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4May/080

Atari Nerd Chronicles: Mr. Cool , Peter Oliphant

So I have been trying come-up with a weekly column about Atari retro games that will be as interesting for others to read as it will be for me to write. My current attempt at this is this new blog "Atari Advertisement Excavation" in which I dig through some old dusty computer and video games mazines until I find something that sparks a memory, and then spill (what I believe are) interesting details about gaming history and/or my own experiences with them.

I'll start this with this ad for the game Mr. Cool .

Atari 800 Mr. Cool Advertisement

Mr. Cool was a Q-Bert style game for the Atari 400/800 released in 1983 by Sierra On-Line(SierraVision). To be honest, even though I really enjoyed Mr. Cool back-in-the-day,  I don't recall it being any kind of significant release. However, a few years ago I had the privilege to meet the author, a very significant figure in the history of classic games, Peter Oliphant under some semi-interesting circumstances. Here is the story.

In 2002 I was working at Mattel Toys as the technical integration manager for the "before-its-time" Hot Wheels MMOG named Planet HotWheels. My first task in the job was to try to find a development team could support the project during launch, and take-over development when the game came-in house. As the budget kept getting cut further and further, the "team" I was supposed to hire got smaller and smaller until I was simply looking for someone with on-line game experience who could manage the technical side of the project (all of the game content was being produced by a seasoned game designer named Keith Kirby). When the first batch of resumes crossed my desk I was struck by one from a "Peter Oliphant" that listed some classic game development experience. He had worked for Mattel back in the late 70's and 80's on hand-held electronic games, on the Atari 800, Amiga, and PC games. My interest piqued, I called him and told him about the job we currently had available. After an in-depth conversation, we both, begrudgingly, agreed that the job was not a good fit for his skills-set. However, Peter still wanted to come down and see our operation. He was eager to visit Mattel again and, I believe, dig around to see if there were any other jobs that might be a good fit.

A few days later, Mr. Oliphant showed-up at Mattel, and myself, John Little (our other resident Atari 800 geek), and my brother Jeff met him in our lobby. Peter brought along a prototype of an old electronic game he had work on when he first got to Mattel. It was a mini-version of Dungeons and Dragons, that was (I believe) never released. We took Peter over to the Mattel Online offices, and for the next couple hours, picked his brain on computer game history.

Oliphant, a child actor on the Dick Van Dyke Show, had been working for Mattel Electronics when we heard about Sierra On-line in Northern California. Since he wanted to make computer games, he traveled up to meet Ken Williams. His actual hiring story is included in the book Hackers by Steven Levy , but his name is never disclosed (except in the notes at the end of the book). At Sierra, Oliphant created Mr. Cool and WallWar for the Atari 800. He want on to create several more games for Sierra, then moved to Cinemaware where he programmed Amiga versions of SDI and Rocket Ranger. After that he moved on the PC where he created what, at the time, was the game he considered one of his masterpieces: Lexicross created by Platniumware and released by Interplay for DOS in 1991. Lexicross was a Wheel-Of-Fortune game show in-which the players had to solve puzzles. After Lexicross, Oliphant went on to work on his biggest game, but also (what I believe was) his greatest albatross: Stonekeep. Stonekeep was an Interplay RPG made in the style of Dungeon Master. When the game was started, making a souped-up version of Dungeon Master must have seemed like a good idea. Oliphant spent 4 years working on the game, fought scope-creep, and sparred with management to get a decent game produced. However, by the time it was finished (1995), 3D video cards had taken over the PC market, and a 2D-based scaling game with a 3D perspective could not get the attention necessary to make a splash in the marketplace. As I recall, Oliphant was somewhat blamed (wrongly) for this failure (or he felt like he was blamed), and he had did not work for some time after Stonekeep was released.

At the time of our meeting, Oliphant was hoping to revive Lexicross for the casual market, then in its infancy. He was hoping Mattel could help him with that project. While it sounded like a brilliant idea, at the time that was simply not possible. After talking with Oliphant for several hours, all of us came away with the feeling that we had just met a "great" game designer. The way he talked about programming games, designing games, and his desire to continue what he had been doing for the past 25 years was compelling. He talked about his desire to make games the way a drowning man might think about a breath of air. Games were not Peter Oliphant's job. Games were Peter Oliphant. From the day after our meeting I tried to find a way for him to be part of our project. I even called some of our game vendors to see if they could use him, but all leads led to nothing. I kept in-touch with him via email for a few months, but after a while that just seemed hallow. The man wanted a job, and I simply did not have one for him. The funny thing is , a few years later I actually did have a job he could do, but by then he was busy at work on a couple other projects could not help. It was a sadly missed opportunity. I've always felt that the best way to learn out designing good games is to absorbe information from people, especially the masters, who were there from the beginning. I've caught David Crane, Rob Fulop, Chris Crawford, Bill Kunkel, Ralph Baer, and  Nolan Bushnell and made sure to glean as much information on designing games from those guys as possible. However, Peter Oliphant is one that got away.

From time to time I still check-out Oliphant's credits to see if he has built that 21st Century version of Lexicross. I do still think it could be a very successful game. If I could tell Peter Oliphant one thing now, it would be to encourage him to re-make Lexicross as multi-player Flash game on the web that could be played via Facebook and other web portals, using in-game ads as the revenue stream, or to build it for X-Box Live Arcade. Wait, who am I fooling? He's probably already working on it. Well, I hope so anyway.

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