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The Right to Baer Games - An Interview with Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games
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The Right to Baer Games - An Interview with Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games

March 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next
 

GS: Until very recently, people have considered video games to be mostly for kids. What I want to know is, when you first created the games, were you developing them with an audience of kids or adults in mind?

RB: No. Shooting at the screen is fun for anybody up to the age a hundred and twenty-two. And besides, if you remember, they were all two-player games to begin with, so it's a matter of family interaction: father and son, mother-daughter, mother and son.

GS: So from the very beginning, it was a multi-generational...

RB: Yeah, because who watches television? The family watches television, right? So the idea was a family game without it even being defined that way.

Now that you mention it, I never spoke of it that way. It was just the natural thing, because who watched television sets? It wasn't fourteen year-old Johnny in his bedroom with his personal television set, because hell no, we were lucky to have one goddamn set in the household, right? So it was a family affair. So the games [were designed that way] in my mind even without thinking about [them being] family games.

GS: Did your kids know what you were doing in the '60s with your video games?

RB: Yes, towards the end when we had more and more finished models, I often took the stuff home to do troubleshooting on it -- another big no-no in a military company. "Don't take anything home! It's classified." Not only did I do that, but I sometimes brought the technician into my lab at home. I had him work at home. That was an even bigger no-no. But what people didn't know didn't hurt 'em. [Chuckles]

GS: Did your kids like the games that you were doing?

RB: Yeah. We played games downstairs in my lab, and the kids played them. They thought it was pretty neat. I don't think I detected any great enthusiasm.

GS: Do you think they influenced your designs at all?

RB: No, not at all. Not in the least.

GS: Did any of your kids take after you in becoming engineers?

RB: My oldest son is an engineer. He puts very fancy electro-optics loads into satellites. If you remember last year, a satellite was launched with a payload that impacted on a meteorite up there. His optics were both in the impact vehicle and up above. So he's a good engineer; very talented guy, fairly imaginative. But nowhere near what I do.

My middle guy is Assistant Attorney General in Salt Lake City. My daughter's pretty creative, an artistic type. But we're all very different. And none of us are really game players. I'm not a game player. I love making games because I love to be able to come up with a design. A concept or a design...

GS: You like the creative process.

RB: I like the creative process. I'm like a painter, you know -- a portrait painter or...an artistic painter. And really, what I do is an art form. The engineering part is a part of it. But after you've done fifty-thousand different things, most of what you do is a combination of what you've already done seventeen times before. But the concept of a game -- that's always new; it's always fresh. I love to do that stuff.

GS: Do you have a favorite video game even though you're not a game player?

RB: I don't play. Recently, one of my grandsons brought an Xbox with him, and we played a race game. Well, I couldn't manage that damn thumb joystick. I was always hitting the walls. I couldn't steer the car worth a damn. After about fifteen minutes, I said "Forget it , I've had enough." [Laughs]

More recently, somebody played a PS2 game with me -- some kind of a game where you sail some kind of a boat. And I was always hitting the docks and the obstacles -- just couldn't really control the stuff. At this age, my reflexes are much too slow. My eyeballs don't work as well as they used to, so I can't play those games.

GS: Well did you ever enjoy playing them in the past, like in the Atari days?

RB: Oh, I did in the beginning -- certainly, I did. You know also, the early Atari -- if you remember reading my book, I built an attachment, Kid Vid, that plugged into the Atari 2600, which the 2600 turned off and on under program control, so that for the first time in the history of humanity, you had real music, you know, and real voices coming off a tape under control of the computer, the Atari machine. You know, I loved playing games on that machine.

Once that period was over...Nintendo? I only played on Nintendo because, right from the bat, it infringed sixteen ways to Sunday. Including...do you remember Robby [R.O.B. -Ed.], the little robot that came with it, or are you too young?

GS: Yeah, I remember it.

RB: What did Robby do? It looked at the screen, 3-4 feet away, and took commands -- optical commands -- off the screen, and then raised his arm, lowered his arm, turned his head, depending upon.... Well, I had an issued patent for...

GS: The video modem?

RB: Well, it was similar to the original video modem, yeah. They infringed. Did we go after them? No point to it because there was not enough money involved to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile, they built games that infringed, so we went after them. Eventually, they started to settle, then didn't; decided to sue us. [They] got that sharp law firm in New York to sue us for misinforming the patent office, which is a Federal offence. But they couldn't prove it in Federal court in New York, and they lost, and then after that they settled for some nominal sum like ten or twelve million bucks.

GS: And that's when they brought up that Willy Higinbotham thing?

RB: Yeah, that's when they used Higinbotham as a witness. What did Higinbotham do? He put a creative little game on an oscilloscope. Any number of engineers did that before him and after him, including me. And it was just something that's natural, ya know.

The old oscilloscopes were very tractable in that respect because they had an accessible y-axis, which is typical to any scope, but also an accessible x-axis. Nowadays, in most scopes, the x-axis is controlled by internal sweep generators that make you go across the screen and...one microsecond, ten microseconds, a millisecond, and all that. But on the old scopes, you could also move the spot horizontally, so you basically had an x,y display...

GS: You could just point it to wherever you wanted it to go on the screen.

RB: ...so it was only natural for us to play games with that stuff. Not only did [Higinbotham] play a game on the scope, but he played it on a DuMont scope, which was the identical scope I had in my lab at home. 'Cause that's all there was at the time. And then he had, at his disposal, analog computers that cost a hundred-thousand bucks in those days, which is what he did all his work on.

So he had all the tools, he had the scope, and what he did was very interesting and was ingeniously designed, and it was a lot of fun. So, did he think of making a product out of it? Did he think of it as something he could play on a television set? None of the above. And the judge, of course, recognized all that: he said, "Ah, this is bullshit." Meanwhile, he got on the map, right? Nobody had ever heard of him before.


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