[New column 'The RePlay Files' will reprint classic features and news stories from seminal arcade/amusement trade journal RePlay Magazine, with the kind permission of the magazine's creators - check out their website for info about subscriptions, news, and the contents of the latest issue. This second of three officially approved extracts is a full-length interview with then Atari coin-op boss Shane Breaks, which was the cover feature for the January 1986 issue of the magazine, just as Atari's coin-op resurgence was hitting with Gauntlet and Paperboy!]

- In his twenty-plus years in the coin machine industry, Shane Breaks has made his name (and the products he’s represented) known in numerous corners of the world. An authentic “globetrotter” who’s crossed the Atlantic 125 times and made numerous visits to Southeast Asia, Japan, Africa, South America and, of course, Europe, this son of England has almost as many miles on his shoes as the space shuttle has on its nose cone.

If there’s a single threadline throughout his glamorous career in the industry, it’s been Atari…as a distributor at the very beginning of that company through to his present position as Senior VP of Atari Games in Milpitas, Calif. Where his duties put him at the top of all coin-op sales domestically and overseas.

A native of West Hartlepool (located in the North of England), Shane elected to take a job with a South African bank after school rather than one in journalism which his “Mum” would have preferred. He had the wanderlust even then. His first job in the industry was with Quick Maid, a subsidiary of England’s Associated Leisure which ran a vending operation (“I had no love for that,” he recalls).

Six months later, he joined Streets Automatic Machine Co. and in his twelve years there, went from sales to Sales Manager to Director to President. Streets not only ran operations but manufactured arcade games and Shane took them worldwide. He actually dealt for five years with Madame Furtsyeva, Russia’s Minister of Culture, selling her games like the ‘Streets Rifle Range’ and other arcade items like coin pushers for use in Russia’s fairgrounds.

He made an important “Atlantic crossing” in 1974 to join Rowe International as their VP of Games Buying. Two years later, he became Sales VP at R.H. Belam, exporters of new and used games who found a perfect rep in the man who had game knowledge, overseas contacts and the wanderlust to bring Belam’s program to the client in person. One of the products represented by Belam was Atari.

As it goes, Shane then moved directly into Atari in 1979 to pilot their international sales program. During this period, he established their factory in Tipperary, Ireland and worked either out of there or London covering foreign markets until the summer of 1984 when he was offered his present position up in Silicon Valley.

Shane remains a British citizen but enjoys permanent resident status from the United States Government. He and wife Linda live within driving distance of the Atari facility. Son Brendan (22) is presently working at Betson Enterprises in San Francisco and daughter Sondra (25) lives and works in Australia. The family also maintains an old Victorian home in Surrey, England and a small vacation cottage in San Remo, Italy near Monte Carlo.

“Home” right now is at Atari’s new administrative and factory facility in Milpitas which the company only recently moved into (they vacated the former Milpitas headquarters some time ago). It’s a comfortable, trimmed down version of the complex the “old” Atari operated, but is nevertheless adequate to meet existing market conditions, although with a hit like ‘Gauntlet,’ the company is a bit pressed to meet market demand.

RePlay visited Shane Breaks at the new place to get his thoughts on today’s Atari Games as well as some personal reflections about where the business has been and where it’s going in 1986. Being machine-oriented, we began our question/answer chat with the obvious:

REPLAY: Shane, Atari Games has two chart toppers as we chat…’Gauntlet’ and ‘Paper Boy.’ Can we presume you’re rather pleased about these developments?

BREAKS: I must tell you I’ve never felt this good about things in all my years in this industry. Even though the overall industry has been down since 1979, and I’ve certainly shared the blues everyone was feeling, I’ve honestly never felt better than right now. And it’s not just ‘Gauntlet’ and ‘Paper Boy’…1985 has given us ‘Marble Madness’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ as well as two rather successful video systems we are proceeding with in full confidence. Of course I’m pleased.

REPLAY: ‘Gauntlet’ could be the biggest earner Atari ever made, and…

BREAKS: ‘Gauntlet’ IS the biggest, no question.

REPLAY: We’re wondering, however, how long you think those huge collections are going to hold up.

