Making of Karateka and Making of Prince of Persia book reviews

April 20, 2015

The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia

I recently finished reading Jordan Mechner’s two books – journals on the development process behind Karateka and Prince of Persia. These books are very useful to design scholars, game historians, and game designers, so I am very grateful that Mechner decided to publish.

As a game design scholar, seeing the development process behind two legendary titles in such minute detail is incredibly important, not only for better understanding the development process, but also the mind of a designer, the development of his creative process, and his evolution as a creator. It is interesting to see Mechner change from an arcade game designer influenced more by games such as Asteroids and Spacewar and thinking more along derivative lines to creating something brand new. We can also see how strongly the influence of film and Mechner’s ambitions to be a screenwriter influenced the creation of Karateka and Prince and ultimately lead to The Last Express. We can also see how Mechner created these games on nearly a daily basis, pinpointing key moments in time such as the first film recording of Robert Mechner for Karateka or Jordan’s arrival in San Francisco. Looking at the historical context of Broderbund and the PC software industry gives greater understanding to the world in which Karateka and Prince emerged from (including petty arguments inside Broderbund that had profound effects on the development process and marketing) as well as what games and ideas Mechner was thinking about at the time.

As a historian, I was also deeply interested in some of Mechner’s statements regarding the “death” of the computer games industry and how beginning in 1983 royalty payments were nowhere near what they used to be. This is another bit of insight into the Crash period since although personal computers seem to have been selling very well, the games software industry was not proving to be very profitable (probably partly due to piracy). Furthermore, Mechner’s journal entries regarding his royalties and sales from Karateka and Prince can actually be cross-referenced today from the Strong Museum of Play’s Doug Carlston collections, which show the actual sales figures from Broderbund and associated royalty payments. This is just another instance where a historical artifact’s value is greatly enhanced when placed in context with related artifacts. (Incidentally, Mechner’s continued mention of Billboard also lead me to a veritable treasure trove of articles from the magazine’s 1982-1984 issues.)

As a designer, Mechner’s journals underscore the importance of documenting the creative process and recording one’s thoughts and feelings during development. On the one hand, the young Mechner seems a little arrogant in his insistence that Karateka will be the greatest game ever made – how many other young artists have thought the same of their own work? – but he is also more than justified, considering the technical and artistic innovations he was implementing. Admittedly, I may be a little jealous and jaded at this point in my life, but the key point I want to emphasize here is that it is incredibly useful to students of design to have journals like this and that more designers should keep journals and actively record and reflect on the design practice.

I have to admit I have never played Karateka and Prince of Persia the entire way through (typically, such a statement is tantamount to suicide within game studies, but here I feel it is illustrative to how the journals have impacted me). When I first saw Karateka on the Apple II (can’t recall if it was pirated or not), I remember the game as brutally difficult so it wasn’t terribly appealing to my eleven-year-old self. However, I recalled the graphics fondly (and the amazing sound from the NES version), particularly the experimental use of cuts and the game’s overall cinematic quality, which were revolutionary and still stand as unique in my view. Needless to say, I included Karateka in my Art History of Videogames course. Incidentally, I am also curious why the panther doesn’t seem to have been implemented in the Karateka remake.

I had similar feelings from Prince of Persia. Once again, brutally difficult, but I was also playing the SNES version (I think) and was used to smoother action games like Mario and Castlevania. Oddly enough, I do remember playing demos of Flashback and Another World on the Mac and finding the science fiction settings far more appealing than medieval Persia – kind of ironic since Flashback is considered a ‘ripoff’ of Prince… (Incidentally, Another World was pretty disturbing since you could die in so many gruesome ways.) Watching playback videos sort of reinforced this idea since there is a lot of repetition in the set design and puzzle structure. However, hearing Mechner discuss the potions and Shadow Prince made me realize the game is far more dynamic and makes me interested in giving it a more detailed play, particularly looking at it from its context as swan song for the Apple II and poster child for the Macintosh.

I am also more than a little interested in whether the journals to The Last Express will be published. Surely there is mention of Myst somewhere, since Mechner keeps stating how he wants to revolutionize the adventure game…

If there is one thing missing from these books, I think it is more detailed reflections from Mechner on the usefulness of these journals. What did Mechner learn by reviewing the journals, and what sort of appreciation does he have for the work he did as a young adult versus a mature designer? And what did Mechner glean while creating the Karateka remake? (The journal and the game were both published in November 2012.) For instance, how was the panther that was cut from the original considered with regards to the remake?

