David Crane / Activision
Added on January 1st, 2018 (4074 views)
Hello and welcome David! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is David Crane. I worked at Atari with Nolan Bushnell in 1977 and co-founded Activision in 1979. While I am best known for developing Pitfall, I have published nearly 100 games on the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, Atari 400, Atari 800, Magnavox Odyssey 2, Mattel Intellivision, ColecoVision, Apple II, MS-DOS, Commodore C64, Commodore C128, Nintendo NES, Nintendo SNES, Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo DS, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, Microsoft Xbox 360, Nokia Series 60 feature phones, LG VX4400, LG VX6000, Apple iPhone, Apple iPod touch, and the Apple iPad.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I worked with some of the earliest IBM business computers in the 1970s, and I graduated high school already able to program computers in three languages (Fortran, RPG and COBOL). I worked on the C64, once there were enough units in the field for Activision to start developing games for it.
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 was hired at Atari when they were making their first push to hire games designers and programmers for the newly-released Atari 2600 games system.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
Like other computers at the time, the C64 was more a games console than a personal computer. Personal computers were not really useful for home finance and word processing until they had hard disk drives and laser printers. At Activision, we just treated the C64 like any other video games system, albeit one with a keyboard.
What C64 games did you work on?
For the C64, I created two original titles, namely Ghostbusters and Transformers: The Computer Game. I also published The Little Computer People Research Project in collaboration with a number of other people. Coming to the C64 from the Atari 2600 was nice, given that we had much more memory to work with, and more detailed character maps and sprites.
Ghostbusters was of course inspired by the movie. But in order to create that game in time to take advantage of the film's success, I had to redesign another game that was already half-finished. I was working on a game called Car Wars, in which you equipped your car with weapons and drove around shooting at other cars, so I changed the weapons to traps and a ghost vacuum, and the car drove around sucking up ghosts.
We acquired the Transformers licence at a time when I was between games, so I agreed to take it on. While the C64 did have more memory than other game systems at the time, it didn't have enough to hold the graphics for each of the Transformers in all of their transforming states, so to make the game possible, I wrote a PostScript-like language that rendered Autobot parts into screen memory and then superimposed them together to make a composite image. I was proud of how I could make and animate characters as large as the screen in the game.
Little Computer People began as the brainchild of an out-of-house designer, Rich Gold (1950–2003). His vision was the "Pet Person", patterned after the "Pet Rock" of the 1970s. There was a flaw in this logic: a Pet Rock had almost no cost and needed only a tongue-in-cheek manual to make it trendy; creating a person inside a C64 required 10,000 man-hours of programming. Activision's philosophy was that in order to make the product sellable, it would have to be interactive. Activision bought the source code for the Pet Person, and I spent more than a year making it interactive: understanding typed requests, writing letters to its owner, playing games, etc.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
All of my C64 work was done at Activision. As I was a founder and senior game designer there, I chose my own projects. Mostly, I created new, original game concepts.
We called ourselves Game Designers rather than Programmers, because there was so much more to the job than just programming. When I created Pitfall, I developed the concept, programmed the screen to look like a jungle, drew every pixel of art, implemented all of the game logic, and developed the sound effects. By the time we were designing for the C64, we had an artist and sound/music composer on our staff. But we still had to develop the game design and its look and feel, before spending thousands of hours banging on the keyboard to make everything work.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
I always had the entire game in my head from very early on in a project, so I would just sit at the keyboard and implement the next part of the game. For example, I had to read the joystick hardware to see if the player was holding the stick to the left. If so, the character should move to the left. If the player was holding the stick to the right, the character should move to the right. Once I had that programmed, I would pick up the joystick and move it around, tweaking the speed or animation until it felt just right. Once it was right, I would move on to the next element. After a few thousand such iterations, the game would be complete.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
You can't create on a schedule. As a Senior Designer at Activision, I took as long as the game needed in order to be great. That said, we weren't prima donna "artistes"... We knew that a game had to be finished before it could be sold, and that we didn't get paid until it was sold.