BREAKS: We’ve had one game in a location for some 18 weeks now and I believe the income is still around the $900 a week mark. There are similar high earnings on other test games out there eight or nine weeks, and how judging by the backorders from distributors, it clearly appears the operators are doing rather nicely with it as well. It certainly looks like we’ve got the winner of all time.

REPLAY: You think this will ever get as big as ‘Pac-Man’?

BREAKS: I’m talking about the operator’s earnings, not about unit sales. The days of the 100,000 production runs are over and I don’t believe they’ll ever return. Of course we’ve had our 60,000, 70,000 run with ‘Asteroids’ but in that next bracket down…the 10,000 [or] 20,000 runs…we “own” that market. We’ve had twenty or more of those kinds of runs.

-

REPLAY: Has that market of operators responded to the buzz on ‘Gauntlet’? Or in simpler terms, how are its sales building?

BREAKS: We have bigger orders in the house now than we’ve had for anything in the past two years.

REPLAY: Might operators have to wait “on line” for ‘Gauntlet’ like they did in the ‘Asteroids’ days?

BREAKS: Unfortunately, the answer to that is “yes.” They very much have to “wait on line” as you Americans say.

REPLAY: What’s the picture with your manufacturing muscle up here in Milpitas? Or really, what’s doing on the production line to meet those operator orders right now?

BREAKS: We’re being rather careful not to expand our manufacturing capabilities back to those 700-a-day figures Atari was able to do in years gone by. We’ve all learned lessons since the drop in game sales back in 1982 so we’re not going to ignore that lesson. We may have to stretch ‘Gauntlet’ production out a bit and if we have to lose a few games at the tail end, well, we’ll deal with that then.

REPLAY: You’re talking about a trimmer-sized plant and a longer time on the line for this game, right?

BREAKS: Yes. We don’t want to gear up for a blitz and then have to let 200 people go after a short period of time. We don’t want to hurt anybody. By feeding the games into the pipeline at a slower pace, we’ll really be helping the industry over the long run.

REPLAY: So if anybody wants ‘Gauntlet’ but hasn’t told his distributor yet, he’d better get on the stick?

BREAKS: That’s certainly true for those who want the game. There are about 4,000 of them already out in the field, by the way, and we’re moving along with more under the guidelines I mentioned.

REPLAY: It’s curious that Atari… now called Atari Games Corp….has a handful of demand games on one hand but has whittled its manufacturing capability down on the other. We guess your eyes are on the R.O.I. same as the operators. There’s certainly a different feeling here today from the times when you employed numerous people and pushed all sorts of promotions out. What’s left of that old Atari today?

BREAKS: (laughs) Well put, we are rather busy. The sales team has pared down like the rest of Atari Games over the past two years but we’re fortunate to have Jim and Dick out there working with the distributors. They are really productive and well liked. We are presently looking for a new Western Regional man, by the way.

REPLAY: You’ve got feet in both tubs these days. You’ve got a dedicated upright in ‘Gauntlet’ and you’ve got system games with ‘Paper Boy’ and ‘Temple of Doom.’ Look at both types of product for a moment and tell our readers whether or not an amusement manufacturer can make money if it only sold software.

BREAKS: If they only make software, my answer would be “no.” Atari will actively support its two video systems with good new programs, but something like 30% to 40% of our business will still be done with dedicated games. There are games like ‘Gauntlet’ that can only come out in dedicated form, and we’ll continue making those things…and those driving, fishing, hunting games for the arcade-type market. I’m talking about games requiring special treatment in the cabinet, etc.

REPLAY: Looking at ‘Gauntlet,’ anyone can tell you that you can’t “kit” a game like that. But many of our readers are fiercely into kits and…

BREAKS: No one could seriously imagine ‘Gauntlet’ as a kit when they look at the configurations…the one, two, four player aspect, etc. Plus, you want something new and exciting to put before the players and the unique cabinet plays its part in that as well. No. This could not be a kit…or a system change.

REPLAY: On that subject of system software, you’ve gotten two winners with ‘Paper Boy’ and ‘Temple of Doom.’ But what’s in store for your system operators in the weeks and months ahead?

BREAKS: There’ll be a new program for System 2 available as a kit for ‘Paper Boy’ or as a whole game. It should come out early in the year but not later than the March ACME show. We’ll also be shipping our fourth System 1 game and the fifth and sixth will also follow, all in this coming year.