These sorts of insights would help underscore the usefulness of journals to their authors rather than simply to other students of design, scholars, and historians and perhaps encourage other designers to be more reflective in their practice.

Mistakes Were Made: Computer History Conference Report

April 20, 2015

On April 17, there was a full-day computer history conference at NYU called Mistakes Were Made coordinated by Laine Nooney, one of my fellow game historians. The focus of the conference was on retellings of histories that had been ‘gotten wrong’ through mistakes or omissions and examining areas of history that have been omitted or outright ignored. Although New York is quite a long way from Orlando and I didn’t have any travel budget, the conference was streamed via Periscope. The app was very effective in showing decent video of the conference – most importantly in realtime – although it was difficult to make out text on the slides and hard to make out audio in a few sessions.

My general question on the conference as a whole was how much of these historical mistakes were due to inadequacies of the initial historians and lack of material in the historical record and how much was purposefully omitted. My gut feeling is that many of these histories were forgotten simply because the historians who wrote it weren’t aware. This seems to have been the case with the Turkish computers, as they were classified inventions. (I have, however, e-mailed Ramsay Nasser regarding whether they corresponded with British computer scientists.)

The role of Fidonet and the BBS in the formation of the Internet was also clearly something that was unknown to the authors of history books – which is surprising, considering Levy’s Hackers was supposed to cover things of this nature.

I suspect some historians might have heard bits of information on things such as the Turkish computers or BBS, but it did not fit into their preconceived notions of computing history, and so were ignored as outliers.

As someone who is exploring the history of videogames and finding new and obscure information, the limitations of current game history books is certainly deep in my mind. What computing history needs is a diversity of voices, and this conference does a great job at providing this and reminding us.

Anyway, here are my notes, per popular request. They were originally posted on Facebook, but nobody reads that anymore, and my blog is a much better permanent home for them.

Ramsay Nasser just showed us research on Ottoman projectile trajectory calculating devices – Turkish computers from 1914! Devastating and deadly accurate at the Battle of Gallipoli, but creator was killed in battle. Subsequent mass-produced devices were error-prone. Turkey lost the war, and after 1920 the surviving scientists went to work at universities in Beirut. They made the calculators more general-purpose (on paper) and created computer programming models.

So there were other places in the world working on computers other than Britain in WW2. Finances made it impossible to make an actual working computer.

Note: The Turkish programmers were aware of Babbage. Similarities here to Konrad Zuse and Leonardo Torves y Quevedo, which I’ve e-mailed Nasser about.

Stephanie Dick talked about automating solving proofs. Intuition is automated through a weighting mechanism; inference is through the resolution system. Unfortunately, solving proofs isn’t very useful since it doesn’t tell us WHY the proof is true. The inventor of the resolution system, John Alan Robinson, even verifies that it is not useful for solving problems in mathematics! – OOPS!

Q&A Session: Nasser: The stories being told by the great powers of the world are the stories that continue to be told. [i.e. the victors write the history]

This suggests pushing a culture that is presumed to be superior (i.e. to program, you need to know English, since programming is in English).

Stephanie Dick talked about automation – breaking down complex math problems into simpler systems and having women computers in the 1940s solve them. This is the same thing the French did in the 1840s when calculating the territory of France, only it was barbers! (Barbers weren’t in great demand after the Revolution since they had primarily served the elite, yet they had the level of education to solve basic math problems. Other people would be enlisted to solve the problems next level up. Babbage attempted to automate this, but the French did it arguably more cheaply by hiring unskilled mathematicians to do the menial tasks and having their work be cross-checked by comparing with another unskilled laborer.)

Jason Scott‘s talk on Fidonet (BBS) was entertaining and informative.

Lesson 1: If you’re working on a documentary/historical project, and people might die soon – don’t worry about funding – JUST DO IT!!

Lesson 2: ZIP format destroyed the lives of the people who made it

Lesson 3: Computer stories aren’t just hardware stories: they are human stories, too. You can tell a story about numbers, but that doesn’t tell the human side – how it affected people’s lives. You don’t get that just by talking with the people who manufactured it – you need to talk to the people who sold it, who used it, who made businesses with it, and how that technology affected their lives.

Kevin Driscoll had a great talk on BBS as the alternate history of the Internet. Internet wasn’t a product of Silicon Valley or ARPANET, but rather the BBS because that was how people were using it for everyday things – fun things.

