Video Game History And Development For N00bs: Harold Goldberg’s ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’

In my quest to educate myself more about video game design, I recently finished reading Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us. The book doesn’t touch on everything, and that’s not the point: it’s a slim one-volume guide to the people who had the key insights that created the video game industry, moved it forward, and brought it to where it is today. And if you want an understanding of which problems in the game industry have been there from the beginning, it’s an essential introduction.

Take the problem of profit-sharing and crediting. After turnover at Atari in 1979 Golberg writes, “They weren’t getting credit for the games the way the cast and crew did in each movie’s credits or the bands and their sidemen did in the liner notes of records. Nor did they receive a percentage of the profits, even though Atari was making hundreds upon hundreds of millions as one of the world’s fastest growing companies.” Similarly, when Tod Frye secured one of the first royalty deals, he only got 10–15 cents per game cartridge.

The same’s true of crash, which Goldberg describes as happening everywhere from Nintendo, where “the teams preferred to work late into the night during the increasingly brutal crunch times. They would go home past midnight and fall exhausted into bed, only to get to Nintendo again by eleven a.m. and do it all over again,” or at Naughty Dog when the company was developing Crash Bandicoot where one of the founders “was tired of holding the hands of game designers who would freak out and lose it during crunch time. Gavin understood that the tight schedule could lead to breakdowns. In video games, breakdown was the new black. But Naughty Dog was a team…’How dare anyone we brought in to work try to break up the team at deadline time?’ he thought…That’s just how it was. Long hours were what you signed up for.”

Those companies have very different artistic cultures — as Goldberg wrote me:

Electronic Arts was inspired by the passion of Charlie Chaplin and those who created United Artists. EA even today considers many of its workers artists, at least on some level. Nintendo’s culture is a Japanese culture, and by that, I mean it’s all about the company person and loyalty to the boss. That’s one reason why we only see the face of Shigeru Miyamoto promoting Nintendo games, when, in reality, hundreds of people make games at Nintendo. To a large extent, PopCap (recently purchased by EA for at least $750 million), likes to place its games on every device imaginable, so the culture is as much about, say, putting Plants Vs. Zombies on the upcoming Wii U or iPad 3 as it is about creating new games. Rockstar cares very much about American arts and popular culture, perhaps more than any other video game company. And Valve very much cares about its community and it downloadable games service, Steam.

There are obviously some exceptions. Ben Kuchera, the gaming editor of Ars Technica who’s observed the ways that game development’s failed to sell itself as a desirable and sustainable profession, was kind enough to point me to some alternatives. Ted Price, the CEO at Insomniac Games, has talked about how his company’s independent status let them build a strong internal culture with a dedication to work-life balance without needing to reverse-engineer it through project management systems like Agile. And 5th Cell founders Jeremiah Slaczka and Joseph Tringali have talked about resisting pressure-inducing checkpoints in contracts. But it does seem relatively clear that no one’s managed to solve the problem of crunch at scale, whether by management innovation or by employee organizing.

“Because I hear rumblings of it more and more, my feeling is that some kind of unionization or, at least, condition that are more salubrious, is coming,” Goldberg told me. “But it likely won’t happen until the economy gets a bit healthier.”

And some of the problem may be a sense that game design and development’s being driven forward by the insights of lone geniuses throughout its history, rather than by systems any given company came up with to foster creativity and make it marketable — at least, that’s an impression that pervades All Your Base. Goldberg said he thinks that remains the case, though he notes that “Sam Houser at Rockstar is still leading teams that make stunningly good games. Indie games like Limbo, Bastion and Deflex show that general brilliance can be done relatively inexpensively.”

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about Roberta Williams and her husband Ken who played a key role in the development of narrative adventure games with titles like Mystery House, the King’s Quest series, and video-heavy Phantasmagoria. Given Phantasmagoria’s scenes of rape and torture, Williams isn’t necessarily evidence that having more women playing a bigger role in the early days of game design would have produced different kinds of games or games with different themes, though she did push story-telling forward. And Goldberg says he can’t really speculate on what that alternative history might have looked like had there been all-women teams, say, developing early Atari games. But he does think the industry’s changing on at least the physical representations of women in games even if it’s doing so inconsistently.

“I think the avatar design is coming around to portraying women as they are and not caricatured comic book types a la Frank Frazetta. And since women are becoming hard core gamers (witness the many PMS clans), game makers have to address women as the individuals and independent humans that they are,” he says. “I hope that they look to Ken Levine’s well-rounded Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite for inspiration. Then again, the portrayal of Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider, which is a prequel, is full of fearful shrieks and squeals from the heroine. I hope they deal with that before they release it to the public.

And it’s not just that women are designing and playing more games. While All Your Base focuses, justifiably, on the role of Japanese artists and Japanese corporate culture played in shaping the video game industry, gaming is booming in China, and the tastes of that market will help determine what’s a hit in the future. The question is whether that consumption will produce a new generation of visionary game designers. “Is China, as a society, open enough yet to make unhindered, unfettered popular culture that resonates worldwide?” Goldberg told me. “I think the minds in China are ready to make great video games. But they have to be free enough to make completely unhindered art.”