REPLAY: What’s the story on the next System 1 game?

BREAKS: The drapes are still closed on that now, but we did show it discreetly to our distributors at AMOA. It’s a completely finished game, mind you…it’s just that we’re so busy with ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ right now that we don’t want to flood the market.

REPLAY: Apart from systems, have you any plans to make any more dedicated kits or retrofits for any past Atari games like you did with the ‘Cloak and Dagger’ and ‘Pole II’ packages?

BREAKS: We’re not working on any of that sort of thing at the present time but we’re not ruling out such a move in the future for an update on something special we made like ‘Pole Position.”

REPLAY: When we talked earlier about a “trimmer” Atari, did we also ask about your research and development team?

BREAKS: The success we’re enjoying today is directly due to our R&D department. We haven’t slacked off there and the results of that decision are proven with these games we’re speaking of. We still have 80 or 90 people involved in R&D here, very little different form the days when we were in the boom.

REPLAY: We’re sincerely impressed. You mean you still maintain that large design staff? Surely it must be bigger than just about any other video game manufacturer here, or even abroad.

BREAKS: Ah…that’s true here in the United States. And it’s certainly true compared to Europe. Japan would present the only real competition in terms of R&D people. And even some of those Japanese developers, like Namco, are very much related to the home game business. Atari’s people here are strictly inventing games for the coin-op business.

REPLAY: Speaking of Namco, is there any cross-fertilization between your game designers and theirs? After all, that company is the principal owner of Atari Games Corp.

BREAKS: Oh, yes. One of the exciting things about Namco’s role in Atari is that our engineers visit with theirs in Japan and theirs come over here to Silicon Valley. All of them are cousins in one family. If I can stick my chest out, I’d like to tell you that it’s been Atari’s engineers who’ve supplied more good game ideas to Japan than vice versa. Namco is building thousands of games developed right here in California.

REPLAY: So ‘Gauntlet’ and ‘Temple of Doom’ were designed right here in Silicon Valley?

BREAKS: Absolutely. No question about it. You know, the quality and quantity of game engineering has always made for a good gossip subject at conventions where manufacturers get together. Let me “gossip” a little about this place. Over the last 13, 14 years, Atari has produced numerous winners…maybe not every single game being a winner, but at least one really solid game every year. From ‘Pong’ to ‘Sprint II’ to ‘Super Bug’ to ‘Asteroids’…we’ve always been there. If there was another company with a better track record than Atari’s, I’d like to work there. But there isn’t. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad to be working here.

-
REPLAY: We want to say this right and not be misinterpreted. Are Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Nakajima actually pleased that Atari is feeding them with game inventions rather than the other way around? We mean, isn’t it a bit unusual for America to supply Japan with game designs?

BREAKS: I work with Mr. Nakajima every days since he’s President here and I’ve visited with Mr. Nakamura on many occasions and both of them are really pleased that their investment in Atari has borne such ripe fruit. You know, they had a lot of courage to do what they did a year ago (buy into Atari), so I’m pleased an even proud that it’s paid off for them. Here you see in one year a company, with a lot of problems, turn around and give the investors a bit of profit. Not bad!

REPLAY: Warner Communications still owns a minority share of your company. Do they still call up from time to time to see what’s doing or have they washed their hands of video games?

BREAKS: Speaking purely personally and not as a representative of the company, I have the impression that Warners doesn’t have a great deal of interest any more in the coin machine industry. Movies and records seem to be doing very well for them, so we haven’t heard too much from that side since the Namco buy.

REPLAY: But the way things are going, there’ll be some profit for Warners from Atari Games. They might be interested in that, no?
BREAKS: Remember that the coin-op side of Atari, while it had its ups and downs, was always a good performer for Warners back in the old days in terms of consistency.

REPLAY: Okay, no more home games and no more home computers. Just coin machines. Forgive us if we have a one-track mind, but ‘Gauntlet’ appeals to the mercenary in us. What’s the magic in this game? Why does it do well in the cash pan?

