Ralph Baer: Ping-pong, tennis, hockey, Handball, volleyball, gun games, chase games (one spot chasing and wiping out another). It also had a joystick attachment with a golf ball mounted atop the shaft with which we played "golf" using an actual putter.
Steve Fulton Your original Brown Box was called an "analog" computer by Atari to defend against a Magnavox lawsuit. What do you have to say about that?
Ralph Baer: The Brown Box and its 1968 predecessor developmental systems were neither built around an analog computer (come on now...this was a consumer product!) nor was a purely analog design. While its circuitry was made up of discrete components, the circuits contained Flip-Flops, AND and OR gates, One-Shots, diode matrices, etc...what are these circuits if they are not digital circuits? People think that discrete component circuitry was strictly analog. This is complete nonsense. Of course we built digital circuits in the forties and fifties before there were IC's. In the sixties, plug-in cards with as little as one or two flip-flops were typical of logic modules of the day. So the notion that the Brown Box and its production version, the Magnavox Odyssey game was comprised of "analog circuits" is a myth...but that myth has a real origin: During the lawsuits, the opposition (Bally-Midway, Seeburg, etc) tried to make the judge believe that our circuits were analog and theirs were digital and hence they didn't fall under the Claims of our patents. The judges ruled otherwise and saw through this ploy in a hurry.
Re. cost considerations: In 1967, when the lab work to design a practical consumer product began at Sanders (in my little skunk works lab), IC's were not an option although we were comfortable with them in our defense electronics work. They were just too expensive for use in a consumer product. We HAD to use discrete components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes etc.) .When Magnavox finally began to negotiate a license starting in late 1969, they dragged out the negotiations (just like the big company they were) until well into 1969. The engineers were then turned on to get a production design out the door by late 1971 and production had to ramp up in early '72. There was just no time to redesign the product radically (which it should have been because a lot changed in IC pricing between 1967 and 1971) So they went with what was realistic: They copied our Brown Box circuitry almost part for part and changed only those things that FCC RFI regulations forced them to alter so as to meet the FCC specs for spurious radiation.
Steve Fulton There are many people who believe that analog computers, while severely limited, were elegant devices. Do you have any special views on analog computers?
Ralph Baer: Analog computers were indeed elegant devices. I used them as did many other radio and TV engineers in the fifties and sixties. They were great for modeling dynamic motion problems....but they cost on the order of $10,000 or much more. So forget analog computers as a means of playing home "video" games, except in the context of a demo in a lab environment where one or more analog computers were sitting around and one could temporarily borrow one for a "fun" ballistics demo (like Higinbotham's so-called tennis game).
Steve Fulton You and Magnavox had to sue Atari (and others) over Pong and patent infringement. Were you satisfied with the outcome?
Ralph Baer: After ten years of litigation in courts from Chicago to San Francisco we collected many tens of millions of dollars. I spent a great deal of time working with our lawyers and testifying in court. The outcomes of all of our lawsuits were completely successful (for our side) and the infringers uniformly had to cough up large sums of money. At the same time, we (Magnavox under the Sanders patents) had well over a hundred patent licensees all over the world in the mid-seventies and collected large amounts of license income from those licenses, also.
Steve Fulton Was the patent on your videogames for play methods or for the hardware or both? Did it matter that the Atari products were digital and yours was analog?
Ralph Baer: We won our lawsuits because our patents covered both what is termed "means plus function"...i.e. we showed in the patents and claimed the concepts of the interaction of machine controlled screen symbols (such as a ball) and player controlled symbols such as the player paddles ( the functions). We also showed how this interaction could be accomplished (the means). Any game made by a manufacturer that exhibited the type of interaction defined by our patents was found to be infringing...and the judges in Federal District Courts and in the Court of Appeals all saw it that way.
Steve Fulton What did you think the first time you saw Atari Pong?
Ralph Baer: I/We did not see it but heard about the demo of the first Pong unit built by Alan Alcort (sic) about September of 1972. The minute we got wind of its existence, it was clear that there had to be some reason why a ping-pong arcade game (of all things) popped up from nowhere. It did not take long to find out that Nolan Bushnell and other Nutting Associates employees had signed the guest book at a Magnavox new-product demonstration at the Airport Marina in LA (on May the 26th, 1972 I believe) and that they (including Nolan Bushnell) had played the Odyssey ping-pong gamed hands-on there. Later denials by Bushnell and others in court or in depositions (or to the press) that playing the Odyssey ping-pong game had nothing to do with creating the Pong game were found less than credible by the courts and, in any event, defy logic and common sense. Bushnell's 1972 Computer Space game (being produced by Nutting Associates) was a commercial failure because it was too hard to play. When the visitors saw and played the Odyssey game, at least one light went on in Nolan Bushnell's head: Hey this is neat and easy to play! And secondly, somewhere along the line Bushnell recognized that there was such a thing as a consumer home game market (as introduced by the Odyssey game) and that 40 million homes are a slightly larger base for a new business than a few thousand arcades. And so Atari entered the home video game business in 1975 and made big success of it. But Odyssey had shown the way! With 360,00 games out there by early 1975, it was also a resounding success.
Steve Fulton Were you involved any other Magnavox videogame systems throughout the 70s and 80's?
Ralph Baer: Yes, throughout the seventies. There was virtually no Magnavox video game activity in the eighties...nor did anybody else do much in the early eighties. The industry had tanked completely and did not get resurrected until Nintendo came along, having spent a lot of money on designing and producing a 1980's type product. During the seventies I worked with Magnavox with varying degrees of success. I was responsible for resurrecting the Odyssey2 game in 1978 when management at Magnavox made the decision not to go forward with the program. I was successful in turning them around. I did however, play a major role in getting Colleco into a hugely successful string of video game products starting in 1975. All of these games were based on the General Instrument AY-3-8500 series of single-chip game devices. I was instrumental in getting Colleco first dibs on what was then a limited (yield) product availability problem for the AY-3-8500 devices. Colleco sold over a million Telstar games as a result and became a licensee of ours early on. We (a small group at Sander
s I set up) also helped Coleco by designing parts of their next years models (the Coleco Arcade game, etc.)
Steve Fulton When did you leave Magnavox?
Ralph Baer: I never worked for Magnavox. During the 1980's I got out from under running a division with 500 engineers and support people at Sanders and became an Engineering Fellow at Sanders Associates, later a subsidiary of Lockheed. Magnavox was our licensee under our video game patents and any relationship betwen Magnavox and Sanders (including me) was done at arm's length through mutual, contractual agreements (or by ignoring management and trying to help engineers at Magnavox because I figured that their success meant increased license income for Sanders, so to hell with management's distrust of cooperative arrangements, which is typical). I retired from Lockheed/Sanders in 1988 and have been an independent inventor, consultant and licensor of novel electronic games (like Simon, Maniac, ComputerPerfection and dozens more). ever since.
Steve Fulton Why do you think Maganavox and Atari in the 80's and Atari again in the 90's failed, while other videogame companies (i.e. Nintendo) were so successful?
Ralph Baer: Mostly because management did not have the courage of their convictions and would not spend the money required to develop new systems based on the latest semiconductor technology. It took Nintendo to step into the breach and resurrect the video game business.
Steve Fulton What invention are you the most proud of?
Ralph Baer: I have over 150 patents worldwide and even all of these reflect only a very small part of all the novel stuff I have come up with, much of which went into production. But how can you beat creating an industry with a novel product category. So obviously, the answer has to be video games.
Steve Fulton Did you ever play videogames with your kids?
Ralph Baer: Sure...I have three kids and they were between 10 and 16 when I brought early breadboard hardware (and later the Brown Box) home to see how they would react to the idea of playing games on a home TV set. My kids are all in the mid and late forties now and have their own children but they vividly remember playing ping-pong downstairs in my lab. So do some of their friends who came and visited...one of whom is my current primary physician now!
You didn't ask re. parent's responsibilities when it comes to their kids' choice of games...but I'll tell you anyway: It is up to the parents to watch what games their kids are playing. I do not intend to weigh in on what the practical problems with that need are. All I know is that grandkids are one's reward for not strangling one's teenagers. We have four of them and I now watch video games over their shoulders ...and sure enough, they play games which I really do not care for...but I'm not their parent.
Steve Fulton Since you basically invented home video games, and are a father and a grandfather, would you call your self an original "Gamerdad"?
Ralph Baer: I assume that Andrew Bub came up with that title. I like it. I guess, by definition, I must be a "GamerDad".
Steve Fulton If you could choose to do one thing in your life over-again, what would it be?
Ralph Baer: I would just like to pick up where I left off because I am still cranking out neat things (go to Toys-R-Us and see if they stock some of Hasbro's (Playskool) Talkin' Tools...they are based on my inventions...and I am still in demand among friends and others for occasional engineering design help. My favorite activity is analog circuit design (but I'll crank out logic designs, too, when I need 'em. Software is my younger partner's job, although I dabble in it, too). There aren't too many guys around my age (82) who still sit at the bench and cobble up circuit designs. It's just an art form and it's what I would definitely do if I had a chance to do it all over again....fat chance!
Steve Fulton Do you get tired of people asking you questions like these?
Ralph Baer: Are you serious? This is too much like work! The trouble is that once I start getting sucked in to answering the first question, I can't shut up. That must be obvious.
(Note: A Portion of this interview ran on http://www.gamecareerguide.com/ December, 2011)
Johnny L. Wilson was the editor of Computer Gaming World magazine for about 10 years, and in that time he saw computers games rise to become the dominant game medium of the 20th century. He is the co-author of the book High Score: An Illustrated History of Electronic Games, and now works as lecturer at DePaul University. Mr. Wilson has a bunch of other amazing credits, but instead of listing them, you can real all about them in our in-depth interview.
The genesis of this interview arose from the death of Bill Kunkel last year. I was researching Kunkel's writing, and I stumbled across a regular column he wrote with Arnie Katz for Computer Gaming World about video games in the mid 1980's. It just so happened that Johnny Wilson was on the editorial staff of CGW at that time, so I looked him up to ask some questions about the column. I knew Mr. Wilson's name from CGW and I had always admired him as one of pioneers of game journalism. Instead of limiting my questions to the work of Bill Kunkel, I created a full slate of interview questions that Mr. Wilson happily answered. Then, when I saw that he had put so much effort into the answers I asked him more and more and more questions. We touched on everything from early mainframe games, to controversial decisions he made at CGW (i.e adding stars to ratings), to how religion affects gaming. What started a short informational interview turned into an enlightening and entertaining ride through 30+ years of game journalism. The result is on this page. I hope you enjoy it.
Who you consider the masters of the computer game design?
