Discussing his new book, Once Upon Atari: How I Made History by Killing an Industry, Howard Scott Warshaw takes us on a trip through his career starting with how he got to Atari (and how he almost didn’t), what he did there (including The Game That Shall Not be Named), and the amazing things he’s accomplished since. From learning that sometimes, in order to get better, you just need lots of people telling you what you made sucked all the way to realizing everything you touch is an expression of who you are and is perfect as is, we get our therapy session on with The Silicon Valley Therapist. Lie on the sofa and take a listen!
See more from Howard Scott Warshaw:
Therapy practice: http://hswarshaw.com/wordpress/
All things Once Upon Atari: http://onceuponatari.hswarshaw.com/
Kelsey Lewin 00:09
Welcome to episode number 22 of the Video Game History Hour presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’ll be bringing in an expert guests, someone who’s done the research and has an interesting story, or 20. From video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin. I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation and I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:33
Our guest today is author video game developer documentarian and the self professed Silicon Valley therapist Howard Scott Warshaw. His recent book with a slightly exaggerated title is called Once Upon Atari: How I Made History by Killing an Industry. And it tells Howard’s story of his time developing a handful of particularly famous games at Atari in the early 1980s. Howard, welcome to the Video Game History Hour.
Howard Scott Warshaw 00:59
Thank you, Frank, it’s really good to be here.
Frank Cifaldi 01:01
So, Howard, why did you decide to write an auto biography about your time at Atari?
Howard Scott Warshaw 01:10
Well, I can’t say it was so much a decision as a response to an overwhelming demand on the part of many people who know me who just for years have been saying, Well, where’s the Atari book, Howard? Where’s the Atari book I’ve been writing for years, I’ve written columns in game magazines. I’ve written books on other topics. And everyone always wants to know, because I write, I tend to write books on fairly obscure topics or niche kinds of things. And everybody says, Well, why don’t you just write the Atari book when you can, because I tell stories. I tell a lot of Atari stories to my friends, when they ask, they Oh, these are great stories, you should write this, you should write this book. I always knew it was gonna be a big thing, though, to write a memoir, right? A memoir is to put myself out there like that, it’s, it’s not always an easy thing to do with because I think if you’re really going to do it, you have to really put yourself out there, tell the truth, and really lay it all out. And that can be a uncomfortable thing. But around 2015, I started taking notes and organizing it in my head. It’s been 2 years organizing material. And then I spent actually 2 years writing it. If I would have known it was a 4 year project. I’m not sure I would have started it. I did. And it finally, and I’m very pleased with how it came out.
Frank Cifaldi 02:29
Yeah, and I mean, you mentioned kind of putting yourself out there. I mean, you express even early on in the book, something that, you know, I think a lot of people can relate to is that your ability to find humor in everyday life, you know, may have possibly caused people to sort of misunderstand you over the years.
Howard Scott Warshaw 02:47
It’s very true. Not everyone understands a sense of humor in the full context. And there were enough difficulties that I dealt with growing up, that a sense of humor was essential. And I’ve always held that very close, sometimes to the point of annoyance of others, but usually for their entertainment. And but I also because I like to think deeply about things, I like to deal with things in a very serious way. And if I don’t balance that with some lightness and humor at times, it’s not a good formula, as I tried to help a lot of my clients understand.
Kelsey Lewin 03:24
So you’ve been telling some of these stories for, gosh, probably 20 years, is that fair to say? For the first sort of proto video game? retro video game conventions to now?
Howard Scott Warshaw 03:38
Oh, 20 years would be kind, I’ve been practically telling the stories for 40 years.
Kelsey Lewin 03:44
But I mean, to say that, you know, there’s been a fairly public, you know, steeling of the heart.
Howard Scott Warshaw 03:50
yeah, I have, 20 years I’ve been airing my old laundry.
Frank Cifaldi 03:59
And I mean, you know, since you’re talking about going back 20 years, you know, you’ve you’ve also previously published work that sort of went into what some I’m sure yourself included my call this sort of golden years of Atari, in fact, your documentary shares the title with your book Once Upon Atari.
Howard Scott Warshaw 04:21
Yeah, and that’s a good point. I mean, there was Atari was an extraordinary experience. I mean, it was an unbelievable experience, although I hope people will believe it, because I actually am telling the truth in the book. As some of it really strains credulity, because it was remarkable stuff. And it impacted me intensely. And after a while, after a number of years, I decided I needed to do something to resolve Atari in my life in my head. And I thought, I love TV. I love movies. I always wanted to be involved with that. And I saw there was curriculum for TV production at a local college. And so I enrolled in that program and just ate it up and just buzzed through that program, and with the intention of preparing myself to do a documentary series, and because I saw so much media about Atari, you know, for the years right after Atari, there was a lot of media focus on Atari a lot of attention. And I was so disappointed because most of what I read about Atari was was really bogus. It was just, it wasn’t true. It wasn’t accurate. And one thing that always appeals to me as a documentarian is when I understand a truth that is widely misheld, and the truth is either more sympathetic, or more interesting than the fiction that’s out it about it. That’s irresistible to me. I need to go and correct the misperception. And Atari was one thing that was so amazing, and people were so missing the point with it, I thought I know what the story is, I also have access to all the people who were actually there. So I did, I went round it up all the people in most of my friends who worked there, and some for some of the managers, and Nolan Bushnell, and I interviewed them all. And I put together a piece that was all about what it was like to work at Atari. And that’s the DVD series Once Upon Atari. But an interesting thing happened during the dig in Alamogordo, which I imagine we’ll get to at some point. But what happened was the director of the movie Atari: Game Over Zak Penn, had watched the my Once Upon Atari documentary several times as preparation for the movie he was doing. And I talked to him one point, and he made an interesting observation to me, he said, You know, he goes, you know, the one thing that’s missing from Once Upon Atari, is you. You’re not really I mean, I’m the host of Once Upon Atari, but I really didn’t tell stories about me, I collected everybody else’s stories, including some of their stories about me, but I didn’t really tell my story in Once Upon Atari, and, and he and he had interviewed me and done a lot of work with us. He says, you know, it’s really a shame that you left that out of this thing, because you’re a major part of this story. Why would you leave that out? And I had a, I had a real I acknowledge that that’s true. It’s, I was I felt very self conscious when I was doing the movie Once Upon Atari, so I didn’t want to put myself in it too much. And I ended up over correcting apparently. And when he said that I realized and that was in 2014. And that was one of the things that really finally put the nail in the I’m not writing the Atari book yet coffin.
Frank Cifaldi 07:38
Kelsey Lewin 07:38
There is so much more left to say cuz you didn’t. You didn’t get it out with the, with the documentary your own words.
Howard Scott Warshaw 07:45
That’s very true. And once I get as you’re realizing, you know, once I get started talking, it’s hard to stop.
Frank Cifaldi 07:53
I mean, I don’t know why you think you’re such an important part of the Atari story, considering you only did what three like million selling games for them?
Howard Scott Warshaw 08:00
That’s all. But but it was just my 3 games.
Frank Cifaldi 08:06
So tell us about how it is that you started at Atari.