BBS system was made possible since the telephone system was integrated throughout the country and the plugs, addressing, etc. was all standardized and didn’t require special technicians.

The original hobbyist computer users were amateur CB radio users, and the first articles were also published in CB radio magazines.

One problem with recording this history is it hasn’t been systematically collected – it’s stored as property of individual users (in their garages, attics, storage units, etc.). It’s very costly and time-consuming to preserve this stuff.

This basically parallels my research: nobody has studied it because the material isn’t easy to find and wasn’t part of the histories earlier historians and journalists wanted to tell.

Q&A Session summary:

Jason Scott‘s wisdom:

Feb 1995 – WinSock released. This was the end of the BBS.

Also: You can get completely blackballed for counterfeiting vintage Apple II software and trying to sell it on eBay.

His comments were summed up as: Save everything. Entropy is awesome.

Stacy Horn gave an interesting history of Echo – East Coast Hang-Out, an early conferencing software. She wanted to help open up the Internet to women and discussions about things outside of tech and games.

“When they first get online, people recreate the world as they always see it.” – Thus the Internet doesn’t create anything new.

She implemented three important rules that current sites have trouble with:

1. No anonymity.
2. Rules about harassment.
3. Private conferences.

Interestingly, pictures of Horn from tech magazines of the time (including Wired) show her as “sexy” – the photography team brought makeup artists, wardrobes, and put her in cheesecake poses. This is early 1990s. Early Photoshop basically.

Joy Rankin had a great history of personal computing (teletypes in schools) in Minnesota and the development of MECC. However, it was difficult to hear the audio. Sent her a big e-mail.

Note GCC was in Minnesota. Not sure why computing companies grew in this area though. (Or where the closest DEC factory was…) I also am asking her about this.

Erica Robles-Anderson had a FANTASTIC keynote speech about PowerPoint!

PowerPoint is used by EVERYBODY – high schools, board meetings, international assemblies, churches, product pitches and business plans…EVERYTHING!!!

PowerPoint originates in 1987. It remediates older technology such as the memo (late 19th Century), the DuPont Chart (WWI), slide projector, overhead projector…

The story starts with Robert Haskins, who worked for the Hunt Company and visited Eastman-Kodak where he saw the Kodak carousel and started to think about how this could be done more efficiently with computers. This lead to the development of Presenter, which looked a LOT like PowerPoint.

Microsoft bought the company. They also bought a company called Genographics that had been making images for NASA, government, and industry. They partnered with Microsoft Graphical Business Unit – Genographics designed all the icons and graphics you see in PowerPoint!

People are used to seeing slides today since they are used everywhere. However, slides have less information than the memo – they require the presenter in order to make sense. (PowerPoint also operates like it’s 1987 – we have high-res images today and terabytes of data – something unimaginable 30 years ago – very surprising nothing has killed it yet).

Art History was made possible via the Magic Lantern, which allowed historians to show images of art and talk about it. Heinrich Wolfflein invents the double slide projection, which allows two images to be compared and revolutionizes the field.

This aside is important since PowerPoint only shows ONE image. It presents a culture of sameness since everyone uses PowerPoint. This culture needs to be documented. It also needs to be questioned:

“We should be critiquing the tools by which we make knowledge every single day.”

This will lead to a greater diversity in speech.

Strong Fellowship Research Report

March 1, 2015

From January 19 to February 7, I spent three weeks at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY on a competitive research fellowship to study their archives for information on the various videogame industry crashes, shakeouts, and slumps of the 1970s and early ’80s. The purpose of this study was to shed new light on this confusing period of the history of videogames in order to better understand the forces at work. This could best be done by researching the primary sources – magazines and journals printed at the time – rather than relying on analyses made in general videogame history books written decades after the events. It is critical to the study of games and game history to have access to these primary sources because they allow us to see what developers, journalists, analysts, and players were thinking of videogames at the time.

During the course of the fellowship, I wrote a series of daily blog posts, which you can read below. In short, the fellowship was a fantastic experience, and I more than accomplished all the goals I set out to achieve. I had access to materials unavailable almost anywhere else and had the funding that allowed me to spend time at the museum. This is especially important since I otherwise would not have the income to afford such a massive research trip.

During my fellowship, I captured some 10,000 images – literal photocopies of all the magazines, catalogs, and documents mentioned in the daily blogs below. None of this material is available digitally through places such as the Internet Archive or Digital Press, meaning the Strong is one of the only places in the world where a scholar can have access to them – and in the case of the development documents, it is the only place.