Sid Meier who taught me that if it isn’t “fun,” take it out. Richard Garriott who taught me that it can be important to reinvent the wheel in order to add freshness. Mark Baldwin who taught me that elegant simplicity is better than sophisticated anarchy. Tim Schafer who taught me that you can be both profound and funny at the same time. Louis Castle who taught me that hard work and research can be transformed into a new aesthetic (which he did at Westwood and EA over and over again). Bing Gordon (even though I don’t think he ever actually “designed” anything) who taught me that passion, dedication, and vision are vital to every aspect of this business.
Were you a fan of early video game consoles and/or arcade games?
I remember playing on the Magnavox Odyssey while I was in graduate school. I visited a family who had one. I thought the whole overlay thing was goofy because the hockey game didn’t feel any different from the soccer game or the tennis game—only the plastic overlay changed. I also remember playing Pac-Man on an Atari 2600 and thinking how flimsy the controllers were. So, the answer is that I was basically unimpressed with consoles. Remember, I was a turn-based strategy gamer and I still play board games and face-to-face role-playing games.
How did you get your start in writing and publishing ?
Like every other writer, I suppose I began as a kid. I loved to read and because I loved to read, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to write stories. Whenever I found a piece of paper, I would fold it to make a four-page “signature” and would either print or type (via hunt and peck) a story. In junior high school, I started adapting short stories into plays. I didn’t know anything about intellectual property law so I ripped off Roald Dahl’s “The Sound Machine” and my eighth grade literature class performed it for an elementary school assembly. We couldn’t have a tree come crashing down inside the elementary school cafeteria, so one of our cast members smuggled some firecrackers up from Mexico and we literally blew up the cardboard prop representing our “sound machine.” I also did some pretty lame plays for our high school youth group at the time.
My first published gig happened when I was in high school. Knowing that I loved to write, my father (a Baptist pastor) recruited me to write a weekly column on church events for the Santa Maria Times. It was a column without a by-line for the Saturday “Church Page,” but it taught me how to craft my work to fit an editorial word count.
After that, all my efforts went into writing angry editorials for school publications and underground newspapers until I was in graduate school. In graduate school, I took a course on writing and managed to sell a week’s worth of devotionals to a Sunday School publication for Youth and that led to publishing several other pieces of Sunday School literature for my religious denomination.
My first GAME publication was an after-action report in an offset ‘zine called PW Review. This was a wonderful publication from the Potomac Wargamers and mostly contained rule variants, rules, and after-action reports on historical miniatures gaming. I adapted some “colonial skirmish” rules for the Jacobite rebellion (and Bonnie Prince Charlie). I had admired those guys for years, but had never dared submit my efforts before. It was pure “vanity.” I wasn’t paid, but it proved satisfying.
The rest of my entry into publishing and writing is tied to my start at CGW, so I’ll hold off for now.
What was the first computer game you ever played?
My first year of college, I visited a former high school friend at Cal Poly—SLO. There, they were playing a game of Trek where you input moves with a toggle-switch and received a grid-based ASCII print-out on a narrow sheet of paper like an adding machine tape. Almost ten years later, I played Adventure using a 300 baud modem with acoustic couplers on the mainframe a friend maintained for a legal firm. A year later, I playtested Galaxy with Tom Cleaver on his Apple II and enjoyed playing Chris Crawford’s Tanktics on a friend’s PET computer with cassette tape drive. I also remember playing a very simple Computer Football game at a computer store, but I didn’t get my own computer until after I was already writing for Computer Gaming World.
When did you get your start with Computer Gaming World?
I was a friend of Russell Sipe who founded CGW. We had met while performing in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible during college and became gaming friends throughout college and graduate school. We played Stocks & Bonds, Acquire, Tactics II, D-Day, Blitzkrieg, Panzer Blitz, Baseball Strategy, and Football Strategy (board games), as well as Traveller, Fantasy Trip, and En Garde! (RPGs) and miniatures (General Quarters, System 7 Napoleonics, Fight in the Skies (based on the TSR board game), Skirmish, and Don’t Give Up the Ship (by Dave Arneson). It was at a wargame club that we met Tom Cleaver, a University of Louisville engineering prof, who was working on what would become Avalon Hill’s Galaxy. We play-tested that game and both of us were hooked on the idea of playing computer games. Russell eventually purchased an Apple II with an eye toward programming his own game, but soon discovered that there weren’t any review magazines out there. He filled that niche and Computer Gaming World was born.
I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching Old Testament while pastoring a church. One of my members was a school teacher who had an Apple II in her classroom. So, I would go to her classroom in the afternoons while she was grading papers and play games on the school’s computer. Then, I would go home and write up my experiences on an old typewriter and take them over to Russ’s office on my days off. Sometimes, I would play games there at Russ’ office on my days off and write up reviews using Magic Window (one of the first Apple word processors) there.
Eventually, I had to have a computer of my own. I noticed that there were Commodore Vic-20 games that needed to be reviewed, so I bought the Vic-20 with a cassette tape drive in order to review games AND have my own word processor. Unfortunately, that era didn’t last long—even though I expanded my Vic to 32K of RAM. In order to keep reviewing, I needed an Apple and purchased a used Apple II+ and expanded it to 64K. Then, events took a different turn.
Some pastors in my denomination (even without knowing that I was a gamer) decided that I was too “liberal” in my theology to influence young ministerial students. They never asked me about my positions; they just assumed from my textbook selections (and I always chose textbooks with different positions from my own). I wasn’t invited back to teach and figured that meant my career was over. I resigned my church as well as leaving my teaching position and started looking for a job. Russ needed a part-time editor to help with grammar and to write a little to fill in the gaps. I came on board at half-time pay and pretty well worked full-time, filling in my monetary needs by teaching at a business college at night.
Russ generously made me editor and part owner of the magazine before Ziff-Davis bought us and Russ went on to work in business development during the early days of the Internet while I went to San Francisco with Ziff-Davis.
How has your religion/faith affected your gaming? Do you see both
things are separate, or can you separate them?
I believe that authentic faith is inextricably involved with everything in one’s life. As such, I don’t think gaming can be or should be separated from one’s faith. That being said, I draw a distinction (not a separation, but an awareness of difference) between the assumptions within the magic circle of a game and the assumptions outside the game. Naturally, by using the term “magic circle,” I’m already compromised with some people because Huizinga’s use of this idea was built upon a simplistic understanding of thaumaturgical ritual (essentially, what is held within the magical ward stays within the magical ward unless it is violated). However, I find the magic circle’s idea of what’s in the game world to stay in the game world (hence, avoiding metagaming) to be a helpful concept.
So, within the magic circle, I can play Dungeons & Dragons even though its universe is polytheistic and its assumptions are that the false gods have the kind of power that Isaiah 40-55 specifically says “idols” do not have. Within the magic circle, I can play an evil character that deliberately violates my faith assumptions. I can do this because I perceive of the magic circle as a laboratory where those actions within the game universe don’t harm anyone outside the game universe. Naturally, this may not be as true as it once was, considering the idea of virtual property and the virtual community that may be counting on one’s character. But I can say that every time I have played an evil character [whether murdering a PC as a prime assassin in AD&D or accomplishing a “run” in Shadowrun that ensured an unblocked distribution channel for a designer drug, I had new insights into the consequences of “sinful” choices. The game experience helped me understand motivations that I may not have had in real life and underscored my rationale for not accepting those choices in real life.
The idea of “death” in electronic, pen-and-paper, and board games has informed my theology. Seeing how lightly some gamers can accept the idea of “death” in games—whether rebooting from a previous save position in the former, being raised or resurrected in a fantasy RPG, or committing pewter soldiers and cardboard counters into sacrificial actions and strategic feints in a board or miniatures-based war game—I refined my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s idea of “cheap grace” from a theological standpoint. The way Ron Gilbert handled “death” (by not letting you do anything with fatal consequences in the original The Secret of Monkey Island games versus the multiple “deaths” faced by Sierra gamers in some of their graphic adventures has refined my illustrations of God’s action versus human choice.
I don’t even think gender-bending role-playing is immoral within the magic circle. I used to be a notorious flirt, a skirt-chaser even when I knew I couldn’t be a skirt-catcher, in real-life. My behavior was, let’s face it, quite embarrassing—especially when there were lots of attractive women in the business who needed to be nice to me because of my powerful position as Editor [No, not THAT kind of “nice!”]. So, guess what happened to me in the first MUD where I played a female character? In true poetic justice, every male character who flirting with my female character constantly. Playing the female character, I had to handle the delicate balance of trying not to hurt any feelings while getting rid of their attention so that I could get on with my quest. What a pain! And you can be sure those insights translated into an attitude and a behavior change in my real-life character.
As a result, I don’t believe gaming and faith can be completely separated on all levels. However, I still respect the idea of the magic circle. And that’s why I am excited about teaching a course on Ethics in Games and Cinema at DePaul where we can discuss such issues.
I love the idea of the game Diablo, but I could not play the game because
of the spinning pentagrams on the interface. Has there ever been a game
that made you too uncomfortable to play because of the content?
Believe it or not, I was uncomfortable with the original Wolfenstein 3D and the whole concept of first-person shooters. Somehow, that just felt wrong because it seemed like I was shooting real people—even if they were Nazis. It didn’t bother me as much in Outlaws or MechWarrior because I saw my opponents as characters in a fictional setting. I had something of the same feeling when I first played CounterStrike, but those feelings were ameliorated when I attempted to protect the political leader (was it El Presidente in those first versions?) from the assassins instead of playing the assassins. Oh, yeah! I never played that Custer game on the 2600 where your (pardon the pun) stick men raped the Native American women and I’m not sure I could play the MW2 airport scenario. But, I’ll defend anyone’s right to do so. Oh, yeah! I even went on record in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor [No, I’m not a member of that religious group.] as stating that I was horrified with Interplay’s Kingpin about African-American street gangs. I couldn’t get past the language, the filthy rap lyrics, or the activities in which you had to engage. Guess you know how much I love GTA now, huh? I value them, but I don’t have a desire to play them. [I know. What a pious jerk!]
So for you, the idea of a complete fantasy realm with its' own universal properties (physics, races, planets, laws, gods, etc.) is acceptable because it represents a complete fantasy (the Magic Circle), but when those things step over the line into reality, (i.e. Nazis) you start to get uncomfortable?
The short answer is "Yes." For example, the idea of killing people in a magical world or even a dark future world isn't totally repugnant to me because the rules of the universe have been set up to push me toward doing so because it is the only means of survival. Evil in the fantasy realm is visible, palpable, and vulnerable to force (whether physical or metaphysical). Defeating evil in the magic circle is a much simpler proposition than in "real life" because the magic circle is established for direct action while, sometimes, real life requires an expectancy that borders on inaction. In the magic circle, my character personally controls his or her destiny. In real life, my control may be dependent on someone or “Someone” else.