Howard Scott Warshaw 08:14
Well, how I started Atari is kind of an interesting story as I go into in the book, it’s the idea that a lot of it’s really funny. In retrospect, it wasn’t nearly as funny at the time. But after I first got a hold of Atari, because I was desperate to get out of Hewlett Packard, which is where I was, I was really bored and unhappy and had lost the thrill and passion of computing that I had found originally, which propelled me into computers. And, and then I heard about Atari, which everybody wants to go to Atari to make games. I didn’t want to go to Atari to make games. I wanted to go to Atari because I heard it was a wild place to work. And I heard they did real time control processor programming, which is what I really liked to do. And I love games games. I wasn’t against making games. But I went to Atari for the kinds of programming and for the environment, interviewed everything seemed to be going smoothly. It was great. It just seemed like a natural match. And then they rejected me actually turned me down. So it was they said I really probably wouldn’t fit in that I wasn’t really the kind of person who should work at Atari. And I just literally hands and knees, begged them and wore them down to give me an opportunity. I took a major cut in pay and a probationary period just to get the opportunity because I knew in my bones this was the place I had to be and they gave me the chance and obviously it worked out but it was a really funny thing when you think about the fact that I was rejected from Atari because they thought I wouldn’t fit in
Kelsey Lewin 09:46
And you talked a little bit about this in your book but that it might have been the wearing down of getting you know kind of talking yourself into Atari might have been that your hiring manager was leaving.
Frank Cifaldi 10:02
Kelsey Lewin 10:05
And it was your entire career hinged on this guy knowing he was going to be gone.
Frank Cifaldi 10:10
Just being like, yeah, whatever, come on. I don’t care.
Howard Scott Warshaw 10:13
Exactly it was like, I was lucky that he didn’t care enough to let me go because like, what the hell? Because it’s like, you know, about 5 months after I started, he left with 2 other of my, my closest friends of the programmers. And like I was really, I felt really bad about that, because I was losing people I really cared for. But in retrospect, you know, I think, Ah, thank God he was leaving, if that’s what made the difference.
Frank Cifaldi 10:41
So your first day you make a pretty, I think it was your first day, or at least it was early on, you make a pretty pivotal decision. When given the option between doing a game for the 2600, the VCS as it was at the time, or for the home computers. You went for the the VCS because it was the crappier of the machines, and you wanted to challenge and then your first assignment was to convert Star Castles, the arcade game to the VCS, and your immediate reaction is to try to change it into another game. I mean, is there is there a rebellious streak to you?
Howard Scott Warshaw 11:23
You know, there’s a Yiddish expression called chutzpah, you know, and there’s the colloquial definition of chutzpah is when someone kills their parents, and then begs for mercy on the grounds that they’re an orphan. It’s it was sort of like that it was they put me on probation. And you figure, okay, so you’re just gonna do whatever they ask to try and make things okay. But what they I don’t know what they realize that I didn’t just see Atari as an opportunity to go to a fun place to work. And to do the kind of programming I like, to me, it was an opportunity to get into entertainment, which is something I always wanted to do. And if I’m going to do something to entertain, I want to I want to make sure it’s going to work, I want it to be fabulous, I want to be fantastic. And I looked over Star Castle, I read the manual, I kind of got the hang of what was going on with the machine. And I realized that if I just did the assignment, the way they made it, it was going to suck. And I was there was no way I was going to participate in something that was going to suck. I just wasn’t going to do it. And so I went, I didn’t just say no, I don’t want to do this. But I mean, I made a presentation, you went to the guy who also was the guy who was still going to be leaving in a little while. I said, hey, look, that assignment doesn’t really work for me. But here’s something I think would work. And I think it’s an interesting way to rework stuff on the machine. And this is another one of those things where he might have been like, No, do the assignment, I told you what to do. But he might have also thought on second thought, you know, who cares, whatever, just do whatever you want, just get out of my office here soon. And, but he made–
Kelsey Lewin 13:06
OR you made a really compelling argument.
Howard Scott Warshaw 13:08
You know, I don’t consider that side of it, which I should more I should give myself a little more credit. And, but it is true that it went that way. And the truth is, as I started and this was the game that was going to be Yars’ Revenge, but it was not Yars’ Revenge at that point. Because the naming of Yars’ Revenge was a whole nother story didn’t happen till very late in the project. At this point, all I wanted to do was do something that was super flashy on the screen with really interesting eye popping animations and some really great sound. And I got to that point where I had most of those mechanics operating. The game sucked. The game was like, no good. It was just no fun to play. And I had a horrible controllers game, which is one of the things I had kept from Star Castle. And it just didn’t work in that on that game. And so talk about depressed I said, No, I’m not going to do that. I’m gonna do this game because that other game is gonna suck. And now I’m looking at this game. It’s like, Okay, this is basically what I want it to do. And it sucks. It was an interesting place to be for a little while.
Frank Cifaldi 14:19
Well help me visualize it. So I mean, I’m familiar with Yars’ Revenge and you probably don’t have all the features in yet but you’ve probably got like a monster on the right that you’re you’re kind of going after Are you are you flying in a sort of Asteroids way is that is that what you had at first?
Howard Scott Warshaw 14:35
Yes, it was it was the right left rotate, push forward to thrust it had to have actual physics some physics logic, which was a nuisance. And and and the end the pull back on the controller I had saved to activate the Zorlon Cannon. So I figured I can’t let go of that because you have to be able to activate the Zorlon Cannon to play Yars’ Revenge. You can’t win without it.
Frank Cifaldi 15:00
Howard Scott Warshaw 15:00
And so but it was, so imagine playing Yars’ Revenge where you can’t move the way you’d like to, you know, really take something out of the game. And so, and it was suggested to me, why don’t you just make it an X, Y, you know, trace game, you just move, go where you move the stick and go. And I say, well, that’s great. But now I can’t activate the one element I need to win the game. That’s a real detriment. I don’t know what to do about that. And then I realized though, that was more important to be able to play. So I thought, okay, so there’s got to be another way to get the Zorlon Cannon. And that’s when I hit on the idea of you know, there’s the bricks in the shield, those would be like energy breaks, and you eat those. And that way you eat the bricks or you touch the monster to activate the weapon. And, and that was a great game mechanic. Right? Because that meant that anytime you want to activate the opportunity to attack the monster, you have to risk you have to increase your risk level by getting closer to the monster, or the Qotile. as it’s known in the game.
Frank Cifaldi 16:05
I do want to stick on Yars’ for a minute–
Howard Scott Warshaw 16:07
It changed everything.
Frank Cifaldi 16:08
I think it’s interesting to sort of talk about your your priorities on this game, right? So like, you want to make an entertainment splash, right? So does that mean that when you’re first sort of working on this game, do you? Do you kind of start with like, you know, figuring out that giant explosion effect that’s really famous in Yars’ Revenge or, you know, do do you got to start with those Hollywood moments. And then go from there?
Howard Scott Warshaw 16:36
yeah, I mean, I some a lot of people came to game making from engineering or from programming. And I certainly had that background. But I really came to game making from movies. Okay, because, and it’s true, it was exactly a movie makers mindset that I came in with. And the explosion wasn’t one of the first things I did, but it was the first thing I planned. When I was planning the game. The first thing I planned was this really elab–I mean, much more than what’s in the game, right? I had to lose the concept–
Frank Cifaldi 17:09
What, you? An elaborate game? Come on.
Howard Scott Warshaw 17:12
I had a hugely elaborate payoff sequence for when you when you really kill the monster, and everything goes. And that was the most important thing to me. I didn’t implement it till later. But that was planned right up front. In fact, the name of the original working title in my head was Time Freeze, because the sequence was whenever you kill the monster, you would have the the impact of the weapon, and then suddenly, everything would freeze, you start hearing like clank, clank, clank, and as you hear that, you’d see something freezing across the screen in segments, and then you would start this huge explosion that was a full screen thing and make it go all over the place was much more elaborate than what I had. But you know, time and programming restrictions, sometimes adjust our concepts.
Kelsey Lewin 18:00
And you have a you have a theater background, right? So I mean, this is very much like a…
Howard Scott Warshaw 18:04
I do, I have a minor in theater.
Kelsey Lewin 18:05
The drama is there.
Howard Scott Warshaw 18:07
Yeah, I’ve never been short of drama. I’ll tell ya that.
