Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

VC&G Interview: Carol Shaw, Atari’s First Female Video Game Developer

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Carol Shaw holding River Raid Box, 1982Carol Shaw likes to stress that she isn’t your average American woman. Growing up in a world of technology and science traditionally guided by men, she ignored implicit gender barriers and pursued what came to her naturally.

She says she had little interest in dolls as a kid, instead preferring to tinker with her brothers’ model railroad layout. In school, she proudly excelled in math and found herself gravitating toward computer science in college, a field of study populated by few women in the 1970s.

Two degrees later, Shaw landed a job at Atari programming games for the company’s new VCS console. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had just become one of the world’s first female professional video game designers.

Shaw enjoyed a short but fruitful career in video games that lasted from 1978 to 1984, stretching between two prominent California companies: Atari, of course, which all but founded the video game industry; and Activision, a firm most notable as the very first third-party video game software publisher.

During her time at Activision, Carol Shaw created River Raid, a title almost universally regarded as a masterpiece of game design for the Atari 2600 console.

For decades, Shaw downplayed her role in video game history. Now 56, she seems ready to embrace that part of her life, although she does not actively seek attention or fame. In that regard, we are fortunate that she accepted my request for an interview.

In May of this year, Shaw and I spoke for nearly two hours over the telephone in a career-spanning discussion that touched on her educational background, her time at Atari, Activision, and Tandem Computers, and her reflections on being a woman in a historically male-dominated industry. She also generously provided many of the rare photos you’ll see below.

It’s a long piece, but I think you’ll enjoy reading the extended thoughts of this pioneering software engineer.

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Interview: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants on Technology, Video Games, Injuries

Monday, June 13th, 2011

John Linnell of They Might Be Giants Interview on Technologizer

Up now on is my recent interview with John Linnell of the tech-savvy rock band They Might Be Giants. Linnell and I discussed his personal computer and video game history, how he’s integrated computers into his music career, a fierce Tetris addiction, and gruesome encounters with X-Acto knives. I hope you enjoy it.

By they way — Happy Birthday to Mr. Linnell, who turned 52 yesterday.

Scott Miller Interview: On Founding Apogee, Shareware Competition, id Software, and More

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Apogee Software Logo

In early June, I conducted a lengthy telephone interview with Scott Miller, founder of Apogee Software (now known as 3D Realms). Today, the interview is up on Gamasutra. This is sort of a companion interview to my earlier talk with Tim Sweeney of Epic Games (another shareware heavyweight), although both stand alone quite well.

Scott Miller\'s HeadApogee is best known for publishing dozens of episodic shareware games, including Kingdom of Kroz, Duke Nukem, the Commander Keen Series, Wolfenstein 3D, and Rise of the Triad. The company later changed its name to 3D Realms and scored a monster hit with Duke Nukem 3D.

Through Apogee, Miller revitalized and dominated the shareware game industry, invented episodic gaming, pioneered the use of the freely distributable game demo, and provided the spark that inspired id Software’s founding.

During the interview, Scott and I went through his early days in programming, the founding of Apogee, the transition from simple shareware to 3D games, his interactions with id Software, his thoughts on shareware game competition in the early 1990s (including Epic MegaGames and Tim Sweeney), and much more. If you’re a fan of BBS or shareware history, you won’t want to miss it.

Giving Shareware the Attention It Deserves

The concept of shareware has for too long been seen as the red-headed stepchild of the computer game industry. It has oft been relegated to the metaphorical back pages and footnotes of the history books — if it shows up at all — and frequently looked down upon by “serious” publishers who never deigned to give away any version of their work for free (until Apogee came along, anyway). I’d like to change that, and I’m hoping that my recent interviews with Miller and Sweeney will lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of shareware’s importance for future generations.

Although it might be a philosophy whose place in the sun has come and gone, shareware has not been an idea without merit or influence. As you’re about to read, the story of Scott Miller, his partner George Broussard, and their company firmly prove otherwise.

Tim Sweeney Interview: On ZZT, Shareware, Epic, and More

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Epic Games' Headquarters

You’ve probably heard of Epic Games by now — you know, the company behind Gears of War and the Unreal Engine. We read a lot about those blockbuster products these days, but Epic’s story stretches back much farther than that. For example, did you know that the very same Epic was once one of the world’s foremost shareware game publishers?

In January of this year, I had the immense honor of exploring Epic’s rich history in a sit-down interview with Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic. Over lunch at a local restaurant, we discussed his early programming years, the genesis of ZZT (Epic’s first game), Jill of the Jungle, Apogee Software, the shareware wars, his thoughts on id Software’s early work, the future of game graphics, and much more.

After some time on the back burner, this long, in-depth interview has finally seen the light of day over at Gamasutra. Shareware fans and general history computer buffs shouldn’t miss it. Heck, I did the interview and I’m reading it again. I hope you enjoy it.

VC&G Interview: Jerry Lawson, Black Video Game Pioneer

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Jerry LawsonIn late 2006, I received a large collection of vintage computer magazines from a friend. For days I sat on my office floor and thumbed through nearly every issue, finding page after page of priceless historical information. One day, while rapidly flipping through a 1983 issue of Popular Computing, I encountered a photo that stopped me dead in my tracks.

