Op-Ed

Op-Ed
This Week in Gaming History

Nova Barlow | 8 Dec 2008 17:00
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This week in history (December 7 - December 13) we'll take a look at Atari's checkered legal past, a cult classic, a troubled massive multiplayer game and a shooter whose influence is felt strongly even today.

To start the week, we have some notable releases, including 1999's cult classic Planescape: Torment from Black Isle. Using an offbeat Dungeons and Dragons campaign as a base, this not-quite-future and not-quite-fantasy title featured an amnesia-laden hero, a talking skull and a body that cannot die. The game was not as commercially successful as other Black Isle offerings, but is remembered fondly for its rich story and compelling NPC presence.

This week also marks the release of massive multiplayer title Horizons: Empire of Istaria. Famous for reaching high and falling more than a bit flat with players and critics alike, developer Artifact Entertainment filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a little more than six months after the game's North American market release. Tulga Games formally acquired Artifact Entertainment in early 2005 in an attempt to save Horizons, but the effort would not be enough. Tulga completely crashed and burned in August 2006, almost immediately following EI Interactive's takeover the month before. In September 2007, the game was sold to Virtrium, a privately held software development company determined to make Horizons a success. As for Horizons, it exists in a quiet form today with a new name - Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted.

Atari, the game's original publisher, is no stranger to making historical headlines during December. Eleven years earlier on December 9, Atari made headlines by suing Coleco Industries, claiming the later engaged in "patent infringement and unfair competition," seeking damages of at least $350 million and an injunction against the Coleco Expansion Module No. 1. Atari alleged the module was designed to allow its Atari 2600 cartridges to be played on the ColecoVision. Coleco replied in turn by immediately countersuing for $500 million, alleging anti-trust law violations by Atari. A settlement was reached in which royalties of sales on the converter and VCS clone-system Gemini were paid to Atari by Coleco.

This week in December would not be the last time Atari would file suit against another company with mixed results. On December 12, 1988, Atari filed suit against Nintendo, claiming Nintendo was "improperly using its patent and greater market share to monopolize the home videogame market." In a bit of related background, in 1987 Hideyuki Nakajima purchased Atari. (Nakajima was originally brought on to manage Atari Japan in 1973.) Upon taking charge, Nakajima determined the way to break into the videogame market against reigning behemoth Nintendo was to become a licensee. Armed with newly-created subsidiary Tengen (notably, the only company with full access to the Atari library), an agreement was reached with Nintendo in December of that year. However, Atari engineers could not find a way to decipher the 10NES security system. While other engineers continued working on cracking the code, lawyers short-circuited the process and obtained a copy of the 10NES program through the Copyright Office. Before the lawsuit, three NES-licensed games also appeared on the market, and a technology called the "Rabbit" was developed. The Rabbit turned out to be "functionally indistinguishable" from the 10NES program.

Nintendo waited until the following Fall before filing a suit of its own accusing Atari of breach of contract, patent infringement, unfair competition, and interference with contract, but not before threatening to pull Nintendo products off shelves of retailers carrying Tengen products. The tactic worked, and Atari asked the courts to step in and make Nintendo stop. When both companies were smacked on the hand and told to stop interfering with each other's customers, they appealed the decision, causing the injunction to be lifted on both sides. Nintendo was free to harass retailers; Atari was free to try to make further headway in the courts. It should be noted Nintendo had better success than Atari in terms of short-term strategy.

Ultimately the case came down to determining if the Rabbit was a direct copy of the 10NES, and would it need to be copied in order to compete in the market. Nintendo proved there was more than one way around the security system, and the Rabbit had taken more than necessary in order to achieve operation. After a little over five years and one entirely different Atari Corp. vs. Nintendo case in 1992 (regarding unfair allegations of US market monopolization by Nintendo) later, the two companies reached a settlement in March of 1994, dismissing all claims on both sides. Atari became a licensee of Nintendo again; Nintendo received some payments in conjunction with the settlement in addition to several patent licenses held by Atari Games and Atari Corporation.

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Unfortunately these companies had to use the courts to settle disputes, but there's no doubt that many disputes between gamers themselves have been historically settled over the years through the use of a deathmatch, a term introduced to the gaming lexicon by the creators of the hit game Doom.

Springing from one shareware hit to the next, id Software leveraged its success from 1991's Wolfenstein 3D into another landmark game this week in 1994, Doom. December 10, 1994 is the day Doom arrived to help introduce multiplayer gaming to a large-scale audience, featuring 4-player LAN and head-to-head competitive ability, action-packed levels, the ability (and company supported blessing via released source code) for fans to create mods, and of course, large guns. Due to id's efforts to support shareware and other non-traditional means of distribution, Doom has gone on to sell millions of copies and paved the way for future shooter titles such as Quake.

According to one of the creators of this legendary title John Carmack, the name "Doom" was inspired by a particular scene in the 1986 movie, The Color of Money. In the scene, Tom Cruise's character (Vincent Lauria) arrives at a pool hall and asked what is inside his cue case. In reply, he says, "Doom."

The creative geniuses at id Software are also responsible for just one of the games we'll be focusing on next week, Commander Keen. Until then, feel free to unleash some pre-holiday stress and engage in a deathmatch to celebrate, or just enjoy watching this world-record fastest collaborative speed run called "Doom Done Quicker", which was created this week in history on December 10, 2000.

Research Manager Nova Barlow would most likely get pwned in a deathmatch of any shooter variety.

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