"THE KITCHENS, INC"|
Keystone Kapers' Kreator -- Gary Kitchen
Interview by Dan Gutman
(Appeared in the April 1983 issue of "Electronic Fun With Computers and Games")
One game designer in the family is pretty good. Two is remarkable.
But when all three sons in one family become programmers and they all
design games for the same company, it's outrageous. Gary Kitchen and
his brothers Dan and Steve all work for Activision and Gary's
Keystone may be the hottest thing since Pitfall! Gary also designed
the Atari VCS version of Donkey Kong by Coleco and Space Jockey by
U.S. Games. We talked recently with Gary about his games and what
it's like to grow up in a family that is a video game phenomenon.
EF:I understand you designed DONKEY KONG for the VCS.
GK:Yes, I was working under contract with Steve Kitchen--my brother--who
runs Woodside Design Associates, a California-based design company.
He worked with Coleco in the past and they contracted him to do VCS
games. Because he had a lot of work, he contracted me to do Donkey
EF:Is it difficult to translate an arcade game into a home game?
GK:Actually, when they were testing the game in New York arcades, my
wife and I went specifically to see it. We thought it was the
greatest thing we'd ever seen and I said, "Boy, I'd love to do that
on the Atari VCS." A month later Steve called me up. I set out to
do good graphics. I said, I've got to make it look just like the
arcade--I mean exactly like it. But if you try to put all four
screens in, you're going to get something that looks like somebody
else's arcade adaptation--all flickery and square and lousy. It's
just not worth it.
EF:So you eliminated the elevator and the conveyer belt screen.
GK:Right. I just couldn't fit them in the amount of space I had. I
really had to shoehorn it to get the second screen in. To get
graphic quality and squeeze in three screens would have been
EF:If you had done all four screens, what would they have looked like?
GK:Well, you're talking about resolution. As far as the number of lines
of resultion on the TV screen, it's how fast you update the
information. All of Activision's games, and Donkey Kong, are single
line resolution. The information is updated every line on the
screen. It makes it less blocky. If I had gone to double or triple
line resolution, I would have had ramps that looked like steps.
EF:How did Keystone Kapers come about?
GK:I was going to a game with a cop chasing a crook. They Keystone Kop
was my wife's idea. The cop chases the crook through a department
store. It's a multiscreen game--eight screens--and it has animated
escalators and elevators. The idea is to avoid obstacles that the
crook is throwing at you and try to catch the crook in the shortest
amount of time.
EF:There are some similarities to Pitfall!
GK:Right. You run from screen to screen, and there are treasures in
both games. But where Pitfall is more of an adventure game, this is
an action game.
EF:I saw you score 42,000 points yesterday. Can you tell me how?
GK:Sure. If you run at full speed, you'll have no problem at the edge
of the screen. If you jump and then stand around, there's going to
be a constant wave of shopping carts and you'll probably get
clobbered. Always run at full speed. On the ball screen, don't be
afraid to run right up to the ball and jump over it at the last
second. You can also jump earlier than you do in most games.
Keystone Kelly really sails. Don't wait around for the elevator,
go to the escalator. Otherwise you lose bonus points. The only time
you should ever take the elevator is if you get to the screen and
it's just about to come. Then you hop in.
EF:Did you have any difficulties in designing Keystone Kapers?
GK:ROM space. A game that's just running and jumping is really going to
bore the player. Initially what I had was balls bouncing, planes
flying, and shopping carts rolling. I put color tables on all the
objects, meaning that they are all multicolored--that gives you more
realism. When you do all that you're taking up a lot of space, like
three quarters of the entire program. Then you've got to sit down
and put in the game play in the remaining space. Just like any other
thing I've written, I had to really cram it to finish the game.
Designing games is a real puzzle.
EF:Were there any other things that you wanted to put in Keystone Kapers
but had to leave out?
GK:Oh yeah. I had a great police car in the game at one point, called
the Paddy Wagon. I had to take it out because it didn't fit in with
the game play at all. Also at one point there was a TV set. I took
that out because it didn't make sense--the Keystone Kops were around
before there was a television. I had a bomb in there too but it
wasn't very important to the game so I got rid of it.
EF:It's interesting that you and your two brothers are all video game
designers with the same company. Can you tell me how that came
GK:My oldest brother, Steve, is the one that really got us all started.
