So – there’s this old console called the Intellivision. It’s significant since it was a popular console in its day and was a worthy competitor to the Atari 2600. It’s also significant for the manner in which the old games are being handled these days.

The method in which games and publishing are handled today is somewhat reverse in progression from that of, say, the music industry. In the music industry the individually created works gave rise to the notion of the product works. Groups like The Beatles came up with all their own stuff to try and get a record contract whereas the Backstreet Boys never met each other prior to being “cast” in the part. The game industry worked just the opposite – whereas today an independent development entity like an id Software will conjure up a game and then sell it to a publisher (though they now of course have nice comfy contracts) originally the game industry was all about making products.

Remember that prior to 1961’s Spacewar! there was no such thing as a video game. And remember that no one made a dime off of a game prior to 1972’s Pong. Ergo, there was no industry to speak of for some time. Atari made their 2600 console and Atari made the games for it – case closed. Part of the reason that no one else made 2600 games was due to the fact that no one else had knowledge of the inner workings of the system – it was the first popular console with interchangeable cartridges and reverse engineered development software and EEPROM burners were a ways off. The other part – the big part – was simply that it hadn’t occured to anyone to do so. Atari made the console and the games simply because that’s how it happened.

Mattel then decided to get into the game industry, along with some others. It seemed like a good idea – first you sell them a game console, which was pretty much a toy anyway, and then you sell them the games. And they can keep getting the games. It was like selling a Barbie doll and then selling all the little accessories – except that the accessories were more profitable in this case, and more neccessary.

Problem was they had no one to make the games – as in program them. Whereas any goofball can think up Barbie accessories, programming, especially in the early 1980’s, was something rare, especially because the game industry – indeed the entire notion of the video game – was so new. Mattel’s answer? Hire up a bunch of kids right out of college, stick them in a room, have them whip up a bunch of games. You won’t have to pay them too much – these were kids right out of college after all – and back then there wasn’t much precedent on how games were made. Some games were licensed – like the port of Donkey Kong they had secured the rights to from Nintendo (who also decided to have a go at this market a little later on) and they had secured the rights to make games based on TRON, including hiring the guy who came up with the concepts for the games in that movie. Many of the ideas were cooked up in committee and simply handed to the programmers. In these cases the programmers would try all sorts of means to get their ideas worked into the game (usualy telling the non-techie bosses that such-and-such was “impossible” and then telling them what would work) but in other cases the programmers could simply conjure up whatever game they wanted. This is when video games were such low tech affairs that one person could do all the art, sound and programming themselves. The people who did these games for Mattel dubbed themselves the Blue Sky Rangers.

But they weren’t allowed to put their names in the game. Not on the cartridges, not in the manual, nowhere. You don’t know who made the Barbie Dream House and you wouldn’t know who programmed Astrosmash. Atari had this policy as well and it served as the tip of the iceberg for a set of programmers in their fold to pack up and leave. They went off to form Activision and publish games like Pitfall and River Raid, always making sure to credit the author(s) on the box, much like a book (i.e., Pitfall – by David Crane). Activision was the first ever third party publisher. Atari sued them, but they didn’t have a leg to stand on. This was before the days of licensing – no one had to pay Atari anything to develop for the 2600. Nothing in the 2600 was patented, it was all using off the shelf technology. When this legal precedent was set, it also paved the way for 2600 clones and adapters for other systems.

This was also long before the days of quality control, such as a game having to pass Sony or Nintendo’s approval process. In 1982, the bottom fell out of the industry for various reasons – little innovation, too many crappy games, fads wearing off, etc. Mattel’s Intellivision survived the crash, but only briefly. The planned new Intellivision was shelved and all the Blue Sky Rangers were laid off. The Intellivision concept was sold to a new company calling themselves INTV, Inc. and that company survived until 1990. Intellivision was pretty much dead at that point until the Web came along. In 1995, when a Blue Sky Rangers website showed up a large number of people started to want to play the old Intellivision games again, so BSR pooled money together to buy the rights to the old games again.

The result of this was the 1998 CD-ROM Intellivision Lives!. Containing a comprehensive encyclopiedia of the Intellivision and its games, along with an emulator and the ROM images for over 50 games, it sold in fairly large numbers to video gaming’s elite and became a must have for the hardcore gamer (naturally I bought one).

Some games couldn’t be released or included – the games dealing with licnsed properties like TRON or AD&D couldn’t be included, nor could any of the later games which Activision developed (after donning a multiconsole srategy). Included however were some games which never saw release, such as an excellent pool game called Deep Pockets, which had probably the most advanced programming on the Intellivision.

The follow-up CD-ROM, Intellivision Rocks!, was planned for release more than a year ago but the Website has been silent. This led some to believe that the disc had been cancelled. However just last month Intellivision Productions (the name of the new production company) announced that they had inked a deal with Motorola to bring Intellivision games to cell phones. This is something of a new trend now – since cell phone technology is advancing but still nowhere near the level needed for, say, modern 3-D games, they’re perfect for old games. The first title to be available will be Astrosmash. And now the Intellivision Rocks! CD-ROM is available for purchase.

Old games never die – they just find new places to live.