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INTERVIEW
David Crane


David Crane is one of the most talented and successful software and hardware designers of all time! An Atari programmer, co-founder of Activision, and generally known for creating the wildly popular '82 game of the year, Pitfall!

MT> Before entering the market as a professional, you tinkered and created many interesting items. Please tell us about the first computer that you designed at age 17, and other such hobbyist accomplishments.
DC> I was into games from a very early age. I was the kid who read the inside cover of the box - both understanding and interpreting the rules of the game (which weren't always that clearly written). I also immersed myself into electronics when very young - dismantling a TV or wiring a circuit for fun. On top of that, my mother - an accomplished artist - made sure I had formal artistic training through painting and other graphic arts. Plus, I was a math and science whiz from my first introduction to the subjects.

Looking back, video game design seems a natural fit, although there was no such thing when I was growing up. I built a Tic-Tac-Toe playing machine in my teens which went up in smoke on the night it was scheduled to go to a science fair. I later designed another Tic-Tac-Toe playing computer, which was built as a college project and sits on my office credenza today. I was a sponge for technology, and I enjoyed using each new thing I learned in some hobby or other.

MT> Most Activision promotional material and products featured the name, photograph of the game creator, as well as playing tips and a signature. Whose idea was it to promote designers as rock stars and authors?
DC> Activision was founded on the principal that a video game was a creative product for which the author ought to be credited. Other companies at the time treated games as engineering projects, no different than the next electronic chip to come from the engineering department. And who has ever heard the name of the designer of the 741 Op Amp, for example.

While in hindsight the idea of designer credit seems undeniable, we were the only ones who felt strongly enough about it to go out and start a company to get it. Our co-founder and company president, Jim Levy, came from a record industry background and understood the marketing and promotion of artists as well as products. So the video game business went from absolutely zero designer credit to something approaching rock star promotion. But at its heart the promotion and marketing much more closely resembled that of a book publisher touting their authors. We wanted to create an environment where if a game player enjoyed the "writing style" of a particular game designer, he or she could look for the next game by that same author and not be disappointed.

Long after the rock star-like hype had passed, you could still choose a game that way. And the business remained that way for many years.

MT> Is the rumor that you once grew a beard to alter and disguise your appearance after having your mug printed in the Pitfall manual true?
DC> Totally untrue. I had grown a beard in college and still had it when we started Activision. But when we were about to take "jacket" photos I shaved it off, opting for a cleaner look. A couple of years later I grew it again for no better reason than that I liked the look.

For me to need to "disguise my appearance" would imply that I was being hounded by fans or had lost my privacy, etc. Fortunately, Hollywood-style stardom has never intruded on video games. My games are the stars, not me. There is no better thrill for a designer than to have people like their work. When I am approached by a game player who knows my work, what I hear is, "I really enjoyed playing that game and I appreciate the quality that went into it." Who would need to hide from that? (In other words, Jodie Foster I'm not.)

MT> Prior to leaving Atari to form Activision, you and your fellow founders Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and & Larry Kaplan were responsible for more than half of Atari’s cartridge sales. Atari sued Activision for conspiracy to appropriate trade secrets and unfair competition. What safeguards were implemented to try and protect the first 3rd party publisher, Activision, from Atari?
DC> We were advised that nobody could stop us from pursuing our craft simply because we had honed, or even developed that craft while working at a company. That is all we did when we left Atari to form Activision. Had we stolen company secrets or other materials it would have been different. But we walked out empty handed and reverse-engineered the 2600 for any technical information we needed.

MT> What was the out-of-court settlement between Atari & Activision?
DC> The terms of that settlement were never disclosed - not even to me. I was asked if I wanted to know and having had enough of lawsuits I declined.

MT> Did the concept for Freeway really originate from you spectating a man trying to cross Lake Shore Drive during rush-hour traffic while attending Chicago’s Consumer Electronic Show?
DC> Absolutely true. Each time I finish a game I look to the real world for inspiration. I was primed for the idea when I saw it, and the product flowed very easily from that point. And no, Frogger was not in the arcades at the time. Both games were developed independently, although we both probably owe some allegiance to Atari's 1970s game "Space Race".

MT> Pitfall! maintained the top slot for 64 consecutive weeks on the Billboard charts and was named Video Game of the Year in 1982. You also received the videogame industry’s award as the best game designer of 1983.Other than your own obvious talents, whom do you thank for your success? Who are the stars behind the star?
DC> A lot of Activision's early success came from the group synergy within the design lab. While we each had our own game project working, we would also kibbutz on each others' games. That way each game had the flavor of its designer, but benefited from the vision and experience of the entire group. None of the games would have done as well without that cooperation.

One week before Pitfall! was to be released, I only gave you one life to play the whole game. I was experimenting with that concept as sort of the ultimate challenge. That's right, fall in one pit and start over from the beginning! Well, thankfully my buddies practically tied me to my chair until I put in extra lives and I'm glad they did. But most of the help came in much smaller details - things so small that taken individually you would never notice. It was the sum total of all the feedback and suggestions that polished the games to a fine edge.

MT> At its peak, Activision was receiving more than 2000 fan letters daily. Are you still the curse of the United States Postal Service?
DC> In fact, Pitfall! generated 14,000 letters in a single week. Thankfully we had a large staff dedicated to the consumer mail. But in all fairness, you must remember that most of those letters were club entries rather than unsolicited fan mail. The letters were universally complimentary, and we designers loved hearing that our games were being enjoyed, but if they weren't sending us a picture of their screens most of those writers would have spent their time playing the game rather than writing letters. And no, nothing like that goes on anymore.

