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The History Of Activision
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The History Of Activision


July 30, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next
 

Pitfall Harry

1982 was also the year that Activision released Pitfall!, one of its biggest hits and a game that would become the foundation for a new genre. “During the development of Pitfall! it was clear that we had something special,” Crane remembered. “The game was born from a desire to have the main character of the game be more human than the tanks, jet planes, drag racers, etc. of the past.

But once you had a little man running, jumping, and climbing an entire universe of adventures were open to the game designer. People would walk up behind me during development, look at the screen with glazed-over eyes and brainstorm about all the ways this genre could go. Of course, I had to finish the first one and make it fun to play,” he said.

Activision went public in 1983 and enjoyed an astonishing success. “The Activision of the late 70s and early 80s was a pretty special place,” Crane remembered. “Because we were riding a rocket, everyone wanted to work there. With the choice of the best and brightest we ended up with a company full of over-achievers. When Activision reached sales of $60 million, we had 60 employees. People have to work pretty hard for a company to have revenues of $1 million per employee. And up until the game business crashed, everybody was content to work hard and grow the company.”

Crash

The game market was booming, driven by a vibrant arcade scene and home console hits like Pitfall!, Atari’s Pole Position, and Imagic’s Demon Attack. However, by 1983 there were signs of trouble. “It is really ironic that we didn’t see the crash coming, because we looked right at it,” Crane remembered. “In response to Activision’s success, there were dozens of wanna-be copycats. In one six month period between CES trade shows, 30 companies sprang into being determined to be the next Activision.

They got two to three million dollars in VC funding (they found it very easy in light of our success), and hired programmers off the street. Without professional game designers, these companies developed low quality games that we would have deleted from our computers. With their VC money, however, they built millions of copies of these awful games. When we saw the poor quality of the games being developed, we shook our heads and said ‘These guys will all be out of business in a year.’ We just didn’t see what that would do to the business.”

“The game crash came the following Christmas,” Crane remembered. “As these companies failed to sell their games and went into bankruptcy one after the other, some enterprising bottom-feeders went into action. Warehouses of unsold game cartridges were bought for $3 each, sold to stores for $4 each, to be retailed at $5 each. At the front of every store was a barrel full of games at $5 apiece. One estimate put the number of closeout games in the barrels that Christmas to be over 20 million pieces,” Crane said.

“Kids still asked for the latest Activision release for Christmas. But when Dad got to the store he saw that his $40 could buy eight games from the barrel and he could come home the hero. Sales of top of the line new games went to zero,” Crane said.

Weathering the crash, Activision began to diversify, publishing titles for the emerging PC market and spreading its games for the Atari VCS to Intellivision and ColecoVision. 1984 saw the release of Crane’s well-regarded movie-tie game Ghostbusters as well as his Pitfall II: Lost Caverns leveraged across a variety of platforms including the VCS, Commodore 64, Apple, and Atari 8-bit computers.

Unfortunately, the video game market continued to decline and Activision’s stock plummeted. With nowhere to go but up, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left the company to form Accolade. Larry Kaplan had already left two years earlier, returning to a VP position at Atari.

“After the crash, we became something of an incubator. You can trace the genesis of dozens of high-tech companies to people who left Activision,” Crane said. Notable personalities from Activision included Larry Probst, who would go on to become CEO of Electronic Arts and Greg Fischback, Jim Scoroposki, and Rob Holmes who founded Acclaim.


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