Intellivision World

 

IntellivisionWorld meets David Crane

A talk about classic gaming and the “future of the retro style”: David Crane, co-founder of Activision, creator of Pitfall!, Decathlon and Ghostbusters, answers to our questions about retrogaming and the world of videogames.

Pitfall! is the only game designed by David Crane available on Intellivision
David Crane's golden age videogames
Outlaw, Atari 1977
Fishing Derby, Activision 1980
Dragster, Activision 1980
Laser Blast, Activision 1981
Kaboom!, Activision 1981
Freeway, Activision 1981
Pitfall!, Activision 1982
Grand Prix, Activision 1982
The Activision Decathlon, Activision 1983
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, Activision 1984
Ghostbusters, Activision 1984
Little Computer People, Activision 1985
Hacker, Activision 1985
David Crane as appeared on Pitfall! instruction manual for Intellivision.
Image taken fron the Intellivision Library.

Interview by Valter Prette

Mr. Crane, welcome to the virtual office at IntellivisionWorld.  
You are known as one of the gurus of videogame history, and one of the major contributor to the home entertainment, but many people just accept this without knowing a specific reason.
Your name became famous when moving to Activision. That time the company promoted original concepts of developers, whose name was mentioned in the credits of the games. Before this, the softcoms where mostly investing on conversion of arcades.
Could we say you represent the breakpoint between the arcade oriented industry and the home entertainment industry in the '80?


I worked at Atari in the late 1970s.  At that time the home video game business was just getting started, and everyone thought of video games as those things in the arcade that ate your quarters.  So the promise of the home video game was the ability to bring home the arcade games that you already knew and enjoyed (and wouldn’t have to pay a quarter per game to play).

All early home games were ports of arcade games. You had Tank and Pong, Surround and Air-Sea Battle, etc.  I joined Atari and, continuing the trend, developed Outlaw, Canyon Bomber and Depth Charge.  We continued to make home versions of successful arcade games until we ran out of popular games to convert.

It was inevitable that there would come a time when the home game market would need new, original game titles that had never been seen in the arcades.  The business had reached that point when we launched Activision in 1979.  Of Activision’s first 6 titles (all released together in early 1980),  fully half were totally new game concepts.  (Dragster, Checkers, and Bridge represented arcade, board, and card game genres.  Boxing, Fishing Derby, and Skiing had completely new game play mechanics.)

Activision also promoted the designer of the game as a publishing company would promote the author of a novel.  We were no longer simply adapting someone else’s work to the home market; we were doing work that was recognized as original and creative.  It made sense to give design credit for that original work.  Older, established companies had a hard time offering personal credit, but Activision was a new creation of ours and we were able to make giving credit part of the company’s culture.

What do you consider the big difference between today market and the games industry of the beginning?

There is no one thing that separates today’s video game business from that of the beginning.  Today’s business evolved from that early start, and while on the surface they look completely different, there are more similarities than differences.

Consider the game design process from 1980:  A single person – the Game Designer – filled every role in the process.  To use myself as an example, I would sit down with a blank sheet of paper and sketch out a concept.  I would then start making computer art for the backgrounds and characters, drawing every single pixel by hand.  I wrote every line of computer programming, testing each game play element as it was implemented to see if it worked.  Eventually I would create sound effects and music as needed.  With a little help from other game designers who were in between projects, I would play test the game for hundreds of hours, tweaking the game in places where it was weak.  And because each game had to fit in a small ROM chip, hundreds of hours of esoteric programming tricks might be needed to shrink the program to fit into memory (in most cases without affecting game play).

This was an enormous task for a single person.  But what made it really unique was the number of different classes of skills it required – calling on both the left and right brains.  Those early game systems required tremendous technical skills to display and manipulate the images the players took for granted.  We were on the cutting edge of high-speed assembly-language programming, processing parts of the image in the time it takes a TV set to draw a single horizontal line of a single frame of video.  But to design an original video game concept also required a high degree or creativity – a skill sometimes missing in highly technical people.  And if that is not enough, make that same person responsible for every pixel of art, every sound effect, and all music composition.  At that time, or for any time in history for that matter, there were very few people with all the skills and abilities necessary for all of those differing tasks.  In the early eighties there were fewer than twenty of us in the field.

As game systems evolved they became able to display more detailed images such that it was no longer necessary to manipulate every single pixel individually.  The systems could also play sounds and music with synthesizer technology.  And ROM sizes increased up to and including 700MB of data on a CD ROM (and beyond). This evolution expanded the possibilities for the games, and changed the game design process as well.  Sure, I can draw... But an artist who is dedicated to that single task can create much better images that I can.  I can also make sound effects and compose music, but there are specialists who can do these things with results far superior to mine.  Even in programming, specializations began to emerge.  A person who can master the intricate technical challenges of displaying the imagery might not be the best one to write user interface code or to program character animation.

