Updated: Nov 17, 2018
A legend in the video game world, Mr. Crane worked as a game developer for Atari before founding Activision, the first third party video game publisher ever. David has created a wealth of classic titles including Pitfall!, Laser Blast and Freeway (my personal favorite). Retro Injection is honored to have conducted this interview with him.
When did you realize that you wanted to work on video games?
My goal growing up was to make gadgets that could be sold on late-night television. My first love was electronics, followed closely by computers. (This was before personal computers - I had to build my own.) Video games represented all of the above. I could make a product and potentially sell millions. My knowledge of electronics and television circuitry came in handy, and writing games is a fun kind of computer programming. So while video games were never a goal for me (since they didn’t exist while I was growing up), it was a good career fit.
Atari was the only game in town when you pursued employment with them. Describe your interview.
I lived in the same apartment complex and played tournament tennis with Alan Miller who was working at Atari developing games for the Atari 2600. One night after tennis he asked me to proofread an ad that he had written for the local newspaper to hire video game programmers for Atari. I read the ad and liked what I saw. That night I went in to my design lab at National Semiconductor and typed up a resume on a computer that I had built from scratch. I interviewed the next morning and had a job offer that afternoon. The whole process took less than 24 hours. My experience and training was exactly what they were looking for, so the interview was a snap.
What games did you work on for Atari?
They sat me down at a development station, handed me a manual and said “Make a game.” They had a list of possible games, but my coworkers told me that the games on that list were basically ideas that nobody wanted to do. So I just decided to make Outlaw - patterned after an arcade game I had played with two gunfighters shooting at each other from either side of the screen.
My mother was the typical little old lady who liked to play slot machines when in Vegas, so I made Slot Machine for her to play at home.
Another goal of Atari was to have us make home versions of their arcade hits, so I put two of their $4,000 arcade machines into a single $30 2600 cartridge - Canyon Bomber and Depth Charge.
The Atari 800 project came along and the top game designers were co-opted to help write the 800 operating system - probably not a good use of our skills. But we complied, so I didn’t make any new 2600 games for the last year I was at Atari.
At what point did you know that you wanted to form your own company? Was your decision to form Activision prompted by one specific incident?
The work environment at Atari was deteriorating and leaving was probably inevitable. I was part of a group of four programmers who worked closely together and went out to lunch together, etc. At one lunch we were reviewing a memo circulated by Atari that showed sales of game cartridges for the previous year, and we came to realize that we four had made Atari $60 million in the prior year and we didn’t even have our names on the games. We had a meeting with the president of Atari and he told us we were unimportant to Atari, so we left the company and founded Activision.
The following corporate promotional video, as featured on the Activision Anthology disc for the PlayStation 2, shows the runaway success of the company. Mr. Crane is seen with footage of his games Freeway at 1:13, and Grand Prix at 3:15.
Tell us about your experience in founding Activision. What were your biggest hurdles and fears?
We were cocky young bucks, masters of the task of making games with no worries that we could continue to make games worth millions of dollars - but this time do it for ourselves. We were all pretty young with few financial responsibilities, so we had no fear. I was asked in an interview at the time if I worried about writer’s block - if I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to come up with new games, one after the other. I responded that the idea had never crossed my mind. (Like I said - cocky young bucks.)
If you poke around the blog a little, you'll see that I am a Ghostbusters fanatic. Mr. Crane programmed the movie's game adaption for the Atari 2600. Released in 1984, the same year as the film, it was the first licensed video game ever.
You founded Activision in part so that designers would be able to get their names on their games, something Atari wouldn't allow. In what other ways did Activision differ from Atari?
We thought that the author of a game should be credited in the way the author of a book is known. At the time, a game was the product of a single person. We each came up with the concept, designed the look and feel of the game, wrote every line of program, drew every pixel of art, figured out what challenges were needed to make the game fun, etc. So it seemed only fair to have our names on the games.
We also were able to build a company where the game designer was appreciated; and to create a work environment where we could do creative work and enjoy coming in to work each day. That work environment was lacking at Atari as the company was moving away from its creative roots.
At what point did you know that Activision had become successful in the industry? Was it a relief, or did you have full confidence from the onset?
We never doubted that Activision would be a success. First, a video game is basically an interactive movie, and we expected the video game business to grow to meet or exceed the movie business. Second, Activision was the first third-party publisher of video game cartridges. (Atari made games for the Atari game system; Mattel made games for their Intellivision system; Activision made games for all of the successful systems.) As a third-party publisher we were not limited to one game system or another, any one of which might lose market share to new consoles as they came out.
It is probably Activision’s position as the first third-party game publisher that cemented its place in history. At a recent GDC conference I was speaking to some 600 game professionals. I asked for a show of hands for who works for a third-party publisher. Almost every hand went up. Just as it doesn’t make sense that only the makers of movie projectors should make movies, the key to a healthy video game business is the strength of third-party development and publishing.
You've produced an impressive stable of games for a variety of platforms. What title do you consider to be your most successful? Why?
Between console, online and mobile I have published nearly 100 games (counting only those games where I did the lion’s share of the work or design). But everybody still thinks of me as Mr. Pitfall. I guess it could be worse. As for good old Pitfall, a poll a couple of years back put together a list of the top 100 games of all time. Pitfall was still on that list at #99, after nearly 40 years and with several hundred thousand games made since its debut on the 2600. I am proud of Pitfall's longevity.
What are the most dramatic ways in which the industry has evolved since the ‘80s?
Most dramatic is probably how game design and development has gone from one man - one game to hundreds of specialists working on a single game for many years. It is an unsurprising and logical evolution, but dramatic nonetheless.
I have been involved throughout the evolution. I can draw pixel art, but an artist who specializes in video game art is much better than I am. I have composed and/or arranged music for video games. But a composer who specializes in the field is much better than I am. Early game creators were one person with both the right- and left-brain skills to be both highly creative and highly technical. You can’t make a game without both sets of skills, and that dramatically limited the field of people who could do the job. Combining many specialists into a design group made it possible to expand the number of people who could make games.
The downside, however, is that there is not necessarily one person providing the overall vision of a game - working every day to make it fun to play. So we now have gigantic cinematic experiences, but games are not as much fun as they used to be in terms of simple, fun game play. As a result there are retro gaming enthusiasts who get together to play and enjoy older classic games. There is room for both types of game, but I personally prefer small, fun games.
What advice do you have for startup gaming programmers or companies?
I paraphrase Nike and say “Just Do It!” The barrier to entry in gaming is now very low. There are programming and art tools that do a lot of the work for you. (I started a decade before Photoshop.) If you are a programmer and want to make a game - make it. If you have a friend who is an artist, even better - make it together. You will find out if you have the love of the task that will get you through the long, sleepless nights and the horrible deadlines you face in this industry. Then, if you succeed in making a game you know that the game business might be for you. If so, take it to the next step and self-publish. You can put a game on the iPhone App store for $99. You can’t hope to get noticed among the millions of games there, but you will be able to call yourself a published author.
Then if you decide that you don’t like going it alone and look for a job with an existing developer or publisher, you will have a leg up on all other wannabes. You have proven that you can do it and you will be taken more seriously by the hiring managers in the game business.
Thank you for the great interview, Mr. Crane.
What's your favorite Activison game? Tell the world in the comment box below!