Sunday, December 18, 2011

Interview with Rawson Stovall

You can find the printed version of this interview in this month's Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine (issue #97). The interview was edited extensively for space...but I think what the man had to say deserves a little more room. Many thanks once again to Rawson for agreeing to do this; you inspired me, as an 11-year-old lad growing up in Philadelphia, PA, to do what I do today.

Rawson Stovall was the kid friendly face of video game journalism in the 80’s. At its zenith, his pioneering “Video Beat” column was syndicated in newspapers all across the United States. Today, Rawson is a producer for Electronic Arts, working on titles such as “The Godfather” and “The Sims.”

Do many people remember you as the "Vid Kid?"

Sometimes people do, especially people who are still in the game industry. I ran into the legendary David Crane at an event at Stanford University and when he remembered me it just made my day.

When I first started on The Godfather I met with Wilfredo Aguilar, who was the Art Director on the game. I had actually met him years earlier when I was a kid when he was an artist at Imagic, which I was lucky to visit because it had been onbe of my favorite companies. In Willy's office at EA is perhaps the only full-sized Demon Attack poster left in existence. I was just staring at it and I mentioned visiting Imagic years earlier and he exclaimed, "I know you -- you're the Vid Kid!" He had remembered the suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying 11-year old version of me.

If/when they do remember you from those days, do they cite you as an inspiration for wanting to become a video game reviewer/journalist?

I mainly meet people who are working in production. Usually they don't know and I usually don't bring it up. At some point, though, it eventually comes out, including the old pictures. If someone does remember me they often tell me that what inspired them was seeing a kid go out and do something -- which meant that, really, they could go out and accomplish something as a kid as well, that age alone shouldn't be a barrier to entry. That means a lot to me, because when I was young and writing my column I was extremely motivated by proving that I could accomplish anything that adults could.

For the first couple years I sold my column to newspapers myself. If editors or publishers seemed like they were going to be naysayers about a kid writing video game reviews I would point out that, at the time, people were paying 7-8 times as much for a video game than for a movie and that there was no shortage of movie reviews in their papers. And, so, if only from a consumer protection standpoint they should offer some reviews. I would also ask them who would know better about video games than a kid? In those days kids were the primary target audience for video games. This helped sell them on the column and on me.

What was like to be a guest on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?"

It was awesome, but it was filmed in front of a large audience, which was new to me and made me nervous. So, I just never looked at the audience, never even turned my head so that I would accidently see them. This meant I never really met Ed McMahon, even though he was sitting right next to me, because that would have required me to turn my head and see the audience, which I was certain would cause me to freak out.

At the time, I knew that "The Tonight Show" was a big deal but I never knew how big it was until I got older. When I was a kid, I was never allowed to stay up late enough to really watch it. So I never had the context of that show's almost historical impact. If I had known any of that it would have made me more nervous.

The whole family drove out to Los Angeles for the taping of the show. We actually rented an A-Team-like van for the drive, so the whole road trip felt like the movie Little Miss Sunshine or Vacation. We stayed at this big hotel in the valley near the NBC lot. The taping was at the end of the day and we, very conservatively, just stayed at the hotel that day. I was such a bundle of energy and nerves by mid-afternoon that my parents told me to go walk around the hotel lobby to burn of some of the energy. Maybe they were thinking that we would just stroll around but instead my sister and I subsequently spent an hour running up the down escalators and down the up escalators until I got back to the room just exhausted. I think my mom freaked and gave me soda and coffee to pep me up because it was show time and we had to head to the studio. I think I've been drinking coffee ever since.

Do you still have the "Vid Kid" suits and/or briefcase?

You know, I do still have the briefcase. I couldn't give that up. And I still have a tiny Members' Only jacket that's covered with Activision "high score" patches for games they did for the Atari 2600. True story.

What was the impetus for making the switch from writing about video games to developing them?

I wrote my video game column every week for ten years, from age 10 to age 20, covering the era from the Atari 2600 to the Super Nintendo System. I was honestly just ready for a change and I was young enough, and fresh out of college, and had moved to California from a small town in Texas so it was the ideal time to try something new.

