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Electronic Games: The Arnie Katz Interview

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra sits down with Arnie Katz, the co-creator in 1981 of Electronic Games magazine, the first ever magazine dedicated entirely to video games, to discuss his history in the biz and the state of game journalism today.

Arnie Katz was a pioneer of video game journalism. In the late 1970s he, along with Bill Kunkel, started Arcade Alley in Video Magazine, the first column about video games in a major publication. Then, in 1981, Katz -- along with his wife Joyce Worley and Kunkel -- started Electronic Games magazine, the first ever magazine dedicated entirely to video games.

Inside the pages of Electronic Games, Katz, Kunkel [also interviewed by Gamasutra in recent years], and Worley invented video game journalism. The format of the magazine, letters, reviews, previews, features and many other types of content, while frequently borrowed from established traditions of magazine publishing, were molded to the subject of video games for the first time.

Arnie Katz was the editor of Electronic Games, and many fans saw the world of Golden Age video games through the eye of his editorials, which began each issue of Electronic Games. Words such as "playfield", "shoot-em-up" and many others entered the lexicon of video game fans after being invented or popularized in the pages of Electronic Games Magazine.

While there were other sources, at no other time in the history of video games has a single fountain of ideas and knowledge like Electronic Games led the charge in hearts of minds of so many people.

After Electronic Games ended in 1985, Katz, Kunkel, and Worley continued as consultants to the video game industry, and worked on later publications such as Video Games & Computer Entertainment and the '90s revival of Electronic Games.

By the 21st century, however, the pioneering mind of Arnie Katz had left the video game world completely. His partner, Bill Kunkel, has continued to consult for game companies, teach game design classes, and write about new and old games on the internet. He also wrote a book, Confessions of the Game Doctor, which is required reading for anyone who fancies themselves a student of video game history.

However, Arnie Katz -- ostensibly the inventor of the medium of video game criticism -- has remained relatively quiet in the same time. Gamasutra caught-up with him a few months ago, and he agreed to talk about the past, present, and future of the video game industry.

I have not read very many interviews with you in the past. I'm wondering if you shied away from it, or if people have not approached you... or have I just missed them?

Arnie Katz: It's a little of both. I've had so many good things happen to me in my life, I think it's a little vain of me to go out and say "you should interview me, because I'm hot shit." I know I'm hot shit. No, seriously, I like being interviewed, because I enjoy interviewing people.

Have you read Bill Kunkel's book?

AK: I've read some parts and skimmed others. I lived a lot of it with Bill. I'm sure Bill remembers it his way. We are still very good friends.

Bill includes you in most everything he wrote about.

AK: Joyce, Bill, and I -- and Bill's then-wife Charlene -- were all very good friends. We met through science fiction fandom. I met my wife through science fiction fandom. After Joyce and I got together, we heard from this couple in Queens that wanted to come over and get to know us.

One night, they wanted to visit relatives in Chicago, and we all went into the city. We'd gone to see them off, and after we saw them off we went to one of the Times Square arcades. We were playing Pong, a new game at the time.

After a little while, Bill and Charlene walked in! Something had gone wrong with their train, and they were not going to Chicago. They wanted to play Pong, too. This was the first time we realized that we shared that interest.

Through the '70s, we played the various home games and went to the arcades. In 1978, a couple of things happened. One was, Atari and Magnavox put out programmable machines. There had been a couple of attempts to do such devices. One was the Fairchild, which was terrible...

Those plunger controllers...

AK: Yeah, you just could not play it. The other was the Bally Arcade, which was priced at about $400 at the time. It had very bad distribution and no third-party games. It was not really that attractive.

When the 2600 and the Odyssey 2 came out, that was a new era. At just about the same time, a guy a I worked with -- a fellow staff editor on a trade magazine I worked on -- got a job with Reese Communications to start a new magazine named Video. I pitched the editor, Bruce Apar, two different columns. I did a column about television and a column named Arcade Alley on behalf of Bill and I. The idea was to write it together.

