Interview: Seamus Blackley's new team of Atari coin-op superstars aim for iPad
Imagine if the creators of classic arcade games like Asteroids
got together and decided to start making games for iPad. You'd have to wonder how their "old school" mindsets would translate to perhaps the most dynamic gaming platform our there.
Soon, we won't have to wonder, because a new L.A.-based video game company, led by former Xbox man Seamus Blackley, is combining the talents of 11 Atari (the original
Atari) development superstars who will make games for Apple's tablet under publisher THQ.
Called Innovative Leisure, the team is made up of the creators and co-creators of some of the most recognizable video games of all time: Dennis Koble (Sprint 2
), Rich Adam (Missile Command
), Ed Logg (Asteroids
), Lyle Rains (Tank
), Bruce Merritt (Black Widow
), Tim Skelly (Rip-Off
), Owen Rubin (Major Havoc
), Ed Rotberg (Battlezone
), Bob Smith (Tanktics
) and Rob Zdybel (RealSports Football
Author and Innovative Leisure partner Van Burnham laid the groundwork for the new venture when she was writing the book Supercade: A Visual History of the Video Game Age 1971-1984
. During her research, she built a relationship with this core group of Atari coin-op designers.
Those relationships continued even following the release of the book. "They were such great guys, even beside the research that I was doing," Burnham said. "I just like them all so much personally. They're really creative, good guys."
Blackley and Burnham later found themselves at the Gonzo Invitational, an invitation-only golf tournament for Atari alumni, hosted by Battlezone
creator Ed Rotberg every year in Nevada City.
"All the guys were there -- some I had met, some that I hadn't," said Burnham. "We didn't realize until we went to that event, just how close of a friendship they had all maintained over all these years."
"It became so apparent that they were such a close-knit group," she added. "It was really tremendous to see the relationships hold out over so much turmoil in the game industry. They all went their separate ways ... but they've all maintained this friendship."
The new arcade
Meanwhile, Burnham saw plenty of potential in iOS as a gaming platform, as Apple's mobile devices matured. She and Blackley, an industry veteran in his own right, found themselves playing a lot of iPhone and iPad games. There was something special there.
"This is like the new arcade," Burnham said. "The whole dynamic of this business and the dynamic of the gameplay. It's just like the arcade era, except on this amazing new platform. Seamus said, 'Let's talk to the guys and get the band back together to see if they want to make games for this platform.'"
The band did get back together. And with the help of several interns from USC's game program, the old schoolers are applying their deep design experience (which they refer to as "geezerdom") to creating new, original games, while the young developers bring their knowledge of the modern games market to the table.
Blackley said that seeing these veteran developers work (the studio is totally virtualized) is fascinating. "Being given all these tools and debuggers and stuff, they sort of laugh at it," he said. For the designers at Innovative Leisure, such things are an incredible luxury.
"Developers today become a slave to those tools," Blackley said. "If Ed Rotberg thinks that something is [running] too slow, he'll just rewrite a whole part of Unity, because that's what you had to do. It's kind of a lost art. It's insanely fun to see, frickin' fantastic, actually."
Back when these Atari designers were making coin-op games, they didn't have the luxuries of today's marketplace, either. Nothing went "viral" on the internet. And unlike today's world of derivative and clone games, back then, designers mostly had to come up with their own ideas -- simply because there wasn't much out there to copy. And when a game had the quality, it was then word of mouth that dictated a game's success.
"Games lived or died by word of mouth. That terrifies the game industry now, but it's what the industry was then," said Blackley.
"They've been through the shit," added Burnham, "and know how to come out the other side with a great game."
Blackley recollected an old story in which Owen Rubin, creator of Major Havoc
, got upset with Ed Rotberg because there was a volcano in Battlezone
that didn't erupt. "So one morning," Blackley explained, "after giving him crap for weeks, he printed out code for how to make the volcano erupt, and left it on [Rotberg's] chair. That's the kind of guys they are."
And that's how Blackley and Burnham said Innovative Leisure will operate. The culture that these men created at Atari was one in which they would "beat the crap" out of each other's games, and critique and tweak them, constantly. That collaborative culture, said Blackley, will translate to today. "It's like this crazy, brutal meritocracy of social engineering and good-natured ribbing," he said.
While some are semi-retired, all have remained active in the video game industry in some capacity, and their minds still can't help but break games down analytically. Following a recent Time photo shoot
, the core members of the team were all sitting around playing Limbo
, said Blackley. Watching the game, they would pick it apart: "That jump hangtime's too low" or, "I think he's computing after the button press there, they should compute ahead of the button." Blackley said, "All these guys with insane amounts of experience were totally switched on."
Burnham said, "The beautiful thing to see is that they all still harbored this desire to work together again. That was what they really wanted to do."
According to Blackley, the team initially came up with about 35 ideas, then killed all but 10, and THQ liked them all. Then that amount came down to seven, and those games have evolved as prototyping continues.
An ailing publisher
It's an exciting venture, but for anyone who's been following THQ, there is reason for concern, as the company has made major cuts to its headcount and realigned its ailing publishing business.
"They killed their digital division, and thought that this would be an interesting way to start it up again, which I agree with. They're going through 17 kinds of hell," said Blackley. "They're hanging tough with us, which is awesome. I love a comeback, a struggle."
Games will come out "when they're done," said Blackley, but he thinks late summer or fall is a reasonable expectation to begin to see the first games hit the App Store. Pricing or business models aren't decided as of yet, but Blackley said gameplay will drive all decisions. The games may come to other mobiles, but iPad is the lead platform.
Until the games release, the designers at Innovative Leisure will be breaking down and fiddling with their games until they're satisfied. "We call ourselves the 'Temple of Tweak,'" said Blackley.