Matt Householder / Epyx
Added on June 10th, 2015 (4118 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, my name's Matt Householder and I've been creating, programming, designing and producing video/computer games for over 33 years now.
Here are some highlights of my career to date. In 1983, my first published game (Krull, a coin-op arcade game) was released by Gottlieb. In 1986, I created California Games together with my wife Candi Strecker and produced it for Epyx. Between 1997 and 2000, I produced Diablo II for Blizzard North. I also recruited and hired most of the Blizzard North staff during that time, as well as writing most of the in-game dialogue and managing the audio production and voice-casting. It was my idea to mark active Quest NPCs with "!". In 2013, I co-created and designed the hit Facebook/mobile game Kitchen Scramble for Playdom (a subsidiary of Disney Interactive).
How did you first get started with computers?
I became interested in computers in 1975, while at Kent State University, when I took a class on Physics laboratory instruments which focused on using op-amps (operational amplifiers) to build analogue computers. As it turned out, the TA for the lab had just built several of the new MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer kits, so digital computers were added to the class. I learned, among other things, how to manually toggle-in a brief loader, which loaded a longer loader from paper tape, which then finally loaded a copy of Altair BASIC, the first Microsoft (then still Micro-Soft) BASIC. As our final project in that class, a partner and I designed and programmed a single-player version of Mastermind, using a teletype for I/O. My main contribution was the computer opponent's AI.
I remember that in those long-ago days, whenever Candi and I had to go to the Laundromat, we would take along a set of the game Mastermind to pass the time. There was a PONG machine at the Laundromat which I tried a few times, but it cost a quarter (25 cents) per play for a brief, one-player game which wasn't much fun, so it seemed like a waste of money to poverty-stricken Pell Grant students like us. Basically, dry clothes were more important to me than PONG.
I went through a number of majors at Kent State and dropped out a couple of times to earn some money and find some focus. I serial-majored in Chemistry and Maths, then took a detour from the hard sciences into Cultural Anthropology, ending up just a few credits short of a BA before quitting Kent for good in order to build my own home computer from a kit, specifically the Poly-88 by Polymorphic Systems. I wrote and hand-assembled a program in 8080 machine language to run the simulation Life by Roger Penrose on the graphics card. I still have the computer, and it still works!
During one of my breaks from college, I had a job as an air-conditioning repairman. One day, I was nearly electrocuted while crouching down in front of a big rooftop compressor, it knocked me 20 feet backwards, like one of Galvani's frogs, towards a knee-high parapet wall. After sliding backwards on my feet until I skidded to a stop, I glanced down at the pavement some three storeys below and decided it was time to go back to college...
After my experience with the Poly-88, I figured that home computers were too difficult for the average consumer to use and would never become a mass-medium (how wrong can you be?!), so I decided to become a computer engineer and applied to the University of Michigan, figuring that I'd already learned most of what I needed to know.
I became a fan of coin-op video games in 1978 after playing Space Invaders in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
After finishing my BSE CompE degree at Michigan, I took a job with Bell Labs in Naperville, Illinois (near Chicago) with a view to finding a job programming coin-op video games. Bell Labs also sent me to Northwestern University, where I got an MSc in Computer Science.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
I met the VP of Engineering for GDI (Gaming Devices, Inc.) in my computer graphics class at Northwestern University in 1981. He offered me a job as a systems programmer on the 68000-based video poker/slot machine they were designing. A year later, I applied for a job as a coin-op video game programmer at Gottlieb, designing and programming the game Krull based on the movie script of the same name. My game was a financial success; the movie was not.
As the coin-op business started to die out in 1983, I asked a head-hunter to find me a job near San Francisco programming games. He got me interviews with Lucasfilm Games and Atari. Atari offered me a job converting coin-op hits to the ColecoVision, with a big raise (compared to what I was used to in Chicago), a substantial cash bonus for finishing a game, and they moved me, my wife and our growing collection of stuff and cats.
