Bob Whitehouse and Alan Miller were two of the four Atari Inc coders who originally formed Activision. Before long though, Whitehouse and Miller wanted a new challenge and left to form Accolade. Formed in 1984, the studio quickly built a reputation for various slick franchises, with a particular focus on sports and racing games. Test Drive, Star Control, Hardball! and Busby, were just a few of the franchises to appear, and the company itself would survive for an impressive 15 years. This is how it all started.
Alan Miller, co-founder of Accolade Inc, refers to the period in a refreshingly glass-is-half-full manner as a ‘downturn’. Others have termed it a crash. We’re talking, of course, about the infamous industry nosedive of 1983, which shook many console and games software manufacturers to the point of collapse. Alan had been one of the ex-Atari refugees who, along with David Crane, Bob Whitehead and Larry Kaplan, had founded Activision, the first independent game software publisher. Activision had survived the console crunch, but was on its way to posting record losses of $18 million for the following year.
In this worrying climate, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead decided that the future for the industry lay in disk-based product for home computers, particularly the up-and-coming Commodore 64, rather than the expensive cartridge format of the out-of-favour consoles. Although Activision had a number of original home computer titles in development, the pair felt that the company’s mindset was too firmly entrenched in its console roots, with an over-reliance on ports from the Atari 2600.
“Activision’s strength, pioneering as an independent software game company (from the console manufacturers), became its weakness,” explains Bob. “When you’ve achieved so much success on a specific game system, it’s hard to let go of it. We saw a new market, a new challenge, and some better hardware… we wanted to move forward.”
Unable to attract outside investment in the current business environment, the duo self-financed their new venture – christened ‘Accolade’ in order to appear alphabetically before Activision, in the same way their former company had been named to alphabetically precede Atari. Alan reveals that another possible candidate for the company’s name had been ‘Acclaim’.
The ability to produce and market multiformat software on inexpensive floppy disks, without any licensing issues from hardware manufacturers (Atari had been notoriously lawsuit-happy towards Activision’s unlicensed VCS development) would prove a godsend. “The paradigm was shifting for software publishers with this new lower cost of goods and smaller up-front investment,” says Bob, “perfect for the austere start-up.”
Unlike the ‘arcade conversion’ business model of European software houses such as Ocean, Accolade’s focus was quality, original product, developed in-house, or by third-party publishers. Its products would embrace progressively complex and graphically rich gaming themes, intended to appeal to an ‘older’ market than Activision’s. Initially, Bob and Alan wanted to avoid management roles, so a CEO for the company was sought. “I could contribute on the technical side at a higher level than managing, in those early days,” explains Bob. “We wanted a good ‘front man’.” Tom Frisina, a former business associate of Nolan Bushnell, was brought in to serve as company president, and offices were hired in Cupertino, San Jose – the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.
Freed of business management duties, the pair continued their ‘hands-on’ approach of the Activision years, each designing their own launch title. “I’d find myself once in a while spending a weekend knocking out code or playing with a piece of hardware,” Bob reveals. “It seems that for whatever reason, my skill set and experience to deal with new technology was more efficient for me to do in a few days than spend the next few weeks and months finding someone else to do it.”
Alan Miller’s project, Law Of The West, cast players in the role of Sheriff in the Old West frontier town of Gold Gulch. “We were interested in emulating other more popular forms of entertainment, such as movies and television,” explains Alan. Inspired by the movie High Noon and classic Westerns from television, such as Gunsmoke, the game mixed adventure elements with hip-shooting gunfights and challenged players to survive intact until sunset rolled around. Gameplay revolved around interacting with the town’s citizens, from the buxom saloon owner to the town’s drunken doctor, and various low-life pistoleros. Alan implemented a four line, multiple-choice response system, a concept, which would later become famous in LucasArts’ graphic adventures such as Monkey Island.
Bob’s game, Hardball, was a pioneering baseball simulation, which continued his fascination with sporting themes, as seen in his 2600 games Football and Home Run. The play screen was inspired by the ‘behind the pitcher’ (or centerfield) view from TV broadcasts, with a superimposed aerial view of the baseball diamond to keep tabs on players. A great visual conceit, aping the view most familiar to sports fans, it was frankly surprising that no one had thought of it before. “I got Hardball driving home one day, as simple as that,” Bob explains. “If you are not visual by nature you can’t survive in the game business. That has always been the ‘hook.’” That was just the start however, and soon Accolade would begin to up its game significantly…
Notable Accolade Games
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