How did you get interested in computers and gaming?
In the 6th grade we played Avalon Hill games and Diplomacy for history. I became addicted to war games and started subscribing to Strategy and Tactics and military magazines. I designed several war games (Global Conquest, LunarCity, and The PentaLegions), and I correspondeded with other game designers like Gary Gygax (who developed D&D) and a fellow who had me game test Conquest, a chess-like 2-4 player game played on a board or through the mail. I also started to become an avid chess player (now ranked a USCF Chess Master).
The high school hooked up to a Texas Instruments mini-computer and started a computer class. I was too young to take the classes (you had to be in 10th grade), so I hung out in the computer room and taught myself BASIC. A man (David Ahl, editor of Creative Computing, the nation’s #1 PC magazine in the 1970s) in Westchester County (one county over) started having computer lectures and fairs once a month, which I attended and prepared simulations and easy single-player games for that ran via a yellow paper terminal (no monitors back then).
The interest in computers led me to teach the high school computer course. The computer teacher was also a math teacher and taught computers through math solving so the principal asked me to teach real-world computing (searching, sorting, simulations, games like Tic-Tac-Toe).
Throughout college I studied AI, game theory, database theory, and worked for a mini (Nova Computers) company and was given a TI Silent 700 (terminal paper terminal connected to the Novas) in my dorm room. Other students had 1-4K PCs that they assembled from Heathkit.
What made you decide to work in the game industry, especially from its beginning?
In 1981 I bought myself an Apple 2 and Pascal and wrote a few simple graphic games in 48K with eight colors. In 1983 I moved back to the New York City area looking for a job. A headhunter (job recruiter or agent) called me and asked if I wanted to work at home (part-time) programming games for book publishers who wanted adventure games for the Apple as a selling device (“buy 40 books and get a game that relates to the subject matter.”) I did several games for Laidlaw, a division of Doubleday, where the student could travel throughout the U.S. visiting state capitals, throughout the world visiting famous cities and capitals, and visiting Indian reservations and learning their customs.
Then I got a contract with CBS to rewrite the series “Success with Math” which included “Addition,” “Subtraction,” “Multiplication,” “Division,” and “Long Division” on a Commodore Vic-20 and 64. CBS bought me a Vic-20 and a Commodore 64 and gave me the Apple disks (no code).
In 1985 I met with a Florida game/toy company, Gametek, who wanted to get into the computer game business. They had several hot TV show and board game licenses. I formed Pedersen Systems Inc. and designed, produced, co-programmed, and did the artwork, sound (music), and database for two games (three SKUs such as Apple 2, Commodore 64/128, and IBM PC) a month. Candyland took four days to design and program a finished version for the three computers.
My co-partner Michael Hausman developed a toolbox (code routines and a graphics converter for each machine), allowing us to make games in IBM PC DOS, and upon finishing the code in Manx/Aztec C, the Commodore 64 and Apple versions only required a new compile into their assembler code and running the graphics from the IBM PC through Michael’s converter. Go To the Head of the Class took us five days for three versions (I had to type and update the 1,000 questions used in the game). From there we put on the store shelves Press Your Luck, a TV show, Chutes and Ladders, another Milton Bradley board game, from Parker Brothers’ board game to the computer Sorry. Fisher Price games Perfect Fit, I Can Remember, and Fun Flyer, which never shipped. Also developed and never shipped were board games Trouble and Big Boggle.
In 1988 Michael and I ported Swimwear, a swimsuit calendar program where you could customize calendars and select swimsuit-clad women to represent each month for Hi-Tech Expressions from the IBM PC to the Apple. The port and redesign of the printer graphics were done in four weeks.
In 1989 we designed, programmed, did the sound and artwork for PolarWare (Steve Green), and then bought out by Merit Software on the Don Bluth film All Dogs Go To Heaven. The original (unfinished, part color and part black and white) film was provided, and we created a storybook with ten games that related to the film and its characters. The soundtrack was digitized and played back through the PC speaker and the Sound Blaster (this was the first game digital sound was used through these devices). Both Michael and I programmed this title, and the magnificent artwork was done by an upcoming computer graphics artist, Juan Sanchez (his first title). The design, artwork, and programming took ten weeks for the IBM version. The IBM PC code and graphics were easily ported to the Amiga.
After making millions for Gametek, I published several games (Cyber Cop, Zombies: Undead or Alive!, Crazy Cola, and Dome of Champions) that won CES awards but sold poorly (proving that the creative techies should stay away from the business end of accounting, marketing, and sales).
After developing for Gametek, Hi-Tech Expressions, and Merit Software, all of which became huge publishers during and after your association with them, what did you do?
