Posted on May 16, 2008
Bill Kunkel (Electronic Games) Interview
Electronic Games Magazine truly was revolutionary. It was the first of it’s kind: a monthly publication dedicated to video games and the video game phenomena. The Magazine started as a series of ‘Arcade Alley’ columns in Video Magazine in the 1980 written by Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz and championed by Bruce Apar, their editor. Katz and Kunkel had been friends since the early 70’s, turning their passion for pro wrestling into a radio show, and one of the first Pro Wrestling magazines. When that failed to catch on, they wanted to try to make a living at something fun. The seed of that idea blossomed into ‘Arcade Alley’, the success of which proved to Reese Publications (the publisher of Video) that a video game magazine might have a chance for success. Kunkel and Katz pitched the idea, and before the end of 1981, they had their first issue published. By 1982, Electronic Games became THE authority on video games, and along with it, writers Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel, and Katz’s girlfriend Joyce Worley, became household names to video game fans everywhere. The basic design of Electronic Games (editorial, news, letters, previews, reviews, strategy) was copied by every major video game publication that followed, and the structure can still be seen today in most video game and computer game magazines.
Recently, Bill Kunkel published his memoirs of the Electronic Games era in his book Confession Of The Game Doctor, available from Rolenta Press (http://www.rolentapress.com). Always a huge fan of Electronic Games magazine (see my story here ).I caught up with Bill Kunkel and asked him a few questions about history, gaming, parents, and what he has been up to recently. The interview closes with an explosively accurate and pointed account of what is wrong with the modern videogame era, from one of the people who helped invent it.
Steve Fulton: Electronic Games left an indelible mark on me as a kid. It gave me something to crave and identify with. Was there anything in childhood that did the same thing?
Kunkel: Two magazines that come to mind would be Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland and Wrestling Revue. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed those Santo and Mil Mascaras Mexican movies that featured monsters AND wrestlers!
Steve Fulton: How did you get started with video games?
Kunkel: I was walking down Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, minding my own business when I saw my first Pong machine. I had never been a big game fan ‘ playing cards and board games bored me and the hex grid wargames that my partner Arnie Katz always played looked like a school assignment. But this Pong, it was fantastic, it really spoke to me. It said: “Put quarters in my belly.” I did and the rest is history, history contained in my new book, “Confessions of The Game Doctor” from RolentaPress.com, available at a very reasonable price ($21). And if you buy it because of this crass and entirely uncalled-for plug and send it to me, I’ll sign it for you.
Steve Fulton: What was the genesis of Electronic Games magazine?
Kunkel: The “Arcade Alley” column in VIDEO magazine in 1978. Because really, then-editor Bruce Apar, is the Godfather of videogame journalism. What allowed us to go to a full magazine was the market’s ongoing growth by 1981 and the success of that column. Why nobody else had done it sooner remains one of the great mysteries of my life.
Steve Fulton: What made you think that video games could be the subject of an entire magazine?
Kunkel: Remember, we had already seen the Pong craze last half a dozen years with some 75 companies producing light gun games, driving games and every variant of Pong imaginable. Then the ’78 rollout of TWO machines ‘ the VCS and the Odyssey2 ‘ which were hardware-software systems, further ensured a continuous flow of games. Not to mention the failed systems that were already floating around, like the Fairchild Channel F, and magnificent (but overpriced) systems such as the Bally Home Arcade which I believe the Nuttings created. Then Mattel jumped on board, Coleco announced, and Pac-Man blew the doors off everything. Meanwhile, computers like the Texas Instruments 99, the Trash-80, the Apple II, and the IBM PC were out there, with the Atari 400/800, the C64 and the PCjr on the way. Our intention was never to produce a strictly videogame magazine, even though that’s what we’re always called. We saw this as a hobby, a lifestyle even, and covered everything from videogames, computer games, handhelds and tabletop games to real world training simulators, coin-ops and movies like “Tron”. We knew there would be enough product and we weren’t even counting on the joystick explosion and the other peripherals (my favorite was the “videogame glove” ‘ not the U-Force, just a glove with the fingers cut out like a bowling glove to help you better grip yer joystick, so to speak).
