- VIDEO GAMES INTERVIEW: -|
BILL GRUBB AND DENNIS KOBLE
(Appeared in the January 1983 issue of "Video Games" Magazine)
Bill Grubb and Dennis Koble are not quite the Proctor &
Gamble of the video game world, though they do represent the
kind of teamwork that seems to produce the best possible
results if video is your game. Grubb is the career salesman,
the type of businessman who spends money to make money and
makes a lot of it; Koble is the mad computer scientist, the
archetypal video game visionary who creates the games people
play. Together, they are as formidable a twosome as Nolan
Bushnell and Joe Keenan, or Jim Levy and any one of the
designers who helped to found Activision. Together with
another team -- Brian Dougherty (creative) and Jim Goldberger
(marketing) -- they dreamt up Imagic Corporation in 1981.
Grubb and Koble had been standing on the sidelines watching
the Silicon Valley Square-dancers change partners during the
late-'70s when suddenly both bolted for the floor. Each had
toiled on the Atari Ranch long enough to learn the trade and
decided simultaneously to head out on his own. Six months
later, they set up shop down the road a piece from Atari in
Los Gatos (which, incidentally, is where Atari's first offices
were located). They expect to turn a tidy profit on $50 million
sales by the end of '82.
Grubb, 37, is a fast-talking New Yorker, born and raised; Koble,
32, an easy-going Californian, true and blue. Grubb, the president
of the company, studied marketing and finance at Fordham University
in The Bronx and Seton Hall in New Jersey. Like so many other
engineers, Koble is an alumnus of the University of California at
Berkeley, where he majored in Computer Science.
Prior to his 18-month stint at Atari, Grubb's resume read: "11 years
at Black & Decker -- marketing"; Koble started at Applied Technology
(he worked on radar warning systems), moved onto NASA (biofeedback)
and then Atari (coin-op) in 1976. He was the third programmer
Atari ever hired. Koble is presently the v.p of software
development at Imagic.
VIDEO GAMES Editor Steve Bloom spent an afternoon recently with
Grubb and Koble at Grubb's ranch-style home in Saratoga, CA. He
"As you drive down Interstate 280 from San Francisco you gradually
come to terms with the fact that you're not in San Francisco
anymore. Leaving the Bay Area fog behind, you enter California's
now historic Silicon Valley -- a sprawl of chrome-and-glass corporate
two-stories and their adjacent parking lots that stretch into the
distance in all directions. A seemingly endless procession of
fast-fooderies and service stations adds to this landscape, which
also includes mountain ranges to the east and west and a sun
strong enough to support wildly tropical vegetation.
"Bill and Eileen Grubb live on a spic 'n' span suburban loop in
Saratoga. Their street is quiet enough to hear the neighbor's
backyard conversation. I am greeted by Bill and led to the
backyard, where Koble is sitting at a picnic table, eating Laura
Scudder pretzels and sipping a Pepsi. There is no beer to be
found. And this is Sunday afternoon.
"But even on Sunday afternoon, it's business as usual for Grubb and
Koble. Earlier in the day, company employees got together for
a leisurely bout with the elements -- white water rafting. As we
talk, Grubb is often interrupted by his wife, who needs to know
whether he's keeing his 9 a.m. flight to wherever, and other
pertinent personal data.
"Grubb's is the stronger of the two personalities -- he's clearly
the marketing man's marketing man. His lexicon is familiar -- 'bottom
line,' 'third quarter,' 'the marketplace,' 'synergy'; his sales
pitch indefatigable. When Grubb says he'd rather not talk about
Atari, he means it. "I was always taught that if you don't have
something good to say about something, don't say it."
OK, then let's talk about Imagic.
Imagic has grown in one year from nine to 86 employees. We've moved
to a much bigger office facility -- 123,000 sq. ft. A year ago at
this time, Activision moved into a 96,000 sq. ft. facility. In 1982,
we will ship in excess of $50 million worth of product. No other
electronics company has done that before.
Not even Activision?
Activision was formed 21 months before Imagic. We have come along
and done things more aggressively than they have. For instance,
they have two pieces of Mattel (Intellivision-compatible) product.
We have five. We're doing products for the Atari 400 and 800
(computers) and Odyssey 2 as well. We're reacting a little bit
more aggressively than they are in trying to get to that leadership
It sounds like you don't have much respect for Activision's
That's not true. We have the greatest respect for the Activision
people. As a matter of fact, I had lunch with Jim Levy (Activision's
president) the other day. He's a real mensch in the industry, he
really is. We have no axes to grind with those people. It's almost
like the old Yankees and Dodgers competition -- we're two teams who
live on the opposite sides of town who have some real good
ballplayers. May the best guy come out on top. I really believe it's
either going to be Activision or ourselves.
