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INTERVIEW
Chris Charla

Former Editor of Next Generation Magazine, Official Dreamcast Magazine,
and Daily Radar. Currently a producer for Digital Eclipse Entertainment,
and co-writing a 'For Dummies' book on how to program games for the Atari 2600!

MT> You are best known from your contributions to several Imagine Media publications and Imagine-affiliated web sites. Please describe your credentials as a game journalist as well as the position(s) you currently hold..
CC> Let's see. I got started at a Mac Magazine, and I did their gaming column because I was the only one there who really liked games. I really wanted to work at a game magazine though, but right out of college, I was just happy to have a job (this was in '93, before the Internet boom). I went to CES in Vegas and saw Next Generation and immediately I was like "I must work there!" Then, through a couple of strokes of luck (an old co-worker worked at Imagine, and my roommate knew someone else who worked there) I found out about a job opening at Next Gen, and managed to talk my way into it. I was associate editor there, then features editor. After that, I was the launch editor of Imagine Games Network (today just known as IGN), then editor-in-chief of Next Gen. I left Next Gen to start Total Games, but ended up editing Official Sega Dreamcast Magazine and doing Q&A on Daily Radar.

MT> What happened with Total Games?
CC> Total Games was, and is, a great idea. The basic idea was that it would be a free, advertiser supported, magazine that would be distributed at videogame stores and rental places to let "the kids" -- and when I say "the kids" I mean people who play games, but aren't yet hardcore enough to buy magazines or go to websites about them -- know what was going on and what was coming up in the world of games. Retailers were really into the idea, editorially I think it would have rocked -- very different than Next Gen, but still really fun. Unfortunately, despite a lot of interest from advertisers at first, in the end there wasn't enough support to continue. I still think the idea is really viable though, and with the right publisher, I still think it could be really cool. One thing that we were going to do with the mag, which classic fans should appreciate, was give away high-score patches for different games every month, Activision style.

MT> You appear to hold the record of the most quoted game magazine editor to date, especially during your tenure as Editor-In-Chief of Next Generation Magazine. To what do you attribute this fame and are you going to miss the attention?
CC> I think Frank O'Connor gets quoted more than me! I think a lot of non-industry people read Next Gen to get a handle on what's going on in the game industry, and since my name was at the top of the masthead, I got the call. Tom Russo gets those calls now! As for the attention, I guess you always miss the attention you get from being in the press -- PR people fawn all over you and VIPs, like presidents of companies or whatever, are really open to talking to you. And, like anyone else, I do have an ego, and it's always neat to see your name and opinions in a magazine like Time, or the in the Washington Post. But, ultimatley, that crap can really go to your head if you're not careful. Half the time (at least), people were just talking to the editor of Next Gen -- that I was also Chris Charla or whoever was totally unimportant to them. But when someone you really respect comes up to you and says "Who wrote that story on xxx, that was cool," and it turns out it was you who wrote it, and he wants to have a conversation with you based on what you've done, rather than who you are, that's pretty awesome. Next Gen was really a fantastic forum for me to get that kind of attention. The magazine also gave me a great opportunity to meet some really, really cool people! Getting to meet and talk to your heroes -- from Miyamoto to Meyer to Kutaragi to people like Mark Cerny, Mizaguchi, Bill Gates, etc. is really rad! I can't say that I miss the attention, but I do miss being able to basically make up reasons to go call anyone in the world I think it would be cool to talk to (like one time Blake Fischer and I tracked down Al Alcorn and spent about two hours having this awesome conversation with him, which we did a story about, basically because we just wanted to meet him).


MT> Why the move to Digital Eclipse?
CC> When I was a kid, I wanted to make games, and while being in the press was really, really fun, and Imagine was a great company to work for, the bottom line was that I wanted to make games. Mike Mika at DE is a friend (I hired him at Next Gen, and introduced him to the president of DESI, who is another friend), and I've done a bunch of things, free-lance, for DE over the years, including producing KLAX for the Game Boy Color, interviewing Nolan Bushnell for a classic pack, etc. There were a lot of times when I was at Imagine that I almost left for DE, and finally the lure of actually making games was too much!

MT> What projects are you, and Digital Eclipse, currently developing?
CC> Let's see. Right now we've just completed a really awesome conversion of Rayman for the GBA -- I guess technically it's a port, but every single pixel (literally) in the game was redone for the GBA screen, platforms were relocated, and the gameplay was tweaked a lot, so a lot of work has gone into making feel like nothing was changed at all. Our only other project that I can really talk about is X-Men for GBA; it's a Final Fight-style brawler. Beyond that I'd probably get fired if I even mentioned the publishers we're working with, but we have at least 6 or 7 seven more games in development, which will be shipping between Christmas and May 2002. And if there are any good 2D, pixel-level artists out there, send me an email -- chrisc@digitaleclipse.com.

