So, my name is Madeline Johnson and I'm based in New York and I am 52.
I started in public relations -- one of my first accounts as an intern at an agency called McGrath/Power at 500 Fifth Avenue was Activision. They were making videogames and they were also making other products like IBM software. I followed those company founders to do a company called Acclaim Entertainment and we positioned them as a leading videogame maker for Nintendo right out of the gate when they started the company. That was -- I want to say back in --
You said in your email, 1988.
Yeah, 1988. About that time. Yeah. It was about three years that I actually worked and represented them.
And then just as of late, just as of this year, 2016, I work in a coworking space in New York called WeWork and my next door neighbor in his office, Michael, has actually created something called Jump into the Light, which is New York's first virtual reality experience. We have every Friday night live demonstrations of HTC Vive and Leap and Oculus and 3D imaging for the public to sort of open their eyes so they can see what's next, what's happening, what's going to be the future of videogames. A lot of other stuff. Augmented reality. Yeah.
I've worked as a journalist for a long time and know from my inbox alone there's a lot about the videogame world that shares some of the culture and certainly many of the philosophies of the tech world.
Oftentimes, in videogames that manifests itself with NDAs. Just so I know before we start, is there stuff that you're still under NDA about from your time in the videogame industry?
Ha! No. No. No. No, no. I can't imagine. [Laughs.] I don't think I had even signed an NDA.
I had to ask.
Yeah. No, I don't think I ever signed an NDA. Everything was really -- oh my God. No. No, no NDAs.
Very broadly and to start with: Are there stories about this era of videogames when you were there in the '80s that you feel are never told? People probably fuzzily remember there was a lot of fear of Joe Lieberman --
-- but what do you think people forget about that time?
You know, one of the most interesting things that stands out in my mind is that there was always a question of violence and videogames. Violence and videogames and what is this doing to our childrens’ minds? How is this making them behave? I'm not gonna go on some big rant about it but, you know, I was in the middle of becoming a mom -- so I was literally pregnant. I had had one child and I was pregnant while I was representing this company and we were doing licensed titles for Rambo, right? It was an interesting thing because I don't think we really cared, but the media cared.
And my responsibility was to be that liaison between the company positioning themselves as a leading maker of videogames for Nintendo. Right? Because we were going to go public, so that was the whole idea. In the shortest amount of time we were gonna take this company public and raise a lot of money.
This is a question that I was constantly dodging from mainstream media. Not so much the trades. Not so much the Jim Wilcoxes of the industry who were writing for the major trades. But from Wall Street Journal, New York Times, oh, we had 20/20 there one Sunday. I'm supposed to get as many questions as possible for the company CEO and founders before and it was a really tricky interview to navigate because they were questioning -- and I think that that question is still to this day is the No. 1 question. We tried to launch something like Tetris and it bombed. It tanked. It just wasn't going to bring us to the IPO and bring us to the amount of money that they wanted to make.
I don't know if this hangs together with your timeline, but were you with Acclaim when they were working on Mortal Kombat?
I had just left. I think that was the next title, yeah.
So, when you say you didn't really care about the violence, what do you mean?
Well, we never discussed that.
Yeah. Never, ever came up. The whole idea was to purchase the most popular movie and television title before we even manufactured or designed anything and just put out a press release. That was the whole idea. Just get it out there: We've got the title. It was just always a race. That was my job, constantly, just to position, position, position that we've got this title, we've got this title. Movies were still being made and we were getting titles, which is the way franchises were.
And there was never a question of -- I mean, I care now in 2016. So much talk about social responsibility and what's the vision and mission of the company. Yeah, and I've changed a lot as a human being. I went on to actually represent Businesses for Social Responsibility and The Council on Economic Priorities, which is interesting because at that time we just never discussed it unless the media asked the question. And then, still, nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew how to answer the questions of, "Well, you know, we're giving kids guns."
I don't want to dwell on this, but have you heard of Gamergate?
It's a complicated thing to explain, but it was a thing a few years ago where portions of the videogame audience online were making ugly death and rape threats against other people in the game audience as well as people who making games.
It was typically -- it's almost like a "they're gonna take our guns" kind of thing, where there was concern about women making games or the "wrong people" making the "wrong kinds of games."
It was very rampant and very ugly two summers ago. And like what you were saying when violence was a concern, there was no statement or thing --
-- by the industry. Does that surprise you to hear that there was no acknowledgment or statement or anything?
Well, when I think back on it and I think of just business in general, business is about making money. Right?
But what came first? Was it kids' demand for games with guns and violence or -- it's also a Hollywood question. When I think about it, it's really all about the money. That's what it came down to. If anything, the guys, Greg [Fischbach], Bob [Groman], and Jim [Scoroposki] really got together after leaving Activision and said, "We're going to make this happen." They literally wrote the business plan on a napkin and said, "We want to just build this business." And out of the box we just started buying licenses. They knew what to do. They knew how to run the business and -- I kind of feel like there was a lot of greed. There was a tremendous amount of greed there because they ended up getting in trouble, in big trouble. It was really all about the money.
