What Indie Game Developers Can Learn From Jordon Mechner’s Book “The Making Of Karateka”

Capture I've always been a huge fan of Jordon Mechner's Karateka.  Released in late 1984, it was one of the major  games that bridged the gap between the pure arcade games of "Golden Age of Atari" and the richer story telling of the "Nintendo Age."  Written for the Apple II, the game became a #1 hit, was  released on every platform available at the time, and has since been re-released on iOS,  Android plus re-imagined  on XBLA and PSN.   While I always found the game fairly difficult, I loved the cinematics, the animation, and the challenge the game offered.  It was head and shoulders (plus a second head and shoulders) above nearly any game of the type I played at the time, and is one of the true classics from that era.

Since the game was released by Broderbund, a well-known game company, I was never especially curious about how it was made, how it was programmed, or the story behind's its' creation. At the time,  I was a 14 year-old aspiring game programmer when Karateka was released.   I loved reading stories about people who made their own games, put them in baggies, and sold them to computer stores all by themselves.  I was just getting started, writing public domain games in BASIC for my Atari 800 and uploading them to BBS systems as manner of distribution, pretty much as indie as you could get.   I could not be bothered with the origins of a game from major company like Broderbund.

Since it came from a big software house, I just figured Karateka  was one of a slate of like-games Broderbund had in production pipe-line.  Also, I knew the game was made for Apple II and Commodore 64 first.  Since I was an Atari fan through and through,  it was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this amazing game was not an Atari-first product.   Eventually it was released for the Atari 7800, Atari 800, and Atari ST,  but I don't think I could ever forgive the fact that it was was written for Apple and Commdore computers first.

That's the hell of being a life-long Atari fan.

Capture.2PNGIt took me 30 years, but I finally got around to finding out the origin story the game by reading Jordon Mechner's book "The Making Of Karateka."   Now I wish I had studied this game and its' story a long time ago, as I found it an essential narrative for indie game developers.

Presented in diary format, the story does not start in the glass and wood paneled halls of  a successful Marin County software company as I expected, but instead, in dorm room behind the CRT glow of an Apple II monitor. Jordon Mechner was a college student at Yale in 1982, trying his hand at writing computer games in assembly language for the Apple II.    Since this is purportedly Mechner's actual diary (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), we don't get a full back story of how he got to this point in his life.   It starts abruptly, as the reader is dropped into his thoughts about game development from the very start.   When we meet him, he's toiling away programming an arcade game named Deathbounce for the Apple II, attempting to apply lipstick to his pig in any way possible, hoping to shape it into the game he always hoped it would be.   It's not that Deathbounce is bad game, it's just a game whose time has passed.    By 1982, the arcade game era was over.  "Arcaders" (as "gamers" were called back then) had seen and played almost every combination of single-screen action games.     They were looking for more, and so it seems, was Jordon Mechner.    Eventually he gives-up on Deathbounce, as a better idea takes over:  a karate fighting game with movie-style story-telling.

From the very beginning of the story, I was struck by the universality of Mechner's plight.   I don't want to give away too much of the story, but the ending is never in doubt.  Anyone who knows the history of computer games knows that Karateka was an institution in the 80's.  It was the type of game that computer owners booted-up to make their game console owning friends green with envy.   However, Mechner's journey is the real star of the show here, and there are tons of great lessons within the text for indie game developers. I personally took away a lot of inspiration and validation of my own experiences.    Mechner's Deathbounce story is great example.  He puts so much work into the game, but eventually cuts his losses with it, and puts it aside for good.  Any game developer that has a stack of unfinshed ideas on their hard drive will instantly recognize the experience.

Mechner is obviously a smart and artistic guy with the advantage of attCapture3ending an Ivy League School, but even for him, Karateka becomes quite an achievement.   The way he describes using every resource at his disposal to create the game play, graphics, and sounds for Karateka is inspiring and not unlike the methods that many successful one or two-person game shops employ today.    Mechner also describes in detail, the struggle between programming a game on contract, and finishing his work on Karateka.  Anyone who has tried to run an indie game shop, attempting to bring their ideas to life while funding them with outside work will instantly recognize the situation.   At the same time, Mechner's struggles with self-doubt, insecurity, and the feeling that he has somehow "missed the golden era" should ring true with anyone who has ever made game in the ever-changing technology landscape.

Eventually Mechner does join-up with the "big game company" Broderbund,  after many months of working on his own, but even that experience mirrors the modern world.  The in-house programmers Mechner meets at Broderbund feel over-worked and unappreciated.  Everyone seems to be looking for a way out and a chance to make it on their own.   However, Mechner loves the camaraderie of making games with a team, and nicely juxtaposes his life as a dorm-room coder to his life meeting fellow developers and coming out of his shell at while trying to finish Karateka at Broderbund.