I left Atari in 1985 after finishing the conversion of Moon Patrol to the ColecoVision (unreleased by Atari), having survived the Tramiel transition (in which 90 per cent of the staff were fired in one day) and coded the line/polygon graphics primitives in the Atari ST GEM operating system (a.k.a. TOS).
I joined Epyx as a Project Manager (producer/designer) and began working on a number of their titles across various home computer platforms, including the C64, Apple II/IIGS, TRS CoCo, Amiga and Atari ST.
Those early days must have been a lot of fun, perhaps filled with a sense of being part of something revolutionary. Could you comment on that?
I recall working like mad all week in Silicon Valley (at Atari, Epyx, Activision, then Epyx again, the 3DO Company, etc.) and driving back home to San Francisco every night to go out with my wife to dinner, classic movies, rock clubs, parties and so on. At the weekends, there were flea markets and yard/estate sales, that was the fun in my life. The mass-market games business was exciting and challenging, but I was not getting rich off it.
Back in those days, it was the exception rather than the rule for a designer to be assigned to work on a game. Was the position of designer at Epyx a new one when you got there, or had they always been aware of the importance of a plot and design documents?
While I worked at Epyx, nobody actually had the title Game Designer, but everybody who worked in development was in my opinion a de facto designer of the games they worked on, be it audio, visual and/or gameplay. Epyx did not really value game design or designers as such.
Epyx employed several women, which was of course a good thing but rare back then. Do you know how Sheryl Knowles, Suzie Greene or Jenny Martin got into the business?
I don't recall exactly how Suzie or Jenny got into the business, but Epyx was their first big-name employer in the games industry. Jenny is an Executive Producer at Zynga now, I still see her once in a while. Sheryl Knowles worked for Amiga before joining Epyx. I have a picture of the two of us at the Epyx picnic party celebrating the completion of California Games.
What can you tell us about Epyx as a company? Do you think it was well managed?
That depends on how one defines "well managed". Epyx was driven by sales and marketing which focused on the consumer mass market. The venture capitalists (and top shareholders) who controlled the Board of Directors at Epyx wanted a hundred-fold return on their investment and had become impatient waiting for it, and it was ultimately the Board who approved the Handy acquisition (and the later Atari deal to market the Lynx) and were thus responsible for the failure and bankruptcy of Epyx.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
It was the first affordable computer for the mass-market with excellent performance (except for the disk drive), graphics and sound. I bought my C64 in 1982 while I was living in Oak Park, Illinois (also near Chicago). It was an early model, before the Commodore 64 logo strip acquired those coloured stripes. At the same time, I bought a 1541 floppy drive, an Epson MX-80 printer and a Quick Brown Fox (word processor) cartridge. My wife Candi used it for correspondence by mail (without an "e-", of course) and for some of her paste-up Xerox "zines" in the early 1980s. I later bought a copy of M.U.L.E. to play on it, which may well be the only C64 game I ever bought personally.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them (such as what it was like to work on each game, any sketches you did, what programs you used, fun anecdotes from creating the game, what the people were like to work with on the various games, the timeframes, any problems or headaches, etc.).
As Producer on Barbie for the C64 and Apple II, I had to deal with an employee at Mattel who would not approve Barbie for the Apple II because the graphics did not look as good as the C64 version.
I was Producer on GI Joe for the C64 and Apple II, but can't recall much about this one. I do recall that once it was finished (in the summer of 1985), Epyx put everybody in the company to work on the assembly line, packing the disks, manuals and flyers into boxes in a mad rush to ship as many copies as possible to the distributors.
I produced Winter Games for the C64, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC, as discussed further below.
As Producer on the Temple of Apshai Trilogy for the C64 and Apple II, I recall that the executive assistant (secretary) of the President at Epyx was a big fan of it and played it for hours every day for some weeks. Steve Landrum was the principal programmer, though I believe most of what he did was integrating three Apshai games into one.
I was Producer/Designer on World Games for the C64, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC, as discussed further below.
