Though third party development has long been absolutely crucial to the growth of the video game industry, it didn’t start off that way. One company in particular is responsible for the idea of third party game development following a fallout with Atari – Activision.
In the earliest days of home console entertainment, the idea of third-party development was completely foreign. Video games were published only by the companies who also made the systems; Atari of course was one of these, and was the only publisher of games for their 2600 console. This system irritated many of Atari’s in-house developers, since Atari didn’t give royalties or even credit to the people responsible for programming their titles.
Programmers David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead met with Atari CEO Ray Kassar in 1979 and demanded better treatment from the company at large. Kassar scoffed at the idea, saying that “anyone can do a cartridge,” leading the four programmers to leave Atari and begin Activision. The company’s name was apparently derived from combining the words “active” and “television.”
Activision went out of its way to credit and promote its game creators and developers, including giving every developer their own page in a game’s instruction manual. By taking this approach, the company was able to attract some of the top talent in the business at the time. Atari, however, wasn’t too pleased with how things played out – the four Activision founders’ titles had made up more than half of Atari’s software sales at the time, and legal action between Atari and Activision carried on into 1982.
The first smash hit for Activision was Pitfall!, released in 1982. The player controls Pitfall Harry as he races through a jungle in an attempt to get 32 different treasures in just 20 minutes, all the while avoiding various obstacles. The game was a technical marvel for the time, with colorful animated sprites rendered on the primitive 2600 hardware without any flickering or stuttering. Pitfall! ended up seeing a variety of ports to other consoles, selling 4 million copies in total, and cemented Activision as a proper development company.
Later in the ‘80s, Activision purchased Infocom, a small developer primarily known for their text adventure games, and changed its overall corporate name to “Mediagenic.” By the end of the decade, it was publishing games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Atari 7800, the Commodore 64, and the Sega Master System.
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