Game Over

Call Rick Trotter the poster boy for brand loyalty. The owner of Horizon Computers, the last remaining exclusive Atari dealer in Colorado, Trotter has stuck by his beloved computer no matter what.

In the mid-Eighties, when fourteen-year-olds dumped their Atari 2600 consoles in favor of Nintendo, Trotter didn't flinch. By 1990, when it became clear that Apple, Microsoft and IBM--and their imitators--would dominate the personal-computer market, leaving Atari niche markets at best, Trotter stood firm. And when in 1995 Atari launched the Jaguar, the most advanced video-game machine available, Trotter sang its praises even as it withered on the vine. Most remarkably, when Atari Corporation merged with JTC Corporation earlier this year--in effect throwing in the towel--Trotter still stood behind its products.

But it looks as if Trotter, 56, has finally gotten the message: Atari's dead. He plans to close Horizon Computers by the end of the year. To some, however, it's amazing he was even in business all.

"I don't want to be painted as that dummy that didn't see the writing on the wall," laments Trotter, whose voice normally carries a glossy lilt of optimism. "But that's what happened."

Trotter's saga began in 1984, when Atari's best years were already behind it. Video-game pioneer Nolan Bushnell had started Atari in 1972 with the arcade game Pong. In 1976, Bushnell, who later went on to start the Chuck E. Cheese pizza franchise, sold his company to Warner Communications for the then-staggering sum of $28 million. Six years later it looked like there was no stopping the $2 billion company that controlled 75 percent of the video-game market. Then the bottom dropped out.

Lousy games, increased competition and, most of all, a nation of bored adolescents conspired to put an end to Atari's reign as a computer-game behemoth. But this was 1984--anything was still possible: The PC and Macintosh were still in diapers, Bill Gates was a paltry multimillionaire, and Commodore's Amiga was considered one of the best computers on the market. There was a chance that Atari could be the big name in personal computers.

Rick Trotter and partner Tim Michaelson took that chance. Setting up shop in Michaelson's living room, they at first experienced a boom. By 1987 they had moved up to a Colorado Boulevard storefront, where they did $1 million a year in business. Trotter also started an Atari Users Group that in its heyday packed 45 to 50 enthusiasts into the Aurora Public Library to discuss the joys of Atari. That group still exists today, but it attracts only three to seven people a month.

Atari's serious computing aspirations peaked by the late Eighties; Horizon began to lose its customers soon after. Although Atari's sound-recording capabilities were a favorite among audio engineers, Apple- and IBM-based computers began to capture the broader consumer market. Macintosh sewed up the educational computing category and with its slick advertising campaigns became a household word. IBM's name recognition, along with its "open architecture"--which allowed its machines to be cloned by other companies such as Compaq--ensured its ubiquity. In the game market, just one word sealed Atari's doom: Nintendo.

"Nintendo kicked Atari's ass," says Trotter. "They took the game market away completely because of Atari's failure to read the market."

Horizon began moving to smaller and smaller spaces until two years ago, when it wound up in a small Federal Boulevard storefront in Englewood, far from the glass-and-steel edifices of the Tech Center. An empty suite separates Horizon from Cal's Sporting Armory, Firearms and Accessories.

Trotter puts a lot of the blame for Atari's failure on the company's executives, who he says didn't spend enough on marketing or software development. For example, at the end of 1994 Atari released its Jaguar, a state-of-the-art game machine similar to the one Nintendo launched only this week. Atari, however, never made it attractive for software developers to write games for the Jaguar. The machine is no longer being manufactured, and dealers are stuck with surplus that can't be sold.

But even Trotter admits he can't lay all the blame for Horizon's downfall on Atari. Like today's Macheads who defend their machine with a jihad-like ferocity, Atari cultists believed in something stronger than reason. "It gets awfully personal," says Trotter. "Early on, I wasn't willing to invest the effort that it took [to learn the PC market]. I thought I could coast along."

Trotter's partner got out in 1991, but Trotter kept going, focusing exclusively--one might say suicidally--on Atari.

"Any business needs to follow business trends," says John Willig, owner of RunPC in Fort Collins. When Willig started his computer company in 1987, Atari products accounted for 90 percent of the business. Today they account for about 5 percent. "Rick should have gotten into PCs two years ago," says Willig, who believes Atari computers still had a slim glimmer of hope until even that late date. "People who enjoyed working with him with Atari would have come back to buy their PC."

Amid an Atari mini-revival in which 2600 classics such as Asteroids, Missile Command and Space Invaders are being remarketed for PCs, Trotter seems befuddled. Surveying the scattershot collection of genuine articles lying around his office--2600s, 7800s, 800s, Lynxes and Jaguars--he knows it's over. What he'll do after the doors officially close is less clear.

"I suspect I can always go to Office Depot and sell computers for $6 an hour," says Trotter, his voice breaking a bit. "I'm just tired of kicking myself.

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Chris LaMorte

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