The instruction manual for the first version of the first game Epyx (Automated Simulations at the time) ever created.
Jim Connelley and Jon Freeman met at a game of Dungeons and Dragons in 1977. Jim served as one of the regular Dungeon Masters, and he had purchased a Commodore PET computer to help him with the task. He was also a computer hobbyist/programmer, which was a necessity since computers at that time were not designed to function as Dungeon Master Assistants. Jim, hoping to write off his expensive gaming aid, eventually decided to make a computer game. Enter Jon Freeman.
Jon didn't know much about computers, but he was an experienced game player and author. He wrote a book on the topic, "A Player's Guide to Board Games," and he was a regular contributor to GAMES magazine. (Later, in 1980, he also wrote a large portion of "The Complete Book of Wargames."). Jim recruited Jon to help him with the game's development in mid-1978. At this point, there was no company -- just two guys working on a science-fiction strategy game in PET basic. Jim did the programming and Jon designed the game and wrote the manual. Before the end of 1978, the design and programming were complete, and Starfleet Orion was born. Jon and Jim formed a company they called "Automated Simulations" for the purpose of selling the game. They derived the name from Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), which was an up-and-coming competitor to Avalon Hill in the wargame arena, since the duo's original thought was to concentrate on science fiction wargames.
Jim and Jon had no background in computer game publishing, but in 1978, few people did. They hired a local printer and typesetter to print a quantity of manuals, bought a bunch of sealable baggies, and duplicated the cassettes by hand on Jim's PET. For the first six months, the whole production and distribution process was run out of the spare bedroom in Jim's apartment. Certainly the cost and simplicity of this system would make modern publishers quite envious. However, the primitive computer gaming industry also had some major drawbacks (aside from executive-level manual labor). One of the biggest drawbacks for a budding publisher in 1978 was the lack of magazines and other marketing vehicles dedicated to computer games. For this reason, you can find early advertisements for Automated Simulation games in various hobbyist magazines with similar readerships (such as wargame magazines, Dragon Magazine, etc.). Starfleet Orion was on the market in time for Christmas of 1978.
These are typical early (1980-81) Epyx ads from Dragon Magazine. The two small ads on the left were replaced by full page ads (right) as the company grew.
Automated Simulation's next game was a sequel to Starfleet Orion called Invasion Orion. Unlike Starfleet Orion, Invasion Orion featured a computer opponent for solo games. Also unlike its predecessor, Invasion Orion was written from the onset for both the PET and TRS-80. (Starfleet Orion was initially a PET only game, but was later ported to the TRS-80 and Apple II). The TRS-80 was a more home-oriented computer, which appealed more to game players than the PET.
At this point, Automated Simulations was going through a metamorphosis. Its next game wasn't a wargame at all. It was a Role-Playing Game similar to the Dungeons and Dragons session that brought the founders together. The game was called Temple of Apshai and was written initially for the TRS-80, then the PET and finally converted to the Apple II by a third party. Since Apshai was an RPG, the Automated Simulations name didn't quite fit anymore. Jim and Jon came up with "Epyx," a trademarkable homophone for "Epics," which was more suitable for the new game. It was meant to be a brand name, like EA Sports is for Electronic Arts. However, the new name was shorter, catchier, less clunky/geeky-sounding, and easier to remember so it naturally evolved into the company name. From about 1980 - 1983 both names appeared on game boxes. By 1984, "Epyx" stood on its own. Temple of Apshai went on to become a huge success and was ported to practically every computer platform made. Several sequels and similar titles in the "Dunjonquest" line were published. These include: Hellfire Warrior, Curse of Ra, Upper Reaches of Apshai, Morloc's Tower, Sword of Fargoal, Danger in Drindisti, The Datestones of Ryn, Gateway to Apshai, and the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.
The original PET Apshai manual. Note the Automated Simulations logo in the lower right corner.
In November of 1981, Jon Freeman left Epyx to form a new gaming company with his soon-to-be wife, Anne Westfall. The new venture was called Free Fall Associates. Their most notable early title was 1983's Archon -- another GOTCHA winner. Jon and Anne left Epyx so they could spend more time developing games and less time dealing with the business. They particularly disliked the time spent arguing with Jim about differences in direction for Epyx. Jim Connelley left Epyx in 1983 when the company was taken over by new ownership.
Although both founders had left the company by 1983, Epyx continued to flourish. The direction of the games was decidedly different from the strategy and RPG-oriented offerings of Automated Simulations, but some of Epyx's best-loved games came from this period. The string of hits included Jumpman, Pitstop, Summer Games, and Impossible Mission, which were all released in 1983 and later. 1984's Summer Games in particular was a cross-platform smash, selling large numbers on both computer and console platforms. It also rivaled Apshai in the number of sequels it spawned: Summer Games II, Winter Games, The Games, World Games, California Games, California Games II, etc.
By 1985, Epyx had transformed into a major third-party publisher and started distributing games produced by up-and-coming developers such as Lucasfilm games (Ballblazer, Koronis Rift, and Rescue on Fractalus). They also had several hits imported from Europe such as Death Sword (known as Barbarian in Europe) and Tower Toppler (known as Nebulous in Europe.) They even served a short stint as Microsoft's publisher for its Multiplan spreadsheet software.
By 1987, however, Epyx's fortunes had begun to turn as they started to expand their product lines beyond computer and video games. Epyx had dabbled successfully in hardware and utilities in the past, but its new direction was pointing the company in too many directions at once. Although they had produced 9 to 5 Typing, the revolutionary 500XJ joystick (manufactured by Konix), and the highly successful Fast Load utility cartridge for the C-64 in 1984, 1988 brought even more diversity to the Epyx product line. While Art and Film director was a good graphics and animation package, it didn't fit into any particular market segment. Epyx even ventured beyond the safe confines of computers altogether and published several board games and VCR games. Again, even though Epyx had some experience in this arena with the 1983 hybrid computer/board game, Oil Barons, the new board games (i.e. Head On Football and Head on Baseball) and VCR games (i.e. VCR California Games and Play Action VCR Football) had no real target market and flopped. The final stone in Epyx's crypt was their development of a color handheld video game, code-named "Handy," which Atari would eventually market as the Lynx. The technology designed by Dave Needle and R.J. Mical was ahead of its time, but the cost to develop it was exorbitant. Atari's Jack Tramiel delivered the coup de grace by forcing Epyx into bankruptcy. Atari was both a creditor and a debtor of Epyx; when Atari failed to pay for their contracted titles, Epyx went broke, which gave Atari the titles for free.
Epyx was dissolved and sold to the Bridgestone Group in the early 1990s. Their final PC games were relatively obscure including 1990'sCalifornia Games II and 1994's Battle Bugs, which was published by Sierra.
This article was based on an e-mail interview with Jon Freeman. GOTCHA would like to thank Mr. Freeman for the time, patience, manuals and editing skills he has generously donated to the cause.
Games in the GOTCHA Museum
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