Strong Fellowship Research Report

March 1, 2015

From January 19 to February 7, I spent three weeks at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY on a competitive research fellowship to study their archives for information on the various videogame industry crashes, shakeouts, and slumps of the 1970s and early ’80s. The purpose of this study was to shed new light on this confusing period of the history of videogames in order to better understand the forces at work. This could best be done by researching the primary sources – magazines and journals printed at the time – rather than relying on analyses made in general videogame history books written decades after the events. It is critical to the study of games and game history to have access to these primary sources because they allow us to see what developers, journalists, analysts, and players were thinking of videogames at the time.

During the course of the fellowship, I wrote a series of daily blog posts, which you can read below. In short, the fellowship was a fantastic experience, and I more than accomplished all the goals I set out to achieve. I had access to materials unavailable almost anywhere else and had the funding that allowed me to spend time at the museum. This is especially important since I otherwise would not have the income to afford such a massive research trip.

During my fellowship, I captured some 10,000 images – literal photocopies of all the magazines, catalogs, and documents mentioned in the daily blogs below. None of this material is available digitally through places such as the Internet Archive or Digital Press, meaning the Strong is one of the only places in the world where a scholar can have access to them – and in the case of the development documents, it is the only place.

Furthermore, the true value of collections like the Strong lies not simply in their completeness, but rather in their proximity to related material. For instance, the Strong’s RePlay and Play Meter collections are missing many issues – sometimes entire years – and this is one area that needs improving. However, while more complete collections exist at the Library of Congress and in Chicago, the Strong is singularly important in that it places arcade industry trade publications not within a general collection, but specifically within a context of game and play studies, surrounded by the games discussed within their pages and easily connected with gamer magazines, and toy publications, as well as the notes and records of the developers who made them. Arguably, it is the proximity of such objects within the collection that gives Play Meter and RePlay greater value than they would have elsewhere, and this demands a more complete collection. Indeed, it is perhaps within the best interests of the publishers themselves to help provide the Strong and other museums with back issues, much as they did for early game writers such as Steve Bloom (Video Invaders, 1982) and Craig Kubey (The Winners’ Book of Video Games, 1982). Furthermore, the digitization of such journals – or at the very least, their indexes – would allow researchers from all over the world to access such valuable materials more conveniently, just as one can now access large collections of gamer magazines and books via the Internet Archive and the Digital Press Library.

Sorting through all the collected research and their contents will take a considerable amount of time, but already I can see several areas of focused research emerging:

  • A comprehensive text on the various industry crashes as a whole.
  • A specific text on the major shakeouts of 1982-1985.
  • Correlating quantitative data from top selling game charts from arcade, home, and computer games to determine the impact of home conversions on arcade performance.
  • Comparison of top 30 list in Softalk with Broderbund and Software Publishers Association data.
  • The usefulness of such charts for determining a list of impactful games.
  • Analysis of arcade industry reflections on the shakeout of 1982.
  • Discussion of videogames sales in 1984 and 1985 when they were supposedly ‘dead’.
  • Analysis of toy industry reflections on handheld electronic games in 1980 and console games in 1983.
  • Detailed analysis of the electronic handheld game industry 1976-1983.
  • Detailed analysis of dedicated home TV games, 1975-1979.
  • Specific reflections on Nintendo’s early arcade games.
  • The context of R.O.B. The Robot and the Nintendo Entertainment System launch.

And in addition:

  • Further editing my paper on The Sumerian Game.
  • In-depth research on Burgeson’s Baseball simulation.

Overall, the amount of material suggests that several articles can be published as a result of this research fellowship, as well as the final goal of integration into a larger book. However, the sheer volume of data also suggests the possibility of a book dedicated to the game industry shakeouts, slumps, and crashes of 1976-1986.

Unfortunately, there is still more data to collect. I still need to conduct a comprehensive analysis of Billboard magazine as well as locate key missing issues of RePlay and Play Meter – particularly as regards the equipment user polls, without which the quantitative data analysis is fairly useless. It is my hope my research and experiences will help provide an index for future game historians.