Furthermore, the true value of collections like the Strong lies not simply in their completeness, but rather in their proximity to related material. For instance, the Strong’s RePlay and Play Meter collections are missing many issues – sometimes entire years – and this is one area that needs improving. However, while more complete collections exist at the Library of Congress and in Chicago, the Strong is singularly important in that it places arcade industry trade publications not within a general collection, but specifically within a context of game and play studies, surrounded by the games discussed within their pages and easily connected with gamer magazines, and toy publications, as well as the notes and records of the developers who made them. Arguably, it is the proximity of such objects within the collection that gives Play Meter and RePlay greater value than they would have elsewhere, and this demands a more complete collection. Indeed, it is perhaps within the best interests of the publishers themselves to help provide the Strong and other museums with back issues, much as they did for early game writers such as Steve Bloom (Video Invaders, 1982) and Craig Kubey (The Winners’ Book of Video Games, 1982). Furthermore, the digitization of such journals – or at the very least, their indexes – would allow researchers from all over the world to access such valuable materials more conveniently, just as one can now access large collections of gamer magazines and books via the Internet Archive and the Digital Press Library.

Sorting through all the collected research and their contents will take a considerable amount of time, but already I can see several areas of focused research emerging:

  • A comprehensive text on the various industry crashes as a whole.
  • A specific text on the major shakeouts of 1982-1985.
  • Correlating quantitative data from top selling game charts from arcade, home, and computer games to determine the impact of home conversions on arcade performance.
  • Comparison of top 30 list in Softalk with Broderbund and Software Publishers Association data.
  • The usefulness of such charts for determining a list of impactful games.
  • Analysis of arcade industry reflections on the shakeout of 1982.
  • Discussion of videogames sales in 1984 and 1985 when they were supposedly ‘dead’.
  • Analysis of toy industry reflections on handheld electronic games in 1980 and console games in 1983.
  • Detailed analysis of the electronic handheld game industry 1976-1983.
  • Detailed analysis of dedicated home TV games, 1975-1979.
  • Specific reflections on Nintendo’s early arcade games.
  • The context of R.O.B. The Robot and the Nintendo Entertainment System launch.

And in addition:

  • Further editing my paper on The Sumerian Game.
  • In-depth research on Burgeson’s Baseball simulation.

Overall, the amount of material suggests that several articles can be published as a result of this research fellowship, as well as the final goal of integration into a larger book. However, the sheer volume of data also suggests the possibility of a book dedicated to the game industry shakeouts, slumps, and crashes of 1976-1986.

Unfortunately, there is still more data to collect. I still need to conduct a comprehensive analysis of Billboard magazine as well as locate key missing issues of RePlay and Play Meter – particularly as regards the equipment user polls, without which the quantitative data analysis is fairly useless. It is my hope my research and experiences will help provide an index for future game historians.

My recommendations for game scholarship is to make use of valuable archives in places like the Strong. Access to primary source documents from magazines and trade publications provides insight that is simply impossible to obtain through readings of secondary and tertiary sources, such as game history books and articles. Furthermore, archival documentation is simply unavailable elsewhere. In interests of time, scholars are highly recommended to use iPads, smartphones, or tablets to capture data in lieu of digital cameras and photocopying or scanning large amounts of text.

My recommendation for the Strong is to continue collecting artifacts and publications, just as they are doing now, particularly in key areas such as trade publications. However, I also foresee a greater need for indexing of these collections, as well as their digitization. The latter suggests a profound impact on game scholarship, particularly when compared with the Internet Archive Magazine Collection and Digital Play Library. Achieving the first goal will obviously require extensive acquisitions through purchase and donation and may require publisher cooperation; indexing and digitization, on the other hand, will require extensive manpower, perhaps through outside collaboration, and the latter will specifically involve issues of digital rights management. Hopefully, indexes of the Strong’s holdings can eventually be cross-referenced with those of other major archives, such as Stanford University Library’s Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection and the Library of Congress’s videogames collection.

Game studies has evolved greatly since the publication of Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games and Leonard Herman’s Phoenix 3rd Edition in 2001. The past decade and a half has seen not only the digitization of libraries, but also the rise of user contributed digital archives, the development of sophisticated search tools to make such collections more usable, and the establishment of museums, libraries, and archives dedicated to videogames. This has been accompanied by renewed interest in the history of the medium, particularly through new and insightful interviews with industry professionals and creators, but also through focused historical research. The tools available to a modern scholar of game history were simply unavailable to authors such as Kent and Herman at the turn of the century, and the availability of such tools has profound implications on future historical research. It is for this reason that institutions such as the Strong are so important and the availability of fellowships to allow researchers – particularly those with stretched economic means – is invaluable.

