Atari Program Exchange
Atari Program Exchange (APX) was a division of Atari that distributed software for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers through a quarterly mail-order catalog. APX allowed all programmers, not just professionals, to submit their programs for commercial distribution. If selected, that program was added to the catalog along with the credit to that programmer.
The brain-child of Dale Yocum, the Atari Program Exchange started in February 1981. In 1982 it management was taken over by Fred Thorlin, who operated it until it closed. APX published quarterly catalogs until 1984, when new Atari CEO James J. Morgan closed down the mail-order division.
Two of the biggest APX hits were Eastern Front (1941) and Caverns of Mars. Both sold tens of thousands of copies and were eventually converted by Atari to game cartridge form. The source code for Eastern Front was also available as a separate purchase. A later hit was Dandy, which inspired the arcade game Gauntlet and became the home game Dark Chambers. Though APX was created to sell user-written software, Atari distributed several official arcade ports through APX: 1978's Avalanche, credited to Dennis Koble, who wrote the original arcade game, and 1982 platformer Kangaroo, which was uncredited.
When Atari first launched the Atari 8-bit family in late 1979, the company kept most of the hardware details secret. It intended to be the primary supplier of software for the platform, as had been the case with the Atari 2600 console. By the end of the first year on the market increasingly sophisticated applications from outside Atari were nonetheless becoming available. There were, however, a limited number of distribution channels at the time.
Dale Yocum approached Atari with the idea of setting up their own third-party publishing arm. With Atari's distribution capabilities the products would be seen by many more prospective customers, and at the same time, Atari would make money with every sale, money that would otherwise be lost. Chris Crawford later stated:
The guy who cooked up the idea, Dale Yocum, was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it's a win-win. He put together a business plan for it and said 'Look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self sufficient and it might make some money.' They grudgingly agreed to let him do it because the Atari platform desperately needed a larger software base, a void not being filled by the other publishers of the day. And so he did it and very quickly made it into a monster success. It was a major profit center for Atari. They rewarded Dale for his initiative by bringing in another guy to be Dale's boss... so Dale, in disgust, transferred to the new Atari Research Division under Alan Kay about a year after APX launched.
The first issue of the catalog, dated summer 1981, stated that while "Atari offers a wide variety of useful and entertaining software ... we've come across other interesting software deserving public recognition ... [APX] will make such software available quickly and inexpensively ... We'll keep costs down [by using] simple packaging and we'll rely on user-written documentation ... What we'll offer, then, is a lot of interesting software quickly and inexpensively".
The quarterly publication included descriptions and screenshots of each program, and advertisements for various computer magazines. Other products sold included the book De Re Atari and various peripherals. Many APX programs were games, but it distributed a wide variety of applications, utilities, programmers' tools, and educational software.
As of June 1983 Crawford's Eastern Front (1941) was APX's best seller. Other hits included Caverns of Mars and Dandy. Both Eastern Front and Caverns of Mars were later released on cartridge as official Atari products, while Dandy became Dark Chambers as well as serving as the inspiration for the arcade game, Gauntlet.
Atari Star Award
In 1981 APX announced an award program, the Atari Star with quarterly and yearly cash awards. All programs submitted for publishing were considered for the awards. The annual grand prize for the best program was a trophy and $25,000. The first winner was My First Alphabet by Fernando Herrera. He used the money to start First Star Software, which developed the Boulder Dash and Spy vs. Spy franchises.
The 1982 winner was Typo Attack by David Buehler, a game designed to improve touch typing skill. Atari published it as a cartridge in 1984.
The 1983 winner was Getaway! by Mark Reid, a maze chase game taking place across a large, scrolling city map. According to Reid, there was talk of moving the game into Atari's product line, but Atari's troubles stemming from the North American video game crash of 1983 kept this from happening.
According to Atari CEO Morgan, APX was losing money in its mail-order business so that part was shut down:
Moreover, Atari had to come to grips with the fact that Atari is not in the mail-order business. However, APX will continue to review products sent to Atari by outside programmers. If the programs are topnotch, they will be added to the main Atari catalogue. Otherwise, they will not be sold by Atari in any fashion.
After the discontinuation of APX, Antic magazine published some APX titles as APX Classics from Antic and continued soliciting new software as Antic Software. The Antic Software catalog, created by Gary Yost, was bound into issues of the magazine.
- "The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers".
- Hague, James (1997). "Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers". dadgum.com.
- "APX Catalog". archive.org. Fall 1983. p. 48.
- Nelson, Ted (1983). "The Atari Machine". In Small, David; Small, Sandy; Blank, George. The Creative Atari. Creative Computing Press. ISBN 0916688348.
- Steve Fulton, "Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981", Gamasutra, 21 August 2008
- "Introducing the Atari Program Exchange". Atari Program Exchange Software Catalog. Summer 1981. pp. 1–2. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
- "The quarterly APX contest / APX: Programs by our users...for our users / Publications / Hardware". APX Product Catalog (Fall ed.). 1983. pp. 34, 72. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
- DeWitt, Robert (June 1983). "APX / On top of the heap". Antic. Retrieved October 30, 2013.
- "Introducing the premier award of the software industry". Creative Computing (advertisement). January 1982. pp. 24–25. Retrieved August 14, 2014.
- "Reminisching: Getaway!".
- Fred D'Ignazio and Selby Bateman, "Atari's New Lease On Life", Compute!, Issue 50 (July 1984), pg. 44
- APX info at Atari Archives including scans of catalogs and list of programs.