There I discovered, among a story on a new computer business, a picture of a black man. It might seem crazy, but after reading through hundreds of issues of dozens of publications spanning four decades, it was the first time I had ever seen a photograph of a black professional in a computer magazine. Frankly, it shocked me — not because a black man was there, but because I had never noticed his absence.

That discovery sent my mind spinning with questions, chiefly among them: Why are there so few African-Americans in the electronics industry? Honestly, I didn’t know any black engineers or scientists to ask. I tried to track down the man in the magazine, but all my leads ended up nowhere. I’d have to put the matter aside and wait for another opportunity to address the issue.

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VC&G Interview: 30 Years Later, Richard Wiggins Talks Speak & Spell Development

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Texas Instruments Speak & SpellThirty years ago last June, Texas Instruments introduced Speak & Spell at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. This electronic spelling teacher for kids broke new ground by speaking out words via built-in voice synthesis — a world-first for a consumer product.

By Christmas 1978, the iconic orange and yellow device hit stores with a suggested retail price of $50 (US). TI’s new toy sold very well and became a media sensation, landing on magazine covers and eventually making an appearance as a key prop in a major Hollywood film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Intending to write an article about Speak & Spell’s 30th anniversary last July, I conducted an email interview with Richard Wiggins, a member of the original Speak & Spell development team. Wiggins is notable for co-designing speech synthesis techniques capable of being mass-produced in an inexpensive consumer product, which was no minor task in 1978.

I wanted to share my interview with Mr. Wiggins before the year is out, as it’s not only more relevant during 2008, but it also might be of interest to historians some day. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy reading it.

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30 Years of x86 on PC World

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

30th Anniversary of 8086 / x86 StandardThirty years ago this month, Intel released the 8086 microprocessor, the originator of the now-famous x86 standard and the ultimate progenitor of most modern consumer CPUs.

But what, exactly, does all that mean? Well, think of it this way: any assembly language program written as far back as 1978 for the Intel 8086 will run, unmodified, on Intel’s latest Core 2 Extreme released in 2008 — only 180,000 times faster.

The thirty-year tale of x86 began when an Intel engineer named Stephen P. Morse defined the 8086 instruction set (the core group of instructions that define what a microprocessor can do) while working at Intel in the late 1970s. That same instruction set would go on to form the basis of the world’s most popular personal computer architecture. Even the once-insular Macintosh platform, the last mainstream bastion of the non-Intel world, now runs on x86 processors.

Stephen P. MorseWhat’s going on here, and how did it get that way?

PC World recently published a feature I wrote on the anniversary that answers those questions, along with an in-depth interview I conducted with Stephen P. Morse, designer of the 8086 and the original x86 instruction set.

Anyone interested in PC history, or how this standard came to be, should check them out. For better or for worse, x86 is what we’re stuck with, so I feel that it is important for computer users to understand it.

I hope you enjoy the article.

VC&G Interview: Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Nolan BushnellEarlier this year, I had the chance to interview Nolan Bushnell, career entrepreneur and nigh-but-legendary founder of Atari. For the last seven years, Bushnell has been pouring most of his energy into his latest venture, uWink — a sort of Chuck E. Cheese restaurant for adults.

Of course, being the history buff I am, I wanted Bushnell to clear up some things regarding articles I was working on at the time. Accordingly, we touched on a variety of topics, such as the origin of the term “video game,” Steve Jobs at Atari, his “feud” with Ralph Baer, the Atari 800, and his wife’s love of the Wii, among other things. Despite being such a grab bag of topics, I figured the interview was worth publishing in its entirety while it still feels relevant. Bushnell’s thoughts deserve to be heard, especially since he took time out of his busy schedule to share them.

This interview took place on March 30th, 2007 over the telephone.

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[ VC&G Interview ] Brian Parker on RetroZone and the PowerPak NES Flash Cart

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

Brian Parker of RetroZone Riding a BicycleBrian Parker, a resident of Redwood City, CA, has run RetroZone full time for three years. His company is well known in the retrogaming community for its sales of original console controllers — like NES, SNES, and Genesis control pads — modified to work with the USB ports found on modern computers. In 2005, I reviewed one of his USB NES controller products and found it to be excellent (I still use it regularly, in fact). But it was with the new PowerPak NES flash cartridge in mind that I interviewed Brian via email last month.

Also an avid cyclist, Brian gave me a picture of him competitively riding a racing bicycle, the only known picture of him in existence. Ok, I’m kidding — but it is him.

Thanks for the interview, Brian.

[ Update (11/02/2007): Click Here to read our review of the RetroZone PowerPak flash cart. ]

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The History of Civilization now on Gamasutra

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

The History of Civilization on Gamasutra

Earlier this year, I spent a few months getting into everything Civilization for an in-depth look at the history of Sid Meier’s classic. The result of that work is now up on Gamasutra as “The History of Civilization.” It also includes (at the end of the article) the transcript of a lengthy telephone interview I conducted with Sid Meier on the topic.

I’d like to extend special thanks to Sid Meier, Bruce C. Shelley, and Troy S. Goodfellow for their indispensable help in putting the piece together. I hope you enjoy reading it.