Chris Crawford’s Famous Dragon Speech and Interview From 2008

Chris Crawford recently highlighted a “cleaned-up” version of his famous, game industry-defining “Dragon Speech” from GDC 1992.  In this speech, Chris Crawford explained his dream of of true “interactivity” and how the game industry and he had parted-ways.    While he was almost universally rejected at the time, in an era of machine learning, A.I. chatbots, art-games, indie-games, and serious games, Crawford’s ideas about the true purpose and goal of computer could not have been more prophetic.    Crawford is my true hero, and I’m so happy to get to see this speech for the first time.

Also,  below is an interview I conducted with Crawford about his time with Atari from 2007, published in 2008.

-Steve Fulton (Fultonbot)

(The following interview was published Dec. 22, 2008)

Chris Crawford was hired by Atari in 1979 as a VCS programmer. He soon moved to the 8-bit computer line where he programmed one of the influential games of the 8-bit computer era, Eastern Front. For the past 25 years he has worked as a game designer, software evangelist, and has been a pioneer in the area of interactive fiction.

Steve: Can You Describe VCS Development in 1979?

Chris Crawford: It was a very difficult machine to program. You had 128 bytes of RAM, and 2K of ROM space and the video display was driven by the CPU, the 6502 and so basically, most of your code consisted of the drawing code. You drew it one scan-line at a time. Basically you’d frantically load-up the display registers with the display data for one scan line, and then you had to load up the registers with the display data for the next scan-line and you had exactly 76 machine cycles in which to do this..or on average about 35 assembly language commands. That’s pretty tight restrictions.

Steve: You did Wizard right, and that never came out?

Chris Crawford:Yes.

Steve: How did you get into the 400 and 800?

Chris Crawford: It’s funny, at that time everybody wanted to work on the 400 and 800 because it was so much sexier and powerful.

Steve: It was the 6502, but was the VCS some lesser version of the 6502?

Chris Crawford: No, exact same processor.

Steve: So just less support, memory, chips, etc?

Chris Crawford: Yeah. The 6502 in the 800 was faster. They clocked it at 1.8 MHz, whereas Stella’s was 1 MHz. But it had much better video. there was a graphics processor named Antic and Antic handled all of the graphics work ,whereas with Stella the CPU spent most of its time drawing the screen. with Colleen you simply set-up a page display and let that run. There was another processor called Antic and Antic did all the work that the 6502 did in Stella.

Steve: So with Stella you have 1/2 the Mhz and no co-processor?

Chris Crawford: Right, you did not have anywhere near as many CPU cycles to play with. The other thing of course was that Colleen had a lot of memory. the smallest was 8K (as opposed to 128 bytes) and it had a big ROM with all sorts of operating system stuff in it, interfaces for nonvolatile memory and so-forth.

Steve: Did you ever talk to Nolan Bushnell while you were there?

Chris Crawford: No, I never did. The first time I met Nolan Bushnell was, God, years later, I ran into him at a little conference of techies…I forget which one it was.

Steve: When I talked to him he was very much of the opinion that the Atari that he had started was very much based on game design and making games and dealing in that realm and when the Warner guys took over they really had no idea about that business and ran it into the ground. Did you see anything like that when you were there?

Chris Crawford: I think that is partly true. Now, I’m only replaying the scuttlebutt that I heard while I was at Atari, but the story that ran around the programmers (who were fairly disinterested observers I think) was that the VCS initially did very badly and after a time Nolan felt it was time to give-up on the VCS and build something new. He was especially enamored of the home computer. It was such better technology and so his attitude was ‘dump this VCS loser and let’s put all of our money on the home computer’ and the Warner people disagreed. It was Manny Gerard at Warner, the main guy, said ‘no, we just need to develop the market some more, we need more games, we need to build-up a bigger software library, we need to give this product time’ and so the Warner people refused to abandon the VCS. That was, according to the scuttlebutt, the reason for Nolan to leave.

Steve:From your opinion, from being there, what do you think? The VCS was successful for a couple years, but then its limitations were really what made it die. Do you think Nolan was right, or the guys are Warner were right?

Chris Crawford: The guys at Warner were proved to right because the VCS did not peak until 1982, and Nolan left in ’79, so the growth curve continued up steeply in ’79. ’80, ’81 and in fact, what brought Atari down was the E.T. cartridge in Christmas of ’82. so even ’82 was a magnificent year for Atari and most of Atari’s profits came from the VCS, not the home computers and not the coin-op machines.

Steve: When you worked in the Home Computer Division, do you remember a time that it was ever profitable?

Chris Crawford: I wouldn’t know the answer but my impression was that they were always spending more money than they were taking in. The home computer did grow and it did enjoy good sales, it was doing well, but they kept adding to the home computer division, investing in it the same way they had done with the VCS, but then the Commodore 64 pulled the rug out from underneath the home computer.

Steve: The pricing rug? They pretty much cut the price in half to being with.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, there was a price-war. At that time when the the Commodore 64 came out there were a number of color computers. There was the Apple, the Atari, Texas Instruments had a machine, Radio Shack had a machine, and there were a couple of other real minor ones. The Commodore 64 came out and it was priced below everybody else, and that forced Atari to drop its price. Basically, Jack Tramiel was moving all of his production overseas, and he was able to lower his prices. There was a steady price-war, and over the period a of months the prices kept going down and down and down. What really killed Atari was they decided to move all the production to Hong Kong. The christmas production was supposed to (christmas was big selling time for these machines),the Hong Kong unit was supposed to come up in August ’83.F

Steve: For the XL line?

Chris Crawford: Yeah. They shut-down production in the States expecting the Hong Kong production come on-stream, and the Hong Kong line had problems and didn’t come online until November. When Christmas came there were no Atari computers on the shelves.

Steve: I can attest to that. Christmas ’83 I asked my dad to but me one and I ended up with an Atari 800 instead, which I loved because it was superior. I certainly remember that Christmas.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was an absolute disaster, a catastrophe for Atari and that is what sealed atari’s fate. Now there a bunch of other things that greatly contributed to it, but I feel that was the knock-out blow.

Steve: When you were there you designed some of the early games. Didn’t you say you worked in a research lab?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. I think had 4 different jobs at Atari. My first job was as a Stella programmer and that lasted 3 months and I wrote one program for Stella named Wizard. After that I was transferred to the Home computer Applications group where I was programming the home computer, and that lasted about 10 months.

Steve: Is that where you made Energy Czar?
Chris Crawford: Energy Czar and SCRAM were made during that time. Then I was promoted to supervisor of the software support group. Our job was to provide technical support to outside programmers. We had a whole package of goodies we provided for free. By the way, the main thing we did was this tour where I would travel around to cities all over the country. We would rent a hotel meeting room, and people could come-in to these seminars where we taught them all about how to program the Atari and I did almost all the work here. I had a real barnstorming style. My job was to wean people away from the Apple to the Atari. I was pushing that line really hard. Somebody in one of the magazines that had come to it said ‘Crawford does a show like an old-time evangelist. You half-way expect him to start quoting the bible’. and that is where the term ‘software evangelist” arose.

Steve: Really?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, I was the first.

Steve: So you moved on an did Eastern Front which was a huge success?

Chris Crawford: Yes, yes. Although, an interesting point I’ll make, Eastern Front was the classic example of technological opportunism. The way many games are designed nowadays…and I’m very critical of technological opportunism. I did it back then. The Atari 800 had this wonderful scrolling capability. I developed a little scrolling map thing just to show off to people this wonderful capability. I remember telling Joel Billings at SSI and number of other people ‘boy think of the war game you could make with this’….and they said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’

Steve: You had a history of building war games, right?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, but I hadn’t done any on the Atari.

Steve: You did some for Avalon Hill for the Apple?

Chris Crawford: Actually, I did them on the Atari and people ported them over. I did Eastern Front on the 800 initially as a demo, and when I tried to interest war game people into using it, they kind of blew me off. So on the side, on my own, nights and weekends I said ‘well, let’s see if we can add some units here and move them around. Basically one thing led to another and I ended-up with a war game. I will tell you an important point to make for the readers is that game was TOTAL CRAP before it shipped. The game play was atrocious. It was really dull and boring and I had the good sense to realize ‘ship it when it is ready’ so I just went back to the drawing board and reconsidered how it was working and made some major changes in its operation. It worked!

Steve: They allowed you to do that at the time?
Chris Crawford: I was doing it on my own, that was the whole deal. If I had been doing this as an official project it probably would have shipped before it was ready.

Steve: Eastern Front went out via APX instead of through the Atari software channel?
Chris Crawford: I showed it to the Atari people, the marketing people, and they said ‘oh geez, this will never sell. it’s a war game’ they said ‘you can put it in the Atari Program Exchange”. I put it there and it was a huge hit. The next year they came and said ‘why don’t you do a new version for us that we will release as an official Atari product?” So you know, they were just completely wrong.

Steve: How successful of a product was it for APX?

Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was really the product that made APX. That along with Caverns Of Mars. Those two products together made APX a huge success. By the way, there is a side-story on APX. The guy who cooked up the idea, Dale Yaokum, was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it’s a win-win. The management was not very interested in it. He put together a business plan for it and said ‘look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self sufficient and it might make some money.’ They very grudgingly agreed to let him do it. And so he did it and very quickly made it into a monster success. It was a major profit center for Atari. They rewarded dale for his initiative by bringing in another guy to be Dale’s boss and the other guy didn’t know anything about software! The other guy was really hard to work for, so Dale in disgust, quit about a year later. Classic story of executive blunders.

Steve: What did Dale go on to do?

Chris Crawford: He quit APEX and went over to corporate research. He ran a unit that was going to design a “shoot for the moon” new computer. The worked on something with a 286, the absolute newest processor coming out and they were getting pre-samples from Intel. They were were designing that when Atari collapsed. He then got a job at Xerox PARC, then founded his own company. About 10 years ago he sold his company for millions of $$, retired, bought himself an airplane, learned how to fly…he always wanted to be a pilot, and he’s now very happily retired.

Steve: In the beginning, did Atari management want to own all the software for the computers?

