FLATLINE: How The Amiga Languished

FLATLINE: How The Amiga Languished
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    "What you are about to witness is the result of an effort of research and engineering that
    began in 1982:"
    "The Amiga computer."
    On the 23rd of July 1985, at a lavish, tuxedo-clad event in New York, the Commodore Amiga was
    unveiled.
    It was part of a new wave of 16-bit machines, including the Apple Macintosh, IBM PC and
    Atari ST.
    But spec-wise, the Amiga was better than all of them.
    With 4,096 colours, 4 channels of digital audio, and pre-emptive multitasking - it was
    capable of incredible things for the time.
    For comparison, at the Macintosh launch - just a year earlier - the crowd went wild for a
    scrolling screen of monochrome text.
    The Amiga could animate in colour, with synchronised sound - and in the case of the famous Boing
    ball demo, it could do it effortlessly in the background, thanks to the hardware acceleration
    of its custom chipset.
    The highlight was a live art performance with Andy Warhol - who produced a digital portrait
    of Debbie Harry on the new machine.
    It was a spectacular launch of an incredible piece of hardware: And a glimpse at the future
    of multimedia; But the Amiga would not be a success.
    It didn't catch on. It flatlined. And a conspiracy of bad fortune and mismanagement meant it
    languished for years.
    So what happened? Why did the Amiga have such a slow start?
    And where did it all go wrong?
    The launch established the Amiga as a capable machine, and helped give it some true artistic
    credibility.
    But there's more to a successful computer than just the hardware. A host of factors
    are at play - the pricing, availability, marketing, peripheral support - and software.
    Software was perhaps the most critical at this early stage - the vital 'killer app'.
    IBM had Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect: The Macintosh had Pagemaker; The Amiga had nothing.
    As 1985 progressed, Commodore were struggling to provide even essential elements themselves
    - so they had to turn to a company called MetaComCo for additional support.
    They would provide AmigaDOS - the part of the OS responsible for disk management and
    the command line interface. MetaComCo would also provide ABasic, alongside other essential
    development tools.
    On the productivity front, Commodore commissioned a word processor called 'Textcraft' - and
    a paint package called 'Graphicraft'.
    This covered the bare essentials - but little more.
    If the Amiga was going to succeed, third party software was going to be absolutely essential.
    Luckily, Trip Hawkins, the founder of a company called Electronic Arts - was rather enamoured
    with the Amiga.
    In an LA Times article he declared, "The Amiga is capable of causing a rebirth of the explosion
    in home computers..." - and in a double page spread, a bold statement of support:
    'Why Electronic Arts is Committed to the Amiga'.
    Their first wave of releases were mostly ports of their earlier 8-bit software: a basketball
    game called One on One; Chess variant Archon; and strategy adventure Seven Cities of Gold.
    But perhaps EA's greatest contribution to the Amiga arrived in November 1985 - just
    when the Amiga was starting to ship in quantity.
    Deluxe Paint was based on EA's internal art software named 'Prism' - ported to the Amiga
    and polished for release.
    It was a spectacularly good piece of software.
    It became the standard art package for the Amiga - really, it was the Photoshop of its
    day - and you can bet the vast majority of Amiga software and games were made using it.
    One of its demonstration pictures became rather a defining image for the Amiga: 'King Tut'
    - a rendition of Tutankhamen's death mask in a resplendent 32 colours.
    It was used in an 1986 advert extolling the graphical ability of the Amiga, and the golden
    mask adorned every subsequent release of the software.
    So, if the Amiga had a killer app in 1985, it was definitely DPaint.
    More importantly though, EA's confidence in the Amiga was inspiring.
    It was a risky move on their part, but they embraced it - and in doing so they encouraged
    other publishers to test the waters.
    Activision followed EA's lead, bringing a variety of 8-bit ports to the Amiga.
    Infocom were particularly prolific - releasing over 20 titles by the end of 1986. Their text
    adventures were easy to port, as they ran universal code on a virtual machine.
    Bethesda Softworks released Gridiron!, a physics based American Football simulator;
    MicroIllusions were short-lived - but supported the Amiga wholeheartedly, with games like
    The Faery Tale Adventure.
    Even Commodore themselves published a game: Mind Walker, from the idiosyncratic Bill Williams;
    Commodore stepping in to save his project from a near-bankrupt Synapse Software.