Do you feel, in hindsight, and I'm not looking for an answer one way or another. It's just interesting to hear about.
Do you feel like there should have been more things discussed at game companies at the time that just weren't?
Yeah, and there wasn't that. There wasn't that. It was all about what's the most popular movie or television program, WWF, and how can we capitalize on it? I don't even think the quality of the games were that great, to be perfectly honest.
They really weren't. [Laughs.]
You worked on a couple of licensed games that, at the time, had a reputation for being notoriously bad. Can you speak to what were the concerns about quality control from the license holders?
[Laughs.] There were no concerns at all from the IP holders?
You know, we never really -- we had Michael Arkin, who was all of 18, who was the game maker. Like, our guy in the basement just testing out games and he was just a great kid. He made a lot of money in a short amount of time. I'll never forget. I think he just demanded it. He used to come up to me and say, "I'm really important here and I really think I should be asking for more money."
And I would laugh.
I'd say, "Oh, God. This is ridiculous."
But, no. The games sucked. They really did. And we had a sort of consumer service department, like a customer service department. I remember we had to fill that in. There were a lot of questions and a lot of FAQs, but it definitely wasn't a responsible company. It would never have longevity now.
Yeah, in an age of transparency? Look at the way everybody's involved. These are, like, collectively made, these games. It's just so completely different. This was behind the wall. It was, "This is what you got for the money that you got."
I'm not gonna ask a ton of questions about specific titles.
But I'm curious just to dig on licensed titles a bit more, were you there for The Simpsons games that Acclaim put out?
My memory was early. It was early. It literally went from napkin to we were working on folding tables. My favorite thing was we had the first Macintosh computers. Oh, my God I loved that computer. It was just the best. I was on a typewriter before that, actually. So, I went from typewriter to computer and we all got Macs and we were all working on folding tables. I was there until Mortal Kombat.
And then Sam came in, Sam Goldberg, and I forgot the other guy's name. Yeah, I don't remember his name. Sam took over the marketing department and they were going public. I was the one to contact Newsday to let them know about the IPO. I totally screwed that up because I had no knowledge of what could or could not be said according to the Securities Exchange and almost got them in a huge amount of trouble but we somehow put out that fire.
Is it the pink sheets? You know, pre-IPO? I think I let the news out too early.
That's kind of important.
Yeah, we were reckless. We were reckless like that.
Something that I think people kind of forget today is the relationship between toys and videogames were a lot tighter and was more important. I don't know if you saw, there was a thing floating around in the last week or two saying how important Teddy Ruxpin was for the Nintendo to get established, that if stores wanted to stock Teddy Ruxpin, they had to also stock 500 Nintendo consoles. Does that --
No! I didn't know that. I didn't know that.
I can send it to you. But I'm just curious: What was the mentality at that time? Did you think you were marketing toys or did it feel like this is a new creative medium that you were the vanguards of?
For me, it was like a revival because I was with Activision. It was first Atari -- there was a short period of time where, "Oh, videogames are dead."
And we were on this revival, this upswing of, "No, okay? They're not dead! Now we have licensed titles!" Because I think before that it was Pac-Man and Pong.
It was that long ago. And I think sales started to slip and everything. So, I think they were revived with licensed titles, actually, the whole industry. But, no, I didn't feel like it was a toy at all and I didn't feel like it was new. Okay? There was nothing -- the "new" part came in when the graphics got better and Sony PlayStation got involved. I definitely want that DJ -- did you have that particular DJ game?
Yeah, DJ Hero? I have that.
It's like now and in the past 10 years it's gotten to be there were some really great innovations. But I think when we went from Pac-Man to what we were doing, it was still like a Pac-Man-like game or a Super Mario Bros.-type game, just with nice packaging.
It's a new industry, it was a new industry even if it didn't feel like a new thing.
I'm curious how you arrived at best practices or rules of thumb for a lot of the stuff you did, but specifically prepping people company-side for interviews and doing press.
What were the things you wanted to avoid having to do damage control on and what were the things you wanted them to focus on?
I had one -- it was one command. The commander's intent was to get as much press as possible, that we are the leading makers of Nintendo videogames. So, if Nintendo was mentioned, Acclaim had to be mentioned. None of our competition. That was the commander's intent. And it came from Rob Holmes, who is brilliant. Rob was pretty much running the company and I had no idea at the time but he was actually also suing Jim Scoroposki, who ended up being not such a nice guy. I thought that was pretty interesting. So, yeah, there's all this internal -- you don't even know, like, you're working with someone and you're like, "Oh my God, he's taken the company so quickly, so fast," and there's this underlying war happening. It was crazy.
But that was the intent. I had to work on an article -- I'll never forget -- for The Wall Street Journal. We wanted The Wall Street Journal and Jeff Tanenbaum was my guy. He was my guy. I used to call him weekly. It took three years to get a half-page mediocre article in there.
I think you said in your email it was a fifth-page story.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. It wasn't even a half-page.
