I still remember the first time I slipped a quarter into the slot of an arcade game. It was 1982, and the game was “Star Trek - Strategic Operations Simulator.” My mother and I were at a mall to see a rerelease of “Bambi,” and the sing-song electronic sounds of the arcade and the vibrant animations on the array of screens had lured me in like a moth to a flame. The coin made a clunking sound as it slid into the guts of the machine, and then the game played a computerized version of the show’s theme song as a crude voice urged me to “Be the captain of the Starship Enterprise!”
I lasted less than a minute. But I didn’t care. The thrill of cruising through space, firing my weapons, and watching enemies disintegrate into triangular chunks was unlike anything I’d experienced, and I was hooked. My mother, however, interpreted my excitement as anger over losing so quickly and pulled me toward the theater, telling me I’d “never play one of those again.”
Boy, was she wrong.
The boom years
It was the early eighties, and arcades were everywhere. Since I rode my bike everywhere, finding them was easy. There was an arcade by the grocery store, one next to the movie theater, and another in the mall. I also found game machines in convenience stores, Laundromats, and restaurants. In terms of market saturation, arcades were the Starbucks of their time.
And I was the sad schlep who couldn’t start the day without a Caramel Macchiato. My morning bike ride to the fast food restaurant where I worked after graduating from high school included a stop at the mall to play “Galaxian.” After my shift was over, I’d stay at the restaurant to play “Galaga.” In the evening, I’d squeeze in sessions of “Dig Dug” at a nearby convenience store, or “Ms. Pac-Man,” “Frogger,” or “Donkey Kong Jr.” at the arcade closest to home.
When Atari released the “Star Wars” arcade game in 1983, it became my new obsession. My personal best was over 42,000,000 points in 12 hours on a single quarter. I could have played until my bladder burst, but I had to quit when the arcade closed.
Since I was still living at home, my paychecks were merely a means of fueling my addiction. This made me the recipient of stern lectures. I should be saving for college, my parents said, or putting more effort into making friends. They were right, but at the time, I couldn’t see beyond my desire to pulverize the Death Star. “You’re wasting time,” my father told me. “You’ll never make money playing games.”
Boy, was he wrong.
And then there was Doom
Fast forward 11 years to 1993 and the release of id Software’s “Doom.” By that time, my appetite for arcade games had waned, and I’d moved on to the personal computer, or PC. Being a broke college student, I spent a lot of time hunting down and playing free shareware games. My favorite was id’s first-person shooter, which cast players in the role of a space marine trying to escape a demon-infested base on Mars. Although primitive by today’s standards, its 3D graphics were jaw-dropping, and its brutal gameplay appealed to me in a big way. I liked games simple and fast, and “Doom” delivered on both fronts.
In addition to its single-player mode, “Doom” was the first 3D game to allow players to battle each other over a local area network. I made instant friends with a group of fellow students after seeing them “deathmatching” in the school’s computer lab, and met them daily for intense sessions in the back row of PCs. Gaming was forbidden in the lab, so we had to be quiet, which wasn’t easy. When you nailed someone with a rocket as they turned a corner, you wanted to shout in triumph, but you had to look and sound like you were writing a paper about “The Old Man and the Sea.”
One day, I told one of my friends I was growing bored with “Doom.” He said more games were available on the Internet.
“On the what?” I said.
It was like he’d opened a door to Shangri-La and invited me to step through it. I suppose many people my age remember where they were when they first learned about the Internet. It was that much of a paradigm shift.
Although it’s hard to imagine today, the Internet wasn’t always the graphically rich, ad-heavy beast it’s become. Back then, my window to the online world looked like this: frank $:
Through the now archaic, text-based Unix interface, I learned to read and send email, navigate web pages, and download software. I also consumed as much information as I could about the people who made the games I liked. They were rock stars, and I was a rabid fan.
At the time, the Internet was an unspoiled frontier, and enthusiast websites were springing up like smokestacks across the Wild West. Part of my daily online routine included visits to a game review site called The Adrenaline Vault. Nicknamed “AVault,” the website grew out of the disillusionment of its founder, Angel Munoz, with the mainstream press. As PC games grew in popularity, Munoz believed the print magazines popular at the time were selling out to the companies that made electronic entertainment, and he lamented the lack of truthful reviews. When he launched AVault, he staffed it with game players who were passionate about their hobby, and who spared no criticism or praise in their analysis of new products. Readers were drawn to the stark honesty and independent spirit of the site, and it grew in popularity.