He got heavily into electronics when he was 18. He started a company
in New Jersey and gave me a job after college. Just out of the blue
one day he said, "Let's try doing a game with electronics." So we
started making handheld games, some of them for Parker Brothers. We
also hired my brother Dan when he was 18. Once we started the
handheld games, I said, "That's it--no more digital clocks, no more
calculators. Games is what I want to do."
EF:Was Donkey Kong your first VCS game?
GK:No, before that I did Space Jockey for U.S. Games. It was a 2K game,
so it didn't have as much variation as it could have. It was double
line resolution. But it was the first thing that I did and I learned
a lot from it.
EF:So how did the Kitchen boys come to Activision?
GK:Dan and I started looking around when VCS games really started
catching on. Steve came in from the West Coast, and since we always
respected Activision, we aproached them. That was in 1981.
EF:Do the three of you ever collaborate on games?
GK:No, but Dan and I work very closely on games. Keystone Kapers is my
game--I wrote most of the code--but Dan had a lot to do with it. I'm
helping him with the game he's working on now. It's a cross-fertilization
EF:Can you give me an example of this cross-fertilization?
GK:Sure. It's never, "I'll write this section and you write that
section." It's an idea collaboration, not a code collaboration. For
example, I called up Dan and said, "Look, I want an object you can
duck under." He thought about it and suggested an airplane, and I put
it in. I do it with the other guys at the Activision Eastern Design
Center too. I'll be working on something and I'll say to the other
guys, "What do you think of this color? Is it weird?" There's a lot
EF:Is there any sibling rivalry in your family?
GK:A little. Dan and I don't see Steve that often because he's in
California. So Steve had no idea about Keystone Kapers until it was
finished. I like to keep him on his toes. He works on things he
doesn't tell us about. We like to surprise each other and see what
we can do.
EF:When you were growing up, were you all interested in computers?
GK:No, Steve was the big computer freak. I was always into art and in
my teens I did more drawing and painting than engineering. So I was
about two semesters in college and I said, "This is great, but I'm
never going to get a job with this stuff." My father got the three
of us into electronics. He builds crystal sets and ham radios as a
hobby. So I decided to try engineering and put art on the side. It
just happened that the one area that you could combine art and
engineering was video games--that's why I love it. You know, there
are some companies that make artists do the art and programmers do
the programming. I'd never work for somebody like that because I
like to do my own art work. That's the fun for me--putting the
picture up on the screen, animating the characers, things like that.
EF:What was the first thing you programmed?
GK:At one company I was working for we had eight weeks for a programming
project, so we hired an outside person to do it. It turned out this
guy didn't know anything; he was trying to hide his lack of
programming ability. All of a sudden there was a panic, and there
were no programmers. Somebody said, "Do you know how to program?"
And I gave it a try.
EF:What would you recommend to a young man or woman who wants to be a
GK:You can get all the advice you want and read all the books you want,
but what you've got to do is stand at the computer like I did from
day one and say, "What can this stupid little thing do?" You've got
to try little things out and make a million mistakes. But the great
part about a home compouter is you can do whatever you want and you
aren't going to blow anything up. That's basically how I did it. I
programmed BASIC and I programmed microprocessors and handheld games.
I had never done an eight-bit microprocessor 6502. I was just scared
of it. I didn't want to touch the thing. One day I said, "I gotta
learn this." I just dove in and it was so easy!
EF:What was the most important thing t learn?
GK:I tell you, a lot of it has to do with an engineering background.
That's the key, as far as I'm concerned. People who have an
engineering background and want to learn assembly language have a
head start on computer science majors or anybody else. Not that
they can't be good programmers, too, but there's a big advantage in
knowing how the computer works. If you can design a computer from
the ground up it will help you how to program. People are doing that
all the time now. The first thing somebody wants to do when they buy
a computer is learn how to program it. I learned when I was going to
EF:Where did you go to school?
Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. The engineering
department was very good, although I was there they had very archaic
equipment--1940 oscilloscopes and things like that.
Everybody assumes that the big schools for engineering are MIT and
Actually, four out of the five designers at the Activision Eastern
Design Center are Fairleigh Dickinson people. I don't even think
they know it.
They do now. One last question, Gary -- what's your next game?
Well, of course I can't tell you any details, but I'll tell you
this--I definitely don't want to do a real serious shoot-'em-up.
I've been watching people's reactions to Keystone Kapers and the
thing that they seem to like the most is that isn't funny. So you
can bet my next game will be a funny one.
Typed by Keita Iida