Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Steve Englehart, co-designer of 8-bit Atari titles Final Legacy
and E.T. Phone Home
and writer of 2003 PC and Xbox title Tron 2.0
Englehart’s career began as a comic book writer. His first work was as an art assistant to Neal Adams on issue 10 of Vampirella
in 1970, though he was soon drawn to working as a writer, and worked on popular and critically acclaimed runs of Incredible Hulk, Captain America
for Marvel, where he was known to fans as “Stainless” Steve.
A dispute with then editor-in-chief Gerry Conway over being forced to split Avengers
150 into two issues – and the fact that Conway added a number of pages of his own scripting to the latter - precipitated a move to rival publisher DC.
Over the course of the next year or so, he worked on Justice League of America
and a celebrated eight issue run of Batman
stories in Detective Comics
before finally leaving the industry altogether, with, he says, the intention that he “wouldn't be coming back”.
The Lure Of The Computer
His first novel, The Point Man
, was printed by Dell Publishing in 1981, and Englehart was immediately asked to write a second, which he planned would focus on “the then-new and exotic place called the Silicon Valley”.
“That came to me because that was when I got into games, as a player,” he says. The area also happened to be just down the road Englehart’s home in Oakland, so Englehart called on a friend of his, Ted Richards, who had worked in underground comics like Dopin’ Dan
while Englehart was at Marvel.
“Ted was working at Atari, and he was the only guy I knew in that field,” Englehart explains. “I asked him some questions about how the industry worked, and he said, ‘I don't know the answer to any of that stuff, but come work for us’. I protested that I had a contract to write a novel. He said: ‘But we'll give you a computer’.”
“So I returned my advance to Dell,” Englehart laughs, “in exchange for an Atari 800.”
The lure of the computer wasn’t the only factor, of course – Englehart explains that the possibility of a career in the industry proved too compelling and tantalizing an option to turn down. “I was fascinated by the computer and game industry, which was, again, just blowing up,” he comments. “I decided that there were lots of things I could do with my skills; that novels would still be there, etc.”
“The point, I guess, is that having an impressive background and unimpressive computer skills was the norm for those days,” he muses, “as we all helped shaped what the industry became. There were certainly people with great computer skills, but when the industry took off, the norm was more like me.”
Despite the change in industries, he comments that initially he felt “the only real difference was commuting to and from Milpitas every day and working in an office”.
“As a comics writer/novelist I had worked at home, by myself,” he says. “But a guy named Gary Fox also worked at Atari, in another division, and we shared the commute - he had an Alfa Romeo Spider convertible. And the guys in the office were a fun group. So the office life was different for me, though commonplace to most of the world.
His first project as a designer for Atari was E.T. Phone Home
, for Atari 400 and 800 computers – a product designed to cash in on the movie, just like Howard Scott Warshaw's Atari 2600 adaptation, which was developed simultaneously. “We were all aware of those problems,” he says of the 2600 version’s rushed and tumultuous development, “though I didn't connect them to any one guy.”
“For better or for worse,” he continues, “we were confident we could make our version work.”
Fortunately for Englehart, Phone Home
’s development was a little more focused and allowed for a little more time, even if this did provide the company’s management with enough time to revise part of the design, cutting down the end product to only a quarter of its intended size. This left the game slightly uneven upon its release in late 1982, though hardly to the drastic point that the 2600 game was. Still, it was at this moment, Englehart comments, that he decided never to assume that everything he wanted would make its way into a game.
Aside from that, he wasn’t finding the job difficult, noting that its similarities to working with comics were more obvious than one might assume. “As a comics writer, I always worked with an artist - now I was working with a programmer,” he explains. “Or ten.” In both cases, the idea is to pull something cool out of the air and then make it clear to the other guy what the idea was, so he could render it. Different medium but same skill, really. It is true that there were things I asked for that couldn't be done - at all, or in time - so I had to learn what was possible with 64K of RAM, but I was always encouraged to push the edge.”
Camelot By Way Of Coyote
It was this edge that he had in mind when he was offered a chance to work with Marvel again, on a creator-owned comic through the publisher’s Epic imprint – something that was certainly “cutting edge for the time”, especially from such a major force in the industry. Englehart jumped at the chance, and worked on Coyote
- a character he had created some years earlier for the independent Eclipse Comics – for the whole time he was employed by Atari.
