While not the first programmable home game system, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the 2600 after its model number, was definitely the console that put home video games into the public consciousness. Released in 1977 and bundled with the cartridge Combat , it had a rocky beginning, with production problems and lacklustre sales haunting its launch. Things got so bad that Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell dramatically stood up during an Atari/Warner stockholder’s meeting and suggested that the 2600 have its price slashed and be discontinued by the company. It remained in Atari’s catalog, but Bushnell was pushed out of Atari in 1978.
First VCS prototype, assembled in 1975
With the home licensing of Taito/Midway’s arcade smash Space Invaders in 1980, the 2600 went on to become one of the most successful home video game consoles of all time. So wide was its installed base with users that two companies sprang up to become major third-party suppliers of games for the system. Both Activision and Imagic produced some great games, but only the former was able to survive the big video game crash of 1983 – 1984 by pivoting to the home computer market, eventually becoming one of the largest video game manufacturers and remaining so to this day.
The 2600 itself fought off all comers, including game machines from Magnavox and Mattel, until the 1982 release of the ColecoVision usurped the throne with powerful arcade-like graphics. Still, the 2600 held on in budget form as the $50 2600 Jr., until eventually discontinued by Atari in 1991. The system is truly one for the history books.
When Garry Kitchen and a bunch of other Activision programmers left the company, they founded Absolute Entertainment in 1986, following a grand tradition of naming their new venture higher in the alphabet than their last. It was the same thing they had done to Atari when they left that company. Here is a description of the circumstances around their departure, outlined in the Atari/VCS/2600 Bitstory entry here at The Dot Eaters:
Then, one day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analysing a list of numbers on 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 instalment 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 get 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.
They must have taken some ideas with them when they left Activision because the following 1991 ad is for a redo Absolute did of Activision’s Space Shutte: A Journey Into Space, originally done by Garry’s brother Steve Kitchen for the 2600 in 1983. Absolute’s version, Space Shuttle Project, was designed by John Van Ryzin for the NES, a man who may be more popularly known as the creator of the great H.E.R.O. on the 2600 while he was at Activision. He helped his compatriots found Absolute, which Garry Kitchen eventually shuttered in 1995. Still, the company flew pretty high when it was making some great games for the 90’s top game machines.
Ad for 1991’s Space Shuttle Project, by John Van Ryzin
Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Berkeley in 1972, Alan Miller would eventually answer a Silicon Valley want ad and thus become an early game designer for Atari and their 2600 (then called the VCS) console in 1977, joining the company several months before the release of Atari’s seminal games machine. After some pedestrian releases like Surround and Hangman for the console, Miller made the ground-breaking Basketball in 1978, featuring a trapezoid court that startled a lot of people with its illusion of depth in the playfield. Miller pushed the then-known programming limits of the 2600, and subsequently went on to become one of the founding members of Activision, the first third-party publisher of 2600 games.
While at Activision, Miller would take the trapezoid court of Basketball, duplicate it and stack the two vertically for the cartridge featured in today’s game ad, 1981’s Tennis. He would also add a shadow to the ball, a seemingly small graphical tweak that did wonders for helping players orient their positions on the court.
When it came to making great sports games as real as they could be on Atari’s flagship video game console, Alan Miller had no reservations.
If you ask co-founder Nolan Bushnell, the main reason for Atari’s ultimate failure in 1983-1984, a failure so dramatic that it helped drag an entire industry down with it, was sowed back in ’78. That was the year he left the company, and new CEO Ray Kassar changed Atari’s focus from innovating in the video game space to marketing what they had already had. Sure, in the short term this strategy might have aided in Atari becoming the fastest growing company in American history, but it left the video game giant on a foundation of sand as the technology of video games and the tastes of players progressed through the years. Nothing quite crystallizes this attitude of marketing over innovation so much as the story of how the first third-party game maker for the VCS, Activision, was born. The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive:
One day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analyzing a list of numbers on 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 instalment 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. Knowing 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 get 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.
Activision went on to great success, producing hits like Pitfall! and Keystone Kapers for the 2600, as well as cartridges for Mattel’s Intellivision. Their pivot in 1983 to games for the home computers of the era allowed them to weather the storm of the Great Video Game Crash of 1983-84, and today remain as one of the largest video game companies around.
For more history of Activision and the Atari VCS/2600, consult your local Dot Eaters article.
