"MEET DAVID CRANE:|
VIDEO GAME GURU"
by Colin Covert
(Appeared in the January 1984 issue of "Hi-Res Magazine")
Reprinted from TWA "Ambassador Magazine" with permission of the
author and publisher; copyright 1983 by Trans World Airlines, Inc.
This is a story about a famous person whose name you've probably
never heard. He is a modern artist. His works adorn millions of
homes nationwide. They command the families' attention for hours on
end every week. His income is astronomical. Yet only now are he and
others like him emergine as significant figures in the public
Our subject is David Crane. He designs the most popular video games
At 29, Crane is an unlikely superstar, a gangly six-foot-five coat
rack of a guy with an all-American exterior and a "Scientific
American" soul. Blond hair falls in straight bangs across his
forehead, and he sports a sandy beard of recent vintage. The
instruction brochure of his best-selling home video game "Pitfall"
put his face before so many young players that people had begun
requesting his signature at the supermarket. "People asked me for my
autograph. I thanked them for asking," he says, bemused. That's
when he grew a beard to change his appearance. Having become famous
after a fashion, Crane, who is shy at parties, is striving to go
incognito. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
His complextion is pale by Californian standards; designing video
games is an indoor occupation. The pitch of his voice is high,
almost adolescent. His characteristic expression is a wry smile, a
little grin that just puckers the corners of his cheeks. He looks
uncoordinated but is by all accounts a cut-throat tennis player.
And, in the estimation of many people who know him, he's a genius.
Genius means something different in Silicon Valley than it does to
the south in Hollywood, where a "genius" is anyone whose latest film
is making money. To computer professionals in Mountain View,
Sunnyvale, or San Jose, "genius" is an accolade that implies vast
technical expertise. Crane, a virtual Berlitz academy of computer
languages, is also a genius in the Hollywood sense. His games are
the nearest things to sure hits in the industry.
Video games--once a sizable fad, then a swelling craze--are becoming
the dominant entertainment industry of the Eighties, a white-hot
vortex of art, technology, show biz, and, above all, money. Atari
paid a staggering $22 million to license Steven Spielberg's character
E.T. for a video game. Best-seller charts rank the Top 15 game
cartridges in "Billboard" magazine, giving them equal status with the
nation's favorite LP's. And justly so. Between the arcade Cyclopes
and the home versions of video games, the industry may gross as much
as $6 billion this year, according to Ronald Stingari, a vice
president of Atari Corporation. At that plateau, video games will be
a bigger business than the motion picture and record industries
Despite the eary December 1982 panic that knocked video game stocks
down by as much as 33 percent per share overnight (as happened to
Warner Communications, parent company of Atari), few onlookers feel
the potential of the video game business has been realized.
Observers estimate that on Christmas morning 1982, there were game
consoles in 14 million of the 80 million U.S. households with
televisions. The Yankee Group, a Boston high-tech consulting firm,
projects that by 1990 60 million U.S. households will be equipped to
play video games.
Ironically, since its birth a decade ago this has been an
entertainment industry without stars. Though game cartridges alone
accounted for $1.5 billion in sales last year, most of the designers
who write, direct, and produce these megahits labor in obscurity.
Imagine the film industry if Hitchcock or Coppola were unknown,
the music world if Streisand or Bernstein were anonymous, and you've
got a reasonable picure of what the video game industry has been
Designing a good video game is more than a token victory. The games
may take only a few minutes to play, but they can take six to eight
months to create, months of insomniac hours, tedium, sudden fortune,
and sudden disaster. Physically, video game cartridges are nothing
more than tiny flakes of melted sand jammed into cheap plastic cases.
What makes them come to life, creating the little dramas that have
become our new national pastime, are the instructions etched onto
those silicon chips--the programming.
In the whole world just a handful of people know how to conjure a
game on the screen of a home television set. New York's Institute
of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that there are
only 100 video game designers in the nation. The hurdles would-be
designers must pass are at least equal to those confronting other
computer professionals. Designers must combine an adolescent
enthusiasm for games with a disciplined understanding of microcode
and an intricate knowledge of the game computer's architecture.
Microcode, a complex computer programming system, moves jittery bits
of whizzing electricity through the chip on a painfully precise one-
to-one basis. In one microcode game program, the shape of a castl
is described as HS26263E3A2F3E. Such are the nouns of the language
that directs the machine and defintes the play. Every object's size,
form, color, movement, trajectory, and speed must be detailed.