This lead to one interesting encounter, when he was asked to work on a video game adaptation of Camelot 3000
, a limited series written by Mike W. Barr and penciled by Brian Bolland and published by the Warner owned DC Comics – coincidentally, the same company that owned Atari at the time. “I had one foot in comics once again, doing Coyote
, but I had the other foot, on a daily basis, in computers,” Englehart says. “When Mike came to see about turning his comic, Camelot 3000
, into a game, he had both of his feet in the arena I'd partially left, and I just felt like I was no longer a comics guy with him, while I was ‘the comics guy’ to my fellow Atari-ites.”
It wasn’t, he adds, a “big thing”, pointing out that since then it has happened a number of other times. “I've gone on to do television and animation; I have feet in about six worlds now, and they're always overlapping,” he notes.
By this time though, in 1983, the company wasn’t going quite as well as it had been when Englehart joined months earlier. He was still in a job – designing titles like Garfield
and the coin-op Spook
- but the company was looking increasingly financially unstable.
“When I joined Atari in the summer of ‘82, it was the biggest thing going,” Englehart recalls. “But by Christmas of 82, they'd started to lose massive amounts of money, and each quarter thereafter was the same story. So by the time Garfield
were in play, we all knew Atari had no actual strategic vision beyond ‘We are Atari, you other companies really should bow down before us’, and that vision was not working out. Thus, anything we did was subject to the wildest of corporate mood swings, and that was understood. We just developed the best stuff we could and hoped some of it would make it to the shelf.”
“I had faced similar situations before,” he says, alluding to his previous editorial clashes with Marvel, “so I could ride with that, but as project after project was undone, it did get old.”
Atari's Final Legacy
Englehart was asked to join the Advanced Games Group, a division headed by Chris Horseman designed to rejuvenate the company which he says was “filled with a nice range of people with computer skills and people with creative skills”. The group worked on the 8-bit computer title Final Legacy
, as well as a text adventure called Hobgoblin
which featured an amazingly advanced artificial intelligence.
“I was always thinking beyond the computer's capabilities, and I was playing all the Infocom games, so I personally wanted something with more AI,” Englehart explains. “Infocom games were great, in case anybody doesn't know that, but they had limits like everything else. I got to talking with my boss, Chris Horseman, about pushing the limits. Hoppy the Hobgoblin had far more AI than anything else at the time, with lots of things to say, all as responsive and aware of what the player entered as I could make it. Basically, I let my character skills have free rein, to make him a ‘living, breathing’ companion on the game trek, when such a thing did not exist.”
As the development of Garfield
and the other titles went on, things only got worse. The financial problems continued, and Warner – not just Atari – began losing money at an incredible rate. As late 1983 turned into early 1984, company after company declared bankruptcy, the bottom fell out of the U.S. market and the public began to believe that the video game fad was well and truly over.
“Well, a crash is a crash,” Englehart muses, “but the Atari crash was huge because Atari had been the only major player at the beginning. Still, everybody knew it was the result of bad management, unable to adapt to new realities - not the result of the Advanced Games Group. We still felt we were good, that what was leaving our area was good, so we figured that if Atari was going to come back, it was going to be because of guys like us. So we didn't worry too much about job security.”
The home computing section of the company was sold by Warner to Jack Tramiel for stock and a 32% interest. Immediately, Tramiel put all projects on hold, pending evaluation - Garfield
was scrapped just before its release, Spook
was redeveloped as a console game, and Final Legacy
was released in a heavily cut form. Hobgoblin
was, to Englehart and Horseman’s dismay, canceled completely. This left only the question of their job security.
“He fired us all,” Englehart smiles wryly.
Saving Hallows' Eve
Horseman and Englehart weren’t ready to let the Hobgoblin
project die that easily, though, and decided to set up their own company called MagicLogic to further the idea. Horseman returned to his home of England, while Englehart remained in California, working on the game and returning to comics in no small way, with runs on Green Lantern
for DC and West Coast Avengers
and Fantastic Four
MagicLogic entered into a deal with Warner, Philips and Sony to develop All Hallows’ Eve
for the CD-ROM format that the latter two companies were working on. “Chris and I were both going for the best game we could conceive of, and I certainly thought CD-ROM would allow it,” Englehart says.