My recommendations for game scholarship is to make use of valuable archives in places like the Strong. Access to primary source documents from magazines and trade publications provides insight that is simply impossible to obtain through readings of secondary and tertiary sources, such as game history books and articles. Furthermore, archival documentation is simply unavailable elsewhere. In interests of time, scholars are highly recommended to use iPads, smartphones, or tablets to capture data in lieu of digital cameras and photocopying or scanning large amounts of text.

My recommendation for the Strong is to continue collecting artifacts and publications, just as they are doing now, particularly in key areas such as trade publications. However, I also foresee a greater need for indexing of these collections, as well as their digitization. The latter suggests a profound impact on game scholarship, particularly when compared with the Internet Archive Magazine Collection and Digital Play Library. Achieving the first goal will obviously require extensive acquisitions through purchase and donation and may require publisher cooperation; indexing and digitization, on the other hand, will require extensive manpower, perhaps through outside collaboration, and the latter will specifically involve issues of digital rights management. Hopefully, indexes of the Strong’s holdings can eventually be cross-referenced with those of other major archives, such as Stanford University Library’s Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection and the Library of Congress’s videogames collection.

Game studies has evolved greatly since the publication of Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games and Leonard Herman’s Phoenix 3rd Edition in 2001. The past decade and a half has seen not only the digitization of libraries, but also the rise of user contributed digital archives, the development of sophisticated search tools to make such collections more usable, and the establishment of museums, libraries, and archives dedicated to videogames. This has been accompanied by renewed interest in the history of the medium, particularly through new and insightful interviews with industry professionals and creators, but also through focused historical research. The tools available to a modern scholar of game history were simply unavailable to authors such as Kent and Herman at the turn of the century, and the availability of such tools has profound implications on future historical research. It is for this reason that institutions such as the Strong are so important and the availability of fellowships to allow researchers – particularly those with stretched economic means – is invaluable.

Strong Fellowship – Day Final!

February 7, 2015

I completed it! The remaining issues of Softalk (including the scant few IBM PC Softalk – surprisingly, very little game coverage, as the top-selling software was basically word processors and spreadsheets). Got to check out a couple Telstar products (Pong and Tank). Digitized the 39 Sumerian Game slides (history has been saved!!). And scanned the James Burgeson archive. There was a little time left over to go through some gamer magazines I was curious about – another hour and I would have gone through them all!

Overall, the trip has been an amazing success. I went through hundreds of magazines, archival documents, and other miscellany with over 10,000 images collected in 3 weeks (13 working days!). Here’s a quick recap:

  • Play Meter (coin-op industry trade magazine)
  • RePlay (ditto)
  • Playthings (toy industry trade magazine)
  • Softalk (Apple II user magazine)
  • Ralph Baer papers
  • Don Daglow papers
  • Don Carlson papers (there sure are a lot of game developers named ‘Don’)
  • Jerry Lawson papers
  • James Burgeson papers
  • 1970s and early ’80s news clippings
  • Sumerian Game slides
  • Gamer magazines (various)
  • Played some electronic handhelds and TV games
  • Played Computer Space (two-player!)

Wow! Note the Burgeson papers, Sumerian Game slides, Computer Space, and gamer magazines were basically icing on the top, as they weren’t 100% relevant to my research on the crash. I had to be extremely efficient in order to get everything done – sure am glad JP Dyson told me about all that in week 1!

I will be in Rochester until about 5 PM tomorrow – plane transfer in Philly means I get back sometime after 11, provided there aren’t any flight problems. It will be good to be back in Orlando. I’ll write a more detailed analysis of the entire trip and what I got out of it, but there’s one thing I can say for sure: this was INCREDIBLY productive, and I can foresee months of solid research analysis and several papers – possibly a book – from the trip. Yahoo!!

Strong Fellowship – Day 16

February 6, 2015

I have to admit… The weather here is really starting to get to me. Past week and particularly yesterday were kind of brutal. There’s too much gray, and I’m tired of trudging through snow and slush. The sidewalks are mostly clear, but there’s a good layer of packed snow and some corners aren’t properly cleared. Well, one more day of this. My flight leaves tomorrow at 5 PM, so there’s a chance I could get delayed. Same with Philadelphia where my transfer is… I hear there’s a massive storm scheduled for Sunday, so I hope it waits until AFTER I leave to strike!