Did you write it together?

AK: Oh yeah, absolutely. Bill was in every way my partner on Arcade Alley, on the magazine, along with Joyce Worley-Katz. I was, let us say, somewhat more advanced as an editor and writer when the opportunity came, but that does not mean that Bill did not do his full share, because he certainly did. We would sit around and swap ideas. Bill was somebody who came over to our house three times or more a week.

Was that all through the writing of Electronic Games and afterward?

AK: Oh, before, during and afterward. Bill and I are still friends. Unfortunately for me, Bill now lives in lovely Michigan instead of Las Vegas. He moved to Michigan with his wife two years ago. Joyce, Bill and I moved out to Las Vegas together. We decided we no longer had to live in New York, and we all moved out to Vegas. Until Bill's Michigan move, we lived about a mile from each other.

You guys wrote Arcade Alley for a couple years, right?

AK: Yes, Bruce Apar accepted both columns. The column about television was something I wrote on my own, and the Arcade Alley column Bill and I wrote together.

Frankly, the biggest problem we had writing that column at first was there were not enough games. We had to review every single game that Atari made because that was all there were. If Atari did not put out enough games... We aimed to have three games per column. We didn't always achieve that.

In '78 and '79 Atari maybe put out a dozen of games a year. In '79 they even held back.

AK: I know, it was amazing. When third-party publishing came in, there was nobody happier than Bill and I.


Who was Frank Laney II -- the original editor of EG?

AK: I was working as an editor and writer for a magazine called Chain Store Age and I wanted to keep my writing in the trade magazines separate from writing in the gaming world. I also did not want to have a discussion with my 9 to 5 employers about what I might be doing in my off hours.

So you weren't working for Reese Publications at the time?

AK: We were working on spec.

Was this for the winter 1981 edition of Electronic Games?

AK: Yes. Bill would go in there and work with the art people and so forth. I probably wrote a fair amount of the issue. I was the editor and associate publisher. My job was, in essence, to design and edit the magazine as well as write for it.

Fortunately I had Joyce and Bill to come up with lots of great ideas and shoot down my bad ideas, and occasionally tell me I got something right. It came to the point where I had to decide whether or not to stick with my day job.

When was that?

AK: I believe was shortly after the first issue came out.

Any regrets on your decision to leave Chain Store Age?

AK: Oh no. We had also (Bill Joyce and I), before Electronic Games, had done a pro wrestling magazine. It was mimeographed in our apartment, and gradually we got it sold in all the concessions stands on the East Coast.

That was back in the pre-golden age of my youth.

AK: Yes, the pre-golden age in the '70s, when it was still the WWWF (not WWF or WWE) and only in the Northeast. What we came up with was that our coverage was 95 percent on the East Coast. The magazine was going great guns, and it reached the point where we would have had to take the next step, which was to bring it onto the newsstand... and we had distributers lined up.

I would have had to quit my day job to continue it, but Bill, Joyce and I decided that we could not rely on the managers of WWWF to deal with us in a fair manner, so we had to walk away from the wrestling. In 1981 I came up against it again with Electronic Games -- should I go for it, or stay with the trade magazine? I called Jay Rosenfield, the publisher of Reese Communications and I told him exactly what the story was: I needed to walk away from Electronic Games or I needed a job. He told me to report on Monday.

Do you have every issue of the original Electronic Games?

AK: Yes, I do.

Have you ever considered some kind of compendium or compilation of your own writing?

AK: Well, most of it seems very ephemeral. I've considered writing a book, but I don't want to do my memoirs -- not my gaming memoirs, anyway.

Don't take that the wrong way. I'm saying Bill shouldn't have. Bill did a very good job, and the parts I read were excellent. I've at least skimmed the whole book and it seemed okay. I understand that everybody remembers things in their own way, and those are honest subjective memories.