Frank Cifaldi 18:12
So, you know, as you’re sort of making this first game, you’re you’re adjusting to life at Atari, right? Which is, I think, a big part of what it is that you want to capture it for it so that people understand, right? It’s just sort of what that creative environment was and and why it worked. And actually, I pulled a quote from your book that I think I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna read verbatim. You wrote, I’ve worked in creative environments where people think conflict is necessary for inspiration. I disagree. I believe conflict and competition are distractions, I believe organized chaos with low conflict, high camaraderie and enough courage to keep you pushing limits and busting through barriers. That’s the most important recipe. Sorry, potent recipe.
Howard Scott Warshaw 19:03
Well, I agree with that statement completely. Want to be very clear about that?
Frank Cifaldi 19:13
Do you stand by your statement? But But I mean, like that, like that, that’s essentially what you found at Atari, right? Like you sort of–
Howard Scott Warshaw 19:20
Frank Cifaldi 19:20
–came in and found yourself. I would imagine maybe for the first time in your life among people that you would consider peers creatively.
Howard Scott Warshaw 19:30
Yes, and so very astute observation is that was a very significant moment in my life, because I wasn’t just discovering the kind of professional environment that really worked for me, which I had never found before. I was also finding the kinds of challenge and the kinds of inspiration that work for me because I always wanted to create I always wanted to make something new And I always wanted to move in the direction of entertaining people. And this was my chance to bring it all together. And I was very curious all the time about, well, it does this environment do that. And if so how? Why, because I’m also a hopelessly analytical individual. So it’s not enough to just experience something have to know exactly what happened and how it worked and how it went and what went on, until I’ve completely picked it apart and destroyed the experience entirely. And then I can relax and enjoy the experience,
Kelsey Lewin 20:30
That’s that programmer brain that you talked about.
Howard Scott Warshaw 20:32
It is programmer brain and coffee.
Kelsey Lewin 20:35
You’re trying to turn the chaos into a computer.
Howard Scott Warshaw 20:38
It’s true, but you know, and chaos is very important, because I always, I guess, in my head, I think of that as organized chaos. If you’ve ever looked at my desk, that’s total chaos. But if you look at my output, that’s usually pretty organized. And so I need both, you know, my thing is, like, you know, when they talk about right brained, or left brained, I’m very in the middle. And not just in the middle, like kind ‘eh’ doesn’t matter which way we go. I’m sort of like, in the middle, like, I need both, you know, for everything to be okay. So if I get too analytical, I start to need to be more creative. And when I start getting just in, like lost creative space, and stuff like that, after a while, I need more grounding. That’s why engineering is really good for me, cause engineering is something where, you know, you conceptualize something, and then you see it through to completion, as opposed to a pure designer, which is all conceptual, or pure craftsmen, which is all implementation, I need both, which is why I left engineering, which is another weird, you know, contradiction about me. But yeah, what constitutes creativity, what fosters creativity, what provide, you know, I don’t think you can plan creativity. But I think you can nurture it. And it’s sort of like herding cats, you know, with the idea of, you know, you know what direction generally you want to go, but it’s hard to predict how and when you’re going to get there. So all you can do is make the best opportunities. And I’ve been in a lot of creative environments, I’ve seen ones that work better, and ones that I felt didn’t work quite as well. And that those were the common denominators that I came across.
Kelsey Lewin 22:22
And I think from that same segment, you, you do a lot of defining people in two groups in this book, but this was a, this is one that I that I thought was really interesting was you said that most people are stimulators or inspiration, lightning rods. Can you explain that a little bit? Because I thought that was a really interesting way of the different kinds of creative minds category.
Howard Scott Warshaw 22:46
Oh, thank you. Yeah. So what it is is like, I think of inspiration, lightning rods, those are the people who are going to say, hey, wait, let’s do this. And it’s a great idea. And you got like, yeah, that’s what you want to do. And in brainstorms, I’ve been in a lot of brainstorms. And what you find is usually there are some people who actually come up with the good ideas, with the workable ideas, the thing that’s actually going to be Yeah, let’s do that. But they’re not always the people who, you know, if you ask so where’d that come from? Well, I heard so and so did this. And I saw over there, they were doing this, and then she did this over here. And like, and then I realized, Oh, yeah, let’s you know. So you have stimulators are the people who are bouncing off the walls, doing all their wacky stuff, and they don’t necessarily even recognize what they’re doing. But they’re generating, they’re keeping things from being monotonous. And they’re keeping things from getting into ruts. And they’re creating new ways of, of seeing things, hearing things, thinking of things. Or even being safe about things in some cases. And then there’s people who look at that. And those are the stimulators, the ones who are running around doing wacky stuff. And then you have the lightning rods, the ones who see some of this going on and go, Oh, yeah, that’s what I haven’t been doing. We need to go do this. We’re going to move over here, let’s, let’s take this direction. And then you have some people who are neither, right? But those people if they’re solid technical people are the ones who win the lightning rods come up with the concepts. Okay, here’s the game, we should do this, let’s put this in the game or let’s do a game like this. They’re the ones who will go ahead and say, Oh, I’d like to program that. And they’ll implement it. So you have so there’s, there’s different roles that people play in the environment, like now, when you look at game development, particularly console development, right? You have large staffs of people who are specialized, you have design, you have audio, you have programming, you have art, you have all these different disciplines, and they’re all doing their thing. So at Atari One of the great things about it was it was a work of authorship. One person did everything on the game. But it wasn’t that there was no groupings. But instead of being groupings for one game in different departments, we had groupings of people played different roles in terms of creating an environment that would foster good game development, and good games would come out of that process. And so instead of having an art department, and a programming department, and a design department, you had a stimulator department, you have a lightning rod department, and you had a worker bee grouping. Right. And and, and that worked for that environment. if that answered your question.
Frank Cifaldi 25:49
I believe it does. Yes. So was there then some some outside stimulation within Atari’s walls that maybe contributed to Yars’ Revenge other than maybe people telling you your controls suck.
Howard Scott Warshaw 26:06
For Yars’ Revenge, the difference from going from a bad game to a good game was largely people telling me it sucked and one person going, you know, you just need to be able to move it around. And but, and the major thing that made the difference there, which is something I think every creative person faces at some time, is when am I holding on to something because it really has value in the process? And when am I holding on to something because I’m afraid of change, or I don’t know what else to do. And I’m kind of hitting my limit in inspiration, right? Because if I’m really holding on to something, because it’s, it’s fundamental to my concept, and that’s where the goodness of whatever I’m doing lies, then I need to hang on to that and preserve that throughout the entire process. But there’s a lot of times where fear masks itself as necessity. And I think I was in that place. And it was, and one of the great learning experiences for me on Yars’ Revenge was being able to confront myself and say, you know, Howard give it a rest, let go, you’re hanging on too tight. And release it, because the things that I really wanted to do the glitz and the big display and stuff. It was that was there. And that was solid. And I liked that. And what was happening was people were drawn to the game because it looked really cool. And it looked very different. And then they started to deal with it. And it wasn’t fun. And it wasn’t working for them. But I could see I was drawing people but I was drawing them, you know, into a mousetrap. It was like, I need to make it a more welcoming experience. So I had to finally release that. So people didn’t get punished for being drawn to, you know, the nest. And so that’s a big piece of of the puzzle. And so, you know, were there stimulants that went on? Absolutely, there were stimulants. One of the things I really go into in the book is just what stimulators look like, what they do. And you know, things like the sprinkler lobotomy, with Todd Fry, and some of the antics that went on at brainstorms, not during the brainstorm time, but in the partying afterwards, because a lot of creative action, you know, when when you’re really, when you’re a creative producer, or producer, when you’re really someone who’s involved in the creative process, there’s no such thing as work hours, right? There may be hours you spend at the office. But if you’re really a creative person, you know that you’re that project is on your mind and in your head for the entire duration of the project. So whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, whatever room you’re in, in the house, it’s your churning, it’s rolling. In some ways the office is a problem. Because when you’re in the office, you know, you’re supposed to be thinking in a certain way, you’re supposed to be working on the game, which turns off your brains background processing. And when we get out of the office that sort of releases it. And when we get out of the office, and then we get into off hours, and then we go to a bar, we’re trying to take it easy. background processing is the only kind of processing we got at this point. But some really good stuff happens then there is inspiration that occurs. Because I do believe that a lot of creative thought is when unrelated pieces get put together. And when we’re thinking functionally and in process way, we’re usually only looking at functional related pieces and putting those together. It’s we have to take a break, to get to the point where random things happen to glom together in our minds. And though that’s where inspiration occurs, in my opinion, and so at Atari creating times like that, and then not only creating time away from the job But then creating time away from the job where people are doing stuff you’ve never seen anybody do before. Nobody would, for any real reason, any rational, you know, basis. And but it worked. You know, it got us out of any kind of mental rut we might have been in and a lot. And I think a lot of good creative stuff came out of it. You know, Yars’ Revenge was set a lot of standards, there were a lot of things that happened from Yars’ Revenge that went on to become standards that never been seen before. And honestly, that was my goal. I wanted to do stuff nobody had seen before. I wanted to think, in fresh ways to approach this. And, but I didn’t know what that looked like when I got here, I only knew I wanted to do something different. I didn’t know what it was yet. But it was it was a process, it was a consistent grinding of working away on the code, and stepping away from it and doing some weird and wacky stuff with some interesting people. That’s what working at Atari was. And it was just lovely, just an amazing experience. That totally warped my head for any other kind of work for decades.