    Another major force was Mindscape - they had worked closely with Commodore before, and
    published quite a few early titles.
    They brought Chris Crawford's seminal strategy game 'Balance of Power' to the Amiga:
    As well as ICOM's MacVenture series (Deja Vu, Uninvited);
    and ChessMaster 2000 from The Software Toolworks.
    So, the Amiga had quite a range of support within its first year - but many of these
    games were originally made for other platforms - mainly the Macintosh and Atari ST.
    Conversions from other 68K-based platforms were a cheap way to bulk out the Amiga's library,
    but it's fair to say that most of these ports didn't really stretch the Amiga's abilities.
    For some, this was a shame - the potential of these new machines allowed for a completely
    new artistic approach.
    That's why Bob and Phyllis Jacob founded Cinemaware in 1985, enticed by the prospect of unfettered
    graphics and sound.
    As their name implies, their games would be heavily influenced by cinema: and the first
    was a Robin Hood themed strategy game called Defender of the Crown.
    Jim Sachs provided the majority of the art - he was an early adopter of the Amiga, and
    a fantastic artist who really defined the look of the game.
    By mid 1986, his artwork was in place - but the development was proving more difficult:
    not many people were familiar with programming for the Amiga, and the company contracted
    to make the game were struggling.
    So Cinemaware turned to someone with slightly more expertise: RJ Mical, member of the original
    Amiga team, and the guy behind Intuition, the Amiga's graphical user interface.
    It was a very short timeframe - just six weeks - but few people had RJ's know-how, and he
    was just about able bring everything together by October 1986.
    Of course, it was rushed - with missing elements, underwhelming gameplay, and a strategy component
    that wasn't particularly deep...
    but it looked and sounded spectacular.
    Defender of the Crown set a new standard for 16-bit games - and for the very first time,
    the Amiga had a game that showed what it could do.
    In November 1986, another demonstration of the Amiga's ability emerged - a ray-traced
    animation of a juggler.
    It was full screen, true colour, ran at 30 frames a second - and it was rendered on an
    Amiga.
    Not in real-time, of course - ray tracing is an enormously CPU-intensive affair. But
    a few years ago something like this would be leading edge, state of the art even for
    an expensive graphics workstation - and now you could do it at home.
    It was a simple scene - in fact, if you look closely, you'll see that everything is made
    out of spheres.
    Simple, but still a remarkable demonstration of computer graphics: with specular and diffuse
    reflection, shadowing - all of this and it was animated.
    The author, Eric Graham, sent the demonstration to Commodore in case they had a use for it.
    At first, they didn't believe that it was rendered on an Amiga! But it was, demonstrably
    so, and the Juggler demo was spread far and wide: another feather in the platform's cap.
    So it took a while, but by the end of 1986, the Amiga was starting to build a compelling
    case for purchase.
    It had a solid base of software, with a few stand-out examples that emphasised its 16-bit
    potential.
    There was only one problem: the Amiga wasn't selling.
    At first, it was a problem of availability: after the unveiling in July '85, the Amiga
    was supposed to launch in September.
    It didn't - at least, not really - the Amiga didn't ship in large quantities until November,
    which meant it missed the key buying period for Christmas.
    In fact, those outside the US would have to wait until 1986 - the PAL ROMs were only finished
    in February.
    The Amiga had a bit of an identity crisis: They were trying to avoid painting it as a
    'toy' computer - and so to distance it from the much cheaper C64, Commodore were intent
    on chasing the more serious business sector.
    Unfortunately this was absolutely dominated by IBM (and a whole army of clones) - Commodore
    didn't stand a chance.
    The Amiga's advertising certainly didn't help.
    The first big budget TV campaign in September '85 took its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
    An older man wanders through an Escher-inspired scene, ascending a staircase into a mysterious
    chamber.
    An Amiga sits on a pedestal - he approaches it, presses a key, and light engulfs him - and
    a rubber foetus appears in soft focus.
    They were clearly going for some sort of 'rebirth' theme - the notion that the creative power
    of the Amiga can revitalise your work.
    But it was... weird. It definitely wasn't effective. And the follow-up adverts weren't
    any better.
    They targeted wealthy baby boomers with nostalgic, sepia-toned images of the 50s, with the promise
    that the Amiga would 'give you a creative edge'.
