David Crane (Atari) – Interview

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I’ve been thinking for around twenty minutes as to how to introduce the newest addition to our interview tomb but have decided that there are no words that would do it justice.  Not just the creator of the legendary Pitfall! but also the creator of an entire genre (the entire genre that got all of us here at Arcade Attack into video games in the first place), I introduce the one and only David Crane…

 

Hello David, we’re blown away to have you here at Arcade Attack, thanks so much for swinging on by…  Your story is well known throughout the gaming world but how did you first get into the industry?

 

I was always a game designer.  I was the go-to guy to modify the rules to a 4 player board game so that we could still play with only 3 players.  I designed a 3-player chess game in college for speech class because I needed a theme for an oral report!

But I always expected to be the guy whose electronic gadgets were being sold on late night infomercials.  I loved technology, but I had also been trained as a watercolor artist by my mother who taught art classes.  What I learned is that one can spend dozens of hours on a single painting, and only have one painting to show for it.  But with technology one could build one item and mass produce it in the millions.

One day after playing tennis, my doubles partner (the also legendary – Ed) Al Miller asked me to proofread a newspaper ad he had written, advertising for openings at Atari for video game programmers.  I was intrigued by the job, so that night I went in to National Semiconductor where I worked on IC designs, and on a computer that I had built from scratch typed up a resume.  I went in to interview at Atari at 10 AM the next morning, received an offer by noon, and gave notice at 2:00.  I made the career transition less than 24 hours after reading Al’s ad.

 

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You are probably best known for creating the gaming classic Pitfall! What memories do you have making this game and did you know you were onto something special when making it?

 

There was no doubt that Pitfall! was going to be something special.  Most Atari games were single screen games.  When you left the right edge of the single screen you wrapped around and came on to the left edge.  Pitfall’s side view perspective, coupled with the instantaneous screen change as the player traversed off one screen and onto another, opened up new worlds of game play.  The continuity of the path from one screen to the next opened the player’s mind to the possibilities.  The contents of the next screen over were limited only by the designer’s imagination and the size of the ROM.

That may account for the fact that it wasn’t too many years before many hundreds (and then thousands – Ed) of platform games followed in Pitfall’s footsteps.

 

Pitfall! sold around 4 million copies for the Atari 2600 and is rightly heralded as one of the best platformers ever made. Do you think there is a place for an updated version of Pitfall! in today’s gaming market? And if so, would you be keen to get on board?

 

There is no doubt that there is room for another Pitfall! in today’s market, and I have some ideas as to where to start with it.  But I would also want there to be something groundbreaking in any game I were to get involved with.  Properly funded, I would love to take on that challenge.  The problem is that, while you hear of indie games being made on a shoestring, that is not the case with a professional game project using today’s professional game talent.  And I don’t have a source for the $1M or more needed to realize the dream.

 

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Why is there an explanation mark in Pitfall!? This seems quite unique for video game title.

 

The exclamation mark is there simply to make the single-word title more dynamic.  Without it we thought it sounded more like the title of a board game.

Pitfall! was one of the hardest games to name.  Its working title was Jungle Runner, and that almost stuck.  (If you call something by a working title long enough, it is hard to think of it as anything else.)  Many of the other suggested titles failed badly.  For example, since you are collecting gold in what might be an African jungle, we tried Zulu Gold.  Unfortunately that sounded like a new strain of marijuana.  That happened a lot.

I like puns, so I suggested the name that reminds you that you can fall into pits.

 

You were recently voted as one of the top 100 video game creators of all time in a poll by IGN – How does it make sure you feel that so many people regard you as a true gaming legend who helped in the creation of the modern video game?

 

I am proud to have been voted #12 of all time in that poll.  More impressive, around the same time IGN did a Top 100 Videogames list, and Pitfall! was still in the list at #99.  A game as pioneering as Pitfall! might start out at or near the top of such a list when compared against its contemporaries.  But to still make the top 100 after hundreds of thousands of newer games with newer technologies are developed is nothing short of amazing.

 

You worked at Atari during the great video game crash of 1983. Why exactly did the crash happen and what could have been done to prevent it?

 

I had co-founded Activision by then, and arguably it was Activision’s success that caused the crash.  Before E3, we used to attend and display our new products at CES twice per year.  In one 6 month period between CES shows, the number of Atari 2600 game publishers went from 3 to over 30.  These were VC backed attempts to duplicate Activision’s success.

