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How do you get going in the morning?

 

On this side of the pond the presidential primaries are in full swing. Thinking back on the last couple of elections over here you can see there are more and more electronic vote collection machines in use and there are also more and more allegations of election fraud as well. I think fraud is a strong term. It sounds more to me like someone is simply hacking the level to increase the stats for their virtual candidate. It’s not so much an election anymore; it’s more like Second “Political” Life, the biggest MMORPG in the world. Where’s that reset button. . .

Think about it and we’ll come back to that in a moment.

As with any invention, people do the obvious with it and shortly thereafter they start to discover the unanticipated uses. That’s when the real fun begins.

When Video Games were invented they underwent the same evolution. At first they were simply a new kind of game and people used them for fun, personal challenge, party entertainment, as a medium for competition or interaction and just to pass the time. However, after a while other new and unanticipated uses started to emerge, uses like developing hand eye coordination and dexterity training, or as convalescent aids for stroke victims. They were adopted as training tools for pilots, tank commanders and psychics. That’s what the public at large did with video games.

But what did the video game makers do with the games? As creative engineers we don’t just invent new things, we also use existing things in new ways, we explore their capacities and find innovative implementations for existing technology.

We were already adapting our environment in unanticipated ways. Like turning the hallways into bocce courts (with a few lemons and a joystick), walking on the walls as if they were floors (remind me to tell you the “sprinkler lobotomy” story) and one of our favorite pastimes was turning the parking lot into a demolition derby with our brand new remote control model cars (last one still moving under it’s own power wins)! And oh yes, I mustn’t forget turning our offices into smoke filled dens of iniquity.

That’s what we do, turn old things into new toys. So what did we do with our games besides play them? Let me share a few moments with you. . .

One thing we did was use the games as decision makers. Like the time there was a dispute over who was going to do the coin-op conversion of Breakout for the VCS. Who wouldn’t want to do Breakout on the 2600? I mean of all the games in the world it’s just about the easiest to do on that hardware and you can’t say that about many coin-op games to be sure. And it’s a great game to boot, so simple and so compelling. So there was a bit of “Me,” “No, me,” “NO, ME!!!” and that’s when the boss man simply said “Enough already. Go to the arcade and play Breakout. One game each. Hi score gets to do the title.” How perfect is that?

When I think about those remote controlled cars we used to smash up in the parking lot I think of how revolutionary the wireless remote was at that time. Radio control wasn’t completely new, but remotes that were smaller than a breadbox were pretty innovative. Wireless phones hadn’t yet arrived and the main console controller of the day had one four-way switch and one button. My first wireless controller was actually 20 years before the VCS. It was a fan whose air stream controlled a balloon and made it fly around the room. When I was 5 years old this was the coolest toy ever, it never occurred to me to think of it as a wireless remote control. Now I can take my Wiimote and control a beautifully colored balloon and fly it out of my living room and around the world. I think that’s the coolest toy ever.

Then there was the time when George Kiss (the director of the VCS software department) was due for his performance evaluation and raise. The VP of Software at the time was Larry Kaplan, yes the Larry Kaplan. Kaboom Larry Kaplan. Left-Atari-to-form-Activision Larry Kaplan. After his years at Activision he came back to Atari where he was planning on developing a new hardware platform, at least that’s what he was promised. Upon his return however, they gave him the old “just one thing before we start that new platform. . .” and he wound up stuck as a VP of Software (which was essentially a professional meeting attendee) and not Larry’s cup of tea by any means. You see, Larry is a very cool guy. Way too cool to enjoy sitting around in meetings talking about development instead of doing development. But Larry still brought coolness to the VP position. One example was the way he did George’s new compensation package. Larry said to George, “You’re doing fine here so I’m going to give you a choice. You can either take $xxxxx as your raise, or you can play one game of Defender and your final score will be your new salary. What do you say, George?”

What would you say?

I’ll tell you what George said: “Let’s play Defender.” And he got an excellent score and Larry actually made that his salary. That was what it was like to work at Atari.

Games weren’t just executive decision makers to us, they also became rituals. We had ways of team playing, even in single player. They became obsessive elements to us also. Sometimes you would walk into the game room and not be able to leave until a certain goal or score was achieved. For me personally, I had my own daily ritual: my video triathlon. Every morning when I first got to work I went straight to the game room and didn’t come out until I got over 100,000 points on Defender, Robotron and Millipede. Sometimes I was at my desk within a half hour. Sometimes I had to go to lunch by the time I was done. It didn’t really matter since I knew I would be there past midnight usually. What mattered was that I had to know my skills were on before I sat down to program. That was my eye opener. My ritual. I needed that start to my day.

I don’t drink coffee. I play video games.

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