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Patrick Hickey Jr. on his book ĎThe Minds Behind the Games,í full of interviews with classic video game developers

April 2, 2018 

Itís more than just fun and games, Patrick Hickey Jr. will tell you.

For "The Minds Behind the Games," the journalism professor and gaming reporter interviewed more than 30 developers behind classic video games that shaped the industry.

From "Mortal Kombat" to "E.T.," the book runs the gamut of games that were financial successes to those that were critical failures. At the same time, it offers personal accounts of video game development that reveal the struggles that go into creating the final product.

The Daily News talked to Hickey about what he learned about the development of games from writing this book and picked his brain on the industryís past, present and future.

Q: Tell me why you decided to write a book about video games from the programmersí perspective?

A: I thought that there were too many video game books that were written from the point of view of a researcher. But all of these books didnít feature direct quotations from the creator. Theyíre not as in-depth and behind the scenes as I think hardcore gamers would like them to be or even a casual reader that knows nothing about the video game industry.

So I decided to go out and find a lot of these people and talk about how the game affected their life and thereís a lot of crazy stories in there. People donít necessarily equate that type of struggle to video games and they think itís all fun and games but thereís so much humanity and so much passion and so much perseverance behind the creation of a videogame and itís almost more so than any piece of art that you could think of. So I wanted to really capture that.

Q: You didnít just capture the stories behind the video games that were considered financial success but also those that were flops. Why was that?

A: I wanted to capture some of the successes as well as some of the failures because I feel they all had an impact one way or another on the industry. Two of the biggest failures in the history are featured in this book.

"Night Trap" is considered one of the worst games of all time but itís basically because the game shouldíve came out in 1985 or 1986 when it would have been completely state of the art. Instead it came out in 1992 and by then no one cared about it. And the game had such a bad reputation that one of the creators of the gameís girlfriend left him. And he was almost like blacklisted from the industry. So he wanted to make something so cute to follow up "Night Trap" so no one would ever remember it. He ended up creating "Cats and Dogs," which is like the first pet simulator. I think thatís a story that needs to be told.

In terms of "E.T.," "E.Tís" failure isnít just the failure of the game but it also played a huge part in Atariís failure as a company. They really hurt their best programmer at the time, Howard Scott Warshaw.

This is a guy who made two games that sold over a million copies. He was a complete rockstar. And even though "E.T." was considered a huge failure it still sold over a million copies so the guy has the best range of any video game developer of all time.

Q: Having done all these interviews, what are some misconceptions you think people have about the video game development process?

A: We think of the creation of video games as someone saying like, "Oh, oh, I have an idea. And itís going to be this." And then the game gets made like that. Thatís absolutely not how it happens. Sure there may be that light bulb moment. But the games end up going through a process of fine tuning with what works, changing what doesnít work.

The biggest problem with "E.T." was, Howard Scott Warshaw said, all the things that he envisioned for the game he was able to do and thatís a huge problem. Once you have that idea to make something, you do it but then if you donít have those little moments where youíre like, "if I could do this there it would be so much better." If you donít have an opportunity to do those things and to fine-tune and to playtest then your game ends up as like complete garbage.

Q: Whatís a common trait that you see in the development of those games that do have a ripple effect in the industry?

A: The common trait with all these games, every single one, they needed somebody else to come in and be like "alright, this sucks" or "oh, this is great" because these guys and women were so attached to their projects.

So case in point "Mutant League Football" for the Sega Genesis. Michael Mendheim, the creator was basically like a one man show. He had a team of four or five and he would just tell them what to do. And Electronic Arts just let him do whatever he wanted and then it got to the point where the big wigs brought in Sam Nelson, who was a producer for their bigger games.

Michael Mendheim fought him tooth and nail until he realized that Sam Nelson had a fresh pair of eyes and was able to look at his game a lot more critically. In the case of pretty much all of these games the idea behind the original game was awesome. But then there were three or four other moments where they kind of separated themselves from their connection to the game.

Thereís so much emotion tied up into this. Kids play video games and itís all fun and itís silly but this is a hardcore business built on passion. Thereís politics involved. Itís so much more than fun and games.

Q: Since you mentioned "guys and women" developers, thereís a perception some have that men created the gaming industry and are ultimately the target audience. How accurate is that?

A: Now I wouldnít say that thatís accurate at all. For some reason, men gravitated more in the beginning of the industry. Dona Bailey was like the only woman that was a programmer for Atari in the early í80s. She programmed "Centipede." The thing is itís kind of a microcosm of real life that women didnít have the same opportunities as men. I feel now there are so many opportunities for females in the video game industry to play, to create. I think great video game companies donít care if youíre a man or a woman now. Is it harder for a woman? I think so.

Back then with "Yarsí Revenge" when they were play testing that game, Howard Scott Warshaw told me he was so happy that women loved his game. And he was like, "Guys, like we could market this game to women." And they were like, "Yeah, yeah."

And then he saw the commercials, all the ads and who was in the commercials and who was on the ads? Boys, guys. Atari was so scared to take a risk. They had all of that information right in front of their face, that women wanted to play this game, and instead they just took a safe route and marketed it to men. So I think that that was a huge problem in the beginning of the industry. And thatís probably one of the reasons why it crashed early on.

Q: About crashes, thereís been talk about potential looming crash in the industry. Do you think thatís possible?

A: There has been a ton of remakes in the past couple of years. And that scares the ever loving crap out of me because thereís so much originality in the indie scene. And itís scary to me that developers wonít take the chances that people on the indie scene will. Could there be another crash down the line? Absolutely.

If they just rest on their laurels and they donít create new work. And theyíre just reinventing and rehashing the stuff that theyíve already done, then youíre going to have problems. Video game companies need to understand that people will spend money but that there needs to be more value. But like micro transactions in console games has the power to completely kill the industry. Itís a way video game companies can make a quick buck but itís also a way that you can turn away gamers.

Q: Now that youíve finished this book, whatís next for you?

A: Iíve been working on a book on pro-wrestling thatís basically about the emotional and physical trials and tribulations that somebody has to go through in order to be a professional wrestler. How do you go from a little kid that likes to watch wrestling to somebody that actually travels three hundred days a year and the toll on your body and the toll on your soul? And Iíve been working with a Bronx-based wrestling promotion called Battle Club Pro preparing to write the book.

And then after that book is finished Iím probably going to go back and write the sequel to the "Minds Behind the Games." Also finishing up the "Padre" (a video game Patrick is doing audio for). I have seven issues of a comic book that I wrote a while ago that Iíve never been able to find an artist on. So one day Iíd like to do that. Iím going to constantly be doing cool stuff for the rest of my life.

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