Instead of doing a general overview of the history of Brøderbund I thought I would do a series of mini-articles, articles where the released games would define the different eras of the company. In this second part of the series, we’ll take a look at how a struggling Brøderbund with a new Japanese relationship established itself.
-If you haven’t read the first part, you can find it here
In 1998 one of the biggest and most dominant software publishers in the world, Brøderbund Software, was sold to The Learning Company for a staggering $480 million in stocks. The sale would not only end up laying off 500 employees, before the end of the year, it would also mark the end of co-founder Douglas Carlston’s 18 years at the company.
Even with the first two titles in Doug’s Galactic Saga out in the wild, Brøderbund was still struggling, in May of 1980 sales hit rock bottom.
While Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader were great and impressive games they weren’t the fast-paced arcade action people were hungering for in the early ’80s. Luckily, Gary had, in the first week of March of 1980, rented a micro-booth at the West Coast Computer Faire. Here he brought both of Doug’s Galactic Saga games and with them an Apple II computer. The booth next door was occupied by Star Craft (later on StarCraft), a Japanese firm that had developed several fast-paced action games for the Apple II and now was in the US looking for a domestic partner to sell and distribute their titles.
StarCraft had brought a bunch of Apple II programs with them but had no computer to show them on. Gary, the kind person he was, would let the Japanese run their programs on his Apple II.
The StarCraft group, really impressed by Gary, and of course, Doug’s Galactic series, took a trip to Eugene to visit the company – a visit which resulted in a US distribution deal for Starcraft titles.
This deal would end up being an important step for Brøderbund, not only because the fast-paced action titles by StarCraft diversified Brøderbund’s portfolio greatly from Doug’s more intellectual strategy games, but also because these games ran on the Apple II, already a much more vibrant and healthy software platform than the TRS-80, Brøderbund had released the Galactic Saga titles on.
While the TRS-80 outsold the Apple II by multiple factors in 1980, the TRS-80 distribution network was hard to get into, making it very tedious and laborious selling and distributing TRS-80 software (it would become easier with time but at that point, the Apple II and Atari 8-bit had pretty much crushed the TRS-80 as a viable gaming platform). With the move to Apple and with a larger and more diverse portfolio sales starting picking up. Brøderbund’s first Apple II game, Tank Command, was released the same year, it was developed by the third Carlston brother, Donald. Soon the first three Galactic Saga titles were ported to Apple II as well.
While sales were picking up, the single most important event happened when Doug sent out one of StarCraft’s new games, Apple Galaxian, a Namco Galaxian clone, to Sherwin Leff who had just started Robwin, later renamed to Softcel, a software distributorship, that would become the largest in the US.
Robwin/Softcel made it much easier for publishers like Brøderbund to get their products into stores, and all across the US without the necessity for spending numerous hours on phone calls and personal meet-and-greets.
Apple Galaxian sold 5000 copies the first month and topped the Softalk magazine chart as the bestselling Apple II program for three months.
Apple Galaxian played at redneck speeds, really showcasing what the Apple II platform could perform. With the initial success, the name Galaxian would quickly prove to be somewhat of an issue – a clone bearing the same name as the original, that’s is a legal disaster only waiting to happen. With Namco and even Apple making legal rumbles, Brøderbund changed the name, only a few months later, to Alien Rain, and it continued to be a bestseller for quite some months under its new “disguise”.
Apple Galaxian, renamed for legal reasons to Alien Rain in 1981, was the first Star Craft title to be published by Brøderbund. It is widely regarded as the best Galaxian clone to have hit the personal computer market. It was released in December 1980 and was the single most important reason why Brøderbund’s sales would increase tremendously in the last month of December, 1980
Brøderbund sales took off, soaring from $10,000 in November to $55,000 in December of 1980. As the business took off, so did the workload. The brothers hired their first employee, a part-time stuffer, in December 1980.
In 1981 two full-time employees and more part-timers were hired, also the brothers were joined by their sister, Cathy Carlston, to manage the office and bookkeeping, later on, Cathy became vice-president of the educational market planning and was instrumental in marketing software to schools. Brøderbund relocated its operations from Eugene to San Rafael, California in the summer of 1981, where Brøderbund also would be incorporated as a California company – Brøderbund Software, Inc.
Two other very early StarCraft titles, Hyper Head-On and Galaxy Wars, both released in 1981. Neither of the two saw the same success as Apple Galaxian
Brøderbund quickly grew to include more than 50 employees, many of whom were programmers converting the Japanese Apple II games to other platforms, like the Atari 8-bit home computer. As there were no Atari’s in Japan, Brøderbund had to do the porting.
The first Atari title to come out of Japan was A.E. from Tokyo based Programmers-3 (also their first title), published by Brøderbund in 1982. Programmers-3 and Brøderbund have had a partnership for quite some time. The Japanese didn’t know enough about the Atari, so they visited Brøderbund to learn about the techniques and utilities used.