Now, I do recognize that the actions, characters, forces, and situations within the magic circle can be symbolic for real-life analogs. For example, everyone knows that Aslan in the Narnia series is a symbol of Jesus Christ as the Lion of Judah, but not all fantasy characters are direct ciphers for authentic persons. I suppose some people might see zombies in a horror game for an analog for the third world (terrorists?), so they might have as much trouble with Left for Dead as I did with Wolfenstein 3D. But I simply think that the closer we get to realistic representations of actual circumstances, the more careful we need to be in indicating that there is more than one solution. We also need to be careful about reading the analogs too literally. For example, it's pretty clear to me that Lord British was trying to say something about race relations in Ultima VI, but if the gargoyles were to be identified with any specific race or culture in the real world, the person who made the connection would be crucified. Indeed, I didn't have any problem with the negative portrayal of The Brotherhood in Ultima VII (am I remembering that correctly?) because this religious group was largely inspired by the work of L. Ron Hubbard in my mind. If I thought it was directly attacking Christianity (as in the film, The Invention of Lying), I might have been less complacent. On the other hand, I figure attacks on Christianity can be a wake-up call to us about how others perceive us. Maybe we need to pay attention.
Frankly, I don't even have any trouble beating people down in the Arkham Asylum series because I don't have Batman's resources and physical prowess, the villains are larger-than-life, and I don't really believe costumed vigilantes could work in real-life. So, again, I'm back in the magic circle even though those graphics and some of the movements are incredibly life-like. For such dark games, those are gorgeous graphically.
The sad thing was what I heard from one of my students at DePaul who was involved with a campus-based religious organization. He was censured by some of the leaders because he played fantasy games. Gee, I guess they wouldn't have let George MacDonald or C.S. Lewis speak at their meetings if they were alive. It's just so bizarre!
Why do you think Nazis have become the de-facto enemy (now maybe it's Nazi Zombies) that many people feel remorseless for killing in games?
You're not going to like this answer. Nazis have become the "de facto" enemy for multiple reasons. First, the very fact that atrocious genocide was attempted by that political party makes them natural villains. Second, the fact that modern Germany legally proscribes any reverence for that era dissociates them from the modern world. [The disassociation doesn't work for me because I drive through Skokie, IL on a regular basis--right by the Holocaust Museum where a neo-Nazi fired on a security guard within its first month of operation and where American Nazi Party demonstrations still occur. Others can treat them as "fictional" or "historical" villains while I have to see them as potentially real.] Third, the very Aryan white-bread look they so revered and cultivated make it easy, in an age that worships "diversity" in the sense of anything non-Caucasian, to make them the bad guys. Fourth, the uniforms, the goose-step, and the salutory gesture are distinctive. We really like distinctive looks for our bad guys. Fifth, there are all the cool conspiracy books about secret weapons, occult phenomena, alien technology, and Hitler's survival at that secret Antarctic base. It doesn't get any better than that when you need a quick plot developer.
Okay, let’s step back a bit. What was your favorite computer for game playing in the 80's?
In the early ‘80s, it was the Apple II. I liked it because almost every game eventually made its way to the Apple and because you could buy third party controllers, joysticks, printers, monitors, disk drives, and graphics tablets for the machine. The architecture was open and you could customize your system accordingly. Plus, many of the early Apple games were written in BASIC and, if you didn’t like the way they were designed, you could hack the code and change it. I remember having my 64K Apple when Russell had his first 256K PC. I told him it was a waste. Even programming as sloppily as I do, I’d never filled up the Apple’s programmable RAM (I had with my 32K Vic) and I could never begin to imagine filling 256K. I would certainly learn, wouldn’t I?
By the mid ‘80s, I had to have a Commodore Amiga in order to play Earl Weaver Baseball (not to forget SSI’s Kampfgruppe on the Amiga and Cinemaware’s Rocket Ranger with that great Bob Lindstrom score). The Amiga became my favorite game machine until I was absolutely forced to move to the PC. I’ve owned two Macs, but hated them.
At one point in in the late 1980s, Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel and Joyce Worley
wrote a column about video games for CGW. Do you recall how that came
about, and why it only lasted 6 months?
I do, but you’re not going to like the answer. Russell had admired the trio since the days that they were technically competitors. Electronic Games from Reese Communications and Computer Gaming World launched the same Fall. EG covered all platforms; CGW only covered personal computers. The latter made it possible for CGW to survive the cartridge crash because, in a niche market (with smaller circulation), the magazine’s print run was less and, of course, its ad base wasn’t crushed like EG’s. In the late ‘80s, Russ and I bought into the idea of convergence. We thought there would be somewhat of a coming together of consoles and PC games and then, on to interactive television and networked (via cable) games. So, we wanted to gain credibility among the console publishers and console gamers who knew us as “PC snobs” before this convergence happened.
We figured it would be tough for Russell and I to gain that credibility. We had touted the superiority of PC games forever. But Arnie, the late Bill Kunkel, and Joyce had covered that scene from the beginning. They had great instincts, terrific contacts, and a very professional work ethic. Our hope was actually to include a Video Gaming World section in the magazine and, when the time was right, spin it off as its own (probably bigger) publication. As it happens, computer gamers also knew that there was more money in video game advertising and they were smart enough to know that ad pages generate editorial pages. They didn’t want to lose “their” magazine by having computer game coverage become marginalized. Our readership responded to the Video Gaming World section like soft drink consumers to New Coke. We had to cancel it before we started losing our base. It taught me a lot about readers that would pay off when I became Group Publisher of the Wizards of the Coast magazines. You have to be careful when diverging from bread and butter because the readers may not like Marmite (that yeast spread that is associated with toast in England) even if it’s supposed to be both different and nutritious.
Was there any game or any moment that made you realize computer gaming had finally reached the main stream?
It depends on how you define “mainstream.” If you simply mean that a game received attention from unexpected quarters, I’d say I felt that when SimCity was covered in Time magazine and I later realized how much gender crossover there was in the audience. I also felt like we were really getting there when Vince Vaughn made fun of EA’s NHL Hockey without the fighting in Swingers. If you mean really penetrating to mass market levels, I think it was when I saw the television campaign for Halo 2, the World of Warcraft commercials, and the parody on South Park. Then, I knew we would never be the “red-headed stepchildren” of entertainment any longer.
Was there any moment that made you realize game journalism had finally
reached the main stream?
Considering the shoddy state of mainstream journalism today (even some once-great newspapers are pure sell-outs), I guess we reached that bottom rung level a long time ago. I know that when I was editor, I had definite ideals of serving the reader, avoiding conflict-of-interest, and getting behind the corporate facades and into the real stories. The truth is that I don’t know of any modern publications—analog or digital—that have those ideals.
Was there an "apex" moment while you worked for CGW when you thought "thingswill never get any better than this?"
There were some great “apex” moments, but I never thought that things would never get better. We were always looking for the next great thing. We were always expecting to be surprised. And, since we were always seeing the new technologies being used in game development, we knew better stuff was coming. Every CGDC and every CES (later E3) brought new possibilities. I still have great hopes for this industry, but I’m not sure I’m as excited in this era of “packaged goods” type of design as I used to be. I used to think gaming would change the world, but I’m not sure that today’s emphasis on “gamification” is what I had in mind.
Do you think game reviews with percentages and stars somehow cheapened game journalism?
No, I think the desire to get the “first” coverage cheapened game journalism. In the pen and paper world, we used to talk about “shrink-wrap” reviews. I know that some of the early pioneers in the hobby game magazines would talk about popping the shrink-wrap, looking at the components, reading the rules, and writing the review without even pushing pieces around. My feeling was that European publications, because they had a more competitive environment (and efficient distribution system), rushed reviews to press. That doesn’t really serve the reader at all.
My argument with, for example, PC Gamer’s percentage system wasn’t that they used percentages, it was that an astute reader would notice that the magazine (at least, during the Gary Witta era) always had some sacrificial lamb of a product that they rated in low percentage ratings. But, if you looked at those games, a lot of them were never released in the U.S. and certainly weren’t advertisers in that publication. At CGW, we didn’t have enough editorial space to deal with games that weren’t going to be released in the U.S. So, we wouldn’t even have touched those games. On the other hand, there were times that lousy games we might have been tempted to ignore were actually advertised in our publication. If they were advertised, I felt an obligation to review them. And I had more than one advertiser yell at me that I shouldn’t treat them that way after what they had spent. I shrugged my shoulders on one occasion and said, “Ironically, I probably wouldn’t even have assigned the review if you weren’t trying to get my readers’ attention.”
But, did our star ratings cheapen our review work? No. If anything, the stars sharpened our efforts. The reviewers suggested a number of stars and the editor covering that genre was expected to defend that star rating in the general editorial [OK, “Star Chamber”] meeting where we debated the ratings. The meeting often required a half-day or more of heated discussions before we approved those reviews to go to press. We didn’t discuss the reviews among ourselves as much before the star ratings were implemented. To be honest, I resisted the star ratings for as long as possible. I wanted the readers to READ the reviews. But, the bottom line is that I just kept getting hammered by readers that we NEVER gave bad reviews when I thought it was clear that we gave bad reviews. I eventually realized that our readership was becoming younger and more casual and, as a result, we had to spell out what we really thought.
The world wide web was the death of game journalism. There simply isn’t any reliable metric to determine which site is really reliable and which journalists are legitimately trying to do their work and which are merely “fan boys” getting their dopamine fix by slamming people and using “tabloid” style headlines. It always makes me nervous when I read reviews on the web because I don’t feel like I can trust anyone to have played the game all the way through.
Is there anything you would have done differently in the heyday of CGW if
you had the chance to do it all over again?
I’d like to believe that I could have staved off the decline of journalism by pulling back on the Sneak Preview hype. I tried to explain to the readers that we wrote sneak previews based on what we hoped games would be like as we played with bits and pieces of the games and then, reviewed them by a different standard when the games came out. But toward the end (and now, on the web), all it took was a screenshot and a bunch of PR hooey and those articles were happening. When I was there, we always tried to “touch code.” But I don’t think that’s a criterion in today’s competitive and noisy atmosphere.
I’d like to believe that I would have stood up to ZD earlier about getting an online presence before they tried to buy “turnkey” solutions with Nuke and Gamespot. I’d like to believe that I could have won the circulation battle by being more diplomatic in my communications with ZD’s VP of Circulation. I’d like to believe that I would have had the moral courage to stand up to my younger editors and say that I was sticking with M. Evan Brooks and Scorpia no matter how problematic their approach was. I have apologized to Evan personally on at least two occasions and twice in writing on various sites. I made an error in judgment. I thought I was right, but I’d change that decision if I could. Scorpia was largely a victim of the changing industry. I don’t think she holds a grudge, but I think I should have held onto her as my primary RPG “go-to” person until I was ready to transition out.
