Preserving the Brøderbund Story

Brøderbund founder Doug Carlston has given ICHEG nearly 1,500 copies of Brøderbund’s software (in pristine condition), representing virtually every product the company released, and an extensive archive of business records that document the growth of both the company and the personal computer software industry.

I remember my first exposure to Brøderbund like it was yesterday. I went to my cousin’s house for a confirmation party, and a group of us crowded around his Apple IIe to watch a friend play Choplifter!, a smooth-scrolling, hostage-rescue game that instantly captivated me. Like millions of other users, I later fell in-love with other titles the company published or distributed like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Lode Runner, SimCity, Prince of Persia, and Myst.Broderbund Games, Courtesy of The Strong

At the time, my cousin’s computer was a relative rarity, as 30 years ago fewer than 10% of Americans owned a computer. Personal computers were expensive and many consumers didn’t know what to use them for anyway. Software companies had to invent products that made computers desirable tools of everyday life. Brøderbund led the way with a broad range of products that defined the home computer as a must-have purchase.

In 1980 Doug Carlston quit his corporate law practice and formed Brøderbund with his brother Gary. Their sister Cathy soon joined them. The Carlstons sought to follow sound business principles, produce good products, and have fun along the way. The company’s first personnel manual—all of one page—stated their belief that Brøderbund was “not just a business, … [but] an attempt to build an emotionally and financially satisfying way of spending our daylight hours.”

Prior to starting the company, Doug had created a computer game, Galactic Empire, for the Tandy TRS-80. So, initially they concentrated on producing additional games for the TRS-80. Soon, however, Brøderbund expanded into the Apple market and secured major sales from a partnership with the Japanese software manufacturer Starcraft. Ultimately Brøderbund diversified its line of products to include productivity software, and by 1984 the company’s productivity tools, like the word processing program Bank Street Writer and creativity software such as Print Shop, had become its leading sellers.

Company leaders realized that in order to survive the industry’s volatility they had to develop successful brands in a wide variety of different market niches. An investment memorandum from July 1985 noted that “A major reason for Brøderbund’s continuing financial success is the company’s strategic diversification of software titles. The company has not only produced a multitude of software hits, but has also done so in three of the four major software categories.” These categories included Personal Productivity (Bank Street Writer, a word processing program), Creativity Tools (Print Shop), and Entertainment (Choplifter and Lode Runner). The company eventually grew into a nearly $200 million business before being acquired by The Learning Company in 1998.

Doug Carlston not only expertly ran Brøderbund but also helped the nascent personal software industry develop. The Brøderbund Collection sheds light on these early years of the personal computer industry. Doug’s careful notes from trips to conventions and meetings, and the company’s research on competitors, document the growth of the software market. Carlston helped create the Software Publishers Association (SPA) in 1983 and served as the organization’s first President. His records detail how the SPA tackled some of the thorniest industry issues such as rampant software piracy, the need to share business information, and the response to government interventions into the operations and concerns of the software industry.

The Brøderbund Collection supplements and builds on other museum collections. For example, Brøderbund published Will Wright’s first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay, distributed Wright’s break-out hit SimCity, employed Don Daglow as a Brøderbund executive, and rose to prominence in competition and conversation with other software publishers such as Sierra and SSI. With the addition of these Brøderbund records, researchers writing the history of the computer games industry now have even more material to help them tell the story of how that it developed and grew.