BREAKS: Go into a location and watch them play. They’re not just kids. Some of these people haven’t played a video game in five years and now they’re 27 and they’re having fun again. And they’re having fun with strangers playing alongside. It takes you back to those group games in Europe where strangers would come up and put these pennies into these little games. They didn’t know each other. But this game has that magic to put people together. That’s a good way to describe it.

REPLAY: ‘Gauntlet’ is a natural for arcades, bowling centers and those sorts of places. But can it work in a bar?

BREAKS: It seems to work in all types of locations, but the younger the crowd, the better of course. It’s a young people’s game. The bars, the 7-Eleven stores, the bowling alleys and the arcades of course are all candidates for ‘Gauntlet.’

REPLAY: What’s the international picture with this special game?

BREAKS: As mentioned, we produce the games for the domestic market right here. Of course we buy the cabinet and the monitor, but we stuff the boards and assemble the finished machines here. Then we have companies in Spain, Italy and Japan that have contracts with us to manufacture the games there under license.

REPLAY: How is the European business doing in terms of game collections and in new game sales by the distributors?

BREAKS: Remember that Europe’s video game business hit tough times about 18 months before America’s did, but it picked up that much quicker. From Atari’s standpoint, the last two years at our Tipperary factory in Ireland have been a lot better. In 1985, with ‘Temple of Doom,’ ‘Marble Madness,’ etc. we’ve been doing very well in sales, systems and whole games. We don’t find too much competition from the board games sellers which we did years ago. That’s gone by over there.

REPLAY: You mentioned systems. Has your system been successfully introduced in Europe?

BREAKS: Very much so. You should understand that software is not so new in Europe. They’ve traditionally been buying PC boards so their operators are very open-minded about video systems. Of course, we’re also selling whole games there. Matter of fact, Sega’s ‘Hang-On’ has been successful there and we build it for them in our Irish factory. We’re back-ordered on ‘Gauntlet’ sales there into February, by the way. Europe is very busy these days. We have orders for 30 containers for Germany, for example. It’s just like the old days.

REPLAY: Back to the good old U.S.A., we want to know from your reckoning, are more people playing games these days than in the past couple of years?

BREAKS: There are definitely more people playing now than a year ago. When I traveled from Sunnyvale to Florida to New York to British Columbia this summer, I saw more new games in bars and arcades…not just Atari, but Nintendo, Data East, Sega. We’re seeing a lot more new games out there and therefore, the people are playing games again.

REPLAY: Which means the national cash box is fatter. Do you expect that trend to continue as we head into 1986?

BREAKS: With a solid product like ‘Gauntlet,’ ‘Hang-On,’ and the systems which are economically appealing to operators, there’s got to be more profit in ’86. We have the products and we have the players. We’re putting them together to spell “income.”

REPLAY: A good bit of the manufacturing community’s income has been illegally siphoned off by game copiers. Atari hasn’t historically been a big victim of this practice, but what are your thoughts about game counterfeiting anyway?

BREAKS: For years now, anyone in a respectable position in this industry has been deeply concerned about game copying. Atari is very sympathetic to some of the manufacturers who’ve been hurt by this sordid thing. Atari and Namco feel the best way to beat this thing is through technology. For example, how many Atari games have been copied in the last five years? Few…because it takes too long to copy our technology. Over in Europe, we got 95% of the market for ‘Pole Position’ when only 5% went to the copiers. Our custom chips saved us in many ways.

REPLAY: So among other things, there are “safeties” in your technology to inhibit the piracy of Atari games?

BREAKS: Correct, whereas some companies who import these simple, basic games that are easily copyable leave themselves wide open to counterfeiters. Of course, many of these games last four, six weeks on location anyway. How sympathetic should anyone in the industry be to a company that imports simple, easily ripped-off games? I see very little future in that type of product.

REPLAY: That’s a pretty heavy thing to say…that people who import less exotic games than the ones you produce leave themselves wide open to copiers. Surely if there wasn’t any such thing as copying these people would find things a lot better on the market, no?

BREAKS: I’m not exactly saying they “invite” copying, but I can’t be sympathetic to anyone who imports a simple game and quickly finds his market decimated by a rash of copies at half the price…not when we at Atari pump millions and millions into R&D…even into the games that don’t pay off four us…to protect ourselves as well as the buyers of the legitimate game.

