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A Brief History of Video Game Development
by Matt Powers on 02/28/14 12:29:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Recently an iOS game was released called Star Trux.  The game itself is really good but what is most fascinating about Star Trux is the 35-year story of its making.

In the 1970's a small group of people formed a company called Authorship Resource Inc.  This company designed and created the hardware and software for the CyberVision.  CyberVision was one of (if not the) first home computers.  Available via mail order through Montgomery Ward, CyberVision was cutting edge and ARI created a plethora of games for the system.  

ARI was founded by John Powers (my Dad) and Joe Miller in 1977. They met a small group of entrepreneurs trying to put together a home computer prototype to show to Montgomery-Ward.  They needed software.  After some all-nighters they were able to create an operating system and some software for the new computer and the Montgomery-Ward Cybervision Home Computer was born.

Cybervision 2001 ad (around 1978)

I remember as a kid, playing one of the first games my dad made for the Cybervision.  It was called Subchase and, for an 8 year old in the 1970's, this was the greatest.  This was right around the same time the Atari VCS was released and anyone who had a video game system was on the cutting edge - and here my dad and his friends were making them.

Unfortunately, CyberVision had manufacturing problems and was not successful. John Powers left Ohio for California to become a software development manager at another startup game company, Atari - the same company that made the VCS.

Following John Powers out to Atari were some other ARI employess who would become future computer industry illuminaries including:  Joe Miller, Brenda Laurel, and Ken Balthaser.  This group of people that helped start the home computer revolution with the Cybervision went on to make their mark in the 80's, in the home and personal computer world.  Just a few of the acheivements from these ARI and Atari alumni include:

  • Joe Miller - Executive at Sega, Epyx, and VP of Linden Research, creators of Second Life. He's now the VP of Engineering at SportVision.
  • Brenda Laurel - Co-founded Purple Moon, featured on the cover of Wired Magazine to commerate her involvement in girl gaming, and author of multiple books on design and technology.
  • John Powers - Executive at companies such as The Learning Company and Convergent Technologies, Senior Software Engineer at Apple, and founder of a number of start-up companies including Poohbah Industries (www.poohbah.com).
  • Ken Balthaser - Executive at companies such as Epyx, Sega, MicroProse and currently founder and COO of Balthaser Studios.

John, Ken, and Joe in 1999

My Dad taught me to program when I was just ten years old.  It was great having a Dad who brought home new games from Atari (EPROMS for the 2600 and Atari 800).  I remember one day as he came home from Atari, I asked if he had a new game for me.  He replied, and I don't know if this was from inspiration or frustration, "You know, you can make your own."

I was 10 years old and that started my years and years of programming.

Those early years for me included programming on a Wang Computer, upgrading my Atari 800 with 128KB of memory (yes!), downloading games from local Bulletin Board Systems on my dial-up modem, typing in games line by line from the back of magazines, writing my own dungeon crawl games, and more.

It took me a while to realize that most people didn't have parents in either the computer industry much less video games.  For me, it seemed "normal" to have a Dad who knew computers and programming.  Having a parent (much less knowing someone) who has been programming and involved with video games since the 1970's is pretty unique.  Not only was my Dad bringing home video game systems such as ColecoVision and Intellivision to check out but he was always a good resource for me to ask for programming tips or to help debug my latest code.

During his time at Atari John Powers also helped found GDC - at that time called CGDC or Computer Game Developers Conference.  While I was barely a teen my dad and others such as Chris Crawford met in our house to figure out what CGDC would be.  My dad told me stories how he tackled the first Exhibit Hall which at the time was just a couple of folding tables.

My older brother Rob was one of the first "gopher's" for CGDC helping run errands during the conference which was held in the San Jose Sheraton Conference Room.  Rob went on to work at Sega, Atari, and WestWood Studios.

ARI alum Ken Balthaser also had a couple sons that joined the video game industry ranks.  One of his sons, Neil, went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at the same time as I did - both of us majored in Computer Science.  After I graduated from Cal Poly I joined Neil at Alexandria - the video game company he started in 1992.  I thought it remarkable that two sons are working at a video game startup 18 or so years after their parents worked at their own computer startup (that being Authorship Resource Inc. in Ohio).

It was at Alexandria (which later merged with OddWorld Inhabitants- creating all the Abe's Odyessy games) where I created my first Sega Genesis game ("Sylvester and Tweety in Cagey Capers").  On both my first game and my second ("Izzy's Olympic Quest") we just had two programmers on the project - myself and someone else.  Sometimes another engineer would jump in to assist on something.  But these Genesis and SNES projects were teams of 5-10 people for the entire project.  Throughout my years in the industry I have seen projects grow in both team size and budget.  I have worked on systems including 3DO, Jaguar, Saturn, Dreamcast, etc...  I have seen us go from the Cybervision to the PlayStation4. 

