williams, a Welsh-American mechanical engineer who had been with Atari since the early days, as well as Tommy Martinez and Phillip Stewart, both American employees of Atari, managed the company. The rest of the staff were all locals, and after the purchase of the Ardfinnan plant from Murray Kitchens, Atari Ireland employed just over 200 people.
The company’s third Irish employee was a Donegal man called Kevin Hayes. A graduate of Commerce in UCC, he joined the company as financial controller in August 1978 after an interview over pints in the Royal Hotel Tipperary. Previously he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Dublin and Kildare based Leaf bubblegum manufacturers. Kevin reported to Gil whose last official Atari role after the takeover by Warner was to establish Atari’s coin-op manufacturing plant in Ireland. He remained until September 1979 before returning to California and Kevin took over as Managing Director.
His memories of his time in Tipp in the late 1970’s paint a picture of rural Ireland. The company joined the other main manufacturers in the town, Tampax, The Creamery and Kiely’s bottling plant. Knockagow and Kiely’s on Main Street were the local Atari pubs, while the Aherlow House Hotel and Glen Hotels provided the main facilities for travelling Atari employees.
The not-so-laid back Californian attitude fitted in perfectly in the town, where they were casual decades before it was fashionable across other areas of industry. The Californians loved the late Irish sunsets, and the Irish employees loved going to California, and over the time the factory operated it was regarded as a great success by both Atari and Warner Communications generating very good profits for the company.
While there was obviously plenty of banter occurring at the same time, one of the few stories Kevin divulged involved a goat. One of the American employees had a particular issue with a traveller’s goat that frequently would come into the complex. He took it upon himself to sort out the problem and Kevin had to negotiate a price for the dead goat. Once this had been settled, the staff enjoyed goat burgers for the next few weeks.
Aside from this minor issue, Atari also introduced one of the first fax machines into the country, at a time when Tipperary town did not have international direct dialling. This quickly improved. While these and other issues were there, the company worked through them. Exporting from Waterford had few problems, and Kevin has pointed out that while there was bureaucracy, the Irish powers that be were flexible to deal with.
The IDA provided Atari with the building in the town, which the company eventually purchased off them, as well as providing training grants to train their employees. Kevin also credits them as being very helpful in allowing the company to set up and begin manufacturing quickly.
Once the assembly line began rolling, the company was producing up to 2,000 cabinets a month. Tens of thousands of Atari hits including Centipede, Missile Command and Asteroids passed through the town for lucrative markets abroad. This continued unabated until the market slowed globally, but would pick up again in the mid 1980’s when games such as Marble Madness, Gauntlet and Temple of Doom were released.
After being established by Atari/Warner Communications from 1978 – 1984, the Tipperary factory was run as a joint venture between Namco and Warner from 1985 – 1990. Ownership reverted back to Warner from 1990 – 1995 until Chicago based Midway Games purchased the plant in 1995. The plant was purchased the following year by Namco Europe and would close after 20 years in 1998.
Following Kevin’s departure in 1984, Mike Nevin, a native of Mitchelstown, Co. Cork ran operations from 1984 – 1994. Mike Nevin is now MD of Namco Operations Europe in London. After Mike, Tipperary town local Pat Pickham ran the plant from 1994 until it closed in 1998.
Advice for Irish developers
Kevin has some words of advice for Irish people looking at working in the arcade or coin-op sector of the games industry. The business is not about marketing: games either make money or not, you know by the cashbox. The golden rule of coin-op is that the game is “easy to learn, hard to master”. A me-too game won’t cut it, and a there isn’t a business proposition unless the game has an innovation leap. Games also need to differentiate themselves from the in-home experience. If you can’t achieve this, there is no point in attempting to create games for this sector.
While tens of thousands of arcade games were sold during the golden era, now a manufacturing run numbers around 2,000 to 5,000 cabinets as the business has shifted from arcade games to prize-mechanical games.
So is it worth developing for this space? Not really unless you’ve got something that checks all the boxes, and you have a well thought out game that needs to be more than a concept. He also says that Namco are always interested in working with independent studios on coin-op projects at the blueprint stage, but that as players vote with their wallets it’s a tough sector to be in.
Those who want to persevere should contact the business development people at coin-op manufacturers in the UK, and those that want to grow quickly should hook up with a partner with a worldwide presence, although slower growth is sometimes better.
About this article
Key sources for this article were the Irish Company Registration Office and Steven L. Kent’s book “The Ultimate History of Video Games”, where I found a single note about Atari’s presence in Ireland which led me to research this story. I would also like to thank Kevin Hayes for his time.
Kevin Hayes Bio
Kevin Hayes joined Atari in August 1978 in the role of Financial Controller, and would go on to become Managing Director of Atari Ireland from September 1979 until June 1984. A Donegal man (born in Derry, lived in Donegal, Clare, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Tipperary and Limerick) who graduated from Commerce in UCC, he qualified as a chartered accountant while working in Dublin with PriceWaterhouseCoopers for 3 ½ years. He is currently President/CEO of Namco Cybertainment, the largest operator of diversified coin-operated amusement games in the United States and Caribbean.
Jamie McCormick graduated from Management & Marketing in DIT. Formerly editor of IrishPlayer.com, he has also worked with Gamesworld (now GameStop), Demonware and most recently as Operations Manager of the Xbox Live Gaming Centre in Dublin. He is currently Marketing Director with private advertising company transAD. PM him on the gd.ie boards at ‘jamiemc’.
Dail debate on closure – http://www.irlgov.ie/debates-99/25may99/sect8.htm
Replay Magazine feature and interview – http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2007/06/column_replay_atari_talks_gaun.php
Marble Madness site – http://arcade.svatopluk.com/atari/marble_madness/
Gauntlet – http://www.2atoms.com/game/arcade/arcade10.htm
And for an emulator – http://www.neillcorlett.com/mge/
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – http://www.arcade-history.com/?n=indiana-jones-and-the-temple-of-doom&page=detail&id=1185