Chris Crawford: Yes. The attitude of the executives was ‘we want to make all the money on the software. We don’t want any competitors. They were having competitors with the VCS and the programmers were trying to explain that ‘no that’s not how it works, you need a big library of software, you need to encourage them’ and I was one of the people doing that. Initially they had never quite defined what it was that had to be kept secret. I was the programmer at Atari who had come-in from the outside world and had more contacts with outsiders. I’d be working on Atari software and the phone would ring and it was somebody in Indiana saying ‘can I get any of the technical documents?’ and I would go over to the main area and get a few of the technical documents, photo-copy them and mail them off. I was sending out…there were enough loopholes that I was able to send out some documents and not get fired.

Steve: But for the most-part, they wanted to keep a lid on all that documentation?

Chris Crawford: Yeah, they wanted it all kept secret. I was sending out some minor stuff and then one day it was sort of like ‘the dam broke’ and they had an officially policy, 180 degree reversal ‘we want to tell everybody about this’. I immediately got on the phone and started calling a bunch of my contacts saying ‘hey would you like complete technical documentation on the Atari?’ and we shipped a lot of those.

Steve: What did you think of M.U.L.E.?

Chris Crawford: Yeah, and I think this opinion is shared by most of the designers who were active at that time. My belief is that M.U.L.E. was the finest computer game design ever done in terms of the going “with the grain’ of the machine. Using the machine to fullest, really understanding what the machine could do. It was just a beautiful design because it was so perfect for the Atari.

Steve: The use of joystick ports, the sound?

Chris Crawford: Not just technical brilliance, design brilliance too. He didn’t use a lot of techie tricks, he actually used them in a very creative way and himself made a game that was brilliant.

Steve: It’s been 15 years since you’ve released a game and you are now finishing up Storytron interactive fiction engine which was created out of the relationships in Excalibur in 1983, What is the breakthrough that got Storytron ready to go in 2007?

Chris Crawford: There were many breakthroughs of major developments that I’ve had to make, and that is one reason why it has taken 15 years. If it was just one technology I had to build then it would have been done years ago. moreover, there is a strong synergistic relationship between these components and so I could not see them all at once. I started work on the basic engine and it in itself was a breakthrough in how it handles drama and so-forth, and it was only one and by itself it was insufficient. I didn’t realize that it’s biggest problem was that it was very difficult to program then engine, to give the engine the data it needed to tell good stories. That was the engine I did between ’91 and about ’94 and ’95. The next big breakthrough was building the editor that allowed a user to program the engine…to develop the data set required for the engine. It’s a very complex data set and it took me a year to that because I had to build a scripting language and the fundamental requirement was…if I was just writing a scripting language for programmers it would have been trivial, I could have knocked it off in a few months, because everybody has done that, but my requirement was that this had to be something accessible to non-technical people.

Steve: So someone like novelist could sit down and use this?

Chris Crawford: Right, but it was still programming and so it’s still la huge restriction on the novelist, we are still demanding an enormous amount from him. We wanted to eliminate all unnecessary techiness and that was a huge task. I did a first round on it in period of ’94-’98 and it was no where near good enough. It was functional, you could do things with it, but it was still very difficult for people to do things with it. this was the “erazmatron” period. For Storytron I tore it apart and completely re-built the entire thing from scratch and came-up with an even better scripting system. It’s still difficult to use. This is like Macromedia Flash. This is non-trivial., but it is also a hell of a lot easier to use than a real programming language.

The 3rd killer problem was the user interface. In erazamatron the user interface, basic internal structure, the basic atom was a ‘sentence’ and you interacted with people one sentence at a time. That was pretty limiting and it really did constrain the designer rather badly. I’d say the biggest of the breakthroughs was the linguistic system I have in Storytron. Basically it allows the user to speak to the computer in this toy language. It’s a very powerful language system. The Story Builder creates words and defines them, and that is process of creating a work in Storytron. You define all the words…of course, defining them is a big job. That’s the concept.

Steve: I’ve read that your plan with Storytron, and this might have been someone’s idea of what your plan was, was to create a kind of a myspace like web site where people could come and create their interactive stories and share them with other people. Was that your idea, or someone else’s?

Chris Crawford: That’s not quite what we are doing. what we have is web site where, when it is fully operational (we are planning for January 1 (2008) and we are on-track) basically anybody who wants to can download the authoring tool and use the authoring tool to create a story world. When they have the story world the way they like it, then they can upload it to us to put into our library. Then any consumer can come along and play story worlds in the library. Our revenue model is that we make money from the consumers playing the story worlds. Revenue is hared with the authors, and wearer aiming for a 50/50 cut.

Steve: Do people subscribe or do they pay per story world?

Chris Crawford: Initially it looks as if we will do pay to play, or fixed fee where you get to play one story world per month or two months or something. Once we have big library we will open it up on subscription basis, however I will say we have not ruled out an ad-based revenue model. We simply had to choose one or the other for our business plan and we felt the subscription based had some advantages and we went with that, but we may end-up ad based. We don’t know.

Steve: What’s encouraging is that you are actually ready to launch this.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, this thing is definitely coming together.

Steve: So, have you heard in the past anyone describe you as a Don Quixote like character?

Chris Crawford: Oh yeah, I have!

Steve: What do you have to say about that now, now that you are almost finished?

Chris Crawford: You know, they’ll see. In fact, I’d like to address the criticism you mentioned ‘Crawford hadn’t designed a game in 15 years’. The fact is, I have not made any effort what-so-ever to talk to people about games in 15 years. Every single public press…i mean the books i’ve published, I’ve published 3 books, one was on Interactivity, one was on Interactive Storytelling, and one was about games, and the publisher approached me, and said ‘geez, we’d really like you to write this book’.

Steve: And that book ‘On Game Design’ pretty much covers all the games you wrote. Period.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, I make no attempt to teach about the current generation of games. All of my public presentations have been at the request of the host. I’ve never gone out and looked for it, they just call me up and they want me to talk. In a couple cases I’ve told them, ‘I haven’t done a game in 15 years’, an they say ‘well,we still want you’

Steve:You are going to be done soon, do you have anything else to say before we sign off?

Chris Crawford: Well, the Storyton stuff is definitely going to change things. The games industry has gotten stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over again, making fundamental errors a long time ago that are now holding them back. some critical mistakes. I think the first mistake was around 1990 with Wing Commander. Wing commander was very bad for the industry because they bought market-share. They threw an awful lot of money at that game and produced a game that was very expensive. The game never made money, the add-on packets brought them into the black. They did the same thing with each of the subsequent Wing Commander games. The basic game itself ended-up losing money because they spent so much money on the graphics as a result the games industry is now very capital intensive. They send millions of dollars making a game and there is no easy way to build a good game that can get a fair shot in the marketplace. That means they have cut-out one of their best sources of creative input which is all the crazy people out there. the model I like to use for this is, Hollywood has it nailed down and the games industry really should learn from Hollywood here, although it night be too late. Basically there are 8 million people (surveys show) 8 million people in this country will tell pollsters ‘yes, I have an idea for a novel I want to write”. Out of those 8 million a few hundred thousand apparently, each year actually write something. Out of those few hundred thousand, I think it is something like 10,000 actually produce a manuscript that they ship to a publisher. Out of those 10,000 only a few hundred are published. Out of those few hundred, only a handful actually hit the big time. Maybe a dozen make a goodly amount of money. Out of those dozen, 1 or 2 will be cherry picked to make a movie. Think of it as a pyramid creative base is 8,000,000 ideas and at each level there is a selection that takes place that knocks out 98% of everything. It’s a sorting system that takes the very best for the full treatment.

Steve: And you are saying the games industry really does not have that because no small person cam sit-down and write a full-fledged game without $10,000,000 or more?

Chris Crawford: Right now anyone in this country with a word processor can sit-down and write novel and it might be a huge hit.

Steve: Do you think stuff like Storytron (and other technologies) are sort of changing that for small part of games industry?

Chris Crawford: Well ,that is certainly what we are doing with Storytron. We are using the Hollywood model, not the games industry model. My point here I suppose is that this is one of the greatest weaknesses of the games industry. they just can’t tap-in to this huge base of creativity. Yes, there are lots of tools that allow you to build interactive fiction or platform games or first person shooters or so-forth, but the problem is, they are starting off with the assumption that you are doing a genre.

Steve: You can’t create an interesting game, because the game has already been created for you. you are just editing the game.

Chris Crawford: Yeah. Where did J.K. Rowling come from? She just came out of the woodwork. Same thing with Tom clancy. Classic example of an absolute nobody who had the right combination of talents, he slapped together books and kaboom! The system really worked for him. It picked this guy out of obscurity and generated millions and millions of dollars of wealth. the games industry can’t do that.

Steve: So that is really the story of Storytron then? A model that is separate from the games industry to open something up?

Chris Crawford. Yes we have no desire to compete with the games industry on anything. We are a completely separate market.

Steve: Do you think the games industry has a narrow view of what can be called a ‘game’?

Chris Crawford: Yeah, in the 80’s when I was working in it my feeling was ‘let’s expand this definition to include all sorts of crazy things, let’s make this a medium of expression’ and they narrowed it down to ‘a hobby’ which is not a medium of expression it is a hobby greatly by a small collection of people.

Steve: Do you follow the Nintendo Wii and what’s been happening with that?

Chris Crawford: I’m aware of the Wii and the fact it has generated so much excitement and the fact that it really is a radical new concept for the games industry.

Steve: Well it is a radical new concept and I love it myself for those exact reasons, but what I find most interesting about it is the reaction from the “hobbyists” that you described. Almost a fearful reaction that somehow their hobby will be destroyed by something new, some new expanded market, and it might be exactly what you are describing.

Chris Crawford: I was unaware that the old timers were uncomfortable with the Wii.

Steve: Yes, the hardcore gamers are uncomfortable that the Wii is taking market share away from PS3, the Xbox360 and the PC, and the games are more oriented toward multi-player and family oriented stuff. their worry is that it is going to destroy their hobby, which I find quite funny myself.

Chris Crawford: Well there is actually in one sense I suspect the Wii is a continuation of an old evolutionary process that has been going on in all forms of software. The basic sequence here is that you get a piece of software, or a game or whatever. It’s successful and there are a bunch of people who really love it, so you come out with version 2. The thing is, that sells primarily to the aficionados who loved version 1. the want something better than version 1, meaning something more complicated than version 1. Version 2 always had more features than version 1. This process continues with version 3,4,5,6 etc. The problem is, by the time you get to version 5, you have built something so hairy that the average beginner can’t use it. At that point, somebody else comes in with the new easy to use version, a a clean simple one, and that attracts a new generation of people who are intimidated by the monster version the aficionados like, and this process just keeps going on over and over. The Wii in a sense is something like this. My impression from the software available for it is that it tends to be beginner-level software.