I do think that your editorials in Electronic Games, when read in context, are fairly fascinating and insightful account of the rise and fall of the golden age of video games.

AK: Well, thank you very much for saying that. I did put a lot of work into the editorial. One of our aims with Electronic Games was to write for the full spectrum of our readers. The way we thought to do that was to aim high. We were aiming for adults, but also so that a smart teenager would be able to read it. If you were 12 and bright, you could read it.

I think it is very important to not condescend to the readers. I have great respect for the people that read Electronic Games magazine, and all the other things we did, like the video games section in VG&CE. We were not aiming at the 10 year old, but we were not excluding anybody. We kept the magazine clean. We did not try to have any risqué material.

I recall in the original EG, a Private School movie advertisement that had Phoebe Cates' lower half blocked-out with a censor bar.

AK: When the art department got the graphic it was a little beyond our standards.

I was a bit upset by that as a teenager, but at the same time it was great because my mom could look a the magazine and not think it was something I shouldn't be reading.

AK: We understood. Bill and I in particular had been comic book readers as young kids and had our parents wonder, "Why are you reading that stuff?" All three of us had been science fiction readers, and to be a science fiction reader in the '0s and even the early '60s was to be weird; you were a pariah. Reading at all meant you were weird!

Anyway, we understood that sometimes kids had parental pressures and beyond that we wanted the magazine to be comfortable. You know, we wanted the language and visuals to be something that everybody would be comfortable with. We were sent a copy of Tilt magazine at one time, which was from France and began life as the French version of EG. This thing looked like the all-star Sex issue!

Well, you know Europeans and their magazines...

AK: Well, I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm totally against any form of censorship, so it did not bother me at all, but I know we would not have published a cartoon of a group of young women in a "circle", yet there it was. The issue had nudity and all kinds of things and it was certainly remarkable that they did that in France at the time, but it would have never flown here.

No way.

AK: Sex and video games have an uneasy alliance in that there are so many young male players, and young male players are interested in young females -- or young alien females. It's understandable. I remember Bob Jacob from Cinemaware once that they always had a provocative girl somewhere on the cover, even if she was not in the game. When you are marketing to mostly young men, it helps.

I still had to hide the box from my mom when I brought a game home with a cover like that. I wanted to play it, but I didn't want her to think the reason I wanted to play was because of the cover -- even though that might have been part of it.

AK: We adopted what were similar standards to radio and television at the time. There was something else too. Jay Rosenfeld would not take gun advertisements, or anything salacious, or liquor advertisements. Certainly after the magazine got popular after the first few issues we could have had some very big advertisers, but we were all in agreement that that would not be right for EG.

You worked for Reese for almost five years, right?

AK: Pretty much. Jay made a bad mistake at the end when he got rid of all of us. Basically, Jay was the guy who had faith in all of us at the beginning, when there had never been a video game computer game magazine, and it was totally unproven. He went with it. I will always have good feelings for Jay Rosenfield.


Electronic Fun started not too long after EG started...

AK: It was an imitation published by Richard Ekstract, who was also imitating Video Magazine with Video Review. When Electronic Games became successful, he started Electronic Fun.

As a kid, I liked them both, but I always like Electronic Games a heck of a lot more. I liked that there were multiple magazines.

AK: Electronic Fun was not a very good magazine. The magazine that was pretty decent was named Video Games. Roger Sharp was the editor. We brought him in as a writer and then he got the opportunity to work for a competitor.

That magazine didn't last very long, did it?

AK: No, but while he did it, it was good!

So what you're saying is that Electronic Fun wasn't a competitor -- it was that it was crap.

AK: Electronic Fun was never really a competitor. I think any headway they made was a result of "name confusion".

I think you might be right about that.