Strong Fellowship – Day Final!

February 7, 2015

I completed it! The remaining issues of Softalk (including the scant few IBM PC Softalk – surprisingly, very little game coverage, as the top-selling software was basically word processors and spreadsheets). Got to check out a couple Telstar products (Pong and Tank). Digitized the 39 Sumerian Game slides (history has been saved!!). And scanned the James Burgeson archive. There was a little time left over to go through some gamer magazines I was curious about – another hour and I would have gone through them all!

Overall, the trip has been an amazing success. I went through hundreds of magazines, archival documents, and other miscellany with over 10,000 images collected in 3 weeks (13 working days!). Here’s a quick recap:

  • Play Meter (coin-op industry trade magazine)
  • RePlay (ditto)
  • Playthings (toy industry trade magazine)
  • Softalk (Apple II user magazine)
  • Ralph Baer papers
  • Don Daglow papers
  • Don Carlson papers (there sure are a lot of game developers named ‘Don’)
  • Jerry Lawson papers
  • James Burgeson papers
  • 1970s and early ’80s news clippings
  • Sumerian Game slides
  • Gamer magazines (various)
  • Played some electronic handhelds and TV games
  • Played Computer Space (two-player!)

Wow! Note the Burgeson papers, Sumerian Game slides, Computer Space, and gamer magazines were basically icing on the top, as they weren’t 100% relevant to my research on the crash. I had to be extremely efficient in order to get everything done – sure am glad JP Dyson told me about all that in week 1!

I will be in Rochester until about 5 PM tomorrow – plane transfer in Philly means I get back sometime after 11, provided there aren’t any flight problems. It will be good to be back in Orlando. I’ll write a more detailed analysis of the entire trip and what I got out of it, but there’s one thing I can say for sure: this was INCREDIBLY productive, and I can foresee months of solid research analysis and several papers – possibly a book – from the trip. Yahoo!!

Strong Fellowship – Day 16

February 6, 2015

I have to admit… The weather here is really starting to get to me. Past week and particularly yesterday were kind of brutal. There’s too much gray, and I’m tired of trudging through snow and slush. The sidewalks are mostly clear, but there’s a good layer of packed snow and some corners aren’t properly cleared. Well, one more day of this. My flight leaves tomorrow at 5 PM, so there’s a chance I could get delayed. Same with Philadelphia where my transfer is… I hear there’s a massive storm scheduled for Sunday, so I hope it waits until AFTER I leave to strike!

It looks like I can’t upload any video of the handhelds in action, so I guess if I want to share experiences with playing, that will have to be through collector copies – or maybe via Learning Games Initiative…not sure on that one.

I’ve gone through most of Softalk – just about 12 more months left, and these are fairly narrow issues. Then there’s some Softalk IBM PC. Actually, with all the videogames I still need to play and look at (taking detailed impression notes) and the stack of gamer mags, PLUS copying these slides, I MIGHT not complete EVERYTHING I intended to do… Softalk is a priority, and the slides I can label as kind of essential. It depends on how long it takes to scan a slide, but the archivist can do those at a later date if I don’t get around to them.

I’m not sure if there is anything else left in the archives that’s of interest, but tomorrow looks like it will be pretty packed.

I had some udon for lunch, which was tasty, but cut into my time. I hope I have time to get sushi tomorrow! I always feel happy after that! I’ve also been fatigued from lack of sleep and the long walks and probably not eating as well as I should. Exercise is important for doing sedentary research, but having the right calories and nutrients goes hand in hand with that.

I suppose if there’s one more thing on my list, it’s to view the records of the baseball simulator, but that’s not related to the Crash – more to my research of pre-1973 games. Otherwise, if I can finish going through Softalk, I will have more than accomplished what I set out to do, incomplete records in the archive notwithstanding. This was an incredibly productive trip, and I can’t wait to get back (take a rest) and start the seroius work of sorting through this enormous stack of photocopies.

Strong Fellowship – Day 16

February 5, 2015

Only two days left in the fellowship. I spent today looking over the rest of the Broderbund folders (Software Publishers Association records), the Don Daglow files (the Intellivision sales records weren’t as useful as I hoped) and SSI (sales records are fantastic, plus a couple magazines on history of computer games). I also backed up the photos I’d taken – looks like it’s somewhere in the range of 10,000 o_O That’s going to be an awful lot of work organizing them for research use…

I also started going through Softalk. There’s about two or three years of the magazine left, along with some issues of the IBM. Hopefully I can complete those tomorrow.

