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INTERVIEW
Rusel DeMaria and Johnny Wilson

Co-authors of the excellent publication
'Hi Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games'
and industry insiders speak about videogame history and more!

MT> There are several electronic game history books, yet High Score! is the first to include classic computer games into the fold? Why do you think that others failed to recognize the historical significance of computers in game history and solely concentrated on console gaming?
JW> Rusel and I perceive electronic games as a continuum that spills out of computer game history. Some of the other books were more concerned about the cultural phenomenon of electronic games and properly saw console games as having more impact to more people because of their ease of use. Some of the books were more interested in the evolution from the coin-op arcades to the home arcade machines and perceived the classic computer game material as pre-history that was superfluous to what they wanted to accomplish. We're proud of our vision.
RDM> I didn’t create High Score! simply to pick the lowest-hanging fruit. I wanted to show as much of the early story as I could. When I thought of electronic games, I thought of arcade games, consoles, computer games and handhelds. Admittedly, I might also have included other “technically” electronic games, such as pinball machines, Simon and others. So, I limited it to a particular definition, but that included computer games. And, although the first game system I owned was a console (Atari 2600), I also played a ton of computer games. I watched all the companies mentioned in the book (and more) grow and put out their first products. It never occurred to me NOT to include the computer game companies. Finally, there are a lot of really human stories connected with the evolution of computer games, and I like stories.

MT> High Score! deals with the business of games in addition to strolling down memory lane. Why was this approach chosen?
JW> When the Washington Post's legendary Ben Bradlee told Woodward and Bernstein to "follow the money" he established a journalistic standard for our generation. Rusel and I understood that you cannot comprehend the ebb and flow of computer and video game trends without seeing where the investments were coming from and the visions behind both the entrepreneurs who built the industry and the big business guys who almost killed it on several occasions. I don't think you can even understand the rationale for publishing various lines of games without understanding the money.
RD> Johnny puts it really well. For me, it’s part of the story. Why did the game business struggle, crash, reinvent itself and, ultimately, evolve into a legitimate medium of entertainment? That’s part of the story.


MT> Johnny, you have been professionally reviewing computer games for almost two decades. How did you get started in the industry and what was it like in its infancy?
JW> Another Russell got me into the industry. My friend, Russell Sipe, introduced me to the serious gaming hobby when he introduced me to what were then 3M Bookshelf Games and Avalon Hill games in college. We were members of the same wargaming and roleplaying clubs in graduate school before Russell Sipe founded Computer Gaming World magazine. In those clubs, we played a pre-publication version of Tom Cleaver's GALAXY on Cleaver's Apple and we played Chris Crawford's TANKTICS on a TRS-80. The latter used a cassette tape drive and took forever to load. Another friend worked in a law office and had access to one of those old phone in the cradle modems. We played Adventure on the law office's mainframe using that old modem. Later I often spent my days off from pastoring a church by going to Russell Sipe's office and playing games on his Apple. Sometimes, he would give me review copies and I would play them on the Apple computer in a classroom where one of my church members taught. My first reviews were written on a Royal portable typewriter (about as incongruous to the image as William Gibson writing NEUROMANCER on an old upright), but I eventually bought a Vic-20 to become the Commodore columnist for CGW and finally got a used Apple II so I could cover more games. Eventually, Russell hired me to work full-time at the magazine and eventually he let me take creative control of the magazine.

In those days, games were often only ziplock bags with black and white manuals and a 5.25" diskette. The exceptions were high end games from companies like Strategic Simulations, Inc, XOR, Infocom and Britannica Software that could go anywhere from $59.95 TO $99.95. How things have changed.


RDM> Just for the record, I also reviewed tons of games, was editor of several magazines, including the ill-fated Computer Play (mentioned below), PC Games, GamePro and Electronic Entertainment magazines. I started reviewing in about 1981 with The Book of Apple Software, or something like that. I did the reviews for free in exchange for keeping the software. I did some games, and a bunch of other stuff. My first professional review was a dBASE runtime funeral director’s package. After that, it was all easy.

MT> Rusel, you have directly been involved with the game-making process. Please describe your role contributing to Of Light and Darkness by Interplay?
RDM> I knew Gil Bruvel, the artist whose work the game was based on. I was already working on a game concept with him when Brian Fargo heard about it. He hired me and my partner at the time, Alex Uttermann, and together we spent a year and a half working directly with Gil, creating a very complex game and world. However, the process was slow, since Gil was the only artist. Eventually, changes occurred at Interplay and a new producer came on. For some reason, he wanted to get rid of us, and since we were out of house, he succeeded. It was a terrible blow to me. The new producer only lasted a few months before he was canned, but by that time we were out of the loop and our design had been gutted. The resultant game, other than the graphics, bears pretty much no resemblance to the game we designed.

