Bits from my personal collection – TSR, a failed attempt to enter the personal computer market

In the early 1970s, long before computers were associated with anything remotely personal, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson was putting their finishing touches on a new type of fantasy tabletop game they were co-developing. The game, Dungeons & Dragons, would depart from traditional wargames by allowing players to create their own characters, each with different abilities, like strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, etc. A Dungeon Master would serve as the game’s referee and storyteller, with players embarking upon adventures within the fantasy world. In October of 1973, when unable to find a publisher, Gygax along with childhood friend Don Kaye, who also shared an interest in miniature war games, co-founded Tactical Studies Rules, to formally publish and sell the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, with Gygax’s basement acting as a headquarters.

To start generating income and to cover the printing costs for a thousand copies of Dungeons & Dragons, TSR released a set of rules for the miniature game Cavaliers and Roundheads, based on The English Civil War and written by Gygax and Jeff Perren. Cavaliers and Roundheads sold poorly and the partnership was in dire need of the last bit of funding to be able to finally publish Dungeons & Dragons. Worried that other play-testers and wargamers now familiar with Gygax’s rules would bring a similar product to the market first, they accepted an offer in December 1973 by game-playing acquaintance Brian Blume to invest $2,000 in the company and become an equal one-third partner.

With a limited production budget of only a few thousand dollars, Dungeons & Dragons was amateurish in production and assumed the player was familiar with wargaming. Nevertheless, following its release in 1974, it rapidly grew in popularity, first among wargamers and then expanding to a more general audience of college and high school students. Roughly 1,000 copies of the game were sold in the first year followed by 3,000 in 1975, and many more in the following years. Dungeons & Dragons became a cultural phenomenon, capturing a generation and inspiring countless imitators and spin-off products. The success established the company as a major player in the gaming industry and it went on to publish a wide range of role-playing games, board games, miniatures games, and related products.

In 1975, when Kaye sadly died of a heart attack, only 35 years old, the Tactical Studies Rules partnership restructured into TSR Hobbies, Inc, an enterprise that also connected to the opening of the Dungeon Hobby Shop in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that also would come to serve as the company headquarters. TSR Hobbies moved to buy out the old TSR partnership’s assets and in the following years, while a number of new products were being introduced, Dungeons & Dragons continued to stay the main attraction.

When the ’70s became the ’80s, a completely new market was emerging. Computers, now more personal than ever was starting to move into people’s homes. TSR had no experience with computer products but with the traditional tabletop game being challenged by innovative computer products competing for the market’s attention, many inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, the company was ready for a foray into the unknown.

In 1981 a sales representative who had sold TSR an HP 3000 minicomputer mentioned Bruce Nesmith, a student at the nearby college who had created a computer game similar to the company’s board games. Nesmith had been playing Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s which had inspired him to experiment and create his own take on it. When he enrolled in college he was introduced to the HP 3000 and spent the summer creating an accounting system in COBOL for the college. When not working on the software he began programming games. Of the 5-6 games he created in 1980 the most popular became Dragons, a dungeon crawler with deadly monsters created using ASCII characters as graphics. Nesmith’s games were the only ones available on the computer system and soon got much attention from his peers, and from the HP sales representative.
Nesmith was about to graduate with a bachelor in mathematics in 1981 when TRS called him, asking for an interview. After earning his degree he joined TSR where he became an instrumental part in the company’s new venture, an endeavor resulting in three Apple II games, all published the following year.

Theseus and the Minotaur, designed and programmed in BASIC by Bruce Nesmith.
Theseus and the Minotaur was an original first-person dungeon crawler that somewhat follows the myth of Theseus, son of King Aegeas of Greece. Theseus must rescue King Minos‘ daughter, Ariadne held captured by the Minotaur in his lair somewhere in the labyrinth.
The fantastic cover art was done by fantasy artist Larry Elmore, who did a lot of Dungeons & Dragons illustrations