What were the dream pieces you were chasing at the time? Obviously, being mentioned and being exclusively mentioned made sense. But was there --
The morning shows, New York Times, anybody that would write about how this is the hottest thing to get your kid this Christmas. That was pretty much it: "This is the thing to get your kid." It was like the Cabbage Patch dolls or anything. So, that was my job. It was like boiler room PR. It was: Churn out the press release, go to CES, and all year long just calling, calling, calling. No, I wasn't emailing at the time. Just calling the media and actually sending paper press releases. I remember my entire living room one pre-CES show just -- I probably had about 2,000 press releases and I was stuffing envelopes. Yeah.
Do you feel like that approach to marketing at that time in some way informs the way that people act today around marketing? That is, the message of corporations is like a gospel where if a very vocal segment of the audience -- basically, people take what corporations say at face value and they vilify other opinions or criticisms.
Well, the media landscape was so different then. The corporations had zero responsibility to any consumer, really. It was all about sell, sell, sell and push, push, push and use the media. We used the media as our megaphone to get the word out. So, anything we had to do, anybody we had to take to dinner, any meeting we had, that was it. That's just: Let them write about us. Let them get our name out there. Because we didn't do a hell of a lot of advertising, except for the trades. And sometimes we'd do some co-op advertising with Nintendo just so we could get our name in. But it was mostly just press.
What was working with Nintendo like? I know eventually, and I don't know exactly, but I remember there were a lot of accusations of them being a monopoly and them having a lot of, well, interesting practices as well.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I think it drove the guys nuts. So, that was not my job. It was not to -- they had closed-door meetings but that relationship was everything and I know it did drive them crazy because at any given moment there could be a problem and then what? Right? So, I think that's when they started also creating titles for other systems. We did some IBM stuff.
Were there scoops or things that mainstream media at the time seemed to be going after versus enthusiast or fringier publications?
Mainstream I think was very, very curious and concerned like I said. The No. 1 question I got was the violence question, right? And what is this teaching our children? You get your kid a violent game for Christmas or Hanukkah -- what is that really doing? And again, I think that question's still really much out there and unanswered. Right?
I would agree. Yeah.
Because it is a weird one. If you think -- and now, with virtual reality? Oh my God, I was just testing things out and I thought, "Just give this kid a Subway sandwich and he could be in that world for eight hours." No joke!
Well, and there's a lot of violent stuff in VR as well. I don't want to focus on violence --
No, I know.
With this project, with a lot of the people that I've talked to that includes people in the industry and people who play games and people who have lost interest in playing games, people who are no longer in the industry, it sounds kind of crazy but I've talked to about 200 people. And I think what a lot of people are talking to me about is the potential they see for videogames to be more or to be different or to include more people and to include different types of experiences.
Pragmatically speaking, if you're in the audience and you want to see different types of experiences in videogames, what can they do? There is no real way to protest or be heard in a meaningful way if you want to see change as a consumer.
So, what can the consumer do?
To upgrade the whole experience?
No, no. Do you remember a company called Purple Moon?
Yes! I do!
In other words, it was a time when the audience was a little up for grabs or as binary as people necessarily think today where games are for guys and they are not for girls.
How can that be shifted or at least get back to that mentality?
There's actually a woman who wrote a book who is a videogame designer and she was interviewed by Tim Ferriss. Who am I talking about? Her book was is more, like, how gamification can actually change your mindset when you become the actual superhero in the game? What is her name?
It might be Jane McGonigal. Is that who you're talking about?
Uh huh! It is. Have you talked to her?
I have not, but I'm aware of her book.
I mean, I think it's people like her that are going to change the industry a bit. Right? It's really funny: I myself have four daughters and I did not let them play videogames while I was working with Acclaim. I wanted them to move. We went to the playground. We played sports. We went outside. We rode bikes. I was so concerned about them becoming glued to the screen and now my 28-year-old daughter who's a graphic designer who's on a screen all the time stays up until 4 a.m. playing Fallout.
[Laughs.] How crazy is that?
How did you personally at that time -- you know, that they were for other people's kids, but not your kids.
I didn't bring the games home. I just didn't bring the games home. They were young. I was having them. I was pregnant. I had a two-year-old and I had another -- I had two by the time I left. I think I was pregnant with my third. But now? Oh my God. She's addicted. It's kind of scary, like, bizarre. And it's a violent game.
Everything you’ve said about Acclaim so far is that it was very manic, very aggressive, very ambitious, and there was also some clandestine cutthroat stuff going on. Were they accommodating with your being pregnant? What was your maternity leave like? How was adjusting after coming back?
[Laughs.] I don't remember anyone acknowledging my pregnancy really. It was work, work, work. That's all. I worked close by their HQ in Oyster Bay, New York so there wasn't any maternity leave. I just worked through it. Seriously. We were in it to make the m-o-n-e-y.
You mentioned doing work with VR stuff, but what is your perception of what since you left what the videogame industry has become and is that what you imagined it would be?