Orchestrating a cascade of electronic impulses to the correct
destinations requires hudreds of pages of formidably rigid
instructions. The work is as unforgiving as brain surgery. There is
no margin for error.
Nevertheless, to a certain kind of individual, the work is
irresistible. The fascination of trying to get complex equipment
to function JUST SO can be enormously gripping. Steve Cartwright,
who, like David Crane, is a "name" designer, describes the work as an
obsession. "I'd do this even if I weren't getting paid to." There
is a joy in beating the system that gives rise to an often-repeated
aphorism of David Crane's. Crane's Law says that man will always
use his most advanced technology to amuse himself.
The few men who can harness that technology (games design is a
virtually all-male fraternity) are the creative basis of the entire
industry. But one of the games companies play is awarding designers
scant credit for the enormous profits squeezed out of their video
games. The largest manufactureres--Atari, Mattel, and Coleco--
routinely refuse to assign credit for their games. Company officials
publicly maintain that all their games are produced by teamwork, so
crediting an individual would be inaccurate and unfair to the rest of
the team. The firms sometimes tie themselves in embarrasing knots
complying with these policies. A recent issue of "Intellivision
News," the slick newsletter from Mattel for Intellivision owners,
includes a lengthy interview with "the man who designed and
programmed" the game Utopia. Nowhere in the article is the
designer's identity disclosed.
Laboring in anonymity is quite a sore point for most designers,
according to Alan Miller, who joined Atari after a stint at NASA.
"When I worked at NASA and people asked me what I did, I really
couldn't tell them. The nature of that kind of engineering is such
that you work on small parts of a number of larger projects. But
games design is different. You are creating something that is an
expression of yourself. A game designer has as much right to be
credited for his work as a composer." Some wily designers found
ways to take public credit without their bosses' knowledge, Miller
says. Two of his former Atari colleagues programmed their games to
reveal their identities onscreen after a chance series of moves.
Today, through a combination of hard-won legitimate recognition and
sheer industry hype, designers are entering the limelight. Even
monolithic Atari, which has long suppressed designers' identities
fearing personnel raids and industrial espionage, has begun to name
names. The imaginative people who devise video games for a living
are becoming public figures, with fan clubs and even pestering
groupies. Throughout the nation, teenagers are filling mail sacks
with requests for mementos from their idols: and autographed printout
of Rob Fullop's data-entry routines perhaps, or a note on code-
crunching tips from Carol Shaw. Many kids with personal computers
are beginning to program their own games. If through repetitious
play some teenagers are turned on to new professions in computer
science, then the mania is worth it.
The leader in crediting designers for their creations is Activision,
whose president, former recording industry executive Jim Levy,
promotes his people like rock stars. The flourishing software firm
was founded in 1979 by Levy, Crane, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and
Larry Kaplan, all disaffected Atari designers who wanted more money
From the first, every Activision game was packed with an instruction
manual carrying a photograph of its creator and a signed letter with
the designer's playing tips. Activision ads also emphasized the
designers' names. Levy made every effort to boost his staff in hopes
they'd build a loyal following. Video gamers, the theory went, would
rush out to buy the designers' new games, just as readers eagerly
purchase a favorite author's latest novel.
It worked. Of 25 cartridges the company has released to date, a
dozen have "gone gold," with more than a half a million sales. Three
have "gone platinum," breaking the million mark. Today, Activision's
designers receive 12,000 fan letters a week, according to vice
president and editorial director Tom Lopez. Skeptics are led to
Activision's highly congested mailroom to see for themselves the
mountains of correspondence generated by Activision's stars.
The mailman's nemesis, the man behind "Pitfall," the video game
megahit of 1982, is a homespun computer virtuoso from Nappanee,
Indiana: David Crane.
Crane doesn't act the part of a blue-chip success. As a founder of
Activision, which has zoomed from nothing to approximately $125
million in sales in four years, he has doubtless made his first
million, maybe multiples. Yet he remains remarkably unaffected by
Crane dresses for work as if he were on the way to a softball game.