These companies failed to realize that making fun, compelling video games – particularly for the Atari 2600 – is massively difficult.  They had no game designers, but instead hired programmers from other fields.  These companies all failed, but not until they had built 1-2 million copies of the worst games you can imagine.

Those awful games flooded the market at huge discounts, and ruined the video game business.

 

You have worked on numerous gaming titles across a number of publishers and consoles – which game and publishing house did you most enjoy working with?

 

I don’t enjoy working with a publisher, I enjoy working with good people.  In every company that I either worked or started, I found competent, creative, and pleasant people to share the workday.  Except in the bad last days of Atari, I always had that.

 

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Which game did you have the most fun working on and can you explain why?

 

This is always a hard question to answer.  I enjoyed every minute of making games, but I worked very hard at it.  If I didn’t consider the game I was working on to be the most fun, favorite game I might have had trouble putting in the hours.  So I vote for “all of them.” (awwwww – Ed)

Every game I did had something special about it that only another game designer or programmer would appreciate.  For example, at a recent classic gaming show, I explained how the race cars in Grand Prix were rendered.  That would give your readers an example.

 

There have been a few Pitfall! sequels – apart from the original title, which was your favourite Pitfall! game?

 

My favorite is Pitfall II, 2600.  I consider the newer games just “a different game with the name Pitfall on it.”  But for Pitfall II, I went back to my roots in the chip design lab at National Semiconductor and designed a chip to go in the cartridge.  That combined my love of electronic hardware with my love of making video games.  (I don’t actually love programming, it is really just a means to an end.  If I have to program to make games, I can do that.)

 

If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?

 

Funny, but to ask this question you must not exactly realize that I am FROM “back in time.”  I built my first computer the 1960s.  I designed a tic-tac-toe playing machine 6 years before Atari was founded.  I took apart the first consumer game system – the Magnavox Odyssey – shortly after my family got one.  I have been fortunate enough to work on pretty much any project that I wanted to, so I don’t look back wistfully and wish I could have been part of a different team.

That said, I am always amazed that I never met either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak back in the day.  We were all working in Silicon Valley in the pioneering days, going to the same trade shows and stores.  But the video game console and home computer companies never interacted back then.  I suspect Woz and I would have gotten along well (we think so too – Ed).

 

What projects are you currently working on?

 

As a “day job” I work as an expert witness in patent litigation, mostly on video game cases.  The validity of a patent is all about who invented an idea first.  Since I was in the room when most of the biggest innovations occurred, it is a good fit for me.

But I always have a game idea or two floating around in my brain, waiting to come out.

 

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If you could give one piece of advice to anyone who wanted to program video games – what would you say?

 

To borrow from Nike, “Just Do It.”  Download Xcode and make an iPhone game.  Or, if you already know Lua, use Corona.  Better yet, download Unity and get to know the ins and outs of the tool and system.  If you can’t draw, enlist the help of a friend.  But don’t get bogged down trying to make the game look perfect – concentrate on making a fun game.  Then test, debug, and publish your game.  You will probably make less than $100, and much of that will come from friends and family.  On the plus side, with hands-on experience publishing a small game project, you will learn which parts of the process you like doing.

Next keep an eye on game companies hiring in your area.  Then pick a job opening and try to land it.  You will go into your game job interview as a published author, which is a leg up over most applicants.

 

What are your views on the video game industry of today?

 

The business is pretty healthy today, with a good number of competing platforms, good AAA franchises and titles, and indie experimentation.  My cohorts and I have always believed the game business would meet if not exceed the movie business, and it has proven that assumption to be correct.

Just remember that if you like playing immersive AAA titles that make you feel like you are really there, pay full price for the privilege.  If companies like Blizzard don’t make good profits from those huge capital risks, they will stop making those games.

 

If you could share a few pints with a video game character who would you choose?

 

Since I don’t drink, it would have to be a character that likes Diet Dr. Pepper.  I guess I would choose an 80s arcade character reunion.  People like myself put those characters into such contrived situations, it would be fun to hear them talk about it.  And on that subject, I enjoyed the movie Pixels just for the nostalgia, and I loved the novel “Ready Player One.”

 

Thanks so much for your time David – we wish you all the best in your future endeavours!

You can follow David on twitter @PitfallCreator

 

Adrian

3 Comments on “David Crane (Atari) – Interview”

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