Well, no. I was so super-excited -- having daughters, mind you -- that Jane McGonigal, like, I was so super-excited. I was gonna go out and get her book because I thought girls -- this could be so much fun. Between Marvel Comics and videogame manufacturers, we could have a blast with this for the girls. But I haven't really seen that really evolve yet. I don't know why.
Did you ever feel like when you were working in the industry that it was a male-dominated --
Did you ever not feel welcome?
Oh, oh my God yeah. It's such a man's industry. When you think about going to CES at the time, yeah. I felt like a pawn half of the time. I was there to just kind of bring the guys into the interviews, set up the questions, and they took over. Yeah. Business was like that at the time, but I was getting a good salary and I said, "Okay, I can do this."
You know? It wouldn't have been my choice job, to be perfectly honest with you.
Working in the game industry?
You know, it's interesting because I look at games now and I look at VR and I look at HTC Vive and I think, "This is the most exciting time." What we're gonna see in the next 10 years gives me the chills. I think this can help my aging parents if the right games came out that were -- there's things like they can't travel anymore. Just think of the awesomeness that VR and AR could bring to every age, every generation. Oh, it's thrilling. It's thrilling.
So maybe the question is less what can consumers can do -- but I've interviewed a couple of rappers for this project as well. Rap is interesting to contrast against videogames because I feel like rap on a mainstream level has gotten over its obsession with violence whereas videogames have not.
There was a rapper I talked to who said if you want to really change the stuff, you'd have to change how videogames are sold to open that up.
Why? Why would you have to change how they're sold?
Well, it's always weird to be the middleman and ask someone to respond to what someone else said because it wasn't my comment. But he was basically saying if you want to see different things in the marketplace, you have to change the things that are available to be bought and also get people excited for wanting to buy them as well.
You mean, like, where they're sold? Or how much they're sold for? I'm confused. Is it GameStop versus online?
I don't understand.
That's okay. Do you feel like videogames is reaching as broad of an audience as it can or should?
Oh, God no! I think anything brick and mortar is dead period, right? If we look online, I think it's fascinating to be playing games with people around the world and I think that that needs to grow for sure. But I do think that every age and generation could benefit from a different type of immersive game experience. Like, I think that would be -- education and this aging population. It could be end of life, right? You could bring gamification into end of life. I'm floored. Now? If I could and if I found the right company, I would gladly work on social media and content for a company that was creating games that could actually work with the mind and the neuroplasticity of the mind to help with depression, to help with anxiety, to help with -- just making us all a better version of ourselves.
How did you do market research? How did you decide where to advertise, who to target, and how to appeal to them and why?
During the time that I was working with Acclaim.
At that time, it was the trades. We knew that everything revolved around the Consumer Electronic Show. Twice a year, that's what we needed to do. We needed to launch new titles. We needed to be there with experiences and parties. We needed to advertise in the trades, and that was the first thing, just to show the industry that we were serious, that we were competitive, and that was our first line of strategy.
And then our media list just kept growing and growing and growing. I mean, every single newspaper, every single radio show, every single magazine. And you saw the media start to develop columns. All the sudden, everybody had videogame review columns. So, it was my job to keep up with that as the videogame offerings -- people were like, "Well, which one should I buy my kid?" And then there was the hot list, from October to December of, "Okay, what's the hot seller?" That was the big thing. Now, it's a completely different story. The media landscape has changed tremendously, so it's the citizen journalists who are reviewing the games.
What strikes you as being different, the sorts of things citizen journalists will publish and say that the old guard journalists of wouldn’t publish and say?
So, there is a level of transparency today. I am sure if Acclaim was around I would have to give bloggers tours and advanced copies of games in order to compete for reviews. The quality of game would have to be so much better or we would have been slaughtered. Remember, Acclaim was buying licensed titles way before they were producing the games. Although, I watch Phil DeFranco on YouTube and I think about what it would be like if I told him we have the title but not the game.
So, now that brands are dealing directly with customers who are also "citizen journalists,” bloggers, reviewers, etc. They would balk if I gave them a canned press release. Back in the day, we churned out press releases and gave them to CES trades and then mailed and faxed them to TV, Radio and Print. This method of communication would never fly now.
How did that job compare to other jobs you had at the time? You mentioned it was pretty bare bones where you were, but before we started you also mentioned you were at Reebok when it was three people.
Yeah. I was actually at an agency called McGrath/Power at 500 Fifth, and so I had two clients. One was Reebok and the other was Activision. So, I had videogames and I had really ugly sneakers. And it was interesting because both were on their way up but I did not know that. I was a kid out of college saying, "Oh, wow, this is not what I thought I was getting into."
I hated both accounts but I loved Mick Jagger at the time. And Mick Jagger, I decided: "This is what I'll do with these damn sneakers. I will slip a love note into a pair of our tennis pros and I'll ship them to Mick Jagger's agent." And he wore them in the "Dancing in the Street" video with David Bowie and it took off.
Just to contrast it against the game industry, were there things that you did with other clients that wouldn't fly in the game industry? I'm just interested to hear you talk about how it's distinct or different or weird or unique or very much its own animal.