Steve: The games on other systems look so complicated or you need to play online you need to be yelling at people through your microphone. A lot of people don’t want to do that.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a regular cycle that software goes through and I fear…I don’t know how to stop the cycle. Our work is going to get more and more complicated and at some point will we ebnd up being replaced by someone who is cleaner and easier? It looks like…if you are the guy who owns version 5, you are not going to throw it away, you are stuck with it. It’s a tough problem.

Steve: Do you think the web is your next direction for software delivery?

Chris Crawford: There is no question that the web is the future. That’s sort of obvious I feel. The web is steadily taking over everything. I’ll mention one advantage of the web. Our software is…we don’t have to worry about piracy at all. The basic engine that runs everything never runs our web site.

Steve:Right, it can’t because it’s tied to the back-end

Chris Crawford: Yep.

Steve: You give the Story building engine away for free. Piracy is nothing to you.

Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a really nice model. I just can’t understand why there are people who haven’t just abandoned everything else.

Note: This interview with Chris Crawford was conducted in September on 2007 as source for my Atari History articles I was (still am?) writting for Gamasutra.com. Since this interview was conducted, Chris Crawford’s Storytron site has launched, and both the development tools and the player are now available for download.

Classic Games And CGE at E3 2004 (R.I.P. Keith Robinson)

Note: This is a lost story from before 8bitrocket.com existed.   It was published June 1st, 2004 on Andrew Bub’s Gamerdad.com as E3 Embraces The Classics.   This was the first time I met Keith Robinson, one of the original Blue Sky Rangers from Mattel Electronics, and the owner of Intellivsion Productiond.   By Steve Fulton

E3 2003 was a huge disappointment for me.  It was my first time attending, and my hope was to see all the cool new games, but at the same time, view some of the vast array of classic compilations that were starting to pop-up with amazing frequency.  As well, the newly formed Atari (Infogrames) would be there, showcasing why they had changed their name to that of world’s first great video game pioneers.  It looked like a bonanza for a classic gaming fan like myself.  However, it was not to be.  Besides a few trading-card based classic games for the  GBA, there were almost no golden-age games at the show.  Atari’s booth (as this year) was closed to the public, and I could not find a way to worm my way in.  E3 it seemed was simply a show-case of tired, me-too 3D games with little room for innovation or reverence for the truly amazing game of the past. It was waste of my time, and a missed opportunity. I wasn’t even sure I would ever attend the show again.

A year down the road with renewed interest and somewhat cloudy memory, I decided to attend E3 2004, this time with my expectations in check.    I need not have worried, as this year, E3 was a delightfully different story altogether. As the gaming industry attempts to grow in sales in revenue, all of a sudden classic games and gamers are targeted market segment.   The influence of classic games could be seen in many places where they were not previously.     For example Midway was showing “Lost Treasures Of Midway II”.    In 2003 the original “Lost Treasures Of Midway” was nowhere to be found on the show floor, but this year’s collection was prominently displayed just to right as you entered Midway’s booth..   A spirited game of  the bodily carnage pioneer “NARC” proved that this year’s collection would be even better than the last.  Digital Eclipse is the developer again, and their track record of classic collections speaks for itself      More classic game were on display in other prominent booths.  The most notable was in Nintendo, who this year they showcased the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for The Game Cube: 10 classic Mega Man games in one package.   Most of these classic games were found in and around Sony and Nintendo heavy South Hall (the impregnable Atari booth was here as well), and the feeling I got was that this was just the first date in an ever-evolving 3-way relationship between the newer consoles, E3 and classic gaming compilations.

Classic collections, while still a great find, were not the only sign that E3 had finally embraced the “classic” gamer.  The biggest sign of E3 welcoming classic games was the inclusion of the CGE, Classic Gaming Expo.    The Classic Gaming Expo has been an annual event for the past 6 years in Las Vegas.  It started as a classic Atari only show, but these days welcomes all golden-age systems, developers writers, and fans to attend and enjoy a weekend of Classic Gaming  in Las Vegas (This year’s show has been moved to San Jose, see http://www.cgexpo.com for more details) .   The CGE had two fair sized booths in Kentia hall, the red-headed step-child area of E3.   One in the center of the hall held a museum of classic consoles and computers.   Everything from a reproduction of Ralph Baer’s original Brown-Box to a complete Atari 800 in-store computer display were they for you to see, touch and play with.   Most importantly, Leonard Herman, author of “Phoenix, The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Video Games” could be found here, chatting away with interested classic gaming fans, and holding a manuscript for a book Ralph Baer was writing about his experience in pre-Golden days of classic gaming.    I was most interested in the “Brown Box”, Ralph Baer’s invention that sowed the seeds for both the arcade and home video game industries.  The “Brown box” is an analog device, in that it used standard electronic components to create digital circuits, with no microchips of processors to be found.    It was simply unfathomable for me to imagine that just 30 years prior, this modest little contraption had created the massive, ear splitting, near-reality games industry that was exploded all around it in the LA Convention Center.  If there was an epicenter to E3, it should have been right there, yet Kentia Hall was the quietest room at the entire convention.

The second CGE booth included a couple dozen full-sized arcade games, as well a Intellivision  and Atari 2600  “living rooms” for players to relax and play games like it was still 1981.   In this booth, which was sponsored by Intellivision Productions, was Keith Robinson, one of the original “Blue  Sky Rangers” from Mattel Electronics.   Keith, a brilliantly funny man, was on-hand to discuss his experiences with Mattel, the Intellivision, and his recent efforts to release classic Intellivision games.  Robinson was most interested in getting the rights to all the classic Intellivision games, of which only a few were still outstanding (one being He-Man from Mattel, and the others from Coleco).   Robinson also spoke of a manuscript he had recently finished about the adventures of himself and The Blue Sky rangers as they created their own niche in the history of video games.   Also in the booth was “The Fat Man” himself, George Alistar Sanger, the first really famous computer-game musician.  Early-on, Sanger worked for Mattel Electronics and created soundtracks for some Intellivision games.     The laid-back and friendly atmosphere of the CGE booth was a welcome relief from the intense posturing of the games and booths directly above in the West Hall.   While the mammoths and wannabes strove to create their own sense of purpose and importance for their creations out of a marketing vacuum, the denizens of the CGE booths needed only to crack smile, and, speak a bit about the past and focus on the present.   Their import and place in history was already etched for them.

The CGE booth had another surprise to offer that came totally unexpected.   Every 1/2 hour the hybrid techno band “8-Bit Weapon” played a short, but amazing set.  Utilizing classic machines like a Commodore 64 and Gameboy, 8-bit Weapon proved that “retro” could expand beyond gaming into new forms of entertainment drawing on the heart and soul of classic games.  The duo had a kind of nerdy, White Stripes dynamic with NaughtyBoy playing music on the classic systems, and StickChick on drums.  The combination of the classic C64 sounds mixed with the acoustic drums was cathartic and refreshing when compared to the interminable DJs and mix-masters that manned booths in other halls at E3.  It showed that a bit of class and understatement can work wonders as a relief from the sea of overwhelming cheese and crass in the West and South Halls of the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

A few aisles north or CGE exhibit I found the real classic gem of  E3 2004,  Skyworks Interactive.  Skyworks was created out of the ashes of Accolade by Garry Kitchen, Alan Miller and David Crane, 3 of the original designers from Activision.   Skyworks is a very successful company making wireless, CD-ROM, and web-based games that focus primarily on marketing consumer products.    All three of these original “Activisoneers” were on-hand to discuss their current projects, their classic games, and to generally soak-in the atmosphere of Kentia Hall.  Seeing those three war horses of the industry, still working hard with a viable business was the absolute highlight of E3.   I talked to Garry Kitchen about “Keystone Kapers” and his time writing “Donkey Kong” for the 2600,  to Alan Miller about the brilliant “Star Master”, and finally to David Crane about everything else. Not wanting wear-out-my-welcome with these guys, we left them after about 20 minutes, to venture back into the ear-splitting mayhem of the West Hall, directly upstairs.

The new games we saw all looked very good.  Brilliant 3D graphics, amazing 5.1 and 6.1 sound, huge development teams wearing identical t-shirts emblazoned with their mottos and plans for world domination.  We passed amazing booths that were decorated like movie theatres, haunted houses, army headquarters, and everything in between.   We made to the Activision booth, trying to get past it towards a display for the new game “The Movies”, but got trapped behind a throng of sweaty, deodorant poor, males surrounding the DJ booth of yet another E3 techno avatar.   He was joined by two spandex-clad booth babes, swinging swords, and looking fiercely disinterested in the proceddings.. One “lucky” conventioneer wrapped his meaty-paws around their shoulders, begging his pal to take his picture with his new “conquests”.   The music pulsed out of the ample speakers, with the glowing, modern Activision sign high above , inviting the geek-chic crowd into the giant booth to see it’s batch of “new” wares, based on everything that has already been played, hopefully a few new ideas.   As I tried to squeeze by, my mind wandered back to the four guys in the sparsely attended Skyworks Interactive booth, to Keith Robinson, and to Ralph Baer’s modest little Brown Box.  I wondered to myself:, was anyone in this hulking, smelly mass of human gamers in front of me aware that none of this would be possible without the history that lay directly under their feet in Kentia hall?  Did they care?  Should they?  If classic gaming expands to E3 2005 at the same rate it expanded this year, they may be forced to find out, whether they like it or not.

Fultonbot’s Atari VCS Quest: Transmissions From AtariSpot

Soon after I made my first post about my VCS Quest, I got a tweet from another Atari fan named AtariSpot.   He noticed my list and wanted to know if I would like to see his list of available games.

We communicated on Twitter a bit, and noticed that he was die-hard Atari fan.  I saw a lot of myself in the transmissions AtariSpot was sending to Twitter, and followed him almost immediately.

The thing is though, at that point, I had never purchased an Atari 2600 game on the internet.

