3 Ways The Social Gaming Boom Is Imitating The Atari Gaming Boom

Social games are here to stay. There are about 100,000,000 players playing every month on Facebook alone, and Farmville has more unique players (with 80 million) in a month than all the sales of the biggest selling game of all time, Wii Sports (with 60 million). Every gaming pundit on the web is asking the same question: “Where is this industry going to be in five years”? I decided to contemplate the future by analyzing the past, and identifying 3 ways that this social gaming trend is imitating the Atari gaming explosion of the 80’s.

Introduction to the Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 is considered the true grandfather of modern gaming. It was designed, developed and released by Atari in 1977 to bring the Atari arcade game hits into people’s homes. It was a revolutionary idea and the console took off, beating out a variety of competitors but also revitalizing an industry that was tired of playing “Pong” on TV game stations designed to only play that game. One of the key factors in Atari’s success was the fact that it used cartridges to allow for a variety of games to be played, and this propelled Atari’s growth until it sold 8 million units in a year in 1982, and sold over 30 million units during the course of its life.

Eventually, due to mismanagement and a large selection of extremely terrible games, the Atari 2600 failed and the public stopped buying. Atari continued to fight with the 2600 junior, but a few years into its life, Nintendo released Mario, and with it came the real console gaming boom, the one that has continued until today. I believe social gaming is still before its ‘boom’ period, as well.

That said, I would place social gaming somewhere in the early days of the Atari life cycle. During this time, the world was learning about console games and video games in general, and the way that it caught on in everyday life is similar to the way that Facebook and social games are now growing. Having reviewed the Atari story, I was able to draw a few parallels between that era of gaming and the current social gaming era.

Most Popular Games Are Inspired By Traditional Games

As Atari began to gain momentum, we could see game developers scrambling to find great gaming content to bring to their hungry gaming audience. To fill this need, a lot of the early released games were inspired by existing games like Hangman, Blackjack, Codebreaker or Tank, and this was appealing to a generation of gamers who hadn’t played digital versions of the games. Later, as the system gained prominence and hit maturity in 1982, more innovative games would evolve, ones that were only playable on a digital game system, and these would serve as the precursors to many of the video game genres we know today. Games like Pitfall kickstarted the adventure genre, and Missile Command and Demon Attack would kickstart the shooter.

Similarly, the social games world, which is still quite early, still draws on external sources to create its best games. Take a look at our “Top 5 Game Models That Started Outside of Facebook” article to read more about this.

No Centralized Review Publications

There were no centralized review publications for the early days of the Atari launch, and gamers were left to fend for themselves (or listen to the advertising) in determining whether a game was good or not. Although it’s anecdotal, players from that period often mention that the only real way to determine if a game was good was to find someone who owned it and ask them. It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg, but certainly one kid in your neighborhood had the means to purchase all the games, and the other kids would find out from him which games were good.

This couldn’t be more similar to the current state of social gaming. There is no “Gamespot” for social games at this point, and if you want to know whether Farmville is a good game, you’re going to probably have to find out from one of your friends. In fact, the most common way for people to find new games is through invites and notifications (application notifications have recently been disabled, though). Just as before, word of mouth is king when it comes to finding out which games to play.

Graphics Are Dramatically Improving With Each Game

From its release in 1977 until its peak in 1982, Atari games were constantly improving upon their graphics. Each successive game had better graphics than the last, and it was a race by developers to see how much visual firepower they could generate from the Atari 2600. This is a trend that continues today, as XBox 360 and PS3 developers fight to optimize their code and make their games look better.

That said, the leaps and bounds that were experienced by Atari 2600 games is similar to what we see in Facebook games. While the first generation of Facebook games, like Mafia Wars, were little more than one static screen with a bunch of buttons, the newest generation of games features fully animated cutscenes, real-time Flash gameplay and more. We still haven’t seen a hugely popular three-dimensional game yet, but that’s just around the corner, and companies like Trippert Labs have been trying for two years.


We’re really still at the early stages of social gaming. That conclusion and this entire article was really inspired by Facebook’s Gareth Davis’ comment, where he stated that we haven’t seen Mario for Facebook yet. Well if we haven’t yet, when will we see it, and what will it look like? Is it Farmville?

Read more about Atari here.