Pitfall! is David Crane’s sixth game for Activision, heralded at the company’s June 1982 Summer CES booth in Chicago sporting the theme Rumble in the Jungle . A tour-de-force run-and-jump game released in September of that year, the game features on-screen Indiana Jones wannabe Pitfall Harry running through 255 similar-looking screens of jungle and underground, in search of the Treasure of Enarc (read that last word backward). The game goes on to become the best-selling third-party videogame cartridge of all time, selling well over a million copies and holding the #1 spot on Billboard’s videogame sales chart for an astounding 64 weeks. The game is also ported to all the major console systems, as well as computer platforms. Pitfall! is followed by Pitfall II: Lost Caverns in 1984, which contains an extra chip inside the cartridge, called the Display Processor Chip, surely just co-incidentally having the same initials as its designer, David Patrick Crane. This extra hardware relieves a lot of work from the 2600 hardware and allows more complicated graphics for the game.
The first two games for the 2600 are followed by Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure for PC, NES, Sega Genesis and several other systems of the era in 1994. A Playstation make-over Pitfall 3D: Beyond The Jungle appears in 1998. Pitfall Harry even surfaces in the arcade in Pitfall II: Lost Caverns by Sega in 1985. Of course, there is a translation of the game made for Apple’s lucrative iOS market, simply called Pitfall!, by developers The Blast Furnace. Pitfall Harry also graces the small screen as the star in the Pitfall! segment of the Ruby Spears-produced 1983 animated series Saturday Supercade, which runs for two years on CBS. Harry and Pitfall!, however, are dropped for the second year of the show. David Crane is credited with having sold more than six million copies of his original games by 1984.
Not afraid to land some attention with publicity stunts, to promote Stephen Cartwright’s Barnstorming at the 1982 Winter CES Activision gathers members of the press outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center early one morning to witness an actual biplane containing designer Cartwright taxi down Las Vegas Boulevard. Anything to stand out in a rapidly crowding market, where 15 million consoles have been sold, accompanied by 65 million cartridges. Activision has its best year financially ending in March of the year, with income peaking at $157 million. The company has five video game titles with sales over a million units each. Not only does the constant cranking out of hits appease retailers, Activision’s generous stock-balancing returns policy started on September 1, 1983 helps too. Retail buyers get 93% of the purchase price back upon a game’s return, in credits that can then be applied towards further purchases of the company’s products. On June 9, 1983, Activision goes public, selling four million shares at $12 per share. Unfortunately, the ensuing three months are kind neither to Activision nor the video game industry in general, resulting in an announced loss of $6-10 million, before tax, by the company. Following this announcement, company stock price is halved to $6 a share and subsequently drops to under $2 a share. The obligatory class action lawsuits are then filed by disgruntled investors who feel that the company downplayed the extent of the financial difficulties of the company and of the video game industry as a whole.
Activision survives the great video game crash of 1983-84 by pivoting from the 2600 to the booming home computer market, the groundwork having been laid with the conversion and expansion of Carol Shaw’s River Raid and Larry Kaplan’s Kaboom! for the 400/800 Atari home computers in October of 1983. Co-founders Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead leave in 1984, eventually forming their own development/publishing house Accolade in December of that year. Their first product is a home-run: popular computer baseball game Hardball!, released in time for the boys of summer in July 1985.
Activision themselves are further buoyed by the success of such computer games as their first foray into IP licensing. In 1984 David Crane has taken a night off to see a movie at the local theatre: Columbia Picture’s smash-hit comedy Ghostbusters. The next day, the acquisitions group inside Activision asks Crane if can make a computer game based on the movie. The project is given a breakneck 10-week production schedule in order to be finished before the designer’s impending nuptials; Crane usually needs at least 500 hours to complete a game. It’s fortunate, then, that the designer has already spent some months developing a short game sequence where a vehicle is equipped and driven around the grid-like streets of a city, perhaps for a game in the James Bond realm. Adapting it for his Ghostbusters game is the only way Crane and his team of artists and programmers can finish it on time. Columbia works closely with Crane, supplying him with a videotape of the film under strict security, along with a copy of the shooting script and hundreds of pictures from the movie. Despite the shortened production schedule of Ghostbusters, Crane states at the time that “It’s as good a game as I could do if I took 10 years to do it.”