It looks like I can’t upload any video of the handhelds in action, so I guess if I want to share experiences with playing, that will have to be through collector copies – or maybe via Learning Games Initiative…not sure on that one.

I’ve gone through most of Softalk – just about 12 more months left, and these are fairly narrow issues. Then there’s some Softalk IBM PC. Actually, with all the videogames I still need to play and look at (taking detailed impression notes) and the stack of gamer mags, PLUS copying these slides, I MIGHT not complete EVERYTHING I intended to do… Softalk is a priority, and the slides I can label as kind of essential. It depends on how long it takes to scan a slide, but the archivist can do those at a later date if I don’t get around to them.

I’m not sure if there is anything else left in the archives that’s of interest, but tomorrow looks like it will be pretty packed.

I had some udon for lunch, which was tasty, but cut into my time. I hope I have time to get sushi tomorrow! I always feel happy after that! I’ve also been fatigued from lack of sleep and the long walks and probably not eating as well as I should. Exercise is important for doing sedentary research, but having the right calories and nutrients goes hand in hand with that.

I suppose if there’s one more thing on my list, it’s to view the records of the baseball simulator, but that’s not related to the Crash – more to my research of pre-1973 games. Otherwise, if I can finish going through Softalk, I will have more than accomplished what I set out to do, incomplete records in the archive notwithstanding. This was an incredibly productive trip, and I can’t wait to get back (take a rest) and start the seroius work of sorting through this enormous stack of photocopies.

Strong Fellowship – Day 16

February 5, 2015

Only two days left in the fellowship. I spent today looking over the rest of the Broderbund folders (Software Publishers Association records), the Don Daglow files (the Intellivision sales records weren’t as useful as I hoped) and SSI (sales records are fantastic, plus a couple magazines on history of computer games). I also backed up the photos I’d taken – looks like it’s somewhere in the range of 10,000 o_O That’s going to be an awful lot of work organizing them for research use…

I also started going through Softalk. There’s about two or three years of the magazine left, along with some issues of the IBM. Hopefully I can complete those tomorrow.

The other thing I looked at were a few handheld electronics. I never played any of the LED games from the period (grew up with Tiger handhelds, but those and Game & Watch are LCD technology, which is different). In some ways, the Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Galaga games are actually more sophisticated than the LCD games because there is a much wider range of motion and possibility. You can get pretty fluid action out of a 6×8 playfield for Invaders than what I remember the Tiger handhelds being. I haven’t really been able to record a lot of video since it’s hard to see the game in action (I was thinking of maybe doing Let’s Play, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to share gameplay footage – will have to ask about that tomorrow). One other thing to keep in mind is that the Pac-Man and Galaga games weren’t meant to be handheld – not only do they take four C batteries each (which means they weigh a ton) but they were modeled after arcade upright and cocktail cabinets. So it’s unusual for players today, who are used to holding.

Tomorrow: finish Softalk, play some more LED games, and give a list of magazines to pull for research tomorrow (90s gaming mags and Japanese mags). Then Friday I copy slides and go through what’s left. I wonder if I’ll be able to visit either RIT or the museum again on Saturday – my flight leaves at 5, so I’ve got the whole day.

Strong Fellowship – Day 15

February 4, 2015

Closing up on the last few days of the fellowship, and today ended quite well! The roads were pretty clear this morning since the storm is over and they were plowed – including sidewalks. Weather was fine. I didn’t get too much sleep, so breakfast was kind of rough, as was lunch break, but I went through a lot of interesting material.

The Broderbund collection has some excellent sales records, which give a month-to-month look at the sales of notable games like Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? This is exactly the sort of material I was looking for. What was surprising was home productivity software like Print Shop sold far more than the bestselling game: about 140,000 units on the Apple II by November 1987 versus 60,000 units of Choplifter on the Apple II! However, I suspect there were FAR more than 60,000 copies of Choplifter out there due to software piracy… It would be impossible to tell what the figures are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that only accounts for 10% of what was actually out there. I suspect “Home Production” software like Print Shop sold better because it was targeted at adults who would not have considered “copying that floppy” since, you know, you have to buy stuff legally.