Blue jeans are the designer's unofficial badge of office--the people
in Activision's research lab dress more casually than the people in
the mailroom--but Crane takes perverse pride in declaring that he's
worn a suit "precisely three times in my adult life." He appears to
be making the kind of disheveled statement about rejecting the
trappings of maturity. His shoes--cheap brogues the size of
gunboats--are worn to mere nubs. "These are Red Wing shoes, and,
obviously," he says, raising one outlandish foot to display a
dwindling heel, "I wear them until they are well used." Not because
he can't find shoes in his size, he insists, but only because they're
comfortable. "It's not hard to find shoes when you know where to
look. I've visited my hometown in Indiana twice in the last ten
years, and I never fail to stop by the shoe store. The owner always
has a pair for me. He keeps one pair of double-A Red Wings in stock,
just in case I drop by.
Nor does Crane work in a lavishly appointed lab. The designers share
a little row of cubicles without doors, each designed to contain one
person. Their walls don't reach the ceiling, but stand about five
and a half feet high. You can look over them. Like study carrels,
they create no privacy. Each has a desk with a standard-issue color
TV, a computer console, and a few unclassifiable electronic gewgaws
on it. A few cubicles have Activision ads or cartoons pinned to
their cloth-covered steel walls. None have green houseplants or a
vase of cut flowers to soften the functional feel of the place.
Overall, the designers' environment looks like a rat maze designed by
a tasteful behavioral psychologist.
If you are what you eat, Crane is pure junk. "I have a real rich
palate," he says with his trademark smirk of amusement. "I eat
virtually every meal in a sandwich shop: hamburgers, stuff like that.
I am a chocolate milkshake connoisseur." His diet, a mulch of tuna
sandwiches, candy, and cola that hardly seems capable of intelligent
life, is a source of horrified amusement to most of his friends.
Although he's a teetotaler, he hasn't place many other curbs on his
appetite. Crane lopes through the halls of the research lab carrying
a liter beer mug filled to the lip with soda, which fuels his
inspiration the way absinthe fueled Oscar Wilde's. When he traveled
to New York City to accept the video industry's award as the best
game designer of 1983, Crane indulged himself by ordering $20 worth
of white chocolate pretzels. The delivery boy misunderstood and
brought 20 POUNDS instead. Crane lit up with joy.
In all of this, he is not much different from his co-workers. Candy
cravings have eveolved into a standing joke around the Activision
office, where everyone has a particular favorite. Alan Miller favors
M&Ms in every color but brown. A typical meeting leaves the
converence room table littered with depleted tins of Exedrin,
brimming ashtrays, and half-eaten chocolate chip cookies. The entire
organization seems to tremble on the brink of diabetic shock. "If
there's one trait designers have in common," Crane says, "it's our
taste for chocolate."
Crane favors simple pleasures after hours as well. He lives in an
apartment complex he calls "a Silicon Valley microcosm," where he can
quickly find a tennis partner, a bridge party, or a computer
professional when the mood for a technical bull session strikes. His
apartment, though less austere than his lab, is decidedly modern and
functional. Everything centers around the big-screen TV that
dominates the living room. A sectional sofa curves around it to
accomodate friends who drop in to watch Crane's collection of laser-
disc movies. An octagonal game table in the dining room is
eternally set up for bridge.
Until his latest housecleaning, the spare bedroom was littered with
paperback science fiction novels, newspapers, and magazines. This
idea-mulch for future games blanketed the room "to the point where
you couldn't tell what was going on," Crane says. "It was books
everywhere. I read reams of science fiction. 'Cause, hey, sci-fi's
my life, to quote Mork." Crane's mother feeds his habit, spending
weekends at garage sales with a computerized list of every science
fiction book in her son's collection, buying second-hand books for
a dime apiece. Crane returns with boxes of them every time he visits
his parents in San Diego.
Crane had little patience for books until quite recently. "I never
read when I was a kid. I don't know, maybe it took too long. Now I
like mostly light science fiction. I've read some social science
fiction, but...," he pauses, groping for a suitable distasteful
description, "it's just like the real world," he finishes, grinning.
Reading occasionally gives Crane notions that become games. So do
movies; Crane recently saw the animated Disney feature "The Sword and
the Stone" and was impressed with the climactic wizards duel. But
with so much competition in the field, it's harder than ever to think
up original games.
Each designer has his own particular work habits and creative
techniques. Miller loves sports, hence his first two games for
Activision, "Ice Hockey" and "Tennis." Crane, who's know as a
graphic virtuoso, begins by creating visual images, then building a
game around them. Sometimes a premise occurs to him like lightning
striking the primordial soup, and the game evolves smoothly. More
often, Crane says, designing video games is a process of eliminating
every idea that doesn't fit, like a sculptor chipping away at a block
of marble in search of a statue trapped within.