Today there are literally hundreds of people who work on a modern video game.  But they still perform the same functions that a single person did in 1980.  The display intricacies are handled by 3-D engine specialists who create a black-box system with a defined interface such that nobody else in the project knows what is going on with the actual hardware.  Multiple game programmers are assigned to different tasks and game levels.  The user interaction is often the task of a GUI specialist.  Art is broken down into background art, character animations, 3-D modeling, etc.  And music and sound effects are handled by specialists in the field with all of the sounds of an orchestra at their command.

So you can see the similarities.  The main difference today is that while all of the same things have to be accomplished to create a game, each task is being done by a different person.  Then, the final quality of the game depends on how well all of the separate tasks are brought together into a complete game.  It can be likened to the evolution of film making.  If Steven Spielberg had the time, he could personally build the sets, block out every shot, operate every camera, record the dialog, mix the music,  and edit every frame of film as he did in film school.  But if he places into those positions people who he trusts do do at least as good a job as he could do personally, he is empowered to step back and make sure the film turns out to match his vision.

Many people claim that the best game concepts had been already developed in the past, and there are not original ideas around in the actual market, do you have a position about this?


In the game business we joke about this, but it is only true in a completely philosophical context.  Freeway (a game of mine in which a chicken crosses 10 lanes of traffic from the bottom of the screen to the top) and Frogger (an arcade game where a frog does much the same thing) are different enough games to each be enjoyable.  If you dig deep enough you will find an arcade game from the 70s called Space Race in which a rocket ship tries to fly from the bottom of the screen to the top avoiding killer space debris.  So both Freeway and Frogger are just Space Race?  This argument doesn’t hold up.

If you take that philosophical argument too far, you would have to say that all sports are the same because they all involve some combination of running, jumping, throwing, hitting, and/or kicking.  This is not an argument that has much value in the real world.

(Note that Freeway and Frogger were developed independently and at the same time.  Neither game borrowed from the other – they were simply two similar games developed simultaneously.)

How do you look at the retrogaming? Is it a matter of passion or business?

 I am designing and programming games every day, using today’s technologies.  So I am not in any business related to retrogaming.  But I am a big supporter of those game players who still enjoy the classic games of yesterday.  To Classic Gaming enthusiasts, retrogaming is a passion.  I remain proud of every game I have ever done, and to know that many of those games are played today gives me great satisfaction.

Why so many people just keep playing classic games?

Some classic game players undoubtedly play these games because it takes them back to a simpler time.  But mostly, I think that classic games are played because they are a fun way to spend a few minutes of leisure time.  And you can’t get that from today’s complicated console games.

In the early days of video games, we created games meant for the whole family to enjoy.  No complicated manuals were required – you could pick up a controller and quickly know what to do.  Dads could play with their kids, and in many cases the rest of the family would watch the TV with interest and cheer them on.  As video games evolved, complexity was often substituted for creativity.  It is so bad that now you can’t even start a console game unless you have several hours to play.  At the same time the games became largely single-player, and the game consoles migrated into the kid’s bedroom.

It has taken twenty years, but we have finally brought back games that can be enjoyed when you have only a few minutes of free times.  At my current company Skyworks, we develop what we call Casual Games for play on the internet.  (You can go to rcade.com to see examples of these games.)  A Casual Game is designed to give you a ten minute break from your work while sitting at your computer.  And the best part is that you play them for free, and you don’t have to plug your old Atari or Intellivision console into your TV – they are there in your browser window.

I can’t speak for other classic game players, but for me this new breed of Casual Games fill the void as well as the easy to play games of the past.

Do you think the game industry is damaged by the majors that control the market and propose never-ending sequels?


Besides designing games for 30 years, I have remained in the game business for all these years as a businessman.  And what you call the succession of never-ending sequels are driven by the business.  Consider the costs: A console game today can cost $20M to develop.  As much as half of that is spent before anybody can play enough of the game to determine whether it is going to be fun.  To put it simply, it doesn’t pay to be creative.

Because of the staggering cost of development, large game studios will only start a game that is pre-disposed to selling well.  And the only ways to do that are to do a sequel to your own best-selling game, or to do a copy of someone else’s best selling game.  Risking that amount of money on a complete unknown original game concept is such a distant third place that it is often never considered.  Today’s game design teams have to find ways to add creativity within a game in order to advance the state of the art.  Fortunately, they are usually allowed to do so as long as they don’t change the basic concept that was originally funded.

To put it simply, you will never see a successful game that doesn’t spawn a sequel.  And if the sequel is successful, prepare for many more.  Do I like sequels?  Not particularly.  But do I blame large publishers for doing what the economies of the business require?  Not at all!

