David Crane

By Tim Duarte
(1992, 2004)

Most video game fans are familiar with the name David Crane; he is a very popular video game designer.  Today, David is a senior designer for Absolute Entertainment.  He is a fascinating individual, and quite possibly the most successful game designer of all time.

 

Q: Let's talk about your newest game, Amazing Tennis, for the Super Nintendo.

David Crane: The Super NES provides hardware capabilities that no other video game system has ever had.  This is a real perspective tennis game, with pseudo-perspective displays. There have been many tennis games over the years, and most of them are glorified versions of Pong.  The games are masked with enhanced graphics and sound effects.  Amazing Tennis has a 3-D display, with a camera perspective right behind the player.  You feel like you are on the screen.  I've been a tournament tennis player for years, and that really helped with the perspective.

Q: How long have you been working on Amazing Tennis?

David Crane: I've been working on it since September 1991 and I'm bringing it all together now. It will be available in October 1992.

Q: What do you think of the Super NES?

David Crane: Every few years, the technology improves.  All the companies release bigger and better systems.  The Super Nintendo has some wonderful hardware - a 3-D rotation scaling display device - that allows enhanced graphics.

Q: What do you think of the potential of CD-ROM games?

David Crane: CD-ROMs are an evolution, not a revolution.  There's nothing new about it.  When I began designing games on the Atari 2600, the biggest configuration for a game was 2K (2,048 bytes).  Amazing Tennis is one million bytes - occupying as much space allowed on a cartridge ROM.  The games of today are bigger and better, but a good game is a good game despite great graphics.  CD-ROMs can store 5 or 600 million bytes of data, but if there's only one megabyte (one million bytes) of RAM in the video game system, there's a constraint as far as the game ROM is considered.  CDs can store massive amounts of data.  We all know the high-quality that CDs handle audio information.  It can also store picture images.

In terms of game development, just because the potential for large data storage on CDs is available, this doesn't mean that games will be 500 times bigger than they are now.  There's an advantage because now there will be more images and sound effects, which will be great for adventure-type games.  But, the bigger the game is, the harder it will be to build.

Q: How do you compare the design of a video game - then and now?

David Crane: Back with the 2600, the business was made up of a handful of people.  Game design and programming were two separate tasks - many people don't realize this.  On a light schedule, it took me three to four months to complete a game back then.  Today, it's a group effort - the work of others is compiled.  With today's demands for games, you have video transfers, studio musicians to play the game soundtrack, and so on...

Q: I must commend you with your past work. The games you created for the Atari 2600 were mind-blowing back in the early 1980s.  The Activision games were fantastic.  What was the "magic" in these games?

David Crane: Activision had the top few game designers in the industry - Al Miller, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan, and myself.  We worked in a single room together, in a closed laboratory environment.  We had the knowledge and technical expertise to create a good display on the 2600.  Our talents were not all the same, so we played off of each other's ideas and capabilities.  A game wasn't complete until it was good enough for everyone.

The Atari 2600 was designed to output two moving tanks and two bullets, which were dots.  It was meant to play Tank and Pong, and that's all.  I remember one day when the designer of the 2600 display chip was standing behind me as I was programming.  He never envisioned all of the things we were doing.  When I programmed Dragster, the moving object across the screen - the dragster - was 32 times larger than a tank.  It moved across the screen with the same detail of resolution.

Having an artistic eye helped, too.  We tried some things with colors.  The games had bordering colors with shading - something that hadn't been done.

Q: They made the other Atari 2600 games on the market look inferior...

David Crane: At the CES shows, people would stop by the Activision booth and ask, "Why do your games look better?"  This happened at the Winter 1992 CES show in Las Vegas.  Some of Nintendo's technical staff members stopped by the Absolute booth and asked the same question.  As they previewed Amazing Tennis, they asked, "How can you do this?  You're mastering the Super NES already, almost right out of the gate."  We have this 'Activision capability' at Absolute.


