I found Armchair Arcade when I was doing research into useful links for people interested in gaming careers. It was nice to see a site focused on game history – though Armchair Arcade covered a lot of ground. When the creators offered to let me interview them, I had to take them up on the offer!
So let's meet:
Bill Loguidice, the Managing Director
Matt Barton, the Managing Editor
Mark Vergeer, the Contributing Editor
You can find more on them here, but now to the interview! Thanks to Bill, Matt, and Mark for their insights on, writing, gaming, and game history!
1) So how did each of you get involved in Armchair Arcade? What was your goal?
Bill: Matt and I were active posters on the old Retrogaming Radio forums and would enjoy engaging in heated, but friendly debate and discussions regarding all things videogames. There was another gentleman – also quite active – Buck Feris, who, along with Matt, suggested we start our own monthly publication to have a formal channel for our intellectual ramblings. Initially I was just going to offer assistance, but it almost immediately morphed into me going into a partnership with both Matt and Buck into our own online monthly publication. This was in late 2003.
Matt: I remember my goal was initially to have an online academic journal, but quickly dismissed that idea as too exclusive. I agreed with the rest of the team that an "intelligent magazine" format would have more impact and reach a lot more people. I don't regret that decision at all.
Mark: My role on the Retrogaming forum was more that of a lurker and when the Armchair Arcade website was started by Matt, Bill and Buck I quickly joined as one of the active editors.
2) You cover a lot of ground. Has the goal of the site changed at all?
Bill: The original mission of Armchair Arcade was to offer a monthly online publication featuring thoughtful articles on topics that received little to no coverage elsewhere. The goal was to draw on our various skillsets, talents, and interests to really create something special. Where we differed from the usual fan or hobby sites was that it was always our goal that if we were to invest our valuable free time in this project, that it must always be as professional as possible. (In fact, that has pretty much always been my goal in anything I’ve ever done online, from the simplest forum posting to instant messaging, and a big reason why I’ve always tried to use my real name—I’m representing myself at all times) Right from issue 1, I think that’s a big part of what attracted people to the site. We didn’t offer up pseudonyms, we didn’t try to play characters, we were just ourselves, and I think that “adult” approach really appealed to a nice group of people. It also naturally helped that we all had some type of writing backgrounds, and were passionate, active gamers since at least the early 1980s.
Over time, our success and staff levels grew, but eventually it became too much for a lot of the team to want to bother with, and the monthly publication schedule became impractical. On top of that, the concept of having an online magazine was becoming dated a few years into the project—making people wait is not an Internet friendly concept. That’s when we morphed Armchair Arcade into its current form, which is blog-based, which allows us to deliver content when its ready, with no restrictions based on an arbitrary schedule or deadline. Sometimes we post reviews, sometimes video productions, sometimes essays, sometimes thought experiments, etc. In short, whatever moves us and we think will be of interest to others.
Armchair Arcade has also become more of a launching pad for us into other important projects, like feature articles for other Websites, our books, and the feature film documentary we’re presently working on. Through it all, though, Armchair Arcade has maintained its primary voice because Matt and I still run it, along with Mark Vergeer, who came on as a full partner around the time we switched to the blog format. No matter what kind of success we have in the future as we continue to pursue these other projects, Armchair Arcade will always be our base of operations.
Matt: Yes, while the magazine format allowed us to have more "splash" impact, it was just too burdensome in the long run. It's very, very hard to motivate geographically distant people to do something that feels like work in their free time, AND do all that according to a rigid schedule. I really have to admire groups who can pull that off, especially when there's no money involved. Still, our issues were routinely featured on Slashdot and many other forums, and we got a lot of publicity out of it.
Switching to the blog format was more matter of convenience than anything else. We lost a lot of our impact, but luckily picked up several side projects–books, movies, etc.–that have taken the place of those issues. I guess in a way the issue format was useful practice for what was to come later.
Mark: Well I actually was around before the move to 'the blog format' and even contributed some real articles to the old magazine format. I remember we had lengthy email discussions on what was the wise thing to do. I remember we distinctly wanted to do our own thing not just be another Blog-site. I think we did succeed in this as we do have ' the adult ' approach.
3) You especially focus on game history. Do you feel people entering the world of gaming, in short people younger than us, have a sense of gaming history?
Bill: Well, knowledge of history is lacking in a lot of areas, but I feel it’s especially important in the case of videogames and computer gaming, which are still often thought of as juvenile pursuits. Videogames are one of the biggest phenomenas the world has ever seen, with gaming itself being a type of universal language. It’s a pity then – and it has something to do with the industry only having its genesis since the 1970s for most people – that videogames still have a certain stigma attached to them. After all, other forms of mass media, like movies, television and pop music, have had far longer maturation periods, and have had time to transcend their frivolous distinctions and just be accepted – and important – parts of our everyday lives (of course, being non-interactive makes them easier for the average person to understand). Videogames are at that point already, it’s just a matter of the majority of people acknowledging it. It’s simply a matter of time.
