Okay, my name is Alan Watson. Now 68. I live in Maumelle, Arkansas, which is northwest of Little Rock, so just very close to the center of the state of Arkansas. I've lived here most of the time since 1964.
Well, I actually graduated with a degree in mathematics and taught school for a couple years and then sold high-end hi-fi. In the late '70s, Atari and Apple came along and I wanted to buy a personal computer. I actually saw Star Raiders, I believe, on the Atari, and never saw anything that was visually impressive on the Apple. Although, I felt like the Apple would be maybe better for programming, but the Atari was a lot more exciting as far as sound and video and stuff. I didn't want to have a reason to buy a computer. [Laughs.] So, it was like the ultimate puzzle. If you're into puzzles, computers, especially back then were fantastic puzzles because nobody knew very much about any of it.
So, what I did was I bought an Atari and I learned how to program and programming and BASIC turned out to be really, really slow 'cause I wanted to create places to play. I didn't really have games in mind, I just wanted visual spaces as a thing you could kind of explore. And so I had to teach myself 6502 assembly language in order to get that to work. And somewhere around that time, the retailer I worked for had begun to sell Ataris and we started an Atari club. I was familiar already with an Apple club here in Little Rock and it was pretty well attended and pretty big. Probably 100 or 150 people, which is big for Little Rock.
Anyway, through the club I met Dan Bunten, and Dan was a programmer for the city of Little Rock and had written a number of games, maybe half a dozen, for Strategic Simulations. He was trying to convert a game called Cytron Masters to the Atari, and since I knew about Atari and he didn't, I worked with him to do his conversion.
And somewhere during that time, Electronic Arts -- well, Trip Hawkins started Electronic Arts and they went and solicited a half a dozen, what they called artists, or people that could program, I guess.
EA did not create games at first. M.U.L.E. was one of their 6 launch products.
They actually had done games, so they had experience and stuff. And his idea was that he was going to create a -- I've used this analogy before, but I don't know if it's good, it's like a movie studio where they would produce and distribute, but they would credit the creators as though they were the artists or rock stars or whatever. We began as a group called Ozark Softscape. There were four of us that owned the company, and we made M.U.L.E. Actually, I made the game before we formed Ozark and before I worked with Dan.
At that time, I made a game somewhere in there, and sold it for enough that I could get by with my family and two kids. I sold it for enough to go without being paid for six months 'cause none of us made any money for the first six months of M.U.L.E. development. It was pretty tough.
And a pretty big risk, I guess.
But anyway, we did M.U.L.E. and it did okay. It was kind of exciting because Trip was really into this and we went to a consumer electronics show and were interviewed and met all these people, Playboy people, and just a lot of magazine people, and got interviewed and stuff. So it was a lot of fun. So, that's how I got started. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That's a good starting point.
It was pretty overwhelming. [Laughs.] When we first went to CES, that was overwhelming. But I had been a couple times with the audio store, so.
How was it overwhelming?
Well, just the amount of attention. Trip was really just feeding media towards us all the time. There were only six products in the original Electronic Arts launch, and we were just one of six groups. Actually, I think most of them were individuals. Jon Freeman and Ann Westfall were the Free Fall Associates. They did Archon, and then a sequel to Archon. But they were part of that original launch.
When the press started to write about Atari and videogames, what do you remember about the way they approached it?
Well, my favorite back then was Compute because it had information that you didn't have any other way to get about Atari and Apple, as far as how they worked. That was one of the toughest things in the early days, was there wasn't any good way to find out how this thing -- what were the specs, how do you make this work, and what's an anti-chip, and how do we make the sound chips stop and start? Because Atari wasn't all that forthcoming with their info, and so unless you could find other people that were willing to hack and waste time trying to figure out stuff. [Laughs.] But Compute was a great reference. They actually did a listing once of maybe it was four to eight pages in the tiniest little print printed sideways on the page, and it was a program listing in assembly for an Atari game, and that was great because it had most of the real gee-whiz stuff that Atari could do as far as how to stop and start sound and how to make it do sounds and display list stuff.
But you said Playboy was writing about you guys as well?
I don't remember the first time that we got reviewed, but M.U.L.E. was reviewed in at least a dozen magazines. One of the most impressive was Byte. Byte did a review and it was the first game review that I could remember seeing in Byte.
We got a lot of favorable press, but unfortunately it didn't sell as well as we had hoped because the estimation was only one in 12 copies was purchased, and the other 11 were pirated.
Yeah. I read about that.
Copy protection was just impossible.
Yeah. How was that number arrived at? How would you know that was happening?