It looks like the SSI collection might have good sales figures, too, and the Dan Daglo papers have sales figures for Intellivision! So I copied a lot of these Broderbund records and will look over them in greater detail when I get back. Oh, did I mention they have manufacturing figures for Famicom and NES games? Yup – they ordered an initial run of 30,000 Choplifter cartridges. Another interesting find were some product update documents that list all the software in development and their status. It was fun to find Wings of Fury in development under the working title Hellcat Warrior.

So tomorrow I should be going through the rest of the Broderbund collection, along with the Dan Daglo and SSI collection. Probably the Gerald Lawson papers as well, since he should have some information on Channel F performance. Beyond that, I want to look at Softalk, and there are a few gaming mags from the ’90s and Japanese magazines I want to look through for my personal interest. These and copying my Sumerian Game slides are reserved for Friday. Oh, the 64GB flash drive I ordered came in the mail, too, so I will be backing up all the images I captured in case something happens to one of the SD cards.

It’s kind of weird realizing that there are only three days of research left, too. I feel I could have prepared better by going through the search guides for the other collections, but I guess there was some communication trouble between me and the archivists, so I didn’t realize what exactly they wanted me to tell them until late last week. But I got a hell of a lot done and am excited to find out what I will see tomorrow!

Aside from that, my aunt and uncle from Syracuse visited, and we had a fantastic dinner at The Old Toad after showing them around the museum. What a great way to end the day!

Strong Fellowship – Day 12-14

February 2, 2015

Quick weekend overview: Walked to the Eastman House on Saturday – 3 miles in the freezing snow – and saw an excellent exhibit on Technicolor and history of photography and the house itself. Apparently if you get the tour, you get a detailed overview of all the gizmos and innovations Eastman added to the place. I find it disconcerting to see ashtrays made out of the hooves of giant beasts everywhere. He was a philanthropist though and donated his fortunes to the university. I then stopped at the Strong again on the way back and played some arcade games. Sunday was mostly spent watching MST3K and eating junk food. I felt icky afterward, but a nice change of pace.

Today the Strong closed at 11:45 due to “inclement weather” – that being the blizzard from hell. Actually, I didn’t think it was that bad, although the walk in got pretty nasty after the first mile. I was allowed to stay until 2:30 when Chris Benj drove me back.

I went through some of Ralph Baer’s papers. It was kind of emotional seeing the records of this great inventor who I’d only talked to briefly via e-mail and never got to meet face-to-face. Most of the records are at the Smithsonian, but this contained some information on Maze-A-Tron (useful to my research), the TV Zapper (fun, but not so useful), and Cable TV Games (kind of useful). The rest of the material are his descriptions of the different TV Games prototypes and how they were recreated.

I have to say Baer may have been kind of sober, but the guy had to have a serious playful side – he came up with a frikkin lazer gun to scramble the TV signals during a commercial and display an image of Death Valley. That’s serious fun! The CTVG records were also useful since they were done in a reaction to electronic handhelds and new game systems with interchangeable cartridges. Really too ahead of its time…

I also went through a binder full of Atari memos. The most useful documents were accounts of the JAMMA show (1985 I believe) and visit to Namco. Specific information on sales figures for different games, as well as a listing of the Namco corporate structure. The AMOA show records reviewed every game present.

They had a small selection of gamer magazines that I hadn’t gone through yet, but went through those pretty quickly.

I am a bit distressed – I could actually run out of things to research! I hear the Strong has a large collection of Softalk though – these aren’t digitized on Archive.org yet, but there is a fan project in the process. I was told this was a good magazine to check so far as the computer game industry was concerned, but it only covers Apple. If anyone knows of publications computer game developers would read before 1986 (other than Computer Gaming World), I am all ears!

Strong Fellowship – Day 11

January 31, 2015

End of Week 2. That means five work days left. I’m kind of sad that it’s 2/3 over – back to reality in about 8 days – but I got an awful lot accomplished and I suspect will be able to make at least three or four papers and articles out of this trip.