With all of the above said, gaming history has been underserved, and as mentioned in my answer to your next question, unnecessarily bifurcated. If history is to be told and appreciated properly, it has to be more inclusive, and acknowledge mainframes, arcade, handhelds, consoles, computers, etc. So certainly we as writers and historians need to do a better job and present the information in as compelling a manner as possible while making sure it’s inclusive and accurate. That’s no small feat, but, as efforts like Armchair Arcade and books like Vintage Games, have shown, not impossible.
One other major factor against younger people really learning their gaming history, is that videogames have the “next big thing” syndrome. A game can sell millions of copies in a few months, then, just a few months later, be completely forgotten for the next big thing. Classic compilations and reissues certainly help in that regard, but the publishers overall do a bad job of making better use of their back catalogs.
Matt: I think most gamers have a decent sense of history. They may not know everything, but who hasn't heard of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and so on? The only problem is that many of us are limited to one or a few platforms, and thus have a skewed view of what was great. So many of those silly "top 50" game lists or whatever really show this; depending on the authors, it'll be dominated by titles from a particular platform (NES, Commodore 64, arcade hits, etc.) There are very few gamers out there who truly have a sense of the history as a whole.
Mark: The gaming history is quite different world wide. In Europe the video game crash was less severe as at the time there was a lot of video-gaming on the home computer sy
stems of that era: C64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, MSX. More so than on consoles which were less popular. In the US the Arcade machines were abundant as were arcades. In The Netherlands Arcade machines were less easily accessed, only in bigger cities like Amsterdam Arcades were to be found. Nowadays Arcades are a rare sight in quite a lot of European countries.
Most young kids lack a sense of gaming history, even a lot of teens know very little beyond the original playstation and Snes/N64. Of course big 'icons' like pac-man and space invaders are so interwoven in our culture that virtually everybody knows what those games are about. Unlike music and art videogames are still treated as a disposable consumption product. Modern distribution methods like heavily protected downloadable content on closed systems – that surely won't last forever – only add to the disposable character of videogames. It is a shame as videogames have become a large part of our culture and have a big influence on how people make decisions and solve problems but at the same time these games are treated with fear and condemned for inducing violence. Videogames should be treated with more respect and a better knowledge of them would actually give the 'fearful' a more tolerant realistic view on them.
4) If there is one event, game, or historical period of gaming you wish people understood or knew better, what is it?
Bill: One of my frustrations with typical historical coverage has always been the distinction between videogames – primarily consoles – and computers. You’re lucky if the Apple II or Commodore 64 get a brief mention, let alone the dozens of other computer platforms over the years that are part of our rich history. I’ve made it a point to never make such a distinction, partly because my own interests have always been in both areas, and partly because it’s almost impossible to separate the two, since there was so much cross-over and influence. Even today, it’s easy for some to dismiss a platform like the iPhone as somehow a different beast, but the reality is it plays videogames just like a console or PC and is a hugely popular platform, so it would be negligent to ignore it.
Matt: As Bill mentioned, I've seen countless "histories" that don't even mention Commodore or Amiga computers (to say nothing of lesser known systems like the Tandy CoCo), and some don't even mention Apple! It's really absurd what passes for history sometimes. What's really sad is that there are so many great ideas that weren't fully explored and are just screaming to be revisited by modern developers. Take the game Archon, for instance, or Wizball. If developers would take more time to study history, they'd never run out of ideas.
Mark: Like I said, in most other parts of the world besides the US, 'gaming histories' are very much centered around the home computer systems Bill and Matt mentioned. Console-heavy gaming histories couldn't be more 'off' in my neck of the woods. Arcades were much less accessible so most kids actually got their first pac-man action on one of the micro computers and/or a console.
5) Tell us a bit about your other related projects -books and so forth.
Bill: Matt and I wrote “Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time” back in 2008, and it was published in early 2009. We were both a bit down on the initial concept, but decided we could take the subject and put our own spin on it and make it into something special. While one of 34 of the most influential and important games of all time is the focus of each of the book’s chapters, we use those games as a launch pad to discuss its predecessors and antecedents and everything in the periphery. It gave us an opportunity to leverage our gaming past and present, as well as flex our research muscles. It was a lot of work in a short period of time, but I’m very proud of the results, particularly the fact that it’s full color throughout. We also got to mention hundreds of games and dozens of systems, many of which have never been seen before in a book. I’m proud that it’s a fun read for the casual enthusiast as well as a valuable tool for the student or researcher. That’s a tough mix that I think we pulled off nicely.
