Bits From my Personal Collection – Piccadilly Software, a story to tell the story

The short history of Piccadilly Software is in reality the story of how local computer stores around became game publishers in the very early ’80s. Customers became clients, most for a short moment in time, and the hugely successful video arcade games became the inspiration. The local computer store became the gathering place of the neighborhood and to anybody with the slightest interest in software, hardware, coding, and hacking, this was the place to be… for many this was a stepping stone for a future in computers.

Both Dennis Tolley and Michael Mahoney had been using high-end mainframes while employed at the same bank in the ’70s. Here Tolley, director of long-range planning and Mahoney, head of data processing, had met and become friends with a shared interest in computers.
In the latter part of the ’70s, times were rapidly changing and a new consumer market was unfolding at a breakneck speed. With expertise in Computers and a desire to do something more challenging Tolley and Mahoney decides, after 6 months of planning and deliberation, to leave their secure and high profile jobs and venture into the personal computer business. In 1979, the two establishes Stonehenge Computer Corporation, a computer retailer and publisher of business software in Summit, New Jersey. The name, inspired by the prehistoric monument, Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, thought, by some scientists, to have been an astronomical computer.
The new computer store quickly becomes a hangout for the local teens, many spending their days after school fiddling with the computers and dreaming of one day making it their living. While the store wasn’t big, Tolley and Mahoney didn’t mind people interacting and exploring the computers on display but gaming was off-limit otherwise crowds would gather and clog up the entire space.

In the spring of 1981 Eric Varsanyi, a part-time Stonehenge Computer employee, along with high school classmate, Thomas Ball, a frequent visitor of the store, writes the last bit of code on their new fast-paced action title. The game is shown to Tolley and Mahoney and while their focus is on business software, they see an opportunity to market the new game. To keep business and pleasure apart the two decide to found a new company catering to the development and marketing of games and entertainment. By the summer of 1981 the new company, Piccadilly Software Inc. is a reality and Varsanyi and Ball’s game, Falcons, becomes the company’s first published title.

Piccadilly Software’s first published title, Falcons, released for the Apple II in mid-1981. Initially, Falcons was released in the simple blue folder (on the left) but was rereleased later on when the company, in 1982, had developed a final and cohesive design for its packaging.
Falcons, like all Piccadilly published titles, was only released for the Apple II

Varsanyi and Ball’s Falcon’s was a typically Invader game and a clone of the coin-op video arcade game Phoenix

Like nearly every computer store In the early years, Stonehenge Computer becomes a melting pot for anything and everything computer related, here people would meet and discuss technical approaches and solutions, fancy the expensive computers on display, and come to show off their newest creations. Both Tolley and Mahoney were extremely helpful and encouraging to anybody who wanted to learn about the computers or needed assistance with programming and with Piccadilly Software, the two now was able to assist hopefuls in the marketing and distributing of their games.
Steve Hawley an only 14-year-old skilled programmer who would hang out at the store and bring in clever hacks and creations to show off had been working on a game and when it reached a playable state he brought it in and left it running on every Apple II computer on display. With Piccadilly Software still in its infancy, Tolley and Mahoney, keen to add more games to the portfolio contacted Hawley with a publishing contract and a list of changes to enhance the gameplay.

Steven Hawley’s Suicide! became Piccadilly Software’s second published title. Beside Falcon this was the only title release in 1981.

Hawley had been using his older brother’s Apple II+ since 1979, first experimenting with BASIC and later 6502 Assembly language. Suicide! was inspired by a trip Hawley and his dad had taken in the summer prior to his freshman year in high school. At Grand Canyon, Hawley imagined little green guys joyfully throwing themselves off the ledge of the canyon rim, a perfect scenario for a small game. As soon as he got home he started coding up what would become Suicide! Hawley took music routine from the Apple II Reference manual (the Red Book) and managed to tune it enough to play the opening strain of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust as a brief intro before the start of a level.
Suicide! ended up doing not especially well but it got reviewed positively in both Softalk Magazine and Infoworld and did help pay for a semester at Oberlin College. After graduation and a stint at Bell Labs in his hometown of Murray Hill, New Jersey, Hawley made his way to Silicon Valley landing at Aldus Corporation in 1993, a year prior to the company being acquired by Adobe Systems Inc., where he was assigned to the team developing the first version of Acrobat.

While quite simple Suicide! was an impressive title for a 14-year-old. The game was clearly inspired by Atari’s 1978 coin-op, Avalance, which gained a much wider audience the same year as Suicide! was released, when Activision released an unlicensed adaption of it as Kaboom for the Atari 2600

Varsanyi and Ball’s Falcons did very well with around a thousand copies sold every month, from the royalties Ball finally could purchase his own Apple II from the computer store. For 14 months the two would work on their next title, Warp Destroyer, an elaborate first-person space shooter with impressive simulated 3d graphics, very much like Atari’s Star Raiders, released for the Atari 8-bit in 1979 as the game to have. Later games like Elite and Wing Commander could be seen as somewhat conceptual successors.

Varsanyi and Ball’s second and last title published by Piccadilly Software, Warp Destroyer released in 1982

Warp Destroyer was more elaborate and complex than Falcons. The first-person perspective and dynamic scaling of objects gave a quite believable illusion of 3D depth and movement. The title was somewhat similar to Sirius Software’s Epoch and Hadron released the same year. Both titles by pioneering game programmer Larry Miller

Falcons and Warp Destroyer would be Varsanyi and Balls only two games released by Piccadilly Software (and to my knowledge the only games by either of them). Varsanyi would go on to have a profound career in engineering. In the late ’80s and early ’90s as a senior engineer at Cray Computer Corporation and later on as principal architect at Intel’s Network Division, Advanced Development Lab. Today, Varsanyi is Chief Technical Officer of architecture, responsible for leading the core technology platform engine development for DB Cybertech, a company he helped co-found.
Ball went on to Cornell University in 1983 where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science in 1987. In 1993 he got his Ph.D. in Computer Science and spent the rest of the ’90s at Bell Labs before joining Microsoft as a researcher. Ball has been involved in innovative and interesting educational projects like the BBC Micro Bit and the Microsoft MakeCode. Ball is, after more than 20 years, still at Microsoft where he now is a Partner Researcher at Microsoft Research.