There was an estimate for me. I don't really have any way to base that. I think that they wanted all of their games to sell better. If they did a protection scheme -- EA did all that. That was part of the production, with the copy protection thing.
If they did one thing, in six to 10 weeks it's broken again and then they gotta do some other thing. [Laughs.] So I think M.U.L.E. went through several iterations of copy protection.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about that Atari club you mentioned.
Yeah, I started a club through the store because we actually got to where we got two or three dozens who bought Atari 800s and I know a few people who bought 400s. So, I started a club. The first time we met was actually in the store.
What year was that?
Somewhere around '78. Maybe 1979.
What do you remember about the club? Who were they?
They were everybody. I mean, golly, there were teachers and one of the guys that was real active in the club was a geologist for the state of Arkansas. John McFarland, I believe, was his name. But yeah, there were kids and grown-ups and just people that were curious, I guess, about computers. [Laughs.] Like I said, the Apple club was pretty large by then. It might've been '79, but there was a lot of interest in home computers with Radio Shack's computer, which was out by then. TI had some sort of a color computer. A lot of stuff going on.
Somehow videogames got this perception that they were just for kids, which was maybe largely Nintendo's doing, but how did you see that perception popping up and narrowing?
I don't guess I ever ran into that. Either it's been too long or I never was aware of that, because we never wrote for kids. We wrote for families. I mean, we tried to write games that a family could play. Dan was really into multiplayer for the whole family. See, Dan's family and my family both grew up in the days where you played board games on Saturday night. We didn't have a TV or anything 'til I was in third grade. I don't know about Dan's family. But board games were a pretty important part of our family interaction. I mean, the ideal was -- like, M.U.L.E. was made for four people to play and there was some internal game balancing to help the worst player or the guy that was furthest behind to kind of slow down the best player so that a family could actually enjoy it even though dad may have an idea of what's going on and a child may not.
I never thought -- I mean, my best mentor in videogame play was 14 or 16 or whatever. [Laughs.] That was when I was in retail. You either lived on a 2600 or 800, and that was about the time that Activision came out with those gee-whiz games that kinda one-upped Atari games. Mostly, those were teenagers. Is that what you're talking about with kids?
Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean kids and --
Yeah, that was true. Most of the scrolling games and Missile Command and Asteroids, those kinds of games were younger people.
They weren't adults or whatever, in the sense of, "I've got a family and can't make time to play games, but I can buy 'em for my kid and play 'em with them." But for the most part, yeah, it was kid-oriented, I guess. Teenagers and twenty.
Have you run into that notion that tech or the videogame industry is more of a male-dominated space?
I think that's been the case, yes, from the beginning.
I don't know. I think that's just a cultural thing. I don't know that it's so much just videogames as it is math and science and boys and girls and the way girls are brought up, you know? Gee-whiz, women, that program. It wasn't like they couldn't do it -- [Laughs.] It's like everything else in math and science, it just seems to be more guys.
I had interviewed Brenda Laurel earlier this year, and she told me when she went to work at Atari, they didn't even have a women's bathroom. They were just using the spare bathroom to smoke marijuana.
I'm not surprised. I'm really not. It was -- like I said, that was a cultural thing. Because, see, my mom didn't work until I was well into high school. [Laughs.] It was a different kind of world.
When I think on those earlier days, I've gotten the impression that "proper" people weren't making computer or videogames. In other words, it wasn't a very button-down space, but now it seems to be very much trying to and acting like it isn't. You mentioned Dan, after his transition did you ever talk to Danielle about that male/female ratio or frictions or cultural tensions in the game industry around there not being a lot of women?
I don't remember doing that, no.
No, it probably just wasn't important. Like I said, we were really pretty much family-oriented -- but it was curious, though. Electronic Arts would have us out twice a year, and once was an awards banquet, but both times you'd be schooling. Like, they'd bring in people from IBM or whatever, and I, mean, they actually used projectors and stuff back then. It was really high-tech, impressive stuff for kids from Arkansas. But, there might be maybe 10 percent of the people there might be women. So it wasn't like they weren't there. It just wasn't a thing that most girls were interested in.
I think this is a very recent thing, here. I mean, all the questions you're asking seem to be questions that arise in the last two to three years where it's like, "How come there aren't girls?" And so we've got Girls of Promise and Girls who Code. I mean, it's like, only in the last couple years has been an emphasis to include women in programming. I mean, look at all the women that are just doing awesome in their twenties and thirties like [Ayah Bdeir] that started littleBits and [Limor Fried] that started Adafruit. I mean, those are super-smart -- and they've existed all along. [Laughs.]
