“The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.”
- Video game historian Jimmy Maher reflects on how Epyx changed as a developer shortly before its closure.
For the second entry in his A Time of Endings series, Maher has set his sights on recording the different factors that led to the eventual bankruptcy and closure of the early game development studio Epyx.
Maher’s feature is a good read for modern developers, both as some historic insight and as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a company bites off more than it can chew.
“It does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform,” said Maher. “For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America.”
Following the 1987 release of California Games, co-founder Jon Freeman was worried that Epyx had reached the limits of what it could do on the Commodore 64. That realization caused him to bring David Morse, previously of Amiga fame, on as Epyx's new CEO. Morse took the company in an entirely new direction as it secretly began developing one of the first handheld video game consoles, known as the Epyx Handy.
As with other tales in the A Time of Endings series, Maher notes that often times game developers fail because they try to do too much, rather than not doing enough. In Epyx's case, Maher tells the story of a studio that overcorrected when trying to take its development in a new direction and ended up falling short of its goals in both hardware and software development.
“Manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here,” explained Maher. “They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.”
In short, “Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!”
For the full history of Epyx’s final years, take a look at Maher's blog, The Digital Antiquarian.