Occasionally, he just gets lucky. Crane was on his way to a trade
show in Chicago when he saw a man trying to run across Lake Shore
Drive's rush-hour traffic. "Hey, there's a good idea for a video
game," he remembers thinking. It evolved into "Freeway," and a
cartridge that "went gold," selling more than half a million units.
"But for how to hook everything up, the idea was there in ten
minutes. That was fun," he says. "The rest was just hard work."
Once he's found an idea, Crane writes a brief description of how the
game is supposed to play. Then he settles down in the lab and spends
days alternately studying cloud formations out the window and writing
detailed computer code in brief, intense bursts.
The process that creates a challenging game can be endlessly tedious.
"You're giving extremely simple instructions to the microprocessor,
telling it to take this number and move it over there. That's all
I can do," Crane explains. "But if I can do 30 of those in a row,
in the proper sequence, I can make something pretty fancy happen."
Though the Atari VCS is a comparatively crude first-generation game
console, it's the de facto standard for the industry, with more than
12 million consoles sold. Because it requires a fair amount of
programming skullduggery to produce a challenging game on the VCS,
Crane and his colleagues have become adept at "crunching code," or
squeezing as much information as possible into small computer
memories by writing a kind of programming shorthand. "I often start
a game by coming up with a new way to fool the machine, and seeing
what kind of game it will become. "Grand Prix" is an example. It
was unthinkable before that to make a car the shape and color of
those in Grand Prix. At the time I was doing Grand Prix, people
were telling me there was no way to pack that much information into
the limited amount of memory space we had available. So I did. So
there!" He beams.
As the memory chips that are the brains of the games become more
sophisticated, so does Crane's job. His recent, more complex games
require as many as 4,000 seperate instructions, which are physically
"burned" onto computer chips to provide the look and playing features
of the games.
Building cartridges is not only more profitable than building the
computers that run them, it requires very little overhead beyond
hiring the talents of a few brilliant games designers. Because the
markup is so high--the raw materials of a cartridge that retails for
$30 may cost only $5--one hit can generate as much money as a
Pull apart a game cartridge and you'll find mostly air. The plastic
housing, slightly larger than a deck of cards, is empty except for a
couple of clips or springs securing a wafer of green circuit board
veined with the silver squiggles of solder traces, electrical
pathways printed directly on the board in place of insulated wires.
This is the component that plugs into the game console's circuitry,
summoning up mirages on the TV screen.
The snap-together cartridges are manufactured in snap-together
buildings. Red Spanish tile roofs and featureless sheet concrete
walls are the vogue in Milpitas, where Activision produces its
cartridges: There's no aesthetic distinction there between a branch
bank, a bookstore, or a taco parlor. The buildings are assembled by
a tilt-up construction, probably the fastest and cheapest way of
erecting a building yet devised. The walls are laid out facing the
base, then tilted forward into place--and presto.
"In earthquakes, the walls fall away from the foundation," says one
local executive. "That sounds great, until you think where the roof
Labor in Activision's factory is cleaner, but no less monotonous,
than work on any other assembly line. Several short conveyor belts
carry the cartridge through a series of metamorphoses. The green
circuit board is taken out of stock, fitted with bumpers, and loaded
with the necessary components, in this case a ROM memory chip. The
chip, which has been permanently imprinted with the game program, is
encased in a rectangular black "bug" joined to the board by a score
of silver legs through which it can communicate with the outside
world. After the ROM is loaded, the boards march through an
automatic soldering machine, a rinsing and cleaning device, and a
The company delegates its manufacturing work to Selectron, a
specialty sub-contractor that also assembles cartridges for Imagic
and other independent cartridge builders. About 75 Hispanic men and
women assemble the units, plug them momentarily into a testing
console, pack them with instructions, and store the boxes for
shipping. No one on the line wears surgeon's gloves or hair nets.
Those precautions, used to prevent contamination of chips during
their manufacture, are unnecessary at this stage of the process.
A rock and roll radio station blasts a background beat for the work.
A sign lettered with a marketing pen offers inspiration: TODAY'S GOAL
IS 76,000 UNITS.
The path that led David Crane to Silicon Valley began in childhood.
"David was the kid who was always up in the attic fiddling with a
chemistry experiment," says Activision's Levy. He was a born
tinkerer, and there was always something a bit lonely about his
creations. Crane's grandmother likes to tell the story about the
summer he got the triple sunburn. He was twelve or thirteen and
burned so severely that the skin peeled three times. That summer he
built a gadget with an Erector set arranged so that he could back up
to it, push a penel, and have his back sprayed with sunburn ointment.