The other thing I looked at were a few handheld electronics. I never played any of the LED games from the period (grew up with Tiger handhelds, but those and Game & Watch are LCD technology, which is different). In some ways, the Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Galaga games are actually more sophisticated than the LCD games because there is a much wider range of motion and possibility. You can get pretty fluid action out of a 6×8 playfield for Invaders than what I remember the Tiger handhelds being. I haven’t really been able to record a lot of video since it’s hard to see the game in action (I was thinking of maybe doing Let’s Play, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to share gameplay footage – will have to ask about that tomorrow). One other thing to keep in mind is that the Pac-Man and Galaga games weren’t meant to be handheld – not only do they take four C batteries each (which means they weigh a ton) but they were modeled after arcade upright and cocktail cabinets. So it’s unusual for players today, who are used to holding.

Tomorrow: finish Softalk, play some more LED games, and give a list of magazines to pull for research tomorrow (90s gaming mags and Japanese mags). Then Friday I copy slides and go through what’s left. I wonder if I’ll be able to visit either RIT or the museum again on Saturday – my flight leaves at 5, so I’ve got the whole day.

Strong Fellowship – Day 15

February 4, 2015

Closing up on the last few days of the fellowship, and today ended quite well! The roads were pretty clear this morning since the storm is over and they were plowed – including sidewalks. Weather was fine. I didn’t get too much sleep, so breakfast was kind of rough, as was lunch break, but I went through a lot of interesting material.

The Broderbund collection has some excellent sales records, which give a month-to-month look at the sales of notable games like Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? This is exactly the sort of material I was looking for. What was surprising was home productivity software like Print Shop sold far more than the bestselling game: about 140,000 units on the Apple II by November 1987 versus 60,000 units of Choplifter on the Apple II! However, I suspect there were FAR more than 60,000 copies of Choplifter out there due to software piracy… It would be impossible to tell what the figures are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that only accounts for 10% of what was actually out there. I suspect “Home Production” software like Print Shop sold better because it was targeted at adults who would not have considered “copying that floppy” since, you know, you have to buy stuff legally.

It looks like the SSI collection might have good sales figures, too, and the Dan Daglo papers have sales figures for Intellivision! So I copied a lot of these Broderbund records and will look over them in greater detail when I get back. Oh, did I mention they have manufacturing figures for Famicom and NES games? Yup – they ordered an initial run of 30,000 Choplifter cartridges. Another interesting find were some product update documents that list all the software in development and their status. It was fun to find Wings of Fury in development under the working title Hellcat Warrior.

So tomorrow I should be going through the rest of the Broderbund collection, along with the Dan Daglo and SSI collection. Probably the Gerald Lawson papers as well, since he should have some information on Channel F performance. Beyond that, I want to look at Softalk, and there are a few gaming mags from the ’90s and Japanese magazines I want to look through for my personal interest. These and copying my Sumerian Game slides are reserved for Friday. Oh, the 64GB flash drive I ordered came in the mail, too, so I will be backing up all the images I captured in case something happens to one of the SD cards.

It’s kind of weird realizing that there are only three days of research left, too. I feel I could have prepared better by going through the search guides for the other collections, but I guess there was some communication trouble between me and the archivists, so I didn’t realize what exactly they wanted me to tell them until late last week. But I got a hell of a lot done and am excited to find out what I will see tomorrow!

Aside from that, my aunt and uncle from Syracuse visited, and we had a fantastic dinner at The Old Toad after showing them around the museum. What a great way to end the day!

Strong Fellowship – Day 12-14

February 2, 2015

Quick weekend overview: Walked to the Eastman House on Saturday – 3 miles in the freezing snow – and saw an excellent exhibit on Technicolor and history of photography and the house itself. Apparently if you get the tour, you get a detailed overview of all the gizmos and innovations Eastman added to the place. I find it disconcerting to see ashtrays made out of the hooves of giant beasts everywhere. He was a philanthropist though and donated his fortunes to the university. I then stopped at the Strong again on the way back and played some arcade games. Sunday was mostly spent watching MST3K and eating junk food. I felt icky afterward, but a nice change of pace.