My brother and I used to carefully scan the video game section of  “The Recycler” newspaper back in the 80’s looking at the listing for Atari 2600 consoles and games, but I don’t recall us ever buying anything.  It was just curiosity I believe.   We wanted to who was selling what, an for which prices.    In fact, while I sold some Atari stuff in the 80’s in “The Recyler”, I don’t ever recall buying anything.

So for me, seeing a price-list in my in-box brought back memories, but not those of being a video game kid in the 80’s.  It was memories of being a new wave teenager and young adult in the 80’s and 90’s and buying records in Goldmine magazine.

In those days, I was the “kid”, and I was up against a very well-established business that had existed for decades.   Record collecting was then, all about two artists: Elvis, The Beatles.   Everything else was a just a nice-to-have.   Since my goal was to collect all the songs from my favorite 80’s band, The Alarm,  I found myself having multiple disadvantages.   The people who sold in Goldmine did not know the value of the records (this meant they were usually priced too high), and they didn’t care about them, which meant they did not always list them even if they had them.

What saved me then was persistence.  I would call-up every dealer in the magazine until they knew me by name.  Even though I was much younger than them, I knew more about the specific records I wanted, and soon they respected me, at least for that.  Within a few years,  I  collected almost everything I wanted, mostly from dealers who would say to me on the phone “Hey, I have this record too by The Alarm…” but were things that never listed for sale in their ads.

However, I also recall an inflection point when the prices got so inflated and ridiculous that I would never make any purchase.  I believe, since I started calling all the dealers, word got around that collecting The Alarm was “hot” (it certainly wasn’t, but I was persistent) and that made dealers raise prices on things to match  the “demand”, which in reality was just myself (and maybe a couple other people I came to know later) calling around to find new releases.

in 2017,collecting Atari VCS games as an adult, I find the situation quite different.   I find myself as the “old hand” who is trying to re-learn the business of collecting in a completely different way.   My suspicion was that most of the people collecting Atari VCS games were at least my age, if not older.     They were people of my age who lived through the era of collecting from magazines like “Goldmine” and knew the game of price-matching among dealers to match  perceived demand.    I’m sure that kind of thing still exists, and truthfully, one trip to eBay proves it.

However,  among die-hard Atari fans, I’ve found  this to not be the situation.

Case and Point: AtariSpot.

After a few Twitter messages, we emailed back and forth until he sent me his sale list.   I have to say, that at first I was bit worried that AtariSpot’s list would turn-out like those old record lists from The Recycler.   Was AtariSpot  just another old dealer who had found a niche, and had zeroed-in on myself as an easy pigeon, fueled by nostalgia, to open my wallet for some old cardboard, plastic and integrated circuits?

However, not only were his prices reasonable, but he went out if way to mention the various defects and quality issues with each game.

I made two separate purchases from AtariSpot.     The first was an iconic set of games that I knew I wanted to own for my collection.  I decided I only wanted to buy CIB (complete in box) games for now, here is what I purchased.

 

  

While I might have been a but unsure about buying CIB games for my collection at first, when I opened the box from AtariSpot, my doubts were eliminated.   Holding those Atari boxes for the first time in more than 30 years felt like have a bit of magic in my hands.  Unspecific memories of each game flew through the movie theater in my mind.

“…playing Combat! at Fedmart with my brother until the salesman force us to go away”

“…staring at the box-art for Air Sea Battle at Lori’s house and imagining that the blocky in-game action matched that illustration in exacting detail”

“…opening the Breakout cartridge from my older sister on Christmas morning in 1981, and knowing my obsession with clearing the 2nd screen that game could finally be fulfilled”

“…playing Outlaw against my dad, one of the only game he ever played with my on the Atari VCS…”

“…speeding down the road in Night Driver and imagining it was late at night, and we were driving to vacation on one my dad’s wild adventures”

“…trying to play just ‘one more game’ of Vanguard on Christmas morning 1982, before we had to pack-up and to my grandmother’s house…”

“…being wowed by the sheer technical brilliance of Star Master…”

“…sitting with my brother and on the floor of our living room on the 4th of July, 1983  finishing my first ever RPG, DragonStomper…”

“…figuring out the ‘nudge’ secret to Video Pinball and wracking of 100,000’s of points in a single game…”

It occurred to me right then that this is what my quest was about.  It was about the nuances, the lost memories, and feeling of getting something back that was ‘lost’ so long ago.

As well as the games I ordered, AtariSpot, inspired by my own quest, threw-in a few other games for free  to help me along!

  • Hangman! (box)
  • Street Racer (loose)
  • Solaris! (yes!  One of my all-time favorite games!)
  • Laser Blast! (my god do I have storied about this game!)
  • RealSports Baseball.

 

Far from being the opportunist he could have been, AtariSpot appeared to be a genuine Atari fanatic who was trying help another Atari fan bring some magic back from the 80’s.    A few days after my first batch of games arrived, AtariSpot emailed me to say that a another deal had fallen through, and asked if I would like some of the other games on my list.  I jumped at the chance to get some more games at some very reasonable prices.

 

   

All of these games helped flood back fleeting memories of the era, just like the first batch.

“…playing Asteroids the day after Christmas in 1981, and realizing we finally, finally, FINALLY could play arcade games at home…”

“…playing Donkey Kong on New Year’s day in 1982, after my dad bought me the game as payment for helping my grannie move out of her house and into a retirement home…”

I especially enjoyed holding the boxes for the Supercharger games, which, to me, are some of the most amazing creations from the entire golden-age of video games, but that is story for another time,

I was so happy with AtariSpot, that I asked him to write a little bio of himself that I could include in this post.   Much to my surprise, AtariSpot was not an old guy like me,  but much younger.      This made me very happy.    I loved that younger people were getting into the hobby for the “right” reasons, collecting things that make them happy, not just as a soulless bushiness transaction.

It reminded me of myself, all those years ago when I collected records in Goldmine magazine

It reminded me of myself now.

Here is the bio AtariSpot sent me:

“The first video game console I ever owned was an Atari 5200.  I’d have to dig up old Christmas photos to see which year Santa brought it, but I’d guess 1985.  I’ve been told that I was a Pac-Man enthusiast even at the young age of 4, and that Santa had to search his warehouses high and low for the 5200 that came bundled with Pac-Man because I so enjoyed it in the arcade.  For the following years, there would always be a few Atari cartridges under the Christmas tree.  Because I didn’t own any other video game console at home until the PS3 (it’s true!) the Atari 5200 will always be the system I love most.

Meanwhile, my grandparents lived only two city blocks away, and they had an Atari 2600.  My brother and I would visit them many times a week, so we were fortunate enough to enjoy the best of both worlds.  As a kid, I never really thought about one system being “better” than or different to another — they were all just fun video games.I wasn’t much into game collecting until just a few years ago.  Unfortunately we didn’t keep the boxes for the 5200 games I received as a kid.  If I was starting from scratch I’d certainly have gone for collecting games complete-in-box, but since I was already halfway to owning all of the 5200 games when I began collecting in earnest, I continued on as a loose cartridge collector.  Hey, at least it saves on storage space!

Collecting for the 2600 has become my current focus largely due to being only two games away from owning the full 5200 library, one of which is Bounty Bob Strikes Back (which routinely sells loose for hundreds of dollars).  On the other hand, putting together a complete Atari 2600 collection is not feasible for me (and most people) for two reasons: 1) the comparatively vast library, and 2) the existence of titles where only a handful of cartridges have ever turned up.  That doesn’t mean I can’t have fun trying, though!  I really enjoy finding the oddball Atari Corp. era cartridges, and I’ve recently gotten into collecting cartridges from overseas, especially titles that were never released in the USA.

My most recent Atari acquisition is an Atari 1200XL, my first 8-bit computer.  I have zero experience with the Atari home computer world, so I look forward to learning all about it!

You can follow me as I share photos of my collection on Twitter at @AtariSpot, and also check out my interview with author Tim Lapetino (The Art of Atari) over on atari.IO, as well as my review of his book.”

So thanks AtariSpot!  You’ve helped me take my quest to the next level.

But now I need to figure out my next move…

-Fultonbot

 

Current Quest Status (As Of 5/28/2017)

*5/28/2017: Added “Source” notation to salute people who help me on my quest.

Color Coding Key:

X = No copy of any kind   
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era

Fantastic Voyage (20th Century Fox)

X

Fast Eddie (20th Century Fox)

 X

Turmoil (20th Century Fox

 X

3D-Tic-Tac-Toe (Atari)

 X

Adventure  (Atari) Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Air-Sea Battle  (Atari)

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Asteroids (Atari)  

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Basketball (Atari)

 X

Battlezone (Atari) CIB  1983

X

(Source: Garage)

Berzerk  (Atari)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Bowling (Atari)

 X

Breakout (Atari)
 Store Label

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Canyon Bomber (Atari)

 X

Circus Atari (Atari)

 X

Codebreaker (Atari)

 X

Combat (Atari)
 

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Defender (Atari)

 X

Dodge ‘Em (Atari)

 X

E.T.  (Atari)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Flag Capture  (Atari)

 X

Football  (Atari)

 X

Galaxian (Atari) CIB  1983

X

(Source: Garage)

Golf  (Atari)

 X

Hangman  (Atari)

(box only) 

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Haunted House  (Atari)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Home Run  (Atari)

 X

Human Cannonball  (Atari)

 X

Indy 500  (Atari)

 X

Jungle Hunt  (Atari)  CIB, 1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Kangaroo  (Atari)  CIB, 1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Maze Craze  (Atari)

 X

Midnight Magic (7800 Era)  (Atari)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Miniature Golf  (Atari)

 X

Missile Command  (Atari)

 X

Ms. Pac-Man  (Atari) CIB, 1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Night Driver  (Atari)  

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Othello  (Atari)

 X

Outlaw  (Atari)  

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Pac-Man  (Atari) CIB, 1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Pele’s Soccer  (Atari)

 X

Phoenix (Atari) CIB,  1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Atari)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Realsports Baseball (Atari)

Loose

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Realsports Football (Atari) CIB,  1988

X

(Source: Garage)

Realsports Soccer (Atari)

 X

Realsports Tennis (Atari)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Realsports Volleyball (Atari)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Sky Diver (Atari)

 X

Slot Racers (Atari)

 X

Solaris (7800 Era) (Atari)

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Space Invaders (Atari)  CIB, 1988 red box