Crane's older brother dabbled in chemistry, rocket fuel, and
electronics, and young David developed a taste for science by looking
over his shoulder. His introduction to electronics began
extracurricularly around age twelve. "I tore apart radios and
things like that. I got an old used TV for my thirteenth birthday.
Dad paid $40 for that TV. I wired it so I could put the picture
tube up in a cabinet and keep the controls down near the bed. Never
quite got that to work well. Ended up putting it back together so
that I could watch it."
His passion for the screwdriver and the soldering iron grew
throughout his school years, and Nappanee, a freckle on the map near
South Bend, offered few distractions. (When Crane talks about his
youth, he mimics the tone of a Horatio Alger story of humble
beginnings and grand adventures, declaiming, "I was born and raised
in a small town in northern Indiana.") The B&O railroad ran through
Nappanee, but, beyond watching the trains, visiting his father's
kitchen cabinet factory, or watching the wheat grow, there wasn't a
great deal for a bright young man to do. The nearest town of any
consequence was 40 miles away.
We didn't have a McDonald's," Crane recalls. "Only recently have the
big-name fast-food restaurants moved in. It was a pretty small town,
but there was a good curriculum for electronics and computers
surprisingly. We had consolidated two school districts and therefore
had a lot of money. We put together a school with a lot of brand-new
As Crane remembers it, he was always a terrificly smart kid. In high
school he would ignore the textbooks, listen to the lectures, and
advance from grade to grade. Though abstruse electronics commanded
a lot of his attention, he was not a social misfit. He played
tennis, and lettered four years. "I was not an overachiever. I just
visited high school," he shrugs. But he learned to program computers
in three languages and built his first computer at seventeen.
Crane graduated in 1972 and immediately entered the De Vry School of
Technology in Phoenix, Arizona. It was, he says, his peak as an
inventor. "If I needed anything, I'd build it." The appliances he
built were not the sort most people could be said to need. He made a
programmable rhythm section in 1972 when they were all but unheard
of, a tic-tac-toe player computer, using 72TTL integrated circuits
("it was a huge monstrous box!"), and a click that could time
millionths of a second between two events.
Crane required that device to hone his skills as a semi-pro Foosball
player. "It was a professional hobby for a few years. There was a
million dollars in prize money on the tour then. I'd cash my weekly
paycheck from my electronics job to fly to some major city in the
United States and play Foosball for two days, 24 hours a day. I'd
occasionally win back air fare if I was lucky." He placed 64th in
the nationals the first year he played.
The campus unrest of the early Seventies was at the farthest edge of
his awareness. "I'm not concerned with current events," he says
nonchalantly. "Anyways, I didn't attend a campus. De Vry was a
two-story building that was 80 feet square, with 2,000 students. The
courses lasted all morning or all afternoon. You stayed in one room
and the teachers shuttled from class to class. The school went five
days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, two weeks off in the summer,
and two weeks off in the winter." Crane, bored with even this
accelerated program, finished the four-year course in 33 months and
went to work for National Semiconductor in 1975.
It was the middle of the worse recession for the electronics industry
in the last decade. But National was a big company, and Crane was
given carte blanche in the most profitable division, the Operational
Amplifiers department, which produced a little chip that was a basic
building block for a lot of circuitry. The 741, as the circuit was
called, was selling by millions. Quality control for the circuits
required someone to flip switches 1,024 times, while making
measurements out the other end. Crane stepped in and built a
computer system to do the repetitive testing.
Crane's tinkering baffled everyone at National. "The people there
were not into computers. But the manager of the department knew this
was the wave of the future, so he said, "I like what you're doing.
Keep it up." Unfortunately, the only person who could run the device
was Crane. And he was on his way to Atari, after a chance meeting
with Alan Miller on a tennis court convinced Crane Atari was the
place for a bright young engineer to be. "My last official act at
National was to write up a $30,000 purchase order on a system from
Hewlett-Packard to replace mine, so they'd have documentation on it
telling them how it does what it does."