What I found out was that years and years spent critiquing games and the elements about them that work and don't has translated very naturally into the role of producer. For me, it has been more of a natural transition than, say, to programming or even designing.

Because I grew up with video games and sometimes spoke for the industry to the press, I was always a fan of the industry's early roots as a very mass-market, family-oriented, living room-centric form of entertainment. My feeling has always been that the video game industry, both as an art form and as a business, needs to be as evangelistic to new and non-core gamers as possible. Games like The Sims is a great example of the success that can be found when you include people who were, by and large, ignored from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.

Overall, I like to think that I have always been the biggest fan of innovation and envelope-pushing in the industry in whatever stage or form that comes, sometimes it's graphics, thematic expansion, genre redefinition, or other times it comes in the form of crazy new play styles like some Wii games. Right now, I think we are in a new golden age of video game creativity and quality. Some of those games are very complex, deep and engaging PC experiences like The Sims 3, and others are very accessible, very simple, fun iPhone/iPad games.

What is it like working on a franchise as well-known as The Sims?

The best thing about working at the Sims Studio is working with the people that are overall responsible for it. You can't have one of the most popular and long-lasting game franchises in history without having some of the most talented, creative, and fun people in the business behind those games. Plus, it's great to work on games that have such a wide and dedicated fan base. Different people play The Sims 3 in different ways, some people like to tell stories, or create crazy situations and see how they pan out, others like to play with life, others like to play architect, fashion designer, interior designer, and so on.

Nerd alert -- I sometimes describe the Sims as the forerunner to the "holodeck" in Star Trek. If gaming technology ever advances to real life-like holograms then The Sims, at that point, will have advanced simulated personalities and A.I. to the point where the holodeck will in fact become a reality.

Any interesting/anecdotal Will Wright stories you'd like to share?

Sorry. There is a conference room named after him, which is kinda cool.

Beyond the obvious, what do you think is the biggest difference between the video games of today opposed to those of yesteryear?

Almost all games of yesteryear were ultimately designed to beat you, the player. Almost no one would actually finish those games; excelling at video games was primarily only about high scores or how far you got; the game itself was only a medium or an arena in which you really competed with yourself. Now, most games are specifically designed to be beaten. Hurdles, obstacles, puzzles, power-ups, etc. are all very purposely placed to make the game winnable yet make you feel like you are very special because you beat it. I think there's some kind of life analogy here somewhere.

What is your best/fondest memory from your time as the "Vid Kid?"

I got to meet a lot of cool people, from game designers to industry legends like Nolan Bushnell and even 80's icons like Mr. T and Andre the Giant. I got to introduce the original Nintendo Entertainment System at its US unveiling in 1985 and afterwards the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto (though it was very early in his career) and Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was the CEO of Nintendo at the time, called me up and we talked about the various appeal of different video game elements. Though the conversation was hard because we had to speak through a translator.

What were some of your favorite games of your "Vid Kid" era? And of today?

I never really had a specific favorite game from the Vid Kid era, but I do have a level of affinity for games like QiX, Dig Dug, Pac-Man, Demon Attack, Centipede, Kaboom!, Cosmic Ark, Joust, action games that couldn't ever really be beaten (unless you were insane.) Other games that come to mind now, as I'm thinking about it, that I liked:  Pitfall!, M.U.L.E., Maniac Mansion, H.E.R.O, Death Sword (which I think was known as Barbarian in the U.K.). Oh, the list can go on and on.

As for now, I think a team of ninjas might apparate in my living room and kill me if I didn't say that I was playing a lot of Sims Social on Facebook lately. But, really, the truth is that I am playing a lot of Sims Social on Facebook lately. It's a fresh new take on a franchise that I've spent years with and it's impressive that they were able to take The Sims and use it to really polish and add depth to the Facebook game genre. Other than that, I tend to travel a lot and so I?m actually playing a ton of games on my iPad, which I think is enjoying a Golden Age of gaming creativity, even though they are often smaller games.

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