In general, though, I believe Computer Gaming World took the games and the industry seriously when no one else was. I believe we were honest and responsible. I believe we made a difference in the industry. And, I believe that I was privileged (through no special skill or talent of my own) to surf a fabulous wave in time. I once sat with two of my editors in the lobby area of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. We were mere feet away from where the famous roundtable (Perelman, Thurber, Parker, Benchley, Marx, et al) had held many a long and alcoholic lunch, punctuated by the wit and wisdom that would represent more than one generation in the heyday of New Yorker magazine. I really said to them, “Wouldn’t it have been great to have been part of a magazine that pointed the way toward the future in fashion, arts, literature, and opinion? Wouldn’t it have been great to be part of such an opinion-making publication that affected the entire country?” And suddenly, I realized that for one blink of time, I WAS part of just such a publication.
What events transpired when you left CGW?
When I left Computer Gaming World, it was clear that we had lost our edge to PC Gamer. PC Gamer was out-distributing us by more than 100K and maybe 150K. Where we were equally distributed, we were matching them or outselling them, but I couldn’t convince Ziff-Davis to match their distribution. As a result, advertisers and readers would go into stores and see our competitors on the shelf whereas we were either sold out or had failed to even sell into a store. So, PC Gamer had more visibility and more momentum than we could manage. My staff and I always felt like we were working at a handicap.
ZD felt like I was graying, Terry Coleman was prematurely gray [which you wouldn’t know from his red-orange hair today], and that the average editorial age was considerably higher than those of our competitors. They felt like having me as the spokesperson for the magazine sent the wrong signal, that we had become the gaming magazine for people who USED to be gamers. And, since I was a crappy FPS and RTS player at a time when those genres were the fastest growing titles in the industry, they questioned my contention that The Elder Scrolls was an important series or that games like Heroes of Might & Magic and Age of Wonders had a bright future. I kept getting second-guessed by executives in my own company. My opinion was having less and less influence with regard to the publication. I had to get approval from a circulation executive, my own publisher, a ZD vice-president, and a consultant whose most famous writing was a Cosmopolitan sex guide for teen-aged girls in order to select a cover. The latter originally made me furious, but when I myself became a publisher, I realized I had learned a tremendous amount about retail distribution and cover headlines from her.
Jon Lane, my former boss and the best boss I ever had, helped me come up with the idea of becoming “Editorial Director” and letting a younger guy become Editor-in-Chief. In that position, I took over a gorgeous, all-glass corner office overlooking San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Treasure Island and began to work on three projects: 1) a time-limited demo DVD for McDonald’s play areas (we accomplished in a month what the eventual contractor took eight months to accomplish) where the option was not picked up; a DVD-based trade publication for the industry that would have the advantage of having both demos and articles in the same “package” (though we had some interest, ZD decided not to take the risk because they thought Gamespot had the demo scene covered); and 3) figuring out what I wanted to do with my future.
At E3, I ran into an executive at the Nintendo party that I had known for years. She was at Wizards of the Coast and said that a reorganization had put all of their magazines in her department and she was wondering what to do with them. I proposed that she hire me as Group Publisher and I immediately began trying to redesign those publications to make them more newsstand savvy. So, I essentially stepped up when I left ZD. A former ZD President once flew from NYC to have lunch with me. She knew that I was upset over losing some editors to other publications and that I was beating myself up over it and probably making some poor decisions as a result. She said that her observation was that everyone who left me ended up moving up in their career. She thought that was a recommendation, not a problem. If she was right, ZD was very good to me—not an evil empire.
You brought up "ageism" is regards to CGW. Do you think the entire game
industry (not just magazines) tends to have a very short memory about the
history of gaming and game journalism?
When I was covering the game industry, I felt like most of the people on the development side were very much aware of the history of games. Today, it seems like they are all about the latest and greatest and don’t see any value in looking back at failed interfaces, archaic design decisions, technological limitations, etc. I’m extremely thankful that DePaul’s faculty has seen the wisdom of covering this material, though I’ll have to confess that I end up revising portions of the course every quarter because I’m still not satisfied that I’m accomplishing what I want to accomplish. Every quarter, I think I’ve got it and every quarter I become more and more depressed with what I’ve left out. Still, our students have a bigger bag of tricks than some other students because they know what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. Just maybe, they have better “B.S.” meters than other students. I hope so!
How did your book High Score come about?
Rusel Demaria had a dream of writing a coffee table book on the history of video games. When he talked to the editors at Osborne-McGraw Hill, they felt like the book would have more credibility (and probably more hitherto unpublished anecdotes) if it had more than one author. He suggested me, and Rusel approached me about writing a small portion of the book. We negotiated a deal where I’d do about a third of the work and he’d do the rest. The look and the approach is primarily Rusel’s brainchild. I was privileged to write a lot of what I wanted to write. Alas, there are still a lot of stories I tell in my History of Video Games class at DePaul University (with complete deniability) that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting in the book. Even so, I think it’s a nice book and it was more successful with Rusel’s very accessible approach to the subject matter. My history would have been extremely verbose and probably would have kept the lawyers working for decades. I mean, if I could have proved that Multimedia Company X was laundering money for Mid-Eastern Arms Dealers or that Publisher Y was funded with money that came from organized crime, I would have published it. I don’t have the multiple sources necessary to do so. Plus, Rusel steered me away from pure scandalous anecdotes and that was actually wise.
How was High Score received?
High Score was a bestseller in its space. There was only one strange decision my publisher made that both delighted and worried me. Apparently, we went strong into Costco. We were signing for a second edition at the time and I was so worried about Costco, that I insisted on separate accounting for the two editions. When we were hammered with returns from Costco, I was glad I did so.
But I heard from several professors in game development programs who used the book as a textbook, just as I heard from others that it was so superficial that it was not as useful as Kent’s book. It’s true that we don’t have as much detail, but our goal was to make a very accessible volume. Lots of folks in the business love it because the marketing materials (scrounged together by Rusel) and many of the photos (taken by another Russell, Russell Sipe) scrounged by me, made it more of a trip back in time than an analysis.
High Score was released just after Steven L. Kent's The First Quarter. Why
do you think there was an interest in gaming history at the time?
At the turn of the millennium, I believe people were just realizing that the industry was here to stay. In addition, all of the kids who grew up with the earlier eras of electronic games had become adults. They were ready for some nostalgia and nostalgia often sells at turning points. The millennium provided such a hinge.
Also, the industry was really just reaching a point of legitimacy, so a lot of people were asking, “If it’s just now an industry that’s here to stay, what happened before now?” So, I think we were at a landmark point with regard to legitimacy.
When I first read high score I was impressed by the early video game
computer game content, but the "Nintendo Era" of videogames and beyond was not covered in the same amount of depth. Was this updated In the second revision?
All we added in the second edition was information on the UK, Australia, and Japan that we had neglected in the earlier edition. One runs into a conundrum when writing a history. The nascent period of a phenomenon offers a narrow scope with which to deal, but as the phenomenon expands, there is much more to cover and write about. As a result, we could deal thoroughly with a higher percentage of the titles in the early era than we could in the modern era. Ironically, that’s part of why the third edition has fallen apart. We would have had less pages than ever, but more titles to deal with than ever before. How do you do that?
After Steven L. Kent published The Ultimate history Of Video Games het
pretty much quit writing about games altogether because, I believe, he
didn't think there was a place for real journalism (read: it didn't sell) in
the field of video games. Do you agree?
Recently, I read the most pretentious book of game “journalism” I’ve ever read (Extra Lives) and a very interesting book on the phenomena of gaming and the future of the industry (Tom Catchfield’s Fun Inc.). Will game journalism sell? There’s always a market if you package it right. Brian Fargo wants to do a book on the game BUSINESS with me called The Bard’s Tale. So far, we haven’t figured out how to package it.
I’m personally having trouble writing about games because I don’t have the contacts I used to have. Plus, it used to be my job to look at everything. Today, I can’t afford to look at everything (and I have a game lab I can visit at the school). I know that Rusel is having trouble finding contacts in the industry these days, as well (another reason we’re at a loss on the third edition). I just think people move on.
Was there any moment that you through game journalism "jumped the shark"?
I’ve made some bad calls (thinking only about 6K people would be interested in SimCity and predicting that MYST would sell in the tens of thousands), but I’m not sure I ever “jumped the shark.” As used in Hollyweird, I’m told that this is a plot gimmick used when ratings/box office are/is down. I don’t remember ever deliberately gimmicking the magazine to get attention. Did I overhype convergence in the ‘90s? Yes! Did I think cable television, film production, and game development were going to come together? Pretty much! I believed in the “wired” house. I didn’t realize that the “unwired” house would become typical.
I guess some people would think we “jumped the shark” when we did the September cover with the headline, “Are DOS Games Dead?” Hey, they were!
Now that video game news is updated 24/7 on the web, is there yet a place
for a serious publication about gaming?
Retro Gamer magazine is one of the top-selling publications for Future in
the UK. Why do you think that might be? Do you think there is place for
nostalgia publications in the USA?
UK has a smaller, more efficient distribution system. You don’t have as many returns in the UK as you do in US newsstand. That alone helps make it viable. If we ever do one in the USA, I want to write for it, but I wouldn’t personally invest in it. The US has a cult of the NEW—especially in technology.
What are your thoughts on that game industry today?
The future of packaged games is questionable. The problem with downloadable content is that one has to know where to browse and the search engines are such that you don’t get surprised like you do when browsing a shelf. However, I think we’re going to see an explosion of content on tablet media (iPad and Android tablet) for a while. That’s great because it gives new talent a chance to break in at a decent budget level. The big publishers may be doomed to implode if they can’t find a way to dial back their production budgets.
Do you think Facebook social games are the future, or simply a blip like
many other blips in the past (i.e Tycoon games in late 90's)?
Blip…blip…blip! Who has time to constantly be bothered by other players—even folks you like? I think we’re already seeing evidence of that.
Have you ever "blogged" ? Why or why not?
Yes! When Greg Costikyan and I were trying to get the long-tail marketing effort of Manifesto Games off the ground, I was doing a Game Prescription blog for our site and, when my brother David and I were trying to get a board game site off the ground, I blogged a Game Doctor for it. But I’m so busy that I really can’t keep one up to date and I don’t really have the contacts to be able to break interesting and relevant stories anymore. Maybe I’m just the game journalism version of one of those old actors living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home. “Johnny Wilson? Wasn’t he the idiot who put stars in the CGW reviews? Wasn’t he the jerk who let M. Evan Brooks and Scorpia go?”
