Once upon a time (almost 17 years, actually), a small company was created
by several renegades from Atari. They went on to captivate the imagination
of Atari VCS owners who were being fed a steady diet of Pong variations with
blocky graphics and uninspired game design. Until Activision broke the
software stranglehold once enjoyed by Atari, gamers were at the mercy of
Atari, a company who, up to that point, released games on its own terms.
Then, a few brilliant tales of Keystone Kapers, River Raid,
Stampede, Laser Blast, Kaboom! and Pitfall!
forever raised the bar of VCS programming excellence and instantly made the
upstart Activision a company to respect. Their games were flashy, original
and imaginative. But then the onslaught of me-too third party publishers
who were in it for a quick buck threatened to undermine Activision's efforts
to provide Atari gamers with high quality titles. With the flood of games --
most of them poor -- saturating the software market, there was inevitably a
backlash from the gaming public who because disenchanted with the quality of
home console gaming. Before the home videogame industry completely collapsed,
however, Activision produced some memorable titles, among them being
Euduro, Dreadnaught Factor (Intellivision & 5200), H.E.R.O.,
Decathlon and Pitfall II, the spectacular sequel to David Crane's
Activision's transition to computers gaming was rough at first, what
with their vast experience in action-oriented games not nearly as impressive
to the strategy-oriented computer player. Titles such as Toy Bizarre,
Zone Ranger, Zenji and Ghostbusters failed to live up to
the high standards that Activision had established in their early console days,
and innovators such as Electronic Arts, Broderbund, Microprose and Epyx soon
shoved the first ever third party software publisher out of the limelight.
Even as the console market became revitalized by Nintendo, Activision
failed to offer competitive software products and quickly became an also
ran in the face of mounting competition from such notables as Capcom,
Konami and Acclaim. Sword Master and Galaxy 5000 are not the
stuff that legends are made of. Later, Activision even supported such
also-rans as the Atari 7800 and Sega Master System in an attempt to grab
what piece of the pie was available to them. Unfortunately, the pie was
almost nonexistent as Nintendo dominated the console market during the late
80s and early 1990s.
Activision had it so bad at one point, in fact, that they were bought out
by Mediagenic and became a subsidiary of the company. Activision's name
value had deteriorated to the point that Mediagenic used its own name to
publish software titles for the educational and edutainment market.
Sometime in the early-to-mid 1990s, however, Activision rose from bankruptcy
and began its long journey back to prominence. They began their road to
recovery by releasing for the PC the "Atari 2600 Action Pak", a compilation
of their greatest games for the VCS. They followed up with two more volumes
and even released a Commodore 64 compilation. They next set their sights on
updating some of their most recognizable properties (at least to old-timers)
by bringing out a modern version of Pitfall for the Super NES, Genesis,
Sega CD, PC and Atari Jaguar, dubbed Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. They
also announced updates of Kaboom! and River Raid for the Super NES, but these
two titles never made it past the planning stages.
As the multimedia age arrived, Activision capitalized on yet another
famous name -- Zork. Although originally the property of Infocom, Activision
had earlier purchased the masters of the text adventure. Return to Zork,
at it would eventually be called, was a multimedia extravaganza that
was lavished with digitized video clips, voice samples and, most importantly,
hype from the media. Although the game was shallow in nature, players
who couldn't get enough of Seventh Guest and nostalgists of the old Infocom
titles quickly embraced the game that helped to financially stabilize the
still-languishing publishing house.
Activision grew and still is growing, to a self-sufficient company with
most power than it's had since the days of the VCS... but at what price?
Most of their recent offering have increasingly become mainstream and
uninspired. With the exception of Mechwarrior, their games have been
nothing but clones or poorly designed efforts. Titles such as Time
Commando would have been unqualified disasters but for their Acclaim-esque
marketing methods (i.e.- generating excessive hype).
Today, Activision has taken a different approach to publishing.
Instead of creating original games in-house, they have resorted to
purchasing games created by independent software developers. While
obtaining the distribution rights to Quake 2 may be considered
a coup to some, it fails to establish any sort of identity or emotional
attachment to the company by gamers who are aware that Activision does
nothing but market and publish the game.
My point is, their legendary namesake combined with (now) deep pockets
should call for an internal commitment by the first-ever third party publisher
to develop talent and games from within. Try and create inspired and
innovative new games much like David Crane, Larry Kaplan and Steve Kitchen
did while with the company in its early days! Without actual ownership of
game franchises, (they merely publish Quake 2 and do not own the rights to
the name. Future sequels with no doubt be bid upon by other publishers for
the right to publish them) Activision has nothing to build upon. A reputation
for excellence is not established by buying up publishing rights to games
that others have developed. They should further diversify their software
repertoire by tapping their vast resources of classic titles and updating them
for the 90s (similar to what Atari did with Tempest 2000). Unless Activision
can change its ways NOW, they'll be stuck in an endless spiral of having to
acquire the publishing rights of games created by others. Acclaim learned the
hard way that in-house development is just as crucial as clever marketing to
stay alive in the cutthroat software industry. Let's hope Activision will not
have to languish again, this time not because of an industry-wide crash,
but as a result of poor vision and lack of direction on their part.
Welcome back Activision... Now go and get some soul!
- Please send comments or questions to Keita Iida