However, the plan hit one important roadblock: Englehart and Horseman simply could not conceive of a way to develop All Hallows’ Eve
without a save function, and the CD-ROM format didn’t seem to allow for one. “I never talked with the tech people. That was Chris's end; so I don't know what was discussed,” Englehart says. “I do know that when we first understood that we'd need a saved game function, the people at Sony and Philips said they were too far down the design track to add one. That's how cutting edge it all was. And it put a severe crimp in our plans.”
From Epyx To Activision
The game fell through, and Englehart moved on to Summer Games
developer Epyx, where he worked on Tale of Totem
, a title that touched on “the world of Amerindian totems”, which he had already focused on in some depth with Coyote
. Englehart notes that he “really enjoyed the producer and the concept”, but Epyx was struggling with losses occurred from producing its Handy handheld unit, and filed for bankruptcy – though not before selling the unit to Atari, where it became the Lynx. Englehart, once again, was left with a half finished game that would never see release, and moved onto Activision, a company that described itself at the time as “poised for success”.
“Activision then was perpetually ‘poised for success’, like the current war in Iraq,” Englehart says. “At least four times during my time there, management announced that some new thing made us ‘poised’, but we never actually got to the ‘success’, so it became a running joke.”
Englehart’s responsibilities for the company included not only design – on titles like the 1990 NES game Rad Gravity
- but also documentation management, writing manuals for games like Ghostbusters, Thunderbirds
, Cyan’s The Manhole
and Shanghai II
. It was something he had touched on while at Atari, where he actually won an award for his work on the manual for Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front
“I would say I enjoyed game design more than documentation management - because there's not enough creativity in the latter - but my creativity rests on writing and editorial proficiency so it was no problem doing both,” Englehart comments. “And however much creativity is allowed in manual development, a good manual is often essential to game enjoyment, so there's game satisfaction in shaping it.”
And Then On To EA
Englehart also began working on a new CD-ROM title, named Parallel Worlds
, a multipath cyberpunk adventure. “It was another big game, like Hobgoblin
,” he explains. “By this time CD-ROM was established - with a save function - so we were going all out. Both of those games were sprawling canvases, but Hobgoblin
was you and your goblin in a vast world, while Parallel Worlds
was you in a series of worlds. There were ‘standard’ AI characters in both but the emphasis was different: cool goblin on one, cool structure in the other.”
The team was about a third of the way through development, when Activision filed for bankruptcy and began laying off workers – Englehart included. “Some time after my time, they closed up and moved to LA, where they finally got [the business] going, but [the promised success] was elusive then,” he says. “Still, like almost all the places I've worked, I liked the actual people doing the actual work. And by that time, Activision had acquired Infocom, which was cool.”
Straight away, Englehart moved on to Electronic Arts, where he worked on the story for the forth game in the company’s successful Bard’s Tale
series. He notes that he was brought on only as “part of the larger project”, and didn’t really have a “handle on the project end of things at the time”.
“I just assumed that that was all on track, so it was a surprise when I found out they weren't ever going to finish it,” he recalls. “And that's about all I know - i.e., nothing - about management's mindset.”
Back To Comics, By Way Of Sega
The game never materialized in any form, and Englehart left the company, though was fortunate enough to be asked by another former co-worker to join his team at Sega, where they were working on Spider-Man Vs. Kingpin
for Sega Genesis. “The company was small then, in its Bay Area incarnation,” he notes.
Englehart was asked to write up a comic book to accompany the title; it was something he has done before – most notably with Rad Gravity
- though it would be the first time he would have the chance to write a Spider-Man
comic in full. “I had never done a Spidey
book,” he comments, “in fact, I'd turned down my chance at one because it would have been one of three [books on the market at the time] - but I'd written the character here and there. And really, if you're a Marvel writer, you've got to know Peter Parker.”
Englehart began working on design with the company too, though the experience was to prove a sour one. “Another producer told me he was going to make me his right-hand man, and asked me to come up with the design for a game we were going to do,” he explains. “I busted my ass on that, met with him and gave him my design. He said, ‘Thanks. Now I'm letting you go and sending this off to a house in Texas’. I was stunned, and then he continued, ‘Hey, it's just business. They're cheaper than you. But I guarantee you, some day you'll do the same thing’.”