X

(Source: Garage)

Space War (Atari)

 X

Street Racer (Atari)

Loose 

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Super Breakout (Atari)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Superman (Atari)

 X

Surround (Atari)

 X

Vanguard (Atari)

X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Video Olympics (Atari)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Video Pinball (Atari)

 X

(Source: Atarispot)

Warlords (Atari)  Loose, TeleGames

X

(Source: Garage)

Yar’s Revenge (Atari)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Barnstorming (Activision)

 X

Boxing (Activision)  Loose, Blue Label

X

(Source: Garage)

Chopper Command (Activision)

X

(Source: Garage)

Dragster (Activision)

 X

Enduro (Activision)  CIB, Poor

X

(Source: Garage)

Freeway (Activision)

 X

Grand Prix (Activision)  Loose, Blue label

X

(Source: Garage)

Ice Hockey (Activision)  Loose, dirty label

X

(Source: Garage)

Kaboom! (Activision)

 X

Keystone Kapers (Activision)

 X

Laser Blast (Activision)

Loose, dirty label

 X

(Source: Atarispot)

Megamania (Activision)  Loose, dirty label

X

(Source: Garage)

Pitfall (Activision)

 X

Plaque Attack (Activision)

 X

River Raid (Activision)  Loose, blue label
Not working

X

(Source: Garage)

Robot Tank (Activision)

 X

Sea Quest (Activision)

 X

Skiing (Activision)

 X

Sky Jinks (Activision)

 X

Space Shuttle (Activision)

 X

Stampede (Activision)

 X

Star Master (Activision)

 X

(Source: Atarispot)

Tennis (Activision)

 X

Journey Escape (Data Age)

 X

Lost Luggage (Games By Apollo)

X

Space Cavern (Games By Apollo)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Tunnel Runner (CBS Electronics)

 X

Donkey Kong (Coleco)  CIB

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Venture (Coleco)

 X

Atlantis (Imagic)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Cosmic Ark (Imagic)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Demon Attack (Imagic)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Dragonfire (Imagic)

 X

Firefighter (Imagic)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Moonsweeper (Imagic)

 X

Riddle Of The Sphinx (Imagic)  Loose, sticker

X

(Source: Garage)

Star Voyager (Imagic)

 X

Armour Ambush (M-Network)

 X

Astroblast (M-Network)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Frogs And Flies (M-Network)

 X

Lock N’Chase (M-Network)

 X

Super Challenge Baseball (M-Network)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Frogger (Parker Brothers)

 X

Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (Parker Brothers)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

Reactor (Parker Brothers)

 X

Gangster Alley (Spectravision)

 X

Planet Patrol (Spectravision)

 X

Communist Mutants From Space (Starpath Supercharger)  

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Dragon Stomper (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

 

(Source: AtariSpot)

Escape From The Mindmaster (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Fireball (Starpath Supercharger)  

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Frogger (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Killer Satellites (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Phaser Patrol (Starpath Supercharger)  

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Suicide Mission (Starpath Supercharger)  

 X

(Source: AtariSpot)

Fast Food (Telesys)

 X

Jawbreaker (Tigervision)

 X

Marauder  (Tigervision)

 X

Polaris  (Tigervision)

 X

Space Jockey (US Games)  Loose

X

(Source: Garage)

The King Of Kong: The Sociological Inner-Workings Of The Nerdcore

There is a line near the end of the extraordinary documentary The King Of Kong that carries the weight of the entire film. It was spoken by a tween-age girl, but in the context of the film, that girl might be the most “adult” person to show-up on the screen during the movie’s 79 minute running time. As her father is talking about getting into the Guinness book Of World records playing Donkey Kong, the girl says back to him “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” It is a moment of clarity within an otherwise fascinating yet bewildering yet frustrating series of events depicted in the film. The line does not only stand out because it was spoken by a child, but also because it was not said aloud by any of the adults involved. It’s a transcendental moment that takes an otherwise merely likable story and exposes the sociological study that lies at the heart of the movie.

On the surface, The King Of Kong is a movie about a regular guy and perennial also-ran from Seattle (Steve Wiebe) trying to beat the high-score on the coin-op version of Donkey Kong. The high-score that has been held for almost 25 years by guy named Billy Mitchell, who, in the tiny and ridiculous world (a phrase coined by my good friend Brandon Crist in 12th grade) of competitive classic video games that he inhabits, is an incomparable rock star. The mulleted and patriotic tie-wearing Mitchell is a dynamic, successful and charismatic Hot Sauce tycoon from Florida with a trophy wife (his words) who was one of the first video game record holders in the 80’s, and remains so to this day. Mitchell’s circle of friends and influence extends to most of the competitive classic video game playing field and to the official classic video game score-keepers at Twin Galaxies including their enigmatic leader: the hippie, Zen master, and epic rock song-writer Walter Day. If this description sounds as ridiculous to you, as it was for me to write, then you might be starting to understand how just what kind of of “slice of nerd-life reality” this movie captures. The writers of the Simpsons could not have written more colorful characters nor could the writers of The Office come-up with more uncomfortable situations than the ones these real-life people have placed themselves within.

I don’t want to ruin the events in the movie for people who have not seen it, so I’ll just say this: the movie tracks Steve Weibe’s attempts as a West Coast outsider to “break-in” into the insular world of classic video game competitions (a mostly Mid-West and East Coast activity) ,and follows all the tricks, backhanded compliments, blockades, and subterfuge many of the “regulars” who inhabit that world(many are friends of Billy Mitchell) throw in his way to stop him. The first time I watched the movie (and I’ve watched it several times now with and without the included DVD commentaries), I sat with my mouth agape in bewilderment. I was so angry at the the events that unfolded on the screen, it was difficult to sleep the night I first watched it. I forced my wife to watch the movie the next night, just so I could have someone to talk with about the movie. She was shocked too, but for a different reason. My very insightful wife caught-on instantly to why the movie bothered me so much, and she reminded me of something I had pushed to the back of my subconscious: I’d lived it. Well, sort of anyway.

You see, back in 1995 I wrote a rock history of the 80’s band The Alarm. It was published Goldmine Magazine, at the time, the premiere tome for music collectors in the USA. It just so happened that the same month it was published, Mike Peters, the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Alarm was traveling in the USA. He read the article, and when he came to California, he called me on the phone, and asked my wife and I to come out and meet he and his wife. We struck-up a firm friendship that exists to this day. In 1996, Mike needed a web master for his new web site, and he asked me to do it. I’ve been running http://www.thealarm.com ever since. In 1997 I traveled to Wales, UK to The Gathering, Mike Peters’ annual music festival for fans of The Alarm. I looked forward to the trip very much, and was excited to meet other Alarm fans from around the globe,. However, what I found there was not what I expected. While there were many nice, regular people at The Gathering, there was also a “core” set (a “nerdcore” if you will) of die-hard fans of The Alarm who treated me like, well, complete crap. As I learned from others, these people were part of “the family”, a set of Alarm fans who had followed the band from the very early days in the UK, and had been close to it’s inner circle. Since I lived in the USA on the West Coast, I had never met or even known about this “elite” crew of fans. Even though I had been a fan of the band just as long as they had, none of them believed I had the “street cred” to be friends with Mike Peters or run his web site. For several years these people attempted to have me removed from being the web master of TheAlarm.com, pulled dirty tricks, etc. I know, it sounds unbelievable, but in the tiny ridiculous world of The Alarm that these people inhabited it made complete sense. Die-hard nerdcore fans of old rock bands are just as nerdy, and just as territorial it seems, as the denizens of the classic gaming competition underground.

To me, this “nerdcore” is one step beyond hardcore: they are the hardcore of the hardcore. Usually they are fans of something (a band, a tv show, a game, etc) that has long-since left the mainstream.  They have stuck around long-enough to become subject matter experts on something that only they really care about.  However, in many cases this “nerdcore” would like nothing better than to have the object of their fandom once again regain the popularity and acceptance that it once held, and along with it, they would be held in high regard as the ones who “stuck it out” while the rest of the world was so ignorant of the greatness of the thing they hold dear.  To this end, they might try to “keep out” others who might threaten their position when this eventual “judgement day” comes to pass.  Of course, in reality they are pushing out any people who might help their cause,  and sometimes end-up hurting the very thing they want to support.  It is an example of irony at its finest.

So for me, watching a guy named “Steve” (look at the byline above), in this instance Steve Weibe, travel to distant locations with honest intentions, while being foiled at every turn by a nerdcore who wanted to protect the territory they had felt was rightly theirs for the past 25 years, struck a chord. It took the movie from being just a simple survey of classic gaming culture into a study of just how far die-hard fans of something, no matter what it is, will go to protect what they believe is rightfully theirs. This is especially true if these fans are adults, and the object of their fandom was something they they loved as kids (or teenagers) but were never able to let-go of. In that sense, it is something I’ve never seen on film before. King Of Kong provides a view of how small, growth-stunted subcultures feed off their own and ultimately build a wall to protect themselves from the outside world. It also shows how far some of these people will go to stay afloat and on-top of said subculture, because to them it is the most important place they could possibly be. The insightful words of the young girl in the film come back to haunt me when I think of this. “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” Yes they do. Some people get so wrapped-up in their own little nerdcore world, that they will protect it all costs, be it classic video games, 80’s rock bands, or anything else that gets you so wound-up about the past, you ignore the present. It’s an instance when adults act more like children than children themselves. If this hurts outsiders and leaves their own lives stunted or ruined, so be it, as long as they stay “in the know” and at the “top of the heap”, no matter how small that heap might be. This propels King Of Kong from an interesting documentary into a must-see, must-own DVD. It is also one of the most compelling and insightful movies I have ever seen.

The amazing documentary King Of Kong is available now on DVD. Buy it from the official site so the filmmakers can try to recoup their costs. The DVD contains a multitude of bonus content and footage that add greatly to the impact of the film.

(originally published Feb, 20, 2008)

 

Never Let The Fires Die: The Alarm Podcast : Episode #4

Note: Jeff and I produce and host a podcast for the 80’s band The Alarm.    The Alarm are still going in 21st century, making new music, and inspiring their fans.   We’ve been spending much of our “online” time working on the podcast over the past couple months, which is why this site has seen fewer updates.   