REPLAY: AAMA, the manufacturer/distributor association, has made anti-piracy its number one goal in 1985 and certainly will continue haunting the copiers in 1986. But, do you really thing that they stand a ghost of a chance to eliminate this practice?

BREAKS: To kill it completely? No. But they can back it up to the wall a good bit. This is a curse on our industry, as it is for book publishers or for any other industry that suffers from counterfeiters. It’s a curse that can actually kill an industry. Atari’s alternative, as I’ve stated, is to make games non-copyable.

REPLAY: AAMA has issued statements saying that half of all video games on location in the U.S.A. are copies. We know there are a load of them, but isn’t “half” a tad too high?

BREAKS: (pauses) Truthfully, I personally don’t have the statistics on America’s use of these things, but in the cases of Canada and Brazil, I can definitely say that’s true.

REPLAY: How about the AMOA, the national operator association? Do you think they should address game counterfeiting? And while we’re on the subject, are there other such programs they should get into that would help their operators apart from staging the fall trade show and fighting ASCAP?

BREAKS: I’m amazed to even hear you discuss them in the light of these various responsibilities. All I’ve ever seen them do is put on a trade show once a year and fight that jukebox royalty thing. I certainly think they ought to provide more help in more areas, otherwise we wouldn’t have all these other associations competing. One day we may have too many associations.

-

REPLAY: The biggest “need” among operators over the past few years has been “money.” What’s your feeling on that…are operators making money?

BREAKS: The average Joe hasn’t been making enough. He was doing very well with videos back in the last ‘70s but we’ve let him down. Come the early ‘80s, the manufacturers in general just didn’t provide him with the best money-making equipment. My own background is operating. I operated video games on a route in England the last couple of years before I moved back to the United States and I didn’t make money. We’ve got to produce money-making games and fortunately, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.

REPLAY: But what’s the profit picture for operators today?

BREAKS: At last, we’re seeing income going up with [games] such as ‘Gauntlet’ and on the lesser expensive games like the systems, he’s got a damned good chance for boosting that income further.

REPLAY: So you see 1986 as a promising year for the industry considering the way the year is starting out?

BREAKS: 1986 will be conservatively but steadily one of improving income, but we’ll never see the collections, the number of locations and the number of players again that we saw in ’79, ’80 and ’81. In my opinion, 1986 will be the best year for operators since 1980.

REPLAY: You know, speaking about better years, we’d like to ask you a rather personal question if we may.

BREAKS: Please do (he smiles). I have a feeling I know what is is.

REPLAY: Okay, it was already alluded to in one of your trade ads anyway. Shane, you sure lost a load of weight!

BREAKS: I guessed you’d come around to that. I’m down to 205 lbs. from the 360 lbs. I weighed two years ago, and I’m still working on it. I don’t know if you know this but I suffered a coronary at the 1981 London Show and the doctors practically gave me a written guarantee that I’d actually die if I didn’t get rid of the weight. I tried all sorts of methods, surgery included. That and old-fashioned dieting did the trick and I haven’t felt better in twenty years. It was one of my proudest achievements.

REPLAY: Again on a personal subject, scuttlebutt says you’re interested in returning to England. True?

BREAKS: Oh, many people are asking me that question and it’s true that my heart is in the European market and my family would like to return to England. Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Nakajima know and respect that and we’ve agreed that’s something we’ll address one or two years form now. Meantime, America is just too exciting a place for Atari and Namco right now as it is for me working with them. So as I said, that’s something we’ll think about downstream.

[GAMESETWATCH EDITOR'S NOTE: Making this kind of contemporary RePlay interview available online is important, I think - the comments on amount of games sold and how Gauntlet's success was progressing, the state of arcade board piracy, and the amount of developers at Atari are fascinating, for starters.

To give a brief background to this interview - at this stage of its history (the beginning of 1986), Atari Games had split from the home part of the business, and was in a 'honeymoon' period with Namco as major shareholder - though they fairly swiftly lost interest in the company. There was then a management buy-out, and Atari Games then re-entered the home video game business with the Tengen brand, and eventually morphed into Time Warner Interactive in the early '90s, and then to Midway Games West in 1996.]