AK: I'm not saying every writer was bad, but they had some writers reviewing games at times from photos of the screen shot. I remember a review (from one of their writers) about Kaboom! It was a review of Kaboom!, but he had never played it, apparently -- just seen a picture. He described it as "flaming bowling pins." I mean, there was some not very well done stuff in that magazine.

Tell me a bit about the rise of Electronic Games.

AK: Electronic Games was a tremendous success, really, from the beginning. Our biggest problem was that newsstands had no idea where to put our magazine since there was no other magazine like it.

It was next to Mad Magazine on our newsstand.

AK: Yeah. I remember when I lived in Brooklyn, going to the newsstand at the Hotel St. George, and rooting through the magazines and searching for Electronic Games to give it a better position in the rack.

The first issue was a one-shot. It was "let's do it and see what happens". Jay paid us and we did the issue on a freelance basis. The initial response encouraged him to say "Okay, we'll do it bi-monthly". The second issue was scheduled to be bi-monthly relative to the first. However, by the time we did that one he had increased it to monthly. After that we did it monthly until the big video game crash of 1984.

From your perspective, when did the crash happen?

AK: It's hard to say. I saw bad signs, certainly, by mid-1984. The mass dumping of cartridges, selling them for $3 or $4, alarmed me. I saw some very bad product. That was kind of distressing, because for the first couple years, while I did not like every game, you could tell work had been put in.

When the Activisions and Imagics of the world were making good stuff...

AK: Let's be fair, there was also Games By Apollo.

Yes. I remember Lost Luggage.

AK: Lost Luggage and Wall Ball, a game NO ONE could play. The guys at Games by Apollo could not play it either, as far as I could tell. We brought in the best player we knew, Frank Tetro, who had been a finalist in a Space Invaders tournament -- a terrific player. He could somewhat play Wall Ball. Somewhat. Not really. He could, in fact, return the serve. He was a God in our eyes.

Games By Apollo made the ones that I usually skipped. It was the pages of Electronic Games that informed us to skip them.

AK: We tried to be positive.

How did the original Electronic Games end?

AK: It folded because Jay fired all of us and brought in another crew that were unable to do it. What was kind of sad about it was that I had told Jay, as far back as mid-1984, that with our name Electronic Games, we should be shifting our focus to computer games because of the problems in the industry. However, Jay was much less comfortable with computers than video games.

It was something about computers. He did not like computers. Maybe they seemed more threatening? I honestly don't know. Whatever it was, we kept our format. I even suggested changing the name to Computers and Video Games. We kept doing it. The circulation went down, but not by much. I think 180,000 was the bottom.

Was the advertising down?

AK: Yeah, the advertising was down, but our main problem was that we did not re-target. When he finally decided to re-target, he for some reason decided to do it with people other than Bill, Joyce, or I.

An obvious mistake, seeing as it only lasted a couple issues, and you guys were the obvious experts at the time.

AK: I know I believe he believes it was a mistake. Hey, it was his property and his right to do it.

Yeah, but the names Katz, Kunkel, and Worley were it at the time. For kids like my brother and I, seeing your names in a magazine or on an article meant it was legitimate. If your names were not on it, it was not genuine. Did they know this?

AK: They did! When they ran out of articles with our bylines on them, our stuff in inventory, the magazine folded.

When you guys revisited Electronic Games in the '90s, what did it feel like? Did it fee like the days of old?

AK: I have to give Bill all the credit for that. Bill pursued it with Steve Harris. Steve Harris and I talked about it, and we agreed to revive Electronic Games. It was never our thought. We thought we could do something with Steve Harris. It was his idea to call it Electronic Games. We had not intended to go back that way.

I thought it was a good magazine. Jay Rosenfeld and Steve Harris were very different. Steve was much more knowledgeable about video and computer games than Jay. Jay did not really like that stuff. Jay was sincere, though. He wanted the original to be a good magazine, but he was not himself a computer guy at that time.

