As a 9-year-old growing up in the 1970’s I was oblivious to the fact that someone actually had to develop the video games I was playing for hours on end. I’m not sure how I thought the games came to be, but I really didn’t care back then. Now, 30 years later, I have the opportunity to interview the man responsible for many of my favorite 70’s and early 80’s arcade games. I am referring to David Crane, who is currently the Chief Technology Officer at Skyworks Interactive, the company behind two of my favorite games for the iPhone and iPod touch—Arcade Hoops and Arcade Bowling.
David is one of the world’s most successful designers of entertainment software and is responsible for award winning video games like Pitfall!, Ghostbusters, A Boy and His Blob, and Amazing Tennis. A founder of Activision in 1979, he has consistently produced superb products, as evidenced by his worldwide sales of over 10 million games and wholesale revenues of nearly 200 million dollars.
In the following interview, David gives us his perspective on game development and what goes into giving us so much video game excitement.
How did you get interested in developing video games?
I trained as an electronic engineer and studied microprocessors from the hardware side. My plan while in college was to learn enough to use microprocessors in the creation of consumer electronic devices, basically any type of high tech gadget. Approaching graduation, I once walked through an arcade and explained to a friend how the “Tank” game did what it did. He looked at me incredulously and asked, “You know how these things work?” To me it was no big deal, but it was clear that not everybody had the level of understanding that I had developed.
My mother had seen to it that I was trained in the arts from an early age, and I was also very much into board games while growing up. (I was the guy the neighborhood kids came to when trying to adjust the rules of a 4-player game for 3 players, etc.) Looking back, the combination of artistic skills, game experience, and a high degree of technical expertise made video game design a perfect fit.
So when I met a guy who worked for this little game company called Atari, and he told me they were hiring, I liked the idea. I heard about the job opening one evening, interviewed for the job at 10 AM the next morning, and received a job offer that afternoon. I honed my skills designing and programming very early games for the Atari 2600.
After a couple of years, Atari lost its focus and I left with some friends to found Activision.
How has the gaming landscape changed from when you founded Activision in 1979?
It really doesn’t matter how advanced the technology becomes, the gaming community pushes the envelope to make the hardware do things its creators never intended. So you study what the machine can do and ask yourself, “How do I make it do something really cool?”
In many ways, this task was harder in 1979. Back then, the game machine had 128 bytes of RAM, a 1.2 MHz processor, and 2K bytes of storage. Today’s machines have 1000 times as much internal memory, processor speeds 200,000 times faster, and 2 million times the storage! Making that limited 1979 machine jump through technical hoops to make hundreds of unique games was the challenge of a lifetime.
Back then, fewer than 50 people in the world could do it. Now the technology is much more helpful.
How do you keep up with the changes in technology and stay on the cutting edge of what is “hot”?
What is “hot” is less important than what is “fun.” I really like new technologies, but they have very little impact on what game I choose to develop. My job is to provide an experience to the game players that they find enjoyable. In most cases, the only reason the hardware is important is that you can’t play my game unless you own the player. That is part of the reason that many of my games can be played in your Web browser. Everybody has one of those.
What prompted you to start developing games for the iPhone instead of other platforms?
These days there are really two types of games: Big console games that take many hours to learn and many more hours to play. And casual games that can be learned instantly and provide a quick, pleasant break from your normal, stressful life. I prefer the casual.
Traditional media focuses on big, console game experiences. When somebody says “video game,” most people think Grand Theft Auto or Madden Football. But far more people spend far more hours playing casual games that can be learned instantly and provide a quick, pleasant break from your normal, stressful life. Ironically, despite the fact that they get less attention, they represent a bigger market.
Smaller games are also easier to make into great games. I can concentrate on the smallest nuance of how the player controls work, and how the ball bounces, etc. I can concentrate on tiny details that nobody notices individually, but when combined, make the game so much more enjoyable.
The casual game is the perfect medium for me to master my craft; and the iPhone is a great casual game platform.
Arcade Hoops and Arcade Bowling are so simple to play and so highly addictive. They literally immerse me in the moment—I feel like I’m at the arcade. How do you achieve this feeling for the user?
The simple answer is that I don’t stop until the game is fun for ME to play. I am a tough audience. I have a lot of experience at this, possibly the most of anyone on the planet. (I have published over 75 complete games—comparable to making 75 films as writer, director, producer, cameraman, and set builder.) So if you like the same things in a game that I do, you will like my games. And most important, you will have fun playing them.
