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How Activision's first CEO helped define the publishing playbook

How Activision's first CEO helped define the publishing playbook

November 5, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

"In my view the single most important figure in Activisions early history, and one that too often goes undercredited in preference to an admittedly brilliant team of programmers and designers, is Jim Levy."
- Digital entertainment history buff Jimmy Maher sheds light on one of the underappreciated founders of Activision.

These days Activision is best known as the multi-billion dollar behemoth responsible for big-budget games like Destiny and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but it wasn't always this way.

Activision was founded in 1979 as a place where game designers could expect to see their names credited on their games and earn a share of their profits. Amateur historian Jimmy Maher suggests that founding CEO Jim Levy was a key driver of that founding philosophy, and shines some light on the company's early years in a an excellent retrospective post published today on his Digital Antiquarian blog.

"Under Levys guidance, Activision proceeded to write a play book that many of the publishers weve already met would later draw from liberally," writes Maher, noting that the company effectively pioneered the business of third-party development by making games for Atari's VCS console using a debug kit built from memory by founders (and former Atari wizkids) David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead.

Levy also made a point of focusing on producing original, creative works in the company's early years. "Activision practically defined themselves as the anti-Atari. If Atari was closed and faceless, they would be open and welcoming, throwing grand shindigs for press and fans to promote their games," writes Maher.

"They also maintained a certain artistic integrity in sticking to original game concepts and refusing any sort of licensing deals, whether of current arcade hits or media properties," and did so until the company ran into financial trouble and was compelled to make licensed game like Ghostbusters.

Maher's full post, which goes on to elucidate Activision's later financial troubles and how Levy responded to the company's precipitous post-crash drop in revenues (from $158 million in 1983 to $17 million in 1986), is worth reading on his Digital Antiquarian website.

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