When producing Championship Wrestling for the C64 and Apple II, I worked with Free Radical Software, specifically Elaine Ditton, Richard Ditton, Dave Thiel, Tim Skelly, and Lonnie Ropp. It was an original idea pitched by FRS to Epyx. The initial design called for one of the wrestlers to be female. Epyx marketing and sales nixed that, insisting that mixed-sex wrestling was too suggestive. They also insisted that Free Radical Software sounded like some kind of hippy terrorist organisation and only ever referred to them as FRS.
As the Producer on Vorpal Utility Kit for the C64, I got to work with Scott Nelson, the genius programmer behind the Fast Load cartridge, managing his development process and writing the manual/documentation for his Vorpal Fast Loader and associated programming utilities. His older brother, Craig Nelson, was the genius hardware designer on the Starpath ROM emulator and (reluctant) former manager of development who gave me the OK to join Epyx. He handed me responsibility for Winter Games and left the rest up to me.
As the Producer on Sub Battle Simulator for the C64, Apple II and IBM PC, I worked with Gordon Walton and his Texas-based crew of game developers at Digital Illusions to build what was a complex war simulation across several platforms simultaneously. Ultimately, Epyx set up a construction trailer inside the empty shell of a building next door so the Digital Illusions staff could work "on site". Having them that close by did seem to help us get it done faster. Epyx itself later expanded into that building.
I was Creator/Producer/Designer on California Games for the C64, Apple II/IIGS, IBM PC, Amiga and Atari ST, as discussed further below.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
All the C64 games I worked on were for Epyx.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
A typical day consisted of playing the latest builds of the games, taking notes, reviewing bug reports, writing feedback on the builds and then finally discussing the feedback with the developers. I'll talk some more about this in relation to Winter Games, World Games and California Games.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
I would typically have three to nine months in which to get from start to finish. Sub Battle Simulator took about one year, I believe.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
On the Krull coin-op for Gottlieb, the hardware was an IBM PC with dual floppy drive, an external 10 MB hard drive and an 8088 ICE (in-circuit emulator) attached to the Gottlieb coin-op hardware. The software I used included a text editor, assembler/linker and a debugger for the 8088 ICE.
I did Moon Patrol (a.k.a. Matt Patrol) on the ColecoVision for Atarisoft, though I forget now what computer I used, might have been an IBM PC. At any rate, I had a ZAX Z80 ICE attached to the ColecoVision hardware. The software was a text editor and ZAX assembler/linker/debugger. Neither Williams nor Irem, the publishers and developers, provided any documentation, source code, artwork, sounds or advice. I reverse-engineered Moon Patrol by playing the coin-op in my office for hours every day for a couple of weeks. I would put the coin-op into pause mode and toggle the pause on and off as I played. I measured how far apart the obstacles were on the screen using a 12-inch ruler and counted how many UFOs of which types came out at each point along the course. I recorded all this information on a notepad, which then formed the basis of my "script" for the ColecoVision version. I drew my version of the artwork on graph paper and typed it up into source code as hexadecimal DB statements. Once I'd finished Moon Patrol, I built a graphics editor tool for the ColecoVision, which I used to draw a hires title screen for ColecoVision Joust (which got cancelled).
On the Atari ST TOS graphics primitives, the hardware was an Apple Lisa with an external hard drive and an Atari 520ST, and the software was a text editor and a 68000 assembler/linker/debugger. Initially, I wrote 68000 code and ran it on the Lisa to emulate the black-and-white mode of the Atari ST. Later, I used one of the first developer versions of the Atari 520ST.
After that, I quit programming to join Epyx as a Project Manager/Producer.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
At Epyx, I was initially assigned to projects nobody wanted to work on, such as Barbie and GI Joe. Oddly, Winter Games was also such a project. The internal development team who had built Summer Games and Summer Games II was burnt out doing multi-event Olympic sports games. On the other hand, the sales and marketing departments at Epyx knew that a Winter Games sequel would be a huge hit, so they contracted with a developer based in Colorado and Illinois. I spent a lot of time playing the builds, reviewing QA reports and talking with them on the phone to iron out bugs and improve the gameplay.