Steve Fulton: How long did it take from writing a story or review in Electronic Games to the day it was published in the magazine?
Kunkel:: Oh the lead time was awful in those days. Three months easy. By the time you saw the issue, you forgot having written what was in it. That why the Net and stuff like G4 have crowded out the serious magazines. Steve Fulton: Q&A and Game Doctor were always the two sections I read first when your magazine arrived in the mail. Why do you think those ‘reader feedback’ style sections were so popular in the early days?
Kunkel: Because I think it gave the readers a sense of community. It was the only way they could really interact with us and with one another. And Q&A was, at that point, the nexus for all fan information on the world of gaming.
Steve Fulton: What percentage of letters you received were from angry people who thought video games were created by the devil?
Kunkel: Very few, if any. None I can recall. They were mostly from kids who could barely write ‘ then you’d get one from a doctor or lawyer who loved the games. Our first demographic survey showed our average reader was, I believe, 21. And 99% male. It’s amazing that today the market is almost 50-50 male-female.
Steve Fulton: How many letters did you receive from kids who just wanted to see their name in print? (I know I must have sent a dozen or so)
Kunkel: Ah, who knows what motives drove them to write those letters. But every month we had a stuffed manila envelope for “Reader Replay” (the letter column) and another for “Q&A.” Then I came up with the idea to award “Game Doctor Prize Packets” ‘ buttons, keychains, pins, and such that I collected at trade shows ‘ for the best question and the queries got really good.
Steve Fulton: Did game companies ever try to offer you ‘incentives’ for good press? How did you react to it?
Kunkel: They always sent us nice stuff, frankly. I remember one company at a Vegas CES actually gave out gambling chips! The trick was, since everybody gave you stuff, you could be honest even if they gave you a yacht ‘ not that anyone did, alas. I mean, in those early days, we WERE game journalism. What were they gonna do? Also, I had worked in the music journalism field briefly and I knew those critics got to keep the LPs (remember them?) they reviewed and they also got, like, cardboard Led Zeppelin danglers and all those other gee-gaws. But if a game sucked, no journalist of any quality would praise it just for fear of not getting the publisher’s next t-shirt. Of course, not all journalists were people of quality.
Steve Fulton: Electronic Games covered the entire field of game, from arcades, to handhelds, to consoles, and everything in-between. Do you feel that was a strength or weakness of the magazine?
Kunkel: Oh the magazine would have folded even sooner if it had been strictly videogames. And it might have lasted longer (as CGW did) if it had been all-computer, but none of us wanted to be fenced in that way. Computer game ads were keeping us alive at the end. But Arnie and Joyce and I always felt that even if you only played, say, arcade games, you still wanted to see what the inside of a 747 simulator looked like or what qualified as state of the art in computer games.
Steve Fulton: Was there ever a time while publishing Electronic Games that you thought ‘yeah, that’s it, this is the best it’s ever gonna get?’
Kunkel: I never believed gaming was going to go away. I only wish that Reese Publishing had gutted it out over those two lean years until the NES arrived. We would have been like TV Guide at that point.
Steve Fulton: Like-wise, was there ever a time you realized Electronic Games had ‘jumped the shark’?
Kunkel: Probably the day the sales woman Ann Martino came into my office ready to cry because we only had 12 pages of ads. This was in ’84 and even an optimist had to see it was going to get worse before it got better..
Steve Fulton: What was your favorite classic gaming system?
Kunkel: Loved the VCS but I had a real weakness for that Bally Pro Arcade (later the Astrocade).
Steve Fulton: Your favorite classic game?
Kunkel: I think the best electronic game ever is Tetris, my favorite FPS is Goldeneye (N64) but if you want to go waaaay back, I was an absolute sucker for Ladybug on the Colecovision from Universal.
Steve Fulton: Were you a fan of the Atari 800? If so, did you have a favorite game for that machine?
Kunkel: I loved the 800. Even the 400 was great, but that keyboard really sucked. I loved Star Raiders and spent forever playing a game from Broderbund called Spelunker.
Steve Fulton: Did you think that the Atari 7800 could have been a success if released in 1983?