Well, back then? No. We'd try anything because basically marketing is anything that will get you attention. We would try anything and I don't think it mattered whether it was a videogame or not. It's just whatever it took to get attention. Now, it's so easy to get attention but everybody's trying to get attention.
[Laughs.] Yeah, right? So, word of mouth -- truly, yeah. I think you have to produce a quality product. Any product, any industry, it has to be super-super-quality in order to -- if you're not making a great product, you may as well -- yeah. They could have never gotten away with what they were getting away with back then.
Yeah, the unboxing! Could you imagine the unboxing? It would have just tanked. [Laughs.] It's kind of funny, right? No more shittiness. There can be no more shittiness produced.
If the games in Acclaim’s day were so, as you say, shitty, why do you think you were able to get so much attention for them?
We bought our way into the CES trades so we could get editorial coverage and we relentlessly positioned ourselves as a leading maker of video games for Nintendo. We were riding the Nintendo wave and the writers and reporters who were penning the stories never played video games. They were older. Their kids may have been playing them. Now we have 12-year-old game reviewers on YouTube with six million subscribers.
Yeah. But even then, a lot of it does feel skewed to the male and teen demographic. Was that a conscious decision shifting to that, or how was that arrived at?
Oh, we knew young boys love videogames. So, we knew that that's who we were appealing to. Absolutely. Yeah. We were getting in the gaming magazines, but once we got into them, it was just a matter -- we gave them the games and they reviewed them. And then, of course, the big thing was to give the tips, the tricks, because that made the kid in the gaming magazine stand out. Like, "I have tips and tricks for you to share." We were learning from them a little bit, too, from our customer service department. But we knew. We knew that it was boys. For sure.
I assume this goes hand in hand somewhat with predominantly female models in advertising for games.
Do you have any insight into how often that was the first idea for videogame marketing, be it at your company or elsewhere?
I mean, were the other ideas considered first?
If you talk about putting naked girls literally into the game design for 13-year-old boys, that's always been. You had Mike Arkin making the games. Of course. There was probably a lot of other stuff that got by everybody that was just kid humor. Yeah. If you think about who was down there testing the games and who was helping design them -- I don't think it was a force from up above that said, "Okay, this would be good. This would help sell more games." No.
Did you ever feel conflicted, as a woman, selling and helping to sell these types of games and to coordinate and collaborate on marketing that featured female models in the way they were being featured? You mentioned before, not wanting to have your kids play the videogames but it sounded like for different reasons.
I am not a feminist per se, and so I never felt uncomfortable about what I was doing. I have been working around men my whole life and the video game industry at the time was dominated by them. At the time I saw the opportunity to make money and their offices were close to my home. The guys made it easy for me. Sure it was a compromise. Not my ideal job.
I have four daughters (but they could have been boys and I still wouldn't have set up Nintendo in the den.) I am a proponent of healthy movement and fitness, so I took them to the playground and the Y instead. Just recently it seems like there are more superhero and gaming models for girls. I think that is just awesome. I am a big fan of Lara Croft/Tomb Raider.
Also: You said you thought of your time at Acclaim as being part of the revival of videogames. If that’s the case, how did the company internally reconcile rebuilding trust after a market crash while putting out “shitty” games?
It was all about being first to market. Pumping out bigger and better titles before anyone else. I don't know where the trust came in. Not sure anyone cared about trust.
You’ve mentioned a few times that it was a very greedy time. What was the height of the greed you saw at Acclaim, you think?
There was some shady activity going on when they were in the pink sheets stage of forming their IPO. I think they got in legal trouble for that, but I wasn't privy to those meetings.
I know you said there was not a lot of stuff discussed internally, but if I tell you like you fast-forward a couple decades like Gamergate, does that surprise you that from what I've heard so far wasn't discussed internally at game companies? Was there ever a concern when you were in the industry that things might build or get to that place where a portion of the audience would get so aggressive because of latent messages and narratives they picked up from the games and the media about games?
Well, I haven't seen Gamergate so I don't know. I'm going by you saying that it's a very aggressive and over-the-top community. I just think that it was at the time fueled by greed. And it's kind of a shame because videogames can truly be transformative in that you're immersing yourself in another world and I don't think it needs to be that way. But it was money, money, money, money, money rules. Just like anything else.
Do you feel like when people blamed videogames for societal problems, is it similar to the way that they blame social media today?
I mean for things like bullying and harassment. Do you feel like people talk about them and accuse them in both in the same way?
Well, it's funny 'cause social media is where I live now, obviously with the new media landscape. And what I've seen in the past probably six months to a year is a whole new type of awareness that is different than what used to be, where people are now very cautious. And this just came out with the LGBT community and transgender and now it's almost reversed where anything you say, you have to guard yourself because everybody's policing each other on social media about what you should and should not be doing. Bullying is a terrible, terrible crime.
