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Choplifter: From 1982 to 2012
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Choplifter: From 1982 to 2012

January 13, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

I did want to talk to you a little bit about Brøderbund. I've learned more about the '80s, and the way games were designed back then. Will Wright spoke at the Game Developers Conference, for example, and he was talking about Raid on Bungeling Bay. It was exactly how you described. You send it to Brøderbund, they fly you out, and all of a sudden you're a game maker. Is that how the environment was back then?

DG: Yeah, it definitely was. Well, they were making games for the Atari 400 and 800, and that was a fairly successful market, and the Apple was a fairly successful market. That was when you could buy games in a computer store. You'd go in and they'd have a little rack of games in baggies. There were no high end boxes, or high end artwork, or any of that kind of thing. You'd open up your little baggie and there'd be a single sheet of paper, and a floppy disk, and that was the game.

I had never played any of those games -- I still don't play games. I'm not a game player. I love the game of making games, but I'm not a gamer, personally, so I'd never actually played games at the time, but it just seemed like a fun project. so I took it on.

And Brøderbund was Doug and Gary [Carlston] and Cathy [Carlston Brisbois]. They're all the children of a minister. They're really, really nice people. They're having a lot of fun with what they're doing, they're smart -- Doug had just come out of Harvard -- and they're just a fun group of people.

So the way they did it was, they'd see something that was like, it'd have promise, and they'd sort of engulf you with family love. It was a very nurturing environment. If you fly out, a lot of the guys would stay at Doug's house. Doug had like three huge dogs, and this huge house in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.

For a lot of the guys, he was kind of a father figure, really. And I noticed a lot of the successful software companies, they all had some sort of weird father or mother-like element in it. Somebody who really loved the programmers, and treated them with respect, and loved the games, and made everybody feel useful and happy. It was a great environment.

Actually, the Choplifter contract was -- it's a joke to look back at it now. It's like two pieces of paper, where they signed a huge royalty percentage -- which, at the time, they were just being really generous. And people thought they were being insane. But whenever we revised the contract, they always honored it. I always did whatever it was I was supposed to do.

It was an honest group of people, and as the company grew, it meant... that a company can maintain that environment. Whoever's in charge of a company's going to set the tone for the way the company winds up behaving, and for the most part, Brøderbund people are just a great place to work for. There's a real family environment, and nurturing environment. And then it all ended, as good things always do.

It sounds like when you started Choplifter, it was just the programmer in you just kind of screwing around. But was there a point where you realized like, "Hey, this might be a commercial product"?

DG: Oh yeah. I mean, I told my wife at the time, I said, "I think I can make some money doing this." She's like, "Sure, whatever." She was an executive at Atlantic Richfield. She was like an oil company magnate kind of person. So I just quit my job. She had a perfectly good job. It was just the two of us, and I played with it for six months, and then I made some money.

I had a sense that I could make some money, because of the people who were doing it. No more, no less than anyone who is getting started today. You look at the market and go, "Hey, maybe I'll make some money."

The success of Choplifter surprised me. It was clear at the early trade shows. I don't know if you remember back then -- you were probably pretty young -- but the kids used to come to the trade shows, like the computer conventions, and you could put a game out running on an Apple II, and the kids would line up to play it.

And the first trade show where Choplifter was shown was, I think, at CES, probably. The kids were lined up around the block. So it was clear that this was going to be successful, but nobody had any idea how successful. It just sort of was one of those phenomenons.

A lot of us at Brøderbund were going, "Yeah, this is going to work out pretty well," but you never know until things until the rubber hits the road.

Choplifter came out in 1982. I always thought it was pretty unorthodox to have a game that early on that wasn't really a high score game. You were judged on other attributes. Was that an intentional way of differentiating yourself, or was that possibly just a product of you really not being much of a gamer yourself?

DG: I think it's both, really. I knew that games had high scores. I had played a couple games. I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but it was obvious that that was part of the genre. But even then, I was 28. I wasn't a kid, so I remember thinking, "In entertainment, if it's good, novelty is always going to be worth something."

Just changing things around just to mess people up isn't going to translate to sales, but if you've got an idea that's better, it's to your advantage if it doesn't quite work the way other things work. Because if there's a way that it's going to stand out...

And I never was the least bit interested in scoring anything. To me, the only thing that was interesting, when I finally got these men in there running around and stuff, it's like, "Well, let's see how many we can rescue." But it's like, God, I didn't care how many planes I killed. I didn't care how many tanks I killed. I could care less about that stuff.

So to me, it just wasn't interesting. It was boring to try and score anything. That makes this an interesting human environment. It makes it a community. Oh, I'm trying to be a useful part of the community. I want to help people. Even today, it's hard for me to imagine why people love games where the idea is to just blow things up. I get bored with those in about 10 seconds, personally.

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