The VCS/2600

VCS/2600

VCS/2600 - Dominating the Landscape

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Atari 1977

Then, one day in 1979, Crane finds himself intently analyzing a list of numbers on a piece of paper. It is a memo from the marketing department, a part of Atari that has flourished with the ouster of engineer Bushnell and the installment of salesman Kassar. The list, circulated throughout consumer engineering, ranks game sales figures for 1978, with each game as a percentage of overall sales for the company.  It is Marketing’s not so subtle advice to the programmers: make more games like those at the top of the list, and less of those at the bottom. It also has an unintended effect on Crane and fellow game creators Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead… they learn that the four of them are responsible for all of the top-selling games, 60 percent of cartridge sales for the year. With the knowledge that Atari made 100 million in sales that year, you don’t need a degree in computer mathematics to know that the four of them, each pulling in a salary of $25,000 – $30,000, have accounted for $60 million in sales for Atari. Armed with this evidence, the four meet with Kassar to request more financial compensation for their efforts. The CEO is unmoved, suggesting that making games is a team effort and their contribution on par with the assembly workers on the line who fit together the cartridges.  Soon after this exchange, the group gets in touch with an attorney about incorporating their own business, making software for game consoles.  Kaplan leaves Atari soon after the meeting with Kassar, with Crane, Miller, and Whitehead not far behind. The Gang of Four has left the building.

2600-activision-1980

Activision design team, 1980. {L to r): Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Larry Kaplan and Alan Miller

Via their attorney, the group is put in contact with former music industry executive James H. Levy. Armed with a business plan that predicts explosive growth in the video game and home computer markets over the next several years, on October 1, 1979, the four game designers and Levy form the first third-party manufacturer of videogame software, with Levy running the company. As president, Levy comes up with the company name Activision, invoking the idea of ‘Active Television’, as well as the rainbow logo and a unified packaging design. Also on board is venture capitalist Richard Muchmore providing funds. With around $700,000 in venture capital, the Mountain View, CA upstart starts releasing product. Dragster is the first game independently released for the VCS, in mid-1980. It is also one of the reasons that Atari launches the obligatory lawsuit against Activision, to the tune of $20 million. It ostensibly concerns trademark infringement over Dragster, which is a carbon-copy of Drag Race, an Atari/Kee Games coin-op from 1977. Other violations mentioned in the suit are patent rights issues and the breaking of non-disclosure agreements the former Atari employees had signed, but it is really about Atari losing its ability to monopolize its share of a market that would have 3.5 million installed systems in the U.S. overall by Christmas. In December the two companies settle, with Activision paying Atari for a “technology license” to produce games for the VCS. Dragster is followed closely by Checkers, Boxing and Fishing Derby. In 1981 Activision posts sales of $65 million in software, a 1000% increase over the previous year, placing it second only to Atari for games sold.

JUMP: TV Spot for Megamania on YouTube

Image of January 1984 CES booth for Activision, a video game company

Activision booth, Jan 1984 CES, Las Vegas

52 games in total are released by Activision between 1980 and 1988, with the designers’ identities prominently featured in all packaging. Not afraid to land some attention with publicity stunts, to promote Stephen Cartwright’s Barnstorming at the 1982 Winter CES the company taxis a bi-plane through the streets of Las Vegas to the convention centre, press in tow. Anything to stand out in a rapidly crowding market, where 15 million consoles have been sold, accompanied by 65 million cartridges. To increase its stable of programming stars, Activision adds a new Eastern Design Center in New Jersey, swelling the company’s design ranks with the likes Dan Kitchen, who is joined there later by his brother Garry, coming over from the Quaker Oats-owned U.S. Games. At his former company, Garry had created probably their most popular game, the shooter Space Jockey. John Van Ryzin also joins the Eastern Activision team. Another addition to the Activision crew is Carol Shaw, a former Atari programmer who had made early VCS games Checkers and 3D Tic Tac Toe for the company. At her new digs, she creates the hit River Raid, as well as Happy Trails for the Intellivision. Also on board is Stephen Cartwright, with yet another Kitchen brother,  Steve,  joining the company in 1983. With their names and faces featured on game boxes and manuals, these game creators become so famous they’re stopped in the streets for autographs by game aficionados, and collectively receive around 12,000 fan letters a week. On Dec. 18, 1981, Jim Levy cuts the ribbon on a new, 92,500 square-foot factory in Milpitas, CA., and Activision sees its production capacity increased by 1000%.  By March of 1982, the facility has shipped more than 1 million cartridges. Some well-known Activision releases: Stephen Cartwright’s Barnstorming, Megamania (1982), Hacker (C-64 1985) and Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers (Atari ST 1987) David Crane’s Freeway (1981), Laser Blast (1981), Grand Prix (1982), Decathlon (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984) Larry Kaplan’s Kaboom! (1981) Garry Kitchen’s Keystone Kapers (1983) Steve Kitchen’s Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space (1983) Alan Miller’s Tennis (1981), Starmaster (1982), Enduro (1983) and Robot Tank (1983), John Van Ryzin’s H.E.R.O. (1983) Carol Shaw’s River Raid (1982) Bob Whitehead’s Stampede (1981) and Chopper Command (1982). Activision promotes its games heavily, including lavish theatrical ads run in movie houses in 1982 for Starmaster and Chopper Command.

Finding Pitfalls

Pitfall! is David Crane’s sixth game for Activision. A tour-de-force run-and-jump game released in September of 1982, it 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, and 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. 

JUMP: Saturday Supercade Pitfall! segment, YouTube

Activision panel at CGE 2014 in Las Vegas.  Left to right, you have Adam Bellin (ported Zenji to the C64, programmer on Ghostbusters), Garry Kitchen (Keystone Kapers), David Crane (Dragster, Fishing Derby, Laser Blast, Freeway, Pitfall!, Grand Prix, Decathlon, Pitfall II, Ghostbusters, Little Computer People, The Transformers: Battle to Save the Earth) and Steve Cartwright (Megamania, Seaquest, Plaque Attack, Frostbite, Hacker, Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers, Aliens: The Computer Game, Gee Bee Air Rally)

Activision panel at CGE 2014. L. to R.: Adam Bellin, Garry Kitchen, David Crane and Steve Cartwright

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