Strong Fellowship – Day 11

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.

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