Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 1980 -- Avalon Hill Ventures Into Microcomputer Games

It's Christmas, and a good time to look back at the early years of home computing.  It was a classic gold rush era, businesswise -- many game companies sprang up overnight on somebody's kitchen table, published a few games, noteworthy or otherwise, and disappeared when the industry crashed in the mid-1980s.

But Avalon Hill was an experienced game publisher, producing myriad pencil-paper-and-chit wargames and strategy simulations for the pre-computer hardcore -- those hardy gamers willing to gather together, set up a game and spend hours or even days playing through it, rolling dice and calculating fog-of-war effects and movement allowances by hand.

So it was natural that AH would move into computer gaming as soon as the segment looked commercially viable -- this vintage catalog page announces the company's initial product lineup for Christmas 1980:

Supported platforms this first year out included the TRS-80 Model I, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET, a hardware lineup that would change rapidly in the coming decade.  But the industry's software pace wasn't as madly hit-driven as it is today -- debut title B-1 Bomber remained popular into the mid-1980s, when an IBM PC version debuted.  

Industry terminology was also still evolving -- I will assume for reality's sake that the tapes were, in fact, duplicated from masters, and not actually programmed on a cassette tape cartridge one at a time.  An innovative touch here is that a single package covered all three platforms, with a version for each machine stored on the same cassette.  The only marketing misstep here stems from Avalon Hill's traditional business model, which thrived on replacement parts and supplements -- the game rules are sold separately, so players can try to figure the game out independently, or pay for proper instructions.

Gamers may have felt spoiled and soft back then, with these newfangled computer games taking care of all the messy details and providing AI opponents for gaming any old time.  These kids today, with their tutorial modes and online play -- they only think they're hardcore.


  1. I may have played B-1 Bomber (A8 version). If it's the game I'm thinking of, it was a flight sim and depicted an instrument panel, but instead of being flown by the joystick you typed in commands (Climb 350, Head 163, etc). You also had to arm your nuke by typing in a code, but I don't remember if the code was generated during the load from the tape or if it was early DRM.

  2. Yep, that sounds like the game as I remember it (in its IBM PC version circa late 1985). I don't recall whether the code was in the documentation or generated at startup.