Garry Kitchen (Activision/Coleco) – Interview

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Atari owners owe this guy big time. Responsible for the 2600 Donkey Kong port and the amazing Keystone Kapers – Garry Kitchen dropped by Arcade Attack to set the record straight on more than a view things. A great read I’m sure you’ll agree, Adrian gives us the lowdown…

 

How exactly did you get into the video game industry?

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, about 20 miles from New York City. For the first 18 years of my life, my first interest was drawing. I drew all the time, and had some talent as an artist.

When I entered college my first inclination was to major in art, which I did, for one year. At the beginning of my second year of college, I was offered a part time job at a small engineering consulting firm, Wickstead Design Associates. I had no engineering experience so I joined the company as low man on the totem pole, getting lunch for people, running errands and learning how to solder and build electronic prototypes.

This was in the mid/late 1970s, at the dawn of the microprocessor age. As Wickstead was a very small company, everyone got their hands in everything and I began contributing more to the engineering side of things. I was learning on the job, and discovering that I liked electronics and engineering. Early in my sophomore year, I switched my major to Electrical Engineering and switched to night school, so I could work full-time at the engineering job while I completed my degree (now that’s dedication – Ed).

In 1977, Mattel released Mattel Football, a simple, but innovative, electronic handheld game. The game had little red line segments which you moved down the football field with simple directional controls. The red line segments were exactly the same as what was used in digital clocks, only organized in a different layout. Mattel Football sold like crazy and the handheld electronic games industry was born.

 

 

We looked at Mattel Football, we saw a device with exactly the same electronics that we were already using, but with a different goal – fun – rather than utilitarian (clock, timer, calculator, etc.). We immediately decided that we would get into the electronic games business.

Our first project was an electronic toy for Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers had bought the rights to market an invention developed by inventors Bob and Holly Doyle – Wildfire, a handheld electronic toy like Mattel Football, only simulating pinball. The game was much more sophisticated than Mattel Football. In fact, Doyle had the playable prototype running on a very powerful computer system, far more powerful than the tiny microprocessor that was in Mattel Football. Parker Brothers wanted to market this pinball machine but needed someone to recreate cost-effectively what the inventor had prototyped on a $15,000 microcomputer.

We naively agreed to engineer a $7.00 cost, mass-production version of the $15,000 pinball game, using a 4-bit microprocessor, which was state-of-the-art at the time for consumer electronics. In hindsight, we bid on the project having no idea of how impossible the task was. One challenge, of many, was that the microprocessor-based project required both hardware and software expertise. We had hardware capability but not software capability, so we hired a contractor to do the software part of the pinball simulation.

The engineers started working on the hardware while the software consultant (who had a full-time job) wrote code on paper by hand, dropping it off at our office in the evening. My task was to type his code into the microprocessor development system. As the deadline approached, we still did not have running software, though the contractor assured us that the program was almost complete. Finally, he came to our office one night announcing that he had the last hand-written sheets, which he gave them to me to type in the system. We programmed a chip with the program, plugged it into our circuit board and nothing happened. No lights, no sound, no flippers, no ball. He pronounced that he knew what was wrong (Eureka!), changed a few lines of code, and we tried again. Still nothing. This went on for hours and hours and then days and days and we began to wonder if this guy had any idea how to write software.

In a panic, as we were now way behind schedule to one of the largest toy companies in the world (Monopoly anyone?), we looked around the room at the four of us trying to determine which one of us had time to learn how to write software on a 4-bit microprocessor. Somehow, as I was the one who had been typing in the contractor’s code, it seemed logical that I try to figure out how it works. This was the first software program I had ever written and I wrote it while learning how to program on the fly. Luckily, I found that I was pretty good at programming and we finished the toy product on schedule. Parker Brother’s Wildfire Pinball Machine was a big hit and we were heroes for pulling it off.

I then came up with the idea of doing a pool/billiards game, as a companion to Wildfire. Parker Brothers liked the idea, bought the rights and I engineered that game. I got a patent for Bank Shot, and it was named one of the 10 Best Toys of the Year (1980) by Omni Magazine and a Top 100 Game from Games Magazine.