I have also designed many other games, and have had some very close calls getting them funded. However, to date, Light and Darkness is the only published game I can claim a deep involvement with. I’d like to do more.

MT> Game creation has evolved over the years. Originally the industry began with scientists in the laboratory, then hobbyists in their garages, to huge teams in a multi-billion dollar industry? Do you think that this is the end of the development cycle, or do you see another transition in how games are created?
JW> Wine aficionados don't hope for the next Gallo conglomerate and real game aficionados don't really like where we currently are. We need the game industry's equivalent of boutique wineries, small shops where quality is assured and where budgets are more reasonable. The film industry has its indies and the magazine industry has always had its highly vertical maverick titles, but until wireless games become money makers, I'm not sure we can see any real change in development.
RDM> Again, Johnny has expressed my sentiments beautifully. The real story of the game business is innovation. Over and over, it was someone out of left field who changed the course of the genre… people like Miyamoto or Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Carmack and Romero… the list is fairly long, but it will shorten as costs of development force publishers to play it safe and become conservative and corporate. There’s plenty of room for improvement and innovation, still, but it may be slower to appear. Most of what we see today could be classified as “business as usual” with better graphics and faster CPUs.

MT> The book contains a whopping 328 pages. While rather large, this is still relatively small considering that there is so much gaming history to encompass. What possible content had you hoped to squeeze into the publication, but were forced to drop due to size limitations?
JW> There was a section on classic mainframe text adventures that was eviscerated by space considerations and several foreign companies were axed because we are both ugly Americans and boldly eschewed pages that took away from our "core" audience in favor of sucking up to US personalities. That's mostly a joke, but the truth is that when you have a limited number of pages, you have to focus on the material that easiest to come by and, based in the US, this material came fastest. I also wanted to put some more gritty stuff in there like the game companies that performed money laundering for arms merchants, the sex scandals, and the fast-money deals and substance abuse. For some reason, my co-writer and publisher thought that would take away from the games themselves. They seemed to be concerned with something called legal defense, too.
RDM> There were numerous elements we had to cut or could not include. Most of the inside story from Japan is missing, since I simply did not have good access to the innovators in Japan. I was able to track down Dave Rosen, who founded Sega, and Nintendo was very cooperative, allowing me interviews with many key people. I was really disappointed that Square opted not to support the project, and I still hope to be able to convince them to let us include them should we do a revision. European game history also got the short end of the stick, again for space, deadline and budget reasons. As it was, being that this was a full-color book, I had to fight for pages and do some significant squeezing to get what I wanted in there. Also, arcade machines of the late 80s and the 90s… I just couldn’t do it all…

It may also be helpful to realize that my original vision for the book was that the graphics came first. I had no idea, going in, what images I could find, or who I would be able to locate. As it was, I found some elusive geniuses and pored through many a basement, attic and barn to find what I included in the book. When I put it all together, I had nearly 200 CDs full of images. So if I sacrificed something on the text side, it was in order to keep the book as colorful and graphical as possible. I had no intention of competing with books like those from Leonard Hermann or Steve Kent. In my opinion, their excellent work deserves to be read and enjoyed - and High Score! along with them. I hoped that the pictures would spark nostalgic memories for those of us who played the games depicted, and it has proved to be the case. I have had many pleasing moments with people, watching them remember and relive good times with their favorite games as they paged through the book.

MT> I am relatively versed in the history of entertainment history, but even I learned a great deal of new information such as the fact that Philips originated in the Netherlands by creating incandescent lamps. What revelations did you uncover that took you by surprise to learn?
JW> I learned a few new tidbits. I hadn't realized that Aric Wildermunder's parents had owned the name EPYX before Automated Simulations bought it from them. The idea that one of LucasArts' geniuses had parents who were involved on the fringes of the industry long before he was involved intrigued me. I learned a lot about arcade history, especially how much Defender was undervalued before the big show. That blew me away!
RDM> I learned so much that I don’t know where to begin. I got to speak with so many people I admire. I loved the bits and pieces I learned, such as when Silas Warner (Castle Wolfenstein) described how he put pace and rhythm into Castle Wolfentein (one of my all-time favorite early computer games) after watching arcade games. In fact, with each person I interviewed, I heard stories and facts I never knew. I got to spend considerable time with pioneers such as Trip Hawkins, Sid Meier, Will Wright, Ken and Roberta Williams and many, many, many more. By the time I was done, I considered this book not to be a collaboration between me and Johnny, but to be a collaboration between us and all the people we interviewed – and with our publisher, Osborne-McGraw-Hill. They really stood behind this project, particularly Scott Rogers and Roger Stewart. I have a lot of people to be grateful to.