After I had finished Winter Games, Sales and Marketing naturally wanted yet another hit sequel, so a number of marketing and development staff got together in a brain-storming session and we came up with the idea of a set of "events the Olympics forgot", similar to the core notion of the ABC TV show Wide World of Sports. I believe we even named it World Games at that very meeting. I was given responsibility for the overall game design and development. We got the Epyx art staff to produce the artwork, while a contract developer near Detroit called K-Byte coded the events and MCP (master control program). I chose the events and proposed securing an airline as an advertiser, to match the notion of travelling around the world competing in various events. Marketing handled it and signed up Continental Airlines. It was one of the first paid product placements in a computer/video game.
I proposed eight events from around the world, namely Weightlifting (Russia), Slalom Skiing (France), Log Rolling (Canada), Cliff Diving (Mexico), Caber Toss (Scotland), Bull Riding (US), Barrel Jumping (Germany) and Sumo Wrestling (Japan). Some of the Epyx art staff and I took a field trip in late summer 1986 (when development was nearly finished) to see Caber Tossing first-hand. The principal artists were Mike Kosaka, Suzie Greene and Jenny Martin. Most of the events I'd chosen had an iconic association with the host country, the prime examples being Sumo, Cliff Diving and Log Rolling. The other events had more complicated, less stereotypical associations. Russian weightlifters, for example, had dominated the sport in the 1980s (due, it was rumoured, to steroid use). Barrel Jumping I just really liked the idea of, and I set it in Germany simply because it was an Olympic powerhouse. Slalom Skiing was hosted by France because I remembered an early SNL (Saturday Night Live) skit involving Claudine Longet (Google it). Another in-joke/cultural commentary was the music accompanying the Log Rolling event. It was a classic Stephen Foster tune that had been used in a Monty Python sketch, the one that goes: "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK..." (and later) "... I put on women's clothing and hang around in bars."
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
My most memorable career moment was inventing the concept that became California Games. It was also the one that was the most fun to do: it's always more fun to work on a hit, and it was obvious to me from the very start that this one would be a big hit. On the other hand, it also became the biggest challenge/headache precisely because of the high stakes, time pressure and the sheer number of people at Epyx working on it. We started developing Apple II and IBM PC versions before the C64 original was even finished. I had over 20 people working on California Games at the same time.
Breaking the mould of the stodgy Olympic Games metaphor that had inspired it, California Games was perhaps the first computer game to effectively define itself as "cool" to a mass audience. It was the first computer game to license music (Louie, Louie). It was also the first to have interactive product placement, and the first computer game to be marketed in a sexy box. Indirectly, it probably led to the creation of The X Games by ESPN, which tapped into the same alternative, rebellious consumer/sports vein.
During the summer of 1986, production on World Games was wrapping up and I was thinking about what to do next. One day, my wife Candi and I were walking around the Excelsior, our hilly, working-class neighbourhood in San Francisco (and childhood home to both Jerry Garcia and Dan White, for those who care), when we saw a kid roaring down the street on his skateboard. Candi looked at me and commented: "You should do a game with skateboarding in it." Immediately, I had an epiphany that the game should include nothing but alternative, youth-orientated, non-commercial sports. Candi and I brainstormed as we walked the block or two back home, and I decided on half-pipe skateboarding, surfing, Frisbee throwing, BMX, Hacky Sack, and roller skating (roller blades were as yet unknown), all of which were vaguely Californian and reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s but with a modern 1980s edge to them.
As soon as I got some free time off work, I wrote up a brief design document outlining the game, calling it Rad Sports. A few weeks later, I presented it at a company brainstorming meeting, and it was overwhelmingly approved for full development – marketing, sales, programming, artwork and management all "got it" immediately.