    The asking price of thirteen hundred dollars plus was steep - and at this point there wasn't
    really a proven market for home computers in this price range.
    With hindsight, it's clear that the Amiga was a vanguard of the multimedia revolution
    - but Commodore missed the mark.
    They had a relatively big budget for marketing - $40 million dollars - but they squandered
    it on a confused message that clearly didn't understand what this machine could do or who
    it was for.
    However, there were even bigger troubles brewing. Commodore were trying their best to hide it,
    but they were desperately short of money.
    In fact, by the middle of 1985 - just as the Amiga was launching - they were on the verge
    of bankruptcy.
    Their fortunes had changed drastically since 1983 - that was a bumper year for the Commodore
    64, breaking revenue records as Commodore became the first personal computer company
    to breach a billion dollars of sales.
    But their margins were razor thin - and the home computer market cooled faster than expected
    in 1984, leading to mounting losses.
    So, by 1985, Commodore needed a miracle to survive.
    They got the Amiga instead.
    Its tepid start meant that it wouldn't save the company - and the resultant lack of cash
    flow meant they wouldn't be able to give the Amiga the support and promotion it so desperately
    needed.
    They were paralysed. The only thing Commodore could do was cut spending - and wait for the
    Christmas sales of the C64 to bail them out.
    Meanwhile, the Amiga's rivals were gaining traction.
    The Atari ST beat the Amiga to release and undercut its price. It was cheap - and the
    top-level specs were similar.
    Overall, it wasn't quite as powerful, but its lower cost made it more accessible to
    the mass market - and the ST had a substantial lead by the end of 1986.
    The Apple Macintosh had a similar start to the Amiga, but had the advantage of being
    released over a year earlier - at the start of 1984.
    By the end of that year, they had sold 372,000 Macs - and had found a substantial niche in
    desktop publishing, along with a cult-like following.
    Neither the Amiga nor Atari ST would ever keep pace.
    However, even the Mac was dwarfed by the PC - with 2 million IBM compatibles sold in '84,
    3.7 million the next year, 5 million after that.
    People first bought them to bring their work home with them, but soon the PC would be entirely
    dominant in the home.
    Commodore had enjoyed a brief moment at the top with the C64 - but now they were out of
    money and had somehow slipped into fourth place.
    But then, Commodore were never known for their management skills.
    They were going through a turbulent time in terms of leadership: losing their longstanding
    founder and CEO Jack Tramiel in early 1984; in a controversial ousting by key shareholder
    Irving Gould.
    Tramiel set out for revenge, taking over Atari's computer division and developing the Atari
    ST - the Amiga's main rival.
    Meanwhile, Marshall Smith took the reins at Commodore - an executive from the steel industry.
    He was ill-prepared for the volatility of the technology market - so when Commodore's
    fortunes turned sour in 1985 it became clear that perhaps someone more dynamic was needed.
    A man named Thomas Rattigan was chosen - the ex-CEO of PepsiCo International.
    He was appointed as Commodore's chief operating officer in December 85, before replacing Smith
    as CEO in March 1986.
    And he knew that if Commodore were to survive, the bleeding had to stop as quickly as possible.
    So, first he cut the fat: legacy products, and dead-end projects.
    Then, flesh: a 45% total reduction in payroll. Closure of a couple of factories that were
    surplus to requirements.
    Finally, he hit bone: closing the Amiga offices in Los Gatos - forcing most of the original
    team to leave.
    And, after summer 1986, production of the Amiga stopped.
    It was a logical decision - with 140,000 units made, they had enough inventory to cover sales
    for a while - there was no point in spending money on stock they may never be able to sell.
    These cuts were drastic and would have a lasting impact on Commodore and the Amiga's future
    - but the alternative was bankruptcy.
    1986 was not the Amiga's year. Its technical edge slipped ever more.
    Rattigan had a plan, however.
    By cutting costs he was able to clear the company's debt - and as the Christmas revenue
    from the Commodore 64 came in, they even started to turn a profit.
    In fact, by March 1987, Commodore had $46 million in cash - the most money they'd had
    since 1983.
    Meanwhile, the future of the Amiga was under consideration - with some new models on the
    horizon.
    The original was simply called the 'Amiga', but Commodore were big on numerical model
    numbers - and internally it was known as the Amiga 1000.