“I can guarantee you,” he seethes, “I would never
do a thing like that, and the complete amorality of it has stayed with me ever since.”
Entering The Ultraverse
Soon after, Englehart started work with educational software firm Brøderbund, who, after the success of their Carmen Sandiego
series for children, wanted to repeat the feat with a series of Mark Twain related games for high school age students. “I think we all realize now that high school kids aren't so interested in educational games, but at the time it made sense. As I worked on it, though, I found that no high school kids I knew were interested, so I kind of got the idea that it wouldn't go anywhere,” he recalls.
Englehart moved further back into comics again. Having stopped his work with Marvel a few years prior after another editorial disagreement – this time with Tom DeFalco, an event that saw Englehart writing his last few issues of Fantastic Four
under the pseudonym John Harkness – he started work with Malibu Comics. The company had formed in the mid ‘80s, and had some limited success, but decided to expand when the market boomed in the early ‘90s. Englehart was brought on to supervise this expansion into a new “universe” of tightly interwoven characters called the Ultraverse
, which launched in 1992.
“I loved the Ultraverse
,” he says. “Malibu was a great company to work for, so I was not only moving back into comics then, I was moving into the penthouse suite.”
Most interesting was the fact that the company viewed the expansion as a way to get its characters into other mediums from the very beginning. “Because so much of my time has been spent on the cutting edge of whatever field, just because that's where I like to work, that I'm usually ahead of the company involved,” Englehart explains. “In this case, they were ahead of me, which was great. As one example, they were thinking about TV and animation, and that was my intro to those fields.”
A game was also planned – once again for CD-ROM, and once again with Sony. And, once again, the plug was pulled before it could be finished. However, the Ultraverse
proved successful for some time – until Malibu was bought out by Marvel, in any case - and TV and animation proved fruitful fields for Englehart. As well as a number of comic book related series, he also worked on the American Street Fighter
cartoon, an experience that he found entirely enjoyable.
“I hate to keep answering your ‘what was it like’ questions with ‘it was great’,” he laughs, “but the fact of the matter is, I usually do my work sitting by myself in a room, so if I have control over how to be entertaining, I'll make sure ‘it was great’. I got to do characterization, which I really enjoy, in the midst of the combat, so I was happy.”
Around that time, he also worked with a small developer by the name of Yes! on a project called A Fistful of Aliens
. The game – a rock, paper, scissors type affair – was aimed mostly at children, though the release didn’t make it to many possible consumers.
“Every now and then I get an email from someone who wants more info about the game,” Englehart says. “But that was a seriously shady company which went out of business about five minutes after the release, and just barely cut me a check before that.”
Englehart went on to write part of the story for another somewhat shady company, Brilliant Digital Entertainment, before getting involved with Monolith on Tron 2.0
just after the turn of the decade. The company had already set a story for the game and submitted it to Disney – most importantly, to producer Cliff Kamida – only to have it rejected. Englehart was brought in to fix the problem, and notes that while he was warned about “toe-stepping”, he “trod carefully” and it “really wasn't too tough”.
“The Monolith guys were great,” he enthuses. “If we'd been completely upfront with them from the start, I doubt it'd have made any difference.”
The game didn’t perform particularly well on its release for PC and Xbox in 2003 however, a fact that Englehart regards as a pity. “The final result really was the second movie, conceptually, so it's too bad that it didn't do better in the marketplace.”
Prior to that however, in 2002, Englehart worked alongside the latest incarnation of Atari on a project called The Tribes
, which would have seen Atari’s game populated with a close-knit group of characters – similar to the idea used for the Utraverse
. Englehart had developed the entire world – all of the characters and their interpersonal relationships – only to find that the company decided not to follow through with the actual games.
“It would have been amazing,” he says, somewhat mournfully. “There's never been anything like it, and I really can't understand why the new Atari didn't follow through; it would have been the biggest thing in company branding ever. But as always, I sit in my room and make things entertaining, and then management sits in its room and does whatever they do...”
These days, Englehart is working on a Batman: Dark Detective
project with DC, which sprang forth from an idea he had been working on for a novel. Still, he says, the game industry still holds a great deal of promise for him. “I'm always open to game design, especially now that games are what I'd was dreaming they'd be, with wide scope and characters that can be fully fleshed out.”
“I do whatever seems most interesting at the time,” he grins.