What are your desert island top-10 games (or any type, board, computers,
1. Sid Meier’s Civilization (any edition) [PC]
2. Heroes of Might & Magic (any edition) [PC]
3. The Elder Scrolls (particularly post-Arena) [PC]
4. Paths of Glory (a WWI card-driven boardgame) [Board]
5. Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 or Pathfinder d20) [Pen and Paper RPG]
6. Traveller (science-fiction role-playing) [Pen and Paper RPG]
7. Empire Deluxe (editable turn-based conquest game) [PC]
8. MechWarrior (any game in this giant ‘mech series) [PC]
9. Naval War (or any of its clones like Tyrants of Rome, Modern Naval Battles) [Card]
10. British Rails [or any of the Mayfair “rails” games] [Board]
And that list would change slightly every time I would be asked that question.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work at De Paul University?
I'm an incredibly minor player at DePaul University's College of Computing and Digital Media. You know what they say, "An adjunct professor is a junky professor!" [Not to be confused with a "junkie" professor!] The school allows me to teach a course for history credit ("History of Games") in which we build a history of western civilization around model games (like Senet, Medieval Chess, Faro, and Pokemon Trading Card Game), looking first at each civilization (Ancient Egypt, Medieval Iberia, Frontier U.S., and Modern Japan) and playing the game as we discover how the culture impacted the game and how the game impacted the culture. The first unit allows us to talk about the history of racing games (Senet, 20 Squares, Nyout, Nard, etc.); the second allows us to consider war games (Go, Alquerque, Chinese Chess, Helwig's Game, Kriegsspiel, and miniatures/board wargames); the third allows us to consider the history of gambling games; and the fourth allows us to consider RPGs, video games, and trading card games). So, one gets history AND one gets game history in one place.
The school allows me to teach a History of Video Games course as an elective. So far, it is only available to Game Design majors, but I'm hoping to get it approved on a wider basis.
I also teach a very hands-on "Introduction to Game Design" which changes every time I teach it and I teach an "Ethics in Games and Cinema" course that uses film clips from games and movies, as well as game experiences like Diplomacy-variants in order to challenge assumptions about in-game/in-film ethics, as well as inspire would-be designers to include ethical dimensions within their games. I try to get more hands-on experiences in the classes each quarter, but then I worry that I'm leaving out something that should be covered. Hopefully, having a prof who cares about his subject matter makes a difference.
Do you have any discussions with your religious colleagues about games?
Well, Robert Don Hughes was a seminary professor and colleague of mine. He wrote the Pelmen the Power-Shaper series (If you haven't read Prophet of Lamath, you missed a treat, and I liked the sequel even better.) We occasionally have a religious fantasy and science fiction class taught in the Religion Department here at DePaul, so I've had interaction with that prof (haven't talked him into putting The Bloody Eye that I wrote as T. H. Lain in the syllabus, though). Most of my church members play games and one of the elders of our church went with me to the World Boardgame Championships last year. My brother is a conservative pastor and his church hosted a local game club (at no charge) for a couple of years.
What are the future plans for Johnny Wilson?
I expect to keep teaching at DePaul. I had a great time as guest speaker at a recent festival in China and would love to teach a couple of seminars over there as a guest lecturer. I serve as teaching pastor of a church in Chicago and actually spend more time playing FTF role-playing games (a local group of seven of us who trade off GMing in different systems every 10-12 weeks) and board war games (going to the World Boardgame Championships and getting my tail whipped every August) than PC games (currently, re-playing The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in anticipation of Skyrim and replaying Fallout 2 because I jumped over it when I played Fallout 3. I also picked up Blood Bowl for nostalgia value.
A few months back I got the urge to catch-up with Johnny Wilson, the long-time editor of Computer Gaming World. I do this from time-to-time. I get nostalgic about old games or magazines, and then attempt to look-up some of the personalities and get them to speak on record about their time in the spotlight.
I had never met Mr. Wilson before, but I've read his book (High Score), and I was a fan of his work for many years. It seems that so many of the original thought-leaders in the video and computer game world have moved away, and I wanted to know why Wilson himself had "gone underground" and moved away from industry.
The interview presented at GameCareerGuide.com is only about 1/2 of interview I conducted with Wilson. In a few weeks I'll post the entire thing. It's a very enlightening look into the field of computer games and computer game journalism from one of the pioneers in the field.
Go on over and read the story here: http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/1031/a_chat_with_former_cgw_head_johnny_.php
Recently we caught-up with Alexander Shen from Mochi Media to ask him about the state of Mochi and viral Flash Games. His responses are truly enlightening. Far from Flash being dead and buried, it appears that both the volume of Flash games, and the success stories of Flash game developers are still very strong.
Can you bring us up to speed on Mochi in 2011? What new features have you guys released? What is in the pipeline?
Mochi is continuing to move forward for 2011 as we continue to build out both our online games property (mochigames.com) and the tools we offer. Our GAME Fund is still on track with offering both primary and sitelock licenses to games, which is great since we can continue to help sponsor games that were sacrificing other revenue streams just to get sponsored (e.g. micro transactions, ads, etc.). Our tools offerings include a new and updated game feed generator for publishers, achievements and the new "white label" solution for our LiveUpdates solution.
What is the volume of Flash games going through the Mochi system these days?
The daily submission and release of new games has increased since last year. Looking at it from a two years ago, it seems like daily submissions are up by roughly ~33%.
You recently had an issue with Taito over the Space Invaders IP. Can you explain what happened? Has this spread to other IP?
I think it was a pretty straight forward thing. Some games were approved based on our ad approval requirements and Taito sent us a standard take down notice for said games that infringed on copyright, even though the uploaders of those games stated they had permission to legally do the upload. We then complied and removed them from our system. We're very respectful of any take down notices we get and are quite on top of it and quick to move.
What are the most popular games on Mochi right now?
You can actually see that list over at mochigames.com. Some of the more popular titles are SAS3, BTD4, Mike Shadow: I Paid For It, Learn 2 Fly 2 and the Flipline games (Papa's Taco-Mia, Burgeria, Freezeria).
Is the Coins system doing well for you guys?
The Coins system continues to do well as we continue to integrate more MMOs into the mochigames.com property. The general Flash game playing populous still feel that anything Flash should be 100% free or at least the people who feel that way are the vocal majority. That, however, doesn't stop other players from spending money in games, especially ones that are deeper and require a larger commitment of time and focus. What I do see, however, is larger justification for spending occurring in games that are able to do proper multiplayer integrations. Now it's not necessarily a case in "just to beat the game", but to do something to be better than everyone else. The "vanity option" becomes clearly prevalent in this case.
Is there anything you would recommend for Flash devs who want to be successful with Mochi and Flash game portals?
Some of the most important things a developer can do is not only to build great games and to release frequently (we can't all be Blizzard, banking on the one release every 5 years and making millions, amirite?). With that you then will realize how powerful a brand can be. The first thought that comes to mind is the Berzerk Studios guys. Those guys have built an amazing brand for themselves. It's not to say that their games aren't good (they really are), but their name carries so much weight that it naturally inflates the prices they get for their sponsorships. I'm very happy for them and wish for their continued success! It also reminds me of any racing game a LongAnimals team/duo makes. Those things just print cash (Drift Runners is still one of my favorite racers, btw).
I also feel that the Mochi APIs are becoming more robust and definitely adding things that more developers can use even if they're not interested in the ad component. With the addition of achievements and the "white label" LiveUpdates, we've really listened to the community to implement things that can benefit all the players in the space. We're maturing and now have the ability to build things more easily the community asks for.
How is the relationship with Shanda?
Working with Shanda has continued to be great. They have a relatively hands-off approach since they understand that our strengths lie in understanding and being a part of the Flash game/API space. They let us do what we do best. They support our decisions and we're very lucky to be able to be backed financially in such a way to allow for further progression in our tools development as well as game property development (MMOs, sponsorships, etc.). It's really been great and I couldn't have really asked for more at this point.
Being self avowed Atari Nerds for more than 33 years now, Steve and I are always game to hear information on the controversial start-up, on-going business, and eventual crash of the original video game giant. In this edition of the Retro Gaming Roundup the team uncovers some interesting fodder for the discussion boards. In this podcast, being completely dedicated to Atari, the guys discuss everything from the vapor ware like Mindlink controller, video phones, to the top 10 Atari arcade games, the Atari 2700, the Super Breakout handheld, and all the way to the buried desert bunkers full of Atari hardware and carts.
The extra special part of this podcast is an interview with Ted Dabney. Ted started Syzygy Engineering with Nolan Bushnell in the early 70's. Video game history was changed forever with that pairing. The interview uncovers some very interesting information that has not been readily available before. Ted Dabney is not given proper credit for his role in the birth of the industry so it is nice to hear his side of the story. He was the other half of the Bushnell/Dabney team that literally invented the video game industry. Ted and Nolan shared an office at Ampex Engineering before they started Atari and early on in the interview he removes some of the smokescreen about who did what to invent the games and industry we love.
The entire thing goes to prove that history is written by the winners, but the internet has given the "people" a chance to tell the true story in some cases. This seems to be one of those cases. They also discuss the fiery Atariage.com thread from a couple months back when Ted and Nolan both fired volleys back and forth on the invention of Computer Space, and much much more.
(8bitjeff is Jeff D. Fulton)
"SPIL GAMES expect that by the end of 2012 at least 50% of all new games to be HTML5."
-Scott Johnson, SPIL Games
SPIL runs some of the biggest game portals on the planet (e.g. gamesgame.com). As far as online web games go (mostly Flash) , their operation is MASSIVE:
- Popularity: 130 million unique visitors per month
- Tons of Content: 47 websites with over 4,000 free online games
- Diversity:19 languages
We caught-up with SPIL's External Communications Manager, Scott Johnson to talk about the games SPIL wants to see from developers, and how they feel about the future of HTML5 and Flash.
How long has SPIL been running game portals?
We’ve been in business since 2001. We’ve been focusing on online games since 2004 which is when we introduced our first game portal.
What countries do you operate game portals?
US, France, Netherlands, Germany, UK, Spain, Brazil, Sweden, Italy, Russia, Poland, Portugal, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Argentina, Japan and Asia. However, it’s interesting to note that people all over the world access our sites. I believe there are only about 2 countries on Earth from where we’ve not had visitors.
Have you noticed any regional game preferences? (e.g racing games in Poland, arcade games in China, etc.).
From a big picture point of view, we see general preferences to remain consistent across the Globe. There are some exceptions, such as online versions of card and board games being particularly popular in South America. For instance anecdotally speaking, Dominos is far more popular in South America than in a country like Holland.
Do you develop your own games?
Yes. We have studios in Hilversum (the Netherlands), Nuremburg (Germany) and Shanghai (China).