Playing video games has always been tagged as being a rather solitary pastime, even when you consider the ubiquity of online gaming today. Sure, you might be in a shooter with 24 other people, but you don’t see them and probably have never met them IRL, and communication is generally on the level of potty-mouthed trash talk over a tinny mic. In my youth I played a lot with friends in front of my C64 (see: M.U.L.E.), but when I tally up all of the game time, statistically speaking I was by myself playing video games.
Now, collecting retro video games might seem to demand a certain amount of face time with other like-minded traders, looking to score deals and complete collections. However, with the advent of eBay and other online venues for classic game purchasing and trading, it’s possible you could pursue your hobby sequestered at home with your only connection to the outside world being a furtive peek through the curtains at your local UPS guy delivering your latest acquisition.
The original 3rd-party video game maker for the Atari 2600, Activision apparently saw the writing on the wall in 1983. That was the year they made their move from consoles onto computer platforms, such as porting Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line as seen in this ad. Moving to computer platforms helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies still around today.
Activision makes their move.
For more information on Activision and the Atari VCS, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.
The original third-party video game maker for the Atari 2600 was Activision, formed by four disgruntled Atari game designers looking for more respect and a bigger piece of the financial pie. Former music industry exec Jim Levy, as well as venture capitalist Richard Muchmore, rounded out the company’s management.
Activision saw the writing on the wall for video game consoles in 1983. That was the year they pivoted from consoles onto computer platforms, porting popular hits like Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line, as seen in the ad featured today in the Cortex.
Activision makes their move to computers.
Moving to computers helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies operating today.
For more information on the history of Activision and the Atari 2600, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.
Leaping into The 12 Video Games of Christmas today is Pitfall Harry, in a drastic iOS remake of Activision’s original 1982 Atari VCS/2600 game Pitfall!, by developer The Blast Furnace.
30 years after the fact, this new version almost seems like a retro-themed version of the hit mobile game Temple Run. Here we send Harry running pell mell through 3D-rendered native villages, cavernous er… caverns, and wild jungles. Obstacles in his way must be jumped over, slid under and, in the case of the snakes and scorpions that return from the original, whipped with an accessory borrowed from Pitfall Harry’s original influence, Indiana Jones, all the while snagging treasure that lines the paths.
Solidly falling into the Freemium category of apps, here the in-game currency are diamonds and the treasure you find, which you use to upgrade Harry with more skills, or even just to continue the game where you left off. Given the breakneck, twitchy gameplay, you’ll be dying a lot, and since diamonds are given out sparingly by levelling up, you’ll be feeling the pull to purchase a bunch, ranging from $1.99 all the way up to $29.99. It’s feasible that you could plow through the game without actually spending a cent, but only for the devilishly patient gamer. A very nice touch of nostalgia are the “Explorer Club” badges you collect in game by reaching achievements; a nice throw-back to the real badges Activision would send to players who mailed in proof of their accomplishments.
It’s good to see Harry back, even if he’s aping another gaming app like Temple Run. Swing on over here to continue his scorpion dodging exploits on your iOS device.
These days, although one of the most prolific game developers and publishers around, Activision is probably best known as the company behind the Call of Duty series. Starting as an entry into the WWII-shooter sweepstakes that was all the rage in the early 2000’s, the games moved into a more modern setting with, yes, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games that have become a license to print money in recent years. A lot of people now deride Activision as simply resting on its laurels, content to spin money from what are essentially the same games released year after year with each new incarnation of the Modern Warfare series.
The company had a much more nobel and creative beginning. Founded in 1979 by former Atari programmers who wrote some of the first games for that illustrious company, its raison d’être was to give creative license and proper accreditation to those the founders thought the most important to the success of any game platform: the people creating the games. That, and to make some of the very best games for what was then the leading console, the Atari VCS/2600.
Throwing the astounding creativity of those early days into sharp relief compared to the moribund Activision of today is the Activision Anthology, a collection of wondrous 8-bit games now released for IOS devices. The seemingly made-for-touch-devices Kaboom! is included free, with 45 other gems such as Pitfall!, Barnstorming and Enduro available as an in-app purchase for $6.99. Another purchase tier lets you buy the games in 11 game bundles, each for $2.99. They feature multiple control schemes, to help you acclimatize from rubber Atari joystick to touch screen. There is also a lot of historical documentation included, such as original artwork, manuals and tips from the original programmers.
Those longing for the days when creativity was the watchword of the video game industry instead of a fossilized memory can gorge themselves on the best of the best with the Activision Anthology. For more information on the company and the games that helped build the foundation of the industry, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.