Kelsey Lewin 31:12
Yeah, and something I was I was actually talking to Frank about yesterday, we were talking about how this episode was gonna go was, you know, over the years, you know, as you are around people talking about video game history and talking about Atari and that sort of thing. I mean, you hear the same phrases all the time, you hear that it was a crazy place to work, you hear there were drugs, and you know, there’s a hot tub in there. And it was crazy and fun. But you have all of these really specific illustrations that to me, for the first time I was like, Oh, I’m seeing this place like I can actually picture this environment as opposed to this nebulous, wild party company that has been sort of the, the way it’s been phrased over the years. So I really appreciate that. Because I think that it’s difficult to illustrate all of those things that you’re saying about creative environments without actually giving those concrete examples and showing like this is what that practically looks like this is.
Howard Scott Warshaw 32:14
Right. People don’t get people don’t get to see inside I think Ernest Cline wrote a foreword for the book, which I really grateful for he’s really cool, dude. And what he said about it that really stuck with me was that he’s because he talked about like, when he was growing up, he was playing the games go. So there’s, there’s certain experiences or certain things like Disney Studios is an example of it, where you grow up seeing their product, and you wonder what it’s like, Where, where this is happening? What’s it like going on inside. And the way he described this book was it was like, he said, it’s a it’s a private tour of the Chocolate Factory given by Willy Wonka himself. And I think that’s kind of what you’re saying, right is that it gave you a chance to really see, really visualize what was going on inside. And if that worked for you, if that’s what you got, then I feel really good as a writer, that’s the nicest thing you can say to a writer is you painted a very clear picture in my head. And I enjoyed it. So I’m going to presume the enjoyed part. Because I can’t bear it if you didn’t.
Kelsey Lewin 33:21
All these lovely stories, and I hated it.
Frank Cifaldi 33:27
I am going to make you tell a specific story. Because the the the quote at the end, that is the payoff is solid gold. Will you tell us a story about Todd Fry in the hotel balcony?
Howard Scott Warshaw 33:45
Okay, I’ll give you an abbreviated version of that, because it’s but there is some amazing stuff that went on there. So this is one of the brainstorms, I was talking about it, and we’d go to a brainstorm, we’d go off site and like a lot of people from the company would go, we go to a major hotel, I was by the beach, and it was a beautiful place. And during the day, we’d have these ridiculous meetings where everybody’s sitting in this huge circle of desks, where you have creative people, and you have people from every part of the company and senior management. And they’re all sitting there discussing what we should have good games, you know, a new ideas for things. But you know, you’re not really gonna produce many big ideas in a big circle like that with that cast. It’s just that’s not super conducive. But in the evenings, after the meetings were over, that’s when the real action would start. And there was one evening in particular that you’re alluding to where we started off with a bunch of drinks and Todd was in rare form, that I won’t go through all the machinations that he went through leading up to this, but I think you’re talking about when we finally arrived in the room on the 5th floor of this hotel, and because we have been drinking along the way and that was all good, but at some point in the evening, it’s time for the kind of refreshments that really Don’t play as well in public. And so we retired to one of the rooms. And there were like 7 of us there. And it was mostly programmers. And there was one, you know, Director level aspiring VP kind of person. And we were all just getting wasted. We were getting high and having a very good time. And Todd, Todd is a very athletic and acrobatic sort of individual. And Todd is very familiar with buildings and things like that he’s very, he was a construction worker himself before he came to Atari. And so he liked to relate to a building in ways most people don’t. One of the things that he did was he, after a couple of joints, he went out on the balcony, you know, we’re on the 5th floor, and it seems like a nice view and everything, and it’s all cool. And he’s out on the balcony. And then at one point, he jumps up on the railing of the balcony, and he starts doing like a tightrope walk on the railing of the balcony. And we’re all laughing and goofing around, because we’re trying to keep the door shut, you know, cuz we don’t want too much of the smoke getting out. And you know, and this is it, we’re all in a pretty good state of mind. And Todd’s acting up. And there is this thought of, like, you know, is it really wise to be tightrope walking on a railing 5 floors up? And, and the answer, of course, is no, but we were, you know, sufficiently lubricated. And it just seemed like kind of funny, and nobody really thought something bad was gonna happen. And then Todd, at one point, looks down and, and he says, you know, it doesn’t really look that bad. And he jumps, he jumps off the rails, and we freak out. Oh, my God, Todd is jumping, and we are run we rushed the thing we throw up in the door, and we run out to the balcony and look down. And what we didn’t know was there was a terrace built out of the 4th floor was like sitting out there with like, a little topiary with strawberries and stuff. And it’s like, and there’s Todd looking up at us. And he is laughing, he is hysterical, because he sees the terror in our eyes. And the person who I think was most terrified, was this potential VP guy, it was the management guy, because he’s the one who knows that the inquest. They’re gonna be saying, so how did your spoke, you’re the only one who has a position of responsibility here for god’s sake How did you let this get that out of hand, and he sees his career like disintegrating before his eyes. And he was like, he was a combination of still destroyed and relieved at the same time to see there’s Todd, but Todd’s not done, right? Because now Todd starts wandering around on the terrace. And he says, you know, he goes, I think I gotta pee. He walks up to one of the bushes and prepares to relieve himself. And at that point, the aspiring VP yells out to him, he goes, now, Todd, he goes, You can’t pee in those bushes, we might have customers in those bushes. And I think that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard at Atari, it was a classic, you know, but it’s interesting. He thinks our customers hang out in bushes waiting to find the video gamers. I don’t know where that came from, that was just…
Frank Cifaldi 38:29
But it’s also, but it’s also like appealing to like, crunk logic in that moment, right?
Howard Scott Warshaw 38:39
Frank Cifaldi 38:40
Here’s why you can’t do this.
Kelsey Lewin 38:42
Yeah, its not because–
Frank Cifaldi 38:42
I’m going to challenge you with something that you can’t possibly, like logic, your way out of you’re going to be arrest yourself in that moment, go customers,
Howard Scott Warshaw 38:52
Right? He can’t say to him, it’s indecent or it’s inappropriate and stuff, because we were all about inappropriate that that wasn’t an argument in our in our peer group, right? It didn’t make sense. But the fact that we have customers in there, well, that had meaning.