It took a development staff of well over a dozen programmers and artists, plus a musician, about nine months to complete the original C64 and Apple II versions. It was translated to nearly every viable electronic games publishing format world-wide. At Epyx, it fuelled a period of phenomenal growth and the (ultimately tragic) expansion into developing games consoles (the fateful Lynx).
Everyone on California Games – the artists, programmers and audio staff – was a designer. The artists were Sheryl Knowles, Suzie Greene, Jenny Martin and Paul Vernon; the programmers were Chuck Sommerville, Kevin "Fuzzy" Furry, Jon Leupp, Ken Nicholson and Kevin Norman, with Chris Grigg as Sound Designer and myself as Director/Project Manager.
Do you remember who worked on the Handy (later known as the Lynx)? Was everyone at the company excited about it? What were your thoughts?
Dave Morse, Dave Needle and Robert J Mical joined Epyx after pitching the idea of the Handy. Dave Morse was a suit, Dave Needle designed the hardware and RJ Mical managed the software. They had done some initial design work, but I don't know if anything physical (such as a wire-wrap, chips, etc.) already existed. A lot of people were very excited about it, though I was not one of them.
Do you think Epyx lost its direction by branching into hardware instead of focusing on what the company was good at? Is that what ultimately led to its demise?
I left Epyx in the summer of 1988 after getting burnout from having working too hard for three years straight. I was disillusioned about having created their biggest hit without receiving any real reward, either honorary or monetary. On top of that, the board and management at Epyx decided to "go for broke" by designing a new hardware platform. It was clear to me from a quick back-of-an-envelope calculation that Epyx had barely enough cash (most of which had come from Summer Games, Winter Games, World Games and California Games) to finance development of the Handy, and that at least another $100 million would be needed to manufacture and market it. Everything else that Epyx was doing in software was just about breaking even or was even losing money.
Tell us about the final days at Epyx. Were things like old games, development disks, computers, etc. preserved or thrown out?
Lots of things were thrown out when Epyx declared bankruptcy after the Lynx failed in the marketplace. I was no longer working at Epyx then, so I don't know first-hand, but I heard there were vast dumpsters at 600 Galveston Drive filled with stuff being tossed out. I rejoined Epyx a couple of years later, but left again when it became clear that it was going nowhere. Again, dumpsters of stuff were thrown out when the Epyx office in downtown Redwood City was shut down, this time for good, because Bridgestone only wanted the IP rights Epyx still owned, and one programmer to write Christian entertainment software.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I should have kept the idea for California Games to myself, then I could have quit Epyx and joined Electronic Arts to do it for them. I would then have made a lot more money for myself in the form of EA stock options.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Robotron or Defender would have been great. I have a coin-op Robotron: 2084 in my garage. I restored it to functionality by repairing the power supply, sound board and wiring harness/connectors. I also rebuilt the joysticks to like-new performance. I've also repaired a few Defender coin-ops. I can fix most Williams coin-ops from the early 1980s. It is rewarding to see a classic coin-op with great gameplay functioning properly again.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
My favourite games of all time are: Defender (coin-op), Robotron (coin-op), Xybots (coin-op), Super Bomberman (SNES), Diablo/Diablo II (PC) and Scramble with Friends (iPhone). Jumpman and Impossible Mission were my favourites on the C64. They were the main reason I went to work for Epyx.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
Eugene Jarvis, designer of Defender and Robotron.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
I recall that we worked all night to finish California Games for the C64, and I took everyone to breakfast at Denny's the next morning. We had installed an Easter egg title screen called California PAINS which would appear if you took out Side 1 and flipped it over to Side 2 while the MCP was looking for the real title screen. There are a number of other Easter eggs in the game, typically one per event. I don't recall how to trigger them all, but here's a partial list: in Surfing, when you fall off the board, a shark sometimes appears together with some SFX resembling the Jaws theme "duh-duh duh-duh..."; in half-pipe skateboarding, if you go high enough off the top of the screen, you will come down on the other side of the pipe, triggering an earthquake which knocks over an L in the HOLLYWOOD sign; in footbag, if you kick the bag high enough, it will knock a bird out of the sky; and in flying disc, if you wait too long before throwing, your catcher will be abducted, like in Defender, by a UFO in the long-range scanner.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
I was the programmer/designer on Krull, a coin-op original published by Gottlieb in 1983. In 1984, I did programming, artwork and sound effects on a Colecovision conversion of Moon Patrol, which was then not published by Atari. On the Atari ST operating system, I converted GEM API line and polygon graphics primitives from 80x86 to 68000 assembly.