MT> How is it working in the industry you've spent so much time writing about? Has your perspective or attitude changed?
CC> Working in the game industry is rad. I really can't wait to come to work every day. But I would say that my perspective on what a good game has changed, somewhat. As a "critic" you don't figure in sales as a criteria for whether or not a game is good, and I don't think you should. So, Die by the Sword, say, was a great game, and really critially acclaimed. But it didn't sell very well. As a game maker, you really need to be concerned with sales. You want to make a game that will be fun, and innovative, and cool, but you also really need to make sure that the game sells, and that you deliver it to the publisher on time. So, some games that you know would be really fun to play -- text adventures, say -- you can't really consider making professionally.

MT> You are authoring an upcoming book on hobbyist game development for the Atari 2600. Describe how you become involved in this project and how you went about obtaining the technical proficiency necessary to write this book.
CC> Basically Mike Mika kept talking about the game he was doing (a version of Kick Man) for the 2600, as a hobby. I was obviously super impressed, and so I just kept asking questions about it, so I could do it too. I've always been into self publishing -- I did a punk rock fanzine for a few years -- and since I knew I was leaving Imagine, and wouldn't be using QuarkXpress professionally anymore, I just though doing a self-published book on programming the 2600 would be really fun. It's not like a dedicated programmer couldn't find all the info in the book online, for free, the real hook is that it's written so that a non-dedicated programmer can get into it, and at least have some fun, and at most create their own game. Even if you never try your hand at a game, I think it will be fun just to see how they're made.

MT> Please describe your partner, Mike Mika.
CC> Mike's a 100% self-taught assembly language programmer, which is pretty impressive, trust me. He's creative director at Digital Eclipse, is better than almost anyone I've ever seen at games (possible exception: Raymond Rowe), and has, literally, a trap door in his bedroom closet that leads to a secret room in his house that's packed with about 5000 games in boxes, a Star Wars sit-down system, a MAME cabinet, every console ever released in America except AdventureVision, and about a ton of videogame ephemera and tchotkies, much of which is stuff I was given when I was at Next Gen. The kid likes games!

MT> Why did you choose the Atari 2600 rather than other classic consoles? Are other consoles to be covered in future publishing projects?
CC> We picked the 2600 because it's the big one! That's the one we all played as kids. It's also probably one of the most technologically challenging ones, and the one with the most source material available online. I don't know about other consoles -- we'll probably try to get this book done first and see what the response is.

MT> What were some of the most significant obstacles you face in writing this book?
CC> Well, we're not done yet! Originally we wanted to have it done by April 1st, but that didn't happen, so now we're shooting for CGE this year. The real hurdle is that we both have day jobs that take an enormous amount of time. When you add up work, time with girlfriends (and in my case, a son), game playing, house maintenance, and sleep, there's not a lot of time left over! We'll probably need to eventually take a few days off of work to finish the book. The other big challenge is cost and resources. If we do the book with the level of production values we want, it could cost like $50 a copy, at the low print run we plan on. Now, on the one hand, $50 isn't a lot, because a lot of work is going into it, it comes with at least one complete, original game and lots of code on CD, etc. On the other hand, $50 is a lot of money to spend on a programming guide for a dead system, even if it does come with a CD! So, we're not sure what it will cost in the end, but we can assure everyone that we aren't doing this to get rich or anything.

MT> Did you find programming on the 2600 as notoriously difficult as it is made out to be?
CC> It's interesting, because it's really, really hard, but at the same time it's actually conceptually pretty easy. But just to give an idea of the hurdles you have to overcome to do a 2600: there are only two sprites, and you can't actually specify the position of where things are drawn onscreen -- you literally have to count cycles and time it so that the raster gun that draws the screen is in the right place and then tell it to start drawing. At the same time, I could explain, conceptually, how to do it in about two minutes. I think it may be a case where experienced programmers will have a harder time than novices, because the experts will just be confounded by how much isn't done for you, but the novices won't really know. Mike's made the point that the really cool thing about the 2600, is that you HAVE to learn tricks to do anything cool with it, which makes it a good excersize for any programmer. Once you've done a 2600 game, what you face at your day job will probably seem a lot easier!

MT> Do you have any other programming experience?
CC> Mike's the real programmer -- I'm just the writer. Most of the programming I've done recently is just for the parallax Basic Stamp microcontroller. That said, I know regular BASIC and PPL (an obscure multimedia language), and I've also tooled around in Z-80 assembly a bit and I know just enough INFORM (a text adventure development language that generates Infocom-style data files that can be played with the same interpreters that play Infocom games) to be dangerous.


