Videogames are over 30 years old, which means everyone who was there in the early days is over 50 today. (Ralph Baer, inventor of the first console, is nearly 90!) That puts us at a point where these pioneers are nearing their maximum life expectancy; indeed, several prominent figures in videogame history have already passed away. What saddens me is that we as gamers, the cognoscenti who should follow and champion the world of videogames, seem either unaware of this situation or indifferent to it.
Unlike with other media such as music or books, the deaths of veteran game developers are seldom given a respectful level of coverage in the gaming press, and they’re nowhere to be found in mainstream publications. As a result, it’s not surprising that even people who pay attention to games don’t really notice when an influential game creator has passed on. By now there are too many to list them all, but I want to talk about both the visionaries whose life’s work should be known to you, even if their names aren’t.
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has an incomplete memorials page listing over 30 industry figures, including Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons. Another early pioneer, Alan Kotok, co-developed not only Spacewar! but was also part of the team that built the first joystick. Sega’s Chairman between 1984 and 2001, Isao Okawa, also deserves special mention: Along with supporting numerous Japanese technology companies, he personally funded the development of the Dreamcast and used his own money – $695.7 million worth of stocks – to help Sega stay afloat while it moved away from hardware development and toward a software-centric business model. All of these people have left an important mark on the gaming landscape.
But since the memorials page is a constant work in progress, many prominent developers haven’t yet made the list. Few outside of England are likely to have heard of the late Jeremy Smith, but he co-developed Exile for the BBC Micro in 1988, a seminal game with realistic physics and a subterranean eco-system that did Metroidvania gameplay as well as Metroid itself. And how many could name the late, award-winning Richard Joseph, perhaps best loved for his Commodore 64 and Amiga music, including the Cannon Fodder song “War Has Never Been So Much Fun“? Then there are voice actors such as Maddie Blaustein, sibling of MGS localizer Jeremy Blaustein, who played memorable roles in games such as Valkyrie Profile and voiced Meowth in the Pokemon cartoons. There are at least 20 other names I could mention, all talented people who worked on well-loved games ranging from LandStalker to Tomb Raider.
Who Makes Games?
The lacking media coverage of these creators’ deaths is part of a much broader problem: With the exception of a few auteurs, creative people in the videogame industry are still not properly recognized for their contributions. We still don’t know who makes our games, because creators are regarded simply as employees of a developer, which in turn often takes less prominence than a title’s publisher. And as people move on, their ideas are farmed out to other development teams. How can anyone be expected to know when someone has died when that person’s creations live on under someone else’s name?
One example is the Metroid series. While Director Yoshio Sakamoto is still with us, the series’ original producer, Gunpei Yokoi, is not. How many people watching videos of the recently announced Metroid: Other M , co-developed by Nintendo and Team Ninja, paused to contemplate that one of the series’ original visionaries has been gone for over a decade? Likewise, how many fans of Metroid Prime, developed not by the original team at Nintendo but instead by Texas-based Retro Studios, are aware that the Prime trilogy’s lead programmer, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, passed away in 2008? He also programmed Zombies at my Neighbours back in the day and designed Metroid Prime‘s camera and Wii control scheme. Now that Metroid Prime: Trilogy has now been re-released for the Wii, all traces of the original creators are hidden behind the publisher’s name and a credits screen few will read.
I realize game development today is too large to place everyone on a podium. You could make the comparison to film, where directors are honored but few recognize the names of individual screenwriters. But in videogames, even our most prominent figures leave the world without so much as an acknowledgement from the people whose lives they enriched.
Tears in the Rain
My biggest concern is that the lives of these remarkable people will be forgotten. Creating a piece of entertainment that hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed should entitle them to more than just a three-sentence obituary on a web page. Furthermore, all the knowledge they’ve acquired, the stories they could tell us, is being lost forever. My experiences of talking with now-deceased members of the industry have reminded me of a sobering fact: Your questions and the responses they elicit might be the last record of a person’s life and work.
I’m perhaps the only person to have formally interviewed Dale DeSharone (formerly Disharoon), creator of several Commodore 64 classics like Below the Root and the man behind the first two Philips CD-i Zelda titles. My motivation was a result of the blanket criticism his two latter games generated – criticism which, at the time, focused only the cinematics and ignored the gameplay. After buying and finding them enjoyable to play, I wanted to understand how they came to be created – regardless of your views on those games, the fact that Nintendo licensed some of its most valuable intellectual property to a third-party developer in 1993 was a story that needed documentation. I asked as much I could in 30 minutes, but when I discovered some years later that he had passed away due to leukemia, I was hit with the sad realization that a degrading magnetic tape contained his last words regarding his creations.
I also spoke with the surviving members of the M.U.L.E development team, whose Lead Designer, Dan Bunten (who became Dani Bunten after gender reassignment) had passed away many years prior to my interview. I learned that Bunten was tremendously respected, even loved, among the developers at EA. Jim Rushing explained: “We all know Dan was a genius. … He had a passion for gaming and an innate sense of what was fun. He had his demons, obviously, but he was such a cool person on so many levels, that for me it was a magical point in my life.” The team shared personal anecdotes which gave me some insight into a long-gone era when four guys could rent a house in Arkansas to create a timeless gaming classic. They were fascinating stories and worth documenting, but after the interviews I realized there would come a time when no one in this group would be around to tell them.
That many of these stories are now lost to us is tragic. Bubble Bobble might appear on Taito compilations, and the publisher will no doubt continue to make sequels, but will people know that designer Fukio Mitsuji is gone? Insert Credit reported on his online games design courses, showing that this was a man who still had skills to teach young developers. Another figure who could have told us so much is Hideyuki Nakajima of defunct videogame publisher Tengen who oversaw the events that lead to the infamous court case with Nintendo regarding patent infringement. His side of the story is now lost forever.
There are, of course, others who need to be remembered, more than can be covered here, and also those whose stories have yet to be told. As time slips through our fingers, the industry’s most respected and beloved personalities will inevitably leave us. If we have any interest in games, we should acknowledge this, talk about it, ask questions and archive our history before it’s too late. Let’s not forget the lives of those who gave us what we have today.
John Szczepaniak is a South African-born journalist, formerly employed by a Time Warner subsidiary, but now freelance.