I mean, I watch YouTube nightly to see what's going on and what's happening. It's a very interesting time, especially as people are now content creators and they're creating by borrowing and using and downright copying music and now getting sued by the music industry. I think it was Michelle Phan, sued for $7.5 million -- she's a YouTuber -- for using music that she never got copyright permission for. And, yeah, it's a very interesting time in social media. But I think, as of last year, things have changed. People are policing each other.
But does that remind you of the late '80s and your time in videogames, when people were policing about videogames?
No, it was mothers against the machine, right? I think it was more the mothers and the media against the machine. There were certain mothers out there that were like, "No! We are not going to buy violent games.”
Do you think they believed that interactivity presented new concerns or do you think they were swept up in more general concern about violent childrens' entertainment at that time?
I think violent childrens' entertainment. Yeah. You take a kid who's playing Chutes and Ladders and board games and now all of a sudden they're 11, 12-year-old and you give them a joystick and say, "Here, shoot!" And a lot of parents were like, "No."
What was damage control on negative press like in those days?
[Laughs.] Damage control was avoid the question, just to avoid the question whenever you could. We were locked in a room with 20/20, and this was probably the worst moment in my career at Acclaim because they came to the office to do this interview with the three founders and they didn't really tell us they were gonna really focus on the violent aspects. We thought they were gonna talk about the trends and how exciting the industry was and it's reviving the toy industry, if you would, and boom, the tables were turned and the guys weren't prepared for that. They weren't prepared for that because you say, "But the market wants it. The kid wants it. They want this. It's demand."
And that same question, "Why aren't you making more games like Tetris?"
I hate to sound so negative. I hope I -- it's not my point.
No, not at all.
My hope for the future is completely different.
Just putting on the glasses at the VR experience and holding the Google Tilt Brush. I'm like, "I don't want to go back in the real world!" Have you tried?
I have. Yes, I have. A couple years ago. I know all about it.
Oh, I'm walking through space painting with a brush! That's sick! [Laughs.] That videogame? That's fun.
But to go back, I mean, can you tell me a bit about booking 20/20. What was that process like, their wanting to do a piece about videogames? Other than selling games, what were you hoping would be the result of it? You also mentioned a company like Acclaim wouldn't have flied today, what aspects of booking that segment works completely different today?
20/20 was an investigative, long-format ABC show and they were looking to uncover the blame and to shame corporations like Acclaim for producing violent video games for children. We had to film on a Sunday morning so Jim, Greg, and Rob were not exactly happy to come to work that day and from what I remember they were not happy with the questions about violence but in the end their thought process was any publicity is good publicity, as long as we were selling games.
When I tell you that we had zero thought about social responsibility, I mean it. It really was all about the Benjamins. That's all. Even though the ABC piece was on the negative side, we didn't care. As long as the name Acclaim was out there. This lack of consciousness really backfired later on after I left.
We were talking before about policing on social media, as well as a bit about harassment online. To what extent do you think marketers and marketing is the cause of this kind of behavior on "either" side and to what extent do you think society is the cause?
Okay, 100 percent what's involved is: "Will our profit margin be enough? Will we make enough money?"
I know that is the first and foremost priority. A company will tell you anything else, David. They'll tell you whatever you want to hear, but when it comes to it it's: Will this game make money for the company? And then there's the entertainment value, the education value, the goodwill value.
I'm sure you've heard about this Ghostbusters stuff and the long tradition that's in --
Where do you think this sort of stuff is coming from? Is it coming from messaging in marketing? Is it coming from society in general? What do you think?
Well, I mean, there's a lot of data that would tell companies what will be sold next if they used the data correctly if they comb through all the Facebook data and all of the forum data. I mean, they surely would know what customers want next, what would be the next game to create and what would be enjoyable for people and what they'd want. There's probably a lot of places that are doing a lot of collective collaboration with consumers to make better games.
But in the end, I think the bottom line is: Will this sell?
So, tell me about Tetris being a flop. I think that will not compute for most people. [Laughs.]
Yeah, for me it was like the meditation game. It was so relaxing to play and so chill. But it was boring as hell. I think people just said, "You couldn't put those two together on the same table in front of a buyer for a store. They wouldn't even look at Tetris." They'd say, "Well, who's that for? The grandmother? That's not gonna fly, There's not enough action."
It's interesting, right?
Yeah. Who saying that? Buyers at stores? Or who?
Yeah, the buyers. It was the buyers. I remember, because we put the game out. We tested it. We said, "Let's see how this does." I think Tetris did well on IBM and we said, "Let's see what it looks like as a videogame." And it flopped. It just -- you couldn't put it out there with all those action titles.
What would it need to have done to have not been a flop? For it to be a success, what were the expectations that it had to live up to?
I think it was the mindset of the market, the mindset of the buyers, the mindset of the time. It might have been -- like, we had to get over that "everything has to be action" and everything has to be shooter games. I think the market had to evolve a little bit is what I think. There's just too much competition out there for all the other games that look like bright, shiny objects.
As an app, I think Tetris did well, right?
Well, I don't know. It's also been pirated a ton and it's been around forever so it's funny to hear that it was a failure. I also suspect many people reading this who will say they still feel like the market hasn't changed all that much since then.