This was 20 years ago or 30 years ago, when they thought to do that. Women are super-smart, high-caliber. Gee whiz. I mean, in college, I knew a lady who was dating a friend of mine that was a chemistry major who was one of the smartest people. I mean, I think it's just a change in our culture in general. I don't think they were excluded intentionally. I think there just weren't enough of them interested.
But I do think that's the way they're brought up: "You can't do this. You can't do that." I do think that people that wrote computer games were considered to be a little strange and a little out there because that's what you did and you told them and they'd give you that strange look like, "Woah, you must know some stuff." But it's also, "You must be crazy and need a real job." [Laughs.]
As you were onboarding to the corporate culture with EA, did you guys get any pushback on wanting to make games about diplomacy and economics in the early '80s?
No, M.U.L.E. was our doing. Dan had done a game that had to do with -- it had a real-time auction in it. Cartels & Cutthroat$, I think is what it was. And he wanted to do a version that was real-time where you actually could bid, so we could use the four sticks and bid. And that was actually the centerpoint for M.U.L.E., "Let's make stuff so we can sell it in auction and see who can produce and be the most efficient.”
But, no, EA's idea on a sequel was to have guns and stuff and bombs and everything and throw them into a sequel to M.U.L.E. We just went off and did other things.
Probably our most violent game was Modem Wars, which was really, really cool, I think. [Laughs.] Modem Wars was the first, that I know, the first game where you could make two computers -- you could do a dial-up or just a direct connect -- and that was hidden information. That is an adrenaline rush. I think it's just great. [Laughs.] But it wasn't really bloody, guts, and gore. It was more strategy and tactics.
Why were they telling you to go from games about diplomacy to games with guns?
Well, I think that was what was popular. You know, shoot 'em games. That's just how all the arcades were: "You're gonna lose. How long can you hold out before you get killed?” [Laughs.] It needs that sort of a mindset for, "Let's sell the most games that you can." I also don't think our interest was in selling the most games we could. It was making the best game on this kinda idea.
But I will say, we had a storyboard. We get an idea, we do a storyboard, and do a series of sketches and stuff and we'll take it before EA and they had to approve it before we'd get advances or equipment that we might need for the development. We had to sell the idea. Like I said, it was kind of like a movie thing.
I usually hate these types of questions, but where did your ideas come from? Because we're talking about a time where pretty much no one knew what videogames were or had notions of what they were supposed to be. How did you decide: "Yeah, let's do that. That could work.”?
I think that probably the Bunten brothers were the guys that usually would come up with the theme or the idea. Like I said, M.U.L.E. came Cartels & Cutthroat$ and then Seven Cities of Gold was from Risk, that kind of game, a board game called Risk. Also, I always wanted to create places for people to play. So, that was really appealing to me, to make this giant world and stuff for people to go and explore and interact and all that. And then we did a game called Heart of Africa and it didn't do all that well. What happened was it was like a resource-trading game, and I'm not sure that that wasn't somehow something that we couldn't get included in Seven Cities, that this was just sort of leftover stuff. [Laughs.]
That's one thing, you know, you only got 48k and we never could fit all of our ideas into a single game. It wasn't like we ever had to put in fluff or screens to use up the space with bitmaps or something like that. It was always like, "Oh, we got one more byte of memory." [Laughs.] It was that kind of thing. I'm not sure that Heart of Africa wasn't, like I said, just came from ideas that we had in Seven Cities.
And then, I don't remember the reason for Modem Wars. I just think it was amazing that -- I mean, you could unplug from the wall or the modem or whatever and when you plugged it back in, you could recover. [Laughs.] It was incredible. Dan wrote that connection code, and it was just amazing.
How long did you have to work on each game?
Usually nine months or so. I think that's what M.U.L.E.'s time was. But it's real intense at the end. We had rented a house and we had -- thank goodness for the Atari club. We'd have anywhere from four to 25 people over there at the house playing M.U.L.E. once or twice a week for several months, from the time that it was playable actually. And I would usually just stand on the other side of the monitor and watch their faces and their hands 'cause it was real important to me -- it's like, you want to spend your time and your interest and energy playing the game, not trying to figure out how to play the game. There's a really, really big difference in those two, 'cause I struggle with how to play. [Laughs.]
I've got a 15-year-old granddaughter, and you just hand her the joystick or whatever and she intuitively knows everything that needs to be known. It's just amazing. Her playing Minecraft or whatever and I'm going, "What is the point of this?" And she explains it to me and is going on and on and on and it's like, "Wow!" And I'm still figuring out how to play, right? So, it was real important to me that we have games where you didn't have that learning curve so much. Now, I think M.U.L.E. has a fair amount of learning curve, but it's not in the mechanics of the game; it's in understanding why are you doing all of the stuff that you can do.
