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Why is the identity of developers behind early video games sometimes a mystery?


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Matt Reichert is the expert on Atari prototypes, and he maintains atariprotos.com, a website dedicated to documenting these unfinished and unreleased games. His thorough research and detailed game reviews are important to the Atari community, and impressive.

Gamers today are accustomed to long elaborate credit sequences, but what they may not know is that sharing the names of the individuals who created games was not the norm.  Until the mid 1980s, most games were only credited to the company that published them. In a fast growing market, studios wanted to make it more difficult for competitors to poach talented programmers by keeping their identities hidden. This practice is why we don’t know exactly who conceived and programmed Aquaventure, along with many other titles from the early 80s.

Understandably, this practice was not appreciated by programmers and it caused a fair amount of friction within studios at the time, including at Atari.  This conflict over the issue only increased as video games became more popular, and individual programmers began to achieve a level of prestige among their peers. 

As the industry grew, and new studios formed, this practice began to change. Activision, formed by a group of ex-Atari employees, was one of the first and most prominent studios to begin crediting individuals, and their names appeared in-game on title screens and in the user manual. The creators even provided tips and tricks for playing their games in the manuals. 

It wouldn’t be until 1983 that Atari changed course and started crediting programmers on game boxes and manuals. By most accounts, the turning point was when programmer Steve Woita threatened to walk unless he was given credit on his new game, Taz.  

There was one wonderful upside to the struggle over recognition -- the invention of the easter egg. An easter egg is a hidden message or feature in a game that has to be discovered by players. While extravagant easter eggs are common now, they were rare in the early years of video games. Easter eggs were usually simple because memory and cartridge space for games was very limited. The most common form of easter egg revealed the programmers name or initials when a certain joystick or button combination was input.  These button combinations were usually quite complex so they could not be uncovered by accident. This practice was not encouraged by the studios and publishers which led some programmers to bury their name or initials in the game code.  Ironically, as easter eggs became popular, Atari started embracing them and encouraged programmers to add them to their code.

There is some question about what game should get credit for having the first easter egg. One candidate is an Atari arcade game.  In 1977, programmer Ron Milner hid the words “Hi Ron!” in the Atari arcade game Starship 1.  The method for uncovering this easter egg was complex, and required timing that was difficult to pull off, so it remained hidden for over 40 years. 

The first easter egg on a home console was supposed to be on the short-lived Fairchild Channel F.  In the game Spitfire (released in August, 1977) the player could trigger the words “Done By Michael K Glass” to display on the screen by inputting a series of forty eight numbers using the four game option buttons. Unfortunately for Glass, changes to the Channel F cartridges made his easter egg impossible to trigger in the consumer release of the game. It was only accessible in some in-store demo units, so it was not until much later that players could appreciate his easter egg using emulation.

Recent evidence suggests that Spitfire may have been available on the Channel F starting on April 15th, 1977.  If accurate, it would predate the Starship 1 easter egg  by almost four months.  The debate may never be resolved, and many people want to disqualify Spitfire because home users could not actually trigger the easter egg. 

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The first Atari 2600 game to become widely associated with an easter egg was the 1980 release Adventure.

Even though the industry started credited programmers in the mid 80s, the tradition of adding hidden names to games continued into the 90’s.  Over time, easter eggs have evolved into a wide variety of inside jokes, new game options, extra levels, and even references to other games. 

View the full article on the official Atari® XP website

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