The programmers behind your favourite video games and why their stories matter
Patrick Hickey Jnr interviewed more than 30 developers responsible for some of the most famous, and infamous, video games ever made for a new book that reveals the passion, politics and struggle that shaped each title
Games are more than just fun and games, Patrick Hickey Jnr will tell you.
For The Minds Behind the Games, the journalism professor and gaming reporter interviewed more than 30 developers behind classic video games that shaped the industry.
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From Mortal Kombat to E.T., the book covers games that were financial successes as well as those that were critical failures. At the same time, it offers personal accounts of video game development that reveal the struggles that go into creating the final product.
We talked to Hickey about what he learned about the development of games from writing this book and picked his brain on the industry’s past, present and future.
Why did you decide to write a book about video games from the programmers’ perspective?
I thought that there were too many video game books that were written from the point of view of a researcher. But none of these books featured direct quotations from the creator. They’re not as in-depth and behind the scenes as I think hardcore gamers would like them to be or even a casual reader that knows nothing about the video game industry.
So I decided to go out and find a lot of these people and talk about how the game affected their lives. There’s a lot of crazy stories in there. People don’t necessarily equate that type of struggle to video games and they think it’s all fun and games, but there’s so much humanity and so much passion and so much perseverance behind the creation of a video game. It’s almost more so than any piece of art that you could think of. So I wanted to really capture that.
You didn’t just capture the stories behind the video games that were considered financial successes but also those that were flops. Why was that?
I wanted to capture some of the successes as well as some of the failures because I feel they all had an impact one way or another on the industry. Two of the biggest failures in the industry’s history are featured in this book.
Night Trap is considered one of the worst games of all time but it’s basically because the game should’ve came out in 1985 or 1986 when it would have been completely state of the art. Instead it came out in 1992 and by then no one cared about it. And the game had such a bad reputation that the girlfriend of one of the creators of the game left him. And he was almost blacklisted from the industry.
So he wanted to make something so cute to follow up Night Trap so no one would ever remember it. He ended up creating Cats and Dogs, which is like the first pet simulator. I think that’s a story that needs to be told.
In terms of E.T., its failure isn’t just the failure of the game but it also played a huge part in Atari’s failure as a company. They really hurt their best programmer at the time, Howard Scott Warshaw.
This is a guy who made two games that sold over a million copies. He was a complete rock star. And even though E.T. was considered a huge failure it still sold over a million copies, so the guy has the best range of any video game developer of all time.
Having done all these interviews, what are some misconceptions you think people have about the video game development process?
We think of the creation of video games as someone saying like, “Oh, oh, I have an idea. And it’s going to be this.” And then the game gets made like that. That’s absolutely not how it happens. Sure, there may be that light bulb moment. But the games end up going through a process of fine tuning with what works, changing what doesn’t work.
What’s a common trait that you see in the development of those games that do have a ripple effect in the industry?
With all these games, every single one, they needed somebody else to come in and be like “All right, this sucks” or “Oh, this is great” because these guys and women were so attached to their projects.
In the case of pretty much all of these games the idea behind the original game was awesome. But then there were three or four other moments where they kind of separated themselves from their connection to the game.
There’s so much emotion tied up into this. Kids play video games and it’s all fun and it’s silly but this is a hardcore business built on passion. There’s politics involved. It’s so much more than fun and games.
Since you mentioned “guys and women” developers, there’s a perception some have that men created the gaming industry and are ultimately the target audience. How accurate is that?
I wouldn’t say that that’s accurate at all. For some reason, men gravitated more in the beginning of the industry. Dona Bailey was like the only woman that was a programmer for Atari in the early ’80s. She programmed Centipede.
The thing is it’s kind of a microcosm of real life that women didn’t have the same opportunities as men. I feel now there are so many opportunities for females in the video game industry to play, to create. I think great video game companies don’t care if you’re a man or a woman now. Is it harder for a woman? I think so.
There’s been talk about a potential looming crash in the industry. Do you think that’s possible?
There has been a ton of remakes in the past couple of years. And that scares the crap out of me because there’s so much originality in the indie scene. And it’s scary to me that developers won’t take the chances that people on the indie scene will.
Could there be another crash down the line? Absolutely. If they just rest on their laurels and they don’t create new work. And if they’re just reinventing and rehashing the stuff that they’ve already done, then you’re going to have problems.
Video game companies need to understand that people will spend money but that there needs to be more value. Things like micro transactions in console games have the power to completely kill the industry. It’s a way video game companies can make a quick buck but it’s also a way that you can turn away gamers.
Now that you’ve finished this book, what’s next for you?
I’ve been working on a book on pro wrestling that’s basically about the emotional and physical trials and tribulations that somebody has to go through in order to be a professional wrestler. How do you go from a little kid that likes to watch wrestling to somebody that actually travels three hundred days a year and [suffers] the toll on your body and the toll on your soul? And I’ve been working with a Bronx-based wrestling promoter called Battle Club Pro preparing to write the book.
And then after that book is finished I’m probably going to go back and write the sequel to The Minds Behind the Games. I’ll also finish up Padre [a video game Hickey is doing audio for]. I have seven issues of a comic book that I wrote a while ago that I’ve never been able to find an artist on. So one day I’d like to do that. I’m going to constantly be doing cool stuff for the rest of my life.