    The plan for 1987 was to bifurcate the Amiga line into two new machines: one catering to
    the entry level, and another for the high end.
    The new big box model was dubbed the '2000' - a revised design with similar base specs
    to the 1000 - but futureproofed with a huge amount of potential expansion: 5 'Zorro II'
    and 4 PC ISA slots.
    The low-end model was called the Amiga 500. Not because it was half as good - but because
    it was supposed to be half the price.
    Essentially, it was an Amiga cost-reduced as far as practically possible - designed
    to fit a modest home role.
    The (optional) TV modulator and power supply were made into external units, and the keyboard
    was incorporated into a wedge-shaped case, similar to the earlier Commodore 128.
    It looked a bit like the Atari ST, to be honest - but with its custom chips, it had an edge.
    These new Amigas were first shown in March 1987, at CeBIT in Hanover.
    There was a certain amount of panic amongst existing users - concern that their machines
    would be made obsolete. They were reassured that this wasn't the case - aside from the
    new expansion slots, the machines were compatible.
    As for the 500, there was an acknowledgement that a cheaper machine would make for a healthier
    Amiga market, but also a fear that some of that 16-bit exclusivity was being lost.
    Things were slightly different in Europe: long spoiled by cheap microcomputers, the
    original Amiga was too expensive to sell well - so there was an undercurrent of excitement
    at the prospect of a cheap Amiga.
    With a large potential market looking for a 16-bit upgrade, the 500 was perfect.
    So, Commodore had money in the bank and a new lineup - but in April 1987, just as things
    were looking up, Thomas Rattigan was fired.
    The exact reasons for his dismissal aren't known - but it's clear there was some conflict
    with Irving Gould.
    Rumours abound that Rattigan was planning a coup to seize control of the company - although
    the official reasoning was sub-par growth in the US market, with Europe emerging as
    the dominant marketplace.
    In any case, Rattigan was out, Gould directly replaced him - and it was time for the new
    Amigas to ship.
    Commodore's advertising would never be spectacular, but for this second wave they had a remarkably
    low bar to clear.
    At the very least, the adverts of this era were more confident of what the Amiga could
    do - and while they still wanted to distance it from the 'toy-like' 8-bit machines - they
    acknowledged that the Amiga could be used for games.
    'It talks, it animates, it educates, it's a home office, it's a video studio, it's arcade
    games in stereo.'
    They even had a slogan: 'Only Amiga makes it possible!'
    1987 was a transitional year for Amiga software: on the one hand, there was a retraction of
    some early support - not everyone who 'tested the waters' stuck around;
    But on the other, there was a quiet optimism at the prospect of new machines - and a slowly
    growing but very significant community.
    One of the most important vectors of software distribution was the Public Domain - and a
    champion on this front was a man named Fred Fish.
    He compiled disks filled with free software and distributed them far and wide.
    In the early days, they contained invaluable hardware reference and programming support
    - and as the Amiga matured, the fish disks became an indispensable source of cool software.
    The Amiga community was tight-knit, principally because of its small size - but also due to
    a willingness to network, both through user group meetups - and via modem.
    It was a pre-web world, but bulletin boards were very much a thing, and a propagation
    point for software to spread rapidly.
    It's fair to say that piracy was quite widespread. More than a few 'backup' disks were exchanged
    between friends.
    A nascent demoscene was making itself known through cracktros - little introductions bundled
    with cracked software, normally with fantastic music - thanks to tracker software like The
    Ultimate Soundtracker.
    It was also around this time that the first Amiga virus attained widespread infection
    - the SCA virus copied itself from disk to disk, periodically showing a message on-screen.
    It was early days - but the Amiga had its very own subculture.
    By the end of 1987, the total install base for the Amiga platform had crept over the
    half-million mark - more than double what it was a year prior, and largely thanks to
    the Amiga 500.
    Things were starting to look viable!
    By 1988, a large number of new magazines started catering to the Amiga audience: Amiga User
    International; Your Amiga; Amiga Computing; ST/Amiga Format; and The One.
    The platform had already found a niche in video production thanks to its colourful output,
    NTSC sync and genlock support: but at the 1987 World of Commodore show Newtek announced
    a very important piece of hardware called the Video Toaster.
    It wouldn't release until 1990, but alongside Lightwave 3D, it would turn the Amiga into
    a production powerhouse - outperforming systems ten times the cost.
