"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 Kong.

    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 impossible.

    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 about?

    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 of ideas.

    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 of teamwork.

    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 game designer?

    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 night school.

    EF:

  • Where did you go to school?

    GK:

  • 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.

    EF:

  • Everybody assumes that the big schools for engineering are MIT and Stanford...

    GK:

  • 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.

    EF:

  • They do now. One last question, Gary -- what's your next game?

    GK:

  • 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

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