Don Daglow, is veteran of companies as diverse as Mattel Electronics (where he worked on the Intellivision), Electronic Arts (where he worked as one of its first producers) and Broderbund (where he ran its entertainment software division).
Of course, most recently, he headed independent developer Stormfront Studios, which essentially ended its 20 year run last year
in less fortunate circumstances.
In a Gamasutra interview originally conducted around that time, and being published for the first time, Daglow reflects on his history in the industry, unearthing details about the 1983 industry crash, the unreleased Intellivision IV console, and more.
Later in the interview, he also offers insight into the current state of the industry, including casual and PC gaming:
Brandon Sheffield: First I would like, if you may, to describe in your own words, your storied history.
Don Daglow: (laughter) "Kid who got born at the right time." That's the one-sentence sum-up.
In the '70s, I was in that first group of college students who got access to the computer right when it got into schools. At that point, we had the chance to start writing games as students, back when we thought, "Nobody's ever going to pay us for this, because a computer fills an entire huge room."
I ended up being able to do that for nine years. And then again, lucky, just when Intellivision started, at Mattel, I was one of the original five programmers, and had a chance to enter the industry there.
Then, again, lucky, when the industry crashed in '83, getting recruited into Electronic Arts, back in the beginning, and being one of their early producers. And after I ran Broderbund's entertainment and education division in the late '80s, I started Stormfront 20 years ago. So I've been an indie developer for the last 20 years.
BS: We heard that you had something to do with the development of Shark! Shark! Is that the case?
DD: That is correct. Shark! Shark!
was programmed by a woman named Ji-Wen Tsao, and Ji-Wen doesn't get credit as being one of the first video game programmers. Unfortunately, I've lost touch with her over the years. I'm not sure where she's at. I've not heard from her. There's an Intellivision alumni group, and she has not called in.
BS: The Blue Sky Rangers?
DD: Right. But she, Minh Chau Tran... we had a number of women who were involved in the team as programmers, and because there were no traditions set up yet, the fact that we had a team that had a really diverse background... we didn't realize how lucky we were to have as diverse a team as we did at the time.
BS: What did you do with Shark! Shark!? I like that game, sorry.
Frank Cifaldi: We both do, actually.
DD: It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that I have seven aquariums in my house and one in my office. Just thinking about games that we could do... this was right on the border between the 4K and the 8K era of cartridges, where we could go to 8K. We were still trying to think of ideas where it wasn't the complexity of these huge 8K cartridges. That was what made the game. It was simple and fun, a lot like what people are thinking now with casual games.
So with Shark! Shark!
, I was simply looking at the fish, and when you have aquariums, one of the things you know with the kind of fish I've kept now for years and years is, if a fish is small enough to fit in another fish's mouth, it is likely to get eaten. So what you do is that you look at two fish and you picture, "Would it fit? Okay, they can probably go together!" or "No, they can't."
Out of that, it just got the idea of Shark! Shark!
and the idea of fitting the right sizes in and being able to control the difficulty there, and of course having the shark as the trump card that kept it from being an infinite ramp-up.
BS: It was really interesting to me, because it was one of the first games with a leveling-up mechanism. I don't know, you probably weren't actively thinking of it at the time -- maybe you were -- but it's an early example of leveling up as a character, as an entirely player-driven experience.
DD: Thank you very much! I really appreciate it. Let me tell you, after this many years, having people remember a game you did is a great feeling. It's a wonderful feeling.
I really was influenced by the coin-ops, but here, since we weren't trying to eat quarters, we didn't have to think about how you would try -- without being a coin-op, which I had never designed, but from my observation of people -- to kill off the player and get another quarter without actually being unfair, and in being unfair, making him angry. But you're still trying to get that next quarter.
The great thing we had in those early days with the simple consoles was we could do coin-op style games, but we already had the quarters. We didn't need to balance for that. We could balance for the actual experience of feeling good about owning the game, rather than having to think about the quarter mentality.
BS: What do you think about the casual industry right now? I know you're not actively doing things in it, but it does obviously feed a lot off of the earlier era of games.
