David Crane has been in the industry for over thirty years. Initially working at Atari, he soon left, to co-form Activision, one of the biggest publishers currently in the industry today. Since then he’s worked at numerous companies and continues to work on videogames to this day. He’s perhaps most famous for his amazing Atari 2600 platformer Pitfall! and the rather excellent life simulator Little Computer People.
Tell us about your first experience with a computer…
Home computers did not arrive until I was in college. But mainframe computers from IBM could be found in some businesses, and I had a lucky connection. I was in the Boy Scouts, and my Scoutmaster worked in data processing. On a visit to his office I became fascinated with the equipment. I asked to be one of the first to attempt to earn the newly created Computer Merit Badge. Through his help and access to his facility, I learned the Hollerith code for punched cards (I still remember that code), and got a good grounding in the technologies involved.
A few years later, in high school I attended a computer programming extension campus. I travelled by bus every morning to a nearby city, studied computers for three hours, and returned to my normal school for the afternoon. I was one of the few people in the Seventies to leave high school programming computers in three languages.
And what was the first game you actually encountered?
My parents bought the first Magnavox Odyssey home game console. This unit displayed squares of light on the screen with no graphics. Magnavox supplied coloured overlays that you would stick on the TV screen to make different games. I have to admit that I was bored by the rudimentary games, but I was fascinated by the potential of the technology.
When did you first think: I could make a career out of this?
It would be years before I thought of making a career in videogames. My head was brimming with inventions. Tired of resetting digital clocks after a power failure I invented a clock that derived its display by communicating over a power-line-interface with a master clock. To accompany me as I learned to play the guitar I created a programmable drum machine (I even tried to market that one through one of those late-night infomercial invention marketing companies). I even designed a 3D TV using a flat, spinning phosphor target inside an evacuated sphere. I had too many things to invent – who had time for games?
David Crane in a promotional pose, showing off his hits.
What did your parents think about you joining the industry?
My parents helped me move to Silicon Valley after college. They looked around and saw ten high-tech businesses per block, and they knew I would be fine. To them Atari was just another computer business (my Mom was soon even happier, because I made her a Slot Machine game that she could play at home any time, day or night).
What jobs did you do before working at Atari?
My first job in the Valley was as a technician at National Semiconductor. I had worked for a couple of years at school as the lab professor’s technician. When he created new lab projects for students I had to build them first and help tweak them for the class. I also built my first computer in college – a machine that plays Tic-Tac-Toe (which still works).
With all of the experience I had working with digital circuits, I recognised that there were some fields of electronics with which I had no practical experience. I took the job at National working with linear integrated circuits, stunning my advisors (that is as far away from computer chips that you can get). But I had a plan. To be the inventor I wanted to be, I needed to be proficient in many areas of electronic design. That job was just the next step in my career development.
Can you tell us what was it like working at Atari?
I wasn’t sure I would like programming games. My first love has always been designing electronic circuits, and this would be only programming. As it turned out I still got my fill of circuit design over the years, developing a number of electronic circuits to help make game design easier. But I found that I enjoyed microprocessor programming and game design. The working environment in my first days at Atari was very rewarding. My co-workers were dedicated professionals working hard to advance the state of gaming. Nolan Bushnell would come by occasionally to see what cool thing we were working on – although his catch word was “neat”. The hot tub parties in the lobby and drug use in the office was long past, which is good because I wouldn’t have tolerated that. I was only there for two years before Atari lost its way. I got out and started Activision just in time.
How many games did you work on there?
While at Atari I designed and programmed: Outlaw, Slot Machine and Canyon Bomber/Depth Charge. Then the Atari 800 computer needed software help so all of the original 2600 game designers stepped up and wrote the operating system for Atari’s new line of personal computers.
David still works in the industry today, primarily working on mobile games.
So tell us about the genesis of Activision; how was it formed?
A lot went wrong at Atari in 1979, in spite of the fact that they were making $100 million per year selling videogame cartridges. They made a classic mistake, one that is repeated over and over in every business. They didn’t follow rule number one: If you make your living on creative products, keep your creative talent happy. Four of Atari’s most successful game designers: Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead and I tended to hang around together. One day we discovered that we four had created games that accounted for 60 per cent of Atari’s $100M in game cartridge sales for the previous year. We were making less than $30K salaries. When we asked Atari’s new president (Nolan was no longer there) for a piece of the action, we were told ‘You are no more important to the success of those products than the person on the assembly line who puts them together.’ We didn’t agree so we left to form our own game publishing company. We met up with Jim Levy and together created Activision.
You must have felt tremendous satisfaction when you were finally given credit for the games you made…
That was a founding premise of the company. We started our own publishing house because we felt that people would like to know who authored their favourite game so that they could buy their next one. What was really fun was going into the game store the day our first four games shipped. The owner of the store was just unpacking the boxes and looking at our pictures as we entered the store. He did a classic double-take.
When you co-founded Activision in 1979 did you ever anticipate it would become
one of the biggest companies in the industry?
At the founding of the company, videogames were largely considered a fad. We certainly knew better. The videogame provided a way to interact with your TV, which promised a more immersive experience than either television or movies. And both television and movies had proven themselves to be more than just a fad.
The Activision of the 1980s very quickly became the biggest company in the industry. So we didn’t have long to wait to find that out. At one point a financial analyst made the case that Activision was the fastest-growing company in the history of American business. I think it is also great that the Activision of today has regained that dominance. The company’s current management has done a great job of leveraging the Activision name and developing cutting-edge products that continue to keep it at the top.
David back in the Eighties, when he was still at Activision.
What would you say was the secret to Activision’s early success?
In the early days of Activision our primary focus was quality. We continued to work on a game until the whole group could say it’s as good as it’s going to get. Most times that meant a whole lot of rewriting and tweaking. And sometimes a game never reached that threshold and it was shelved.
Uncertain schedules played havoc with the sales and marketing folks, making it hard to predict when the next game would be coming. But after a while we got pretty good at predicting, and we were able to commit to a number of games from each designer (we just couldn’t say what the game would be until it was finished).
We were the small, upstart company so we couldn’t let our players down. And we succeeded… People raved that each Activision game was better than the last, and far ahead of the competition.
Activision had always striven to create new IP instead of arcade ports. Why was this?
That was a sign of the times. The Atari 2600 was designed to bring Atari’s arcade games to the home. A lot of the game development time at Atari was taken up making home versions or their arcade games. Activision didn’t own any arcade hits, so we had to create new games from scratch. Of course, that was more fun anyway.
The market was pretty small at that time as well. When there are only two dozen games on the shelf, a buyer can study all of them before making a choice. Once there were hundreds of games it made sense to attach a pre-sold label to a game.
And how do you think the Activision of yesterday compares to the one of today?
There is no comparison. The Activision of the Eighties was a research project. Every aspect of the business, from technology through marketing had to be invented. You could fill a textbook with the ideas pioneered by the over-achievers who flocked to work at Activision. And many of those ideas are still in use today.
Today’s Activision is a highly evolved publishing business. They are very good at what they do. But to try to compare the two companies would be like comparing America’s founding fathers to Washington DC of 2010.
Notable David Crane Games
You can read the rest of our interview with David Crane in issue 79. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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