I remember standing in Rob's office saying, "Well, you know, we haven't put out the release on Tetris yet." He goes, "Ah, forget it. Let's just focus on WWF.”
And I was like, "Okay. Okay."
Again, I was a PR director, basically a pawn of the company. I had no decision-making.
You mentioned that before. Is that because you are a woman or you were PR? Or why?
You know, there's the culture of the market and then there's the culture of the individual companies within the market. So, you remember, I told you that Rob was in a lawsuit with Jim and they were working together.
There was a lot going on there behind the scenes that I didn't even know. The No. 1 thing was for us to get an IPO as quickly as possible, from napkin to pink sheet. That's where they wanted to go. Just grow it, grow it. And Jim Scoroposki came out of the consumer electronics market where he was a sales person. He was such an amazing sales person. And he was selling calculators when they were, like, $700 at Macy's.
It was a crazy time and he was very, very shrewd when it came to that.
So, I had no idea and then it was just like one day, "Okay, we've gotta write a press release about our going public."
And I was like, "I don't know how to do that."
And then we had to kind of wing it. [Laughs.] We had somebody come in and help us out but I don't think we got an investor relations team going until later on.
That all backfired. That all backfired on them.
In anticipation of this conversation, I went on YouTube and looked up a bunch of old TV news segments and commercials about videogames from the '80s. I saw a young John Stossel and also Bill O'Reilly on Inside Edition introducing segments on how videogames are a trend.
There was a commercial somewhere in there for the Game Boy where -- it's a weird set of words, but it said, "You don't stop playing because you get old, but you could get old if you stop playing."
I don't know if you traced this or noticed this, but I think there was a shift in marketing videogames from "we must establish the market" to a clearer and more aggressive hammering of "this is only for certain people." Do you remember that shift happening or why do you think that narrative and approach shifted and narrowed?
That is -- what, because we're falling off a certain age and weren't playing videogames anymore? Is that what we're thinking, that we're trying to extend the market into all ages?
I'm not sure.
I just know that you wouldn't see a commercial on TV today that is like, "Hey, here's a videogame for 'older people' to play."
Yeah. That is so interesting. No, we never had any discussions of extending the market or were worried about will -- I mean, we were worried titles would drop off and somebody would create a more action-packed title and take over any position we had. We watched the charts. I think even Billboard had a videogame chart.
They might. I know that Nielsen tracks purchasing funnels. I know from years of writing about videogames, though, that there's little that discloses that kind of information in super-transparent ways and lets you really rake over them -- really there's press releases and whatever game companies say. If anything, it's like one of those services where you have to sign up for a whole suite of their analytics, but I have to imagine this stuff is being tracked even if it isn't being shared.
Absolutely. I remember there were some media outlets that were starting charts, the best sellers. I remember having to go after them to try to get ours on the chart. That was the whole idea, we wanted to be on the chart as one of the top 10 videogames. I'm pretty sure Billboard was one.
Because the market was so volatile, what did the day-to-day look like for you at Acclaim? What's your main memory of what your day-to-day was like?
We worked really hard. We worked really long hours. We worked from 10 a.m. to 8, 9 o'clock at night and it was literally churning out marketing materials, churning out press releases, getting on the phone. I was constantly on the phone. We had Jim there and Greg and Rob and they were all really really hard workers. I mean, there was never any -- you were given your one job and that's what you did. Mike's was to churn out videogames and to test them. I was to get out the releases. I mean, it's interesting because we were a really well-oiled machine.
And it was a very, very fast-moving time, for sure. And, like I said, the CES show was everything.
What sorts of conversations do you remember having at the time with people who more than anything wanted to work in the game industry?
Everybody wanted to work in the game industry. By the time it was my second or third year, it was like everybody -- every kid wanted to work in the game industry. Oh my God. It was crazy, right?
What did you typically tell them?
That you had to have a real passion for it. I was constantly trying to get people jobs. I do remember that. There wasn't any room in our company but, yeah, everybody wanted a piece of the pie and I kinda think I hooked people up, but certainly we were really excited to be in it ourselves. We felt like winners. We felt like we were definitely the top topic, the industry to be in at the time. We were kinda like rock stars, you know?
There was a fair amount of making stuff up as you were going along, right? Because it was so new?
Yeah. Well, it wasn't new for me but it was a fast-moving ball of fire through the sky. That's what it felt like. We were just on a spaceship and it was just like growth.
What was so fast-moving about it? What was growing? Obviously the market, but how else do you mean that?
Well, there was tremendous demand. So, for the three years that I was there, this was the Christmas present to get every kid out there. So, that really was the biggest demand, was producing and time for every Toys"R"Us for every store out there so that the kids could get what they wanted for the holidays.
So, that was one of the biggest things, that it was one of the most popular toy, game, category of games, and category of toys.
This is a weird question but: Do you think you were good at that job? I know you said it wasn't necessarily your first choice.
I have to tell you, you know, I took the job because they called me and said, "We want to give you the job."
Now, why did I do that?