Karateka was not a game made overnight, and this is another great lesson for indie game developers in the mobile/digital age.  At first, Mechner believes it will take just a few months to develop, but as he gets further and further into the project, he realizes just how much work is involved in creating such an epic contest.  If he produced only the basic Karate game he planned at the outset, and then sold it to a publisher, he would have made a little money, but the game could (and would) have been easily copied by other programmers and made for other systems.   Instead, he poured 2 years of hard work into a game that was so advanced for the time in every possible way, it was almost impossible to clone without great effort.

While the story is more than 30 years old, the parallels in The Making Of Karateka to developing indie games today are uncanny.     For me, reading it was an experience of universal truth, validation, and exhilaration at the unfolding story of struggle and success.  Technology always changes.  Platforms rise and fall.  Companies go in and put of business.  However, the drive of a single person with a unique vision is at the heart of making great games.   Reading about Jordon Mechner's struggle to bring Karateka to life is at once both inspirational and cathartic.  It should be required reading for any developer currently toiling in the modern game industry.

The book is available at Amazon.





Book Review: Atari Inc. : Business Is Fun


My review of the new book,  Atari Inc. Business Is Fun,  by Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg is up over at Gamasutra.com

Here is an excerpt:

 Atari Inc: Business Is Fun  is an exciting, messy, sprawling tour-de-force that fills in a lot missing gaps for Atari fans worldwide.   The book reads like 800 page manifesto attempting to right-wrongs and clear-up misconceptions about Atari.  At its’ core, this 800 page behemoth aims to prove one main fact to Atari aficionados:  That Nolan Bushnell, “King Pong”,  was not solely responsible for the success of Atari.   If that is, indeed, its’‘ primary goal, the book succeeds famously.

The text weaves asynchronously, with various levels of detail,  throughout the history of Atari, treading ground that has rarely been covered before.   The authors unearthed documents, memos, company newsletters, and legal settlements that have never been previously published.  They also interviewed dozens of people: everyone from Atari engineers to executives and their secretaries, so they could form a full picture of the first successful video game company. What emerges is a tale that attempts to correct inaccuracies and bust the myths of Atari’s past.

Read the full review here.

-Steve Fulton


Book Review: Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf

Here it is, I'll come out and say it.  I used to play pencil and paper role playing games.  I played games like Dungeons And Dragons, Palladium and Call Of Cthulhu for most of the 80's. I was blessed with a great friend (and he is still my friend to this day) named Brandon who was an amazing Game Master and story teller.    Brandon  made RPGs really interesting and hard to pass-up, and playing them became my obsession for many late nights in high school and even into college. I did not play every weekend, and I took long breaks, sometimes for years, but I still played. I pretty much gave them up when girls started showing interest in me, but there was a point at which both intertwined (and sometimes not harmoniously).

Some of the adventures we played through, especially  the swashbuckling sci-fi horror of Call Of Cthulhu, have stuck with me over the years just like the best books I've read or movies I have seen.   While I never stopped playing computer RPGs, those mostly solitary games are a completely different breed from the very social and imagination fueled games we used to play.  There is no substitute for a group of us sitting around Brandon's coffee table, consuming pounds of sunflower seeds and gallons of cheap, sugary iced tea, rolling dice and talking about using Elephant guns to take-down  Nyarlathotep. I still get the urge to play now and then, but with a young family, the time commitment is too great.  Brandon and I have talked about getting a game together, but for now, pencil and paper RPGs are a memory gathering dust in the attic of my mind, waiting for their time, if it ever comes, to shake off the cobwebs and return to the forefront of my disposable time and income.

A recent book (2009) explores a similar fascination with youthful role playing games in the middle-age in a very thorough and thoughtful way.  Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks explores the author's attempt to understand, explore and come to gripes with, the role playing games he played and loved as a kid.  Like many other kids in the 70's and 80's, Gilsdorf first dove into the fantasy horrors of role playing games as an escape from the very real horrors of his everyday life.   Much like myself, he gave them up just about the time he could legally buy alcohol, but as the years turned into decades he realized the urge to play still burned within him .  Around his 40th birthday, he set out on an adventure to find meaning from fantasy, and to come to grips with his past and present.