DD: We're getting to scratch new itches again, because this new form of distribution is available. I think there is a lot of "me too"-ism. There are 1,724 variations on what I think of as Dr. Mario
. The three-in-a-row type games... to me, that's Dr. Mario
, along in about '91?
FC: Something like that. '90 or '91.
DD: I look at those games and that's what I see. On the other hand, look at flOw
. Really innovative, different game. Completely different relationship between player and game, where you just pick it up and explore and find things. I was delighted to see it win the award here.
BS: And it's a lot like Shark! Shark!
DD: Yeah, that's right! With the undersea thing. Let's see how I can attach myself to their glory. Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen and their team, I think, are really sharp, good people.
One of the other things I like about thatgamecompany is an awful lot of people who -- in any game era -- had a lot of success right out of college, lost perspective and began to think anything they touch was automatically good, or that they could mail it in, or "Aren't I great?" and ego got in the way of observation of game. All my perception is that their team instead has every intention of staying well-grounded and in the real world and continuing to build really interesting product. I really admire them for that sense of balance, because I watched a lot of basically good people self-destruct because they didn't understand what it means if you're successful the first time out.
That can be an exceptionally destructive thing to somebody's career. It's like being a baseball player, not really knowing a lot about how baseball really works, but stepping up and hitting a home run in your first time at bat. "That's pretty easy. I guess I'm pretty good at this! Yeah! I could keep doing this. Okay, where's the ten million?" And not understand there's other pitchers, other situations, and other swings. I think that their team... my guess is that their team is going to pass that test, where a lot of people in 30 years of games have only figured it out after it was too late.
FC: You have the rare experience of having worked in every era of games. Even people who were around way back when and are still here probably took a break at some point. You were around for the entire thing.
DD: I was so lucky, because in the crash of '83, our industry went from... I'm going to take a wild guess and say 12,000 jobs that were really directly in development in North America. It probably went from 12,000 to 400, I'm guessing, because you figure in 1984 we had about 40 to 50 people in EA. I think Broderbund was about 50 people, and Sierra Online may have had 75 jobs. Those were probably...
BS: You're talking in the U.S., specifically.
DD: This is in North America, yeah. And then you went from having these thousands and thousands of jobs to having these little pockets of 30, 40, or 50 people. Activision kind of dragged out longer, because they had their tax losses carry forward, so they actually funded the company for a couple of years. But as '84 went on, the jobs just dried up. Having worked straight through, I feel incredibly lucky.
FC: I've heard differing opinions on this. What do you think caused the crash?
DD: To spare you a one-hour lecture, there's a very important modern relationship, because now, people complain about how Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft control product on consoles, and how on PC, product is not controlled. Yet ironically, the marketplace that is having the most trouble right now is PC, and console is prospering. There are certainly economic benefits these guys get from that. They make a lot of money off of every disc.
But the fact that they cull and restrict how much product can come to market on their systems prevents what happens in '83, because in '83, everybody... the greed for money drew everybody and their uncle into the games business. My favorite example that I always tell about is that Quaker Oats opened a video game division, because they were diversifying. I remember sitting, incredulous, when I heard that. I think it was either winter or summer CES of '82. Or maybe it was the beginning of '83.
So all these guys were rushing out products for the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and ColecoVision, and suddenly, you just have this flooding of the market with this product. Of course, most of it was crap. There were a few gems in there, but most of it was crap. And the toy business operates on consignment. It was something we were acutely aware of, because we were constantly told, "Look, we have to figure out how many of these to make."
There was a lot of market research to figure out how many cartridges to make, because you waited five to six months after you finished a game for them to create draft versions of the ROMs. They'd have to take the source, send it to Asia where they make draft versions of the ROMs, and those would then be air shipped back and tested. If they were approved, then they would turn the air ship back to Asia where they would actually manufacture them like five and a half months later. A container would come in on a ship, and that would be your product. That was after you finished the game. So figuring out how many of those to make...
Because they told us over and over again for good reason, "Look, it's like Barbie. If the stores can't sell Springtime Tea Party Barbie, we have to take it back. If the stores can't sell Shark! Shark!
or Tron: Deadly Discs
, we have to take it back. So guys, that's why you have to be careful what you do, because we'll have to eat this." And so once you had this huge oversupply, retail was making so much money on video games that they took everything in, because, "Hey, if it doesn't sell, we'll just give it back."