MT> Obviously, High Score! was a collaborative effort. How did the two of you meet and at what point in the relationship did you both decide that it was time to write?
JW> We first met when Rusel became involved with a rather spurious title called Computer Play. Rusel was doing his best to turn it into a reputable publication, but the backers of the publication actually started it because CGW had taken distribution rights away from them and they were not distributing it like they told Rusel they were. Naturally, we disliked Rusel from the start. I expressly disliked him after he wrote a Sim Earth book that split the market with me. The truth is, though, that you can't compete with a person for as long as we competed with each other without gaining a grudging appreciation, nascent admiration and, eventually, a friendship and genuine respect. The truth is that outside of being infatuated with the same woman for a while, Rusel and I are so different that our friendship is as difficult to explain as that between Senators Hatch and Kennedy. I wonder which of us is which? As long as no one calls me Lieberman, I'm okay.
RDM> Johnny’s account of how we met is more or less accurate, except that, from my standpoint, I thought Russell Sipe and Johnny were stuffed shirts and very egotistical. And, although I respected them because they did CGW, they paid so poorly that I never wanted to work for them <grin>. But, as Johnny has said, we gradually came to respect each other, and then Johnny became much nicer, so it was possible to be friends with him… <grin>. Actually, we do have a great respect for each other, and like to kid each other. Truth is, Johnny’s a very good friend.

As for the book, it’s interesting how it evolved. The idea came from Scott Rogers, associate publisher at Osborne/McGraw-Hill. He told my agent about the idea, which was based on a short historical article Johnny had done for CGW. My agent contacted me and I wrote a proposal, which was basically the outline of High Score! Then I contacted Johnny to see if he would like to work with him on it. I appreciated his many years in the business and his friendship.

We worked together, although, not being otherwise employed, I did most of the front work – interviews, graphic scanning, Photoshop and preliminary layout work. Johnny wrote several sections and provided critical screen images. I think it was part-time work for him for a year. For me, it was total immersion. And to think, I thought I could do this book in four months! What was I thinking? Also, I want to thank John Romero, who helped me scan a considerable percentage of his Apple II collection and also helped me find some elusive folks.


MT> Your book correctly disputes the reported rumor that Shigeru Miyamoto's Pikman game was set in his personal garden. The lack of weeds appearing in the game is a dead giveaway of that fact! Gardening is certainly an unusual topic for a videogame. In your experience, what do you consider the oddest topics to appear in gaming?
JW> I liked the European game called Infection that became 7-Up Spot. It had kind of a disease theme until Virgin decided to make it respectable. I thought that early Atari-compatible game where Custer raped the Native American squaws was pretty odd, as was the adult-rated game where you had to seduce all of the alien women to get off the space ship. I thought EL-FISH was pretty silly when I first saw it. I also remember a really goofy "what if" style game where zeppelins had become the dominant form of airship (not MicroProse's and Ikarion's ZEPPELIN, but an actual flight sim style game). Yet, when you think of it, POPULOUS and SIM CITY were rather goofy game ideas when they were first introduced.
RDM> As Johnny said, odd is sometimes difficult to describe, since many of the games we consider classics today seemed odd once upon a time. I agree with Johnny’s choices. I think, along with EL-FISH, I’d say that Little Computer People was an odd concept for its time – yet today, its far more sophisticated counterpart is The Sims. Go figure. The whole evolution of the “signature character,” starting perhaps with Pac-Man and continuing today with various animals playing super-hero roles is odd in itself, but no longer surprising. And any game that is used as an advertising vehicle – there have been several – strikes me as odd. But today, just about anything goes. I’m not sure anything would be odd anymore.

MT> There are numerous success stories contained within the book. Many of the influential people listed worked very hard to reach their goals and dreams. However, the times were turbulent and changing. Who do you think happened to just be in the right place at the right time, and simply got lucky?
JW> I can't think of ANY designers who just got lucky. I can think of several marketers who did. I can think of brilliant people who had bad luck-the guys at Neverhood, Seamus Blackley with the design of Trespasser (which I believe he has overcome), Chris Roberts (who proved a better game designer than CEO), and David Bradley (who got caught in a resources crunch during a major technological shift).
RDM> Even those who were lucky were also very talented and very smart. The pioneers who succeeded were often in the right place at the right time, but they also had a vision and knew how to bring it to fruition. They took the steps to bring their visions to the public. Many of them are still working in the industry today – even some who began in the 70s and 80s. That suggests that their successes were not accidents. For me, it was a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from them all.


GDG recognizes Johnny and Rusel's hard work documenting electronic gaming history and we realize that without their contribution many great stories would never be told and eventually forgotten.

Visit the Osborne Press Hi-Score website

 

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