I'll tell you, the biggest challenge for me was we did Robot Rascals on the Commodore and EA wanted a PC port, and so I got a box from Microsoft, roughly 10 inches on the side, four manuals for C, and a PC, and six months. So, that was singlehandedly, most of the time we worked in pairs, but that was one of the reasons why we no longer exist: It got down to just the two of us, Dan and I, working for Command HQ, that MicroProse published. That was just the two of us. And then MicroProse had some artists that did a couple of animations that can go into Windows, and the music we'd farm out to somebody, and the rest we'd do it all ourselves. It got to be where we couldn't do a game in nine months. You know, if it takes too long, then that idea may no longer suit the market, whatever it is you're trying to do.
It might seem like a good idea today, but a year from now it's like, "Why did we go to market with this?" [Laughs.]
I was curious about some of the pressure you were under to succeed. Was there pressure?
Well, for that port, there was. There was a big bonus if I made my six months. [Laughs.] And I kept a log, I actually did over 60 hours a week for those six months. So, it was tough. And then when you're done, you go and play videogames there at the gallery or whatever, if you get a week or two. All we do is play with ideas and think about what we're gonna do next. So, I don't know. It had its perks.
How did you measure success in those days on your games? Was it just money?
No, it was complete -- if they said, "We need this by September 1st," and if we made it. We didn't want to cut corners or compromise. So, we sometimes were late but for the most part the important part was to have a complete product in the time that was allowed to make it.
What would be an example of cutting corners on a game you were making in those days?
Well, let's say we wanted to do animation windows like in Command HQ and neither one of us had the time 'cause we were working on code or whatever. Well, I think MicroPlay was a subdivision or whatever. If they hadn't tech support, then we probably woulda left out the animation screens. It wouldn't affected the play or the play value, but it would've not been quite as -- [Laughs.] What do you call it? Chrome and sizzle? I don't know. It had something to do with being shiny and being hot. [Laughs.]
How would you know how a game even did? Did they share sales figures with you?
Yes. Yes, in fact, we got royalties based on the sales and so we would start off building a game with advances against royalties and together, EA and Ozark, had to feel like we were gonna sell at least enough to pay back our advances. [Laughs.] So I don't know that there's a way to predict sales. EA probably has that down to a science now. Gosh, they're huge. But back then it was like, "Oh, you know, it seemed like a good idea to me."
But usually there must've been half a dozen people at EA. It wasn't Trip's call. Because they had producers that would help us. They would facilitate and make sure we got what we needed, but they also helped in terms of what the market is and where the market's going and what we might want to do to help us be better suited or whatever. But, you know, once we got our thing going, we were pretty hard to convince to modify it to suit somebody else's.
We're talking pre-Internet as we know it today, certainly wouldn't be sending messages the way you and I have. How did you get on EA's radar? How did that relationship come about?
I'm sure it had to do with Dan. Dan being seen through [publisher] Strategic Simulations and Computer Gaming World, where he wrote a column. So, he was known in the gaming world through his public. I'm not sure what Trip was looking for exactly.
I'm curious, too, because EA then is not EA today. How many people do you estimate was there then. You said at least six?
I'm thinking at least a dozen or 20 or two dozen. Trip, I think, hired people from Apple because he had been at Apple, and he might've hired a few other people. But for the most part, it was people that would help get the product to market. People like copywriters for manuals and the art for the cover art and stuff like that. And then there were probably three or four. We worked always with the same man, whose name escapes me right now. But, anyway, there were three or four tech-support people and those were, like, people that, if you couldn't figure it out, you'd call them and they'd say, "Well, I don't know either, but we'll figure it out." [Laughs.] Because it was really early on.
And if there was an Apple question, we'd be able to get an answer, but most of the Apple stuff Dan knew, so it wasn't a big deal. That was a tough machine to do graphics for, Apple was.
Where was EA's wisdom coming from? Because, even, that's true of Apple. Apple, then, is not at all Apple today.
I think Trip was the focus. I'm not sure why he left, but eventually he did. He formed all those other companies, Chocolate, and did Next have anything to do with him? Yeah, I think he started a half a dozen companies, so I'm not sure what. But in the early days, he and his two and three producer guys were really the, "Let's make this kind of product or that kind of product." Or more often than not, though, it's like, "This guy's work is really good. Let's hire him to do something." And then he would present what he wanted to do. So, usually, for the most part, the products that they made in the earliest days were products that were dreamed up and designed by the people they produced.