Do you accept submissions, or do you have staff to find content for your sites?
In addition to the games we develop internally, we also rely on the developer community to find games for our sites (and of course for our HTML5 mobile sites as well). We work proactively and reactively with developers.
Do you shy away from games with advertisements?
We do have adver games on our sites, but we don’t accept games with in-game ads.
How do you feel about "coins" games and games that include micro-transactions?
We see micro-transactions as an important development in the industry. We’re focusing on micro-transactions in our social games this year. In fact, on May 14 we launched our first game featuring virtual currency:Walhalla Bingo, a chat-oriented multiplayer game available on the Hyves social network. The virtual currency (“Walhalla Credits”) supplements the players’ in-game purchasing power, allowing them to buy more bingo cards and increase their chances of winning.
And, this is of course a great way for developers to generate revenue and then continue to create even cooler games.
How important are API integrations and for things like high score in your decisions for games to include on your portals?
Very important. It depends on the game, of course, but high scores is very popular with players and keeps them coming back.
Do "easy to learn" games get preference because instructions need less localization for your your portals in multiple languages?
First and foremost we focus on casual games, e.g., games that are easy to play, but not easy to master; games that are accessible, etc. Therefore these games don’t necessarily require lengthy instructions. Having said that, we don’t shy away from games with lots of text instructions. Basically, it comes down to the following when choosing a game: if we feel it’s a game that will fit the needs of our users we’ll feature it.
How do you feel about the future of Flash?
What we see is that HTML5 will evolve as the new standard in mobile (and eventually browser-based) game development. At the moment most games are based on Flash. However, we see that to truly take advantage of the opportunity of mobile gaming (and eventually all browser-based games), developers and publishers need to focus on HTML5 for the future. This will ensure that gamers have the best gaming experience no matter where they are or what platform they want to play games on.
You have started to send out feelers for HTML5 content. What prompted this development?
As you know, we started out publishing gaming websites. This went very well, but we soon realized that the game experience of our players doesn’t begin and end on our websites. People want to duplicate the experience they have on our sites on other platforms, especially social networks and mobile devices. For instance, when it comes to mobile we have seen more than 1 million people try to access our sites from a mobile device.
So, the interest of users on mobile was clear and we started thinking about how we can meet this interest. However, we quickly saw a gap to do this. Specifically, the full potential of mobile gaming for both developers and end users has been hampered by different protocols, operating systems, and platform-approval processes within the mobile world. Games and apps need to be constantly redesigned to meet the technical specifications of all these platforms which cause hassle and extra resource for developers. Plus, players were forced to download a game from app stores and face installation hassles.
We wanted to ensure that all mobile gamers no matter what phone or operating system they used could have instant access to the games they want to play. That led us to realize that HTML5 was the natural choice to focus our mobile plans. It’s interesting for us as a company because we pride ourselves on being open, bringing great games to everyone no matter where they are or what platform they want to use. HTML5 redefines the user experience because it removes the barriers to entry for mobile users to easily access and play games whenever and on whichever mobile platform they choose. The promise of HTML5 is that if a game is developed in HTML 5 it can be easily used on any mobile device, across all social platforms, our portals or any PC [NOTE: depending on upgrade of future devices/browsers]. And, the quality of the game experience will be the same no matter what platform people use. It brings to life the fact that gaming is everywhere.
Do you have plans for HTML5 APIs for high-scores, user-accounts, multi-player, etc?
As I mentioned HTML5 is a huge focus for us. You can expect to hear lots more from us around it, but unfortunately, I’m not able to reveal anything that’s not yet been announced.
What excites you the most about HTML5?
It brings the promises of the web to reality. Specifically:
- It means apps can be developed once and deployed everywhere, saving developers time and money in development. This will enable them to focus on developing compelling HTML5 web games.
- It enables developers to update or improve their games and instantly make their games available via the web.
- For developers the initial investment for an HTML5 app is around zero and the learning curve is minimal.
- Instead of trying to develop for a specific platform, developers could choose to create a compelling HTML5 web application.
- Exempts developers from having to deal with startup costs and approval processes.
Additionally, HTML5 redefines the user experience because it removes the barriers to entry for mobile users to easily access and play games whenever and on whichever mobile platform they choose. If a game is developed in HTML5 it can be used on the majority of modern mobile devices. And, the quality of the game experience will be the same no matter what platform people use. It brings to life the fact that gaming is everywhere.
What has the response been to you your HTML5 game contest?
Since we just launched it a few weeks back, we’re not yet ready to reveal any developments here. But, stay tuned!
What are your plans for mobile gaming?
Mobile gaming is a huge focus area for us and HTML5 is the center of our mobile gaming strategy. Right now all our portals have a mobile version. This was launched on 31 August, 2010 and we’ve been updating these with new games. We’ve also just launched the developer contest where we’re offering cash prizes every month for 6 months for the best HTML5 game. And, we’re really trying to talk about and champion HTML5 as much as we can because we believe in it so much. While the industry is on the early side of this great HTML5 development, we here at SPIL GAMES expect that by the end of 2012 at least 50% of all new games to be HTML5.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to hardcore Flash and HTML5 game developers?
Well, I said a lot above J. But, we’re always thrilled to talk with developers and they can count on hearing us talk more and more about HTML5.
With 130 million unique visitors across the world on 41 websites and a ranking as a Top 60 most visited online property in the world (according to comScore Media Metrix) we are the leader in online gamer.
At our core though we want to unite the world in play. This motivates all that we do!
Yesterday, Legacy Engineering announced a pre-order for their newest product, The Atari 7800 Expansion Module. Pre-orders receive a 10% discount (for a limited time). The Atari 7800 Expansion Module includes:
- Built in High Score keeping capability (compatible with approx 20 existing titles and any HSC coded games/programs in the future)
- 128K of Program Available Memory
- POKEY audio/interfacing IC Chip for enhanced audio/voice synthesis and I/O Interfacing capabilities.
- 2nd Audio Processor for higher end Arcade sound effects and music
- SIO (Serial I/O) Port for potential future use of Atari 8bit computer peripherals such as Disk Drives, Printers and Modems.
- 15 PIN Port for potential future use with a detachable computer keyboard.
- Will come professionally boxed in original Silver styled "Atari XL" type box with extensive User Guide and Technical Data manuals.
Since we are big fans of their work, we caught-up with Legacy Engineering's Kurt Vendel and got him to answer a few questions for us.
How is this product related to the Atari 7800 High Score Cartridge?
I've been asked more and more over the years if I'd consider doing another run of High Score carts. I originally made 100 and then did a small 25 pc run a few years later, but never did anymore since, so I thought it would be good to do a new run but then started to think about doing more and the Exp Module became the result of cramming more into the design and then actually taking drawings I bought from a former Atari Industrial designers for a piggyback module case and using its design for the Expansion module.
128K ram is a massive amount for the 7800. What do you think developers will do with it?
I am hoping that will do more complex backgrounds, perhaps larger game maps - like for instance the new Failsafe game (Countermeasure follow up) could've benefited greatly from all that memory. Also having that much ram means more of the game can be loaded and ready and it will offload from the MARIA and allow finer scrolling and other more complex games with less cpu overhead.
Do you already have developers ready to make games using this product?
Actually when the high score cart 3rd round went to a high score/pokey idea I then starting asking for input and then decided the best persons to tap would be the most active developers on the 7800 platform, so I pulled 3 of the top developers (now a 4th has just joined in after the Pre-Orders started) to basically ask them - what do THEY want from an enhancement device and after some starts, stops and a lot of push-backs on wishlists, and going a little overboard, it was settled on the high score, adding pokey for audio and I/O, adding RAM in multiple banks and then adding in a Yamaha sound chip used in many Atari arcade machines as well. Basically the enhancement had to stick to one specific design criteria - it had to be feasible in 1984-1986 if done then. So everything feature wise being incorporated into it couldn't been done during the heyday of the 7800.
How does the current "Atari" feel about these kinds of products?
I've never directly asked, except for the USB joysticks. At the time their head of licensing told me on the joystick that "it didn't fit with what Atari wanted to do with its name" Needless to say, I was flabbergasted at the statement - that's like saying McDonalds doesn't really want to use the Golden Arches anymore or Coca Cola is going to sell its products in milk cartons. Apparently that person is no longer with Atari anymore
I think Atari see's what I have been doing as a very positive thing for them in an indirect way. I am probably one of their biggest cheerleaders and by bringing out such products to the fanbase and the nascent cottage industry hobbyist coders who in turn further keep Atari's torch lit. I feel I'm doing them a great and positive benefit by injecting new life and excitement into their legacy of products.
Have you been able to interest Atari in a "Flashback 3"?
Yes from an interest and excitement standpoint. Even during a recent conference call with Nolan who is know a part of Atari on their Board and part of the Creative Team, he even liked the product. Funding is the issue, no one seems to want to invest in the "Risk" side of the product, even though, in my opinion, the "Reward" side has proven itself already with the Flashback 1 and Flashback 2 consoles. The key is distribution through major channels as the previous products were sold. The 2+ console update was direct sales promotion and I don't think the proper momentum was put behind it, plus the retail price and high shipping cost turned a lot of potential buyers away unfortunately.
What are some of Legacy Engineering's best selling products?
The USB Controllers have been a phenomenal success and sell very strong, even in todays tough economic climate. Some custom versions have been done exclusively for some of our partner Resellers like Reflex Audio and now Thinkgeek has recently signed up to also sell our joysticks. A new Arcade32 interface for MAME builders just came out this past week with 2 player inputs and trackball/spinner support all on one interface and that is picking up steam. A new product coming out for the holidays is the "Dualer" which is a 2 port joystick/paddle interface that also has a built in SD-CARD reader so you can keep all of your emulators, and ROM's on it, take it with you to work, school or a friends house and use any original Atari joysticks or paddles with it (for those who don't have old Atari joysticks we will have a line of low cost, high quantity Atari compatible joysticks coming out as well too.)
Have you seen the plans for the "Commodore 64" PC? Do you know of any plans to do something like that with an Atari casing?"
Something is already well into the works and I don't want to say too much on it at this time....
Why do you think the Atari 7800 fails to get the respect it deserves?
