Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 2    February 1998

From Out of Nowhere

Underground-Spawned Revolutions in the Video Game Industry

By Adam Trionfo

There is no way an underground movement can happen in the video-game industry without player support. There was never a way to get a large amount of this support without a large amount of cash and publicity. I have always maintained that the first company to be both mainstream and underground was Electronic Arts, in the early-to-mid-eighties. They represented the individual creator of each game, giving everyone visible credit. They were the not the first group to thrust the idea into the public eye that game creators are artists; that honor goes to Activision. But EA did it well -- really well.

Electronic Arts and Activision were created as rebellions against the master, the master at that time being Atari. I find it strange that there hasn't been a similar mutiny against Nintendo; they hold a tight grip on the game industry, both when they're the current top company and when they're not. What the gaming community needs is another rebellion.

When I first saw ID Software's Wolfenstein 3-D (their precursor to Doom), I was impressed. It looked good; I had never seen a game quite like it before. It was also fun, but admittedly not too engrossing to me at the time. ID was an unknown, but they distributed software using the popularity of the quickly growing Internet -- a brilliant move. The game went on to engross thousands of players of course, and we all know what happened when ID's next 3-D game, Doom, came out: The underground became the mainstream, forcing "big" companies to take a new look at game quality and measure their standards against it.

One way a lot of home programmers spread their creations among the computer world and make their individual talents known is through shareware. My first experience with shareware was in 1983. I got a disk from a friend for my Commodore 64. It was full of public-domain software, but one of the games asked the player to send eight dollars if he enjoyed it. I didn't send the cash, and I wondered if there was anyone who actually might.

I couldn't believe that this person was asking for money for a game that I thought was worthless. Things sure have changed since then. Some of the best programs available are shareware (you'll notice the mention of Megaball on my top-ten list in the last issue, for instance).

In fact, the entire computer industry has changed an enormous amount since it began. I'm not talking about the hardware or the software in this case, but rather the way in which they're distributed. Software was often sold in bookshops or mom-and-pop-type computer stores. The large computer stores that did exist were for business computers primarily. There were computer games, but the majority at that time were played on game consoles, not personal computers. And there existed an often overlooked type of underground movement -- someone could actually write a game, a utility, or any piece of software, and send it in with the founded hopes of making some money, getting exposure and placing their work in the homes of thousands. I'm talking about the home-computer magazines.

These magazines were spawned from 1970s periodicals about the first 8-bit computers: Creative Computing, Byte and Dr. Dobb's Journal were just a few. While those magazines were good, around the early 80s they mutated into magazines devoted to business computers. The spaces that they left vacant were filled with many magazines aimed right at the home computer user who bought his toy with only minimal ideas of what to do with it. The home-computer magazines were there to help and support. And they did an excellent job of it.

Some of the most popular were Compute!, for all home computers, Compute!'s Gazette and Run for the Commodore 64, and Analog and Antic for the Atari 8-bits. They were public forums for computer enthusiasts.

We would like to be able to support the kind of people who could have used those magazines these days to show off their programming expertise. In future issues, we will be publishing short programs written for the various orphaned computers. Please send in programs that you would like to see published. If you would like to write a tutorial, or have a program you would like to share (for any orphaned platform), let us know.

Tentatively, the first such feature will be a speed comparison between an Atari 8-bit BASIC program and a C program for the IBM. I have been told that the Atari BASIC program is as fast as a 486! Both programs will be published here soon. -- AT