In 1992 at the CES show (pre-E3 days), I contracted with Dan Sejzer of Villa Crespo Software to do design, programming, artwork, and sound for a video poker game. Within four weeks, a prototype was finished and Dan showed it to several distributors who wanted it ASAP. I moved to Chicago to become director of development of Villa Crespo Software, initially a three-person company. Within a year VCS had over 30 titles on the store shelves and over a dozen employees. Developers in Europe and throughout the U.S. were working with us to sell their titles. My job was to work with these developers, create internal projects, head up the QA group, and work with marketing and manual writers. Titles that I developed and programmed were Stanford Wong’s Video Poker and Flicks! Film Review Library (both CES Innovations award winners), Dr. Wong Jacks+ (IBM DOS, Windows), Combination Lock (IBM DOS), Casino Girls Video Poker (IBM DOS), and Real Mother Goose (IBM DOS).
Titles that I managed were Amarillo Slim’s Dealer’s Choice, Rosemary West’s House of Fortunes, Gold Sheet Pro Football Analyst, Games Magazine: Word Games, and the Coffee Break Series.
Titles that I managed and produced were The Coffee Break CD, Amarillo Slim 7 Card Stud (IBM DOS), Flicks! (IBM DOS), Hearts (IBM DOS), and Casino Craps (IBM DOS).
I designed the gameplay for Rosemary West’s House of Fortunes and Games Magazine: Word Games and created the concept of The Coffee Break Series (all titles), which had great software (abridged versions of VCS premium software and upgraded shareware titles) at budget prices ($13). VCS was the first publisher to enter this budget market with brand-new titles.
I designed the packaging for Failsafe (a police officer) and Flicks! (a large in-home TV).
From 1994 to 1995 I joined Merit Industries as manager of product development for their videogame/arcade machine MegaTouch. I designed and programmed numerous touch screen games on the IBM PC for the Atari Jaguar (to be the brains and engine inside the arcade box). I redesigned the previous MegaTouch system and games written in a 16-color mode to a 16-24-bit color system with stereo sound. I developed new touch screen games and tested the games with nontechnical players for addictiveness, ease of play, and understanding. At Merit Industries, I learned that in the arcade market if the product isn’t fun or addictive, the player has only invested a quarter.
From August 1996 to May 1997, I became senior producer for Acclaim Entertainment, later earning the role of executive producer and game designer developing numerous titles on the PC and video game platforms.
As executive producer, I worked on titles with Ocean of America, such as Cheesy (PSX), Break Point, Tennis (Saturn), Tunnel B1 (PSX, Saturn, IBM DOS, WIN 95), and Project X2 (PSX, Saturn). I worked on the Fox Interactive title Die Hard Trilogy (IBM DOS, Saturn). I worked on titles with Taito such as Psychic Force (PSX) and Puzzle Bobble/Bust-A-Move 3 (PSX). I also worked on titles with Acclaim such as JLA (Justice League of America) licensing liaison with Warner Brothers and DC Comics, Bloodshot (PSX, IBM DOS). I designed an original script based on the Acclaim Comic character Bloodshot and his many enemies.
As senior producer, I worked on the original Shadowman (PSX, IBM Win 95, N64). I managed over a dozen producers and associate producers each with four to six titles (each title had several SKUs, such as N(intendo)64, Win95, PSX, Sega, etc.) as well as produced numerous titles as senior producer for the Sony PlayStation (PSX), the Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, and Windows 95. (Each title had a budget of $1-5 million.)
For Bloodshot and JLA, I documented and designed products preparing an executive treatment, a design specification, and technical specifications.
For Psychic Force, I localized the storyline for the U.S market, directed voice-over talent and edited the VO DATs from a digital editor to Mac audio format, directed in the motion capture studio for sample data for JLA and Shadowman, reviewed potential products for Acclaim distribution from outside developers and tested numerous products before turnover (Turok, Forsaken, Space Jam, WWF Wrestling, and Magic: The Gathering), selected QA staff to head and work on various projects, and met with licensors Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and Acclaim Comics to discuss game design and licensing matters such as character descriptions, storylines, arch-enemies, three view artwork, acceptable design issues (death or injury to a super hero). I mentored and gave suggestions to producers and game analysts in their design efforts and met as a technical expert with various “hot” development teams/groups (like id off-shoots, makers of Doom and Quake) for title/concept negotiations.