It wasn't like Trip said, "I want a game that's like Monopoly and so we went out and did M.U.L.E." I mean, we already knew the game that we were gonna do. [Laughs.] You know what I'm saying?
He hired us because of the talent, I guess, not because we had a product. And it was because of Dan's talent. He wouldn't have known me or Jim or Dan's brother or anything.
What sort of feedback would they give you on your games?
Sometimes it would be bug reports. Sometimes they would be like -- I can't think of any design feedback. But I'm sure that there was some. I really just cannot remember. But Joey Ybara was one of producers, and he would come maybe three times a year and spend a few days with us. And we'd all talk and stuff and visit about how it was going and what we needed and stuff. But, most of the conversations that I was included in would be had to do with our actual, "I need a different board in this computer or I need a graphics card." He'd say, "You need to support all these different VGA and EGA and monochrome and different aspects." Because you had to make a game that would work on everything. I mean, it wasn't enough that you could say, "Okay, we're gonna support the greatest gee-whiz video card." Like if you're an Xbox guy today, I guess you can just say, "Well, it's Xbox One or nothing. So if you don’t have it, don’t buy this game.”
[Laughs.] I've got a 360 and I guess some of the new games won't run on the Xbox 360.
I know mentioned Minecraft before, but are you paying attention to videogames nowadays?
Not so much. I watch the ads on TV. [Laughs.] I have two sons that are in their thirties, and they have always played videogames. I mean, I have a picture of the two of them with one of them's maybe four and the other one's six, and they're playing Atari games. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I usually have a controller and we usually play -- my grand daughter's now 15 so we don't play as many games as we used to that comes with the Wii. We played a lot of games.
And then I have an Xbox. I don't think we've played that many Xbox games. I bought the Xbox 'cause I wanted to play with the Kinect. Mostly what I do these days is fiddle with Arduino and Raspberry Pi and a Leap Motion controller or a Kinect sensor or whatever, just different things where you can move around and cause lights to go on and motors to start or whatever. [Laughs.] Mostly I just play with stuff. You know?
Coming from the earlier game industry, what do you make of videogames today? Like you said, you will see ads and stuff. What seems to be really important in videogames today?
I guess the realism. That was when I first realized that I wasn't going to be able to stay in videogames anymore. I saw Myst. I don't know if you remember that game from a long time ago?
Of course I do, yeah.
It was like, "No way. I wonder how they did this.” This is amazing." You know? It's just, like, jaw-dropping. Up 'til then it was like, you know, anything you saw in the arcade it would be, "We could do that. It doesn't matter." I mean, not immediately, but when it made that giant graphical leap it was like, "Wow!” [Laughs.] Now it just seems like -- what I've been seeing lately is some game that has a dog in it and the dog and the owner go running around. Is it Halo or something? One of those? I know it's got a 4 in it.
There's a lot of games now where you have a dog in it, but I think it's probably Fallout 4?
Yes. Yes, that's it for sure. Yeah.
I mean just watching that it's like, "Oh, this is really nice. It's smooth." I don't know what kind of game it is. [Laughs.] But it does seem like all the games, you're supposed to kill all the bad guys. Is that right, pretty much? I don't know of any games out there that don't involve killing all the monsters or all the aliens or all the bad guys. Are there games where you play just to have fun? [Laughs.] You know, where nobody gets hurt?
That's sort of the thing, though, is I think it's pretty unthinkable for a game-industry company in 2015 to release a game about diplomacy. Why do you think that is?
I don't know. But I would be really interested in researching that, actually. Just because I totally agree. And I don't know why, but the culture has really changed. I mean, look at, everyone wants to own a gun now and I still don't see why it's different now than it was 30 years ago. Why didn't everyone want to own a gun 30 years ago?
[Laughs.] I don't get it. Hopefully it's not because of the videogames.
I don't think so.
I'm pulling your leg. So much culture has changed. Just look at the presidential deal. It's just -- these people are saying things on TV that you wouldn't have been allowed to talk like that on TV 20 or 30 years ago. They woulda pulled you. And the whole world is getting weird. It's just the way the world is changing and it's not -- I think that it affects the way videogames go but I don't think videogames affect the world. I agree with you. I think it would be tough. You wouldn't be able to sell M.U.L.E. today, would you?
Jumping back a little bit. You mentioned a banquet with EA, and I have heard stories about Atari and some of its early partying. Do you remember any stories about EA in the early days, when they were trying to throw around money in celebratory gestures?
