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[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, 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 legendary Pitfall! developer David Crane.]
In the latest in our series of interviews conducted by Tristan Donovan for his book Replay: The History of Video Games, the author catches up with Activision co-founder David Crane.
Crane's career dates back to 1977 and the list of the games he has made is just as long. Some of his best known include the Atari VCS2600 classic Pitfall!, Ghostbusters, Little Computer People, and fondly remembered NES game A Boy and His Blob. He was also involved in creating the controversial Night Trap.
In the interview, Crane discusses his time at Atari, the formation of Activision, the original third-party publisher, the evolution of game development and what he has in common with Charles Shultz.
When did you join Atari?
David Crane: I joined in the fall of 1977. I was playing tennis with Alan Miller when he let me know he had been tasked with finding game programmers for Atari. It sounded more interesting than working in the integrated circuit design group at National Semiconductor.
One night after tennis, Al asked me to proofread the newspaper ad he had written for attracting game designers. I liked what I read. I went into National that night, wrote up a resume on a computer that I had designed and built, interviewed the next morning at 10am, and had the job by 2pm.
Had you made games before?
DC: I had designed games all my life. I was the kid in the neighbourhood who was asked to modify the rules of a four-player board game to work for three players, etc. In college I designed an unbeatable Tic-Tac-Toe-playing computer that still works today. It used 72 discrete integrated circuits wire-wrapped together and a unique display based on polarized light.
Which of your Atari games are you most proud of?
DC: In the early days we were asked to make home versions of Atari's popular arcade games. That can be a big challenge when you consider that an arcade game was a $4,000 video computing system with a lot of memory and computing power. The $150 VCS 2600 was weak and tiny in comparison.
Despite the limitations, I made a home version of Canyon Bomber and Depth Charge in a single 2Kb VCS cartridge: the height of elegance in the porting of arcade games.
How has the nature of game development changed since then?
DC: Game design in that era was extremely technical. You didn't actually design a game and then implement it on the hardware. You figured out what the hardware could do and then worked that into something fun.
So, with the game development process working bottom up rather than top down, there was no way for management to tell the programmers what to do. Those of us who thrived in that environment had both left- and right-brain skills. We could be very creative and very technical at the same time, and that turned out to be a rare skill set.
As games got more complex long after Atari, those of us who had proven themselves in a one-man, one-game environment became project leaders. George Lucas could make a movie all by himself - operate the camera, block the shots, edit the film, etc. - but he makes better films by using specialists with a singular focus on their individual tasks.
In the same way, while I can draw pixels, there are many artists who can do better. Same with sound effects, music, etc. Game development became more specialized as projects became larger, and teams grew up to do what we used to do completely by ourselves.
By the end of the 1970s, many of Atari's game programmers were getting fed up with the lack of recognition for their work. What was the cause?
DC: The frustration began when Atari refused to pay a bonus program that was believed to be in place. Our department manager had negotiated a small royalty based on unit sales, and when he later asked about that he was told "What royalty?". To stop the grumbling, managers went through and gave raises to key employees, but a line had been crossed when the company started to break promises to its valuable employees.
And that led you to co-found Activision…
DC: The pivotal event in the process can be traced to a memo from Atari's product marketing group. This was a one-page list of the top 20 selling cartridges from the previous year, with their percent of sales. The purpose of the memo was the hint: "These type of games are selling the best. Do more like these."
But this memo also showed us whose games did well, not just the game type. We noticed that four of the designers in a department of 30 were responsible for over 60% of the sales. And since we knew that Atari's cartridge sales for the prior year was $100 million, it was a shock to know that four guys making $30k per year made the company $60 million. That will get anyone thinking about a piece of the pie.
The four of us took this little sales statistic up to the then company president, Ray Kassar. Our point was that the statistics showed we must be doing something better than others. Since a game is a creative product, it is possible that one person is more creative than another and therefore should be compensated accordingly.
We were told: 'You are no more important to Atari than the guy on the assembly line who puts them together. Without him we have no sales either.' We were gone within days of that meeting.
Manny Gerard, the Warner executive in charge of Atari at the time, believes it would have made no difference if Kassar did what you wanted. His argument is that entrepreneurially-minded staff would have left anyway in reaction to Atari getting bigger and more corporate.
DC: Manny might have a point. While you will lose employees by treating them unfairly, it doesn't necessarily follow that treating them well will keep them. But Atari could have provided the compensation and public recognition that I got from Activision. If they had done that on that day, and not done me the favour of driving me away, I would probably still be there.