Gilsdorf's fascination with the fantasy exploits of his past becomes a hero's journey (of sorts) in the present. What starts as a trip to the basement of a comic book store,  turns into a quest to walk in the footsteps of Gary Gygax and J.R.R. Tolkein both real, and imaginary.  Gilsdorf travels the world, interviewing people who play table-top games, live action role-playing games (LARP), computer MMORPGs and much more.  He observes the proceedings, and also takes part, exploring his feelings about what the activities mean, both in light of his past and his present.  Some people might be turned off by just how personal Gilsdorf's travels become, but I really appreciated them.  To me, dry facts and figures about the affect and influence of fantasy games are boring without a good helping of personal narrative to help wash it down.

Gilsdorf touches on the fact that other more "acceptable" activities (e.g. fantasy sports) have many of the same qualities as role playing games and offer the same kind of benefits (socialization, competition) and drawbacks (addiction, unhealthy escape), but are not derided in the same way in the popular press  as fantasy games and activities.  He struggles from both internal and external pressure with the idea that he should "grow out" of the youthful kid stuff of role playing games, but at the same time embrace "adult" activities that are pretty much the same thing dressed up another way.  I would have liked a bit more exploration and comparison of "fantasy" vs. "accepted" activities but what is here, at the very least, sparks the fire for future conversation.

Even though you can pretty much guess the results of Gilsdorf's quest from the outset, the journey is what matters here, and it is quite a fascinating ride.   The author gives the reader a warts and all look into his mind, offering a kind of naked analysis of himself  that goes a bit further than I expected on the outset.   The book is recommended for anyone who either thinks or once thought they have "grown out" of pencil and paper games. It just might inspire you to pick it all up once again...or run screaming for the door.  Either way, you'll be better for the experience.

-Steve Fulton


iWoz: The "Steve" I Always Liked Was Wozniak

With all the hoopla about the passing of world's greatest technology dictator and reality distortion master last week (okay, and the greatest tech visionary of the last 20 years, but's who's counting?), it appeared that, once again, Steve Woziank got buried under the praise for his short-time partner, Steve Jobs.

A bunch of news stories appeared today on how The Woz was first in-line to buy the new iPhone 4S.  Not because he "had" to buy it himself, but because he "wanted" to buy it himself.  He still gets that organic thrill from buying some kind of cool device for the first time.   The Woz has always been a tech geek, and always will be one.  His early success with Apple simply allowed him to live out his technology fantasies, unabated, for the rest of his life.

Wozniak "wrote" a book a few years ago named iWoz, and it's a fascinating read for many reasons.   Most of it was "dictated" to a writer,  and because of this, it reads like a stream of conscious  from a brilliant mind.  Stories are told several times, or out of order then back-tracked, and re-told.  Details are left out, then filled in. Emotions are absent, then laid fore-bare for everyone to see.   It's like no book I've ever read, and far from being confusing and frustrating, it was also one of the most enlightening biographies I've ever read.

It's obvious to me that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak represented the Yin and Yang of Silicon Valley: The masterful public showman vs. the private technological genius.  While I truly appreciate the that the former role is the one that makes fortunes and builds egos in the technology world, please excuse me if I identify with, and ultimately build my list of personal heroes, out of the latter.



Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is the the best book about video games you will read this year.  However, this is not a history book, nor is it a personal narrative.  Instead, Ready Player One history lesson in 80's pop culture wrapped inside an engaging sci-fi story.

The story is set in the mid 21st century, after all the disasters that threaten to befall the world right now, come to pass: peak oil, global warming, famine, drought, long-term massive unemployment, etc.  The one bright spot (if you can call it that) is the OASIS,  an online world in the vein of World Of Warcraft that has usurped the internet, and has became the defacto "reality" for most of the world's population.

Just before he died, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS devised a game , inspired by Atari's Adventure, by hiding an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS that would grant the winner full control of OASIS and access to his vast fortune.  He gave one clue , and as the book opens, the world has been trying to figure out that single clue for five straight years, with no avail.

The hero of the story, Wade, is an everyman who has been affected by the worldwide downturn as much as anyone else.  He is a "gunter", the name given to people who spend all their time trying to figure out how to find Halliday's Easter Egg.   His story and the pathway to the Easter Egg form the narrative of the book.

I will give no more away, except to say that this is also the perfect book for 8bitrocket.com.  Cline goes to great lengths to include bits of nostalgia that will suit every taste...but much of it centers on the era of Golden Age, 8-bit, Atari.  Since James Halliday was an 80's fanatic, all of the gunters have enveloped themselves in the most minute 80's trivia imaginable, trying to find clues to find the egg.  This gives the author an excuse to weave the games, tv shows, movies, music, etc. from the 80's  in a futuristic setting .It also keeps the story moving without it becoming  a pure nostalgia piece.   It was a brilliant move, as it allows the author space to set the book the future and the past at the same time without attempting some kind of time travelling mechanic.  In fact, in a way, this book sort of warns of a situation in our not-too-distant future, where there is no "past" at all, and everything just exists in the present.

