SoftSide Publications and CLOAD Magazine (1978)
As the fledgling home computer market struggled to find its audience, software was hard to come by and largely self-published. The market wasn't yet large enough to support software stores, and there was no internet to facilitate download of freeware or shareware.
But there was a hungry audience out there, so necessity led to innovation in the form of cassette (and later disk) magazines. CLOAD Magazine and SoftSide Publications both debuted in 1978, providing subscribers with ready-made utilities and simple games at a reasonable per-issue cost.
Most were written in easily-customizable BASIC, satisfying the early market's do-it-yourself ethos while providing a leg up for the novice computer users, and the modern downloadable indie game scene owes a certain debt to these pioneers.
Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games (1980)
Wargame and pencil-and-paper RPG publisher Avalon Hill was among the first to venture into computer games in 1980, producing hex-map wargames and strategy titles for the TRS-80 and its contemporary platforms. These turn-based, graphically sparse games were a long way from X-Com or Civilization, but they provided a counterpoint to the "TV games" of the era and paved the way for more sophisticated gaming on PCs.
While the chief attraction was that these games could be played without the hours of setup and lengthy group commitments required by their tabletop forerunners, Avalon Hill also innovated with its multi-platform releases -- even though there was no common engine and games had to be coded specifically for each machine, multiple versions were released on the same cassette tape.
Big Five Software (1980)
Big Five's founders, Bill Hogue and Jeff Konyu, were bound and determined to make arcade games viable on the TRS-80. They borrowed heavily from the coin-op scene, with releases like Super Nova (an Asteroids clone) and Robot Attack (a copy of Stern's Berzerk, featuring another technical innovation with digitized voice samples), and they engineered the TRISSTICK, modifying standard Atari joysticks to work on the TRS-80.
The company is best known today for following its TRS-80 line with Bill Hogue's breakthrough hit, Miner 2049er, debuting on the Atari 400/800 and still around in cell phone form today. A TRS-80 version of Miner 2049er was advertised in the mid-1980s when the title went broadly multi-platform, but despite the nostalgic appeal, it was apparently never published or even developed.
Brøderbund became a major software publisher in later years, with game hits including the Carmen Sandiego series and a series of cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System. But founding brother Doug Carlston's elaborate Galactic Saga space strategy/trading trilogy was originally published by Adventure International, before the brothers Carlston started publishing on their own.
Joel Mick Text Adventures (1979)
13-year-old Joel Mick's story is not particularly unusual, but he's one of the few early TRS-80 game coders whose career can be traced over the longer term. He got his start in the game industry developing and marketing his own text adventures for fun, via mail order, at nominal cost. Although the first wave of computer gaming went bust in the mid-1980s, forcing many early game coders to seek more traditional IT employment, Mr. Mick stayed in the field of game design after college. He went on to design numerous games in more traditional formats, and was notably part of the original Magic: The Gathering team.
Hardware cycles are a recognized and predictable challenge for the game industry today -- a successful platform has five or six years of solid success, an unsuccessful format a briefer existence. TRS-80 publishers catering to gamers were generally small and on the edge of solvency, and as the system aged, it became clear that most were tied too closely to Radio Shack's flagship machine. Activision and EA were young too, but they supported multiple newer platforms and managed to weather the storm.
Most TRS-80 publishers did not survive the era, and many blamed software piracy for the end of the ride -- modems and illicit BBSes had become popular, and by 1983, it was hardly worth advertising a new game for more than a month, as once it was released it would almost immediately become available through underground channels.
But the TRS-80 had other problems -- it was clearly more technically limited than its primary competitor, the Apple II, and software support for Tandy's little gray box dropped off as technical standards and gamers' expectations rose. In 1982, Epyx was still supporting the TRS-80 alongside the Apple II, which was just starting to pull ahead in the race for market share:
But while this mid-1980s Epyx catalog still features a wide range of Apple II titles, the TRS-80, so popular a little bit earlier, is now nowhere to be seen:
This was not a reversible trend -- while the TRS-80 Model III and IV computers cleaned up some of the original's aesthetics, the system's basic capabilities were clearly being outstripped by its new competitors, especially in the game arena. Concepts that just barely worked on the TRS-80 were becoming fully realized experiences on the newer 8-bit machines, and Radio Shack's aging machine became less and less able to compete. Gamers didn't suffer, but they did move on, and they did so more suddenly than an industry unaccustomed to platform shifts had anticipated.
The TRS-80 occupies a unique position in gaming history -- it enjoyed early success because it was early to the party, cheaper than its competition, and easy to find at the local Radio Shack. It bridged the gap between the hobbyist kit computing era and today's all-purpose consumer computer. And it dominated the home computer market just long enough to provide fertile ground for many early games, and concepts that still inform interactive entertainment today.