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INTERVIEW
Keith Robinson


Designer of the Intellivision game TRON Solar Sailor. Keith is also the Co-founder and President of Intellivision Productions, cartoonist, and inspiration for the video game 'Normy's Beach-Babe-O-Rama' on the Sega Genesis.


<<  Kieth at the 2001 Las Vegas Classic Gaming Expo                   dressed as Peter Pepper of BurgerTime!

MT> You designed your first computer games while in High School in the late 60's. What type of games did you prefer to play and create 30+ years ago?
KR> The computers I had access to had very limited memories with Teletype input/output: you typed in a command and waited for the computer to type out a response. That limited me to programming simple card games and puzzle-type games like Nim. I must have programmed Blackjack onto four or five different computer systems in high school and college.

MT> What computer platform were you using?
KR> We had a DEC computer - a PDP 5 I think - for a couple of months. Some company - maybe Digital Equipment itself - was trying to sell it to the high school. It was programmed in a BASIC-like language called FOCAL.

We could also use punch cards to send FORTRAN programs to a local college to run on their IBM 360. It'd take about a week to send out the cards and get a printout back of the run. Obviously no good for games.

Most of my work was on the Bendix G-15. This was a 1950s-era vacuum tube computer the size of a refrigerator. UCLA had donated it to our high school's electronics lab. The G-15 was great, because you could hook up an oscilloscope to its rotating magnetic drum memory and watch bits turn on and off as instructions were executed. All the coding was in machine language or a simple assembly language. It was a real lesson in how a computer works.

MT> What was development like for your Tron Solar Sailor?
KR> It was difficult to work on Solar Sailer because Mattel Electronics was growing at a breakneck pace. When I started we were in temporary quarters in the Mattel Toys building. After a month or two were were moved into our own building - where we were without development systems for a few weeks.

Because of the massive hiring, midway through the game I was promoted into a managerial position and suddenly was interviewing, hiring, training and supervising new programmers and graphic artists.

Then they decided to send me to France to set up a development office there. So I had an absolute drop-dead deadline of finishing the game before I left.

So I never had a chance to really step back and look at the design of the game. I'm happy with a lot of the graphics in it, but I look back at it now and can see how rushed my work was. I wish I had had the time to play with it more back then and try to make it more fun.


MT> The identities of the Blue Sky Rangers were kept confidential so that competitors could not try and lure such talent away from Mattel Electronics? Were you ever envious of the Activision programmers which left Atari to become household names to millions of game players?
KR> There was a constant fight from the beginning for name recognition on the cartridges and royalties on game sales. It took a lot of our programmers defecting to Activision and Atari before the company finally gave in midway through 1983. A few of the later 1983 releases do have the programmers listed on the packaging.

MT> When individuals like me call on you for an interview like this one, do you ever wish that your identity stayed anonymous?
KR>I run around the Classic Gaming Expo wearing a BurgerTime apron and chef's hat. You think I want to be anonymous?

MT> How did you feel about supervising the production of titles for the Colecovision and other competing game platforms?
KR> Great - it's always a challenge to learn a new system. I just made sure I would still control some Intellivision development, since I knew that Intellivision would always be the focal point of Mattel Electronics.

MT> What was your reaction when you were informed that Mattell Electronics had sold the Intellivision rights to INTV Corp. in 1984?
KR> Not much at first. We had all been laid off by that time, and we assumed that INTV would just liquidate the remaining stock of Intellivision consoles and games and then shut down. It was quite a surprise when they actually started making new games in 1985. That was pretty exciting since David Warhol produced them. Dave and I were friends from Mattel and usually had lunch a couple times a week. His company - Realtime Associates - was actually in his living room at the time, so I was able to hang out and watch the new games coming together. And then I started working on them - writing the instruction manuals and designing the packaging.

MT> Obviously this change provided further opportunities, as you founded your own graphic design firm, Strand Cruisers, which created package art for the new Intellivision games released by INTV. What type of work did you design for Realtime Associates and Quicksilver Software?
KR> I drew up storyboards for Realtime for game concepts Dave was trying to sell. Some got produced - like The Rocketeer, Out of Gas, and Q*Bert IV - others died. Some of the art I did for the storyboards occasionally made its way into the actual games for character designs and cut screens.

For Quicksilver I did the actual graphics and animations for several children's educational games, including Kid Keys, Cyber Snacks and Gearing Up. Real cute stuff.


MT> In mid 1995, the Blue Sky Rangers emerged again on the world wide web. Did you imagine that thousands of nostalgic individuals would visit in such force?
KR> I originally started the site for the Blue Sky Rangers themselves as a place to swap stories - I didn't think anyone else would be interested. But after seeing some discussions in news groups about Intellivision, I posted a message inviting people to drop by. We were all quite surprised - and quite pleased - at the traffic the site started generating.

MT> You purchased the rights to the Intellivision system and many games a little over three years ago with another previous Mattell employee, Stephen Roney. You have released Intellivision Lives! And soon, Intellivision Rocks will be available. What's next?
KR> Handhelds. The classic games are perfect for Game Boy, cell phones, Palm Pilots. These are systems where you are more likely to want to play a quick, simple game - an Intellivision game. You're waiting in a restaurant for a friend to arrive - so you whip out your cell phone and play some Astrosmash. I'm really looking forward to that.

We're also always looking for things we can do for the collectors. It's a balancing act. In order to stay in business, we have to concentrate on markets with mass appeal, like the PlayStation version we did with Activision a couple of years ago. It sold well over 100,000 copies. That in turn helped finance our publishing some previously unreleased Atari 2600 and ColecoVision cartridges last year. They'll probably never sell more than a couple hundred copies each, but it's fun to do stuff for the real fans - the ones who keep the actual consoles alive after 20 years. That's why we love coming to the Classic Gaming Expo. I hope we can release some more "lost" cartridges there next year. We're working on it.


MT> Explain a 'Day in the Life' as the President of Intellivision Productions?
KR> I have a home office where I do development work and handle e-mail. Then there is the actual Intellivision office, which is in a building about a two-minute walk from my house. I usually go over there sometime mid-morning. That's where Lisa Dawson works - she manages the day-to-day operation of the company.

We go over all sorts of administrative stuff - marketing, publicity, new products. Most of it is a lot of fun - planning what's next. But there's also a lot of paperwork and legal matters to deal with.

Our VP, Stephen Roney, works on development from his home - usually in the evenings and on weekends since he has a fulltime day job. He and I check in at night by phone a few times a week.

So it can be an all-day and all-night job. But I love it, and there's enough flexibility in my schedule that I can still do cartooning.

MT> What is the relationship between your comic strip, 'Making It' and the Sega Genesis game 'Normy's Beach-Babe-O-Rama' by Electronic Arts?
KR> When I was doing storyboards for Dave Warhol, I put one together for a game based on my own comic strip. Dave sold the idea to EA, and Dave's company Realtime Associates did the programming. The idea was to do a wacky, cartoony game that would spoof other video game themes. It was a lot of fun - I'd go to lunch with Dave and the producer and maybe some of the programmers and we'd brainstorm goofy ideas. Then I'd draw them up and they'd put them into the game.

I was very happy with the results. Unfortunately, it was a side-scrolling game that came out just after the market had shifted from side-scrollers to fighting games, so most of the reviews were, "Another side scroller? Yawn." No one seemed to catch on to the humor. I don't care; I think it's great.

Maybe in 10 years the Sega Genesis will be the hot retrogame console and Normy will be rediscovered. I've got my fingers crossed.


Good Deal Games recognizes Keith's contributions to classic gaming,
and his continued support to modern day classic gaming!


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