And it came time to give it back to a lot of these little fly-by-night companies, and it was, "Give it back? No, you can't give it back. You're stores! You sell stuff! Consignment? Well... I know that's what it said, but video games sell. All video games sell! Oh. This one didn't? Oh. Just give you the money back? Well, there's a problem with that. We already spent it."
So what happened was all of these companies went bankrupt because they had all these returns, the second-run products were not ready to swap in, and even if they swapped in, they probably wouldn't have sold. They had already spent the money, so they couldn't refund it. Their business models didn't work. So they decay, at which point the retailer's just sitting there going, "God, we've got stuff we paid for that we can't give back." So of course it goes on the discount table. They found that the sweet spot price where they could really dump the stuff... they dumped some stuff at $15 or $10, but they found the sweet spot was $5.
So all the toy stores, you'd walk in and here's all this product that's $35, or $39.99 was the list, and $35 was probably street. Parents would walk in with their kids and go, "Little Bobby, do you want that $35 game up there on the wall, or would you like two of these pretty little boxes on the table?" And Little Bobby goes, "I can have two games?" And so the discount stuff was moving at five bucks a pop, but the $35 stuff was not going anywhere. It was like watching a big truck put on the brakes.
By the summer of '83, it was very clear that stuff was desperately wrong. Yes, there was E.T.
, and yes, there was the bad Pac-Man
that was rushed out, and there's no doubt that they helped take the bloom off the rose, but it was the oversupply that committed the murder, in my opinion.
And certainly that's the way we talked about it at the time, and those were just symptoms of other bad practices that they accelerated. We went from having media in '82 saying, "Video games are a new and exciting form of American entertainment!" and "Where will they go?"
We were working on secret next-gen hardware -- what was going to end up being called Intellivision IV -- that was an Amiga-like machine that I had a team secretly working on in '83, but the press and the retailers swarmed.
The mainstream press started writing articles saying, "Oh, the fad's over. It's like the hula-hoop. Video games came and went. What's the next big fad for kids?" And the retailers reached the same conclusion in the toy business -- fads really do come and go. So they reached the same conclusion and they just stopped ordering product.
BS: I have a lot of questions based on that.
DD: No worries. Whatever is interesting.
BS: Intellivision IV -- tell me more about it.
DD: Yeah, and the fact is now we can. The NDAs were long ago. It was an Amiga-like machine. I don't actually remember all the numbers on it and stuff, but it had multiple bit planes, so we could do a lot of things -- whereas an Intellivision was basically tile-based -- and our resolution was something like 96 scanlines high and 128 pixels wide. It was something like that. I'm not getting it exactly, but it's in the ballpark. It was, by today's standards, hopelessly blocky. Much higher resolution... dammit, I don't remember what it was. Did we have 64 colors? Twenty-eight colors? I don't remember how many colors we had.
FC: What kind of range for the resolution? Are we talking like...
DD: Basically, it was Amiga-like. I remember I had, like, Amiga serial number eight on my desk at EA. It literally had a wooden frame for the keyboard. Everything was just breadboarded inside, because it was such an early one, because Trip had made such a strong commitment to support the Amiga -- this was before the Commodore acquisition -- that we just got everything early and absolutely first, because Trip had gone so all-out.
There were these full-page magazine ads of Trip saying, "EA believes in the Amiga, and we're going to support this box very early on." So we got the first of everything. I remember playing with the machine and going, "My god, this is Intellivision IV." With some advances, but so much of it was heading where we were with Intellivision IV.
FC: So this was after the completion? After you left Intellivision, right?
DD: Yeah. The Amiga... when did we get our Amigas? I'd have to go back and look. That would have to be around '85, probably. Right at the very beginning, when EA first committed to it.
BS: Did Intellivision IV get to the prototype phase?
DD: Yeah, we had prototypes. I did a write-up where I think I proposed six initial games to be the launch titles. I was kind of surprised, because they took the exact list of six that I pitched. There's a certain logic to that, because you're trying to get a variety of games. Sports games were center for us, so there was a baseball game there. In fact, the baseball game that was there was a lot like what ended up being Earl Weaver Baseball
We absolutely had to have coin-op arcade-style games, so we had to have something like that in there. We had six games, and we'd probably gotten to where we were working on four of them by that point. By then, though, we'd already started to have layoffs, because of the slowdown. We went from having always like two or three open racks -- we never, ever filled every rack.