The first half of a game development involves mastering the technology and making it produce the results that I want. The rest is trying out features, looking for the best combination of feel and game play.
With Arcade Bowling, the physics is the key. All the game really needs to do is detect whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and competing games of this type will stop there. However, I obsessed with the code until the ball interacted with every surface of every object on the playfield. Your ball will crash into the metal ring and then slide along its curvature. It will bounce on the top edge of the ring and carom in a different direction. I pride myself on this attention to detail, and that is what gives you the immersive, realistic feel.
Do you plan on using any of your existing games and converting them for iPhone usage or are you trying to come up with new ideas for games that we have yet to experience?
I plan on doing both. I have done many fun games for the casual audience that have never been seen by the iPhone audience. Where appropriate, I will bring a few of these over to this new platform. But I also intend on doing some more edgy games that appeal to a younger audience.
Do you feel the iPhone is limited as a gaming platform because it lacks actual buttons?
Not at all. Skyworks pioneered using the mouse to control browser-based casual games with a motion we call the “fling.” Of course, with the iPhone the finger “fling” is the normal mode of navigation. So we are well suited to use the touch screen in making games. And the iPhone has the accelerometer, something your desktop computer doesn’t. In Arcade Bowling, there is no more delicious thrill than tilting the screen to bend the ball into the hole, knowing that you are on your 9th ball and your game is over unless you hit it.
Apple seems to be positioning the iPhone and iPod Touch to be a competitor with the other handheld gaming devices; do you feel that they will be viable competitors?
The iPhone is a great gaming platform. It is as powerful as the PSP, has the touch screen of the DS, and has an accelerometer. It is the perfect storm in personal electronics. It is nice that your cell phone contains all of your contact information. But since you have to carry it around with you anyway, what could be better than having all of that plus a great handheld game machine? Apple is right to market that feature.
I know that this may be classified information but what games are you working on for the iPhone now?
Over the next few months I will be bringing over some of my favorite casual games that are appropriate to the iPhone, as well release an original title never before seen. But I never talk specifics, and for good reason.
In my 32-year career, I have developed games all the way to finished products, only to decide that they weren’t fun enough to release to the public. Other projects get half completed before I decide that they will never be good enough. It doesn’t happen often, but since it does happen I don’t promise anything that I might not deliver.
One hint, however: We released both Arcade Hoops and Arcade Bowling with only a local high score board. We wanted to get people playing the games. Our global high-score board has been in development the whole time. Look for a revision to add that feature in the not-too-distant future.
What would you change about iPhone gaming in general?
What I hope to see in the near future is for the informed reviewer’s voice to have a greater impact. Apple’s peer review process, rating a game with 1 to 5 stars, has its place. But those ratings are often spoofed by competitors and the average person gives 5 stars for any game they like at the moment, without regard for lasting quality. Then, when they REALLY like a game they can’t give it more than 5 stars.
There are already 10,000 apps in the app store, with more in development every day. Many of those are being developed by 16 year-olds living at home. For professional game development companies to be able to afford to keep making great games, enough people will have to be exposed to the better games to make it into a financially viable business.
Do you feel it is important to have games that are blockbuster hits or do you think that a developer can be successful making smaller less popular games that may develop a cult following?
Blockbuster games are here to stay in the console business, and sadly, those games will continue to be derivative of others. When a game costs $20 million to develop, the investors are going to want some sort of guarantee that they will get their money back. The best way to make that guarantee is to base a new game concept on a big movie or other property, or to make sequel after sequel.
The casual game business doesn’t have the same inertia. It still costs a lot to make a professional game. We have the overhead of 2D and 3D artists, sound effects development, music composition, game programming, system programming, and QA (Quality Assurance). But the risk is a fraction of the blockbuster game budget. So experimentation is possible.
The idea is not to search for a cult following, but to expand the boundaries of gaming. Some risks are rewarded. My game Pitfall!, while before the time of most of your readers, was the first “platform” style game. (That is, a game in which an on-screen player runs and jumps around the screen collecting treasures and participating in an adventure.) The platform game genre spawned more than 1000 imitators. So what began as an original concept—different from all existing concepts—became a blockbuster.
Casual games, like the current wave of iPhone games, will likely be the source of the next wave of innovation. Some of those will become the next blockbuster games.
David, again thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your games and development process. I really love your games and look forward to what you have in store for us next.
Tom, I am happy to contribute. Hopefully your readers will find the look into the development process informative.