A Gaming Decade in Review: 1970s

1980: A Year of Firsts

“I always looked at it as ‘we had a hit, they had a hit, etc.’ It was great because we were creating a constant interest out there. Regardless of who had it, there was always something new.” -David Marofske, Midway Games

Back in 1980 Activision was entirely a different company from what it is today. Back then it was five guys in an office creating the first third-party games on the market. You see, back then there were only first and second-party games. Atari was the only company to make games for the Atari VCS, but that changed when Activision started up. They were certain that Warner Bros. would try to sue them for making said games and included legal fees in their initial capital investment of $1 Million. Sure enough, when Warner heard they were developing games for the Atari, a lawsuit was brought against Activision, who were certain they would win. Alas, Warner’s claims of stealing trade secrets was unfounded. One of their arguments was that Activision stole the “venetian blinds” technique which allows for more than six sprites to be displayed simultaneously on a scan-line. This technique was created by Bob Whitehead while he was developing Video Chess. So essentially, Warner was accusing Whitehead of stealing his own technique from himself. When approached about the venetian blinds, David Crane smiled and asked, “Is this what you guys are referring to?”

That’s right. They created a functional demo where you use the joystick to move the blinds up and down. Atari’s lawyers were not amused. Atari eventually lost and Activision released their first four games in mid-1980. The differences were immediately noticeable. For one thing, the black borders reduced color bleeding and it was generally held that Activision’s games had better graphics (mirror) than those of Atari’s own. It helped that all of its designers were among Atari’s best. David Crane in particular was the John Carmack of his day, polishing code to a mirror sheen. Activision always gave its designers credit and their manuals featured a page-long note of advice to players.

Activision opened the gates for other companies to follow suit. Imagic, founded by Atari and Intellivision employees, was one such company. Of course, any company making games for another company’s console would have to pay royalties, and the player would have to own that console. Frankly I would have been thrilled to allow third-party deals. But anyway, poor Atari had to suffer from making all that money by other developers’ hard work. The downside was that Atari had to work harder to compete with Activision’s talent, but– after all– Ray Kassar did say anyone can make a cartridge. These guys proved it.

1980 was truly a year of firsts. Not only were there the first games by third-party developers, there were also many other firsts, like speech synthesis, color vectors and 3D, and arcade ports for consoles. Space Invaders was improved in the form of Galaxian. Dave Theurer went for two-for-two with his hit Tempest. Iwatani Touru branched out with Pac-Man, at a time when most games had to do with space. Activision opened the gates for third-party development and removed the necessity for a large number of consoles. 1980 was truly a booming renaissance, the likes of which no one saw coming.

No one.

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