Well, I'd just had a baby and I was going to have another baby and we were moving to the suburbs and oddly enough they were moving to the suburbs by me and I said, "This is amazing. They're gonna offer me big bucks at the time. How can I not take this opportunity?”
Was my heart in it? Absolutely not. Was there anything that was, "Oh my God! I get to?" No. It was just a jump on that opportunity. And I think a lot of people in the industry, especially that were women, were just feeling that: Jump on this opportunity and ride this wave.
You asked if I was good at it. Why I say I was a pawn and a puppet is because Rob was really -- I would have to say I was Rob Holmes' scribe, if you would. There was so much control there. He would say -- we'd literally sit in his office, have a meeting, and he would say, "We're gonna launch X, Y, and Z by third quarter. Okay, so I need a press release here. I need you to contact this media, I need you do this, this, and this and go do this.” And then I'd bring him the drafts of the release and he'd mark it all up and then he'd give it to me to correct. I'd correct it and he'd go, "Okay, go send it.”
And then I would just set up interview after interview after interview, do the photo shoots and the packaging, and just get it out.
So, I never really had to think. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I just did the execution.
When you were pitching the media, what reasons did they give you that they weren't interested in videogames?
Jeff Tanenbaum was probably the hardest, at The Wall Street Journal. I don't know. They would say things like, "Not interesting enough story." The only reason they wanted to write about it was either as the hottest Christmas gift or as a way to say, "Oh, these bad game manufacturers, they're ruining our children." From a mass media perspective.
From the industry it was all like, "Industry! Industry! Industry! Oh, we can't get enough news!" Because this is all self-puffery: "Oh, we are the best industry." It's all kinda made up.
But outside the industry, when we go to big-time media it would pass or, "This is the biggest Christmas gift. This is the biggest Hanukkah gift."
You may not have a lot to say because you said it's just a job that you took.
But you mentioned there were a lot of conversations that didn't happen and things that weren't discussed. A lot of what I'm looking at today with this project is partly why are games the way they are and how could they be different and how could they be better and the people around them also be better? From where you sit now, were there things you wish were discussed at that time?
Oh my God, yeah!
But think about it: We didn't have the technology.
So that's why I'm so absolutely fascinated in VR and augmented reality, right? Like, I look back at those videogames and I say, "That was a joke." And now, I'm a 52-year-old woman and I'm like, "Oh my God, I volunteered to help Michael with Jump into the Light in New York, New York's first VR theater and experience." I said, "I must help you. I am so interested, I can come every Friday night and stay for four hours and talk to people about this because this is the future and I love it."
So, that's an interesting -- when I think about what videogames were like, they were just another form of little bit of entertainment. It was just something else to do around the house and not watch TV, so you'd do that. You would play videogames.
This, I think is going to be a part of everyday life, VR and augmented reality in a videogame. I mean, I was one of the first people to download the Pokémon app.
Yeah, Pokémon Go. It's super-super cool. Super-cool.
[Laughs.] So it's a completely different mindset I have now.
Was there anything about the office dynamics or industry issues or labor issues that you wished were discussed at the time?
All right, between you and I? I don't even know if this -- but one CES we all went out to dinner as a company and Jim Scoroposki sat us around and he must've gotten very drunk and wanted to know what everybody wore to bed every night. And then he was gonna guess first. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah. I'm telling you. The way that -- you just couldn't get away with half the things he did. It was crazy. It was crazy the way he ran that place. Yeah. They'd never fly. They'd be sued, they'd be reported, there'd be sexual harassment suits. It would never fly today. I'm curious, have you heard anything like this from any of the other people that you spoke to about what it was like to work at at other companies?
[Laughs.] That's a great question.
You don't have to tell me the details, but I'm just curious: Was I the only one with this crazy experience?
No. Not at all.
It's a pretty universal experience and a pretty universal female experience.
It wasn't just CES. I mean, we talked about Purple Moon before and Brenda Laurel told me about how when she went to work at Atari, they were using the womens’ bathroom to smoke pot. That was the least egregious thing she told me about dynamics like that. Lots of other people have talked about it as well. It's pretty universal.
But no. It wasn't just you. Did you not have contact with a lot of people at other game companies at the time to get a sense of that?
We never -- there was never enough time to actually have those kind of conversations.
True. And like you said, you were in the process of having another kid and going to the suburbs.
So I think you were trying to compartmentalize your life a little differently.
Yeah. For the nine or 10 hours a day that I did focus on work, that was it. Yeah. We never could -- there wasn't even ever a relaxed conversation.
One of my closest friends was Jim Wilcox, who was an editor -- did you talk to him? Is he still around? I don't even know. He really had his finger on the pulse. He was editing the magazine and just talked to every company.
I'll look him up, thanks Madeline.
This will be my last question for you: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Not nearly what they're going to accomplish in terms of education, in terms of bettering our athletic performance, education performance, just self-performance. I cannot wait to see the future of videogames. I don't think -- nothing happened before what's about to happen. I think it was just pure entertainment. Seriously. That's how excited I am.