Steve liked the technology. The downside was that Steve had very definite ideas, and he was used to getting his way. Sometimes we did things that we might not have done had he not insisted. The whole change to Fusion was endemic.

Fusion?

AK: Steve wanted us to change the magazine to make it more, I guess you'd say, "pop cultural". Since that was something I was very interested in, I had no problem with it. In the years since then, most of my writing has been about things like wrestling or comic books, old time radio, or whatever, so I'm very at home with pop culture -- maybe more than his so-called pop culture writers -- and I thought it was a good idea.

I went out to visit Steve and we designed a magazine. We were both reasonably happy with it. However, when the issue came out it had changed completely. Steve then hired Jer Horwitz at his site and installed him as editor of the magazine. It wasn't very satisfactory, and Steve sold the publications pretty much after that. I was glad to stop working with Jer Horwitz. It was Steve Harris' magazine. He wanted to do it his way, and the end might not have had anything to do with the popularity of the publication.


Back in the '90s, you were pushing hard for people to create their own fanzines. You reviewed them in your magazines.

AK: I said, "Hey you guys, you should do this stuff. It might be fun for you." I did not invent the concept. I had been a participant in science fiction fandom since I was about 17. In fact, I'm still a participant today. I still publish a fanzine. I thought it would be interesting for Electronic Gaming fans to communicate with one another and exchange fanzines, and find like-minded people because it was something I enjoyed as an amateur publisher.

There was one funny thing about reviewing Electronic Gaming fanzines. I reviewed them in a couple places. I tried to be basically positive, but I felt it was important to point out at least one area where they needed improvement so it would not just be sunny sunny sunny, because I felt that would be a disservice to the readers who might be inclined to send money for a sample copy.

I didn't want to people to say, "He did not mention there are no margins" or "He didn't mention the guy can't spell", or "He didn't mention the artwork is atrocious". I tried to include one negative thing.

I used to get these insufferable letters from people who would say, "You don't understand how hard it is to make a fanzine!" Well first of all, it doesn't matter how hard you work, it matters what you produce.

Second of all, I had kind of taken a leave of absence from S.F. fandom. I was active from 1963 to 1976. In that time I did maybe 300 fanzines, including a couple that were pretty popular. They were making a big deal of something I could do in my sleep. It's work, but unless it is fun for you, you should not be doing it.

You did that in the second version of Electronic Games magazine, correct?

AK: Yes, we also had a column that ran in Video Games & Computer Entertainment.

For some reason, those two blur together for me.

AK: Well, for us, too. I had been a professional editor and writer for a decade before we did (the first) Electronic Games. I invented that concept (of Electronic Gaming fandom).

But you really were kind. You weren't trying to make a name by ripping people apart.

AK: I rated them by reasonable amateur standards. I never expected them to equal the standards of sci-fi fanzines because the people in sci-fi fandom were a little older and in many cases much more skilled. I did expect them to live up to a level of reasonable content and appearance and most of them did. Look at Joe Santulli. Look at Chris Kohler, who is writing for Wired right now.

So there were people from those fanzines that made it into bigger and better things?

AK: Absolutely! Fandom is its own justification. Whether it is SF fandom or gaming fandom, it's not meant to be a stepping stone to becoming a pro, but the fact is, in many cases, people do acquire the skill to become professional.

Do you think in modern era of the internet, with blogs and user generated content, that people now expect it to be some kind of stepping stone?

AK: Yes, the lines have been blurred. I do not say this to be discouraging, but I am saying it as somebody who recently folded a web site because I found no way of making money at it. The reality is, there is a delusive factor and it has always beset writers (at least for my entire career and well back beyond that) that people confuse the ability to type with the ability to write.

Artists are lucky. People inevitably find out if they can or can't draw. If you can't, you can't. People say to me things like, "I could have written that if I had had the time." That's like saying, "I could have done that brain surgery if I had all that training".