Another young local teen with an affection for bits and bytes was Mark Kriegsman. In the summer of 1979 after completing high school, Kriegsman attended a summer program at Trenton State College. Here he was introduced to the Apple II computer and was immediately hooked. Without a computer in his home, Kriegsman started exploring the wonderful world of the Apple II at friend’s houses, where he learned BASIC and later, to speed up his creations, 6502 Assembly Language. Kriegsman would spend many afternoons in the Stonehenge store and in 1982 at only 16 of age complete a new fast-paced action game Star Blaster (Starblaster) together with Geoffrey Engelstein

Mark Kriegsman and Geoffrey Engelstein’s first and only game, Star Blaster (Starblaster), published by Piccadilly Software in 1982

In quite an unusual style Star Blaster plays from right to left, while you attempt to fight back an alien invasion force, determined to destroy the Earth

Kriegsman went on to Hampshire College in 1984 and received his Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science in 1989. In the coming years, he would work as a software engineer on machine learning systems. In 1996 he went on to found Clearway Technologies to develop and market the Internet’s first commercial Content Delivery Network (CDN).

By 1981 the majority of video arcade games were aimed at a young male audience. Not only did electronic games, in general, fascinate the male gender, but the themes of the games favored it as well. This would begin to change with a game that would become the top-grossing video arcade game in North America in 1981. Konami’s Frogger was not yet another mindless action shooter, trying to stop alien forces from taking over the earth. The survival of the cute little frog in Frogger appealed to everybody, young and old, male or female. While Frogger became hugely popular in arcades and around it wasn’t yet available on the Apple II.

Lance Fortnow was a frequenter at the local arcades in New Jersey. While he wasn’t much of a player he was fascinated by the games and the technology behind them. In the summer of 1981 between High School and College, he and high school friend Chris Eisnaugle started experimenting with coding clones of successful coin-op games on Eisnaugle’s Apple II.
At the time it was the wild west when it came to intellectual properties, everybody was copying everything and made money while doing it. Fortnow and Eisnaugle had contact with a computer magazine writer who ensured them they indeed could sell games based on popular arcade games as long as they changed the title and used a slightly altered graphical look.
In the winter break in 1982, the duo completed Ribbit, an excellent Frogger clone, which Molley and Mahoney picked up and distributed in the spring of 1982. Around 1200 copies were sold before a cease-and-desist order from Sierra On-line was received. Sierra had acquired the magnetic media rights to Frogger and was developing their own ports of the coin-op and sublicensed it to third-party developers and publishers for systems not supported by Sierra.
– Only a year prior Sierra On-Line (at the time On-Line Systems) had been in the same position when co-founder Ken Williams was approached by Atari Corporation which at the time was starting to threaten legal action against several companies that were producing software similar to those of which Atari would hold patents and licenses for. While Williams took up the fight he did pull their Pac-Man clone, Gobbler from the market.

Fortnow and Eisnaugle’s Frogger clone, Ribbit, was published by Piccadilly Software in the Spring of 1982. It sold around 1200 copies before being terminated after a cease-and-desist order from Sierra On-Line

Ribbit played exceptional well and was well received in magazines. It was even named a better game than Sierra’s own licensed port (which also played very well)

Eisnaugle and Fortnow made a couple of thousand dollars from the sales of Ribbit and learned a valuable lesson about copyright infringement and intellectual properties. The duo went after Pac-Man, now a bit wiser, they changed the core mechanics of the game. While the player was still being chased through a maze the objective was to pick up numbers in succession to progress to the next level.

Succession, a Pac-Man inspired game, was released in 1982 by Piccadilly Software

Succession became Eisnaugle and Fortnow’s last game. In 1985 Fortnow received his Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science from Cornell University and in 1989 earned his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from MIT. He would continue to work with computers and was a professor of computer science at the Univesity of Chicago and Northwestern University before becoming Dean of the College of Computing at Illinois Institute of Technology.

While clearly being inspired by Pac-Man, Eisnaugle and Fortnow’s Succession strayed far enough away to be it’s own

Piccadilly Software announced Survival, an adventure game to be released in the second half of 1982. The title was advertised but to my knowledge, it never materialized under the Piccadilly brand.

While Stonehenge Computer would last up through the ’80s, with Apple IIs and Commodore PETs giving way for Macintosh and IBM/PCs, the entertainment offshoot would only last a year before it was closed down in 1982, with only a handful of published titles.
Tolley and Mahoney, their encouragement, knowledge, and passion inspired everyone visiting their store and for the few who got their creations published, played a small part in shaping their lives… in that short moment in time in the very early ’80s.

With the personal computer game business growing more and more professional, the place for the single “bedroom” developer was vanishing. Games had to be original and written by distinct programmers, with artwork and music done by real artists. Publishers like Electronic Arts would blossom and come to have the financial, marketing and distribution means to publish bigger games, now for a variety of systems, nation- and worldwide.

Sources: The Summit Herald, Summit Free Public Library, Boston Business Journal, Softtalk, Softline, New York Times, Open Apple, Computational Complexity, Family Computing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.