Why did you end up leaving Atari for Imagic?
RF: It was pure money, pure greed. We felt that we were making things, we were artists, we were authors and we weren't paid like, or feel like, authors at all. We weren't compensated based on how good our work was received. Our name wasn't on any of it. If you're an author they put your name on the book and that's kind of how it works. They weren't doing that and so we left. Basically I wanted my name on my work, that's all.
When I interviewed Manny Gerard, the Warner executive who oversaw Atari, he argued that people like you and the Activision founders were entrepreneurial and even if Atari gave you what you wanted you would have left because entrepreneurial types don't stay in corporate environments.
RF: Well, I think giving me 10 cents per game, that would have been fine. I mean, I was 23 years old at the time, and it's not asking much. But the management didn't know there was a difference between one brand or another. They had no idea that there was anything involved in making these. They just thought games just appeared.
Hence Atari chairman Ray Kassar's comment describing Atari's game designers as "high-strung prima donnas"...
RF: Well we were. We totally were. Isn't every actor or actress? So were The Beatles, so was Michael Jackson. I mean everyone knows Michael Jackson was the ultimate highly strung prima donna. People that create things are kind of whacked-out, highly strung prima donnas. That's kind of how it works, right? You're a writer, aren't you a highly strung prima donna?
RF: That's right, it's no big deal. I remember feeling not insulted at all.
Was it easy for Imagic to get the funding it needed at the time?
RF: I wasn't involved in that. Someone else did that and invited me to the party. My boss he said "I'm leaving, do you want to come with me?" That was basically how it worked. It took me, like, two seconds to say yeah.
Am I right to think that you wrote Demon Attack, Imagic's first release?
RF: Yes, that's right. It was really cool. It was one of the first things I think that really felt like an arcade game. It was modeled after Galaxian. Basically it just looked cool. I learnt some graphic tricks to make things jump out. So it was "Wow, the Atari -- I didn't know it could look like that!" So that was big. It won that year's video game of the year with Billboard magazine. That was a big deal.
How did it feel to be in the industry at that point in the 1980s? It was a massive boom time for games in the U.S.
RF: Games were the thing. If you watch Blade Runner there was Atari in there; they presumed that Atari would be around forever. It should have been. I mean, if ever there was a bungled franchise it was Atari. They had the best brand name of any company. You know, what happened, there's no excuse for that. They just completely screwed it up.
Did you think it would go on forever in the period before the crash?
RF: Of course. Like any hot thing, like the internet, the people who are there, they just assume it's going to go on forever. And, especially when you're young, you can't imagine that anything will change.
So it must have been a shock when the bottom fell out of the market.
RF: Oh yes, it was a total shock. I still haven't gotten over it.
When did you realize that it was all going wrong?
RF: My best friend Michael, who was a reporter for Rolling Stone, realized it at a Consumer Electronics Show when he interviewed this guy. He did the interview with a guy who bought all the games that people weren't buying, a consolidator or whatever. He would buy all the games that the retailers couldn't sell and sell them for a lot cheaper. When they appear, then you know.
Michael talked to this guy and this guy was telling him that he can't believe how much hype there was around the games and how many games he was picking up. That was a leading edge indicator. All the retail stores are pretending that it's all cool, but meanwhile they're selling tons of unsold games to this guy.
That was, to me, the first clue that there is something wrong here. You know, this guy shouldn't be doing such great business. But there were too many games being made by too many companies and there wasn't that much you could do with the Atari system. A lot of kids bought a game, but when you're 12 years old and you spend 50 bucks on a game, it's a lot of money. If it's not great you don't buy another one. It's like a major, major, major purchase -- it's like buying a car.
Definitely, I remember spending weeks and weeks saving up for a game. You'd go buy it, come back and go, "Damn, I picked the wrong one."
RF: Right or you research like crazy or you've got to pick one Christmas present. Music is something you can sample on the radio or iTunes -- you sample it first. How often do you buy music without having heard it? I never do.
When you go buy food at a fair, somebody gives you a little taste. If you like it then you buy it. But video games you've got to play it before you know, and back then you couldn't. People were buying based on the cool thing on the box, and that's not the right way to sell an experience. You can now, finally, download a sample and play it for five minutes. That's how you sell a game.