Not at all. Not at all. No, there was mostly young people, but there wasn't a wild, crazy partying or any drunkenness or drugs or anything. It was just real business-like. Seriously. I mean, they had their stuff together. It was really an amazing company in the first couple years. I don't know what it's like now. But I will say that one of the original Ozark guys was Jim Rushing, and he does work and has worked since he left Ozark, he's worked for Electronic Arts probably 25 years at least. He still works there. So, it must not be terrible, but I know it's not the same company at all. [Laughs.] Once it got to be one of the bigger companies in the console business, I don't know that -- see, originally it was all computer games. They didn't do console games for a long, long time.
What was going on at Atari? Why were they partying so much if EA was so button-down?
I don't really know anything about Atari. The closest I got was I got to meet Chris Crawford, who is just the most amazing person. When he gets out in front, it's like a different persona when he's in front of a group than when he's one on one. And when he writes, it's almost arrogant and haughty and stuff. I mean, when he writes columns in magazines and stuff, it's like he's condescending. And he's not like that in person. He's a great guy.
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. He's a remarkable individual. We really have him to thank for De Re Atari, the first kind of information that got out that was coherent about Atari. De Re Atari told about all the different chips inside and how things work. And he was the main guy behind that.
He famously or infamously quit the industry, and talked about in the early '90s how everything was too fixated on the graphics and they were already starting to repeat themselves. Did you agree with him at that time, coming from the games you did?
That may be. I don't guess that I've really thought about it, except, like I said, when I saw Myst, it was like, "Well, I'm out!” [Laughs.] Well, we didn't have any resources here at all, it was just -- you know, Dan lived in Mississippi and I lived in Arkansas and it was just the two of us. We bought a product called Relay Gold. It was fairly expensive, maybe $600 or $800 just for the software, and then bought a 1200 baud modem and it would merge our source code and actually point out our conflicts and stuff. It was an awesome product, Relay Gold. And then we'd just get up and if we couldn't figure out some conflict -- because normally we didn't work on the same parts. I only worked on graphics and interface for the most part. He did the game engine and all the hidden complicated stuff. So, we could stay out of each other's ways pretty well.
But I think that that may be a good observation, actually. Because what do you do in Fallout or whatever, don't you just do increasingly more difficult outings or whatever with more equipment and fancier, more exotic shooters and stuff? Is there ever a conclusion or whatever? Or do you just do the same thing over and over again? I don't know.
Both statements are correct.
I'm curious what your reaction will be. I won't tell you everything, but the game starts off and you have to sculpt the face of the character you're going to be playing as, and you can also sculpt the face of your spouse, and then you get started in your house and you get taken to a fallout shelter. A nuclear event happens while you're in a cryogenic shelter. You awake to find your spouse being murdered and your son being pried from their hands.
You leave the vault and you can go off in any direction and do anything and usually the last thing you do is go try to get your son back because you want to go get guns and you want to change your gun and get items to make your armor better. And then you get power armor, which is like another level of armor. And a lot of it is like sculpting your face in the beginning.
But what's really not important and the last thing you'll do, guaranteed, is go get your son.
But rescuing your son is the ultimate goal and it remains your goal, is that true?
Okay. Okay. Huh. Well, at least there's a reason to play, then. 'Cause, I mean, I know how I feel about my sons.
[Laughs.] Yeah, you would probably go and rescue them right away, right?
Yeah! I wouldn't care about super armor. I'd rather go get my boy.
But like you said, though, it's interesting because Dan never really had any use for graphics. I mean, we just had to pry -- in fact, when we converted Cytron Masters from the Apple, he said, "I don't care about color, I don't care about graphics. We just want to get the game converted."
And we said, "Well, the reason people buy Atari is for the sound and color. Otherwise they woulda bought an Apple." [Laughs.]
So, we finally got him on track. But that's probably the reason why we never got too gee-whiz with the graphics. At least I could draw any kind of tiny little bitmap shapes, and usually I'd have the constraint where, "Okay, this cannot be more than 16 pixels high." [Laughs.] I mean, it doesn't take an artist to draw like that.
I mean, you've got to make convincing movement. That always bothered me about games back then, is when you watch somebody walk, their feet would slide along the ground instead of plant, and then lift and plant. They would actually -- like I said, there would just be a glide. [Laughs.] That always annoyed me. That was one of the toughest things, getting the mule to walk in that title screen where it says M.U.L.E. so he'd plant his feet, you know? 'Cause a horse doesn't really lift two legs at a time. They lift one leg, then another leg, then another leg. That is so amazing, to try to figure that out when you're drawing it on graph paper. We didn't have any graphics editors. Back then, everything was drawn on graph paper and then converted to hex.