I'm sure Activision's success had something to do with your decision
to leave Atari and start-up Imagic.
I had resigned from Atari in January, '81. I decided I needed a
change from big corporate life. I'd been in corporate life for 16
years and came to the conclusion that I wanted to spend less time on
a jet plane and more with my family. I saw an opportunity to make
a good deal of money by going into the manufacturer's representative
business. So I started New West Marketing. One of the companies I
was repping was Activision. I thought they were doing a tremendous
job, but I felt that there was room for someone to do as well as they
were doing. At the time, Dennis called me. Apparently, he was having
the same thoughts as I was.
I was considering going out on my own. I had been with Atari for
five-and-a-half years, which is a long time in this Valley. The
standard dream of every engineer is to start your own company someday
and become rich. Hey, this was the opportunity I'd been waiting 11
years for. I knew a lot about engineering, but nothing about
marketing. The more Bill and I talked, the more we seemed like a
I was also doing some licensing for Mattel back then. The week after
I spoke with Dennis, I was down there (Mattel's headquarters in
Hawthorne, CA.) and Jim Goldberger -- who happens to be a guy I tried
to hire at Atari -- asked to speak to me privately. He and his
roommate, Brian Dougherty, who was the senior engineer there, were
thinking of putting together an Activision-type company that would
only do Intellivision software. Well, it must have been fate that
brought us together. We stayed up until 2 a.m. that night and
agreed we could all work together.
Then, I wrote a business plan to raise venture capital. We felt
we needed $2 million to get the company started.. and we got it
($1 million from Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield, Byer & Doerr and
$500,000 each from Merrill-Pickerd I and Sysorex). There were
five other people who were originally part of the nucleus: two
Atari game designers (Rob Fulop and Bob Smith) and three other
software/hardware people. Those were the original nine people
that founded Imagic on Day One, which was July 17, 1981.
I don't mean to beleaguer the point, but comparisons with Activision
are hard to ignore. Was there a policy from Day One to design games
from scratch and not get involved in arcade game licensing? Like
We've never had a policy...
If the next Pac-Man was available to be licensed we'd license it -- if
it was economically feasible.
Bill doesn't necessarily feel the exact way I do, but I've always
liked the idea of licensing as little as possible so that we could
create our own reputation. I'd prefer that a year from now we could
be licensing Imagic product to other manufacturers -- say, for
instance, at least the name of a game to a coin-op manufacturer. That
would make me feel really good.
I can't tell you who they are, but we have been approached by a few
coin-op people. If we have a really hot game and someone wants to
do a coin-op of it, why not? But as far as us buying a license, I
don't think Dennis has any objections at all to us making more money
in that particular area.
No problem with me. If the right product comes along, we'll license
it. But you have to wonder about licensing the number 10 coin-op game.
I mean, what are you buying?
Let's talk about some of your latest games. What's the story behind
Atlantis and Cosmic Ark?
Well, basically I did Atlantis and Rob Fulop did Cosmic Ark. I can
remember the day in the lab when me and Rob decided to tie the two
games together. He was working on Reaction, a shoot-'em-up type game
that was the precursor to Cosmic Ark and we started kicking around
the idea of the survivors from Atlantis showing up in Cosmic Ark with
the mission to go from planet to planet getting two of every creature
from these various planets to repopulate Atlantis. We just thought
it would be neat.
That's pretty wild. But why a game based on Atlantis in the first
There are a lot of different reasons. Sometimes you go into a game
development and you have a crystal clear idea of what you want to
do. Atlantis is a good examle. I had been wanting to do Atlantis
for a really long time. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but
then it's a matter of what the final product looks like. Usually,
it's some percentage of what you imagine. Atlantis turned out to
be 95 percent of what I imagined.
(To Grubb) How much do you have in all of this?
Every week each product is reviewed. We look at where it is, how much
it has progressed. There are ideas that get killed.
Yeah, we kill a bunch of them.
I have to make one point, and it's a very egotistical point, but I
just want to make it for kicks. I looked at Cosmic Ark when all
it had was squares. From a marketing standpoint, that didn't excite
me. So I said, "Rob, make it into a flying saucer." He did, and all
of a sudden the game took off from there.
