Atari Coin-Op: Classic Arcade Marketing

This week, I thought it would be interesting to look at Atari Coin-Operated Division’s B2B marketing efforts in the early 80s. By ‘B2B’ I mean the way in which they marketed their coin operated activities to the other businesses they wanted to foster relationships with; namely operators and distributors of their arcade games. It was one thing for players to love Atari games, but how did Atari ensure that their direct customers (the operators and distributors), continued to buy new Atari arcade titles, over and above the other manufacturers around at the time?

It required a different strategy and approach. The focus of the marketing message was not so much on how exciting the new game was to consumers, but also the benefits to the operator. A focus was placed on cabinet options (upright vs cocktail designs for example), or how easy it was to empty coins from the machine, what the book-keeping options were or how certain gameplay elements were going to keep players spending money to play the game. Money and profit were the key buzzwords here.

It is clear that a not-insignificant amount of investment went into generating hype and PR for some of Atari’s coin-op releases. Centipede was a great example. Pictured here, is the rather elaborate set created to promote the release of the game. Dry ice, mushroom props and the three cabinet styles are set up ready for photographing:

Atari Centipede promotion: image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

You might recognise this image from the arcade flyer produced at the time of the game’s release. This set also formed part of a video produced by Atari to promote the game. Clearly the audience for the video is trade distributors and operators:

Interesting watching how that video was broken down:

  1. Remind the watcher that Atari is the leading manufacturer of coin operated video games
  2. Describe the game and how new and exciting it is
  3. Tell the operator how they can maximise profits, via difficulty settings
  4. Showcase the various cabinet designs and how easy they are to work with
  5. Close out by stating that Centipede is a “High-intensity action game with super-profitability”

Similar videos were produced for several other games of the same era. Here’s one for Space Duel produced around 1982. Voiceover dude gives it his all:

Here’s a really great new game from Atari: Space Duel! A video game that’s so realistic, players will thrill to the experience of a battle beyond the stars!

That’s quite the description for an early vector game, you might argue that Atari perfected the art of ‘sexing-up’ a few lines drawn on a vector monitor. Again, note the way they are talking to their audience – everything geared towards how much money an operator will make by placing this game in their arcade.

Atari’s Gravitar got similar treatment. Mr Voiceover is really going for it:

When you need a new video game with tremendous pulling power, stay with the leader: ATARI!

As it happens, Gravitar turned out to be quite the flop, but let’s not let that get in the way of a great 80s marketing video:

By the way, that cabaret cabinet on the right there never saw a release. Looks cool though.

Here’s an ad for Dig Dug – it is totally bonkers. Atari went all out on the budget here – note that it is actually directed at the playing public, encouraging them to Ask for it where you play coin video games. Presumably getting players to hassle operators to get a new game in their arcade that they didn’t have, was seen as a valid route to generating sales of arcade cabinets:

That ad won a Clio award, and was the first arcade video game to be advertised in cinemas across America. If you’re interested, here is a ‘making of’ feature that was shown on Entertainment Tonight.

Here’s a shorter ad for the same game, aimed at operators:

How about Atari’s Kangaroo?

When you want a pouch full of profits, don’t monkey around, stick with the leader: ATARI!

Hmm. But hey, someone at Atari thought producing these videos was working, and over 9,000 units were produced, so who am I to argue? More on Kangaroo in a future article by the way.

Here’s a picture of Dig Dug and Kangaroo set up and being photographed by Atari’s marketing team. This looks to be positioned as arcade cabinets placed in a convenience store. The message being that retailers could increase earnings from consumers keen to play the latest arcade titles whilst they shopped. Gotta love the store owner apron wearing guy with clipboard:

Atari’s Dig Dug & Kangaroo: image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Interesting to see that not every message was aimed at arcade operators, but other businesses where Atari saw an opportunity to sell product. Here’s another Atari photo shoot at a convenience store. See the Tempest cab prominently placed in the window.

Developing these new markets was key to driving cabinet sales:

Play Atari at convenience stores! Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Atari managed to formalise their proposition to retailers with the production of this full-page ad, placed in Grocery Trade publications during 1982:

Atari Arcade in Supermarkets

Notice the use of the word “profit” four times over. Note also the coupon/phone call to action goes back to Atari – who would I assume pass the lead onto an operator to get in contact with the store owner.

A key point here – whether the ads resulted in sales of new cabinets or not, Atari are demonstrating to their operator and distributor customers, that they are helping them to sell machines. In much the same way as we might see an ad for Coca-Cola – this benefits not only Coca-Cola, but also all the retailers who buy stock from them to sell to us. Same principle applies here. Retailers see Coke throwing marketing spend out there, they should stock their product rather than Pepsi. Operators see Atari marketing its products, they will favour Atari arcade games over Williams, or Taito. 

More game-specific marketing here, this time with 1982’s Xevious. Licenced by Atari from Namco, the game is an early top down vertical shooter. Note the voiceover guy is talking to operators, against the backdrop of compelling gameplay, and two hipster chaps having great fun playing:

Although I can’t find it online, in 1983, Xevious was the first arcade game to have a television commercial aired for it for the North American market. Atari promoted the game with the slogan “Are you devious enough to beat Xevious?” and closed the commercial with a tag line branding it “the arcade game you can’t play at home”. Again, Atari driving demand for the coin-op title via consumers. Take  look at these two flyers distributed to operators. They talk about the TV commercial.


Atari is showing its customers that they are on their side, helping them to get coins into their machines – IF they buy Atari titles…

In this static ad, Atari demonstrate an Asteroids Deluxe cabaret cabinet placed in a restaurant location. This was intended to suggest to restauranteurs that putting arcade cabinets inside their restaurants made perfect sense, and they wouldn’t look out-of-place.

image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Note the less-garish and smaller wood grain cabaret model, designed to fit with the surroundings. Cabaret machines were developed with an eye on what Atari called the “special” markets requiring smaller units due to space limitations and a less garish image compared to the full-on artwork of its upright cabinets.

Atari was only ever going to be as successful as its next title. Generating hype, demand and exploring new markets was critical to its growth during the Golden Age of arcade gaming.

I have more B2B marketing materials on file here, that focus more on Atari itself as a business rather than the video games themselves. I’ll share some of these in a future article, as they make for interesting reading.

That’s it for this week – hope you enjoyed this left-field look at how Atari marketed its arcade titles. I’d appreciate it if you would share this piece using the social media buttons below.


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3 Comments Add yours

  1. ringadingding says:

    Space Duel and Gravitar were two of my favorite games. Gravitar was considered a flop? inconceivable! what a great game that was. I would love to own either one…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. neil1637 says:

    Nice article Tony. I’m an Atari fan and love anything to do with the games and cabinets, but this was a very different slant on the company and made for interesting reading. As a child of the mid 70s all this advertising would’ve gone unnoticed by my toddling self, so great to see it all here. Things were certainly much simpler back then..

    Liked by 1 person

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