Soon after that, as the Atari VCS took off, I bought a VCS and reverse-engineered it, teaching myself how the video game platform worked. I wrote the game Space Jockey (ultimately published by US Games) while I was still at Wickstead Design. After I completed that game, I left the consulting firm and went out on my own.

That was my entry into video games.

 

 

You are well known for programming/porting the legendary Donkey Kong on the Atari 2600. How did you get the opportunity to work on this iconic title?

After I left Wickstead Design, after programming Space Jockey, I got a call from my brother Steven Kitchen, who had his own engineering company on the west coast. He had contacts at Coleco, who had just secured the rights to the home version of Donkey Kong. They were looking for someone to adapt the game to the Atari 2600. Conveniently, I happened to have Atari 2600 knowledge and expertise, so I did the game as a subcontractor to his company for Coleco.

 

You worked at Atari during its real dominance in the video game industry. Can you describe how it felt to work at such a pioneering company at the time?

Actually, this is a misconception. As discussed above, I was on the east coast in a “different world” when Atari started and quickly dominated the game industry. I entered the video game industry through the path of reverse-engineering, rather than as an alumni of Atari. With my close relationship with David Crane, people assume that I came with David from Atari, which is incorrect (thanks for setting the record straight Garry! – Ed).

 

How did you end up working at Activision? 

While I was completing Donkey Kong as an independent contractor for Coleco, I called Activision to see if I could drum up work with them, mainly because we (my team and I) thought their games were by far the best in the industry. After meeting with Activision, we decided to join the company as the Eastern Design Center (EDC), setting up a satellite office three thousand miles away from headquarters. This was a good risk for Activision because they wanted to maintain the synergy of the current design lab, which was cranking out hit game after hit game, but still expand their design capabilities. A satellite office was the right call; if we delivered, great, if we didn’t, it wouldn’t distract David Crane, Bob Whitehead, et al in Mountain View, CA.

 

 

Wow. You then took the brave decision to leave Activision and create Absolute Entertainment Inc. Why did you choose to go down this path and was it an easy decision?

Activision went through a very difficult time in 1983/1984, as did the entire video game industry. The video game crash decimated the business, as sales dropped to almost nothing. Toys ‘R Us, WalMart, etc. swore off the game industry. As a side note, the video game crash of 1983-1985 is an entire story in and of itself which is beyond the scope of this interview. If you’d like to explore it as its own story, let me know.

 

That’s very kind of you Garry! We may pester you about that another time. Please continue…

Activision started cutting costs, laying people off, etc. We were moved from our triple-A offices in NJ (where we had founded the EDC) to less than desirable facilities. Jim Levy, the CEO, was fired by the board, ending the era of the Activision that I knew and loved. The new management came up with a “brilliant” plan to rename the company Mediagenic, attempting to shed its video game heritage to become a business/home computer software publisher. It was no longer the same company.

Mediagenic approached me about laying off some of our designers in NJ. At that point, in an effort to keep my team intact, I suggested that we spin off from Mediagenic, retaining them as a client. They agreed. It was a scary move but the alternative was to stay on a sinking ship.

FYI, around the same time, Activision/Mediagenic ended up losing a $7M lawsuit to Magnavox regarding Ralph Baer’s original Pong patents. With no way to pay the judgment and facing bankruptcy, the company was gutted and sold to Bobby Kotick for pennies plus the assumption of debt. Bobby negotiated a stock deal with Magnavox, raised money, changed the name of the company back to Activision, moved the company from Northern California to LA, and the rest is history.

 

You helped kick off many future Simpsons games with your awesome work on Bart vs. the Space Mutants. How does it feel that you helped establish a strong game franchise and did you purposely intend to make the game very difficult?

Developing the first Simpsons game was certainly a great thrill and honor and I’m very proud of the work our team did. I got a call from Greg Fischbach of Acclaim a couple of days before the first episode aired, asking me to take a look at the property with an eye toward building a game. The series had begun as a short on the Tracy Ullman show but it hadn’t yet debuted as its own series. Even after the first few episodes, there was such a strong backlash to the off-color content that it was unclear how big the series would ultimately become.