The 7800 was a truly amazing console in my opinion, great graphics, built in 2600 compatibility, a line of never before seen expansion devices. Timing of the sale of Atari killed it and it never got to hit its stride in 1984 as it should've. Negotiations and payments to GCC from the Tramiels held it up for almost a year and then getting games and such also negotiated for it held it up longer so it wasn't able to hit the scene until 1986 and faced with Nintendo and Sega, and crippled by Nintendo's exclusive sign up deals with software houses, the 7800 never got a fair shake in the marketplace. Sega didn't have this problem as much as it had its own library of untapped, never released to the home market arcade titles to survive on with its SMS system. The glaring flaw in the 7800 is obviously its sound, but that aside, its graphics and capabilities were superior to the NES, and I think todays Homebrewers, these small independent individuals - coding, not for profit, but for their love of the console - have been proving this true over the last 3 or so years, releasing new games that are just amazing. With the added horsepower of the Expansion Module, we could see a totally new resurgence of the 7800 and see games and titles never before thought possible, but done with technology and designs that were realistic and obtainable back in 1984-1986.
Do you know of any legal or technical reason why Atari can't release 7800 or 8-bit games to platforms like Xbox Live arcade, handhelds, etc?
They are already releasing games for the 2600 and arcade on Xbox Gameroom, it wouldn't surprise me if you start to see 5200 titles show up on their service in the future and who knows, maybe 7800 titles will follow not too long there after, at least that is what a little birdie tells me
What's next for Legacy Engineering?
Baby steps... After being burned severely by my designs and work being stolen for the Gene Simmons Kiss guitar controller for Guitar Hero, I decided that it was best for me to invest in Legacy Engineering being not just a design firm, but a manufacturer. Its been rough, but I am taking a cue from Microsoft in a sense... if you look back 10-15 years ago, no one wouldn't ever thought Microsoft would be a top contender in home gaming consoles. They started out small - doing game controllers and accessories. They learned and worked their way up. I'm not saying in 10 years I'll be designing the next Xbox720 or the PS5, but I am hoping that my experience as a day to day video game enthusiast, mixed with my passion for design will continue to fuel and inspire Legacy Engineering to go on to build bigger and more ambitious products that fill a missing need for gamers, and as I try with all my products, have some fun hidden surprises for people to find and enjoy.
Jobe Makar is is one of the people who inspired 8bitrocket.com the most in the past 10 years. From his multiple Flash game books, to his 100's of games, Jobe has reached a level of success matched only by a very few. We caught-up with Jobe last week and tried to pick his brain to find the secret to his success.
How are you Jobe Makar?
I’m doing well now that the brutal summer heat is finally relenting!
You are one of the true pioneers of Flash game development. Can you estimate how many games you have created over the years?
That is definitely a tough number to come up with. My best guess is between 200 and 300 games, where maybe 25% of them are multiplayer. I know that is a pretty big number, but I’ve been at it for around 12 years now. I remember when I first started creating Flash games I only focused on games that I could make in a 1 or 2 day period. After years of that I felt confident enough to approach bigger games.
What is your education background?
I attended East Carolina University for 4 years of undergraduate work, and North Carolina State University for 3 years graduate school. My focus the whole way was physics. In graduate school I was pursuing a PHD. I finished the course work and moved into the research phase. After 6 months or so into that phase I was so burned out on physics and school that I left and started my career in Flash! I didn’t have any formal education in computer science or programming. Luckily for me at the time (we’re talking Flash 3 / Flash 4) the scripting was super easy to learn for anyone. As Flash grew over the years so did my programming knowledge.
You have published several books on Flash Game development. What books have you written and can you tell us about your latest book on multi-player game design?
The first book on game programming that I authored was Macromedia Flash MX Game Design Demystified, published in 2002. There were a few books on Flash games already on the market but they didn’t touch on a lot of the topics that I found interesting – like physics, collision detection, and multiplayer. In that book I tried to cover a wide variety of interesting topics. It was well received!
I updated that book in 2004 and it was released as Macromedia Flash MX 2004 Game Design Demystified. Unfortunately, the publisher wanted it out the door in an extremely short turnaround time – maybe it was 2 months, I don’t exactly recall. Due to the aggressive deadline I was forced to take on a co-author (Ben W, a good guy!) and just crank out the new version. I wasn’t happy with this release because the book was less cohesive, which is common with multiple authors that don’t have time to collaborate properly.
My latest book, ActionScript for Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds, was a book I really wanted to write. The publisher gave me enough time to write it and I think it turned out well. At the time, there were very few books on multiplayer available, and none that focused on Flash at all. This niche book filled that gap and has been getting excellent reviews! And in May of 2010 it won the Flash Book of the Year award at Flash and the City!
What do you like the best about working in Flash?
Over the last couple of months I started dabbling in Silverlight, XNA, Unity, and Java. While I’ve always thought Flash was easy to work with, I never really appreciated how much so until now. Jump into XNA and try making something as simple as a text field that lets you enter your name. In Flash that takes seconds, in XNA you could spend hours. So I really love how Flash identifies certain things that a developer will need to do, and makes those things easy.
Do you think Adobe has made the right choices with Flash and CS5?
That is difficult to say. I guess I have a few responses. The non-helpful response is this: I rarely use the Flash IDE anymore. I only use it to build assets that can be sucked into other projects at compile time. So in a sense, the state of Flash CS5 doesn’t affect me much.
But now I’ll comment on a few specific things. I was on the Flash CS5 prerelease and was very excited to use the iPhone packager. I fully supported Adobe’s decision to integrate it into CS5 and loved that they were creative enough to figure out a way to get Flash on the iPhone. However, with compilation times of several minutes the workflow using this feature can be debilitating. The Android packager on the other hand is pretty fast and is refreshing by comparison!
I know there are other new features in Flash CS5 but I haven’t really explored them much. Adobe has been pushing TLF but I haven’t touched it.
How do you work with Flash? Do you use the Flash IDE or do you prefer to use another development platform?
I use Flash Develop as my IDE. I think it has probably been years since I’ve been involved with a project whose code was compiled by the Flash IDE itself. Getting out of using FLAs for everything was a difficult decision for me since that was all I knew. But once I made that jump my productivity increased a lot. Compilation times are shorter and debugging is easier.
Electrotank has grown into a pretty sizable company. Do you still make single-player Flash games, or do you spend most of your time on multi-player games?
These days I’m spending a lot of time working on the ElectroServer API, documentation, and creating examples. But when I get the opportunity to work on a game it is almost always multiplayer. While I love working on multiplayer games, I’d like to work on a few single player games as a change of pace.
Electroserver 4 had been out for a couple years now. How has it been received by the Flash game industry?
Very well! It is used to power some of the most popular virtual worlds and multiplayer games out there. Since we use ElectroServer ourselves we have been able to shape it into a product that we know other developers would find useful. And they have for about 8 years now!
Can you explain what EUP is?
EUP (Electrotank Universe Platform) is platform for developing virtual worlds and social games. It is a massive system with features and flexibility that I can barely scratch the surface on here – but let me try. Imagine all of the virtual worlds out there and the features that they share – things like avatars, inventory, stores, environments/maps, questing, achievements, customizable rooms,etc. EUP makes all of these features generically available so that they can be implemented however you want for your particular game. The features can be customized and their abilities can be extended. There is an advanced system in place for easily adding client/server transactions whose code is auto-generated. If you need to add new properties to some object (like a purchasable item), the property can be added in place and it is automatically added and is accessible by client and server code. EUP even has solutions in place for creating UGC (user generated content) that can be used however you want – like by selling the content as an item, gifting it, or even having an avatar wear the custom item.
In addition to all of the above, EUP brings with it a suite of more than a dozen useful editor and content management tools – which we call the Tool Suite. The Tool Suite includes tools to do things like build and manage world maps, manage items for sale in stores, and even to manage all of the localization content for your game. In fact, we just found out this week that the Tool Suite was nominated for an Adobe MAX award!
What do you have planned for ElectroServer 5?
We’ve been working hard on the this next release. I’ll speak to two of our major new features.
1. Multiplatform APIs
Over the years our server has been focused on supporting Flash clients only. It has become clear in the last year or two that developers of other growing platforms really need a product like ElectroServer. So, we have rewritten the entire API from the ground up and have implemented it across many languages: AS2, AS3, Objective-C, Java, and C#. This allows developers of apps for Android, iPhone, Windows Phone 7, Unity, Java, and Flash to use ElectroServer! We’ve made the API identical across all platforms to make it easier for developers who develop for multiple platforms.
We’ve added UDP support for games that need to support the highest message rate. Typically UDP is used in games where position updates are sent as fast as possible, like first person shooters. If you’re creating a fast-paced twitch game, then UDP will help you get there.
There are many more new or enhanced features as well, so come check it out!
Can you give budding Flash game developers any advice about how to make a living in the industry?
It is an exciting time for game developers with some relatively new platforms to develop for. As much as a cliché as this sounds, I recommend that you work hard and continually learn. Don’t expect to be successful overnight. And while you’re starting out don’t be afraid to accept low paying jobs. They’ll help you gain experience and build your resume and portfolio. Attend conferences or developer community events. If you get yourself out there then opportunities will present themselves.
What do you think is the future of Flash and web gaming?
I think that we’ll see Flash show up on more devices and we’ll see performance gains. To have Flash run well on small devices Adobe will need to invest more in the runtime performance of the Flash player.
As far as web gaming – keep your eye on Unity. There are a lot of big brands focusing on the development of Unity games. Unity games can be played across many platforms, including Web, iPhone, Wii, and soon Android.
Do you play games yourself? What are some of your favorites?
I rarely play games. I spend most of my free time programming games, playing tennis, or watching movies. With that said, there are some games over the years that I’ve really enjoyed. Among them are Super Mario Bros, Jedi Knight, Command & Conquer: Generals, and Snood. It is kind of an odd list, but those are a few of the games I’ve really gotten into.
What's next for Jobe Makar?
While I love Flash, I’ve enjoyed branching out into some other languages and platforms recently. I think I’ll continue down this path for a while to see where it goes! I’m currently working on a first person shooter game with a Unity client. I’m programming the Java server code portion, and someone else is handling the Unity client. This is my first time as “the server guy”. And, s the server guy I need to start looking down on client programmers. J.
You can follow Jobe via Twitter here: http://twitter.com/jobemakar
Steven Levy is one of my heroes. He's genius author who has the rare ability of making technology subject not only palatable, but down-right fascinating. He has written tons of great books, and written for magazines such as Wired and Newsweek. Steven Levy's book, Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution is one of the best books ever written about technology. It is one the required reading list for 8bitrocket.com
I caught-up with Steven today, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions.
8bitsteve: "Hackers" is one of the classic books about the computer industry. When you started the project, did you have any idea of the impact it would have when it was finished?
Steven Levy: I did understand when I was working on the book that I was trying to tell an important story. When the book came out it didn't take off right away, so I had no idea that it would eventually find such a great and wide audience.
8bitsteve: Have you kept-up with any of the principal characters in "Hackers" over the past three decades? (Steve Russell, Ken Williams, John Harris, etc.)?
