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ARTICLE

Gaming's Defining Moments No. 22

Jack Tramiel and the Commodore 64.

On Sunday April 8, 2012, Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore International, passed away. He was 83.

Tramiel had a considerable impact on the interactive entertainment industry. His legacy includes overseeing the creation of the Commodore PET and, most famously, the Commodore 64.

The C64 was released in 1982, and instantly proved popular with computer enthusiasts. During its lifetime, the computer sold somewhere between 12.5 and 17 million units, making it the best selling personal computer of all time. This was no mean feat when the competition is considered; variations of the Apple II were selling well and IBM compatible PCs were starting to take off. To have prospered in such a competitive environment is a testament to the quality and durability of Commodore's machine.

The C64 featured 64 kilobytes of RAM (it wasn't just a clever name), and married this unusually large amount of memory with decent sound capabilities; it was the first popular home computer to do so. This fusion of graphical and audio technology made it the perfect machine for gaming, previously only the purview of consoles.

The C64 was originally intended to be a games console (the Commodore MAX Machine - or Ultimax - was discontinued after very poor sales in Japan). It was redesigned for the personal computer market, a hasty change of pace that worked out well for the company. The the success of the C64 is considered to be one of several catalysts that triggered the North American video games crash of 1983: Over saturation of the console market and increasing competition from powerful, yet affordable machines like the C64, left the American industry in a rut it wouldn't recover from for nearly two years.

Because of Commodore's open approach to software development, the machine was extensively supported by both game developers and software designers, and at its height the C64 had a whole plethora of different programs available for it. But it was the games that were released on the computer that really pushed the hardware to its limitations, and after the Atari-led crash of '83, there were plenty of designers and programmers that migrated from consoles to computers.

Titles like the seminal, genre-defining space trader Elite (1984) and dungeon crawler Gauntlet (1985), captured the imaginations of computer enthusiasts, and helped bring the computer to a more mainstream audience. They might not have had exclusivity deals as is the norm today; these games appeared on several different platforms, but nevertheless their availability helped cement the C64's place at the top table of modern computing.

The lasting legacy of Tramiel and the C64 was the impact it went on to have on the overall landscape of the computer manufacturing and retail industry. An aggressive price war in America laid waste to many smaller businesses competing in the same market, with only a few companies left standing, and even they were left in precarious positions. Though for the reason behind the price war you need to go back a few years.

Texas Instruments were Commodore's competition in the 70's calculator industry. At one point TI pushed Commodore to the brink of bankruptcy (only a cash injection by businessman Irvine Gould was enough to save them). TI did this by entering the market with a calculator of their own, releasing it for less than they were charging rival manufacturers for the components needed to make their own machines. Tramiel vowed it would never happen again. It prompted the company to invest in MOS Technology, a component manufacturer that would give Commodore the edge when the two companies crossed swords again the early 80s, this time in the computer market.

Tramiel aggressively pursued his vendetta against TI to such an extent that he not only put them out of the game, but several other smaller companies too. A favourite saying of his was "business is war". Commodore's low production costs (thanks to producing their own components in-house) meant that Tramiel and Commodore were able push their rivals into making drastic and unsustainable price cuts. Over time businesses found it increasingly difficult to compete with Commodore. Texas Instruments' TI-99/4a - the Commodore 64's closest rival in the budget PC market - hemorrhaged so much money trying to remain competitive with the C64, that TI had to completely retire from the home computer market in 1983.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the C64 had some very different competition. ‘Uncle' Clive Sinclair's ZX Spectrum was one of the first affordable home computers, and its availability made it a favourite in British homes. Its impact could be considered comparable to that of the C64 in America.

It wasn't just the Spectrum ZX that Commodore had to worry about; the Amstrad CPC and the BBC Micro both had developed a decent following of dedicated users that grew across Europe through the 80s, but the C64 still proved popular enough to remain a mainstay.

Over the next ten years or so, there were several variants of the popular C64 formula released to market. These hardware and design improvements were enough to keep the computer relevant until manufacturing was discontinued in 1994; that's quite a life cycle by today's standards.

The company didn't last much longer than its most famous machine, with Commodore International winding up later that year. It was the end of era, although the name, and spirit, of the company lives on. Fans of the retro aesthetics can buy a refurbished C64 machine, equipped for the modern age (though they're not cheap) and software for the old system is still incredibly popular. Picking up an C64 emulator gives nostalgic users access to a library of literally thousands of titles and new programmes are still being written to this day.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64's introduction to the world. During its heyday it was a fundamental cog in the games industry; carrying the weight of the industry on its shoulders after the American video games crash of '83, and by providing so many developers and programmers with the tools they would need to go forth and create.

Jack Tramiel, the man that bought the computer to the masses, will always hold a special place in the history of the industry. His life, and the success of his most famous project, stands as one of gaming's defining moments.

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