Listen as roving UK reporters Gary Overington and Mike Peters himself take you on a unique journey backstage at The Alarm’s 2017 UK Tour Kickoff in Portsmouth.  Includes interviews with with the crew and band (including a very intimate  personal and interview with Jules Jones conducted by Gary) plus several live performances.

Listen or watch  below or in iTunes or Google Play

Features:

  • Gary Overington
  • Mark Warden
  • Andi Badgeman
  • Mike Peters
  • Jules Jones
  • James Stevenson
  • Smiley
  • Alarm super fan Pete Cole.

Songs

  • Lie Of The Land
  • Brighter Than The Sun (live)
  • Howling Wind (live)
  • Time (live)
  • Love And Understanding (live)
  • There Must Be A Way (live)
  • Strength (live)
  • Tomorrow (live)
  • Kill To Get What You Want (live)
  • Peace (live)
  • 68 Guns (live)
  • 45 RPM (live)
  • Blaze Of Glory (live)
  • Marching On (live)
  • Two Rivers (live)

Notes:

  • Recording Engineers: Gary Overington, Mike Peters
  • Edited and Mixed by Steve Fulton

Review: Extra Life By David S. Bennahum

Extra Life

The experience of growing up at the dawn of the video and computer game age is one that I know all-to-well. Video games and computers exploded at the end of the 70’s and have became an increasingly larger part of daily life ever since. However, while video games and computers are accepted as main-stream in 2017, that was not always the case. There was a time, not too long ago, when the world was not necessarily convinced about the transformative nature of electronic entertainment and communication. As my dad used to tell me, “the struggle is a much more interesting story than just the victory”, yet it seems that this particular struggle is sorely under-represented on the book shelf.

The book Extra Life By David S. Bennahum is a great little book that takes this struggle to heart. It is both a memoir and coming-of-age story set dead-center in the golden age of video and computer games. The author grew up on coin-op video games, and for his Bar Mitzvah received the greatest gift any kid could have received at the time: An Atari 800 computer. Bennahum digs into the true feelings of kids at the time that suddenly found themselves owners of a wonderous new toy: a home computer. He details his own exploits with software, programming, and the social aspect of being a computer user (read: geek) in the 80’s. Some of the most compelling content comes later in the book, when Bennahum describes his time in high school computer classes. Anyone who took a computer class in high school in the 80’s will instantly recognize the little “kingdoms” created by teachers and students alike. Bennahum expertly paints a picture of the high school computer lab: a place whose denizens want nothing more than to live in an electronic world of their own making, be damned the world outside. The fact that this “world of their making” would one day become mainstream and move beyond their wildest expectations makes the story even more compelling.

Extra Life was published almost 20 years ago, just as the World Wide Web was tightening it’s grip on the computer world. I suppose that this might be why it was not extremely popular when it was first published. The future was at hand, and this book was anchored to the past. However, in 2007, with the web 10 years in the mainstream, and the craze for it still unabated, books like this are important. They show that while technology might be different, people stay pretty much the same. The same obsession and power mongering that permeates the Web 2.0 world today, existed in the 80’s, but in a much more limited form.

However, so do the immensely positive aspects of the medium. The power of discovery of, learning with, and programming a computer has only become more powerful in the 21st century. As the news media clings to increasingly negative stories of the world wide web, it’s good to read something that reminds us of the uniquely transformatative power of the digital world.

David S. is now a Founding Maker at Ready Makers ( getready.io ) a company that creates a cross platform personal robotics platform to help kids learn to program.  His latest publication,  The Ready Maker Handbook, credits his early programming experience with his Atari 800 computer as why  ” He understands what it is like to be a kid entranced by the opportunities new technology offers.”

(originally published July 26, 2007)

Controlled Chaos and The Meaning in Software Development

I believe that I was born to be a computer programmer. Somewhere, deep in my soul, there is a need to organize my thoughts in ways that are both new and interesting, but also foundational and reusable at the same time. I’ve always felt that there is something atypical about this kind of work, and about the people who have chosen to do it. Not that it is better or worse than any other profession mind you, but that it was very unique, and at the same time both interesting and powerful.

However over the years, I have learned that this is not exactly a commonly-held belief.

Years ago (it seems like another lifetime now), a manager of mine was adamant that we create a “software development factory”. This person worked in Information Technology, but was never a programmer. This person (hence forth referred to as “IT”) was in love with “process”. “IT” had worked up through the I.T. ranks as an analyst at first, but had been able to cultivate the right look and absorb the right words to be promoted through past similar personalities into a position of real power.

At this one historic moment, “IT” was in the driver-seat of a team of managers and developers. I was one of them. The problem was, “IT” had no had no idea what our jobs entailed. Since “IT” did not like to think there was a concept,”IT” did not understand, “IT” decided to “improve” the team. “IT” had the bright idea that we should take a team of developers and create a “factory” out of them. In this person’s mind, programming was a rote exercise that could be turned into a repeatable process. In the “I.T.” view, programming did not take any real thinking. You took inputs, processed them, and created outputs. “IT” believed this was the most menial work possible, only important enough to be treated in the most dismissive of ways.

Suffice to say, “IT” and I did not get along. However, instead of rolling over, I tried to fight back.

  • I argued up and down, and down and up, left ways and right ways that my team of developers were not factory workers, and they did not create widgets.
  • I explained over and over that each project was different and required a unique solution that could not be picked off a shelf and plugged-in automatically.
  • I created 100 page documents that described in detail how software development worked and how it was more iterative and creative than simply straight-forward and rote.
  • I created diagrams of every type imaginable showing the tools, the process, and the creative thinking that went into designing software.
  • I pasted images of all our work on the walls and in the conference rooms.
  • We adopted SCRUM and Extreme Programming methodologies to show that development was iterative and not simple a step-by-step process,
  • I hung statements from notable software designers and developers in the hallways.
  • I brought in great software developers to teach classes on design and creative software development

In the end, of course, it did not work.

I was demoted.

My team was cut in 1/2, then 1/2 again.

Work was outsourced.

When it stayed internal, it was done by generic contractors instead of the type of hand-picked software wizards I knew would make the best developers.

Quality slipped, and so did deadlines.

The super-effective and proud team that I once led was turned into a hallow carcass.

This proved to me that there is a common misconception about what software development really entails. I’m not talking about “software support”, but real, honest programming. Truthfully, I don’t think many people outside of core development circles understand how software is made, or what it means to the people that do it.

Worse, this misunderstanding is not just superficial. It colors decisions made by people in the highest places of power. It’s ill-informed, destructive, and in some cases, could even be dangerous.

A few  years ago, I decided to try to find out what other people have written on this subject. I was on a quest to find a way to describe programming that would make someone in “IT”‘s position understand the reality of “programming”.

I started at he top. One of the masters of computer science, Donald E. Knuth, wrote about The Art Of Computer Programming in 1974 (he is also the author of the widely read multi-volume set of books by the same name) . Knuth chose to describe programming as art:

“My feeling is that when we prepare a program, it can be like composing poetry or music…Some programs are elegant, some are exquisite, some are sparkling. My claim is that it is possible to write grand programs, noble programs, truly magnificent ones!”

“…computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.”

While his ideas on the subject are a close approximation of my own, I needed to try to find some other perspectives as well. With a little more searching I found this great article about Art And computer Programming, by John Littler. It contains many quotes from developers on the subject, as well a very relevant quote from none-other than Albert Einstein.

“After a certain level of technological skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetic plasticity and form. The greater scientists are artists as well.”

While both of these sources were awesome, I was not sure that “art” was the only description I was looking for. Programming may well be an “art” but it is also a “science” too, so just calling it an “art” is not quite accurate. Furthermore, calling it an “art” certainly would not have changed the mind of “IT” . In fact, “IT”, being of simple mind (in my opinion anyway) , would have probably just found that idea “elitist”, and dismissed it immediately. Because of this, I wanted to find another word that did not seem quite as lofty. I found it a few lines down in Littler’s article.

“To me, it relates strongly to creativity, which is very important for my line of work”

This , a quote from Guido van Rossum (the creator of the Python programming language), was getting closer to what I wanted to read. Being “creative” was certainly necessary for art, but it was also necessary for many other pursuits. “Creativity” could describe a beautiful painting, as well as an effective strategic battle plan, or even the solution to complex problem with no clear-cut answer. To me, software development involved at the very least, all three of these things. I decided to follow this line to see where it would take me.

Over at AnswerBag.com, I found that someone named “guitar man” had asked this question: “Is computer programming creative? or is it a just an analytical type process? ”

There was one answer, and it came from a guy with the very creative name: “Jeztyr – whispering in the ears of kings” :

“Programming is an art form that fights back. It requires creativity to solve the seemingly unsolvable, and analysis to make it better, faster, more efficient. A lot of programming is mundane, ritualistic stuff, but other times it’s rewardingly convoluted.”

This answer really hit home with me. I liked the use of the words “creativity” and “analytical” at the same time. However, the best word for me was “convoluted“. Some how that word seemed to describe the software development process in a way that I had never considered before. I decided to look-up the word “convoluted” on Dictionary.com. Here is what it said:

con-vo-lut-ed: Adjective: complicated; intricately involved: a convoluted way of describing a simple device.

“Hmm.” I thought. I then looked at the synonyms: “elaborate,
intricate,
involute,
involved,
knotty,
labyrinthine,
tangled,
baffling”
.

All of these words seemed to point to something that was underlying all of this, but not quite yet on the page. Yes, software development is “intricate” and “elaborate”, but the words “tangled” and “baffling” also stood out to me. Those words seemed to describe to me the state of “software development” when you know the problem you need to solve, but you don’t yet know how to solve it. It is also the same part of the process that can require a creative “spark” to surmount, and once a solution is in place, the process becomes more scientific. This limbo state of development always seemed to the most “unordered “to me the most…chaotic.

Chaos.”

I then recalled something from our time dabbling in SCRUM (a software process that embraces change instead of pushing back on it). The phase was “controlled chaos“. While the SCRUM definition was not necessarily what I was looking for, the term seemed to be appropriate. Software Development was an ever-evolving process of taking chaos and creating order. Creating order from chaos is not an easy thing to do, but it is something that certain individuals (including many talented programmers) thrive upon.

I searched for some thoughts on this, and I found one that was so blunt and and final, even “IT” could have internalized it. Software Engineer Robert L. Glass described his role this way:

“Eat Chaos, Poop Order.”