Did you follow the project Messiah and similar attempt to revitalize classic hardware? Do you think there is still a place for ancient console to be sold to the market?

I personally believe that classic hardware belongs on the shelf of a collector.  Once technology passes you by, you can’t go back.  I am a big fan of hardware emulators to keep certain games alive, and I always hate to see the day when the last working copy of any technology stops working.  But the PC is more ubiquitous than any game console has ever been, and it can be used for all forms of gaming – from keeping classic games alive to replacing them with new Casual Games.

Which is the best platform you did work on, and why?

The Atari 2600 was by far the most challenging platform in the history of gaming.  And the very challenges that had many people tearing out their hair made it the most fun for me.

In the 2600, the microprocessor was used to update the TV image on a line-by-line basis as the image was scanned out to the TV.  So to display a person, you had to show the pixels at the top of his head on his first visible scan line, then the hair on the second scan line, etc. until you have displayed the whole character.  On the next frame of video you start all over again.  About 2/3 of the processing time was taken up with this “display kernel”.

Where it got really complicated was when we started changing the image several times across the scan line itself.  This required synchronizing the microprocessor with the scanning beam of electrons in the TV picture tube itself!  You could spend weeks trying out different programming techniques to find one that triggered the hardware at the precise moment to give you the result you were after.

I love puzzles, and this was among the most complex puzzles to which I have even been exposed.  A new display kernel could forever alter the way games would be programmed on the 2600.  I developed a number of these techniques that were borrowed and used in hundreds of later games.  With each new development I created something that only a handful of people on the planet understood, and even fewer could have created.  I derived a great deal of enjoyment from those technical accomplishments.

Which is the platform you would like to work on but you couldn't

I never worked on the 3DO platform.  After Atari and Mattel lost their dominance of the video game hardware to Nintendo, 3DO was America’s last hope to regain control of future gaming technologies.  Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  And while Nintendo and Sega (and later Sony) made some good hardware systems, it was sad to see the US companies lose their way since all of the pioneering work was done here.

Lot of people wants to know a final answer to this question: are there any games or concepts you start to develop but you didn't finish for any reason?

There were several instances in the early days where I finished a game only to decide it wasn’t good enough to put my name on.  I did this beautiful game where you accelerated a motorcycle over a jump to get the greatest distance.  There wasn’t enough to the game so I shelved it.  I later took the same motorcycle and modified its suspension to make it a dirt bike.  That led to a motocross-style game that again didn’t have enough game play for my taste.

The good news was that I could take parts of those games for use in others.  The best example of this is the stadium background, complete with lights and sunset that you see in my Decathlon game.  This backdrop was first developed in its entirety for the motorcycle jumping game.  That helped me to make a full 10 event Decathlon in time for the Olympics.

Do you ever think about programming a homebrew game either for Atari or Intellivision, maybe during some relaxing weekend? You know that if you did so, magazines from all around the world would show your picture in the first page...

Developing Casual Games for the internet gives me the same sense of accomplishment that my old games gave me.  Except for the technical challenges of overcoming system limitations, I have just as much fun.  As a game designer I want my games played by the maximum number of people, and I can reach so many more through the internet than I might with a new classic game.  I don’t think a new David Crane game for the Atari or Intellivision hardware is in the stars.
 
What about a book about the gold gaming age?

I have been approached by a couple of publishers, and I like to write, so this may be something for the future.  But I still design games every day of my life, so any possible book will have to wait.
 
If you ever decide to develop anything for a classic console, we are ready to produce for you :-)

Thanks... That is good to know.

We spoke about the past, what about the future of videogaming? What do you expect from next generation consoles?

Game consoles will continue to develop in display complexity.  The goal of computer generated imagery is to “render the mundane” until it is indistinguishable from reality.  High-end CGI systems are coming close to this.  When was the last time you watched a TV commercial without being completely certain which parts were computer generated?  Today’s consoles are staggering in their 3-D rendering abilities, particularly in comparison with older 2-D consoles, but they have not yet achieved this goal.

But given my historical perspective, I feel compelled to point out that technology doesn’t make a game or game system any more fun.  I implore all console game designers of the world, “Please don’t mistake polygonal resolution for cool game play or worry more about terraflops than about how fun a game might be.”

Is David Crane still a game player today?

I work on games every day.  Casual game projects are measured in months (just like the 1980s) rather than years, so I am moving onto new games quite often.  But yes, I play games – you can’t design a game without playing it.  And the only way to make a game fun is to play it and tweak it until it is the best that it can be.  So while I play games for different reasons than most people, I still play games for a living.
 
Thanks for your time.



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