One of the biggest indicators of change I have seen is the birth of E3.  My first couple video game trade shows I attended were CES - the entire video game industry occupied a couple big tents outside of CES.  We covered less space then one of the halls at the LA Convention Center.  There was no E3 until 1995 - prior to that our business was just too small.  Hard to imagine now.

The group from Ohio stayed in touch through the years.  Some stayed in video games while some pursued other areas of technology.  Some of their children took their places in the video game world.  Including myself (Infogrames, EA), my older brother Rob Powers (Sega, WestWood), Ken Balthaser Jr.(Sega and EA) and Neil Balthaser(Alexandria, Capcom). We all made our contribution to the video game world and more.

At least once a year the gang from Ohio would get together for a BBQ.  My parents and their friends swapping stories about late-night programming sessions and games that got done and some that didn't make it.  At the same time, the kids would be in a different room sharing their own video game development stories.

Then a couple years ago my dad and Ken Balthaser spoke about getting back together to make a video game.  Ken had a design and my dad had the engineering.  They recruited my brother Rob for the art.  And Star Trux was born.

Over the next year these three people created Star Trux.  Two people on the team (my Dad and and Ken) that made this iOS game have been in the business for 40 years!  Combined the experience of the 3 Star Trux person team is nearly 100 years - many entire companies would love this much experience.

I find it interesting how our business goes full circle.  In the 70's a small group of people could create new, interesting, and fun technology.  This turned into a huge, behemoth of an industry.  But here we are again where small groups of people can once-again make magic.  They can make their visions of video game entertainment become reality.

When I started in the video game business (1993) my team was around 7 people with maybe a $400K budget - that was Sylvester and Tweety in Cagey Capers.  My most recent project was Aliens: Colonial Marines (with Gearbox) - many more people and much much more dollars.  Video games are creative and fun and should be welcoming to anyone with a vision.  But for a while the business was exactly that, a big business.  Only if you had a lot of money and resources could you make a game.  These days just a few people, on their own, can express their creativity, I think that is truly wonderful.  Once again, a few people, with little money but a lot of vision and passion can make a game (and have it published).

I also think it is pretty amazing that this group of people that worked together in Ohio, in the 1970's, at a home computer startup, all came to California and made quite the mark on the video game indudustry.  People who designed and created one of the very first personal/home computers in middle-America and who then went to Atari together and then on to a variety of areas both within and outside of video games.  They are all still friends and are still active in the computer/video game world.  And their children went into the video game business - starting their own companies and making their mark in the business.

Ken, working on a game for the Cybervision, 1978

Our business, the video game business, may be young but it has a lot of history.  And history tends to repeat itself.

Interesting and perhaps ironic note - my Dad is still making games, still programming, still having fun.  And here I am, currently unemployed looking for a job.

And once again, I find myself playing a game my Dad made - this time it is Star Trux.

 

About the Author

Matt Powers has been making games for over 20 years and still loves it.  While not busy with games he likes to spend his time at his parents ranch in Northern California - taking care of the horses, chickens, and tackling ranch projects.

For more information about Star Trux:  http://www.startruxgame.com


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Comments


Doctor Ludos
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Thanks for sharing this captivating but little-known piece of video games history!

You should definitively write a book, or at least a several pages articles, about the story of Cybervision and the people involved in it! :)

Matt Powers
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I was asked the question, "What is that system Ken is using in the 3rd picture?" Ken is developing a game for the Cybervision on the RCA Cosmac Development System. It had an 1802 processor, 8K of RAM, and used two 8" floppy drives for storage. Programmed using assembly language. From RCA(1977) - this development system cost $3200.

Another quick item from the way back machine:

When I was barely a teen I spent a lot of time in my Dad's workshop in the garage. In this workshop our tool of choice was the soldering iron. My Dad had a Heathkit ELF (also known as the H8 - http://archive.is/yzvQU). It was a kit computer you could purchase mail order. I helped him by using the soldering iron to take apart the stacks of Pong machines we had. Then my Dad would use these scavenged parts to add to circuit boards for the ELF.

And all those Pong machines? The company that ARI worked with to sell the Cybervision also sold Pong machines. And they gave the ARI employees some of the excess inventory. My Dad tells me he still has some of these Pong machines stored away.

Scott Carroll
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Great stuff Matt. Love the old photos.

Jed Hubic
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Awesome read, thanks for sharing! Really cool to think that there's guys like your dad still making games on modern platforms.

Kain Shin
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Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

R. Hunter Gough
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Oh man! I loved my Cybervision as a kid. Some of my fondest early-80s childhood memories are of playing Cybervision games on Thursday evenings after watching Kresky!

paata jibuti
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freestyle gaming blog


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