Other Activision games of the era include Steve Cartwright’s Hacker, Alter Ego by Peter J. Favaro, and Crane’s life simulator Little Computer People. The Kitchen brothers leave Activision in 1986 to create game development house Imagineering, Inc. They further found Absolute Entertainment as a publisher for their own games, as well as hired gun consultants for larger entities like Activision and Atari. Joining the brothers in this venture are several other former Active-ites, including the illustrious David Crane. Steve Cartwright eventually joins other former Activision office-mates over at Accolade in 1988.
Activision stumbles in the fiscal year 1987, posting a $14.6 million loss that is attributed to various acquisitions and R&D write-offs. The company changes its name to Mediagenic in 1988, hoping to ride the multimedia wave opened up by the emergence of disc-based storage media, while still retaining the Activision, Gamestar and Infocom label for its video game products. It also signifies a branching out to business productivity software, including the release of Focal Point in 1988, organizational software used in conjunction with Apple’s influential Hypercard relational database and application programming software . Installed at the helm of the “new” company in January 1987 is former senior vice-president Bruce Davis, now president and CEO. With a pruning of money-losing products and labels, Davis manages to get Mediagenic into the black after several losing quarters. The company pushes towards the multimedia future by releasing the first ever PC entertainment CD-ROM, The Manhole, in 1989 for the Apple Macintosh. Originally a floppy-based B&W point and click adventure game for the classic Mac, the program is reworked for the new storage medium, with over 50MB of code and 30 original songs, by the game authors Robyn and Rand Miller of game company Cyan. They would later create waves by making the phenomenally successful adventure/puzzle game Myst for computers.
Mediagenic reaches a settlement with Magnavox over a patent infringement lawsuit filed in 1982, over 11 cartridges released by Activision for the Atari 2600. Mediagenic agrees to pay the pioneering video game company $6.6 million awarded by a U.S. District judge earlier in 1990. This takes the form of monthly $150,000 payments to be made from July 1990 to December 1993, ending with a balloon payment also made in the final month.
Tallying up losses upwards of $60 million, Mediagenic eventually files for bankruptcy protection in 1991, and the company is restructured later that year with the name returning to Activision, and Bobby Kotick running the company. There is, of course, more to the story of the company, such as its acquisitions of text adventure company Infocom and Scott Orr’s sports game development house Gamestar in 1986, and its merger with the owners of Blizzard and Sierra to become Activision Blizzard in 2008. It remains, along with Electronic Arts, as one of the pioneering video game companies still thriving today. I’ll consider it a Duty to recall the rest in a future article.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
Electronic Games, Kaboom! ad, Winter 1981, back page
Video Games Player, “Video Game Wars” by Dan Gutman, pgs. 38-40, 56, Fall 1982. “Atari filed a twenty million dollar suit for conspiring to appropriate company trade secrets. The litigation was settled in December, with Activision agreeing to manufacture video games under a technology licence from Atari…”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Video Games Player collection, Sept 11, 2015.
Ressner, Jeffery. “Video Games Manufacturers Planning Extensive Christmas, Survival Strategies.” Comp. Associate-manuel-dennis. Cash Box 10 Sept. 1983: 30. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox45unse_13/page/30>. Our new stock balancing program began on September 1 and is designed for out customers to manage their inventory. [etc. etc.]