There was a guy we've always joked about who was fresh out of school named Eric Delcesta. Eric got hired in, I think, March of '83, and two weeks later, we lost all of our racks. There were no open racks -- "Just stand still where you are." About another week after that, we were told, "No, you have to go out and cut eight or twelve people." So everybody looked at Eric and said, "Eric, you are the luckiest man in the world, because you're the guy who got in." In fact, I don't think Eric actually had his college degree then. I think he was just a really bright programmer. So it really swung from, "Grow grow grow, build build build," to, "Hold still. No, cut cut cut!" very, very quickly.
BS: What did the hardware look like? Did it still have a disc on the controller?
DD: On Intellivision IV? In fact, did they ever actually get to where there was a physical prototype? We were using mockups of the capability, but I don't remember exactly how we were doing...
BS: If you designed the games, there must have been some interface idea at least, right?
DD: God, I haven't thought about this in so long. I have to dredge it out of my brain, because it got cut off. It was when we did the second wave of layoffs. The program was canceled, and that was the end of that.
Part of it was that I had been defending the disc for years, and iPod has now defended that for itself. But Mattel had... god knows the disc was not perfect, but it was a different sort of interface than what everyone else was doing. There was a feel you could get with the disc that you could not get with a joystick.
Mattel had a lot of internal politics in hardware, so there were rival groups pushing different things, and that's part of what happened to Intellivision IV when it was shut down -- a much lower-cost keyboard device was substituted, and to be blunt now, it was shoddy and cheap.
Everything about it was cost-reduced. It was their desperate attempt to get something that... the personal computer was becoming a big deal, and we were a video game, and we wanted to make ourselves look like a personal computer, so this is what it was. But instead of being the elegant system they had been trying to build since 1980, it was just thrown together.
And then after the layoff, all the people who were working on it who were on the separate rival team got signed over into my team, so I was thinking, "Oh god, I've got these demoralized people who have come off this other thing. It's a terrible piece of hardware. It isn't these peoples' fault. It was the political fighting that produced this cheap piece of hardware. It's not their fault. What do we do so that this team can feel good?"
So we had codenames for everything, because industrial espionage happens a lot in the toy business. So I gave it the codename "LUCKI" for, "Low User Cost Keyboard Interface." I was just trying to find something to be upbeat about in the middle, because every day you came to work, you got bad news, because the industry was just dying out there.
Of course, LUCKI was unlucky, because it wasn't a very good system, and even if it were a great system, it probably wouldn't have turned the tide anyway. It was too late. It was just a really depressing time for everybody.
BS: You mentioned about unrelated companies getting into the industry. In Japan, that's actually happening a lot on the DS market. Schools, book companies, and everybody and their mom was making a training game on the DS.
It's interesting to me to watch. Like you were saying, media companies were all like, "Games are the future. This is really amazing," way back in the early '80s, and if you look at those broadcasts, they were actually kind of taking games seriously then, and after the crash, it seems like we still haven't gotten back to that point.
DD: It's interesting. I think somewhere around PS2 time was where the emotion tendered to me started to feel about the same. Certainly, Nintendo... Arakawa-san and Howard Lincoln had such courage to bring back a system, because retailers said, "You guys are out of your minds."
And when I signed the letter of credit for the first million-dollar order of cartridges from Japan for Broderbund for the NES, I just thought... I went to the Carlston brothers, who owned the company, and I said, "Guys..."
This wasn't an issue they had been involved with. I said, "Good product. Nintendo seems to be working. I just have to tell you, as I sign this letter of credit, I just have a lot of memories of a lot of cartridge product coming back, so I just want to make sure you two understand the non-negotiable nature of this."
And I tried to say it in a way that didn't sound condescending or know-it-all, because these were my bosses and they had founded the company, but they had never done cartridges, and I had been through both the glory and the hell of cartridges. I just said, "As long as you're cool with that, and this is money you can afford to lose if Nintendo loses momentum and dies..." which they obviously did not.
