Gamechanger – Eastern Front (1941)

Eastern Front (1941), Chris Crawford & Atari, 1981.

Eastern Front (1941), Chris Crawford & Atari, 1981.

In 1981, Chris Crawford was riding high (little did he know that in just three years, he’d be looking for a job).  Since joining Atari in 1979, he had become a full-fledged star programmer.  In his first two years with Atari, Crawford delivered a number of top selling games, including Energy Czar and SCRAM – a simulator of a nuclear power generator.  These simple, but deeply strategic games, established Crawford as a programmer who could attract a sophisticated audience, and in large numbers.  This was a talent that was incredibly valuable in the new and emerging computer software industry.  Even then, Chris Crawford couldn’t get Atari to release his latest game, a simulation of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.

Eastern Front (1941), inside the box.

Eastern Front (1941), inside the box.

While working at Atari, Chris Crawford saw a colleague demonstrate how to use the graphics capabilities of the Atari 8-bit computers to smoothly scroll over text.  Meaning, the text would scroll more like film credits, rather than jump from one row to the next.  Since the beginning of his career, Crawford was interesting in military simulations.  He had been tinkering with a grand strategic game covering the war on the Eastern Front in World War II, but had not been satisfied with early test versions.  By taking advantage of the Atari’s graphics hardware, Crawford’s mind began to work on, and solve, many of the issues with his game.

Eastern Front (1941) game-area map.

Eastern Front (1941) game-area map.

The eastern front between Germany and the Soviet Union was massive on scope and scale.  Crawford eventually whittled his concept down to cover just the pivotal first year of the war.  By adding zones-of-control, he was able to streamline the number of units in the game, and boost the opponent AI.  Units had moral ratings, allowing them to be ‘broken’, and withdrawn by the AI.  The game included logistic and supply rules, enabling enemy units to be encircled and destroyed easily.  Even in this distilled state, Eastern Front (1941) was easily the most sophisticated consumer-level computer war game ever created.

Eastern Front (1941) gameplay screen.

Eastern Front (1941) gameplay screen. (Wikipedia)

After a year of development, Crawford took the game to a puzzled Atari marketing team.  Even through Crawford’s entire library demonstrated that sophisticated strategy games could be hits, the company was worried that war-games would not sell.  So, Atari declined to publish or distribute it.  Instead, Crawford went to the Atari Program Exchange, a mail-order software division of Atari.  There the game was a smash, and Atari quickly reversed and agreed to publish the game.  With additional development time and budget, Crawford added air power, individual unit orders (Move, Defend, Assault, etc), and a revamped AI.  In 1982, Atari released a full boxed version of Eastern Front (1941), on cartridge, with rule/history book and game map.

The game continued to be an enormous hit, but, more importantly, proved to be pivotal in the development of computer strategy and war games.  Sid Meier has cited Eastern Front as an inspiration for his early war games, NATO Commander, Crusade In Europe, Decision In The Desert, and Conflict: Vietnam.  The establishment of a bonafide strategy game audience, paved the way for EA classics like M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities Of Gold, as well as nearly the entire catalog for SSI.  By creating a template for simple, but deep  and fun strategy games, Eastern Front (1941)1 deserves its Gamechanger status.

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Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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