Sketch the Cow. “Activision Fun Club News.” Activision Fun Club News 1984, 1984, archive.org/details/Activision_Fun_Club_News_1984-03_Summer_HQ/page/n3. Image of UK ad for Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Gamasutra, “The History of Activision”, by Jeffery Fleming, July 30 2007
Saunders, Glenn. “Stella at 20, Pts. 1 and 2.” Glenn Saunders, 1997. Accessed 1998. Image of David Crane from 1997. Details of the Display Processor Chip inside Pitfall II for the 2600.
Jermaine, John. “Activision Celebrates a Memorable Decade.” Commodore, July 1980, pp. 50–73. Over the summer of 1979, a business plan was written and submitted to a venture capital firm, Sutter Hill Ventures.
Prior to choosing the name Activision, several others were actually considered. Computervision sounded pretty good, but that title was already taken. The company was finally incorporated under the name VSYNC, Inc….
…it [Activision logo] had to fit in a 32-pixel eight-line space on the bottom of all game screens. To accomplish this feat, the “T” and “V” in Activision were connected.
Among the most memorable galas were the 1982 “Rumble in the Jungle,” to promote Pitfall!
At 6:30 a.m. three busloads of press, trade, Activision employees and friends were taken to the street in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center… they were then greeted by a real bi-plane that taxied down Las Vegas Boulevard carrying none other than Steve Cartwright…
Accolade was founded in December 1984, and their first product (Hardball!) was released in July of 1985.
At the time, I was in the process of creating an animated city-wide adventure. The player would be able to drive a vehicle, use a map to plot his way and add equipment to the car to give it special capabilities. This program might have evolved into a Jame Bond-type game if Ghostbusters hadn’t come along.
…I took a night off to see Ghostbusters at a local movie theater. I really enjoyed the film. A day later, I went to work and ran into one of the people from our acquisition group. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing a Ghostbusters computer game.
Columbia (under strictest security) provided me with a videotape of the film. They also sent a copy of the shooting script and hundreds of slides and stills from the movie.
The product was called Manhole. It contains over 50 Mbytes of code and features 30 original songs.
(1985, February). Compute. “To do justice to any game takes no less than 500 hours of my time, and I was going to get married in six weeks.” For a couple of months, Crane had been trying to develop a game that had something to do with equipping a car and driving it around city streets…
Lewis, Jim. “Brothers By Design.” Enter, June 1984, pp. 42–45. Image of Garry and Dan Kitchen at work on MANIAC (photo Jim Pozarik) and Steve Kitchen lounging with Space Shuttle models (photo Rick Browne)
“There’s More to Life Than Pac-Man.” Playboy’s Electronic Entertainment Fall 1982: 46 . Print. But in the first quarter of 1982, Coleco stock appreciated in value more than any other on the New York Stock Exchange. Activision…reported that its 1981 sales had reached $66,000,000, an increase of 1000 percent over sales in the previous year.
“News & Views: Activision News.” .Info Mar. 1992: 16. Print. Just when we thought Activision was dead and gone (the parent company, Mediagenic, filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991)…
In re ACTIVISION SECURITIES LITIGATION, and All Related Actions (United States District Court, N.D. California November 4, 1985). Activision went public on June 9, 1983.
Uston, Ken. “A Report From the First Video Games Conference.” Creative Computing Sept. 1983: 232-46. Creative Computing Magazine (September 1983) Volume 09 Number 09. Internet Archive. Web. 26 Feb. 2016. [From summary of Activision president Jim Levy’s speech] About one and one-half million homes had some sort of game system, and about three to four million game cartridges were sold that year .;1980…There were then about 3 1/2 million systems in U.S. homes.;1981…Activision’s delivery capacity grew by 1000%…;1982…Fifteen million hardware units and 65 million software units were sold.
1980 image of Activision design team from InfoWorld, “Atari Sues to K.O. Competition”, pg. 1, Aug 4 1980. Retrieved from Google Books, Sep 11, 2015.