Kunkel: That’s a tough call because the American market really hadn’t been conditioned to deal with the idea that you’d have to buy a new system and new software every few years. They were more into the record player paradigm where the 78 RPMs lasted decades and then the turntables that played three speeds lasted decades longer. I think the 5200 killed the 7800 more surely than any other factor. It was an Atari computer without a keyboard and the worst joysticks to ever appear on a console, so it bombed, deservedly. Atari panicked and wanted to rush the 7800 out there but I believe the Schlemiels had already bought Atari by then and had no respect for ANY of its console product. Had Atari introduced the 7800 AS the 5200 and just trashed the whole 5200 project, it would have certainly stood a fighting chance.
Steve Fulton: Was there ever a time when a company announced a product that was so terrible that you could not believe what you were seeing/hearing?
Kunkel: More times than I can count. How about E.T.? Or Synapse with that headband controller (I think Atari had one of those things too) and LeStick, the baseless joystick that supposedly worked via mercury switches? Then there was Atari’s unreleased Cosmos system, where you played a tabletop game then a hologram appeared. They made you think the GAMES were going to be Holograms! And the Virtual Boy and, man, I could go on forever, but I’d probably trash somebody’s favorite peripheral in the process.
Steve Fulton: Was there any game system/game that became vaporware, that you wish had been released?
Kunkel: Sure. I remember this Condor system that was supposed to include this chair that you sat in, sort of like Kirk/Picard, with game controls built into the handholds and all sorts of neat features that no mother would ever allow in her living room. I mean, the vaporware systems are ALWAYS awesome, right? That’s why they generally turn to vapor when light falls upon them.
Steve Fulton: Did you see the crash of ’83 coming? Do you think it could have been avoided?
Kunkel: So many factors to consider. The arcades overspent on the Laserdisc games and turned to the kit games, which basically turned the magical arcade into a glorified collection of videogames barely superior to home quality games. And the arcades had been the driving force, the source of most of the big hits up till then. So when they started fading, and suddenly new systems were being introduced and people freaked at the idea that their “old” games ‘ maybe a couple of weeks old ‘ were now antiquated, the retailers went into damage control mode, certain that the videogame “fad” was dead. Fortunately, the rest of the world wasn’t so sure. Computer games had always been big in Europe, where they sold cheaply and although they didn’t mention it much, Activision did a great business selling its VCS videogames in Canada right through the Crash. And when Atari turned down Nintendo’s offer to buy the NES ‘ a huge success in Japan, of course ‘ they decided to make it themselves. And because they didn’t lose faith, the Japanese dominate the hardware end of the videogame business to this day.
Steve Fulton: Why was the switch from consoles to home computers unsuccessful for Electronic Games?
Kunkel: We weren’t a computer game magazine. The computer people advertised in those big, telephone book-sized PC magazines or the Apple magazines and later the Atari and C64 magazines. But EG was about the UNIVERSE of games, not computers, and computer software didn’t have the marketing budgets the VCS games did. Now CGW survived, but they started back when EG did and they were always devoted exclusively to computers. Also, Sipe sold it to Ziff-Davis in ’83, I believe, and that monolith already had advertisers from all their geek computer magazines and adding in one more magazine was not a problem. And, to be truthful, when Jay Rosenfield fired Arnie and Joyce and then I quit (they were fired on Dec. 7, 1984 and I stayed around long enough to collect a Christmas bonus, which I desperately needed), it was really all over. There’s an entire chapter on it in my book, but basically Reese had no credibility left. It looked like they were suddenly switching sides and were becoming a magazine about the various boring kinds of computer-based entertainment that was big in the mid-80s. I mean, Americans were into computer games, everything had to be a SIMULATION. This is typically fickle of the US audience, by the way.
Steve Fulton: How did you get involved with ‘Videogames & Computer Entertainment’ magazine?
Kunkel: By the mid to late 80s we had been writing for the computer magazines and Russell Sipe’s CGW and among the many places we were freelancing was at Lee Pappas’ ANALOG and ST Log. Lee then sold those magazines to Larry Flynt and I believe Andy Eddy, who was hired as editor, worked out a deal whereby Arnie, Joyce and I would edit the computer game stuff and his staff handled the videogame material, which killed me since I was a plug and play guy myself.