Ready Player One is a  fun, accessible page turner that will appeal to anyone who enjoys video games, the 80's, dystopic sci-fi, mysteries, or any combination of those topics. With this book and Lucky Wander Boy, we now have a "collection" of great novels based on video game nostalgia to put onto our required reading shelf.




Two Great New Video Game Books You Should Check Out

It appears that we are in a "gaming book" renaissance the likes of which we have not seen since the  since the early parts of the 21st century when Dungeons And Dreamers, Masters Of Doom, and The First Quarter all fascinated us with inside stories of games being made and played.

While there have been a few good books in the past few years including Vintage Games,  Dungeons And Desktops,  and Racing The Beam,  just last year we got the phenomenal Replay, and now two more books that are sure to delight the connoisseur of video game history have flung out of the gates.

The first book is 1001 video Games You Must Play Before You Die.  This hefty tome makes a valiant attempt to cover the evolution of games by covering great ideas and great innovations, one game at time, chronologically.   I'm not going to spoil the content, but what I will say is that you will be excited by what is included, but will also probably attempt to make your own list of 1001 alternate games that would be just as valid.   It's a fun book to read for few minutes at a time, and it certainly will get your mind racing, either to play some games you have not heard about, or to furiously come-up with your own list of what was missed.

The second book , All Your Base Belong To Us, is even better.  Author Harold Goldberg has done a wonderful job with this one.  He tells the story of video games in short narrative,  biographical chapters about the people involved in the evolution of the medium.  His writing is crisp and interesting.    The best compliment I can give the book is that it reminds me of the best technology history book ever written, Hackers by Steven Levy, and I don't say that lightly.

-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)

(By the way, there are no affiliate links or anything sneaky attached to the links to amazon above, they are simply provided for your own connivence)


Book Review: Replay: The History Of Video Games by Tristan Donovan

Replay  By Tristan Donovan cover

Replay By Tristan Donovan cover

I can honestly say that The new book Replay by Tristan Donovan is the best book about the video game history ever published.   Donovan's book unseats The First Quarter by Steven L. Kent (the previous title holder) by taking a broader, world-wide approach to the subject. Donovan was  inspired by Kent's book, but was dissatisfied by it's focus on the USA, so he set out to write his own.

Donovan succeeds by focusing mostly on games, game design, and technical advances instead of the legal and hardware wars between manufacturers.  The text flows from one subject to another, while covering topics that have not seen much ink in earlier books (i.e 70's computer games and the UK games scene).   What emerges is more like a story about continuum of game design and development than a business school case study. Bravo!  As a game developer, it is exactly what I was hoping for.

At 512 pages, the book is just about the right length for the topic, but still feels short because it is such an interesting and entertaining read. Writing a history book about video games is not for the faint of heart.   There are so many "experts" out in the wilds of the internet that an author runs the risk of stepping on any number of land mines scattered by people who hold secret information "up their sleeves".  Donovan combats this by using mostly first-hand material from new interviews and sources (at least they appear to be new as I have never read many of the quotes before).

Replay will not always be the best game about video game history ever written.  Just like Kent's book stood high above the crowd more than decade ago but has now been overtaken, this book will probably be surpassed 10 years on by another author with an even broader perspective armed with even more insight brought on by the passage of time.  However, at this historic moment, Replay is  required reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in  the history of video games, and I can't see that changing any time soon.

-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)


EGM Magazine Spring 2010 Review: EGM Returns In Stunning Fashion

I was never a huge fan of EGM magazine.  Its' name was too close to Electronic Games, and it always appeared to be written for a generation of gamers just beyond my grasp.  However, with few options, I subscribed in 2008, only to have the magazine go out of business a couple issues later.

Last year, the original publisher, Steve Harris, bought the rights to the magazine and has spent the better part of a year revising it for relaunch.  If the first issue is any indication, he may have produced the best game related magazine in almost 15 years. Now I wonder what I missed for so long.

Steve Harris has a long history with video games and video game magazines.  He hold several world record high scores for arcade game (including Swimmer, one of my all-time favorites). He founded EGM back in 1989, and was the publisher of the reborn Electronic Games magazine of the 90's.  If anyone could create a modern video game magazine worth reading, it is Steve Harris.

Harris has created two new magazine actually, an online-only publication named EGMi, and the new printed version of EGM.  The Spring 2010 issue was just released, and I picked-it-up at the local Barnes And Noble (while trying to spot my own book in the computer section...it was there!).