MT> Whatever happened to the personalized Pitfall license plate?
DC> I still use it. And the most common response is, "Funny plate... what do you mean it's a video game?"

MT> You were known as a cut-throat tennis player. Are you as good a player at your Amazing Tennis title as you were in real life?
DC> Garry Kitchen and I played hugely competitive matches of Amazing Tennis. There is a great thing about that game from a tennis player's perspective. You hit every shot like a pro. Because of this you can concentrate on strategy. When Garry and I played the game, each point looked like Sampras vs Agassi at the US Open. Each shot was planned out strategically to "get ahead" in the point so that you could dictate play. If you kept the edge and kept your opponent off balance you could eventually close out the point. Those were some fun games. It's too bad that while Garry and I are currently working together at Skyworks, were separated by 3000 miles.

Another little known fact about Amazing Tennis - the computer opponents are modeled after real people. In an odd turn of events, I joined a division 3 college tennis team at age 38. I went to all the matches in the bus, listening to the guys and their problems with their girlfriends, etc. (The average age of the other players was 18 and most were from other countries). I was designing Amazing Tennis at the time, and when it came time to put in computer opponents I took a digital photo of each guy, and gave the computer players his bio, appearance, and playing tendencies. We had a lot of fun with it, and each player got a pre-release copy of the game to show their friends.

MT> Much game design is started with an idea, and then programmed. Your technique seemed to be different, almost as if you created a new technology or coding trick and then determined a way to implement the process into a game. Is this an accurate assessment?
DC> Yes, that was a common practice for me. The Atari 2600 had such an extended life because there seemed to be an endless supply of technological tricks that made it do things not intended by its creators. I got more enjoyment out of discovering a new trick than from the game design itself. More often than not, I used this technique to lead me in a new direction of game design, and some of the tricks were to me as much an accomplishment as solving the Rubik's Cube the first time.

MT> As well as software, you have contributed to many hardware breakthroughs including the designs of two integrated circuits used in video games. Please tell us about the Display Processor Chip (DPC) and your innovative method of bank selecting. What was your involvement with the Atari 800 computer's operating system?
DC> My background is in hardware design. I found hardware work to be a welcome change from thousands of hours of programming and that led to the designs you mentioned. I would have to go into a highly technical explanation to delve into those two chip designs, but their intention was to try to extend the life of the 2600 even further. The hope was that the machine's capabilities could be expanded by putting extra hardware into the cartridge. The DPC chip added more graphic capability as well as 3 channel music (plus drum), and made Pitfall II possible. Unfortunately, the 2600 business died before any other games could take advantage of that technology.

There is a period at Atari when there were no games coming from Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and myself. As the most senior designers at Atari we were tasked with creating the 800 operating system. This group, plus two others, wrote the entire operating system in about 8 months. A funny story from this time that Al Miller likes to tell has to do with the Atari Basic cartridge that was to ship with the system.

Atari had contracted with a young programmer named Bill Gates to modify a Basic compiler that he had for another system to be used on the 800. After that project stalled for over a year Al was called upon to replace him with another developer. So, while Al is the only person I know ever to have fired Bill Gates, I suspect that rather than work on Atari Basic, Gates was spending all his time on DOS for IBM. Probably not a bad career choice for him, do you think?

MT> What do you think you would be doing today if fellow tennis player and apartment complex tenant Alan Miller hadn’t recruited you from National Semiconductor to the programming department at Atari?
DC> I was a little hesitant at taking the job at Atari. I had never programmed for a living and I worried it might get boring (building circuits seemed more fun). But I would probably still be in the video game business. I attended the industry's first ever trade show, Gametronics '76, at my own cost while working at National Semiconductor. I had a pretty good idea that video games were a good fit for my background and training. But who knows... video games have been such an important part of my life that I can't imagine it any other way.


MT> You are an avid fan of science fiction. How large is your collection of sci-fi related books and who is your favorite author?
DC> I grew up reading Larry Niven and will always have a fondness for some of his characters. I also enjoyed the early works of Piers Anthony, but lately I just pick up a best seller in the airport and read it on the plane.

MT> You been quoted as stating, “man will always use his most advanced technology to amuse himself.” Care to elaborate?
DC> Quotes are a funny thing - there are as many attributed to me that I didn't say as there are things I said many times that are easily forgotten. The best line I didn't say was, "It's a jungle in there!" referring to Pitfall! But the quote you mention has been referred to as "Crane's Law", and I firmly believe it.

In my youth I wanted to invent an electric airplane. I wanted to be the guy who solved the weight issue of an electric motor and its batteries that had enough power to lift its own weight plus a payload (I think I was about 12 at the time). Long before I had the training to really address the problem, a Japanese company came out with a toy airplane that did just that. That was something of an epiphany for me. I realized that time and time again the latest technology was finding a home in toys, games, and entertainment. And why not? If we can't make our time on earth more enjoyable what good are we. That philosophy has led me into gaming, and I suspect that like Charles Shultz I will continue to design games until the day I die. That is, at least, as long as people continue to enjoy playing them.

MT> Thank you so much!!

Good Deal Games salutes David Crane for his many contributions to gaming. Visit the website of his current endeavor Skyworks Technologies and play some of his AdverGaming projects.

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