Steve Fulton: How did Electronic Games get restarted in the early 90’s?
Kunkel: I met Steve Harris at a CES and he was really friendly and said he’d like to talk. I hooked him up with Arnie and we made the deal. As to the title, apparently Reese’s rights had lapsed and Steve had been a big EG fan (look at the early issues of EGM ‘ it looks like a 12 year old imitating EG). But it was also stupid because, one, they already had a magazine called Electronic Gaming Monthly which just begs for confusion and two, it set us up to compete with a memory of the first magazine to ever cover videogames and I’ve learned that you can’t ever compete with the first time.
Steve Fulton: I always felt like the 90’s Electronic Games was written for people who loved the original EG, but wasn’t ‘flashy’ enough for the younger crowd who just wanted cheats from ‘Nintendo Power’. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
Kunkel: Don’t get me wrong, I think the writing in the 90s EG is significantly better than in the original because we were better writers and had learned so much more about the industry. But we were writing it in Las Vegas and they were laying it out ‘ if that’s what you want to call it ‘ in some small city in Illinois. I believe a big part of what people remember so fondly about the original EG was more its look ‘ and of course it treated the reader like an adult, which was no small matter. But let’s face it; the 90s EG looked like crap. I guess they put the people who were learning digital layout to work on EGM and their movie magazine on us first so they could learn by their mistakes. Brown lettering against blue backgrounds, stuff like that, and Time Magazine-style portrait covers, which are about as dull as you can get in a game magazine. If it weren’t for the writing, it would have been a second-rate magazine. But I did my best game writing there and I wasn’t the only one.
Steve Fulton: Why did the 90’s version of Electronic Games end?
Kunkel: First ‘ and I can tell you this as a certainty because I got a piece of the second EG, unlike the first ‘ it was making money right up to the last issue we edited. But Steve was getting ready to sell and they were getting into movies and we were in Vegas, the red-headed step children. It just sort of faded away, but I don’t regret any of it ‘ just the terrible layouts and they weren’t my fault.
Steve Fulton: Were you ever involved on the game creation side of the business?
Kunkel: In the mid-80s, our good friend Brian Fargo was prez of Interplay. Now at that time they really didn’t have game designers who weren’t programmers, except maybe Roberta Williams, I don’t remember. But he gave us the opportunity to write a text adventure that Activision published called “Borrowed Time” (and Virgin later reissued as “Time to Kill”). We then worked as consultants for Virgin, Sega, Bantam, Simon & Schuster Interactive (S&SI), a bunch of companies. Under the name Subway Software we designed games for Epyx (The Omnicron Conspiracy), Konami (Batman Returns), S&SI (Star Trek: First Contact ‘ this was about a decade before the movie of the same title), MicroLeague (MicroLeague Baseball II, Blood Bowl and the first computer wrestling game and the first to use the WWF license and digitized WWF characters). Then we had a deal with a British company, Tynesoft, producing a game a month for over a year. That was insane. So yeah, I’ve designed a lot of games. Even taught a course on it at UNLV.
Steve Fulton: When did you realize that Electronic Games was a landmark publication?
Kunkel: It was the first and it was good enough to stick around through the first videogame run. I guess I always knew that once we were established as the first that it was some kind of landmark. But it really hits home when I go to classic gaming shows and grown men come up to me and tell me how much they loved EG ‘ depending on their age, either the first or the second ‘ and how important it was to them.
Steve Fulton: Do you own back copies of Electronic Games?
Kunkel: I don’t have a complete set, but Arnie and Joyce do. I ran out of space in which to store every magazine and comic book and freelance article I wrote many moons ago. They have a bigger place.
Steve Fulton: Have you ever considered publishing a compendium of Electronic Games issues?