A.E. the first Atari 8-bit from Japan released in the US by Brøderbund in 1982
Around the same time period, Brøderbund would start focusing on publishing US developed titles, slowly fading the Japanese StarCraft titles from the Brøderbund catalog.
Starcraft would later on start porting and translating Western games for the Japanese market with great success.
A line up of StarCraft developed titles, published for the US market in 1980-82.
From left to right: Apple Galaxian, Alien Rain, Golden Mountain, Puckman, Snoggle, Alien Typhoon, Hyper Head-on, Galaxy Wars & Star Blazer
At the time it wasn’t unusual for individual programmers to mail out their creations to the different publishers in hope of a publishing deal.
One of those programmers were Scott Schram, who had created a game called Photon Base, Doug and Gary received the game and liked it, but for them to publish it, a few ideas had to be implemented. Schram added the ideas and wrote a storyline around the new initiatives. The game was retitled Genetic Drift and was published in late 1981.
Genetic Drift, originally developed for the Apple II by Scott Schram and published by Brøderbund in late 1981. The title was later ported to the Atari 8-bit by Schram himself
Schram would go on to program another Brøderbund published title, Labyrinth, released in the summer of 1982. Labyrinth would become Schram’s last published title at Brøderbund, he and a small team did endeavor out in creating an adventure game called Deadly Secrets, but unfortunately, it never materialized. Scram would move on to do a few titles for Penguin Software.
Labyrinth by Scott Schram, on left the original Apple II release, published in 1982 and at the left the Atari 8-bit conversion
Another developer, Olaf Lubeck, a professional scientific programmer, created a fast-paced action game, where you in typical early ’80s style had to defend the world from alien attacks. The title was Red Alert (no not that Red Alert) and was released by Brøderbund for the Apple II in 1981.
Olaf Lubeck’s Red Alert, released in 1981, only for the Apple II
In 1982 Lubeck would port Ben Serki’s hit Apple Panic, a clone of Universal’s coin-up Space Panic, to the Atari 8-bit and IBM PC.
Lubeck would, at the same time, also do work for On-Line Systems (Later Sierra On-Line), creating the Pac-Man clone Gobbler in 1981 and Cannonball Blitz in 1982.
On the top left, the original Apple II version of Ben Serki’s Apple Panic, from 1982.
Below the two Atari 8-bit conversions.
Apple Panic would become a top seller for most of the platforms it was released on.
Olaf Lubeck would port the Apple version to the Atari 8-bit and IBM PC
On the top right, Red Alert by Olaf Lubeck, released in 1981.
Most of Brøderbund’s programmers worked on a royalty basis with royalties ranging anywhere from 15% to 30%. The “top” programmers, with the most successful titles could easily do six figures in royalties, just like David Snider who developed David’s Midnight Magic, a pinball game done over the popular Black Knight table from Williams.
David’s Midnight Challenge, originally released for the Apple II in late 1981, later ported to a variety of different platforms.
On the left, the Atari 8-bit conversion.
On the right, the boxed Commodore 64 version, released in 1982
Another very successful 1982 title was Dan Gorlin’s Choplifter!, an original helicopter hostage rescue game which became hugely successful and even spawned an arcade version – usually it was the other way around. It was Gorlin’s very first game, programmed on his granddads Apple II, which he had borrowed to kill time while trying to sell his house. Choplifter! took 6 months to complete and does bear some similarities with the 1981 Williams arcade hit Defender. Choplifter! would end on top of Softsel’s best seller list in December 1982, beating Sierra On-Line’s official licensed Frogger.
Choplifter! was ported to a variety of personal computers and video game consoles of the time.
In 1983, Brøderbund would celebrate its three year birthday showing off a few 3D sample screens of Gorlin’s next game, Airheart – which would end up taking three years to complete.
Gorlin’s would stay an independent developer with an informal relationship with Brøderbund for a number of years, developing a few more titles in the ’80s, in 1990, Gorlin programmed Jordan Mechner’s original Prince of Persia.
The original Apple II Cardboard folder version of Choplifter!, released in 1982 and the boxed Atari 8-bit version also from 1982
While Brøderbund had great success with their games, many amongst the most popular and acclaimed on the Apple II, their venture into educational tiles and productivity software slowly began in 1982, with the first educational title Dueling Digits, for the Apple II.
Dueling Digits was a single or two-player action type game with math elements incorporated. It was written by Brian Crouch over a concept by Doug Carlston.
Brøderbund’s first educational title, Dueling Digits for the Apple II, released in 1982. It was developed under the name Eltanan Effects, which also developed the 1983 Brøderbund title Gumball
The packaging, not only for Brøderbund but for most publishers gradually changed in the early ’80s from Ziplock bags to regular boxes. A handful of early Brøderbund titles would showcase this transition going from ziplock bags to cardboard folders to finally the small box format
In the next article, we’ll take a peek at Brøderbund next couple of years, 1983-1984, where some of the more recognizable and significant Brøderbund titles were released, titles that would end up much more known to the general public than the very early ones – Also around that time Brøderbund would begin venturing into the productivity software market with various program titles and rich media ending up as the best selling titles on the market.