From 1994 to 2000 my pet project has been as PSI Productions (modern version of Pedersen Systems, Inc.) as a director, producer, designer, and programmer of The Six Stones of Serena, an interactive fantasy adventure. I wrote an interactive adventure/role-playing game (500 pages with over 300 parts). Using a SONY BetaCam and Hi-8 Cameras, I shot script (100 actors) during a four-week period. Using video editors (Toaster, Grass Valley, AVID) and software, I edited and placed video on a CD. I used various 3D art packages (Animated World Builder) for virtual world. I designed and programmed an interactive scripting system(language) to create interactive characters and a storyline. An author can easily design, play, and debug interactive stories.
In 1997 I contracted with Sports Simulation to design and program in IBM PC Windows ’95 Pro Soccer, a location-based simulation where a human player kicks a soccer ball at a virtual goalie. Designed as an “all-sports” system linking any sports module to a ball trajectory DLL (library) and a sensor DLL, the Pro Soccer module used actual kicked soccer ball trajectory data to move a virtual ball toward a virtual goalie (St. John’s University soccer team filmed).
As producer, I filmed various soccer players (male, female, teen, college, pro) against an ultramat background and placed the “virtual” players in a 3D soccer world (goal and field) for varying soccer options: direct penalty kick, indirect penalty kick, and corner kick.
In 1998 Michael and I again teamed up in contracting with Hypnotix as game designer, producer, and programmer for General Mills Big G All-Stars vs. Major League Baseball (IBM PC Windows ’95, 3.1). The ad appeared April to July 1998 on 60 million boxes of General Mills cereal, and the CD sold over 1 million copies. The GM trademarked characters the Trix Rabbit, Count Chocula, the Lucky Charms Leprechaun vs. the MLB players (nine players on 30 teams).
What role do you typically play in the development of a game?
Ideally, the game designer and producer. Then I oversee the programming and artwork. Usually the basic game design is provided and I help with redesigning the game, documenting, and programming. It’s important to understand the original game design so when you discard it, the money people and original designers agree with your improvements and ideas. Many people think they can design a great game even though they’ve never done it. Even designers in one genre think they can easily create great concepts without research in other areas, like an adventure game designer trying to make a sports game.
What advice can you offer to people who want to get started with game development, perhaps to turn it into a career?
Study. Learn to do. I studied film making so I could understand an art that has had a successful life. Games will eventually become interactive (where users can chat with their virtual world citizens). Actors (on-screen, voice-over, and motion capture) work better with knowledgeable and experienced directors and producers. Lighting, camera angles, and cut scenes are proven methods in film that video/PC/interactive designers, directors, and producers need to understand. In designing The Six Stones of Serena, I had several binders full of Internet and book research of mythology, ancient architecture, geographical topography, and sci-fi lore, just to justify ideas and gameplay. In baseball, you must understand the statistical data and its relevance and how they relate to the player and the other data. If the user is shown believable scenarios, then the game and the experience is more enjoyable.
What in your opinion makes a good game?
I look at games from the user’s point of view, often asking myself “Is this game worth $60?” “What features would help the user?” “My goal is X, how can I get there easier, faster?” For adventure games, the story must be good. Sports games must be realistic. Puzzle games should be addictive with the ability to play unlimited variations. As CPUs get faster and memory and storage becomes cheaper and more abundant, the stories can be more elaborate. There should be more polygons, more actors on the CD, better sound, and perhaps orchestrated soundtracks.
Why do you enjoy making games?
I enjoy the creation process, making something that’s never existed that is addictive, challenging, and fun to play. I enjoy watching someone play my games. I enjoy hearing someone say they loved a game I worked on. I enjoy reading reviews (all of them favorable so far... knock on wood or silicon) of games that I was a part of.
Lastly, with so many titles released each year, do you have any advice for designers or programmers about distinguishing themselves from others to get a job in the industry? Or will demand be too low?
Unless I work for a company full-time (and I’m always looking) I contract one to two titles per year (contact me at GameProducer@aol.com). When I started, a developer could be a “lone wolf.” Fortunately, I have been teamed up with talented programmers, artists, and coworkers. Now a game needs a dozen people to create it, which is fine as long as one person has the clear vision. “Newbies” should join a game company at any salary, design a game themselves or by using a standard development system to show potential employers that they can really program or design a game to completion. The Internet has opened up a venue for virtual gaming companies. You could design a game and get on Gamasutra.com (under “Contractors”) to look for programmers and artists to help on a back-end deal (work for free now and hopefully get a royalty later when the game is selling). Or if you have programming talent and need artwork, you could get on 3Dcafe.com and find help.
At a conference in 2000, I heard that in 1998 the film industry had revenues way above the gaming industry. Then in 1999 the two industries were close in revenues, and in 2000 the gaming industry out-revenued both the film and music industry combined.
Wow! That’s the place to be, and now’s the time to be there!
Like film, books, and art, computer gaming is an art obtainable through talent and hard work, as well as education.