I'm a big fan of just about all types of media, be it comic books, film, TV, or Kabuki Theater. What I love almost as much as the original media are the stories behind the stories, a look at the unique individuals that create the art we enjoy. One of my favorite books is called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and not because it's filled with praise for 70s filmmakers like Hal Ashby and Francis Ford Coppola. I get more enjoyment out of the author recounting all the drugs and hookers on the set of Apocalypse Now, or how Marlon Brando was a fat asshole during filming. I guess what I'm saying is I love gossip so long as it involves very creative people, not talent-free piles of shit like reality stars or TV talent show winners.
Above: “I swallowed a bug”
The gaming world has few accounts of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that goes into creating a game. Books like Masters of Doom and Game Over are rare exceptions, but most good books on gaming history don't look close enough at the creative people making the games. However, I recently came across the new book by Harold Goldberg called All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, which met my desire for a book taking a closer look at a game’s creators instead of the resulting game.
Once you get past the unfortunate title, you'll find a pretty great collection of stories that span the last 40 years of gaming, stories culled from extensive interviews. Goldberg got many little known details out of his subjects, including some from people that rarely speak publicly. And he covers a wide enough array of titles and developers that even if one section is about something uninteresting (like Everquest) you'll soon find something you do care about (anything other than Everquest).
I think this is a book worth reading for anyone who wishes that the very guarded creators of the best games ever would start spilling some dirt. While the book is filled with many stories worth recounting, I thought I'd give you a small taste with six of my favorite morsels just to give you a small idea of what All Your Base Are Belong To Us does best.
Above: How could such harsh words come from such a kind face?
In a chapter detailing how Trip Hawkins started Electronic Arts, it mentions that Trip dreamed of making high art that would have players crying. At some point that took a back seat to EA’s true calling: being the biggest sports game maker in the world. Early on the company paid big money to sports legends to give authenticity to their games, and when Trip decided to make the definitive football game, he enlisted legendary Oakland Raiders coach and commercial pitchman John Madden to be the (giant) face of the game. When the developers showed Madden an early version of the game that could only display seven players per team, John wasn’t shy about sharing what he thought.
“Fuck that and fuck you people. Either we do it fuckin’ right or we don’t fuckin’ do it at all.” The team was pretty shocked to hear him saying things he’d normally keep confined to the locker room, but it ultimately pushed the team to get their football game as close to perfect as possible. They toiled for years, even as some in the company wanted to cancel the seemingly unending project, and when it finally did launch it created a dynasty that will probably exist as long as people throw footballs and the NFL gives exclusive contracts.
As the 1980s began, Shigeru Miyamoto was a wannabe manga artist trying to find his way after graduating college. He ended up at Nintendo thanks to a family connection with the company’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. As Miyamoto toiled in obscurity creating art for playing cards, Nintendo was in a bind having created a ton of arcade machines for a game called Radar Scope which few wanted to play. Miyamoto was inspired by the situation and took an idea to his boss on how to reuse those machines. It would involve creating a whole new game… featuring Popeye.
His design involved Popeye trying to rescue Olive Oil from Bluto, and he’d use Spinach to give him quick boosts of energy. Unfortunately Nintendo’s license for making Popeye games, like the ones they created for Game & Watch, had run out. What was Miyamoto to do? He was forced to reassign the roles to a jumping carpenter and an angry ape, which seemed weird to many, but Yamauchi stood by the new designer. And despite many in Nintendo, including much of the new American branch, feeling the game was too weird to be a success, it became one of the biggest arcade games ever, and the rest is history.
Above: Miyamoto eventually made a Popeye game for arcades, which is now a footnote in Nintendo’s history
Naughty Dog is now one of the most respected developers around after creating blockbusters like the Uncharted series, but in the mid-90s they were trying hard to sell Sony on a marsupial with attitude. In late 1996 PlayStation would be facing stiff competition from Sega’s Nights and Super Mario 64, so the still new system needed a tent pole title for that fall. The recently formed Naughty Dog had pitched a potential blockbuster called Crash Bandicoot that Sony of America loved. There was only one problem: the team in Japan hated Crash.
Above: How could anyone not like Crash? He’s so edgy
Crash’s biggest detractor was Ken Kutaragi, the man who created PlayStation. He didn’t want some kiddy, colorful character platformer to be the face of PlayStation, especially when the game was developed by a non-Sony studio. At one point he went on a tirade to a representative for Naughty Dog listing everything he hated about Crash, including, “This game is crap!” In the end, however, Sony of Japan gave in to the desires of the US and allowed Crash to be their marquee player until the end of the PSOne’s relevance. And once Naughty Dog was done with Crash they ended up being purchased by Sony anyway, so it all worked out in the end.