Steven Levy: Of the ones you mention, I have had sporadic contact with Ken. The ones I see more often are Lee Felsenstein and, some of the Apple people. And Bill Gates, of course, who is part of my regular journalism beat. I run into a few of the MIT people, too. It was good to check in on Greenblatt and Stallman for the update.
8bitsteve: Do you think the book "Hackers" can have the same impact today they might have had just 15 years ago? Are there three "Hackers" you would write about now, given the chance?
Steven Levy: This is a time of groundbreaking changes, and there are great stories to tell. Of course the way to do this would not be to emulate "Hackers" but deal with a narrative of today on its own terms. As for the people I would write about now, I think a major story of our time is Google, particularly on the nexus of its aspirations, its technical philosophy, and the way its leaders handle the impact of their products on the public. That's the book I'm just finishing now.
8bitsteve: What is your perspective on the whole "Apple vs. Adobe vs Google" situation? Where do you think Microsoft sits in all this?
Steven Levy: Well, Microsoft will do anything it can do mess up Google. In general, the competitive triangle of Apple, Google and MS is a juicier tale than "Twilight." I talked about this a bit in the Wired cover about the iPad.
8bitsteve: Can you tell us something about what the latest project you have been working on?
Steven Levy: As above, a substantial book about Google, out early next year. I was given extraordinary access to its people. I think it's the closest thing I've written to "Hackers."
8bitsteve: What did you think about the 2010 "25th Anniversary" Edition Of Hackers?
Steven Levy: I was thrilled to have a new version out from O'Reilly and hope it can find a new generation of readers--as well as re-readers who have lost their original copies.
We'd like to thank Steven for taking time away from writing to answer these questions. Check out the new version of Hackers here.
"Many people ask why we put GAME in all caps (in the name Mochi GAME Development fund -ed)and it's because the fund is ajoint effort between our parent company Shanda Games (stock tickerNASDAQ:GAME) and Mochi Media."
We've heard back from a lot of developers about their experiences with the mochi Game Development fund, and nearly all of them have been disappointing. I believe that is because many developers are missing the point of what Mochi is trying to accomplish with their $10,000,000. This interview with Jameson Hsu, head of Mochi Media might give a little insight into the Mochi Mind-Set and what kinds of games they want to spend their money on. The quote above should give you a hint. There is also some fascinating history of Mochi Media here. We met Jameson at the Flash Gaming Summit this year. He seemed like a top guy to us, and very interested in the success of Flash Developers. We are very happy that he agreed to this interview.
8BR: How did the idea for Mochibot come about?
JH: The event that sparked the idea for MochiBot started back in 2001 whenBob and I were building Flash games and noticed them spreading to various Flash portals. We didn't really do anything at the time
because we were too busy building games. Then in late 2004 I started noticing Flash games becoming more and more popular. Meanwhile developers were facing the same issue where their games would be
spread to multiple sites. That's when we started thinking about a
solution to help game developers better understand where their games
were being played.
8BR: How popular was Mochibot?
JH: When MochiBot was first launched the product was warmly received by
the game developer community. We had real time analytics and whenever
we gave live demos people would 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over how quickly the
data came back. There were no competitors when we launched so product
adoption grew very quickly.
MochiBot is still very popular amongst game developers and we track
over 2B game plays per month around the world.
8BR: What was the size of the company at that time?
JH: Mochi Media had only two full time employees, Bob and I, and two or
three contractors from 2005 through 2007. We had plenty of months
where all we ate was Cup-o-Noodles for each meal.
8BR: What prompted you to start Mochiads?
JH: We built MochiAds because we saw that games were spreading everywhere
but developers didn't have a good way to make money from their games.
Bob and I used to get paid by clients to make games for advertising
agencies so we figured that if we could connect the same types of
clients we worked with in the past with the existing ecosystem of game
developers then magic would happen.
8BR: Were you surprised at the response to Mochiads when it was first released?
JH: We were definitely surprised at the response when we first launched
MochiAds. We never expected to have such a positive reaction. I
guess that's what happens when you help people make money though.
Some of the best moments were when people would send us pictures of
the things they bought with their new found money. Some people sent
us pictures of their kids and the new toys that they used their
MochiAds money to buy. Those kinds of customer feedback emails never
8BR: Can you tell us a bit about how you work with advertisers?
Not sure what the question is. We sell them ad space, they give us money. =)
8BR: The same as above, but for Portals?
JH: We work with game portals by providing them a continuous flow of games
and features within those games to make their sites more engaging.
Acquiring games can be quite a daunting task so we try to make it as
simple as possible for game portals to get good content for their
Not only do we provide over 15,000 games to publishers but we also
provide a share of the advertising revenue that is generated on their
sites. We saw a need to reward everyone contributing to the game
ecosystem so that's why we started the Publisher revenue sharing
8BR: Do advertisers or portals like or request specific games or game types?
JH: We often get requests for specific games but we don't make games so we
can only choose from what's in our catalog. For example we've had a
gas medication company request the game Puzzle Farter
(http://puzzlefarter.com/). Or we've had several publishers request
sports specific games.
For some portals we've run themed game development contests to get a
greater variety of a specific type of game. For example we had a
great outcome from the word game themed contest
we ran with Dictionary.com.
8BR: Looking back, what kind of games have been the most popular (i.e. made
Mochi the most cash)?
JH: The games that have been the most popular, and thus profitable, are
usually games with greater depth. For example, a shooting game with a
story line or an platformer with multiple character upgrade features.
Tower defense games usually do quite well because there's a high
As we see games now start to use MochiCoins the same rule applies.
The deeper the game the more money it generates. That's not to say
that just adding 100 more levels makes a game deeper. We define depth
as a game that gives players the feeling of progression and/or
improvement so that they want to play over and over again.
8BR: Why do you think you guys have survived and while other competitors
have not been so fortunate?
JH: I think we have made it thus far because we were early in the space
and we also had a very laser-like focus on what we wanted to
accomplish. Bob and I both started our careers making games so we
understood what developers needed.
Another key aspect to our success is that the developers we've worked
with have been wildly successful in making great games. We owe a lot
to the community of game developers and publishers so that's why we
continue doing so many things to give back to the community.
8BR: It's been just about 2 years since the Mochi Score API was released.
Was that "watershed" moment for you guys, knowing you could expand the
Mochi services out to actual in-game servces that expanded game-play?
In a sense, you stopped "augmented" games and became part of the game
JH: We've always been part of the game development process starting with
MochiBot, but releasing the Mochi Score API was definitely a landmark
moment for us in understanding that value we could provide both game
developers and portals. Building high scores showed us that we could
build services that add value to games so that people would play more
8BR: Can you tell us anything about relative success of Mochicoins? Do you
think consumers are ready to spend their money on "free" games?
JH: MochiCoins has been a tremendous success that has well surpassed our
expectations. Consumers are definitely ready to spend money on 'free'
games and we're not the only company proving this. All of the social
games on Facebook are clearly making money from free-to-play games.
The misconception in the Flash games industry is that many people are
stuck in the mindset that Flash games have always been free and
therefore people won't pay to play them. However, the data shows that
people are spending lots of money and those who are learning from the
social gaming space are profiting from this evolution in games.
8BR: Are there any new services on the horizon that you can talk about?
JH: Our most recent announcements have been the launch of the Mochi Social
Platform (http://www.mochimedia.com/developers/social.html) and the
Mochi GAME Developer Fund
The Mochi Social Platform is designed around the concept we touched
upon earlier in that we are trying to build features that can benefit
both developers and publishers in getting people to play more games.
The success of social games has revolved around the inclusion of your
social graph in the games themselves. Unfortunately the social graph
hasn't been readily available to Flash game developers so that's why
we built the Mochi Social Platform. We hope to enable Flash game
developers with the ability to make their games more personalized for
their players to drive more game plays and a greater willingness to
spend money in their games.
The Mochi GAME Developer Fund is our answer to developers who have
been wanting to make MochiCoins enabled games but haven't had the
resources to take on the increased production efforts and risk. Many
people ask why we put GAME in all caps and it's because the fund is a
joint effort between our parent company Shanda Games (stock ticker
NASDAQ:GAME) and Mochi Media.
8BR: Have you ever considered "white labeling" your service offerings for
"enterprise" customers who might need a "private" version of the Mochi
system? (kind of like the way a company like Ning, OneSite or Pluck
has White labeled social networking into a set of services)
JH: We had considered white labeling some of the Mochi Media services but
in the end the effort involved was greater than the potential return
so we passed on the project. We still have companies that ask us to
provide a white label solution but for most of them we are able to
find a solution in our current product set that meets their needs
without having to white label anything.
8BR: What do you guys think of the HTML 5 Canvas?
JH: I think HTML 5 is very exciting and will improve our experience on the
web. However, I don't think that HTML 5 is going to outright replace
Flash as a multimedia platform overnight. It may happen over the
course of many years but we'll definitely be preparing ourselves for
when that transition happens.
8BR: How about Silverlight?
JH: Silverlight is a great technology but they don't have a strong
developer base creating great content. Without great content adoption
will be low. We definitely keep up with Silverlight in case there's a
need to support the platform but we don't have any plans as of yet.
8BR: How do you think Flash compiled to ARM/iPad/IPhone will affect Mochi?
JH: Flash compiled to the iPhone will not affect us since we don't operate
in the iPhone spectrum. It may lead some developers to build games
for the iPhone instead of sticking with Flash but the barriers to
success in the iPhone space are so high that I believe many will
return to Flash for the wide open opportunities that are available
8BR: Any plans to support Multi-player?
JH: We don't have any plans to build a multiplayer service at this time.
It's something we would like to do but the complexities of building a
high quality service that suits the needs of everyone is not something
we have figured out yet. Maybe with some more tinkering we'll find
the sweet spot.
8BR: In what ways do you think the merger will will enhance your ability
to deliver your products?
JH: The obvious enhancement can be seen with the Mochi GAME Developer
Fund. Shanda Games believes in the value of developers and is willing
to invest in the community. That will inherently help us build better
The other great benefit that Shanda Games brings is their
understanding of the gaming ecosystem in China. There are over 1B
people in China and games are a very popular form of entertainment.
Having a strong partner in China such as Shanda Games will help us
build better products that can enable developers to generate greater
revenues from this vast and growing market.
8BR: Any worries about it?
JH: We're confident that the merger with Shanda Games will only help our
business grow. If we had any worries then we probably wouldn't have
done the deal.
8BR: Finally, Do you guys still enjoy Flash games? Do you guys have favorites?
JH: I still love Flash games and play them all the time. I sometimes play
too much and don't finish my work. I think I can justify it though.
My favorite game right now is Knight Elite by Ninja Kiwi
done a great job in building an engaging game that I've been playing
almost every night.
8BR: Thanks Jameson! We really appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions.