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Article 10—David Crane Interview (1994)

Click to Listen: Excerpt 1Excerpt 2Excerpt 3

At the 1994 Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I was given the
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opportunity to interview David Crane, a man I have referred to in print as “arguably the most talented and best-known console game creator of the golden age of home video games.” As a co-founder of Activision (the world’s first third-party game publisher) and creator of million-selling hits like Pitfall!, he was a person I admired long before I started my career as a video-game magazine editor. At the time, Crane had just finished his work on Toys (a Super NES/Genesis game published by Absolute Entertainment) and I was a senior editor for VideoGames magazine (formerly VideoGames & Computer Entertainment).

This was one of my first formal interviews, and I have to admit that I was still a bit of a fanboy at the time. The interview took place in a small conference room inside the Absolute booth on the show floor. Also in attendance were Cheryl Morris (the Absolute PR rep who had arranged the interview) and my VideoGames cohorts Mike Davila and Zach Meston. I didn’t even have a tape recorder available when I arrived at the show, so Zach graciously allowed me to use his VHS camcorder to record the interview (audio only; we left the lens cap on). Despite my lack of organization and professional recording equipment, Crane was very forthright and patiently answered all of my fawning questions—many of which related to work he had done a decade earlier, and some of which were not technically “questions” as much as they were just excited statements about how I enjoyed his games.

Unfortunately, when I got back to the office, my boss told me that the interview would not appear in the magazine because “nobody cares about old game programmers.” I was very disappointed, because I was proud of the piece and—as a huge fan of classic video games—the subject matter was very close to my heart. Aside from a brief quote that I used in a 1996 article I wrote for Computer Player magazine, this interview has never been published until now.

I’m sure that there are better and more insightful David Crane interviews out there, but I hope you’ll find this one interesting, even though our rambling conversation took place so long ago. (Some of the questions and answers are very dated; for example, we talked about the fact that very few Japanese game designers were known to us by name, which is obviously no longer the case.) Think of it as a snapshot of David Crane’s thoughts, taken when his early-’80s accomplishments were still relatively fresh in his mind, yet enough time had passed for him to reflect on those days with some perspective.
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David Crane: We have the video camera on as a recorder today!

Chris Bieniek: Yeah, I’m sorry…I wasn’t very prepared. Should I start at the beginning, or can we start in the present and work our way back?

DC: Whatever you’d like.

CB: You’re working for Absolute, but you don’t work at the Absolute offices.

DC: That’s correct.

CB: Where do you work?

DC: I work out of my house in California. We have…how many employees do we have?

Cheryl Morris: 75, approximately.

DC: So there’s 75 in New Jersey and one here…one in California.

CM: And there’s, I guess, three or four in Redmond…or Baltimore. They’re our development labs.

CB: And you can’t talk about what you’re working on now.

DC: No…mainly because I’m about to start something new when I go back.

CB: Well, we’re big fans of Amazing Tennis.

DC: I appreciate that.
 
CB: Toys wasn’t as well-received, though…I don’t know what your input was on that one. [Note: Toys was a licensed property, based on the 1992 feature film with Robin Williams and Joan Cusack.]

DC: I designed Toys. Alex DeMeo and I worked really hard on that design, and I like the game—the game came out really good. We had a script to work with, and so we had an idea of what the movie was going to look like. Interestingly enough, the movie came out identical to the script. Normally, you think something with Robin Williams in it is going to completely diverge! But they were very close to the script.

Toys is just one of those things. Looking at it in advance, we had Barry Levinson,
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Academy Award-winning director; we had Robin Williams starring; a 50 million-dollar budget; and we had 20th Century Fox’s big Christmas release, OK? The movie just came out a little artsy for a lot of people, and so 20th Century Fox didn’t really push it and [the problem] kind of snowballs from there. The game contained elements from the movie as well as being kind of a unique gameplay structure. It had the good toys and the bad toys…so in effect, you’re a walking arsenal of unusual weapons, and you have to figure out the best way to deploy them against the enemies that are around. I think if you played the game and tried to get all the way through it, you’d find it was really challenging.

CB: Some of the people in the office who looked at the game for only a couple of minutes didn’t get a very good impression of it. But I was determined to get to the…not the “walking around” part, but the shooting part. And after having played it long enough to get that far, I liked it a lot more.

DC: Glad to hear that, ’cause that’s the way we felt, too. We felt like it was really a good game.

CB: I could just tell by the editorial coverage that the game got…a lot of people didn’t bother to play that far into it.

DC: Simple as that. I mean, when you do attach a license to a game, you’ve got to make the game good in the first place as well. The license has to do you some good, and that means that the people who see the licensed property—whether it’s a movie or whatever—have to like the movie and translate that into it. And those people who don’t see the licensed property have to not treat it as a negative. I mean, if the movie doesn’t take off and it’s got a title like Toys, somebody will glance at the wall of video games and say, “well, that’s for my kid brother.” So, because [the film] didn’t get the exposure, [the game] ends up not getting any exposure.

CB: We did an article in VideoGames magazine about game systems that were ahead of their time, and we were digging up all this interesting information about the Hasbro NEMO system. [Note: NEMO was the code name for an unreleased game system that incorporated video footage stored on tape.] I understand you worked on at least one of those Hasbro titles.

DC: I did work there on the hardware. I do both hardware design and software design. And I worked on both the hardware and a couple software titles.

CB: Would you mind talking about which titles you worked on, and what was your involvement with them?

DC: Well, I did some work with Night Trap. It had been completely coded, designed, filmed and everything before I got to the company. But then we completely changed the hardware and had to redo the whole thing, so there were a lot of changes. You wouldn’t know my work from that, because the hardware system never came out; therefore, the
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work that I did to make Night Trap work on the new hardware system isn’t there. All those products that came from that era—Night Trap, Sewer Shark, the music video-type games—were done years and years and years ago and then sat on a shelf until a machine became available that could play them for CD systems.

CB: You’re still credited in the game.

DC: That’s interesting…I hadn’t noticed that. Well, I went over there for like four hours and helped them out on one thing they couldn’t figure out. They had reached a point where they could either spend weeks doing it or call me over there, since I had intimate knowledge. So I did help them out a little bit; maybe the credit’s there for that four hours I spent on it.

CB: Were you working for Hasbro at the time?

DC: No, that was while I was working for Absolute. I talked to Garry [Kitchen, Absolute founder] and he said, you know, “Fine, we’re all friends.”

CB: It’s interesting that all the people who left Activision founded companies with names that start with the letter “A,” like everybody’s trying to get a little earlier in the alphabet.

DC: That’s just total coincidence.

CB: Really? I once read that the name Activision was chosen because it would appear before Atari in alphabetical order. That’s not true?

DC: I don’t think so. I mean, we had to have a name to incorporate. We started out as “VSync, Inc.”

CB: How is that spelled?

DC: V-S-Y-N-C. But that didn’t even make it until incorporation because nobody could understand it or spell it. “Vertical sync”—it’s a term for the television industry. I think we incorporated under “Computer Arts, Inc.” and then the night after, we were all together and [original Activision president] Jim Levy had been trying to figure out some way to put “television” and “active” together. Just…you know, active…television…is Activision! It’s one of those things that sounded silly when we first talked about it. If you ever try to name something, you’ll see that things that sound silly, after a few million repetitions, sound like they were perfect!

CB: The Activision logo, with the rainbow…it always brings back a lot of pleasant memories of games that had the logo on the screen at all times.

DC: Well, that was the first thing…one of the differences that we did early in the business. We figured out how to do it, therefore we had to do it…so we did! We put it up on the screen, and it did not have color for the longest time—probably for about three years. In fact, the color logo is the responsibility of Garry and Dan [Kitchen] and Alex. They were working as a division of Activision on the east coast. We had the opposite of what we have now—we had a zillion people in Silicon Valley, then we had these five or six guys on the east coast. I went out to visit them one day and they unveiled this thing that they had done, which was the Activision logo with a little rainbow on the left edge of it. And working with them we refined it—changed the angle so it butted right up against the “A” and changed some things. They were the innovators of that. So from then on, it had the rainbow even on the screen.

CB: Activision was known for cool stuff like that. Like having background music in Pitfall II.

DC: In fact, there was a custom chip in Pitfall II.

CB: That was pretty mind-blowing at the time!

DC: I designed a piece of hardware that did a number of things, [because] at the time it seemed like the 2600 was still going to live forever. And in fact it did go on for quite a bit after that. We had pretty well busted the…I don’t know if “busted” is the term, we pushed the envelope about as far as we could go with the hardware that was there. So the idea, then, is…well, the only thing that you can replace that goes from house to house “new” is the cartridge. Whatever you can put in the cartridge that might add functionality is a good thing. So we designed a couple of chips…I have a patent for the one chip that’s in Pitfall II. And that one had three different channels of free-running musical accompaniment and a bunch of display capability that could put more things on the screen. So we were in the process of doing that sort of thing—putting hardware instead of just a ROM in the cartridge—and then the cartridge business started to go away.

CB: Did you ever use that chip again?

DC: Never used again.

CB: Have you seen the new version of Pitfall! that Activision’s working on? (Note: This question referred to a Super NES game called Pitfall Harry: The Mayan Adventure, which was on display at CES. It would later be slightly redesigned and released with the word “Harry” dropped from the title.)

DC: I saw the video tape [at CES], and in fact, the designer of that saw me out there and came out and introduced himself. I’m told that’s all there is at this point. It’s supposed to be available in the fall. I like the animation of the cat…cougar or whatever it is, that sort of thing.

The irony is that Pitfall! really did so well because it was one of the first run-jump-and-climb games that was fun to play. Pitfall! as a property right now…all it really has to say for itself is that it’s the oldest run-jump-and-climb game!

CB: When I saw the new game at the last CES, I remember thinking about the page-flipping in Pitfall! and Pitfall II—how the screen would snap to a view of the next area when you crossed the screen border at the left or right. This new game has horizontal scrolling, and losing that…losing the page-flipping, for some reason, for me it sort of takes that last bit of nostalgia out of it. And the character doesn’t look anything like he did in the original, although I don’t really know if anyone would want him to.

DC: No, you wouldn’t. I mean, I look back on that thing and I say, you know, “What an ugly-looking game!” But at the time, it was good animation. The guy looked like he was running; he wasn’t just a bit on the screen like some other games would do.

CB: His pants were a different color than his shirt!

DC: That’s right. All those things were very difficult to do on the 2600—you have no idea! (laughs)

CB: Swinging from a vine is another thing that I really closely identify with the original game.

DC: I remember an early CES where the 2600 and the Mattel Intellivision were pretty
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much head-to-head competitors, although the 2600 always had an edge. Mattel was trying to catch up, anyway. And about six of their designers came over to look at the swinging vine. The problem with the Intellivision is the problem you have to watch for in all video-game hardware, when you talk about hardware that’s ahead of its time. It limited what you could do. Their designers put more in the hardware so that they had more sprites, more resolution, more this, more background resolution and other things. But they locked out the programmer from making real-time modifications to the hardware with the code. By doing that, they made it so you really don’t have the flexibility going forward.

The 2600 was designed to play Tank and Pong. And it was made cartridge-programmable, really, so that you could have a Tank cartridge and a Pong cartridge, OK? The more they put into the hardware, to limit themselves, the more they would have been in trouble. But in fact, they ran into about the maximum die size at the time, and they didn’t want to make the chip any bigger because it would get exponentially more expensive. So they took as many things out of the hardware as possible because, they said, “we’ll put a bit in hardware that the software can turn on or turn off. We won’t have a piece of hardware that does that, we’ll put a bit in the hardware and have the software turn it on and off, every frame.” Because that saves putting any more hardware in there.

They basically took everything that they could think of that the software might be able to do, and took it out of the hardware to save money. But what that ended up letting us do is…since the software is the part that you sell “new” every time, it gave that more versatility than the hardware that’s in grandma’s house already and it can’t change. The reason the 2600 lasted so long is because they basically stripped cost out of it and made the software do all this extra overhead; that gave us all the extra versatility.

So the Intellivision people came over and they looked at the swinging vine. That was never envisioned by the designers of that [hardware], which expected a static background, and a bunch of sprite objects. To make just that swinging vine would have have taken every sprite object in the Intellivision system, just to make it swing.

CB: As I recall, the Intellivision version looked almost identical to the 2600 version.

DC: Well, I did that one; that may be why it looked identical. I coded that one as well. And it did take most every sprite in the system!

CB: Now, you had been with Atari prior to Activision.

DC: That’s true.

CB: The Activision founders were former Atari employees who really wanted to set the world on fire.

DC: Yeah. Well, we wanted to be treated as other than a cog in the wheel. At the time, there were big hardware companies that had a bunch of nobodies in the back room writing software. We had it pointed out to us, through sales figures, that there were four of us at Atari accounting for 60% of their sales. And there were 30 people doing games! Four of us accounted for 60%, all the rest of the people there accounted for 20%, and the other 20% were games done by people who had moved on to something else. So we pointed that out to the management. We said, “Look, this kind of indicates that there is some skill to doing this. We bring something to the party, and yet you treat us like we’re just cogs.” So we were looking for recognition, you know…authorship, that sort of thing, which is why Activision was founded on those principles. The designers were credited in the games; that had never happened before.

CB: And it still doesn’t happen to the extent that it should.

DC: That’s true; there’s been kind of a step backwards because of the nationalities involved in the video-game business.

CB: Yeah, how many Japanese video-game designers do people know?

DC: [The designer of] Sonic is probably the only one.

CB: Maybe one or two at Nintendo. I appreciated the fact that you guys were identified, ’cause I liked the games that you were doing. So when a new game came out with your name on it, I knew I could expect a reasonably good game.

DC: Well, when you put your name on something, you darn well better put out a reasonably good game! That’s the other side of the coin.

CB: Is there a secret that you put into a game that’s never been discovered?

DC: No, there’s nothing I know of. I had one game that had to be recalled for a bug, and it turned out that when I repaired it, only one bit in the ROM changed. There were 16,384 bits and I got 16,383 of ’em right! It did have a fatal bug; something locked up way at the end. It was Laser Blast.

Did you play Laser Blast for five-and-a-half hours to get your million points?

CB: I don’t know if I ever did get that far.
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DC: That was one of those games that you could actually play at a low level or a high level. The low level would get you to a million points in…I think it was five-and-a-half hours. The high level, if you were good enough to stay up with it, three-and-a-half hours could get you there. But you know with Activision, one of the other things we did was “take a picture of the screen, send it in, get your plaque” and stuff…your patch.

CB: I still have my Pitfall Harry Explorer’s patch. I’m very proud of that.

DC: So with Laser Blast, I found out when I was testing it that the game ended too quickly for early players. Well, it’s no big deal; you’re not putting in a quarter. You just hit RESET. So I put in a joystick reset. You hit the joystick to the left at the end of the game and it resets…or the right, one or the other. And we had a number of young kids who played this game for five-and-a-half hours. Now, your arms get numb after about the first two hours, and this is a continuous five-and-a-half hours—there’s no pause in this game! And so they’d be absolutely bleary-eyed and numb, and they reached a million points, where I replaced the six-digit score with six exclamation points. I could only display “999,999” anyway, so when you hit a million, it stops. And in relief, they’d throw the joystick down on the table, and of course it goes to the left and resets the game! So we had a number of—with tears dried on the paper—letters from these kids saying, “I really…I really did it, I promise you, I really did it, but I don’t have a picture of it!” Or letters from mothers, you know: “Johnny did it, I saw it, there’s my signature.”

CB: (laughing) So the Laser Blast patches are the most hard-earned patches?

DC: Probably true.

CB: Have you had much contact with the current Activision staff?

DC: No, they’re down in Los Angeles now. But the designer of the new Pitfall told me that the original game is going to be in as an Easter egg.

CB: Really?

DC: Maybe I shouldn’t have told you that.

CB: How do you feel about that?

DC: That’s fine! It’s not going to be my code; they’re obviously going to be rendering it in some way in the Super Nintendo or something.

CB: I think that’s great.

DC: It’s a hidden room or an Easter egg or something where you can get it.

CB: The Easter eggs are still the most popular section in [VideoGames] magazine. It’s like folklore. There are people out there who are still looking for Easter eggs in Vectrex games. After all these years, they want to know, “is there anything else in this game?” Even the smallest things, where the designers put their initials in the games and stuff like that. Were the Activision designers interested in that?

DC: Certainly the need to put initials and names in things was not there. We recognized the [designers] and we did, I think, a pretty good job at that. The other thing is…it’s a philosophy where you want to design a game so that everything is there for the user to have. You know, you spend a great deal of effort—I probably sit at a keyboard for as much as 2,000 hours to turn out a game—and you really want everybody to see everything you did, rather than spend extra time hiding something. I don’t know; we never did anything like that back at Activision.

CB: There were games like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. where I know there is still stuff in those games that nobody has seen.

DC: Well, I don’t know…E.T., you got to the opening screen and you walk to the right and you fall in a hole; that as far as I ever got! Did you ever get beyond that?

CB: (Laughs) I did, but that game is generally regarded as the turning point for the industry.

DC: Eight million of them…six million of them buried in Texas, right?

CB: Yeah, in a landfill.

DC: That’s the rumor, anyway.

CB: We were over at the 3DO booth today, looking at this fighting game, Way of the Warrior. It’s a Mortal Kombat-type fighting game that apparently was put together in six months by two guys. I thought that was refreshing, the idea that a game could still be created by just two people. Did you always do all of your games by yourself?

DC: In those days, we all did. We drew the art on pixel paper…ruled paper, just colored them in. In fact, at one time back at Atari they had an industrial design group and a
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bunch of artists. And we said, “You know, we’re getting tired of this pixel paper stuff; let’s call the artists over.” I was doing the Slot Machine game for the 2600, and I said, “Give me some cherries, oranges, some lemons“ and this kind of stuff. And they came back with these splotches of things that didn’t look like anything!

So much back then depended on the programming, shading, color selection…things that are now [done by] computer artists. There are now artists that never draw on a sketch pad; they love drawing in Deluxe Paint or whatever on the PC. Back then, there was no such thing. The only people who knew how to shade an edge were those of us who also did the programming.

At our first trade show, Atari had 50 games, we had six. And people would come down and say, “Why do your games look so much better than those at Atari?” Well, we didn’t use the puce and magenta and various colors that the 2600 was capable of. We used only the good, strong, primary colors; we lined things in black lines. Things you don’t notice unless you look for them now. I mean, take out your cartridge of Grand Prix from your box in the attic or wherever it happens to be and look at it. You’ll see that there are black lines wherever there can be to give you good contrast and definition. Freeway was one of my most colorful games ever, and it was on a gray background! You have to make those decisions.

Anyway, we did all of our own art, all of our own sound effects. Sound effects, these days…you go to a CD, and you digitize off the CD and then you load this 7,000-byte sound effect into the memory. Well, our programs were 2,000 bytes, start to finish, all graphics! You don’t do that sort of thing when you have that [limitation]. You write program algorithms.

Since you’re interested in these kind of stories: We were sitting in the lab at Activision, and Carol Shaw was working on River Raid. We were kibitzing; that’s one of the things we used to do back there. We’d yell an idea across the lab and say, “Why don’t you do it that way?” We were saying, “You ought to have an alarm that’s going off when your fuel is low.” And so, while I was sitting at my keyboard—this is a story usually told by Mike Lorenzen, who was back there at the same time—I yelled across the room. I told her the code to write, the control registers to hit and the sequence with which to hit it.

She said, “OK, I’ll try that.” And it goes rreet, rreet, rreet—it made this little alarm sound. And Mike Lorenzen was sitting there, typing away through this whole thing, and then his mouth fell open. I mean, you got to the point where you speak fluent 2600!

CB: You guys must have known the machine inside and out. Those games really do have a certain look and feel to them. They seem to have been heavily tested, because the collision detection was always right on, the controls always felt good…there was a standard of quality there.

DC: There were a lot of things not to do. We had our own opinions on how to handle collisions, for example. At the time, there were a lot of people who did collisions very poorly. In that era, there were games where the ball would go through the paddle, like in Breakout—right through it, every time. When that sort of thing happened in our games, we put a lot of effort into making it much more solid. If you saw it on the screen…if it hit, and you’re gonna say to your friend, “I hit that thing,” then you’re gonna get the point for it.

CB: I’m sure there are games here on the show floor where you’re seeing things like that happen. And I don’t recall ever seeing that in an Activision game.

DC: In Pitfall! there was one thing that kind of goes along those lines. You know how you jumped from the heads of the alligators? Of course, you had to jump from head to head to head….

CB: Unless their mouths are closed.

DC: Unless their mouths are closed. But you can’t go all the way from one end to the other with the mouths closed; the timing was such that the mouths would open. Anyway, I found it to be difficult to jump laterally. If you hold the stick and push the button at the same time, you want to jump laterally. We’re reading these controllers 60 times a second. What happens if you push the button, and a 60th of a second later it reads that you held the stick over? If that happened, you jumped straight up…’cause unlike Mario and certain games, you don’t maneuver while you’re in the air. I was a purist.

CB: (laughs)

DC: I mean, once you leave the ground, you can’t fly! So anyway, I ended up having to make it so that up to and including 3/60ths of a second after the jump begins, it would still read the joystick. For three “ticks,” you were allowed to get that angle in there. It happened too often that I would either run and sink—because it read the stick before the button—or you jump straight up, because it read the button before the stick. So I put a 3/60ths-of-a-second time in there where you could jump, and then all of a sudden it felt great; you could always jump, you know?

CB: I would imagine that you experimented with 2/60ths and 4/60ths before deciding on three.

DC: Oh, yeah. The games have at least a thousand decisions like that to make…while spending, as I said, 2,000 hours in front of a computer, hacking away at it. I would sit down and I’d say, “What does it need now? Alright, now it needs a jump algorithm.” So I’d sit down and write it on paper or write it in the computer. I’d write the jump algorithm, compile it, download it, get the game running, then jump. If I didn’t like the feel, if I didn’t like the sound—if I was putting the sound effects in—or I didn’t like something about it, you’d tweak it, right then and there. You don’t go on and design the whole game and then say, “This jump doesn’t feel good.”

So each thing that I add to a game, I tweak before I let it go, and that goes all the way today. Particularly in Amazing Tennis, for example. There are a lot of little details in there that…I’m a tournament tennis player, so it had to feel like I was playing tennis before I moved on to the next feature.

CB: Do you miss being able to do everything by yourself, and having only a certain amount of memory to work with? Is there something to be said for that?

DC: Oh, there’s lots of things to be said on that topic. I always found that having limitations was good, because then I don’t start at the beginning saying, “I can design any game in the world!” I really couldn’t. What I would do is…after I finished a game, I would fool around with the hardware and say, “There’s gotta be something new this hardware can do.” Freeway was the first time that you had a bunch of things going horizontally and two objects moving vertically. Before it was always a bunch of things going horizontally and one object moving vertically, because of the way the hardware worked. So I worked at it until I could figure out how to get two independently moving objects going vertically with all these things going horizontally. Grand Prix was probably the height of achievement in technical ability for moving objects with color. There’s a lot of colorful objects in Grand Prix. The size of the objects as well; instead of little cars this big [indicates a small object], they were an eighth of the screen. So working with that philosophy, I would start with the hardware and ask, “What can’t it do?” Make it do what it can’t do, and then make a game out of what it now can do.
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Amazing Tennis pretty much happened that same way. The Super Nintendo was relatively new, and it had this “Mode 7,” this three-dimensional scaling thing. As far our company is concerned, that’s the first time we did a three-dimensional playfield. So I made a tennis court. And the net on the tennis court is absolutely impossible. It doesn’t exist, trust me! It’s real hard to explain without getting extremely technical.

When you use Mode 7 on any given field, you cannot superimpose another playfield. Normally you look at all these video games…you’ve got three or four [layers], you’ve got a background, a foreground, scrolling independently and all this kind of stuff. Well, not with Mode 7. When Mode 7 is operating, you’ve got one playfield. Now you can split the screen and do a bunch of stuff up here and a bunch of stuff down here, whatever. But on top of Mode 7, all you’ve got is a background and sprites. Well, the net’s too big to be a sprite. The net’s too big to be all the sprites, ’cause the games have limitations on how many sprites can be on a single line; that would be truly impossible. But worse than that, you can only display…like, 32 sprites horizontally before they won’t display anymore. That’s what those drop-outs are that you see in some games. When too many get on a line, they start to drop out the ones that are over the edge. So anyway, the net is impossible. I spent probably two months and seven different tries to get a net. And that net isn’t there.

CB: What about the Genesis version?

DC: That’s kind of an example of “once you see something is possible, then you can do it.” We looked at it [on the SNES] and said, “Knowing what this looks like up here, we can do this by shearing an image.” Rather than using the Mode 7-type effect, which doesn’t exist on the Genesis, obviously. And that’s in fact what we did. We sheared every scan line of the tennis court and we knew from what was up on the SNES that it would look right on the Genesis.

Zach Meston:  How do you feel about the new game systems…the 3DO and Jaguar?

DC: Oh, they’re certainly very powerful. I think the real answer to that is the generic one: The reason I’m in the software business is so that the hardware business can fight it out tooth and nail, then I’ll do software for whoever wins. I like it to be on a machine that’s fun to work with or has the best capability, but it’s never been the case that the machine with the best ability wins. Never. Like with the 2600.

CB: Beta was technically superior to VHS.

DC: Beta and VHS is a good example, and Sega CD. Those of us who like the storage ability that CD gives us were never very happy that they hooked it up to the Genesis, instead of giving us some two-year-later technology with better video display capability. Which, of course, we’re gonna get next year! But again, it’s not a factor that the best one wins. And whoever wins, we’ll do software for.

CB: One of the things that we’ve heard from people who are looking at the Jaguar is that, because it’s so powerful, they’re very anxious to work on it. I mean, aside from all the financial reasons why you should or should not program a game for the Jaguar, some of the developers seem to be very interested just from the standpoint of it being really powerful and fun to play with.

DC: You’re describing the Amiga theory.

CB: (laughs) Zach’s a big Amiga fan, and Mike worked for an Amiga magazine.

DC: I know the guys who designed the Amiga and it’s like…the Atari 800 is a good example. The protégé of the designer of the 2600 designed the 800. And probably the main reason that it didn’t go over well for Atari is because the entire business side of Atari thought we should be designing a home computer, a la Apple. The Apple I had been out, the Apple II was coming out, so they thought, “Well, the personal computer is the place to go…let’s build a home computer.”

But the engineering department said, “Don’t listen to them; we’re gonna design the best video game out.” So we ended up with one of the best video-game hardwares available, in a box with a keyboard. The marketing people were selling it as a computer, and the only people who really know were buying it for a game machine. There was just no solidarity there.

The Amiga is kind of the same thing. It was designed with wonderful display capability, but you need real good peripherals. You don’t want a home computer unless you’ve got a great printer, a great hard drive. Look at what we have today, and it’s the peripheral that drives it. You can take the CPU box and toss it out and buy a new one for three hundred dollars, as long as you take all your peripherals and plug ’em back in. It was a video-game machine at a time when some people thought it was gonna be a home computer…both of those machines.

CB: Did you ever do a game for the Atari 800?

DC: I designed Outlaw and Howitzer. I don’t know…did it ever get out? I think it did. See, I did Outlaw for the 2600 at Atari. Outlaw, Slot Machine and Canyon
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Bomber/Depth Charge were the three games I did at Atari before we moved on. But I was still at Atari for a year after doing that last 2600 game, because I was on the team doing the operating system for the 800. Then at the same time, I did a game that I always wanted to do on the 2600 but couldn’t because I didn’t have a writable playfield. That’s the game called Howitzer, where you basically sat on either side of a river and lobbed shells at one other, and wherever you left a crater, the other guy couldn’t drive over it. So you’ve got a strategy game of trying to modify his playfield while also trying to hit him, while avoiding his shots and following the trajectories to try to figure out where you’re going to get hit.

Mike Davila: I’m gonna ask the obvious question. What was your favorite system to program for?

DC: Well…(pause) the 2600 was unquestionably the best challenge. Those were good old days…but then, that’s lost youth, you know? I was young then, too. I don’t know; I like to find unique capabilities of every system. I’m very intimate with the hardware. When a new system comes out, I usually design a development environment. I’ll design a complete computer-based system that hooks up to it and lets us develop games on it. I’ve done a number of those for every new system that’s come out since way back when. In fact, I designed the 2600 development systems that were used at Activision, the Intellivision development systems that were used at Activision, the Colecovision development systems that were used at Activision, the NES development system that we use at Absolute and the Game Boy development system that we use at Absolute. Now, fortunately, some of these things are starting to be available over the counter and off the shelf. You can now buy good NES or good SNES development systems and good Genesis development systems and stuff. Anyway, by becoming intimate with the hardware…in that process I find the little quirks and little things. So any system that’s got a lot of neat quirks for me to capitalize on is a good system.
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Postscript: A few years after this interview took place, I happened to run into David Crane at one of the hastily-assembled cafe facilities on the show floor at the E3 expo. I had just picked up a service tray when I turned and saw him standing in line right behind me. I wasn’t sure if he would remember me, but I didn’t want to remind him, because I would have been too embarrassed to explain why the interview was never printed. Instead, I nodded, handed him my tray and motioned for him to go ahead of me in the line. He smiled, took the tray and stepped forward, as gracious as he had been during our meeting in 1993.

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Postscript 2: Even though I never had the satisfaction of having the interview published in VideoGames magazine, I did get to meet the David Crane, and I came out of the experience with a piece of information about a game that I absolutely had to seek out for my collection: Outlaw/Howitzer, possibly his least-known creation. To hear him describe Howitzer as the game that he “always wanted to do on the 2600 but couldn’t”…man, that really made me curious! I just had to play it. I finally tracked down a copy at the World of Atari Expo in Las Vegas in 1998. The game was finished in 1979, but it remained on the shelf at Atari for two years. It was then inexplicably released through the Atari Program Exchange, a division of the company that usually distributed software created by hobbyist programmers. And it is very clever for its time, incorporating elements that would later be echoed in games like Artillery Duel and Rampart.

Postscript 3: At the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo, also in Las Vegas, I attended a keynote speech by a group of classic game programmers that included David Crane. During this presentation, he mentioned the little-known Outlaw/Howitzer and asked the assembled crowd if anyone there owned a copy of the game. Sitting all the way in the back row, barely visible from the stage, I proudly raised my hand. Surprisingly, I was the only person to do so, in a room filled with several hundred hardcore classic gaming enthusiasts. It struck me as funny that the only reason I had my hand up was because David Crane had told me about Outlaw/Howitzer personally!

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