I was floored by the depth and sophistication of many of the articles.  This is not a magazine for short attention spans.  Where most recent video game magazines stop when their articles are just getting interesting, the new EGM appears to kick into another gear.

Some examples of the articles that have kept me reading for the past week are:

  • "Critcal Mass" by Evan Shamoon, a 5 page look at the affect of Metacritic on the game industry.
  • "Taking [Motion] Control" by Kyle Orland : a 2-page analysis of what motion control means to the game industry
  • "The Last Word On Games" by Kevin Gifford : a 4-page history of EGM.
  • "Back From The Second Dimension" by Kris Pigna, a 6-page look at "Retro Evolved" (post-retro) games.
  • "David Jaffe: The EGM Interview" by Brady Fiechter: a massive 8-page interview with game designer/developer David Jaffe
  • "The Case Against The Gaming Press" by Dan Hsu : a 2-page indictment of game journalists and their disregard for the industry that keeps them employed.
  • plus several more interesting one pagers...

I used to beg my inanimate magazines for just one article of this scope an interest in an issue, and here EGM Spring 2010 has a half-dozen.  I was shocked to find this much mature, in-depth analysis in a single publication.

This is not all there is to read in the new EGM.  There are the standards as well: the news, the reviews,and the  previews.  While they  also provide some very good reading, my brain has been trained by so many other magazines to scan these with an eye for bias, shallow genre knowledge, and histrionics, that it was hard to consume them the same way I dove into the other articles.  Hopefully I will be able to get past this "cognitive dissonance" because there are some very good people involved with these sections (including reviews editor Mark Bozon from IGN).

I tested EGMi online as well ,and while it was interesting, I was not completely sold.  However, the print magazine was so vastly superior to anything else, that I'm happy with that for the time being.  If the next issue holds-up as well as the first, I will be an instant subscriber.  I encourage you to pick-up copy, and show your support for a magazine that is really trying to do something special.

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Matt Barton Interviews The Creator Of the Choose Your Own Adventure Series

Matt Barton, author of Dungeons And Desktops and co-author of Vintage Games has posted a very cool interview with one of my heroes, R.A. Montgomery, the creator of the classic 80's  "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series.

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Kill Screen: A Video Game Magazine That Aims For The Mature Mind

If you are like us, you constantly lament the demise of great game magazines like Electronic Games and Next Generation. Those magazines went beyond the standard news/preview/review/strategy format of most gaming tomes to include in-depth articles on subjects like sociology and future of the hobby. However, even those publications still followed a familiar format (obviously invented by Electronic Games but improved-upon by Next Generation) that made them stand-out as magazines for video game fans only. Mainstream general entertainment magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly have dabbled in gaming, but games never appear as any kind of regular in those publications either. At the same time, there are some very sophisticated, format busting magazines dedicated to music (Blender) technology (Wired), D.I.Y. (Make), culture (Fader) that try to go beyond the mainstream and look at their topics in the context of the real world. However, there has never been gaming magazine that tried to tackle the topic from that angle ....until now.

Kill Screen is a magazine in its' infancy that is trying to fill the void. The project was started by writers from various publication (New Yorker, GQ, the Daily Show, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, the Colbert Report, the Onion, Paste) that want to see video game topics treated in the same mature manner as other entertainment and cultural topics. In short, they are striving for context. This is a topic near and dear to our hearts at 8bitrocket.com, as we have been struggling to put our love for video games into the context of our normal lives for almost 25 years now. This lack of context in video game journalism is one of the reasons why we tend to read stuff like Retro Gamer (it validates our past), and not Game Informer (we feel no connection to it). As adults we have grown past the need to get excited about each every new game that is coming down the pike, nor do we really need to have our gaming likes and dislikes validated by random game reviewers. Instead, the hole we need filled by a video game magazine is much deeper and more complicated. Basically, we have invested a good portion of our lives into the medium of the video game, and we have a desire to see that investment both validated (or not) and ruminated upon. This is what Kill Screen aims to do. They describe their goal this way:

We're talking about the long format read on the creative minds behind AAA and indie game titles sided by the personal essays about what games mean as part of our daily little lives. There are intersections between the games and everything else that are only beginning to be explored. The minds of the videogame world are woefully faceless and we should change that.

This is something that we are really excited about. However, this a magazine that is being self-funded through Kickstarter.com, so there is a good chance that it won't last very long if people who enjoy this kind of thing do not support it. The first issue has already been paid-for in full by donations, but there is no reason to not support the project and get in on something this interesting very early. We have already pledged our support. When we get the first issue, we'll review it and tell you what you are missing!

note: Yes, the name Kill Screen is reference to "King Of Kong". It's another reason why we like this idea so much.

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