Theseus and the Minotaur had its similarities to Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth, and to the many early first-person maze games.
As Theseus you had to venture into the randomly generated dungeon, find the Minotaur’s lair on one of the three levels, rescue princess Ariadne, and return to the start.
The complexity of the maze could be adjusted at the beginning, along with secret doors, and Halls of Mirrors to add a bit to the difficulty.
The game was notoriously slow and I’ve sped up the gameplay quite a bit

Dungeon!, designed by Bruce Nesmith and programmed by Keith Enge.
Dungeon! was a Hi-res dungeon crawler with support for up to eight players, created over the original 1975 TSR Hobbies adventure board game of the same name.
The fantastic cover art was done by oil painter and fantasy artist Jeff Easley who did a lot of fantasy artwork for role-playing games, comics, and magazines, as well as non-fantasy commercial art.

Dungeon! was a simple top-down dungeon crawler simulating some aspects of Dungeons & Dragons.
The goal was to traverse the dungeon, defeating different monsters, and earn enough gold to reach the target determined by your character type at the start of the game

Dawn Patrol, designed and programmed by Keith Enge in Assembly Language.
Dawn Patrol used the same name and World War I setting as TSR’s tabletop war game released the same year

Dawn Patrol was an impressive game for its time with real-time Hi-Res 3D wireframe graphics.
The game offered twelve different aircraft, consisting of a mix of German, British, and French planes, and allowed players to experience the excitement and danger of aerial combat at the dawn of aviation

While TSR had a firm grip on the board game and mini-figure market, they had no experience in marketing and distributing computer games. As a result, Theseus and the Minotaur, Dungeon!, and Dawn Patrol were marketed at places typically not catering to an audience with a specific interest in computers. The three Apple II games were added to Random House‘s catalog which targeted bookstores, where the majority didn’t deal with computer games and passed on them. It’s believed a few thousand of each title were produced but only a small fraction of those ever sold.

The three Apple II games, advertised in Blip: The Video Games Magazine.
Blip was a short-lived monthly video game magazine published by Marvel Comics and edited by Joe Claro with the first issue published in February 1983.
It was aimed at a younger audience and was comic-book-sized, printed on comic book stock, and had video-game-related comics

Following the release of the three games in 1982, TSR withdrew from developing its own computer games. In the latter part of the decade, TSR offered up the license for the development of a computerized version of the company’s more rules-heavy Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game to some of the biggest publishers of the time. To much surprise, Strategic Simulations Inc. won the license in 1987 because of its computerized wargaming experience. Nesmith stayed with TSR for a dozen years writing games and modules for Dungeons & Dragons before returning to computer games for Bethesda Softworks in the mid-1990s. Here he worked on a number of games in The Elder Scrolls series and on Fallout 3 and Fallout 4.

TSR Hobbies ran into financial difficulties in the spring of 1983, prompting the company to split into four independent businesses, with game publishing and development continuing as TSR, Inc. After losing their executive positions, Brian Blume and his brother subsequently sold their shares to TSR Vice President Lorraine Williams, who in turn engineered Gygax’s ouster from the company in October 1985.  The company’s efforts to diversify beyond the gaming industry were not as successful as its traditional tabletop gaming products, and TSR eventually sold off TSR Hobbies in the late 1980s.

Despite the ups and downs, TSR remained a major force in the gaming industry throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s. However, the company faced increasing competition from other game publishers, and by the late 1990s, the company was in financial trouble. TSR was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997, which went on to become a subsidiary of Hasbro.

Sources: Wikipedia, Matt Chat interview with Bruce Nesmith, MobyGames

6 thoughts on “Bits from my personal collection – TSR, a failed attempt to enter the personal computer market

  1. Wow very nice post. Did not know about those ones, even if I worked on the port of TSR/SSI Pool of Radiance for Amiga.

    1. Thanks, Nicolas. Yeah, these are mostly forgotten. Very interesting that you worked on the Amiga port, were you employed by SSI or was the work contracted?
      Again, thanks for commenting.

      1. It was my first job in the industry. Worked for Ubisoft (they were distributor and/or had a deal with SSI. With a friend we ported the game from PC (was written in Pascal language) to Amiga (had to redo everything in C), plus update / adapt visuals. The game engine that powered the golden trilogy was really impressive and the SSI engineers very cool.

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