Today's 'Playing Catch-Up', a regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to Howard Scott Warshaw, one of Atari’s golden age game designers, and likely the only one to have each of his games sell over one million copies.
Warshaw's first game, Yars’ Revenge
, is something of a cult classic action game among enthusiasts of the classics. He also designed Raiders of the Lost Ark
and the infamous E.T.
, both with some input from Steven Spielberg. The former can be considered among the early predecessors to the modern adventure game, the second was once described by New Media Magazine as being responsible for the videogame crash of the mid-80s.
But Warshaw left Atari in 1984, and didn’t re-emerge into the videogame industry until 1999, when he worked at 3DO for four years in tech lead, director, and engineering manager roles on Battle Tanks: Global Assault
, War Jets
, and Jacked
, a motorcycle racing and combat game that Warshaw says was about a month from release when 3DO imploded. “What a farce,” he commented. “There was a big mess, there. Everyone got screwed. Instead of giving us a paycheck, they just shut the doors, and everyone who was owed didn’t receive a penny.”
Focusing on his work in the games industry would be doing Warshaw – who has been credited as a photographer, a programmer, a system designer, a writer, a real estate broker, a consultant, a film director, a robotics engineer, and a public speaker – a great disservice. “To me growth is all about expanding what you’re capable of,” Warshaw told us. “To me, it’s uncomfortable to be stuck in just one perspective. When I’ve had my fill of one perspective, I move on.” Warshaw relates this philosophy to all aspects of his life, including programming.
“Most people think that math and engineers were the most common source of programmers, before there were actually programming classes,” he said, “but this isn’t true. Far and away, the most common background was linguistics. That’s why they call it a programming language
. The idea of programming a computer is a communications exercise. The computer is like this stupid robot that has a limited vocabulary, but it interprets its own language right 100% of the time. What you need is someone who is eloquent in that computer language.”
“Another way of looking at it is that a computer is like a foreign country,” he continued, “and a programmer is like an ambassador. You go to that country to work out a deal, lay out the things you want things you trade. The more eloquent negotiator you send, the better deal you can negotiate. That’s the way I look at programming.”
Warshaw has published two books. The first, The Complete Book of Pan: The Card Game You'll Love for the Rest of Your Life
, is fairly self-explanatory as a book about Pan. Warshaw says that book was merely a warm-up for what he really wanted to write, which was his second book, Conquering College
, which is a guide book describing how Warshaw, who holds four degrees, was able to maintain a high grade-point average while still finding time to enjoy “the college life.”
Warshaw’s first directing role was on a documentary called From There to Here
, in which he separately interviewed both his grandmother and his cousin, who came to the United States in the 1920s and the 1980s, respectively. His second was a series called Once Upon Atari
), an attempt to document what Warshaw may consider the high point in his career.
“The thing that happened at Atari was a real head trip for everyone there,” he said. “It was the most unbelievable experience. Part of the reason I waited a long time to do it was to get my head around it, and to get the statute of limitations expired, for legal reasons. There were these dinky, unwashed programmers putting products out on their own in 6-7 months worth $10 million dollars. We were by ourselves, and security actually had orders to keep the police away from us. We knew that pretty much anything goes, as long as the games come out and nobody dies. And we took advantage of it.”
Warshaw is currently working on post-production for his next film, Vice and Consent
, which focuses on the BDSM sexual subculture. “This piece is going to be amazing
,” he said. “The things that I’ve heard people say…it’s going to totally blow a lot of people’s expectations of what [the BDSM culture] is all about.” But directing is nowhere near the final frontier for Warshaw, who plans to continue expanding his perspectives in any way he can. “In the final root of it all,” he said, “I’m just trying not to be bored.”
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]