Kunkel: Too many copyright issues, I’m afraid. But I’m working on something else that’s a lot more relevant. Besides, I’m still too busy and too poor to spend much time on projects that don’t have a likelihood of bringing in money. Not that I’m living in the streets or anything, but I was pulling in six figures during the boom of the dotcom era and we all know where that went. So now I write novels (under another name), take freelance gigs and interesting projects, teach occasionally and do my game-related work for my friends at Running With Scissors. I edit the POSTAL newsletter (www.gopostal.com), draft the press releases and basically serve as all-around editor and writer with POSTAL 2 creator Steve Wik. We just sold the film rights so I still get to have fun and I still see myself on old G4 clips and Gamer.TV and really, that’s enough electronic gaming to suit me these days.
Steve Fulton: Do you still play video games?
Kunkel: Sure. There’s a Goldeneye multi-player shootout here every week. And if nothing else, the PS2 makes a nice DVD.
Steve Fulton: Do you have favorite game right now?
Kunkel: Honestly, no. I mean, I play the Halo games and I just don’t get it. They look like crap to me; there are too damned many buttons on the joystick, what can I say? I feel like the Grumpy Old Gamer half the time. I’m 55 and I no longer relate to the sensibilities of today’s young gamers. Though I generally agree with Tommy Tallarico on G4’s Judgment Day if I know the game in question. But if somebody produced a decent multi-player version of the movie “Enemy at the Gates” (street warfare and sniper work in Stalingrad, circa 1943-44 with Jude Law, Ron Pearlman and Ed Harris), limit the cut scenes (or at least let me click through them), I’d strongly consider it. Also, as someone who grew up worshipping Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong”, both the soon-to-debut game and the movie both excite and worry me. By the time anyone reads this, I guess we’ll know.
Steve Fulton: I hear you have a new book that was recently published. How did that come about?
Kunkel: My friend the classic gaming giant Cav actually suggested it. I was writing these memoir pieces for the Digital Press site under the omnibus title “The Kunkel Report” (a column I had started in the 90s EG) and a series of articles for Michael Thomasson’s GoodDealGames.com and Cav suggested that I collect them into a book with a bunch of new stuff. My reaction? “What publisher would even consider publishing it?” I mean, I thought yeah, it would make an interesting book, but what publisher would get it? And he suggested Lenny Herman and Rolenta Press and that was magic. I churned out a bunch of new stories and re-wrote and supplemented the stuff I’d already written for Joe and Michael (who wound up doing the book’s jacket design), scanned a bunch of photos and other items of visual interest and we wound up with 200 pages of me. At this point, Chris Kohler, may Zeus bless him, did a nice piece on it for his Wired blog, which has been picked up all over the place. Lenny got a piece into PR Web, which also got picked up extensively and the Next Generation site gave us a mention. Also, several magazines ‘ let’s hear it for Chris Bieniek and Zach Meston ‘ managed to get reviews out in time for holiday shopping. My next target are the mainstream magazines ‘ Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, pubs like that. Their copies are in the mail as I write this.
Steve Fulton: Do you feel you get the proper respect for, basically, creating the field of video game journalism?
Kunkel: Are you kidding? I mean it’s not like I cured AIDS or invented videogames (that’s in Ralph Baer’s book, also from rolentapress.com ‘ how am I doing, Lenny?). Seriously, it astonishes me that I get the amount of respect I do, that people remember this stuff. And now, with the book, I’m being headlined as the “founder” or “creator” of videogame journalism. They don’t even mention Arnie Katz, much less Joyce Worley (AKA Mrs. Katz), because my partners haven’t done so many interviews or written books about themselves. I didn’t invent journalism; I was just a guy in the right place at the right time with the right partners and a passion to apply it to electronic gaming. I got lucky and hope I made the most of that opportunity.
Steve Fulton: What’s up with Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley these days?
Kunkel: Joyce had a serious physical setback over a year ago and badly broke her ankle. She’s just now starting to walk with a cane. But mostly, they’re involved in what I’ll call science fiction fandom for want of a better name. You’ll find lots of their stuff ‘ though very little about gaming ‘ at efanzines.com. I would say they’re retired, but writers never retire. We just abuse substances to death or stick a shotgun in our mouth when we’ve run out of words.
Steve Fulton: : If you had kids , what modern videogames would you let them play? Are there any classic games you would not let them play?.