Customized video Slot Machine award (created by Scott Stilphen) given to David Crane at the 2002 Classic Gaming Expo

Q: How did you get involved with Atari?

David Crane: I was playing tennis with Alan Miller, who designed games for Atari at the time.  He lived in the same apartment complex as I did in Sunnyvale, CA.  I was designing chips for National Semiconductor at the time.  Al asked me if I wanted to see the ad that Atari was placing in the newspaper.  They were looking for game designers, so I talked to Atari the next day, and then I was in.

Q: What games did you design there?

David Crane: The first game was Outlaw.  Then, I designed Slot Machine.  I also did Canyon Bomber, too.  There was another popular coin-op game at the time called Depthcharge (Ed: The Sea Bomber variations use the same dotted line for setting the depth the charges explode at that Atari's Destroyer uses, but have planes dropping them instead of a ship.  Depthcharge is more similar to Sega's Sub-Scan).  I put both Canyon Bomber and Depthcharge into the 2600 version of Canyon Bomber - $4,000 worth of hardware (two coin-op machines) into one $30 game for the 2600.


Atari VCS Canyon Bomber (left) and Sea Bomber variation (right).


Atari arcade Canyon Bomber (left) and Atari arcade Destroyer (right)

I was also on the design team for the Atari 800 computer.  That was a lot of fun.

Q: What was it that inspired you to leave?

David Crane: There were a lot of reasons - lack of designer recognition, for one thing.  Atari looked at game designing as just manufacturing a product.

Q: Do you think it caused game designers to include their name in the programs?  Were the Easter eggs programmed on purpose or possibly out of resent for lack of recognition?

David Crane: No, there's a myth about Easter eggs and hidden initials.  People say that they're in there to help the sales of the game.  Game designers put them in there as a technical teaser.  If they can do it, they will.

Q: What do you think of first when you design a video game?

David Crane: I'm looking for different ideas all the time.  Ii try to predict what people will want next year.  Since it takes about a year for a game, it works out well to think in advance.  Most programmers work on a game and it comes out a year later, when it's too late.

Q: How do you know if the game you are working on is good?

David Crane: I spend anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 hours working on a game.  If I don't like it, I'm in trouble.

Q: Some of those games, like Pitfall!, are still enjoyable to play today.  There was nothing like it at the time.  Was there anything that gave you the idea for Pitfall?

David Crane: The concept for Pitfall took less than 10 minutes.  The difficult part was sitting at the computer, for over 1,000 hours, and making it happen.  I had been intrigued by the animation of a running man.  I had a program of a man, but he never panned out in any of the games.  I then asked myself, where can I have the man run?  Where are there paths?  The answer came to me - the jungle.  Then I had him pick up some treasures as he ran.  The scorpions, the ladder, the vines, and all the other things then logically came to mind.

Q: Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is a great game, much like some of the games for the Nintendo today.  There's a lot of similarities with A Boy and His Blob for the Nintendo NES.

David Crane: No, not really.  It's much more similar to Pitfall.  Pitfall was a one-dimensional game, so with Pitfall II, I gave it an 'up' and 'down'.  There's a lot of the same creatures in both games, too.  Pitfall II is a stand-alone game in its own right and there's a lot more in it than the original Pitfall.  I wanted Pitfall Harry to be able to fly vertically, so I added balloons.  It's a 3-D maze game.

A Boy and his Blob is a tool-using adventure game.  You feed the blob different-colored jellybeans to make him change his shape.  If I do another "Blob" game, I want to give the Blob more personality.

Q: Super Pitfall was created for Nintendo as well.  It expands on the original Pitfall game...

David Crane: I had no connection with the Nintendo version, nor the coin-op version of Pitfall II (by Sega).

Q: What is your favorite game?

David Crane: I've been asked this question many times.  I've really enjoyed working on Amazing Tennis.  Whichever game I am currently working on is my favorite - it has to be.