The fact is, I love the internet. I ran web sites starting in the early '90s. After leaving the electronic gaming world, I became the editor in chief and the chief editorial architect at a site named CollectingChannel.com that became the fourth largest site on the internet, when I was doing it.

I love the internet, I spend a lot time with my friends on the internet, but when it comes to writing, there are 100 times more people writing than there should be. When you look at the blogs they are mostly terrible, mostly a waste of time. It's a waste of time for the writer, a waste of time for the reader. Of course there are exceptions, but the average blog is read by seven people.

It is very difficult to gain an audience because there are so many voices.

AK: Yeah, there is a bad signal-to-noise ratio. There is a lot of noise and it makes it very difficult for people to find an audience. There have always been people who felt a yearning to become writers without the desire to submit their work to nay kind of critical scrutiny. They start their own little magazine, now they start a blog. Most of them are not very good. There is no question that the abundance of online material about video and computer gaming has largely destroyed the newsstand magazines.

With several magazines folding over the last year, what do you think of the industry now? I have not really followed print magazines since Next Generation folded a decade ago.

AK: There is a reason for that. They don't respect your intelligence. By the way, neither did Next Generation. They reviewed games they had never seen.

I liked Next Generation because they were the first guys to have a retro column.

AK: Yeah, they did that. They would also trumpet some game was rumored to be under development in Japan as the greatest game ever. Then, a month or two later, they would review it, based on screenshot or something, and it would be "almost" the greatest game ever. Then a few months later the American edition would come out and it would be crap. They were marks.

There was a time when there was such an infatuation with everything foreign, that just that fact made it interesting to people.

AK: Oh, totally true. I'm not saying it did not make sense, but we have to compete with that. Our policy was that we did not sing the praises of anything we had not played. It put us at a disadvantage.

Have you followed casual games in the past few years?

AK: To be honest, I put 20 years in playing games day and night, practically. They would not let me play any game for too long. If I liked a game, they shamed me into not playing. I did not play a game in 20 years when I was not thinking how to write it up, or edit it. You do that for a long time, and for me... it didn't exactly burn me out, but it did reduce my enthusiasm.

I was always into games, from the time I was a little child. By the time I was 12, I was designing board games, which I would play with my friend Lenny Bailes. By 15, I was working on Avalon Hill games.

Were you?

AK: Yeah. I was one of those kids who would write to Avalon Hill asking questions. They gave all the questions to a kid who worked at the office named Tom Shaw. Lo and behold, Tom became president of Avalon Hill!

He was still corresponding with me and he asked me if I wanted to work on some games. I worked on a version of Gettysburg. I advised them to not do it and they took my suggestion. They came up with a different version. I worked on Stalingrad, I worked on Blitzkrieg, and I worked on Sink The Bismark.

They turned those games into very basic computer games in the late '70s and '80s.

AK: I knew their electronic guys very well too. I want to make it clear, though, that I was not the designer of those games -- I was somewhere between a play tester and an assistant. I also did a little play testing with SPI.


Do you still play games, or did your time reviewing them turn you off to them?

AK: I do not hate games. I like a lot of other things now. The one game I play with some consistency is not very technologically advanced. It's called Diamond Mine Baseball.

Kind of like the old MicroLeague Baseball?

AK: It is. The graphics are not nearly as good, but the baseball model is 100 times better. That comes from someone who designed MicroLeague Baseball 2 and worked on MicroLeague Baseball 4. They made some terrible mistakes. They did not know how to complete a product.

What my brother and I would do with MicroLeague Baseball, was play a great team against a crappy team, and then recompile the games stats dozens of times until we had an amazing team from one game.

AK: I'll tell you a funny story. Bill and I were doing gaming seminars on QuantumLink, the predecessor to AOL, and then moved over to AOL when they launched it. With the cooperation of MicroLeague, we offered AOL a MicroLeague All-Star Game pre-play. MicroLeague sent us a disk with the All-Star game rosters computed.

We

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