In late '77, Atari was the engineer's equivalent of Disneyland. "We
had a lot of fun," he says. "Warner had owned it for a while, but
Nolan (Bushnell, the founder of Atari and creator of Pong) was still
running it. He's an engineer, and he ran the company as an engineer
would run it," Crane laughs, "and that's why Warner bought it. But
he would still isolate the engineering department. He'd say, 'You
guys go over there and have a lot of fun. We'll come back and talk
to you every once in a while."
Crane found ways to make the computer draw pictures on a TV screen
that no one else can duplicate, but he decided within two years that
he had no future at Atari. He dislikes talking about the experiences
that caused him to leave. Other than to say that Atari "became too
much like a big company," he prefers to keep silent.
Alan Miller, who worked closely with Crane throughout that period, is
more forthcoming. He responded to an Atari help-wanted ad in a local
paper when the company, preparing to introduce its VCS home video
game system, urgently needed engineers to create game cartridges.
Miller was to translate a moderately successful arcade game,
"Surround," into a home video version. He played the game in
arcades, added some variations, and completed the project to
everyone's satisfaction in about four months.
At Warner Communications, which had just purchased Bushnell's
freewheeling organization, a number of designers became disenchanted.
With the fun being squeezed out of their work, Miller and Crane grew
restive. They resented a pay scale they considered below the
industry average for engineers, anonymity, and supervision by people
ignorant of the technical aspects of game design. "There is no way
a person who's not familiar with the intricacies of an Atari 2600 VCS
can assign and direct the production of games for it," Miller says
Miller, Crane, and TWO other Atari designers, who between them were
responsible for more than half the company's cartridge sales, jumped
ship to create their own software company. Activision became the
first independent company producing games for the Atari VCS. Atari,
needless to saywas upset, and sued the new company for $20 million,
charging unfair competition and conspiracy to appropriate trade
secrets. The suit was settled out of court last year. Since then,
Activision has branched out, producing games for the Intellivision.
Privately held Activision now has about fifteen percent of the game-
cartridge market, thanks in part to Crane's megahit "Pitfall."
For adults and the few children in North America who have not seen
Crane's hit game "Pitfall," some explanation may be in order.
"Pitfall" is a race against time in a jungle setting. The player's
alter ego, an animated stick figure called Pitfall Harry, runs
through the wilderness, grabbing treasures, searching for shortcuts,
leaping over marauding scorpions and cobra-rattlers (hybrid snakes
found only in Crane's imagination), and grabbing jungle vines to
swing over alligator pits. The idea is to get out of the jungle
alive, with as much gold as you can carry.
If this sounds like a metaphor for contemporary life, that may help
explain the game's popularity. "Pitfall" owned the number one spot
on "Billboard's" top seller list for four months last winter,
including the high-volume Christmas season. It has dropped lower in
recent weeks, but it's still going strong after well over a million
sales. Clubs of "Pitfall" enthusiasts have been organized
nationwide; there are almost 5,000 members in the Detroit
metropolitan area alone.
"Pitfall's" graphics may also help to account for its success.
Anyone familiar with the screen play of Atari's "Asteroids" or
"Defender" will notice that the images in "Pitfall" do not flicker--
a common occcurence in video games that display several objects on
the screen at one time. Pitfall Harry is a detailed, almost
humongous figure. In fact, Pitfall Harry looked cuter to consumers
than E.T., the cuddly alien who had been expected to create a
Christmas golf rush for Atari.
When Steven Spielberg's film made a meteoric showing at the box
office, a phalanx of manufacturers descended on his offices to bid
for the video game rights. Atari won and wasted no time in bringing
its E.T. game to the home screen for Christmas. Implementing a
special rapid production plan, the game was conceived, the program
written, and the cartridges manufactured in a whirlwind sixteen
weeks, a quarter of the time the process typically takes. Haste
apparently made waste, however, because the game never made
"Billboard's" Top 15. Madeline Gordon, general manager of San Jose's
Microsel Distributing Inc., said the game was a disaster for Atari.
"I cancelled 15,000 (E.T.) pieces from Atari. It wasn't selling," she
To prevent similar debacles, Activision gives its designers a
flexible work schedule many top executives might envy. The
industry's short product cycles lend to many projects an atmosphere
of crisis, so that the programming, which is intense work at best,
becomes arduous. Without generous allowances for rest and
recreation, designers can succumb to a long-term tiredness that
spoils their work. Throughout the writing of the game program, a
procedure that may take a year, they are usually unburdened by
deadlines. "Some designers get writer's block, and they don't show
up to work for a day or two at a time," says Levy. "But when they
get an inspiration, they can work for hours on end."