Atari Gaming Headquarters – www.atarihq.com
Good Deal Games, “Interview: David Crane”, by Michael Thomasson
1981 image of David Crane from Electronic Games, “Inside Gaming: Playing Chicken with David Crane”, pg. 12, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games collection
Reddit iAmA with David Crane – www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/yli88/iam_david_crane_creator_of_pitfall_and_cofounder/
Image of Jim Levy, and other information from
Video Games, “They’ve Got Their Act-ivision Together”, by Randi Hacker, photo by Victoria Rouse, pgs. 29 – 31, 80, Vol. 1 Num. 1, Aug 1982
Leagle, “In Re Activision Securities Litigation”, Nov. 4, 1985
Activisions Newsletter, “Activision for Atari Home Computers”, pg. 10, Vol. 7, Fall 1983
Gamasutra, “The Replay Interviews: David Crane”, by Tristan Donovan, Jan. 3 2011
“Atari Sues to k.o. Competition.” InfoWorld 4 Aug. 1980: 1. Print. The trademark violation charged by Atari involves the name DRAG STRIP, which was the name given to a prototype Activision game.
The New York Times, “Atari Suit Settled”, Jan. 5 1983
Image of Activision designer panel taken at CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
Joystik, “The World According to Pitfall Harry”, by Phil Wiswell, pg 18, Vol. 1 Num. 4, Jan. 1983
InfoWorld, “Q&A: David Crane”, by Jim Bartimo, pg. 84, Mar. 12, 1984 – books.google.ca/books
Staples, Betsy. “What’s New for ’82, Video Games, Activision.” Creative Computing May 1982: 70. Creative Computing Magazine (May 1982) Volume 08 Number 05.”…at the strip we met a small, open-cockpit bi-plane, turned around and followed as it taxied through the streets of Las Vegas to the convention center.” Internet Archive. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
Image of Activision 1984 CES booth courtesy of Steven Szymanski
About.com – “Garry Kitchen – Cooking Up Video Game History”, by D.S. Cohen, retrieved Jun 28 2014
Image of Mediagenic logo, and other info from Compute!, “News & Notes: Quick, What’s a Mediagenic?” by Gregg Keizer, pg. 8, Aug 1988. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Compute! magazine collection
Activisions newsletter,”Our Milpitas Family”, pg. 5, Vol. 3, Spring 1982
Image of Bruce Davis from Info World, “Mediagenic Rises From Ashes…” by Rachel Parker, pg. 34, Oct 3, 1988
2012 Image of Bobby Kotick from de.wikipedia.org – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kotick#/media/File:Bobby_Kotick_in_NYC_photographed_by_Jordan_Matter.jpg. Photograph by Jordan Matter
Sodaro, R. J. (1985, January). Ghostbusters. Ahoy!, 59-60. Ghostbusters represents the gaming giant’s first experience with licensing.
“News & Views: Shake Ups and Shake Downs.” Info Sept. 1990: 22. Print. Bruce Davis… announced that Mediagenic has reached an agreement with the successors to the Magnavox Company, providing for long term payments of $6.6 million in patent infringement damages awarded to Magnavox over eleven video game cartridges released by Activision (Mediagenic) for the Atari 2600. Mediagenic will make monthly payments of $150,000 to Magnavox from July 1990 to December 1993, with a balloon payment due in December 1993. Hunter, David.
Scott, Jason. “Atari 5200 Space Shuttle – A Journey Into Space Flight Manual.” 1983. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/Space_Shuttle_A_Journey_Into_Space_1983_Activision. Image of the cover to the Atari 5200 version of Space Shuttle – A Journey Into Space Flight Manual
“Activision Reports Sales Double Company Expectations.” Leisure Time Electronics, 1980, p. 37. …orders booked during the first 100 days since its new game cartridges were released are more than double the company’s original projections.
The company demonstrated its first four games, designed for use with the Atari Video Computer System, at the summer CES. Shipments of Boxing, Fishing Derby, Checkers and Dragster commenced in July.