Indie Games in the Atari Era

Curator's Note

Indie games as a wing of the game industry, and as shorthand for a particular style (aesthetic and thematic) of game design, is a moniker that has gained increased use in the last several years, particularly for PC games and the Steam platform.  Major console developers such as Microsoft and Sony have noticed this, first making space on their online delivery services for indie games and then acquiring several indie studios through business transactions.  Notably at E3 2018, Microsoft announced its acquisition of independent developers Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Undead Labs, and Compulsion Games.  The idea of consoles and indie games, however, is nothing new as several independent developers back in the nascent day of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) released small productions into the console market.

For the second generation (1976-82) of home consoles, one might argue that Atari started as an independent company before its purchase by Warner Communications in 1976.  As other video game hardware companies were housed in larger, existing companies (such as Mattel with their Intellivision or Coleco Industries with their Colecovision), Atari certainly operated independently for several years before becoming one of the main hardware and software game companies.  Two companies – first Activision and then Imagic – started by disgruntled workers who left Atari and Mattel (effectively becoming the first third-party game developers) might be seen in an indie light, but they quickly ramped up and became major players in the booming game industry, effectively becoming major developers thanks to the open architecture of these early consoles.

In the midst of the early 1980s and the deluge of games and game consoles, truly independent, solitary individuals were operating at the fringes of the industry, learning to code for the 6507 CPU and the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA) that formed the heart of the VCS.  Advertising their games locally and through mail order, these pioneers produced games in very limited production runs, resulting in perhaps what are the rarest games, the so-called “holy grails” by collectors, produced for the VCS.  This piece will look at some of these extremely rare titles – including Birthday ManiaRed Sea CrossingGamma-Attack, and Extra Terrestrials – that have amazingly survived over the years.  These early authors also created the template for a lively homebrew industry that keeps developers actively producing independent releases for the Atari VCS, the Colecovision, and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) among other unsupported consoles today.


You're absolutely right that it's important to look back to past examples of independent and/or marginal and/or alternative game making, and there is a dearth of this kind of work so this is a welcome addition. That said, I tend to agree with game historian Laine Nooney, who pushes back on the idea that indie games are nothing new. "Indie games" is a specific cultural-industrial construction serving specific purposes for those that mobilize it, and it's important to attend to that specificity to avoid making overly broad transhistorical claims.

In her words: "Indie is indie because it is now, because it is meaningful in the present, because through some strange confluence of economic, technological and cultural conditions, people became invested in identifying themselves in this way—this is what is unique to indie games today, a historically-specific truth not shared with any past example of marginal game production."

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