[In his video game history book Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with Demon Attack, Petz, and Night Trap developer Rob Fulop.]
Rob Fulop started his 32-year career in games at Atari recreating coin-op hits like Space Invaders for the VCS 2600. He went on to co-found the game publisher Imagic, and through it delivered a smash hit with his 1982 game Demon Attack, only to see the company felled by the U.S. game industry crash of the 1980s.
Since then he has produced one of the earliest online games, devised the first popular virtual pet game, and designed the infamous Night Trap.
In this interview, Fulop talks about why Atari chairman Ray Kassar was right to call him a "high-strung prima donna", why you can't be bingo, and why he always consults with Santa.
How did you end up making games?
Rob Fulop: Well, I've made games my whole life. I was making them when I was a kid. I would make up board games with checkers.
We had a toy called Carrom. It was a board with four pockets and with a big bunch of rings. The system was capable of playing a thousand games. You could play checkers or chess with it, you could play pool, you could play a million games with this thing. Snakes and ladders, whatever. So basically I just made up games for years.
The Carrom set, it really entertained me for my whole childhood. So I invented games. I made a little mini-golf course out of cardboard boxes. I've just been making games forever. So Atari was a very natural place for me to go. It was a no brainer.
Did it seem logical to start making games on a computer?
RF: Very logical. I found computers when I was 16 years old at our high school. They brought in a terminal that showed us what a computer did. The first thing we did was to start making things like tic-tac-toe. So when computer games came out, to me it was just, "Okay, that makes sense." I didn't expect them to go boom. That was never expected, but to me it was completely natural.
That's interesting. Most of the American game designers of your generation I speak to seem to have had access to computer terminals at school, whereas computers didn't really make it into many UK schools until later. Was it some kind of government push?
RF: I don't know. We had hooked up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, which was a local technology museum, and they put terminals in every school. Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers? It's a book about talent and where talent comes from. Basically they traced the background of technological geniuses and they are all guys who had access to the tools when they were young. Not that I'm a technology genius! But I certainly got real joy from some of the stuff like that. I was lucky I got to play on a computer terminal when I was 15, 16.
So what was Atari like to work for?
RF: It was wild, it was wide open. They'd say 'make a game, any game'. It was really weird given how much control there is now and how much you have to write the whole spec.
At lunchtime people would go around and play other people's games. If more people were playing your game, the man would say 'okay, invest more in that one'. That was literally how it worked. There was no structure at all. But if you didn't make a game in a year or so they would kind of ask you to leave.
How do you make a game under those circumstances where you just experiment and see if it sticks?
RF: You typically start off by copying a game. If you look at my history, my first three or four games were copies of arcade games. Like Night Driver, which is a driving game where, basically, it's 12 dots coming at you. I did Missile Command, Space Invaders. These are not mine. I didn't invent these games. I didn't try to write an original game.
After never having made a video game it's crazy; I didn't think I could do it. So you copy someone else's game and then you start modifying it. You start changing stuff around or combine two different games to make a new game.
There was a game called Zap, it was in an arcade, where something in the middle would shoot balls four different ways and you had to block them. It was a reflex game. We turned that into a spaceship and made it into a science fiction-themed game. So you re-theme it, re-purpose it.
We found, after five years or so, that there were literally five or six basic games and they're based on things that we like to do. Going fast is a basic game that people like to do -- they like to go real fast. So you'd see that game a million times. You still see and it's fun.
There's something in movies called a premise of a film and it's like this if you boil it all down. Star Wars, the premise is good conquers evil. Any movie about a gangster is "crime doesn't pay." At the end the guy gets blown away. That's how it ends in every bad guy movie, he dies at the end.
So games -- they have the go fast, the kill everything. There's the genre of games like adventure games and World of Warcraft: treasure hunt. It's basically "find the treasure." You find the door is locked, go find the key, open it and now you get the treasure. So there's treasure hunt and then you combine them, you have treasure hunt where you kill everything or treasure hunt where you go fast.
It's a bit like fiction, that idea that there are only seven stories that can be told…
RF: That's exactly right. The other one is Pac-Man. The fun thing about Pac-Man, the exciting moment of Pac-Man is when you eat the power pill and you become the aggressor. So you're running and running away and then you eat this thing and now you're chasing them -- you turn the tables. You swap the tables around; you go from being pursued to being the pursuer. It resonates with so many people.