Around the same time, the Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA) began hosting an annual trade show for computer and video games called the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). One day in 1997, AVault reported E3 would be held in Atlanta that year. My heart jumped when I read the story, as it put the expo within driving range.
There was just one catch: to get into E3, you had to either work in the games industry, or be a member of the press. Knowing this, I did the only thing a red-blooded “Doom” fan who wanted an early peek at “Half-Life” could: I lied.
Getting in wasn’t as easy as telling the guy at the gate I was a game developer. It was, however, as easy as telling the ISDA I was the founder of Horrorware, a company that made scary games. When the organization approved my application and mailed me a badge, I couldn’t believe my luck.
For a star struck gamer like myself, E3 was better than Disneyland. I played games that wouldn’t be in stores for months, spoke with famous developers, and had my picture taken with a Lara Croft lookalike. Seeing my badge, several people asked me about Horrorware, which initially caught me off guard. However, by the end of the day, I had a stock answer at the ready.
I also stopped by the AVault booth and struck up a conversation with one of the guys. When I told him I had a degree in journalism, he said, “We’re looking for writers. Send us a sample.”
I did, and my write-up was good enough to earn me a spot on the team. When I received my first paycheck, I called my dad and said, “Guess what?”
If E3 was better than Disneyland, then working for AVault was better than E3. Not only did I receive free games on a weekly basis, I also traveled to New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco, and other cities for press junkets, and I no longer had to lie to get into E3. Game publishers quoted our reviews on their boxes, our ad space sold itself, and we chatted with the biggest names in the business. In time, Munoz hired me full-time and promoted me to editor. It was a dream come true, and I thought it would never end.
Boy, was I wrong.
One door closes, another opens
At its peak, AVault was, arguably, one of the most popular gaming sites in the world. But in time, its parent company shifted its attention to launching the world’s first international esports league, and turned the site into a blog. Gone were the salary, the junkets, and the free trips to E3, along with the notion of working for AVault until I retired.
However, as that door closed, another one opened. In 2004, Russian computer game developer Alawar Entertainment offered one of the writers at AVault a job helping the company to establish a presence in the U.S. He had to turn them down, and asked me if I knew anyone who would be interested.
I believe I said, “Um, yeah!”
Although understanding what Alawar wanted me to do, and then figuring out how to do it, took time, within a few years, the company went from being an obscure developer of quirky shareware games to being one of the top publishers of casual games in the U.S. (I can take only partial credit for this, as the company entered the U.S. at the right time, and its leaders knew what to do once they had a foothold in the market.)
Although I’ve worn many hats for Alawar, my most satisfying project to date involved writing the story for an Indiana Jones-style adventure game called “Alabama Smith in Escape from Pompeii.” I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when I loaded the game for the first time and saw the characters, locations, and events that had taken shape in my mind rendered on my PC’s monitor. It was my “Galaga,” my “Star Wars,” and my “Doom,” a dream given form within a machine.
Although games played a big part in forging the path that brought me to where I am today, I’m no longer the arcade-obsessed teenager I was over 30 years ago. My morning commute brings me directly to the Hamilton County Herald, where I have a great writing gig, and when it’s time to leave, I go home, where Alawar work awaits. I have no games on my PC, and my iPhone contains only one. I still have my rock stars, but they make movies instead of games.
That doesn’t mean I’ve outgrown the interests of my youth. No thing we love ever ceases to be a part of us. It merely lies dormant, buried under mounting years and waiting for something to trigger our memory. Maybe it’s a song, a photograph, or a phrase that shakes loose the dust, but whatever it is, it renews old passions and takes us to another time and place.
For me, it was the look and feel of The Coin-Op Arcade in Chattanooga. Its sing-song electronic sounds and the vibrant animations on its array of screens lured me in like a moth to a flame. As I stepped up to a multi-game cabinet, inserted a quarter into the slot, and listened to it slide into the guts of the machine, I felt as though I was visiting an old friend. I selected “Galaga,” slapped the one-player button, and prepared to fend off an alien attack. It had been a long time, and I wondered if I would last for hours or die three quick deaths.
I didn’t care. The thrill of cruising through space, firing my weapons, and watching enemies disintegrate into multicolored bursts would be back, and I’d be hooked. I could almost feel the pull of my mother’s hand on my arm, and hear her telling me I’d “never play one of those again.”
I’m glad she was wrong.