But the graphics, especially when you play Chris' games, I don't remember any but the nuclear reactor simulator, which was very challenging and really kind of educational. And Eastern Front, which was really tough at first, and after a while you got better and better. I think it was a really good game. I don't remember any of his other games. For some reason, I'm drawing a blank. But Eastern Front is really good. Really good. But it was just -- did you ever play any of the Avalon Hill board games, like Gettysburg or Tactics II or some of those games?
His game was sorta like that, and the cool thing about that was the computer could keep track -- I mean, that's what's cool in Seven Cities. The computer can keep track of so much stuff behind the scenes that you never would want to roll dice and roll dice or whatever. Besides, you don't want it to be random events. I mean, it needs to be -- in Seven Cities, there was countless amounts of communication between villages about the guys that were coming to your continent or whatever, and depending on the size of the village, would affect the reach of the communications and how long it took for the communications to happen. If you walked onto the beach and were really hostile to this little bitty village, you might be able to get away with the next little bitty village, but sooner or later everyone would be hostile before you could even get to the village. [Laughs.] You can't really do a board game like that, where depending on how you treated the first guys, the second guys would be friendlier or less friendlier, more hostile. [Laughs.] You can't really do a board game like that, where depending on how you treated the first guys, the second guys would be friendlier or less friendlier, more hostile. But Eastern Front had a lot of that kind of -- you know, if you took tanks over here, then, chances are they're gonna meet you.
The advent of the multiplayer videogames -- I don't know who gets credited with the first one that ever existed, but what were your original inspirations for doing a multiplayer videogame?
Board games. Monopoly, principally, probably. The idea that you could have a mom and dad and their two kids come down and play a board game. So, M.U.L.E. was kind of that idea of, "We're gonna get multiple players together to play the same game."
People thought we were crazy. [Laughs.]
What did they say?
Well, you know, "You play videogames by yourself!" [Laughs.]
But why does that happen, in a technological endeavor or any sort of creative endeavor, where people feel the need to throw up walls and say, "No, no, no, this is what this is.”
Well, Atari has four joystick ports. I mean, how many other computers ever came that way? I mean, it was like they were asking for it. [Laughs.]
Were you expecting multiplayer games to get as popular as they have? Of course, multiplayer now is not so much the four controller ports, but strangers on the Internet all playing the same game.
Yeah. I'd say the majority of games that my kids have played for the last 10 years have been that way. They've got guilds. I don't know what all the names of the games are, but I know they need six people to show up before they can take on this monster or whatever. Yeah, there's a lot of cooperation. It's pretty cool.
My youngest son has actually traveled a fair amount. So, he goes to Chicago and he looks up somebody he played xx World of Warcraft with, and he goes to Seattle and he goes to lunch with a doctor or whatever that he played it with. I mean, he's met people from all over the world and when they come here -- he's been out with some people from Australia that come through Little Rock. It's just incredible that the world is so connected. And yet, we're having such a hard time getting along with each other. What is the deal here?
That's why I said I'd be interested in researching that. I mean, a game that has to do with handling terrorists or whatever, seems like it would be awesome, but the problem is you would piss somebody off: "Oh, you can't do a game about Muslims."
See, I'm not sure that's the best answer. [Laughs.]
What did you expect would happen with multiplayer games as they got more popular? I'm sure you were not imagining World of Warcraft and Minecraft.
No. Oh, no. Because there was no Internet. Well, we were hoping that they'd take off so we could do some more. [Laughs.] We were a little before our time. But it was really fun to watch people play because they get so excited and it was very rewarding. To me, it's flattering that people still talk about M.U.L.E. Golly, that was 30 years ago. It's just incredible. Who would've ever thought? And I'll tell you what, I think I had as much fun working on the game as people have playing it. [Laughs.] It was really fun. I don't know that we ever thought multiplayer would catch on, but we did do -- like I said, Modem Wars was multiplayer; Robot Rascals was even more so because there you have a deck of cards and it's actually like a scavenger hunt with some embellishment in terms of obstacles and stealing from each other and trading and that kind of thing. But it's essentially, "Here's six things. Go look for them." And you wander around a map trying to find those things before the other players found their things.
But if we had Internet, we woulda done things a whole lot different. I mean, this is amazing, these days.
I had mentioned, before we started, a little about Gamergate.
I don't really understand that. I don't understand the motivation for the ugliness. But maybe that's from the culture that we're living in. [Laughs.]