Kunkel: I never had kids, just cats and dogs who mostly are indifferent to games. I can’t imagine any classic games I wouldn’t let them play if I did, but I have always believed there should be variety in game content. Games are NOT just for kids, just as all books and movies aren’t so I’m sure there are contemporary games including the POSTAL2 series that I’d discourage, say, a 10 year old from playing, sure. But the political publicity hounds mostly Democrats, oddly enough make me ill. If parents aren’t prepared to oversee what their young kids are playing, well, how is it the job of game publishers?
Steve Fulton: I distinctly remember an article in Electronic Games named ‘The First 128K Adventure’. I believe was an article that dreamed about the day the video game canvas would be limited only to the imagination of the game designer. Do you think that day has arrived?
Kunkel: Pretty much. They’re not at Pixar level, obviously, and they haven’t deployed into HDTV except to a degree with the PSP, which is fantastic but of dubious real world value. I mean, if you play it on the bus or subway, it’ll get ripped off. And even the beautiful movies are on a pretty small screen, aspect ratio-wise, plus the format is non-compatible. Sony’s real genius has been its maintenance of reverse compatibility in its console systems. But sure, they’re close enough. Remember when a game like Pac-Man or Punch-Out was an all-but-insurmountable visual challenge to home systems? Now they do wrestling games which are ridiculously detailed and mo-capped ‘ but the games themselves aren’t significantly more enjoyable than, say, WCW Vs nWo (THQ) on the N64. Unfortunately, it seems as if the level of improvement remains mostly fixed to graphic details rather than improved gameplay, and even the visual upgrades become increasingly smaller. Listen to the moaning going on now over the Revolution’s graphics being “not much better” than a Game Cube. My lord, have you seen Resident Evil on the Game Cube? It’s astonishing. Hell, the original Goldeneye is STILL brilliant, in terms of both its physics and its audio-visuals. It’s like someone decides it’s time for a new model, and it’s generally before they’ve completely explored the previous generation. By the time they were shoveling dirt in its funky disk drive, developers like Cinemaware were producing the most amazing-looking games for the C64, but the system was declared “last year’s model” so nobody cared. Remember how Donkey Kong Country reinvented the SNES? Game journalists ‘ and we were probably the ones who started it ‘ always make the mistake of obsessing on the NEXT generation rather than spending the time to give the current systems appropriate coverage. And magazines like EGM and Diehard Flim-Flam trained gamers to pore over the specs for some system that hadn’t even been okayed for Japanese release and was years away from being a real product rather than appreciating what they had. I remember Next Generation magazine, which I really loved by the way, but it once had a game on its cover ‘ was it Messiah? ‘ that did not actually release for another two-plus years. Developers need a new idea or two, not better graphics. Screw the four thousandth Tony Hawk game and EA buying out the NFL (and a wag of the Dok-tah’s finger at the NFL as well, not to mention Take Two. There’s no reason Take Two and every other company that makes sports games couldn’t present a united legal front and challenge the fact that in a quarter-century plus of electronic gaming, it has become established tradition that all game publishers willing to pay the fee have the rights to use NFL logos, uniforms and NFLPA names and stats, so what does Take Two do? They threaten to monopolize Major League Baseball!). Of course its all-important that EA can keep producing a new game every year (rather than simply offering gamers the option of buying team and player updates based on the previous season and only produce a new basic game maybe every four or five years), because their greed ‘ not to mention the drooling avarice of pro sports ‘ simply will not let them. It’s become a sad joke, especially when they’ve clearly run out of legitimate ideas for game improvements and can only offer nonsense “features” (THIS year’s version can feature the players’ biorhythms, mood swings, steroid use and possible suspension for flunking a piss test while correlating their simulated love life into how well they perform). I haven’t seen a new genre develop in years ‘ were Real Time Strategy games REALLY the latest new idea? It’s been the same struggle since electronic gaming began. They have this great big ceiling to paint and all the colors of the rainbow with which to glorify it. Now they’ve got to find something worthy of all that paint and position.
(A few years a go I wrote for Andrew Bub’s game review web site “Gamerdad.com” (now a blog). Since GamerDad.com has removed it’s archive of old content, I’ve asked Andrew for permission to reprint some of my articles. This one was originally written in January 2006.)