Working In The Game Industry Before (And During) The Crash Of 1983
I’ve worked in the videogame industry a long, long time. It often surprises people when they hear how long I’ve been developing games: thirty-six years. I made my first game professionally in 1979, when personal computers like the Apple II and TRS-80 were first entering the homes, although several years after the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong had already found their way into the living room.
Someone recently asked me what it was like working in the game industry before The Crash. Ah, The Crash. It still causes a shudder down the spines of those of us who lived through it. The Videogame Crash of 1983 was a massive recession of the game industry that actually lasted from 1983 to 1985. Revenues that had peaked at $3.2 billion in 1983 fell to $100 million by 1985, almost destroying the industry while it was still in its infancy.
I worked in the video game industry for six years before The Crash. However, I didn’t work on console games, which were the primary casualties of this crisis. I worked on home computer games, which was one of the causes of The Crash.
There were actually three things that contributed to the Crash. First, there was a glut of poor-quality videogames on the market, including high-profile failures like the ET-The Extraterrestrial videogame, for which there was such high expectations but poor implementation that the poorly received title was over-produced and much of the inventory was buried in the New Mexico desert. Second, was an over-flooded console market in which just about every electronics manufacturer introduced their own videogame console, only to bail out after the fierce competition caused prices to be reduced to nothing. Third, the introduction home computer provided additional competition for families’ home entertainment spending.
As I said, I first worked on games for home computers for much of my early career in the game industry. I remember it as being an exciting time, where there was a whole new world of interactive entertainment emerging, and as pioneers in a new medium, we were free to explore all sorts of crazy ideas before genres and game mechanics were being solidified — things that you couldn’t do once the big publishers controlled the industry (until indie development came into being thanks to Steam, the App store, Kongregate, and other indie portals).
I worked for a very small publisher and designed/programmed games in a team consisting of only three people: me, myself, and I. I developed games about such bizarre things as colonizing planets while preaching religion and using mind-expanding drugs, running an oil company during the oil crises, programming a television network, and being a spy trying to escape his mind-controlling captors in an adventure game based upon The Prisoner television series.
Those of us who designed computer games saw our work as being much more sophisticated than the type of games being developed for arcade and console systems. I remember attending one of the first Computer Game Developer Conferences, and the big point of debate of whether videogames could be rightly considered “games” and should be given the same consideration at the conference. This snobby bias lasted for several years until the Conference dropped the word “Computer” from the title.
While working on computer games was very fulfilling creatively, I didn’t make a lot of money. I made the meager sum of $800 a month when I got my first job after graduating college. The company, Edu-Ware Services, was run out of the founder’s apartment. He and I worked on folding tables in the living room, while our sales rep worked out of the bedroom. Our fourth member would only show up occasionally while he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree at UCLA.
We would churn out a new game or educational software in anywhere from three days to three months, depending on the scope and how badly it was needed to bring in revenue. When one of us made a product, the others would test it. When it was ready to ship, I would usually be the one to make copies, inserting 5-1/4 inch floppy disks on at a time into the disk drive. We would print out disk labels on standard mailing labels using a daisy-wheel printer, photocopy documentation at the nearest copy place, and then put everything in Zip-lock bags to ship off.
We did make a profit, and within a year we made enough money to move into a real office, and then a couple of years later, into an even bigger one. Our staff grew to sixty employees when Edu-Ware reached its height, and I was earning enough money ($35,000 a year) to trade in my Honda Civic for a Toyota Supra. Our growth was successful enough to attract the attention of a mainframe entertainment software company, Management Sciences America, to purchase us so that they could gain a foothold in the home computer industry.
And then there was The Crash. Our sales when to nothing, and MSA dissolved our company. Four of us got together to form a new company, Electric Transit, which specialized in 3-D simulations like Wilderness: A Survival Adventure and Lunar Explorer: A Space Flight Simulator. Our games were well reviewed, but alas The Crash was still in effect, and we never made enough in sales to keep the company going. We worked for two years without a salary, with only a collection of good reviews from the game magazines to show for it.
After The Crash ended, I joined The Walt Disney Company as its very first video game producer, but that’s another story for another day.