It was an honor to meet the Executive Producer James L. Brooks (47 Emmy nominations (20 wins), four Academy Award nominations, one win) and Simpson’s creator Matt Groening during the concept phase. I am forever thankful to Greg Fischbach of Acclaim for having the faith in us to include us in the project.

Regarding the game’s difficulty, we didn’t purposely try to make the game very difficult. Honestly, I thought the majority of the game played very well, challenging but not in an unfair way. It was a very demanding schedule, as there was great pressure to get the game to market, given the growing success of the Simpsons show. There may have been levels later in the game which could have used more tuning but failed to get it due to the schedule. I’m not really sure, I would have to play the game through to refresh my memory.

Overall, I’m proud to have been part of establishing the Simpsons as a significant game franchise.

 

 

You mentioned David Crane earlier, we had the privilege of interviewing him last year. Why do you think you work so well together and can you give us details of your current project together? 

David and I met in 1982 when I traveled from New Jersey to California to meet the Activision team. Activision was going through meteoric success at that time and David was heavily covered in the news media. The media attention, as well as David’s innate shyness, may have made him appear somewhat aloof. While I was told that many people found it hard to get to know him, I had no problem. We immediately hit it off and have worked together ever since.

It’s hard to say why we work together so well but here are some thoughts. For one thing, we are both electrical engineers. We both have art backgrounds; David’s mom is an accomplished artist and he grew up learning from her. My dad had a strong interest in art and I spent my childhood learning to draw. And of course, we both love technology and gadgets. We also found, for whatever reason, that our brains work similarly and we are able to read each other’s code, which is rare.

Regarding our current work, while we dabble in game design and development, the majority of our time is spent consulting. Having been in the industry for so long, we have become a resource for companies who need help in video game-related litigation. It’s unfortunate, but true, that the more successful a company is, the more likely it is that they will be sued for patent infringement. One defense against a patent claim is to prove through painstaking research and technical analysis that someone else came up with the invention before the patent holder. Our extensive knowledge of the history of the video game industry, as well as our broad familiarity with video game technologies, make us a good fit for that type of work. In this capacity we’ve helped clients such as Sony, Nintendo, Zynga, Hasbro, Konami, Activision and Facebook, among many others.

 

Out of all the games you have been involved in, which was the most fun to work on and why?

Boy, that’s hard to say, as I’ve worked on so many fun projects. Here are a couple:

GameMaker – One of the projects I’m most proud of. I’ve heard from a number of professional game developers who have told me that learning how to make games on GameMaker inspired them to choose video games as a career. I’m proud that my product could inspire at least a few future game developers.

The Simpsons – It was great fun working on the Simpsons series of games because of the quality of the property and the amazing people that I got to collaborate with.

iOS Arcade Hoops – I developed our first iPhone game just a few months after the Apple App Store opened. Arcade Hoops was based on a great basketball pop-a-shot game that David had designed as an online game. Developing Arcade Hoops for the iPhone was fun because it was a one-man project, the iPhone was very new and it was a great challenge to learn new technology. Of course, this is in hindsight. At the time the project almost killed me because there were virtually no tools to develop iPhone games, I had never used Objective C and the process of code-signing the game and uploading it to the App store was a little quirky. [OK, I’m being nice on the “little quirky” thing. In fact, if the code-signing failed, suggested fixes included rebooting your Mac, reinstalling the Xcode development environment, wiping your hard drive and reinstalling your entire OS, and/or killing a chicken and a waving the corpse over your machine while burning incense.] Despite my anguish at the time, I love how the game turned out.

A Boy and His Blob – The pinnacle of David Crane’s creative genius. It was great fun collaborating on a game which was so original and so unlike anything else on the market.

 

 

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

Pong. Why choose anything other than the first big commercial success? (er, good point – Ed)

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Pitfall Harry and Keystone Kelly, together at last, to trade notes and discuss a possible collaboration. In fact, it would be fun to put Pitfall Harry and Keystone Kelly together in a game. Maybe David and I will find some time….

 

Safe to say you’d have a queue going around London for that! Thanks for your time Garry, we wish you all the best for the future!

Adrian

 

 

 

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