Today the Strong closed at 11:45 due to “inclement weather” – that being the blizzard from hell. Actually, I didn’t think it was that bad, although the walk in got pretty nasty after the first mile. I was allowed to stay until 2:30 when Chris Benj drove me back.

I went through some of Ralph Baer’s papers. It was kind of emotional seeing the records of this great inventor who I’d only talked to briefly via e-mail and never got to meet face-to-face. Most of the records are at the Smithsonian, but this contained some information on Maze-A-Tron (useful to my research), the TV Zapper (fun, but not so useful), and Cable TV Games (kind of useful). The rest of the material are his descriptions of the different TV Games prototypes and how they were recreated.

I have to say Baer may have been kind of sober, but the guy had to have a serious playful side – he came up with a frikkin lazer gun to scramble the TV signals during a commercial and display an image of Death Valley. That’s serious fun! The CTVG records were also useful since they were done in a reaction to electronic handhelds and new game systems with interchangeable cartridges. Really too ahead of its time…

I also went through a binder full of Atari memos. The most useful documents were accounts of the JAMMA show (1985 I believe) and visit to Namco. Specific information on sales figures for different games, as well as a listing of the Namco corporate structure. The AMOA show records reviewed every game present.

They had a small selection of gamer magazines that I hadn’t gone through yet, but went through those pretty quickly.

I am a bit distressed – I could actually run out of things to research! I hear the Strong has a large collection of Softalk though – these aren’t digitized on Archive.org yet, but there is a fan project in the process. I was told this was a good magazine to check so far as the computer game industry was concerned, but it only covers Apple. If anyone knows of publications computer game developers would read before 1986 (other than Computer Gaming World), I am all ears!

Strong Fellowship – Day 11

January 31, 2015

End of Week 2. That means five work days left. I’m kind of sad that it’s 2/3 over – back to reality in about 8 days – but I got an awful lot accomplished and I suspect will be able to make at least three or four papers and articles out of this trip.

I’ve finished going through nearly all the publications. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on TV games in the 1977 issues of Playthings (going backwards, and December was pretty dead). However, the 1978 issues contain a lot of interesting information on how handheld electronics were selling, and 1979 had several articles. Extremely valuable information, and it reminded me to request handheld games to try out. Unfortunately, those are typically in the worst shape, so I might not be able to try any next week… I didn’t know exactly which ones I would be looking for until today, and they have to test everything out. Hence the situation – never good to have something continually evolving in an archive. But I WILL say to my credit I listed ‘and several electronic games’ on the list, just not specifying which ones. D’oh! I think it would have been easier if you could search by year in the Online Collections rather than just by keyword and company…

It’s kind of funny to look at the predictions for where the industry will be 10 years from now (or even 20 – one purported to estimate what the toy industry would be like in the 21st century). One might as well predict the stock market or the weather in 20 years. Especially when deadling with electronics. The field eolves so rapidly that it could change completely in six months to a year. Prediting “more of what happened last year” is typically accurate in most cases.

I also kind of feel the toy industry is incredibly hit-driven and everyone is trying to guess what the next hot product will be so they can order a bunch of it. Then when the average (i.e. not smart) retailer orders too much product and there’s a glut, he has to sell at rock-bottom prices. Gold rush mentality and all that. But videogames by nature are trendy – they need to continually improve, or you have more of the same. LED handhelds were replaced by LCDs. Then cartridge-based systems replaced the LCDs. Everybody was ordering more of the same knock-off LED games when the market had already completely shifted. If you’re part of a boom-bust mentality and looking for trendy product, then you’ll think the market is dead when it’s actually just moving on to a different phase.

Anyway, next week will involve looking at the Ralph Baer papers, an Atari binder, hopefully some videogames, and maybe a few more issues of Playthings. Then try and locate some gamer magazines that aren’t on Archive.org. After that, there are some gamer magazines from the ’90s I wanted to look at as well as some Japanese magazines for personal research – I understand they have an awful lot of Famitsu in the collection. And that may be it! I’m not sure if there is any more information I can get about the computer game industry from the corporate side, but that’s something I really need. Same with player crossover between console, arcade, and computer. There might be some user data in gamer publications, and then there’s the NPD and Yankee Group figures, but that will probably require searching newspapers. Maybe there are Broderbund and Sierra Online corporate data in collections…