Q: After talking with Garry Kitchen, I have learned you have a great working relationship with Absolute.  You work for Garry now, but in the past, he worked for you at Activision.  How did you discover Garry?

David Crane: At the time, there were only four or five of us working in the lab at Activision.  We realized there wasn't much potential for growth.  We wanted to maintain the synergy, but still have the ability to grow.  Garry came to us and we knew he had designed some games for other companies.  He could have went to work for Atari, but he wanted to come and work for us.  But, he didn't want to move from New Jersey, so using the "design center concept", we opened a design center on the East coast.  We also had design centers in Boston, Pasadena, and Sacramento.  After the crash, these other centers closed, and the designers had the choice to relocate if they wished.  Activision kept the offices open in NJ.  None of them were as successful as Garry's center.

Q: How did you get back with him at Absolute?

David Crane: I left Activision in 1987.  From there, I worked on a phenomenal piece of technology that never made it to the market (Ed: The Hasbro Nemo system).  I called Garry after Absolute had already started up.  I worked as an outside contractor at first, and am now an employee.

Q: What is your opinion on the current state of video games?

David Crane: It's in one of the healthiest phases.  When there's two (or more) systems with roughly equal competition and similar market shares, it's healthy.  There will be cycles, though.  There's always new machines.  Overall, there must be games that are fun to play.  All it takes is 10 minutes for any gamer to decide whether a game is garbage or not.

Q: Can you predict the state of video games 5 years from now, in 1997?

David Crane: CD-ROM will be the distribution medium.  Video games will not phase out like they did before.  There's a definite force behind them.

Q: What do you think you'll be doing 10 years from now?

David Crane: It's hard to say.  In 1977, I could not predict I would still be designing games in 1992.  I've been to so many trade shows - I'm going on my 26th consecutive show.  I've been in the business for a long time.


Over the years, several people have sent in questions or stories regarding some of David Crane's games, with a select few going either unanswered or unproven.  Shortly after the Classic Gaming 2K Expo, Scott Stilphen had the chance to talk with him, and to finally shed some light on these "unsolved mysteries"!



Q: I've heard a rumor about Grand Prix that there's a hidden trick which changes the finish line into your initials, and of one in Pitfall II which allows you to play the Rhonda character at one point in the game.

David Crane: Neither of those rumors is true for the 2600 versions, particularly the Rhonda story.  To play the game as a different character would require that a full set of animations for the 'hidden' character be kept in the ROM.  Our ROM memory was so severely limited in the 2600 that we would never waste a large chunk on an Easter egg.

The only Grand Prix story from those days involved a record setting score.  There was a particular path through the obstacle cars that a player could memorize and follow to get a near perfect score.  Several of us at Activision could do it, and after release, thousands of other players were also able to achieve it.  But in this pattern, you would collide with the rear end of the last car on the track... bump him while letting a car pass right next to you... and then slip past him to the finish line.  I always wondered if you could actually squeeze between these last two cars and finish at full acceleration without bumping that car.

One day at CES I decided to try to prove it.  I sat in the Hospitality Suite for hours trying hund
reds of times, and finally managed to time it right.  It was tough because you had to play a near-perfect game just to have a tiny chance at making that perfectly timed move at the very end of the race.  I had several people watching as I swooped through that tiny gap on the way toward a perfect game... right as I crashed into the back of yet another car!  It turns out that this car was never seen because it crossed the finish line and disappeared before you ever got there.  What a mood swing!  We all went from cheering a perfect run to watching me crash into an unknown car inches from the finish.  Of course, once it was demonstrated that it was possible, a few of us were able to make that last swoop and avoid the last car for a perfect score.  This could be the source of your rumor, because it was said that I had developed a "signature move" at the finish line that blew away the established perfect score by more than a second.


Various versions of Activision's Pitfall II: Lost Caverns: Atari VCS (left); Atari 400/800/5200 "Adventurer's Edition" (center); Commodore 64 (right).