Ideally, Levy continues, designers should be freed of "as many
distractions as a rational world can allow." It's necessary to
concentrate," says Crane. "When you do a video game, you have to
keep a thousand different details in your brain at once to be sure
everything's going to work when you get done. And any interruption
will make you have to start over." To that end, the telephones in
the design lab flicker a light, rather than ringing, to signal
incoming calls. A polite but firm receptionist rebuffs virtually
every attempt to communicate beyond the locked lab door, not even
company memos circulate there. Less than ten non-designers have
access to the lab, and the entire area has been made off-limits to
smokers. Even top management pales at the thought of intruding, let
alone rushing the designers.
No one calls this pampering. It's just another example of the firm's
benevolent paternalism. Levy takes pleasure in rewarding his people.
A year ago, after Activision more than doubled its staff, Levy
noticed that people weren't taking time to chat in the halls. To
encourage the employees to get to know each other, he flew the entire
company to Hawaii for a week, a trip a local travel agent estimated
cost more than $100,000. In such an organization, nobody cracks a
whip over the creative staff.
"Time pressure makes the designer take short cuts," says sympathetic
editorial director Tom Lopez. "It could turn a megahit into an
Crane wouldn't know a time clock if he hit his head on one. "I get
up at least by ten or ten-thirty every morning," he says with an
expression just short of gloating. "If I've played a lot of tennis
the night before, I'll sleep an extra hour just to rest my bones.
I go into work about eleven, just in time to make the lunch crowd.
Then I'll work through the afternoon, and, if it's a nice day, I'll
go home to play tennis. While I'm waiting for a tennis court, I'll
play video games.
"I could probably disappear for two or three days and nobody'd know I
was gone. Eventually we have to have a little group approval on our
games, when the other designers pass judgement, but a lot of it can
be done by one person sitting alone at home. Some of the people will
sit at home in a rocking chair writing code on paper for three solid
days." The only way some people know he's at work, he says, is to
look in the parking lot for the BMW with the personalized PITFALL
Nevertheless, Crane is the firm's most prolific designer. According
to his coworkers, Crane is to programming what Evelyn Wood is to
reading. He sits before a computer terminal, fixes its screen in a
tunnelvision stare, and types in ten-minute bursts of pure microcode.
Then he walks away and sips at his immense cola mug for a long time
before returning for another ten-minute blitz. In those few minutes
he accomplishes as much as other people might in an hour. He can
bang out a finished game in three months, a speed few can equal.
"It's pretty intensive work. That's why I only do it a couple of
hours every day. Because you've got to keep every little aspect of
that circuit in your mind," he says.
Like obsessive authors who spend afternoons fretting over a coma,
designers spend hundreds of hours polishing their games after most
people would say it's done. "The last hundred hours are spent on
details you might never notice," says Crane, holding his thumb and
forefinger a hair apart. "Unbelievably teeny differences. Like in
"Pitfall," I made it easier for the guy to jump from a standing
start. Originally you'd have to hit the joystick and the fire
button right at the same time. Now, if you don't, the logic takes
care of it. Just thinking about it, coming up with the idea and
deciding to do it and getting it right took about a week. But it
was a very important aspect of the game, making it play right."
Still, even an experienced designer hits a fair share of dead ends.
Crane estimates that 40 percent of his ideas go nowhere. "I have
at least half a dozen almost-finished games that just weren't good
enough. I've come back to one three times. I'm still going back to
it because it's one of those games that feels like it ought to work.
But I can't find out why it won't. Every game is different. Some
don't have enough aspects of play, enough details; every time we
trash one, the reason is different."
The qualities that make a good game are simple: "If it's fun for a
half-dozen video game designers to play, it's a good game."
Today Crane is a celebrity of sorts. It seems only a matter of time
before he appears on television brandishing an American Express card
and asking, "Do you know my name?" Yet he doesn't consider himself
a particularly noteworthy fellow. "There are a lot of people who
like to play my games," he says with an aw-shucks smile. "They like
to tell us that, and I like to hear that. It's always good to have
recognition for work well done."
Mister Smith goes to Silicon Valley. It's the stuff of an uplifting
Frank Capra movie. "I feel happy," he says, stretching his
basketball player's legs contently. "I'm having a lot of fun. But
I'd enjoy myself no matter what I was doing, because I'd only be
doing what I was enjoying."
They used to hang people for having this much fun.
Typed by Keita Iida