Some other advice (to be finalized at the end): If you’re photocopying magazines, take a tablet with at least 32GB of storage – 64GB is a good minimum. Make sure you have a way to put a copy of the data onto something else, like a laptop or external hard drive. I used close to 16GB a week taking photos, but if you need video, that’s obviously more. So 16GB/week, multiplied by 2, and that’s how much storage minimum you should bring. That way, if something terrible happens, you’ve got a data backup. Not sure how I can solve this, but I may be buying a 32 or 64GB USB stick and having it shipped over Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, I have no clue what I would use a 64GB stick for aside from this project, but it’s only $22…

Strong Fellowship – Day 11

January 29, 2015

Today was quite interesting and fairly productive. I went through 1981 and started on 1980 of Playthings. This period covers the rapid rise of home consoles and the shakeout of electronic handheld games. In 1979, demand soared while a chip shortage prevented manufacturers from making enough – everyone sold out, including crappy products. In 1980, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of knockoffs, and many manufacturers produced and overproduced assuming it would sell. What was worse, retailers bought all this crap without understanding what would actually sell. Buyers became more discerning, since they now had choice and there was no shortage, and as a result, retailers had to sell at closeout prices to dump bad inventory. If two stores were close together – particularly a big chain store like K Mart – and the larger store ordered too much product, they’d cut prices, and the other store would be forced to match in order to move product. As a result, many games sold either slightly above or below cost, so there was very little margin. People got burned and decried handhelds as dead. (They weren’t – manufacturers got smarter, technology improved, and the smart retailers scaled back and only purchased what was in demand.) This same boom-bust mentality appears to be the exact same thing that shook out the TV tennis market in 1977 and later the home console market in 1983. It’s also a huge missing piece of the puzzle (currently looking for more coverage of the computer game industry in this period as well as evidence of audience crossover between console, arcade, and computer).

I also went through catalogs for Coleco, Magnavox, Mattel, and Atari. Coleco’s were quite informative, as they contained shipping order forms, which list the purchase cost. So these numbers can be compared with sales data. Unfortunately, there weren’t any order forms for 1983 and 1984. Some interesting info:

  • The Telstar line (standalone home TV games) ran up through 1982, with two of the more complex products. Unsure if this was back stock or they were still being manufactured.
  • There are no Coleco games in the 1983 catalog (odd), but a two-page spread in the 1984 catalog. None in the 1985 catalog. The 1983 catalog can probably be explained away as there being a separate ColecoVision catalog, which the museum does not have.
  • Coleco had pretty nasty ads comparing their handheld electronic football games with Mattel’s.

There was only one Magnavox catalog (1977) with an order sheet. The Atari catalogs were less useful, but they had an advertising brochure that was fun to look through. Mattel’s wasn’t terribly useful, but I think they had an order sheet.

There was also a DVD containing about 1 GB of PDFs with game news articles from the 1970s and early 1980s – incredibly useful for researching the Crash (or Shakeouts, as it might be better described – plural, since there was home console, handheld electronic, coin-op, and TV tennis; there was also a home computer hardware shakeout, but I don’t have any information yet on how that affected computer game developers).

Aside from this, I got the chance to play two-player Computer Space in the vault. This was a new arcade game that just came in and was sitting in the front of the vault when I arrived. They were able to quickly get it running and it was available for play. I recorded some footage of playing with Tim Lapetino, who is currently at the Strong (as an independent scholar, not a fellow), photographing production art from the Atari Coin Op collection. We had a couple intense matches, and I also played the single player mode twice. The two-player version comes in a green cabinet and has joysticks with fire buttons rather than the awkward four-button layout of the single-player version. This was not engineered by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, but rather by Steve Bristow (I think), who was working for Nutting Associates at the time. There was a contract Bushnell had to complete the game, and Bushnell made his own version while Nutting secretly commissioned another one; they chose their own.

Computer Space is a very odd game. The missile is controlled by the joystick for left and right movement, so while you’re maneuvering the rocket, you’re also maneuvering the missile. So most of the time, you’re actually looking at the missile rather than the rocket. On single-player mode, the UFOs tend to cheap-shot you. If you score 10 points and more points than the UFOs, you enter ‘Hyperspace Mode’, which gives you an extra 99 seconds of play. This is just another round of play, but the white and black has been reversed, so it’s very bright and I think harder to control. But it’s a really cool bonus to give to skilled players. I can see though how difficult the game is to control and how the awkward controls – especially with the missile, let alone the button layout – would be enough to turn off players. The other thing that’s really weird is that the first player uses the RIGHT joystick rather than the left one – it’s completely reversed!

Tomorrow I will go through a few rare books and more Playthings. Next week, I’ll be digging through the archives a bit more.


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