Frank Cifaldi 39:08
So um, Yars’ Revenge comes out big hit. It’s, um, you know, arguably, the first sort of original IP hit on a console, I think, is a fair thing to say. And, you know, while you didn’t get to put in, maybe all of your ambitious Hollywood ideals into this game, the next game kind of offers up a lot of that opportunity, right?
Howard Scott Warshaw 39:34
Yeah. So yeah, getting to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark was an amazing next step. Because there were a number of people who sought me out because they saw Yars’ Revenge and thought, that’s really cool. We’d like you to do something for us. And there were the Psychic Controller people who really wanted that because they felt my games were visually generous, and that would be good, but the one I was most interested in was Steven Spielberg seemed to be interested in me doing it, although not exclusively, I don’t think he did it because of Yars’. What happened was Spielberg made it known that he was he wanted a video game for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Atari got the contract. And so there were interviews. And so some of whoever’s going to do Raiders had to go interview with Spielberg, it was about the time that I had just pretty much finished Yars’, Yars’ wasn’t released yet, because it was gonna go through testing hell for another 5 months, but I still had a next game to start working on. So I got to fly down to Warner Studios, and meet and have an interview with Spielberg. And that was quite a day in and of itself. Because, you know, I showed up right on time, I had to get up very early, which I’m not a big fan of, to go and fly to LA for an interview at 9:30. And the first thing they tell me when I arrive is, oh, by the way, we rescheduled your interview to 3:30. And I’m like, really, you just move I interview that I flew here for I have plane reservations to go back and you move that 6 hours. But, and then I thought, Oh, well, this is Warner Studios, I got to hang out at Warner Studios all day, which was very cool. And then I actually got to interview with Spielberg and had the interview with him. And that interview was kind of interesting, because we I brought Yars’ Revenge and we played it together. So I got to play my game with Spielberg. And that was fun. And, and then I called him an alien. I explained to my whole theory about how he is an alien himself. And that was fun. And he found that very interesting. I think that’s what got me the opportunity to do the game actually more so than anything else think he liked Yars’ And he liked the fact that I figured he was an alien. And between those two things, I got the opportunity to do the game.
Kelsey Lewin 41:43
So is that more or less convincing that he is indeed an alien, because I feel like if if he was an alien, he wouldn’t want to go with you. Because then his secrets out, you know, you might want–
Howard Scott Warshaw 41:55
Well, on the other hand, who’s gonna listen to Howard? I don’t think there was…
Kelsey Lewin 41:59
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:00
He may not have to worry about that. No, I mean, I can tell you my theory, if you want to hear it, you know my whole theory about it. But it was simply just that he was just–
Frank Cifaldi 42:08
Wait St–your theory that Steven Spielberg is an alien? Is that–
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:09
Frank Cifaldi 42:09
–what you’re offering, right now?
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:13
Yes, yes. You want to hear that or save that for the book?
Frank Cifaldi 42:16
It seems _so_ believable So I, let’s, let’s get well, would you prefer the listeners right now? Go buy the book for the story? Or do you wanna…?
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:27
There’s plenty of stories in the book to go around? That’s for sure.
Frank Cifaldi 42:32
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:33
I mean, briefly, I don’t have to go into the whole I do the whole theory in the book. But just suffice it to say that, you know, as someone who is promoting a positive image of aliens, I felt he was part of advanced team of aliens that were preparing the Earth because I really felt in the early 80s we were getting close to meeting aliens.
Kelsey Lewin 42:51
Howard Scott Warshaw 42:52
Yeah, so he did that. Now, E.T. hadn’t even I didn’t even know about E.T. yet. Right? This is before E.T. was even announced or any of that stuff. Spielberg is probably just looking at the script at this point. And, but he had already done Close Encounters. And that was enough for me. And I just said to me, I said, you know, you guys are doing a great job culturalizing the planet and getting us ready to meet the aliens, you know, and as well as a you know, thumbs up Nice job, doing doing a great job. And I held that theory for a long time until he directed War of the Worlds and I figured once he did War of the Worlds, I figured that’s pretty much it for that theory. It’s because that one did not really say hey, aliens Come on, let’s get together.
Kelsey Lewin 43:35
He knew someone was on to him. So he had to give some like counter. I’m just trying to think like an alien here.
Howard Scott Warshaw 43:42
No you’re right.
Kelsey Lewin 43:42
Like if he were to get caught…
Howard Scott Warshaw 43:44
And it’s a good choice, right? I mean, that would be the appropriate strategy. So far. We haven’t caught him yet. So it’s it’s worked.
Frank Cifaldi 43:52
So Raiders of Lost Ark, the Atari game. I think fair to say a very ambitious game design given your hardware limitations.
Howard Scott Warshaw 44:05
Absolutely. But you know, ambitious was what I was all about. With that. You know Yars’ Revenge. All I wanted to do was make a game. That was a game I would like to play and a game that established me as a really credible game maker. That’s what I wanted to do with Yars’ with Raiders I wanted to make the biggest game anybody had ever seen on the VCS, I want to make a game that felt so big. Right? Yars’ I think had really good visual impact. It felt like a bigger experience than it was. But it was still one screen. With Raiders I wanted it to feel like the biggest game world you’ve played in and just really have differentiable scenes from from place to place. And Raiders is a great movie to do a game from because it has a real action through line and there’s lots of set pieces that really translate well the map room stuff and you know, running around and then there were some things that didn’t translate so well, so I just made stuff up to bridge the gaps. And, but I wanted it to be huge. I want it to be huge and I wanted to have an epic feel. And, you know, because I wanted every one of my games to be groundbreaking in some way, there need to be something groundbreaking about each game that I did. And Raiders was a real challenge in Raiders was the game that took me the longest to do. Raiders was, you know, like 10 months start to finish.
Frank Cifaldi 45:27
The what was typical for Atari engineers at the time? 6 months I would think?
Howard Scott Warshaw 45:31
Game development time was you know, 6 to 8 months. I mean, I did Yars’ Revenge in 7 months. I did Raiders in 10 months, you know, and I had 5 weeks for E.T. you know, that’s how it goes.
Frank Cifaldi 45:44
Kelsey Lewin 45:44
There it is.
Frank Cifaldi 45:45
There it is, we’re clocking it so, we were timing how long it takes to bring up E.T. we were it was a personal challenge. 45 minutes.
Howard Scott Warshaw 45:55
A new record
Kelsey Lewin 45:55
That’s pretty good!
Howard Scott Warshaw 45:56
A new personal record. I have to say.
Frank Cifaldi 45:59
I’m actually very proud of us.
Kelsey Lewin 46:01
Yeah, I think that’s pretty good. You said the word E.T. earlier but it was the movie.
Frank Cifaldi 46:06
It didn’t count as the movie.
Kelsey Lewin 46:07
We secretly messaged each other to be like, That one didn’t count.
Frank Cifaldi 46:13
Yeah, part of our when we were discussing this episode before, it’s like I was talking to it’s like, you know, people almost exclusively talk to Howard about E.T. And I think he’s an interesting game designer. And I think it’d be kind of interesting to like, you know, at least push E.T. to the back.
Howard Scott Warshaw 46:30
And that’s fine. If that’s where you want to keep it. I’m okay with that. I, for the record, I am not embarrassed or ashamed of E.T.
Frank Cifaldi 46:36
Oh, no, no, you shouldn’t be.
Kelsey Lewin 46:37
No, it’s not about that. It’s just about telling new stories.
Howard Scott Warshaw 46:40
Yeah, but I want to know who won the pool.