Our CEO Jim Levy would come to the design lab in the Spring and say: "Our sales team thinks they need four new titles for this Christmas. Is this doable?", so we would make sure that we had enough games in the development pipeline to meet the company's goals.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I was trained as an electronics engineer. Invariably, when a new games console came out, I would reverse-engineer the hardware and create a custom electronic circuit that connected between the games console and our mainframe computer. This circuit became our "development system", and due to the brand of aluminium cases I used, they were always in a blue sheet-metal case, so we referred to them as Blue Boxes. All the way through to the Nintendo SNES, we found we had to create a custom Blue Box for every new games system.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Over the years, there were a few. I made a half-finished Boggle game on the 2600 for Atari (which was found on an old computer and made available publicly). I developed a motocross game and a motorcycle jumping game, both of which were finished but not much fun to play so I shelved them. (Those have been lost.)
Sometimes, however, a shelved game or concept was rescued from oblivion. I made several attempts at a "little running man" game, only to put it on the shelf and develop something else instead. Eventually, I was inspired to make a side-view adventure game, and the little running man jumped back off the shelf and became Pitfall.
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?
I found there was something cool about every game I made... I had to, in order to pour that much effort into each game. I've already mentioned the PostScript-like language I created for Transformers, and I especially liked the technology that went into the cars on Grand Prix (I recently showed an animated deconstruction of Grand Prix at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, a presentation that has been uploaded to YouTube; your readers might find that interesting, even though it is not the C64.)
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I never let a game out of my sight until it was the best I could make it. I have no desire to revisit any of them. While it is true that every game has some trade-offs because there is less RAM or ROM than one would like, I am not interested in changing the past.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Atari developed the 2600 in order to bring their arcade hits into the home. While working at Atari, I developed home versions of Atari arcade games. For example, I managed to get two of Atari's $4,000 arcade games, Canyon Bomber and Depth Charge, into a $30, two-kilobyte Atari 2600 cartridge. When not being asked to do arcade conversions, however, I was much happier making original games.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I spent as much time in the arcade as anyone in the old days. I broke the scoreboard on Asteroids, held high scores on many other games and was a pinball wizard. I enjoyed them all.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
Nope. If it wasn't good enough, it didn't get released.
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?
Inspiration came from everywhere. My game Freeway was inspired by seeing a guy try to cross ten lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive at the CES in Chicago. But you may also notice a resemblance to Al Alcorn's Space Race arcade game from the 1970s. We drew from every aspect of our lives.
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 wouldn't know where to start. Computer shows? I attended 37 six-monthly CES shows in a row, starting in January 1978. At most of those, I helped set up the booth, physically as well as electrically, and stood in the booth to demo games for millions of attendees, basically until I couldn't walk. I still attend two or three classic gaming conventions every year, at which I sit on a panel and tell stories from the old days for hours at a time.
Here's a good C64 debugging story. When you turn on the C64 with no game cartridge, it implements a typewriter mode. A cursor sits there and blinks, and if you type, your words appear on the screen. (You can't do anything with it, other than watching your words appear on the screen.) That mode used 1000 bytes of computer memory for its screen, and it wasn't long before we disabled that mode so the game could use those 1000 bytes. Thus, we disabled the typewriter and loaded our game into that memory block the instant you hit RETURN after typing load "*",8,1.
The day that Transformers was due to go into production, someone in game testing said that the game was randomly crashing on them. This was a big deal, so the entire design lab put their heads together to try to fix it. To cut a long story short, the C64 blinks the cursor in typewriter mode by inverting bit 7 of the memory location at the proper row and column. A memory byte of zero displays as a blank; a memory byte of 0x80 displays as an inverse-video blank or solid white block. The cursor blinking function was performed in an interrupt, and it was independent of the typewriter function, so if you started loading the game exactly one frame before it was time to blink the cursor, the game program would load into that memory block and the interrupt would then change one bit of the program!
The bug only happened if the game started loading exactly one sixtieth of a second before it was time to blink the cursor, so it appeared to be random. That was one of the most obscure code bugs that ever happened to me in my career.
What are you up to these days?
Those of us who worked on video games in those days were innovators. We had to innovate to survive, and we invented something new almost every day. Because of my background in the field, I am called upon to analyse patents issued later against technologies created in the early days, so I work as an expert witness in patent litigation, helping to explain to the court how things work and addressing whether a particular product infringes a patent and/or whether the patent is valid. In essence, I write reports all day.
Thank you for helping me preserve an important part of computer and gaming history!
back to the list of available interviews