I was then producer on Winter Games which was published in 1985 by Epyx for the C64, Apple II, DOS, Mac, Amiga, Atari ST, etc. and by Milton Bradley for the NES. I produced Mac/DOS conversions of Rogue which were published in 1986 by Epyx, as was World Games for the C64, Apple II, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, NES, etc. which I produced/designed and Championship Wrestling for the C64 and Apple II which I produced. In 1986-7, I produced Sub Battle Simulator for the C64, DOS and Amiga, again published by Epyx. Between 1987 and 1989, I was producer, designer and creator on California Games for the C64, Apple II, DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, NES, Genesis, Lynx, etc., which was published by Epyx, Acclaim, Sega and Atari.
I produced Rad Gravity for the NES, which was published in 1990 by Activision. The Genesis conversion of Todd's Adventures in Slime World was produced by me and published by Renovation in 1990. In the same year, Epyx published a DOS conversion of Chip's Challenge which I produced. I was producer and designer on the Getaway Laptop Entertainment 6-Pack for Windows 3.1 published in 1991 by Epyx. I also produced California Games II for DOS and the SNES, published in 1990-1 by Epyx and DTMC. I was producer and designer on Lester the Unlikely, an SNES original published in 1992 by DTMC, and producer on an SNES import of Ranma ½: Hard Battle published in 1992 by DTMC. The Adventures of Dr. Franken was another SNES import on which I was producer, this one published in 1993 by DTMC.
For the 3DO Company, I served as producer/designer on 3DO Games: Decathlon for Windows 95 which they published in 1996. I then served as Diablo's advocate/producer on Diablo: Hellfire, a Windows 95 expansion pack for Diablo published by Sierra On-Line in 1997, and again on a Sony PlayStation conversion of Diablo published in 1998 by Electronic Arts. I subsequently worked on the series several more times, as producer on Diablo II for Windows 9x/2000/NT and Mac, published in 2000 by Blizzard Entertainment, and on Diablo II: Lord of Destruction for Windows 9x/2000/NT and Mac, originally published in 2001 by Blizzard Entertainment, as well as on Patch 1.10 of Diablo II for Windows 9x/2000/NT and Mac, published in 2003 by Blizzard Entertainment. I was then director of product development on Hellgate: London for Windows XP/Vista, published in 2008 by Namco/EA and Hanbitsoft.
Moving into social gaming, I served as producer/designer on Mobsters, a MySpace game published in 2008 by You Plus Plus (now Playdom and a subsidiary of Disney Interactive) and then on Mobsters II, a Facebook social game published in 2009 by Playdom/Disney Interactive. I was also producer/designer on Sorority Life, another Facebook social game published in 2009 by Playdom/Disney Interactive, and co-creator/designer on Kitchen Scramble, a Facebook social game published in 2013 by Playdom/Disney Interactive. Most recently, I was co-creator/designer on GABBLE, a Facebook social game published in 2015 by Play On Games (https://apps.facebook.com/playgabble).
What are you up to these days?
As CFO (Chief Fun Officer) at my boutique game studio Play On Games, I've been designing GABBLE, a new kind of word game for Facebook and mobile devices. However, I am equally happy playing Robotron: 2084 (or Scramble with Friends), biking up San Bruno Mountain, going on three-mile runs or grafting heirloom apples onto my backyard trees.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history!
back to the list of available interviews