Frank Cifaldi 46:44
Well, you lost because you brought it up. Oh, we didn’t have a pool we didn’t we didn’t have a pool.
Kelsey Lewin 46:49
Frank Cifaldi 46:50
We should’ve had a pool.
Kelsey Lewin 46:50
We were just we just wanted to see how long we could go. It was it was just a challenge.
Frank Cifaldi 46:55
We will get there though. I do want to talk about E.T. But yeah, so Raiders. You know, it is? I mean, for those who haven’t played it, it’s you might call it an open world game these days. Right? It’s it’s basically a computer adventure game. But you rather remarkably had things like an inventory system and and and, you know, the sort of large persistent world on an Atari cartridge So, I mean, what was it 4k? That one? I don’t even know. Not a lot of–
Howard Scott Warshaw 47:31
Yars’ was 4k, Raiders was 8k. I got to go to 8k with Raiders 8k. So that helped enormously.
Frank Cifaldi 47:37
Yeah, 8 kilobytes, folks. for a living world, not a lot.
Howard Scott Warshaw 47:42
Right. Well, what I’d like to tell ya we did games in like 4 to 8k then. So games today are way bigger than 4 to 8 gig. Right? So if you think about it, games now are literally literally a million times bigger than the games that we were making. So the question I always pose is, are they a million times better? They’re definitely better. But are they a million times better? I don’t know. I don’t know if the economics of game development has been on an upward curve or declining curve or just linear? I know, that’s a question everybody grapples with every day.
Frank Cifaldi 48:21
As an aside, you mentioned that during production of Raiders, something that you did in the hallways of Atari Games crack a bullwhip.
Howard Scott Warshaw 48:35
Frank Cifaldi 48:35
I guess trying to get into character. What I find what I what delighted me about that story. And I you may or may not know this. But 10 years later at Lucasfilm games on the ranch, they are making, you know, the Indiana Jones three adventure game and Steve Purcell, the artist there did the exact same thing. He bought a whip. He said I need this to understand how to animate a whip. And and he was known to go outside and crack the whip. You know, well past needing to know how a whip works.
Howard Scott Warshaw 49:14
Once you know how to do it, it’s a shame to let it go.
Frank Cifaldi 49:16
Exactly. So there is some DNA. And if anyone listening ends up working on a new Indiana Jones game, you know, pay it forward. Learn to use the whip.
Kelsey Lewin 49:27
Keep the screws going.
Frank Cifaldi 49:35
So yeah let’s get into E.T. already. So, famously, this is a game that was pitched to you as having we’ve established right that a typical dev cycle Atari game 6, 7 months, right? You went you went as long as 10 you were told straight up. We need a game in 5 weeks and you accepted that.
Howard Scott Warshaw 50:01
Frank Cifaldi 50:02
You accepted that and that’s crazy.
Howard Scott Warshaw 50:02
And I was the only person on the face of the Earth who would accept that challenge. And I, you know–
Kelsey Lewin 50:09
I mean your boss straight up, turned it down first, right?
Howard Scott Warshaw 50:12
Kelsey Lewin 50:12
Your boss is just like, Nope, that’s impossible click hang up the phone,
Howard Scott Warshaw 50:16
Not just my boss, my grand boss, right? It was my boss’s boss who was the head of VCS development, who Ray Kassar has already called him first and said, Hey, we need E.T. for September 1, this is July 27. And he just said, You can’t do it. You can’t do a game that fast. They just can’t do it. And for some reason, after that exchange Ray Kassar still called me directly in my office, the only time I ever got a call in my office, from the CEO of the company. I mean, I’m a little guy, I’m at the bottom of the org chart. And this guy, you know, it’s like the the boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. And so that that communication doesn’t happen very often. But for some reason it happened here, and he called me up. And he says, Can you do what we need to for September 1? I didn’t know he called my boss’s boss already? Who told him? No. And I said to him, absolutely. I can do that. I can totally do that. I said, provided we reach the right agreement. He says no problem. And this is a Tuesday afternoon. He said, there’ll be a Learjet waiting for you. Thursday morning at 8 AM San Jose executive terminal, be on it be ready to come present Spielberg with the design. So this is Tuesday afternoon verging on Tuesday evening. I have till Thursday morning to do a design for the biggest for the game for the biggest Hollywood movie out currently. It’s like…
Frank Cifaldi 51:41
Howard Scott Warshaw 51:42
… really? Okay. Well, if you only have 5 weeks to do the game, you better not take more than 36 hours to design I guess. So that was the beginning of it. I actually think I discussed the E.T. thing in the book.
Frank Cifaldi 51:54
Howard Scott Warshaw 51:55
Frank Cifaldi 51:59
You got me with it, you genuinely got me. I’m embarrassed. So what I something I found really interesting, that had never occurred to me. So first of all, just for the record, I don’t think E.T. is a bad game.
Howard Scott Warshaw 52:16
Frank Cifaldi 52:17
That’s not where I’m coming from when I say this, but I do think it, I did always think of it as maybe a Think of it as being maybe a little over scoped for the development period. And it hadn’t occurred to me until you said this in the book that your design for E.T. was based on what you felt you could do in 5 weeks, right? So like, you know, Spielberg, you know, asks you right, can you just kind of do a maze game? Can you do a PacMan game? And and your response is, you know, well, you, you kind of pump them up and say, no, it needs to be as important big game because foreign big movie, right? But but secretly in your head? It’s like, Well, no, I this is the one I can do in 5 weeks.
Howard Scott Warshaw 53:03
Absolutely. Yeah, the reality of it is, look, this is all I can deliver with what you’re asking, this is what we got. And so please say yes, I just didn’t want to come off that desperate. But I would have if he would have pursued the Pac-Man thing. But you know, and actually, my initial impulse was was much less kind. When he first gave me that, as I think you’d I went into in the story, but yeah, it was, you know, I had a strong background in math and computers coming into Atari. But the things that really served me at Atari was my background in economics and theater. And people usually find that odd. But it’s I think it’s true because economics. Now people think of economics like accounting or finance, but it’s not economics is the allocation of scarce resources, right? The science of allocating scarce resources. And if there was ever a scarce resource, it was the 2600, right? The Atari VCS had so little memory, so little processor speed, it was just it could just barely do what it was doing. And so it was a very scarce resource and finding clever new ways of reallocating and reworking with that was huge. And so I felt that was more useful in programming. And my theater background really helped me understand the concept that a video game does not take place on a screen, it takes place in the mind of the player. And so I would program stuff for player impression, not for technological achievement, or to meet some kind of standard or whatever. I mean, I had to do that anyway. But that was the way I approached programming and that was very big for both Yars’ and Raiders. But the truth is, when it came to E.t. I did go way back into just my technological training. There was certainly some creativity involved in trying to work it. But you know, normally the goal is do a good game and see how long it takes to create a good game, you keep working on it until it’s good. This was a different approach. This is, here’s how much time you have to do a game, let’s see how good a game you can do in that time, the priority is totally different. So what you have to do is if you design if you plan a game that usually would take 6 months to make, and try to do that in 5 weeks, guaranteed fail, no way that works. So what I did was I tried to think I need a game I can actually do achieve in 5 weeks, if that’s even possible. And so that was the way I approached it. And I thought about it for, you know, 18 to 20 hours, figured out what realistically could be done what I might be able to really achieve. And, and it worked. And, you know, one of the great ironies of E.T. is that basically, I came up with a design. And what you see on the screen, and E.T. is probably 95 to 100% of my design concept, I delivered what I planned to deliver. And so ordinarily, you say, hey, how did that project go? You go, Hey, I delivered 100% of my design concept. You wouldn’t expect people to go, Oh, I’m sorry, that’s too bad. What a bummer. Right? You would think that’s a good thing. But the truth is that, you know, in video games, there’s a thing called first playable, right, any video game development, there comes a point where you the first opportunity you have like the graphics are just garbage. And there’s you know, you all you have is little sprites or little blocks running around representing the pieces of the game. But it’s the first time you can run around, move at work a controller move things through, and the rules of the game are implemented. And you can start to experience the play. And that’s when a game starts. That’s called first playable. And the thing is, most games first playable should occur, you know, anywhere from 30 to 50% of the way through a schedule. And what I realized was the problem with E.T. is that I’m going to have to release first playable, which means my design has to be perfect. Usually a design is a starting point. And you know, hopefully, when you get a final product, that product is maybe 20 25% of the original design. And the reason it doesn’t match the original design is because it got better, because you made improvements along the way. And E.T. didn’t, that’s what I call rumination time. And it just didn’t have that on E.T. That’s what we missed. So I delivered exactly what I set out to make. But I didn’t like Yars’ Revenge, if I would have done that with Yars’ Revenge Yars’ Revenge would have sucked would have been a bad game. Yars’ Revenge is a classic example of a game that got to first playable, and then through the refinement and the tuning and the the reflection and the rumination. It got to a better place. And E.T. didn’t have that luxury. It is a luxury.