I’ve finished going through nearly all the publications. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on TV games in the 1977 issues of Playthings (going backwards, and December was pretty dead). However, the 1978 issues contain a lot of interesting information on how handheld electronics were selling, and 1979 had several articles. Extremely valuable information, and it reminded me to request handheld games to try out. Unfortunately, those are typically in the worst shape, so I might not be able to try any next week… I didn’t know exactly which ones I would be looking for until today, and they have to test everything out. Hence the situation – never good to have something continually evolving in an archive. But I WILL say to my credit I listed ‘and several electronic games’ on the list, just not specifying which ones. D’oh! I think it would have been easier if you could search by year in the Online Collections rather than just by keyword and company…

It’s kind of funny to look at the predictions for where the industry will be 10 years from now (or even 20 – one purported to estimate what the toy industry would be like in the 21st century). One might as well predict the stock market or the weather in 20 years. Especially when deadling with electronics. The field eolves so rapidly that it could change completely in six months to a year. Prediting “more of what happened last year” is typically accurate in most cases.

I also kind of feel the toy industry is incredibly hit-driven and everyone is trying to guess what the next hot product will be so they can order a bunch of it. Then when the average (i.e. not smart) retailer orders too much product and there’s a glut, he has to sell at rock-bottom prices. Gold rush mentality and all that. But videogames by nature are trendy – they need to continually improve, or you have more of the same. LED handhelds were replaced by LCDs. Then cartridge-based systems replaced the LCDs. Everybody was ordering more of the same knock-off LED games when the market had already completely shifted. If you’re part of a boom-bust mentality and looking for trendy product, then you’ll think the market is dead when it’s actually just moving on to a different phase.

Anyway, next week will involve looking at the Ralph Baer papers, an Atari binder, hopefully some videogames, and maybe a few more issues of Playthings. Then try and locate some gamer magazines that aren’t on Archive.org. After that, there are some gamer magazines from the ’90s I wanted to look at as well as some Japanese magazines for personal research – I understand they have an awful lot of Famitsu in the collection. And that may be it! I’m not sure if there is any more information I can get about the computer game industry from the corporate side, but that’s something I really need. Same with player crossover between console, arcade, and computer. There might be some user data in gamer publications, and then there’s the NPD and Yankee Group figures, but that will probably require searching newspapers. Maybe there are Broderbund and Sierra Online corporate data in collections…

Some other advice (to be finalized at the end): If you’re photocopying magazines, take a tablet with at least 32GB of storage – 64GB is a good minimum. Make sure you have a way to put a copy of the data onto something else, like a laptop or external hard drive. I used close to 16GB a week taking photos, but if you need video, that’s obviously more. So 16GB/week, multiplied by 2, and that’s how much storage minimum you should bring. That way, if something terrible happens, you’ve got a data backup. Not sure how I can solve this, but I may be buying a 32 or 64GB USB stick and having it shipped over Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, I have no clue what I would use a 64GB stick for aside from this project, but it’s only $22…

Strong Fellowship – Day 11

January 29, 2015

Today was quite interesting and fairly productive. I went through 1981 and started on 1980 of Playthings. This period covers the rapid rise of home consoles and the shakeout of electronic handheld games. In 1979, demand soared while a chip shortage prevented manufacturers from making enough – everyone sold out, including crappy products. In 1980, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of knockoffs, and many manufacturers produced and overproduced assuming it would sell. What was worse, retailers bought all this crap without understanding what would actually sell. Buyers became more discerning, since they now had choice and there was no shortage, and as a result, retailers had to sell at closeout prices to dump bad inventory. If two stores were close together – particularly a big chain store like K Mart – and the larger store ordered too much product, they’d cut prices, and the other store would be forced to match in order to move product. As a result, many games sold either slightly above or below cost, so there was very little margin. People got burned and decried handhelds as dead. (They weren’t – manufacturers got smarter, technology improved, and the smart retailers scaled back and only purchased what was in demand.) This same boom-bust mentality appears to be the exact same thing that shook out the TV tennis market in 1977 and later the home console market in 1983. It’s also a huge missing piece of the puzzle (currently looking for more coverage of the computer game industry in this period as well as evidence of audience crossover between console, arcade, and computer).