They did have a tough transition to the next-gen back then, and a lot of software companies did lose a lot of money just at the end of the year. They said, "No, we know what we're getting into." But signing that letter of credit, I just thought I'm covered because I discussed it with them, but I didn't discuss it with them to cover myself.
I discussed it with them because I just had... you know, certain times you have experiences, and memories just come rushing up at you. If you did lighter fluid and match in the wrong order ever, in starting a barbecue, and had no hair on your arms, you would remember that burn the next time you walk up to a barbecue and you have lighter fluid in one hand and a match in the other. You're going, "Oh dude, I don't want to do that again!" That's what it felt like.
FC: Something you just said brings to mind a question I've had for a while now here... are there ever contemporary moments or trends that bring back the memories of that impending doom?
DD: I think in between every hardware cycle there is a miniature imitation of that, but it's unlike '84, at which point people thought, "This is done and it's done forever," or "It's done for a long time." Now, it's understood that it's like fasting for Lent. You know there will be some point in the future which you'll go back to eating. That's more of a ritual, I think, than anything else or that sense of doom.
One thing that's happened now is that... PC games, I don't think they're going through a totally destructive crash, but if you look at PC games where there is no regulating force -- you want to publish it, you can -- what are all the things that are taking eyes away from traditional boxed retail PC games? Downloadable games.
There's a bunch of stuff that never goes through retail. Different kinds of games that are typically being sold in boxes. Consoles. Game genres that used to only be on PCs, like shooters, have now successfully made the jump. Will RTS ever fully make the jump? There's a net takeaway.
World of Warcraft
is taking so many hours of play and so many eyeballs and so many passionate players out. There's another subtraction. It's not that the PC market in total is in bad shape. In fact, NPD is starting to count downloads and subscriptions and so on. I think they'll show overall that the market is growing healthy.
But the boxed goods, core strategy, classic PC player market, which used to have continents of categories of types of games, has shrunken to where it's now islands of games that now work. Perhaps if a genre would support three to five really good titles before, maybe now it's supporting one or two.
It's not the same thing in an exact parallel, but that idea of "the waters keep rising..." I think there are some parallels there. But it actually is because so many other opportunities are coming up on PC, and PC players are getting so many kinds of choices, it is an abundance of good stuff, rather than drowning in bad stuff that is leading to the problem.
BS: It's an odd kind of situation to be in. I mean, it seems like the PC market is that it's just really rapidly changing, and it's changing before the console market is. I'm wondering, do you think that the console market is also going to go that kind of direction?
DD: My personal belief is that downloadable and social gaming is only going to grow on console. I think Sony and Microsoft have really started to get it right. I think Nintendo recognizes where this is all going. I think in that respect, the growth of social and downloadable gaming on console is absolutely, positively going to grow.
Against that context, I think that a lot of console-style gaming is still going to be the kind of thing where the on-the-box experience in the room... we're only starting to see the ways in which that can run.
If you look at Guitar Hero
and Rock Band
, they broke every rule in the book, and one of the things that I admire about the team at Harmonix is that they had done music games and audio games before, and they lived to tell the tale, but they didn't have hits or whatever, but that's what they're passionate about.
The classic book in gaming was, "You can't have expensive peripherals with a game. It won't work." You could have the best idea. It's like a guy chewing on a cigar. "Yeah, you can have the second coming, kid, I don't care. You're not going to get that kind of peripheral. Nobody's going to buy it." That was the accepted wisdom. Off-size packaging? "Think of the shelf space. You're taking up four of my slots. Why the frig you think I'm going to give you four slots?" Another rule they broke.
And look at what happened with Guitar Hero
. They broke all the rules and it all worked, because those guys were passionate and stuck with what they did and somebody took a chance with them to make it work.
So I think that suggests that some of the old rules and "thou shalt nots" are maybe really "thou shalt rarely." Music has been a great example of it. I think SingStar
... there's the tradition of things like DDR
. I think there's going to be more. If I knew what they were going to be, I would go get them right now.
BS: I was going to say, have you been thinking about what the other areas are in which this thing could happen? You probably don't want to give out the secret sauce if you've thought of it.