Kelsey Lewin 58:03
And what strikes me so interesting about this, just from, from our perspective as historians is, you know, I think people tend to sort of romanticize, like the initial concepts for games, like they look, they see a design documentaries, you know, these cut features or whatever. And they kind of like romanticize this alternate history of like, what could have been this was the, this was the real idea, this was the true idea of this game. But oftentimes those things don’t, I mean, sometimes they get cut because of memory limitations, or whatever. But oftentimes those things don’t get cut, because they were good. They get cut, because they realize they could do something in a different or better way and, and E.T. did not have that luxury. So that’s kind of like a very good illustration of why you don’t necessarily need to romanticize this, like that is the exact implementation of your design. And, you know, for better or for worse that is, that’s what you end up with, and had you had time to make some refinements and stuff on it, then it might have even been a better–
Howard Scott Warshaw 59:09
I hope it would have been a better game. Absolutely. And Kelsey, I think that’s a really solid point. It makes a lot of sense. And so and people do romanticize things, and you look at it in historical context. And of course, me being who I am. E.T. also had to be a breakthrough game. I want it to be groundbreaking, right? So and E.T. didn’t E.T. had context sensitive power ups, essentially, I think it’s one of the first games where what you can do with a button varies depending on where you are. And it also is a 3D world. I think it’s the first game that ever had an actual 3D world. I didn’t do that to be you know, like, oh, boy 3D. I did it because that was actually easier to program in a multi screen format. At least for me, it was a very straightforward, but it still counts. And one of the great historical elements of E.T. is E.T. is an entirely non violent game. Right? If you think about it, and and the reason that’s so ironic, is because, you know, it’s a non violent game that ended up killing an industry. apparently so you know, so many people blame it for destroying the video game industry. And its non violent game. I mean, jeez, what are you going to do? But But you know, and and so it did have some groundbreaking elements, but the thing that was really amazing was that, you know, on like April 26 in 2014, at the dig and Alamogordo E.T. literally became a groundbreaking game by breaking ground and coming up out of the pit. So, you know, it’s, I felt like really vindicated at that point.
Frank Cifaldi 1:00:42
So, the dig you’re talking about it is for those listening who don’t know, it is the subject of a documentary called Game Over, which I believe is still on Netflix. I haven’t looked in a while.
Howard Scott Warshaw 1:00:54
Yeah, Atari: Game Over. It’s on? Well, it’s not on Netflix anymore, but I think it’s on Amazon Prime. And I think you can see it on YouTube as well.
Frank Cifaldi 1:01:02
Yeah, highly recommended. And it just, you know, thinking about that movie in this book is just kind of got me wondering, like, Did you feel once your time at Atari had ended that, you know, in a way, that in a way, like your work wasn’t done yet? You know what I mean? Like, did you feel that, like you hadn’t quite come to peace with your time there? And is that kind of why you’ve revisited the past?
Howard Scott Warshaw 1:01:33
Um, Frank, I think that’s a really, that’s a really important point. Because it wasn’t, it wasn’t that I was. I don’t know if it’s that I wasn’t done with Atari, or if Atari wasn’t done with me. There was Atari was an amazingly meaningful thing to happen to me in my life, and to lose it at that time, so abruptly and so unceremoniously. And to have all the beauty that I had experienced there decay around me, I know, I go into that quite extensively in the book. It was, it was one of the 3 great depressions of my life, because I’ve had some real depressions before, and which has contributed tremendously to me becoming a therapist. So it’s, it was really hard, it was really hard thing to see go away, because I had spent a lot of my life searching for something where I would just feel comfortable and feel okay. And I found it, and I truly immersed myself in it, and indulge myself in it as long as I could. And then it melted. Right, you know, they literally rained on my parade, and it disappeared. And there wasn’t another there couldn’t be another Atari, right? There just couldn’t be another Atari? Not at all, certainly then. And so it was, you know, is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all, it was a really hard place for me to be and it took a long time and a lot of work to come to grips with that. And I did the whole Once Upon Atari documentary series to attempt to deal with that. And I think writing this book, on some levels is a final step. And I do feel, I feel really good having finished this, but it took a long time to do because it wasn’t that it you know, think about writing a book or writing a video game or doing any creative production is when you get to the final product, like you take a book, when you get to the end of a book, if you were to think so how long does it take to write the book? Well, if I had the book sitting in front of me, and I just had to type it in, how long would that take? Because that’s the shortest amount of time it could take to write the book. And anytime you you take beyond that. Well, some people say, well, that’s just wasted time. Other people would say there’s your tuning and rumination time and the development time, because a creative product isn’t just the manufacturer. Right? The creative, the creative product is the product of the journey of what you learn and where you go along the way. And this book really challenged me to show up and, and reveal and share things, not just the stories that I have told for years to people here and there and things like that, but to really confront myself and be honest with myself about what what the context of these things were because there was a fabulous things that went on. And there was a really ugly things that went on. And there were some wonderful things I learned about myself. And there was some pretty scary stuff that I had to confront in myself at times. And there were amazing elations and tremendous joyful moments. And there were panic attacks, you know, throughout my life here and there and a lot of them revolve around the fact that at a relatively early point in my life, I maxed out In terms of my professional and creative experience, I was in the perfect place at the perfect time. And I was a good person to be there and was able to take advantage of it. And it gave me a vision, it gave me a window into a world that I so wanted, and so needed. And then when that got taken away, my life became a search to refine that, to get back to that. And it took me 25 to 30 years to get there. And I got there because I never gave up. But it’s a hard in some ways, it’s a very hard thing, to really have been at the apex of where you feel you could be in your life. And that no, you can’t be there anymore, and have no idea how to recreate it. And so now I have to go back to zero and, and, and recreate it in some new way. And for some people would be like, Oh, I can’t I had it, and I lost it. That’s the most horrible thing. And how can I go on? For me, because I am an optimist. I’m fundamentally a happy optimistic guy, even though I had some rough moments here and there. But basically, I’m pretty optimistic. And the way I took the whole experience was, you know, if it happened, once it could happen again, I learned some of the key characteristics of what I need. And something that’s really gratifying. And I just felt good about the fact that all these things that happened. So no matter how much you take away from me, and experience and opportunity and money, all of these things disappeared and got removed from from my life. But you can’t take my happiness, you can’t take my oppor–my opportunity and my spirit, unless I relinquish them. And I refuse to do that. So that’s me, that’s where I come from. And so and ultimately, I did wind up in therapy. That was, I mean, practicing therapy, I also went in therapy for a while. But I decided I wanted to be a therapist, because that’s something I always knew I wanted to do. And it’s really, it’s the thing about Atari was it really you know, that right left brain thing, that analytical and the the tech, the technologist and the creative person, the artist, the technologist, the artist mixture in me is very important to me. And no place that I had ever worked, really gave me gratification on both those levels. Until I became a psychotherapist. doing therapy with people really challenges me on both a technical level, and a creative, artistic level. And I try to do it at the highest level I can. And it’s super deeply meaningful for me. And it’s super rewarding, too. And in some ways, you know, video games historically have come full circle. And what I mean by that is originally what we were doing was we were making single screen games, fun entertainment, simple entertainment experiences, it was the How high is up thing, you don’t win a game, you know, I started creating games, you could win. But you know, basically, most action games, you just play them, you just keep playing them, the joy is just in playing and trying to do better each time. And then console games got bigger and bigger and more elaborate, and it got way beyond the scope of where one person could do it, it just couldn’t happen, you’re not going to have an individual make a PS5 game, it’s just not going to happen. But as console development got big and huge and monolithic, then the handheld device revolution comes along, and it circles back. And now you do have the big monolithic development. But now once again, individuals or very small groups of people can sit down and create an app and make a fresh game and explore a new concept. Because console games are too much investment and to big a risk to try and do too much new stuff. People just don’t do it, you get narrowcasting. So but innovation has returned in the sense of now you have an opportunity for individuals with fresh concepts, to be able to realize them and put them out in the world. And if it works and takes off, you can then replicate that in bigger events environment because people have confidence in the gameplay. But for a while there was no Avenue with the innovation aspect of game development had really taken a hit, and it was revitalized. So that’s when they came full circle, we got back to a place where you can have an individual doing a fresh concept. And that’s what was it was exciting about Atari. And in a similar way, my going into psychotherapy and focusing particularly on high tech people and gamers and things like that. I’ve come full circle, because the way I look at it is I used to just entertain nerds and now I genuinely work to make their lives better and it’s it’s just tremendously rewarding. I feel very good about it.