The conversion of Pitfall II to the home computers made for an interesting story that might explain the other urban legend.  The Commodore 64 and Atari 800 conversions were assigned to two different programmers who sat on either side of me in the lab.  Given the assignment of taking a game written for the 2600 and converting it to another machine based on the same microprocessor, each guy took a different path.  For the 800, Mike Lorenzen chose to take my code exactly and re-write the display code and any other machine-dependent portions.  For the C64, Tim Shotter went the other way and wrote code from scratch, using the 2600 game as a model.  We were very interested in the results, because each method has its disadvantages.  Trying to read and modify code written by someone else can be very difficult, but the code that you are starting with has already been debugged.  On the other side, it is often much quicker to write code in your own style from scratch, but you then have to debug the whole thing.

As it turned out, they both reached beta (the point where all the features are in the game, but final testing has not been done) at the same time.  But Mike's game was nearly error-free while Tim's required a month of testing and debugging.  During that month, Mike added an entire second world to the game (Ed: the game is sub-titled "Adventurer's Edition"), clearly proving that his approach had been the correct one.  And now that I think about it, he may have given Rhonda some increased role in that level.  But in any case, on the Atari 800 version of Pitfall II, after you complete the first level (identical to the 2600 version), you move on to a complete second level of play.  This is by design and not exactly an Easter egg, but this may be the source of the rumor.

Q: Did you write/score the soundtrack for Pitfall II?  If not, do you recall who did?


David Crane: The theme used in Pitfall II was composed for the animated series that was developed in Hollywood after the initial success of Pitfall!  I made the theme music possible on Pitfall II by:

1.) Designing a special hardware circuit in the game cartridge itself that allowed 4 part music (but you already knew that).
2.) Creating a software music driver to play melody, harmony, bass, and drum parts.
3.) Writing two 4 part arrangements of the animated series theme song.  The first being an upbeat main theme played over and over and over and over... and the second written in a minor key to play after a hit.

The irony was that while I thought it would benefit both the game and the series to tie in the theme song in this way, it turned out that because of the way Hollywood works, we had to pay a royalty back to the studio for the use of the theme song!

Q: Incredible!  Guess there's no such "favors" in Hollywood.  Was Pitfall II being developed along with the show (at the same time), or before or after it?  Did you have any direct involvement with the show, perhaps as a consultant for ideas, storylines, etc?

David Crane: The TV series was developed in between the two games.  I wrote the sidekick characters into the game to tie the two together.

Q: Decathlon has an interesting "glitch" that allows fantastic heights to be achieved on the pole vault event (see our Easter egg entry).  Were you aware of this?

David Crane: Yes, I am aware of the Pole Vault bug.  I simply forgot to de-bounce the button in the pole vault code.  Since those games were made into ROMs, we didn't have the luxury of putting out revisions.  When that bug was discovered we had already ordered 500,000 ROMs and we had no choice but to sell those and fix it if we had to reorder.  I don't remember if we ever revved the ROM, so there may or may not be two versions out there.

I will give you one more story that relates to this Decathlon bug.  I'm sure that you are aware of the Make-A-Wish foundation that treats terminally ill children to a wish.  One young gamer with a terminal illness chose a visit to Activision and his favorite game designers as his wish.  We were, of course, flattered and gave him the complete tour, a copy of all the games, an afternoon in the design lab, etc, etc, etc. The Make-A-Wish Foundation people brought along a camera crew and wanted to film him playing the latest top-secret game alongside the designer.  You have probably guessed that this was The Activision Decathlon, and we played the game side by side for the cameras.  This young man was a good game player and scored well on the early events.  But he was clearly distracted by the lights, cameras, and glare off the TV screen, and absentmindedly pressed the joystick button several times at precisely the right point during the pole vault.  You know what the result was, and you can imagine my surprise when I looked over and saw the pole-vaulter sailing off the screen!  We had never tested it that way, and this was the first time the bug surfaced.  I kept my mouth shut and later that day went back to the lab to verify the bug.  Unfortunately the ROMs were already being made and there was nothing we could do about it.