I also went through catalogs for Coleco, Magnavox, Mattel, and Atari. Coleco’s were quite informative, as they contained shipping order forms, which list the purchase cost. So these numbers can be compared with sales data. Unfortunately, there weren’t any order forms for 1983 and 1984. Some interesting info:

  • The Telstar line (standalone home TV games) ran up through 1982, with two of the more complex products. Unsure if this was back stock or they were still being manufactured.
  • There are no Coleco games in the 1983 catalog (odd), but a two-page spread in the 1984 catalog. None in the 1985 catalog. The 1983 catalog can probably be explained away as there being a separate ColecoVision catalog, which the museum does not have.
  • Coleco had pretty nasty ads comparing their handheld electronic football games with Mattel’s.

There was only one Magnavox catalog (1977) with an order sheet. The Atari catalogs were less useful, but they had an advertising brochure that was fun to look through. Mattel’s wasn’t terribly useful, but I think they had an order sheet.

There was also a DVD containing about 1 GB of PDFs with game news articles from the 1970s and early 1980s – incredibly useful for researching the Crash (or Shakeouts, as it might be better described – plural, since there was home console, handheld electronic, coin-op, and TV tennis; there was also a home computer hardware shakeout, but I don’t have any information yet on how that affected computer game developers).

Aside from this, I got the chance to play two-player Computer Space in the vault. This was a new arcade game that just came in and was sitting in the front of the vault when I arrived. They were able to quickly get it running and it was available for play. I recorded some footage of playing with Tim Lapetino, who is currently at the Strong (as an independent scholar, not a fellow), photographing production art from the Atari Coin Op collection. We had a couple intense matches, and I also played the single player mode twice. The two-player version comes in a green cabinet and has joysticks with fire buttons rather than the awkward four-button layout of the single-player version. This was not engineered by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, but rather by Steve Bristow (I think), who was working for Nutting Associates at the time. There was a contract Bushnell had to complete the game, and Bushnell made his own version while Nutting secretly commissioned another one; they chose their own.

Computer Space is a very odd game. The missile is controlled by the joystick for left and right movement, so while you’re maneuvering the rocket, you’re also maneuvering the missile. So most of the time, you’re actually looking at the missile rather than the rocket. On single-player mode, the UFOs tend to cheap-shot you. If you score 10 points and more points than the UFOs, you enter ‘Hyperspace Mode’, which gives you an extra 99 seconds of play. This is just another round of play, but the white and black has been reversed, so it’s very bright and I think harder to control. But it’s a really cool bonus to give to skilled players. I can see though how difficult the game is to control and how the awkward controls – especially with the missile, let alone the button layout – would be enough to turn off players. The other thing that’s really weird is that the first player uses the RIGHT joystick rather than the left one – it’s completely reversed!

Tomorrow I will go through a few rare books and more Playthings. Next week, I’ll be digging through the archives a bit more.

Strong Fellowship – Day 10

January 29, 2015

Today’s research was rather productive. I went through the rest of 1983-1986 in Playthings and also skimmed 1987. I located the moment when videogames seem to have finally returned to toy stores – July 1986. Nintendo purchased a two-page ad, and there was also the announcement that Nintendo partnered with Worlds of Wonder to sell the NES. This isn’t to say videogames weren’t still being sold – in 1985, Atari sold 1 million 2600s – pretty impressive for a ‘dead’ system. Also, INTV was trying to sell the Intellivision II. However, fewer than about 25% of toy stores would even bother with videogames. If you look at the advertising, as well as Ron Judy’s statements, Nintendo is VERY careful to avoid ANY mention of ‘videogame’ or ‘cartridge’ – they state there is a video laser gun, a video robot, and ‘arcade-quality graphics’ (which is 100% true, since the games could also be found on the Nintendo VS and Play Choice 10!). ROB the Robot is also interesting. In 1985, the top-selling toys included robots. Further, two popular brands were Bandai’s Luv Bot and Tomy’s Omnibot – both of which look AWFULLY similar to ROB. What’s more…if you look at the bots very carefully, the ‘sad’ expression of the eyes and particularly the levitating head are both VERY similar to ET! And ET was a top license of 1983 and 1984! It’s extremely fun to come across something like this in the archive.