Kelsey Lewin 1:09:50
So the there was something I wanted to ask you about your therapy practice that had I think nothing to do with it in the book. But to me, I saw maybe a through link there, which is that you do a lot of explaining about how game styles and preferences kind of communicate who people are both from a player perspective and a game designer perspective, is that something you bring into the therapy practice too like is are there ways you can get a sense for someone and help them through just the way they interact with games? Because I thought that was a really interesting concept. Like, if you know who someone is through their video game preferences, you go, can that help them?
Howard Scott Warshaw 1:10:37
Absolutely, this goes to a central concept, I believe in which I just call everybody signs their work. And what I mean by that is everything anybody does on any level, speaks about them. In a very direct and accurate way, the challenge is to be able to read it. And so you know, different games have different styles, right? There’s different types of games. And, you know, there’s driving games, they’re shooters, there’s first person shooters, there’s ground acquisition stuff, there’s adventure. There’s, there’s, there’s platformers, there’s a lot of different styles of games, where people have different preferences. And another game I play with clients, so sometimes I asked him, you know, what are your favorite games? What are the games you like to play, and that helps me zero in on who they are. As a personality. Same thing with movies, you can, if you tell me your top 5 movies that you’ve that you really your favorite all time 5 movies, that will tell me a lot about who you are you can do with books, you can do it with anything. And the reason is because we do express ourselves through our preference. So whether you’re a game maker, what kind of games do you make? Or you’re a game player? What kind of games do you play? You know, do you play, you know, there’s games like Pac-Man, that are pattern games, okay. So a game like Pac-Man and a game like Robotron could seem similar in some ways, because you know, you have a big messy screen, you got to clean it up, then, and you get through it, and there you go. And we’ll get into anal retentive games, maybe another time. If you think about it, there’s some action games or pattern games, right, which is you learn the optimal way to go through it. And if you execute that plan, that’s the way you win the game. That’s how you do well in the game. Whereas a game like Robotron is a classic, you know, hunt, and shoot and react and shoot from the hip. Those all the initial robots are going to be randomly distributed, they’re just going to start moving. And you’ve got to start from where you are, and work your way out. And you have to dynamically respond in the moment. So do you prefer reading a script? Do you prefer having a known path? And the challenge is to be able to execute it accurately given you know what to do? Or are you the kind of person who prefers to read, read and respond, react in the moment, I want to be spontaneous, I want to live, I don’t need a plan. I just need a weapon and 3 feet, we’ll work my way out. And those are different types of people. Right? You know, there’s no like this. There’s 2 kinds of people in the world, there’s people who split the world in 2 kinds of people and people who don’t, right. And I’m definitely a grouper and a splitter at times, right, because I live in a world where I have to figure out where people are at. And then I have to figure out ways of helping them reintegrate in some cases, or at least address the issues that they’re having. And using people’s preferences, particularly about entertainment, I think is so telling it’s such great information. If you ask a person to describe themselves, they may tell you about the person they would like you to believe they are. If you ask a person, what do they like, they’re much more inclined to be truthful about what they like than they are to think about, I’m going to tell you what I think you should think I should like, because that’s a little more complicated. But in telling me what you like, you are telling me who you are, if I’m smart enough to be able to read it, right? If I’m perceptive enough to know how to take those signals and translate them into a meaningful picture of who you are. And then this is going to help me understand you better. And that’s going to enable me to help you understand yourself better. And you know, and in therapy, that’s the therapy isn’t like I work on you and fix you. That’s not what therapy is about, at least not as far as I’m concerned. Therapy is about I help you understand you better and you fix you. It’s just you can’t necessarily fix you as easily if you don’t have a super clear picture of who you are. So it’s like, what’s my specialty? What’s the thing that I can do? One thing that I’ve always been able to do is listen to people and say back to them what they’re saying in a way that maybe they haven’t been able to say it as well. That’s the feedback. I hear from a lot of people. I say Oh, so you’re saying blah, blah, blah. And they’ll go Yes, yes, that’s exactly Never said it like that. But that’s what I mean. So I, for some reason, I have some ability in that direction. And what it does is it helps people get a hold of who they are. And if you know, if you know what you are, if you know what you have, and you know where you are, it’s easier to get where you want to go. Right? Because if I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how to navigate from where I am to where I need to go. And if I don’t know what I’ve got, I don’t know what the best tool to use is for my next step. So it’s just answering those questions helping people see accurately who they are and what they’ve got. And that’s what I like to do and it’s amazing work to do. For me.
Frank Cifaldi 1:15:41
well, Howard, thank you very much for joining us here on the Video Game History Hour. Where can people find the book, find you online, can maybe even book an appointment?
Howard Scott Warshaw 1:15:57
Well, you can find the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Tolino. It’s the book is widely available both in ebook and a paperback and I’m going to be offering some, the first place I’m announcing it, so I’m going to be offering some autographed copies of the of the paperback. So standby for that. You want to reach me, OnceUponAtari.com will show you all things Once Upon Atari: the book, The DVD, and all of that, if you want to talk to me in a counseling sense, you know, I’m a licensed psychotherapist in the state of California. I also do coaching, you can reach me at HSWarshaw.com. And you’ll find it about my therapy practice and all the work that I do there. And you can find me on Twitter at @HSWarshaw And I’m not that hard to find online. I’m also on Facebook, in multiple confusing config-configurations there. So that’s always good. And thank you so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.
Frank Cifaldi 1:17:03
It was an honor. Howard. Thank you.
Kelsey Lewin 1:17:04
Yeah, this is awesome.
Howard Scott Warshaw 1:17:05
I genuinely enjoy talking with both of you, Frank and Kelsey. I really appreciate it.
Kelsey Lewin 1:17:10
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @GameHistoryHour or email us at Podcast@GameHistory.org Did you know that Video Game History Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible. You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at GameHistory.org/Donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.