    By the middle of '88, computer retailers were reporting that the Amiga was selling as quickly
    as the ST, with many Atari owners exchanging their systems.
    This meant that it was now increasingly worthwhile for developers to port their games from the
    Atari ST to the Amiga - a relatively simple task, given that they had the same CPU (and
    the Amiga could easily match the ST's graphics).
    This was good, as it meant that all of a sudden there was a large library of games for the
    Amiga - but it was also bad, because none of them took particular advantage of the Amiga's
    chipset, and often ran more slowly than the ST counterpart.
    Still, this was a definite tipping point for the Amiga - and in July 1988, Commodore UK
    made an aggressive price cut: selling the basic A500 for just £399 - the same price
    as the ST.
    Atari cut their prices in response, but it was too late: the Amiga started to pull ahead.
    Better yet, developers were starting to get to grips with the machine's unique abilities
    - and increasingly, more games were at their best on the Amiga.
    Arcade conversions were a staple of the era, but most 8-bit efforts were embarrassing compared
    to the original. But for a brief moment, the Amiga could manage near-perfect arcade ports.
    In fact, many regard the Amiga version of Silkworm as superior to the arcade original!
    Beyond the big-name ports, a number of developers were starting to build a reputation for high-quality,
    original 16-bit software - and amongst them were The Bitmap Brothers.
    Their first game was a vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up called Xenon.
    It had all the hallmarks of a 16-bit game: Digitised speech and video; In-game music
    as well as sound effects; and relatively colourful graphics.
    It was impressive enough to be featured as a phone-in game on Saturday morning children's
    television - and it also has the accolade of being the first ever Amiga game to hit
    the UK Top 40 charts.
    Xenon was first developed for the ST and ported to the Amiga: the Bitmap's next game, Speedball,
    was developed for both simultaneously; but Xenon 2: Megablast was made with the Amiga
    in mind.
    With large sprites, parallax scrolling and rock-hard gameplay it became a benchmark title
    - and the fantastic soundtrack from Bomb The Bass made it a classic.
    The Bitmap Brothers were 16-bit pioneers that helped define the Amiga's aesthetic - and
    some of their later games: like Speedball 2, The Chaos Engine; are considered amongst
    the finest available for the platform.
    Another major publisher at the forefront of this generation were Liverpool-based Psygnosis.
    One of the things they understood more than most is the importance of image: there's more
    to software than just code and graphics.
    Their box art and glossy packaging were almost as important as the contents within - and
    it might seem superficial, but the smaller market for 16-bit software demanded a premium:
    and the slick presentation (and bundled posters and t-shirts) helped justify this value proposition.
    So they rapidly established a reputation for great 16-bit games: but the Amiga versions
    were invariably very similar to the Atari ST ones.
    At least they were, until Shadow of the Beast came out.
    Beast was designed for the Amiga from the ground up, and took advantage of multiple
    hardware tricks.
    It ran in dual playfield mode, with a separate background and foreground: sprites were cleverly
    multiplexed to make the most of the 8 hardware slots; and the co-processor or 'copper' worked
    overtime to orchestrate the necessary mapping and palette changes.
    You don't need to know the technical details to appreciate the end result: instantly impressive,
    fast, arcade action with rich graphics, multi-layered parallax scrolling and atmospheric sound.
    The Atari ST version was pitiful in comparison.
    It's not exactly fair to compare a port to the original like this - but the Amiga had
    more than its fair share of lazy ST ports, so this was just deserts.
    As Christmas 1989 approached the Amiga was the only logical 16-bit choice for games.
    For many (in the UK at least), what really sealed the deal was the Batman pack.
    It bundled the Amiga 500 with Ocean's Batman movie tie-in game (a pretty passable platformer
    with a particularly hot license):
    along with The New Zealand Story; F/A-18 Interceptor; and Deluxe Paint II.
    All this for £399 made for a great deal - and they sold hundreds of thousands of Amigas
    in just a few months.
    The bundle strategy really worked for the 500, and Commodore would move millions of
    Amigas with packages like Flight of Fantasy, Screen Gems, and Cartoon Classics.
    Sunshine on a rainy day! The Amiga was going to be alright.
    For a couple of years, at least.
    Thank you very much for watching - and until next time, farewell.
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