This ROB/Omnibot/ET story just goes to show that game historians can’t be limited to JUST what’s going on in the world of games – we must look at the larger context of what is happening in the world and in the toy and electronics industries. Otherwise, we are too narrow-minded.

I also dug through catalogs from Sears, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward from 1982-1986. The museum didn’t have a few, but the findings were interesting. Sears sold videogames in 1983, but pretty much dropped the products in 1984 (they had a small computer selection). Montgomery Ward was more tenacious, selling videogames up through 1984 at extremely discounted prices. However, JC Penny didn’t carry anything except a few handhelds like Coleco’s Donkey Kong and the Game & Watch. This and reports from Playthings clearly demonstrate that videogames weren’t ‘dead’ and ‘nobody was buying’ them. Rather, plenty of people were buying (again, 1 million Atari 2600 customers in 1985), but at extremely discounted prices. This was mostly to clear out old inventory – hardly anyone was developing new games for the 2600, 5200, and ColecoVision, and Intellivision II (check those years on Mobygames). So product was available for cheap, people bought it, but the retailer made little money, the distributor didn’t make anything, and the hardware and software manufacturers didn’t make a dime either since there was little product being produced.

Tomorrow, I hope to finish going through 1981 and earlier issues of Playthings (doubtful I can look at 1971 – 1981, as that’s an awful lot of shelf space, but I want to at least go back as far as 1975 to see the home TV tennis shakeout and the problems with handheld electronic games around 1980). There are also some trade catalogs. Finally, I will be looking for documents that would shed light on the home computer industry.

Strong Fellowship – Day 9

January 28, 2015

I started going through Playthings, the trade journal of the toy industry. Videogames weren’t considered a separate thing back in the ’70s and ’80s but ended up being attached to whatever industry felt most logical – like the toy industry. Playthings’s editors did consider that maybe videogames were separate though since they didn’t count them in national toy sales data and had a section for ‘Electronic games industry’, but for the most part, since toy dealers carried the products, that’s what they were considered part of.

So far, I’ve gone through 1982-1984, and the data is quite interesting. 1982 focused a lot on Pac-Man, particularly licenses, although there were lengthy sections discussing the games industry. 1983 has a lot of articles questioning the performance of videogames, with many retailers saying they won’t order product. There are some specific numbers – somewhere in the range of only about 25% were still ordering, although if that included JC Penny or Montgomery Ward I don’t know. 1984 was quite dead as far as game news – although there were some mentions of Coleco systems selling for $99. I won’t be able to go over the data in more detail until after I get back, but I saved copies of the most promising articles to my iPad for analysis. Again, I think for the researcher who wants to photocopy, using a tablet is definitely the way to go since it has a large enough screen that you can immediately review your work – just need a good way of organizing everything.

I also have to keep in mind the importance of context. For instance, Pac-Man’s licensing is part of a larger ecology of licensed products and counterfeit products (mostly coming from China). Likewise, ET isn’t just a videogame, but part of a much larger licensing market for the film that suffered from product shortages. So the information is pointing to large sales related to the demand for ET and how big that actually was. (Again, 1.4 million sold is pretty huge – and it’s not like there are reports of customers returning product because they were dissatisfied – it’s the dealers, rather, since they couldn’t move what they ordered). There is also the occasional interesting tidbit, such as the reason ColecoVision only sold 500,000 units in 1982 was because that was all they manufactured by August – they were conservative. Interestingly, this same conservativism hurt their Cabbage Patch Kids line – there’s even an editorial stating that they woefully underestimated the demand! Although perhaps the toy wouldn’t have sold as much if it was more readily available…?

Hopefully tomorrow I can get through 1985 and 1986, then start going backwards from 1981. I’ve also asked Tara to pull a bunch of JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Sears catalogs to track videogame sales. In addition to the articles specifically about videogames, Playthings DOES have reports of what’s selling from different regions of the US. These are particularly valuable, even if they don’t always talk about Atari or Coleco since it gives a pretty detailed look at what’s happening on the ground each month.

Oh yeah! My photo went up on the ICHEG blog today! They also linked to this blog, so that should increase the audience outside of Facebook friends.


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