It was also my idea to do Fire Fighter. I'm from one of those
Irish Catholic families in New York -- you know, 14 brothers and
sisters, and all the nieces and nephews -- so I've been around kids
all my life. The all-time favorite children's book has got to be
the one about the fire engine. It's a very simple story that we've
translated into video. Let's face it: I'm really a latent game
Yeah, everybody's a game designer -- everbody's got an idea.
I promise those are my two for the next five years.
What do you think of Activision's rock-star approach to video game
Our designers really didn't want to be rock stars. They want their
personal lives to remain personal, they want to be able to enjoy
their work, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and be ordinary
happy-go-lucky Americans like anyone else.
I don't know. It's fun to be known and all the rest of it -- the
whole ego thing. But I guess I'd just as soon be rich and
anonymous as rich and famous.
I guarantee that after this article comes out you won't be able
to walk the streets again without being mobbed.
I guess I'll have to take my chances...You know, it's not as if
nobody knows who we are. Two weeks ago I got a phone call from one
of our new student trainees and just casually told him that he'd
be working with Rob Fulop on a project. "Rob Fulop?" he said
with this reverential awe in his voice. "Boy, that's going to be
an honor working for Rob Fulop." I thought it was hilarious.
How would he know Rob Fulop?
Most of the kids we have in are real avid game players. It's a
pretty open secret that Rob did Demon Attack for us and Missile
Command and Night Driver (the VCS versions) for Atari.
What did you work on when you were at Atari?
Oh, I did a bunch of games. Dominoes, which was a version of
Gremlin's Blockade, the precursors of Surround. Sprint 2, which
is still a good game. Avalanche, which I can truly say was
a totally original game. A little product called Touch me, which
was a hand-held version of Milton Bradley's Simon, which was
Milton Bradley's version of Atari's coin-op Touch Me.
And I was the one who killed that project.
Fortuitously as it turned out. And from there I went on to
become the manager of consumer software, which is what I did
during my two-and-a-half years at Atari.
(To Grubb) What brought you to Atari?
It's a long story. Back in '75, I came out to California for the
first time on vacation and fell in love with the place. I got in
touch with a headhunter out here immediately, but it wasn't until
October of 1978 that he contacted me concerning a position
at Atari. I received an offer from Ray Kassar (Chief Executive
Officer) and Manny Gerard (Office of the President, Warner
Communications), but we just couldn't get together on a number of
issues. The following June, Kassar asked me to be the
Vice-President of Marketing and Sales for the video game division.
I accepted and started in a couple of weeks.
What I brought to the organization was some real strong professional
disciplines in consumer product marketing. I was a firm believer
in television advertising. I was a strong believer in selling
to people like K-Mart and Long's Drugs. I brought in rebate
programs. I consider myself a small part in the Atari success
What was the reaction inside Atari when Intellivision was announced?
Oh, we had major disdain for Intellivision when it first came out.
It was overpriced. It had a heat problem. We didn't see how
they could ever build the thing. The games were atrocious as
far as we were concerned. Difficult to learn, difficult to master.
We thought nobody was going to like that sort of stuff.
I personally saw Intellivision as a threat from the very beginning.
I brought it home as soon as I could get one and saw how my kids
instantly gravitated towards their baseball and football games.
I'll never forget sitting in engineering meetings and some of the
old-guard vice-presidents of engineering telling us that it cost
$400 to make, that it could never sell for $200. And they were
I remember the opinions of some higher executives than myself who
didn't view it as a threat at all. But then we started to hear some
of the sales figures that were coming in -- where Atari (the VCS)
was set against Mattel (Intellivision). Mattel did very well. I
think you could say that if Atari had thought that they had the
firmest position in the world, they wouldn't be introducing a new
product line (the 5200).
Why did Atari wait so long?
Are you planning to produce cartridges for the 5200?
As soon as we feel that it will sell a sufficient number to make it
economically justifiable for us to do so. We have a limited
number of engineering resources. And if we find out that the
Commodore VIC-20 is going to sell the pants off of the 5200, we'll
put our engineering efforts into doing Commodore software. The
same goes for Texas Instruments (TI). If we feel that TI will do
such a marketing effort that their product (the 99/4A computer) will
have tremendous sales, then that's where we'll be.
Will you also be advertising on television, jockeying for position
with all the other video game contestants?
Yeah, we'll be on TV -- Monday Night Football, major movies, the
whole thing. over the next six months we're going to spend $10
million telling the consumer that our games are designed by
experts for experts and are a lot of fun. Mark my words: There's
going to be more money spend on video game advertising this winter
than there will be on beer.
Typed by Keita Iida