In the most base way possible, Glass had crystallized my thoughts on software development. He continued to clarify his position.

“Chaos and order are the theme of my life. I consume one and produce the other.

I could not agree more.

At this point, I seemed to have come to the end of my journey. All of these quotes I had found sort of swirled around in my head until I came to a realization of what it all meant to me, and it is the following:

Programming is at once, both disciplined, and undisciplined . You must follow some rules, but also strive to break others if you want to make breakthroughs and discover new ways to make better software. It truly is art and science mixed, however the amount of each depends on the problem you are trying to solve. However, there is something else. Programming is like making sense of the senseless. It starts as chaos,and through sheer will of the mind, that chaos is organized into something amazing. It is also a stunningly enjoyable profession that feeds your mind and soul at the same time. In my nearly 30 years of programming experience, the initial surge of energy I feel when sitting down to start developing a new program has never dissipated nor has the sense of satisfaction when the last line of code is written and I hit the [Enter] key for the final time. If anything, the process has only grown greater and more important as the years slip by. In the final analysis, far from being a rote exercise, creating software just might be the the ultimate creative medium. With the proper knowledge, creativity, and computer power, you can build almost anything you can imagine.

It was long-winded, but I was satisfied with my answer. However, if I had been able to express these thoughts properly all those years ago, would I have been able to change the mind of someone like “IT”, and finally prove the reality of software development to someone in power?

Probably not, but at least I proved it to myself.

(originally posted June 9, 2009)

Review: Atari 2600 Dragonstomper.

In 1981 a small company named Arcadia was formed with the purpose of cashing in on the craze that was home video games. The company was quickly renamed Starpath when it was learned that at least one copyright was already registered with an association to video games (Emerson Arcadia) and was in use. This small group of bright individuals set out not, like so many others, to just slap retread game carts on the video game world , but to create something new, and maybe something brilliant. This team of industry veterans and young hot shots spent most of a year, fueled by caffeine and junk food, reverse engineering the Atari 2600. The result was a keen knowledge of the inner workings of the hardware and an invention that would result in some of the finest 8-bit games ever made. The Starpath Supercharger allowed the Atari 2600 to access 6K of ram as opposed to the 128 bytes that others had to work with. Also, it made use of cheap cassette tapes to store and load game rom and data as necessary. Unfortunately, the game industry died well before the Supercharger could completely revolutionize the industry. In its wake though, the code warriors who crafted this device and its fine software library, would go on to make a huge impact on the 80’s video game industry. The Supercharger is an item that is sought after and coveted by collectors today. The games remain some of the very few Atari 2600 games to never have a public free release, but were released as a CD Rom called Stella Gets a new Brain in 1999.

Steve and I grabbed an Arcadia Supercharger in the first allotment sold to stores in 1982. I’m sure if we hadn’t sold it to get a Vectrex a few years later it could possibly be worth some good money on Ebay today. We had Phaser Patrol and Communist Mutants from Space originally, and also purchased Escape From the Mind Master, Dragonstomper, and Frogger not long after. These games were as good as any computer games we had played, and some, like Escape and Dragonstomper had a level of depth we had yet to experience. Also they were inexpensive! A quality Starpath game could be had for under 20 bucks at the time. Other, inferior games, were selling for almost twice that price.

Stephen Landum was the designer and programmer for Dragonstomper. He also created Communist Mutants from Space, Frogger, and Suicide Mission for the Supercharger. He would go on to survive the video game crash as Epyx purchased Starpath in its wake. There, he was a principal designer and game programmer on the Handy portable (Later bought or stolen by Atari and renamed the Lynx – stories abound on the subject). His Blue Lightening is still considered to be one of the great Lynx games. He is also credited with programming and or creating such classics as Summer Games, Pit Stop II, and the Temple of Apshai Trilogy. Stephen was also instrumental in creating the 3DO game console.

Dragonstomper, originally titled Excalibur, was in the first wave of games released by Starpath. Other notable first-wave titles were Phaser Patrol (Star Raiders like game), Fireball (an interesting take on Breakout), Communist Mutants From Space (Galxian like game), and Suicide Mission (Asteroids). Dragonstomper was one of the first true role playing games modeled on Dungeons and Dragons released for the 2600. I remember Steve and I spending hours in front of the living room TV patiently collecting enough gold and magic items to make it to the town. We persevered and eventually beat the game in what turned out to be one of our first true video game triumphs.

Dragonstomper is probably best appreciated for its innovative music, easy to use interface, and multiple solutions to problems. For example, you can win the game in more than one way – kill dragon or just steal the amulet back. You can also traverse the cave to the dragon with rope, or by jumping down and then healing yourself (if you forgot to buy rope). The simple menu interface using just a 4-way stick and a single button was as elegant as anything today, while the hilarious music tracks (i’m in the money!) that trigger during game play are create a perfect atmosphere. It was also the first taste of real roleplaying on a home console, and an amazing achievment forther 2600.

Dragonstomper takes place in three different locations, each needing a separate load from the cassette media. You begin the game by traveling the Enchanted Countryside in an attempt to obtain the magic, items, and gold necessary to make it across the bridge and into the Oppressed Village. Once in the village, your task is to buy weapons, items and magic necessary to defeat the dragon. You can also attempt to recruit warriors from the village to join you in your quest. The final stage of the game is the journey through the Dragon’s cave and eventual final battle.

The provided story is seems pretty standard today, but was ahead of its time in comparison to other early 80’s console titles: You are the Dragonstomper, the only hero capable of defeating a dragon obsessed with evil. This dragon obtained his power by tricking a power hungry druid into dropping a powerful magic amulet in his cave. The dragon used the amulet to kill, oppress, scare the villagers into submission. The once powerful king’s brave knights have become the dragon’s evil henchmen, so no one, not even the King’s  powerful wizard can stop him.

You begin the game with 400 gold, and enough strength (23) and dexterity (23) to put up a fight against a few of the evil creatures inhabiting the land. You must fight your way to better items, weapons, and magic, while keeping a careful watch on your strength. If it reaches 0 you must reset the game to resurrect yourself. This section of the game is huge by Atari 2600 standards. There are 20 screens full of landscape to explore.

 

Your on-screen avatar is little more than a simple rectangle, but what a powerful rectangle he turns out to be. You begin your quest with a few gold and no weapons. As you fight your way around the landscape, you will find many items of use and collect much gold in the process. Some of these items (charms, crosses, potions, rings and staffs) are enchanted with magic that help to increase (or in some cases decrease) your two basic stats (strength and dexterity). The effect is random until you use an item for the first time. Once the effect is set (increase or mildly decrease you stat)s, it stays the same until you reset the game. You start the game with 23 in each basic stat. You don’t gain experience points (ala DnD) but your simple goal is to increase your strength (basically hit points combined with DnD strength) and dexterity as much has possible. . This will allow you to become the fierce warrior needed to defeat the evil dragon.

You can visit a church and donate gold to increase your strength. There are many other places to visit such as castles, huts. temples, grass lands and more. Most buildings will be locked until you find a suitable key (a very important, but scarce resource), or have an axe to break down the door.You must battle snakes, demons, beetles, monkeys slime, maniacs, ghouls, spiders and more. There are 9 different places to visit, 11 items and weapons, and 12 different creatures to do battle with. The hand axe is the only hand to hand weapon you can find and it greatly improves you ability in close combat. Visiting places basically results in you being attacked or receiving one of the game objects. Also, there are various traps scattered around the countryside and you must avoid them or hope you have a high enough dexterity to get out quickly.

The higher your dexterity, the harder it is for you to be hit by monsters, and the easier they will be able to be hit by you. The higher your strength, the better you will do in battle, and the longer you will live. You will be repeatedly attacked while on your quest. The fighting action takes places via a simple menu interface. You can run from most battles without too much trouble and this will be extremely important early on as your strength will be sapped and it replenishes very slowly without cleric or magical help.

 

To make it across the bridge and into the Oppressed Village, you must have 1500 in gold with a strength and dexterity at max (52 each). Again, there is an alternative method of gaining access, if you can figure out what the bridge guard will take as a bribe. In town you will be able to spend your acquired gold on a number of items that will increase your chances of defeating the dragon and stealing back the amulet crystal. You can purchase magical scrolls such as BLAST, FLASH, PROTECT, UNLOCK, VISION, and STUN in the magic shop. Blast will take some serious damage from an enemy combatant, while the others will aide you in various ways. Flash will light up an area of the cave, protect will help confuse the enemy into missing their strike on your avatar, unlock will remove magic barriers and help emancipate the amulet crystal.The stun spell will freeze your enemy, while the vision scroll will allow you to see traps.

You can also equip yourself with healing elixirs (increase dexterity), medicine (cure poisons), vitamins (increase strength) at the hospital, and even buy a longbow, rope, lanterns and other equipment at the trade shop. You have the ability to sell off all of your unneeded equipment from part one and use the money on these and other important items. This is good because only the hand axe really is of any use in the third part of the game. If you have enough gold (or precious gems) left, you can attempt to recruit at least one of the three warriors in town to join you in the quest.

When you have finished shopping and recruiting, it is time to load part three and head into the Dragon’s cave. Before you make it to the dragon, you will have to avoid guardians, pits, poison darts, and more. Make sure you have enough medicine, rope and other items to help you through this section. Once in the dragons lair, it’s a fight to the death. Ranged weapons, magic, and a lot of healing potions are needed to succeed. You don’t even have to kill the dragon if you can some how get to the locked away amulet crystal (the unlock scroll should help), the game will be won.

Dragonstomper is an excellent game. It holds interest even today. Casual and hardcore game designers of today should pay reverence to titles such as these. Not only was it innovative in every way, but it has that virtually unknown and almost impossible to create quality that makes you want to keep playing until you finish, no matter what your real world responsibilities may be.

Besides Stephen Landrum, here is a brief bio on some of the other brillant people who worked at Starpath:

Craig Nelson was a hardware engineer at Starpath. His knowledge of the 2600, from having worked at Atari, was pivotal for the small company. He was the principal designer of the Supercharger hardware. He is also credited with creating the legendary Rogue title for Epyx.

