One of the things that has been keeping me busy this year is teaching a survey course on the video game industry at Columbus State Community College. One of the main themes of the class is the history of video games and how video games have impacted pop culture.
It turns out that Harold Goldberg has been working on a book
called "All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture" which covers the full history of the industry. Given the overlap I couldn't help but reach out to his PR rep and ask for an interview and here's the result.
Could you provide some info on your background in the gaming industry?
I started writing seriously about games when the first CD-ROM enabled computers were released. So I wrote mainly for Entertainment Weekly but also for CD-ROM Today, PC Magazine, and Smart Money. Later, I took a job as editor in chief of Sony Online Entertainment. I helped to test EverQuest and other online games, and I wrote copy for them as well. We had an online gamg magazine called Motherboard that Michael Crichton, Bill Plympton and Gus Van Sant contributed to. But Sony killed it because it was too controversial.
What’s your favorite game of all time and what are you playing now?
It’s a tossup between BioShock, Red Dead Redemption and SoulCalibur for the Dreamcast, which my team and I always used to play at Sony. If my mood is dark, it’s Bioshock, if it’s adventurous, it’s Red Dead and if it’s a need to get wild, it’s SoulCalibur. I’m playing Crysis 2 and Portal 2 right now…and somehow I’m charmed by Rayman for the 3DS.
What do you think was been the biggest obstacle for the gaming industry in being recognized as a modern art form? Do you think that the game industry hurts itself by some of the games it creates?
Every form of entertainment hurts itself by releasing some of the half-ass products it creates. Regarding games, I think some people still fear that videogames will have a deleterious effect on their kids. I’m not saying that never has happened. But it’s so utterly rare. What needs to happen? Mainstream media needs to recognize it as an art form. That won’t happen until games are reviewed alongside books, movies and TV. I hope that happens soon.
The title of your book refers to arguably one of the worst pieces of localization in gaming history, why did you decide to go with that name rather than something more traditional?
There were other titles. But I like quirky things, things that are a little outside of the norm. Friends warned me not to use that title because it would hamper sales. I had to go with my gut and my gut said, convince the book company to use that title. Thankfully, my editor was hip enough to understand.
We have come so far as an industry since Nim, having seen so many influential projects close up, where do you think the industry is headed now?
We’re finally seeing better writing in games. That’s a huge thing for me and I hope the writing gets even better in the future. I think we’ll see 3-D gaming without glasses when the big screen TV industry decides to forego the use for those idiotic glasses. I’d love to see a time when there’s holographic gaming. There have been really amazing experiments. But that’s a bit down the line.
Do you think the industry will ever have another devastating crash like 1983 or is the industry too robust to go through something like that again? Are you surprised with how the industry has weathered the current economic crisis?
I don’t know if ‘robust’ is the right word. I think the industry is agile enough to make certain it doesn’t suffer another 1983-style crash. And there are so many niches of gaming that would survive if one niche fails. I could see a deeper recession in gaming, but nothing like we saw in 1983. Games have come a long way in the sense that they are far more accepted now. Back then, so many people thought of them as fads and toys. Even the top executives at Warner Bros., who bought Atari, saw them as fads back then. Since games are more accepted as entertainment, I’m not surprised they’ve weather the recession fairly well.
We seem to be entering this polarized era where games are either small indie/app games or huge AAA Games. Do you agree with this statement and is there a comparable period in gaming history?
I think there is a comparable period that happened not so long ago. Everyone said casual games polarized people. I’m not saying they didn’t. But I think that polarization happens more in theory that in practice. When you sit down with someone who plays Angry Birds and you love Gears of War, you don’t say, you’re a complete jerk for playing Angry Birds. You say, oh, OK, that’s cool, maybe check out Gears, too, and move on. Well, at least, I do.
Which audience did you write the book for? Are there things that only hardcore gamers will get or did you write for a more casual audience?
I wanted to write the book for gamers first. That’s part of the reason I chose the title, All Your Base Are Belong to Us. So, even if you think you know the story of WoW or GTA III, you’ll still learn something about the people who made the games. Then, I wanted to engage people who hadn’t played since Pong, I wanted them to be able to pick up the book and maybe say, ‘Wow, look how games took off. I didn’t know that. That’s interesting.’ And thirdly, I wanted anyone who likes a good story to be able to pick up the book and enjoy it. There’s so much human drama in the book, the utter glee of discovery and, occasionally, terrible tragedy.
Looking back at 50 years of gaming history, what are the two biggest gaffe’s the industry has made?
Certainly, rushing E.T.: The Extraterrestrial to market was the biggest blunder because it caused that awesomely depressing crash in the industry. The failure of E.T. proved that Hollywood didn’t understand games. And to an extent that’s still true today. Secondly, there’s a gaffe that hardware makers, who are in first place in the console wars, make over and over again. They become too full of ego and hubris. And then they often end up losing what they had gained.
In doing the research for the book what was the one thing you learned that you didn’t know before or what pre-conception did you have that changed during the course of your interview?
I had heard rumors about Sam Houser at Rockstar, rumors that he was a jerk. Some people said he was crazy. So I was somewhat fearful about sitting down with him for many hours. It turned out that Sam was completely affable and engaging, not crazy at all, just passionate about his games. He was kind of a raconteur, the kind of person you’d want to hang with in a bar to let him spin stories while you drank. And he still feels like an outsider, just as I do. So we bonded pretty much immediately.
Was the Houser interview the hardest to get? Were there other difficult interviews to land? Where there people you wanted to talk to but didn’t?
Yes, the Houser interview was the hardest. But all the big interviews were difficult in one way or another. Some people I knew at Nintendo clammed up and wouldn’t talk. Some developers had bigger egos than others, but they were all completely fervent about their work. I found that aspect of these geniuses to be really delightful.
The contact I had at Valve, who I’d worked with at CD-ROM Today, was kind of a complete jerk to me. He only wanted Gabe Newell to answer email questions. And there’s no way I could use email answers in the kind of fully researched book I needed and wanted to write. When I fully detailed what I wanted to do along with listing the top developers I had interviewed for this book and asked the contact again for a phone interview with Mr. Newell, he stopped answering my emails completely. It was so stunning and saddening because I had held the people at Valve in such high esteem. Mr. Newell didn’t answer email requests, either. I still love Valve games, though, because so many have been game changers. That’s why I wanted to include the people of Valve in the book. When people fail you on a personal level, at least you have their art to hang onto. And I do consider what they create to be popular art.
I know this sounds like a cheesy interview question but what do you think you will be writing about the game industry in five years? In twenty?
It’s actually a good question. I do hope to be writing about games in five years – if people will still have me. In twenty years, I hope to be sitting under a palm tree on beach somewhere with a drink beside me and finishing up some of the great handheld games I haven’t had the time to complete.
I'd like to thank Harold for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Caroline who helped to coordinate the interview.