MT> What is your involvement with the hobbyist 2600 development scene?
CC> On both our sides, not too too much. Obviously we have tons and tons of respect for hobbiest developers, especially the guys who were doing 2600 games before emulators made it so much easier. The level of support everyone has shown for the project is just incredible -- scores of people have offered to help. The stuff people have done to help others in the scene is just remarkable -- it's not like the collecting scene, where there's always this tiny undercurrent of competition. On this book, we're trying to go it alone as much as possible, but we obviously owe a HUGE debt to everyone who's done it before and shown that hobbiest 2600 development is possible.


MT> Define the game genre 'Interactive Fiction/Text Adventure' and describe your creation 'A Walk of GUE Street.'
CC> Wow, GUE street is such an in-joke that normal people may just want to skip to the next question. But if you have patience... Text Adventures were among the first games -- very simply you interact with the computer like it is a Dungeon Master; you tell it what you want to do, and it tells you the result. Some are primitive and just deal with two word inputs ("go west") and others are more sophisticated and can accept complex input ("Put the red ball underneath the green table, then pull the black lever.") Text Adventures reached their commercial apex under Infocom, which is most famous for Zork, although the company did a lot of other great games, including Lurking Horror. Infocom coined the term "interactive fiction" to distinguish its more literary games from low-brow adventure games. Although text adventures are no longer commercially viable, there's a huge IF scene, built mainly around two development systems, TADS and Inform. Most IF today is really designed around having interactive experiences, not around solving puzzles and beating the game. One particularly "experimental" game was called "A walk on Beale Street." There was almost no interaction -- you just read this > ponderous text and hit a button to continue. I'm totally reactionary, > and I'd rather play an adventure game than experience the latest in experimental, "interactive fiction," so I wrote "A Walk on GUE Street" > as a satire -- it's basically a walk through the Great Underground Empire of Zork, with lots of puzzles from Zork I rendered in the same dopey, non-interactive style as Beal street (which I later found out may have itself been a parody of the kind of game it is). Sorry, that was a lot of wasted electrons for a pretty poor punchline. I also did a BASIC adventure game for a recent IF-comp (read all about everything related to IF at the IF site on about.com) that was supposed to appeal to people's nostalgia for classic games -- it was supposedly a "lost" game from 1981 that resurfaced -- but it turns out that the IF community is a lot more interested in new, experimental IF, and it was roundly trounced in the competition. It's called INFIL-TRAITOR if anyone wants to play it.

MT> Please inform those unfamiliar with GamesCon about the endeavor, and what your involvement as an advisory board member entails.
CC> GamesCon was an attemp by Mark Chandler to start a consumer-level videogame trade show -- like E3 but open to the general public, with lots of cool stuff to see and do. As an advisory board member, I tried to help out wherever I could. Mark's still planning to take GamesCon forward some day, and it's another idea who's time I think will come.

MT> Any comedic anecdotes or nightmare stories working as a game journalist you'd care to share with the readers?
CC> I have a lot, but they're not really funny unless you know the people involved -- they're just like "this guy got really drunk," or "that guy stayed at the office 72 hours straight." I don't have any stories about anyone throwing up on John Carmack or anything! Um... One time a woman came to the office and managed to convince me for about 15 minutes that she was a PR rep from [small, bad software company] to show off a sequel to [very bad PlayStation game]. She had a black folder, a gold disc, everything. This was on deadline, and I was realy stressed and really wanted the meeting to be over quick (I couldn't even remember making it). Just as she's about to put the disc in the PSX, she starts hyperventillating and I was in a panic. I was like, "do you need water or something," and she's like crying and saying "no, no, it's just a nervous condition!" I was totally freaking out -- nothing really prepares you for a business meeting you don't want to have, where the person starts to freak out and cry and stuff. Finally, she revealed that she was laughing, and was actually the sister of previews editor Tom Russo, who was playing a joke on me. I got him back when I left Next Gen. At the meeting where the editorial director and I left him know he would be the next editor of the mag, we started by telling him that we were letting him go due to excessive tardiness. We kept it up long enough that he started to panic and freak out...

This didn't happen to me, but two GDCs ago, I hear that the entire Xbox team crammed into an elevator, and then one person leapt in on top of them, and the elevator broke and plunged like five stories before the auto-brakes caught.

Also, DailyRadar got closed down today, and I just want to say that that totally sucks. The people there were awesome, and it was a really great site. It's pretty depressing that all the major sites are closing down, but I guess it gives a good opportunity for some new blood to come in and shake things up.


MT> I'm a shakin' - I'm a shakin!

E-Mail Chris: E-mail Chris
Visit Digital Eclipse

A BIG thanks to Thomas Poyer (a/k/a 'stepfrog') for his help.
Without Tom, this interview would not have happened!

 

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