Scott Nelson was Craig’s brother and as a game programmer he created Fireball and Survival Island for the Supercharger. Scott also moved on to Epyx (like some of his fellow Starpath brothers) and programmed versions of Summer Games I &II, The Games Winter and Summer, as well as Chips Challenge (Lynx), and the Secret of Monkey Island. His name has shown up on some more recent Midway titles such as Gauntlet 7 Sorrows for the PS2.

Dennis Caswell created Escape From the Mindmaster, Labyrinth, Party Mix and Phaser Patrol for the Supercharger. At Epyx, Dennis created one of the all-time great 8bit classics, Impossible Mission.

Steve Hales was 19 when he became a programmer for Starpath. He created the Asteroids-like game, Suicide mission. He went on to program such classics as Fort Apocalypse, California Games and Sim City, as well as many other games up until the mid ’90s.

Halcyon Days Interview with Steve Hales

Forbes magazine comparing the 2600 and the xbox 360 – with a discussion Dragonstomper

Atari Protos Dragonstomper Page

 

(originally published July 27, 2007)

Book Review: The Art Of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford

cover

(Note: How great is this book?  I wrote this 10 years ago, and all I had to do was change about 20 words, and this review is as relevant now as it was in 2007)

By all rights, Chris Crawford’s book The Art Of computer Game Design  should be a mere relic in the eyes of modern game designers. Sure, in 1984 it was the first serious book written by a computer game designer/programmer about the design of games, but at 33 years old it would seem to be too old to hold any really useful information about the design of modern games, right?

Wrong.

With “casual” games taking center-stage thanks to the efforts of mobile, web-based game programmers, the Nintendo 3DS & Wii U consoles, Steam plus the XBox Live Arcade and the  Playstation Store the lessons of early game designer/programmers like Crawford can be both handy, and at times, down-right golden. As well, designers of games for any level or platform could do well to digest some of the more universal topics in this book.

Crawford first chapter, “What Is A Game?” does a fine job of setting the tone for what lies ahead. Crawford jumps right-in with a serious discussion of why game are important to humans, about conflict, and the importance of interaction in video and computer games. This is not a book that is steeped in the details of implementation, or the exact features of any one game type, but instead it is designed to make the reader really think about games and exactly what they are trying to accomplish when designing/programming a game. The key take-away from this chapter are Crawford’s thoughts on “interaction”. Basically, without interaction you don’t have a game, and in Crawford’s world, quality of interaction is directly proportional to the quality of your game.

The second chapter in the book, “Why Do People Play Games?” takes a deep look at the motivations people have for playing games. Crawford, while admitting that many people play games for differing reasons (exploration, proving oneself, social, etc.), states that much of the desire of playing games comes from an innate human need to “learn”. Crawford writes

I claim that the fundamental motivation for all game-playing is to learn. This is the original motivation for game-playing, and surely retains much of its importance…I must qualify my claim that the fundamental motivation for all game-play is to learn. First, the educational motivation may not be conscious. Indeed, it may well take the form of a vague predilection to play games. The fact that this motivation may be unconscious does not lessen its import; indeed, the fact would lend credence to the assertion that learning is a truly fundamental motivation.

Crawford does not say that every game should be “educational”, but that the process of learning is part of why people play games. As game designers and programmers we can learn to create more addictive games by tapping into this need. Giving players the ability to learn patterns or discover the “hidden” rules beneath the game’s surface are just a couple ways of satisfying this need without hitting players over the head with “lessons”.

Crawford’s third chapter, “A Taxonomy Of Computer Games” is light on text, but surprisingly complete in scope, even though it was compiled in 1982. While it focuses on the prevalent type of game for the age (arcade style contests), this is not all that bad in particular for programmers/designers of web-based games because the lion’s share of on-line games still fall into this category. What is surprising from his list are how few game genres have been created since 1982. First-Person shooters fall under “Skill And Action”, “Real Time Strategy” in War games, the “Sims” style games in the “relationship” category. The only genre he does not specifically cover is MMORPGs, but he does state “So far, however, few games have been marketed that truly capture the spirit of D&D“, which in some sense, is the point of MMORPGs.

Chapter Four “Game Technologies” seems like it would veer the farthest from modern games, but again, Crawford talks in such universal terms that his lessons are still very useful today. His thoughts on game interfaces and information interaction between the game and the player, and how they effect the success of game are still extremely important , as are his feelings on keeping the game design “clean” and free of special-case elements that don’t support the main functions of the game. Crawford even takes the role of an prophet of sorts, pointing out that one of the most compelling thing about computer games is “ is their ability to utilize data transfer over telephone lines for game play. The use of telecommunications for game play makes possible game structures that are out of the reach of other technologies. It allows us to create games with huge numbers of players.

Chapter 5 “The Game Design Sequence” is a complete strategy for designing and developing a game. While it is very light on the actual programming implementation, Crawford’s main idea is that the research, planning and design of your game are much more important than the programming phase .Crawford writes “Seldom has a game failed solely because the programmer lacked the requisite programming skills. Games have failed to live up to their potential because the programmer did not expend enough effort, or rushed the job…” Crawford’s experience with games he “did not” finish are very important here. His thoughts on “aborting” a project before you have invested too much effort is something I plan to tape to my wall:

“The last and most crucial decision is the decision to abort the game or proceed. It should be made now, before you commit to programming the game. Do not hesitate to abort the game now; even if you abort now you will still have I earned a great deal and can say that the effort was worthwhile. A decision to give up at a later stage will entail a real loss, so give this option careful consideration now while you can still do it without major loss. Abort if the game no longer excites you. Abort if you have doubts about its likelihood of success. Abort if you are unsure that you can successfully implement it. I have in my files nearly a hundred game ideas; of these, I have explored at length some 30 to 40. Of these, all but eight were aborted in the design stage”

Chapter 6 “Design Techniques And Ideals” is a grab-bag of sorts containing content on a variety of topics that dig deeper into game design. These include game balancing, learning curves, and the relationships of game opponents. Not all of these will be useful to everyone, but then Crawford’s main thrust of this chapter is not necessarily the digestion of all these topics. Instead, Crawford encourages style and technique for creating games. It appears that Crawford is saying “this is how I do it, you might not do it this way, but find some way to do it, and stick with it.”

Chapter 7: “The Future Of Computer Games” is an extremely interesting read. especially for something written in 1982. Crawford plays the role of prophet again, but this time for an entire chapter. His thoughts on how personal computers will transform society are especially compelling:

“We therefore expect that personal computers will change the face of American society. We expect that networking will allow more Americans to participate in economic activities from the home, decreasing the load on transportation and accelerating the pace of economic life. The ease of manipulating information will give information an even more prominent role in our society. Our financial system will become less dependent on currency. Our lives will be changed by these machines.

Even more compelling are Crawford’s thoughts on what computer and video games would become as they moved to the mass market:

As computer games become a mass market item, they will fall prey to the homogenizing forces of the mass market. The emphasis will not be on originality or creativity, but rather on adhering to the time-honored formulas. Just as movies and television fell prey to the formulas of sex and violence, cops and robbers, sitcoms, and the other mechanical incantations of the mass media, so too will games fall victim to the tyranny of the mass market. (Are my biases showing?) We will see an emphasis on delivering the same game over and over in new clothing. My guess is that we are already caught in the grip of this force, for we are producing little more than variations on a single theme: “blast the monsters!”. This has sold well, so we stick with it.

Chapter 8 “The Development Of Excalibur” is an interesting “warts and all” view into Chris Crawford using some of the techniques he previously described in the design of a game. This chapter is fascinating, but to get the most out of it you need to really you enjoy the history of Atari, or have owned and played the Excalibur game on an Atari 800 computer. For Chris Crawford, Excalibur was the first battle in a life-long quest to create a game that modeled true human relationships.

Not everything in the book translates completely,  and some of the ideas in the book show their age. In Chapter 4 Crawford advises programmers “as you look over your program listing, you should inspect each byte and ask yourself, ‘Am I getting my money’s worth from this byte?’. These concepts may appear outdated in this day of ultra-fast machines, gigabytes of memory.  However, the basic concepts of these ideas still hold a lot of truth.  Efficient programming can make the performance of the game much better and maintainability of the code far easier than a sloppy design.  As well, HTML5, AR/VR/MR/XR game programmers in particular should be familiar with trying to compress every byte they can out of graphics, sounds, and even their own code to create a game with a reasonable download size and frame-rate. Also, some of the language in the book might make the actual content seem less than useful, which would be a mistake. For instance, Crawford’s use of the term “artificial smarts” instead of “artificial intelligence” in Chapter 6 might seem quaint, but the lesson of the chapter is still valuable.

In the mid-1990’s, long after this book was published, Chris Crawford became as pariah of sorts to the game industry because he continued to beat the drum on the topics he so eloquently states in “Chapter 7 The Future Of Computer Games”. After being kicked out of the Game Developers Conference, a gathering he himself created, he left the game industry completely. Actually, to be fair, the game industry left him. It’s really too bad, because people who can see 23 years into the future like Crawford did in 1984 should be leaders in the game industry, not shoved aside so the alpha-squad can make excuses for churning out the same games over and over. Crawford resurfaced a few years ago with another great book named “On Game Design” that further refined his game development techniques. He is currently finishing up the beta version of his interactive fiction system “Storytron“, an idea that saw it’s genesis in the final pages of The Art Of computer Game Design.

Note: The Art Of computer Game Design has been freely available online since 1997.

(Note: originally published July 17, 2007)

Updates since 2007:

Chris Crawford regularly updates his website here: http://www.erasmatazz.com/.  It a fascinating read.

He has been working on a game project that incorporates his theories named Siboot for several years now.  We hope he and his team finish soon so we can all enjoy the game.

Never Let The Fire Die (podcast episode #2)

Jeff and I host the official podcast for the band The Alarm.   They had a bunch of alternative hits in the 80’s  (The Stand, 68 Guns, Strength, Spirit Of ’76. Rain The Summertime, Rescue Me, Sold Me Down The River).    They new 21st century version of the band is going strong with several albums and a few charting songs (45 RPM, Superchannel)

The new episode covering the recent USA Gathering and the new film featuring lead vocalist Mike Peters named “The Man In The Camo Jacket”  is embedded below (full disclosure: Steve appears in the movie The Man In The Camo Jacket)

S1:E1: The First USA Gathering: UCLA, April 22, 2017

 

 

 

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