Q: With Dragster, it seems every (completed race) time under 6 seconds always ends in 1, 4, or 7.  Was this intentional, or a peculiar trait of the program?

David Crane: It is true that the Dragster times cannot end in all values.  The game code for all 2600 games runs at 60 frames per second (30 frames for each player in a two-player game).  The game timer can only tick each program execution time.  The Dragster timer gets incremented by 0.0333 each 'tick', so the hundredths digit changes by 3 or 4 with each tick.

Q: Did you start (or finish) Dragster while at Atari (since it's based or 'inspired' by Atari's Drag Race coin-op)?  Would you happen to know if a similar situation occurred with Larry Kaplanís Kaboom and Atari's Avalanche coin-op?

David Crane: No game released by Activision was even partially developed at Atari.  Going into a position of competition with Atari, and therefore knowing that we would certainly be sued, we left with just the shirts on our backs.  You will find other former Atari employees who, having left the company under non-competitive situations, chose to keep programming manuals, prototypes, and even semiconductor chip plots.  Such was not the case at the founding of Activision.


Activision's Atari VCS Dragster (left); Atari arcade Drag Race (right)

Q: How was it that Atari didn't sue Activision over these games, or did you guys feel that they were different enough to not cause any legal retaliations from Atari or other companies (such as with Megamania and Sega's Astro Blaster)?

David Crane: Games like Dragster, Kaboom, and eventually Megamania came about because the home game market was very young, and we were playing catch up with the arcade business.  People wanted to have the same experiences at home that they were getting in the arcades.  This was a mandate from above at Atari, but even outside Atari the inspiration for home games often came from the arcade.  Once the home game market caught up, and the arcade game play mechanics had all been exploited enough, we were finally free to do much more original games.

Of course, there are other people who would tell you that there are only so many original game play mechanics, and that all games borrow from the past (this is the same logic that almost closed the Patent Office in the 1890s because "everything had already been invented").  These people would always describe Freeway as "Space Race with cars," or Asteroids as "Computer Space with rocks," etc.  The reality is that there was some influence from all of the above.


Activision's Atari VCS Freeway (left); Atari arcade Space Race (right)

As for lawsuits, there was a whole lot of suing going on over many different issues, and I am not at liberty to discuss the details of those with which I was even peripherally involved.  But the underlying issue with game play has to do with the fact that there is no clear protection for game play.  You have trademark and copyright protections, you can protect the artistic design of something, and you can even protect the look and feel of something.  But "game play" has always proven too elusive a concept to quantify.  So, Indiana Jones swung across pits on his whip only one year after Pitfall Harry swung on his vine, and nobody gave it a second thought.  As far as the law was concerned, a whip is not a vine, while the game player knows that itís the action of swinging over a pit, and the timing of that skill that makes them the same.

Q: A rumor with Laser Blast has long been circulated that suggests it's possible to avoid being pushed up by the force field if you keep your ship in "aim" mode.  I've tried to recreate it myself, but have been unable to.  Is it actually possible?

David Crane: I do remember that we discovered a bug in Laser Blast and changed the ROM, so there are 2 versions out there.  That being the case, it is possible for one game to play differently than another.  While tweaking the game play of Laser Blast, it became apparent that a good strategy to avoid the lasers was to hug the ground.  The lasers could only fire at certain angles.  As levels progressed the player was forced up into the danger zone to make the game more challenging.

Q: Do you recall any of your other games having 2 or more ROM versions that were released (besides Laser Blast and possibly Decathlon)?

David Crane: Fortunately, no.  Unlike today, it was a very big deal to rev a video game ROM.  We tested the heck out of our games and only changed the ROM code under very limited circumstances.  However, occasionally we would discover something that didn't quite work in the way it was intended.  But if it didn't make a big difference in the game play we just said, "That's not a bug, it's a feature".

