Why so many early video-game companies had names starting with A

A lot of the big companies of the 80s video-game boom all had names beginning with A — like Atari, Activision, Accolade, and Acclaim. Why?

Over at Debugger on Medium, Garry Kitchen — a designer who joined Activision in 1982 — explains one hypothesis: All the companies were trying to get on the first page of the huge, paper company-directory of CES. They knew Atari would be listed on the first page, and wanted to make sure they appeared nearby.

As he writes:

In the Jurassic era of the 1970s, at the time when people weren't carrying around a supercomputer in their pocket, if you wanted to find a company on the show floor, you looked them up in the CES Directory. This thick, heavy paperback contained an alphabetical listing of all exhibitors, including their floor location. When a CES attendee arrived to register and pick up their show badge, they were offered, and reluctantly accepted, a copy of the "show guide." No one wanted to carry the stupid thing around, but if you wanted to find a particular company, you had to have it. Honestly, without the guide, you couldn't find anyone.

Given this reality, a legend arose around the Fab 5's naming of their new venture. Since the new company would be having its coming-out party at the winter CES (1980), in order to make sure that they would get foot traffic, they chose a name that was listed alphabetically earlier in the CES show guide than Atari. The theory was that anyone who was seeking out video game companies would immediately go to the CES guide and look up Atari, scanning from the beginning of the alphabetized list. Since Atari was pretty much the only (video) game in town at the time, it was possible that once an attendee found Atari, they would stop at the "A's and be done with it. Ergo, if your company name came after Atari in the listing, you could be "hosed," standing in an empty exhibit booth all day.

So that's why you end up with this …

Granted, Kitchen doesn't have any proof this is how things went down; this is a popular legend in the gaming industry, but nobody's actually documented it.

But it certainly squares with naming conventions back in the days of dead-tree paper guides. I'm old enough to remember using the Yellow Pages to find companies, and if you went to the first page, a huge number of local businesses had deployed A's aggressively and even weirdly in an attempt to hack first-page status — names like "AAA Birdseed Corporation" or "Aardvark Movie Rentals" and the like. It was a strange moment in branding. It got so bad that some local editions of the Yellow Pages banned A-hacking on names.

It reminds me too of the first dot-com domain-name frenzy — when domain names went for millions of dollars, before the rise of search engines and social-network recommendations and ads made the manual-typing-in of domain-names less common, and the frenzy faded. The chokepoints of consumer attention always shift as technology and publishing trends evolve; but wherever they go, the wild-eyed attention-hacking scenes follow closely behind, like the Deadheads of marketing.

Anyway, Kitchen's yarn is filled with some witty detail from the early days of gaming — go check out the whole thing here.

(CC-2.0-licensed picture of an Atari 2600 courtesy the Flickr stream of Chris L)