DD: Yes, it's the vacuum cleaner edition. It's going to go far!
I think everyone in the industry, after looking at what Rock Band
and Guitar Hero
have done, is trying to think more expansively about that. The rules still apply, in the sense that it's common sense that retailers are not happy about having four slots taken by one SKU. Even a higher-priced SKU, because they don't make enough margin in that higher-priced SKU, typically, to make up losing those four slots.
That's four different chances to make a sale. However, when it sells the way those products have, they're willing to make an exception. I think it's opened a lot of peoples' eyes.
It's still a very tough sell, to do something that's non-standard, but I think you will see other things break through. But I think you'll see retailers and publishers being very selective about how they bend the rules, having broken them.
The thing is, a peripheral will not make a bad game better, and oversized packaging will not make a bad game sell. People have tried that. That gets tried every three to five years in the gaming industry, going back to the baggie era. The first experiment was a good success. Wizardry
got a box, and they had foil on their box, in about '79, I think, when everyone was hanging baggies off of a peg board wall.
I remember walking into the software store being like, "It's a box! Dude! Look, it's a box!" And you pick it up, and you're like, "It looks like something real!" So that's an example of something that worked, but then you had oversized boxes, six floppy disk product for a hundred bucks. Sierra tried that, and the ultra-hardcore bought it, but that died and fell off the edge of the table.
BS: What kind of companies do you think are in the best position to do that kind of stuff right now? Not only to identify, but also to capitalize on those trends. Big ones, or smaller ones?
DD: I actually think that hardware manufacturers have a huge advantage in that space. I think the Sonys and the Microsofts and the Nintendos, simply because they control the channel, operating systems, engineering, and so on... I think that's what makes Guitar Hero
and the doors it's opened all the more remarkable, in that it did not come from a manufacturer.
BS: I wanted to ask about the 2008 Emmy award you got for [original AOL online game] Neverwinter Nights. I need to turn it into a question somehow. Obviously, it was probably pretty nice, but...
FC: Did you enjoy it? (laughter)
BS: Did you like it?
BS: Did you expect this was coming?
DD: God, no. I thought it was a joke when I first got the call. I thought it was a friend pulling my leg or something, because the National Television Academy... I had forgotten about the fact that id Software got honored last year at the Emmys. I remember reading that, and later it came back to me, and I said, "Oh god, this could be for real, because Carmack... oh yeah, last year they did do something."
That's kind of the moment where I thought. I Googled it and I thought, "Well, I guess this could be for real." And it's not like I was offensive to the people when they called, but I was just thinking, "Emmy? Video game? That doesn't sound right." And then you think back to how primitive the games were.
But it was actually kind of cool, because I think that a lot of times, thinking about winning awards is destructive to trying to do a good job on a game, because any focus that is anything other than gameplay and the game player I think in the end is a distraction, as can easily happen with, as we were saying, the people at thatgamecompany.
Any distraction that is about pride or ego or, "I'm going to show them how brilliant I am!" That's somebody focusing on themselves and how they want to feel and how they want others to look at them. That's not them focusing on the craft.
When you're focusing on the craft, you're like, "Okay, what's this going to feel like? I'll just have to try it and I'll see. Might would, might not. Is this mechanic going to be fun for five minutes or five hours?" That's focusing on the craft.
When awards inspire people like, "You know what? If I do a good job on this, it might stand out. We're taking chances on this. It's different. Maybe we'll win an award for this down the road. Maybe people will recognize it." I think that's positive. That's why serving on the board of the Interactive Academy, where we supervise the awards for video games, we try and take that very, very seriously, but I think in general, it's more often a distraction than not.
And not knowing about it until it happened and already having won when we found out was kind of cool, because it was something that you never... when I had that moment of realization, "Oh crap, I know how to do this. We can get graphics. We can take the idea of a MUD and put graphics in, and we can take the idea of a standalone RPG and make it a persistent-world online game. I know how to do this now. Crap, we can do this." It wasn't huge money back in those days, but it was something of a holy grail that nobody had ever done, and I had that moment of realization on how to do this.
Just like with World Series Baseball
and camera angles. "Oh crap, I know how to do that. I just watch it on TV." Because you had a chance to code some stuff, and once