I have heard this line many times since, but we may very well have been the first to coin that phrase back in the late 70s.

Q: This brings me to a question that I don't think I ever asked you, or was asked of any other Activision programmer.  Did you write up the manuals for your games?

David Crane: The manuals were almost always written by the marketing department, although sometimes we had to make sure that they were accurate. They often added explanations like the "force field" to describe elements of the game.  It was their job to try to make the game as attractive and trendy as possible, but sometimes they got carried away.

The worst example of this was for an Atari game (not one of mine).  Atari came out with a version of Breakout for the 2600 at a time when space games were popular (Ed: The game in question is Super Breakout.  Read the manual in our Library section).  The description of this game in the manual began, "You are flying through space when you encounter a multi-colored force field..."  That was when we knew they had really crossed the line.
 

In 2004 Scott Stilphen spoke with David Crane about some Pitfall prototypes that he owned - one dated 1981 and the other 1982.  The really neat thing about the 1982 version is that the background shows extra tree branches, similar to what was done with versions for other systems, such as the ColecoVision and Atari 5200!
 

David Crane: The 1982 version you have is of the most interest to me.  This version of the game came very close to being released (I have told this story at CGE in the past, and it is an example of how the Activision design group worked).  My original concept gave the player only one life to complete the game.  As you might imagine this would be very hard, and very frustrating.  But game players were getting really good, and I thought this would appeal to the purists.

My cohorts disagreed, and over the last month of the project they fought for the change.  It wasn't until they all ganged up on me that I began to see their point.  I added the lives counter and the code to drop the new life from the region of the counter as it was decremented - visually illustrating what those tally marks represented.  It just occurred to me that t
his may have been an industry first... I don't know for sure.  It is probably important to note that Pitfall! would never have had such wide appeal in its other form.  It would have been too hard for casual players and appealed only to hardcore players.

I had completely forgotten about the extra tree branches.  But looking at the sequence of events, it is only logical to assume that I had to free up memory and display kernel cycles to implement the 3 lives feature.  So while I have no clear recollection of th
at detail, I am going to go with that explanation.

What is less clear is how the version you have with the 1981 copyright is a newer game version than the one with the 1982 copyright message.  I can only assume that we were getting changing input from legal council as to which date to use.  The proper notice would be "Copyright 1981, 1982 Activision Inc."  But with limited space we had to choose one date or the other.

 

In 2009, the company WayForward released a remake of A Boy and His Blob for the Nintendo Wii (LINK) and those who preordered it even received a free foam Blob! (LINK).  Here's what David Crane had to say about it back then:

David Crane: I have been repeatedly asked about this since its development was announced almost a year ago.  And in case you are asking, no, I am not involved in the project.  But I had not yet seen the ďAnnouncement TrailerĒ, thanks.  Cute idea turning him into a boy-shape, presumably as a decoy.
 

Given David Crane's extensive career history, instead of including our usual "gameology", we're including links to his resume and portfolio.

Here's Activision's 1981 "Video Update" promotional video featuring Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, and Jim Levy. Also shows the commercials for Laser Blast and Skiing, and video footage of Stampede, Ice Hockey, Boxing, Dragster, Bridge, Fishing Derby, Checkers, Tennis, Freeway, and Kaboom!

 

Here's Activision's 1982 promotional video featuring Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Steve Cartwright, and Jim Levy. Also shows video footage of Tennis, Skiing, Laser Blast, Ice Hockey, Kaboom!, Stampede, Freeway, Barnstorming, Grand Prix, Chopper Command, and Starmaster.

 

Here's the Activision commercials for David Crane's Atari VCS/2600 games Dragster, Laser Blast, Freeway, Pitfall!:

  

   

  

  

Here's the Atari designers keynote from the 2007 Classic Gaming Expo with David Crane:

 

 


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