How did this become part of the ecosystem or mindset around videogames?
I don't understand it, either, because it seems like -- [Laughs.] I feel uninformed. I'm just saying that. I don't understand why if somebody makes a bad game, anybody would play it. [Laughs.] What's the point?
I'm just saying, it's part of the culture where everybody gets their feelings hurt. If I say, "Oh, I just really can't hardly stand anybody over six feet tall. It just makes me feel inferior." So what do we do? [Laughs.] Do we just cut everybody off a few inches, or what? [Laughs.] I'm just having a hard time with this whole thing, everyone getting their feelings hurt.
I mean, the funniest jokes have the contrasts in religion and ethnicity and sex and blondes and -- I mean, they're funny. They're not meant to be disrespectful in any way. You know what I'm saying? It's the contrast that makes them funny. [Laughs.] It's not deliberately against Polish people or blonde people or whatever. It's just an observation. [Laughs.] It doesn't have any more weight than that.
You know, I'm having trouble with this world right now, as you can tell. I don't think it's anybody's business -- if it's a game that degrades women, then they don't need to play it. If they feel strongly about it, then don't play it. [Laughs.] You know what I'm saying? And it's nobody's business if a woman wants to code. I mean, look at one of the co-creators of Centipede -- it's not like women didn't exist back then. What's the deal? Why would anybody get upset today whether women do it or don't do it?
You know what I'm saying? I'm having a lot of trouble with this. [Laughs.]
Do you remember that ever, though, in the audience for games when you were making games?
No, but I was pretty fortunate. You know, one of the first people that I met, a couple, was Ann and Jon, the Free Fall Associates.
And she was real smart and articulate and just a great person to be around, even if you left games out altogether and electronics. Just a nice couple. We'd go to their house. They lived out in California. But I'm just so -- I'm astounded. [Laughs.] So many bright people and sex didn't have anything to do with it.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I think they pushed hardware, which is cool. They've pushed coding, which is cool. They pushed curiosity and the need to be educated or whatever about how this all works. But from the other side of the coin, maybe that's lead to the tendency to violence in our culture today or whatever. But like I said, it's hard for me to imagine that videogames have as much impact as they do or don't. I don't have a sense of it. Like I said, my kids have played videogames since they could talk, and they're just normal kids. They don't have guns. One works for a brickyard, and one works for a group of people -- it's called the East Consortium. He's their communications guy. You know, these are normal people doing normal jobs.
My last 15 years were doing touch screens because of my gaming background. [Laughs.] This was before there were iPads and smartphones and stuff. In '97 is when we started making touch screens for corporate and private jets. But I think that they've helped us grow, technically. But I don't know about our culture. [Laughs.]
I am curious about what the impact is, because I don't know who gets to say. I don't know if I'm going to have a bias. If you talk to EA about, "Well, what do you think is good?" Well, they're gonna have a lot of different stuff to say that's powerful: "We give people places to play and adventures that they couldn't otherwise experience and we make lots of money and it's all good for us."
You know? And if you talk to those other people that say, "Well, women shouldn't make games. I don't wanna play any game made by women. Who made this game, anyway?" Well, what is that about?" I don't get it. [Laughs.] I don't have a sense of their impact except that it's unbelievable how many units are sold every year and how many games are sold and how does anybody justify $60 for a computer game? I mean, even in this day and age -- I mean, I remember when I thought $30 was pretty expensive. You know, back when we did M.U.L.E., I think it was probably $30 or something. But board games are up there now, too. I think the board game of M.U.L.E. was $60, $80.
What was the budget for M.U.L.E.?
I don't even remember. We might have gotten a few thousand dollars for expenses, and since we needed equipment -- like I said, in the first six months no one took any money. None of us lived fancy. I mean -- [Laughs.] We didn't drive nice cars or anything like that.
Game budgets go up by a factor of 10 every generation and the team sizes get bigger.
Isn't that amazing? Yeah. That's part of the reason we quit. The two of us got together, one day we had heard that this one game for PlayStation, but Dan and I heard there were 100 people working on this game. [Laughs.] "There's no way we can compete." I mean, we can't do that much work in that short a time. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I understand the budgets. If you're gonna support 100 people, even with no money at all, you're talking lots and lots of money. And now it's probably -- I mean, I've heard of games having over. And now, I mean, I've heard of games having over hundreds of artists working on them.
And the budgets are so large. Like I think, maybe with Fallout 4, I saw it was either $24 million or $48 million? That's a lot of money.
For a single product.
And a lot of years.
Golly. Maybe we shoulda stayed there. [Laughs.] No.