Mark: I did provide the graphic used on the cover of both the Italian and the English books. My name is printed just above the bar-code, the best spot on the cover 😛
Bill: In 2009, I worked on “Wii Fitness for Dummies” with my wife, Christina, and it was released in February 2010. I’ve always had a passion for videogames and fitness, so this was a natural fit. I love how it turned out. Initially, it was only on “Wii Fit”, but after Nintendo announced “Wii Fit Plus”, we were forced to scrap that version of the book (“Wii Fit for Dummies”) and start over in its new form. So not only does it cover “Wii Fit Plus”, but also “EA Sports Active: Personal Trainer” and “Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010”, as well as good exercise form and theory and other component of Wii fitness. It’s a better book for it, I think, and will have far longer shelf life. What’s interesting in that in some bookstores it’s shelved under fitness instead of gaming, so that’s an interesting twist.
Finally, Matt and I are still working on the feature film documentary, “Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution” for Lux Digital Pictures. We’ve been at it since early 2009 and hope to finish by the end of 2010. It covers the complete history of our industry, from the 1940s to the present day and beyond. We scored some great interviews with industry greats as well, and, like “Vintage Games”, you’ll see games and systems never before seen on film.
Of course many other projects are in the planning stages or backburnered for when there’s more time in the future. Tiring, but terribly exciting times!
Matt: I wrote Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games back in 2008. It was based on a series of articles that originated on Armchair Arcade and ended up being published on Gamasutra. It was a blast to write and really got me excited about the future of game history. I've been wanting to write a similar book on adventure games, but may end up doing an academic book on virtual worlds instead.
Mark: Matt and Bill have worked very hard on the above film documentary and I provide quite a bit of game play footage that is going to be used in the film. Nothing more though, it's Bill's and Matt's project together with the people from Lux Digital Pictures.
6) Has doing the site helped your career – or has it just been fun?
Bill: Well, it has certainly helped my freelance career, and has lent legitimacy to my book proposals when pitching ideas to my agent and publishers. My primary career – the one that pays the bills – is not really affected one way or the other by my freelance activities. Who knows though what the future will bring, though? Since co-founding Armchair Arcade back in 2003 did I think it would lead to books and a film? Absolutely not
. I’ll just keep on doing my thing, keep Armchair Arcade as my base of operations, and see where it all takes me. I still have a lot of fire in my belly. As for it being fun… Most of the time, absolutely. Of course when you’re knee deep in work and just want to take a nap, it’s not so much fun, but the pay off in satisfaction (if not money) at the end of the day is well worth it. Certainly having guys like Matt and Mark as my wing-men helps considerably. Knowing someone understands you, has your back and you theirs really helps take the edge off any low points.
Matt: It's greatly helped my career. It's not only given me legitimacy as a games scholar, but has led to so many publishing opportunities that have spurred my academic career. The university is very supportive of my work. I'm very happy about that; I'd hate to have the great love of my life–games–be just a hobby and unrelated to my job.
Mark: Not sure if it helped my career. As a psychiatrist I actually also treat people with gaming and internet addiction and I play and write about games myself. It does help me 'connect' with people when their therapist actually knows what ' War of Warcraft ' or ' Battlefield 1942 ' or ' Final Fantasy ' is all about.
7) Any closing thoughts for people looking at the game industry?
Bill: Don’t underestimate either the people in it or the potential of the industry itself. There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of great thinkers, and a lot that’s incredibly interesting. Videogames are so interwoven into society now that there’s no chance of them going anywhere, and in fact the future is limitless. Let’s embrace it!
Matt: My advice is to start small. If you want to make games, learn how to do simple things like putting objects on the screen, moving them around, adding sound, and so on. You really need to invest thousands of hours into this; it can't just be a means to an end–you have to enjoy doing these things in and of themselves. Once you've got the basics down, hook up with some like-minded people and start doing things as a team. I'd target systems like the iPhone, iPad, casual PC, Mac, and perhaps a handheld like the DSi. If you get to the point where you can make the very best iPhone games out there, you WILL get noticed and make lots of money.
If your dream is to make big budget AAA titles, you may want to reconsider. The teams are so large that you'd probably end up just doing a bit part, and you won't (at least initially) have much creative involvement or control at all. That works fine for some people, but I'd try to get into a smaller team at least initially. Personally, I'd rather make casual games with a small, intimate team than work on the next Madden game with a few hundred (thousand?) virtually anonymous people.
Mark: Learn how to program simple things on an accessible system and learn about game theory and game mechanics. Making a lightshow, scrolling text and moving objects around the screen does help. Also design bitmaps, pixel art and sound and try work that into simple arcade-like games like pac-man, platform games or simple shoot'm ups. Fairly easy to achieve on the old home computer systems as they often did come with a basic programming language. Nowadays it's a little tougher to have access to such platforms as computers have become more user friendly and programming isn't one of the user friendly things to do on a system.
Today universities – especially in the UK – or centers for higher education are offering introductionary courses on game development. Sometimes game developing studios offer introductions and ' open house' kind of sessions. Working in the game-industry is hard, long hours, deadlines. Wrecks havoc on social life or relationships – especially when families and children are involved. At the same time it's wonderful and something I thought about doing myself before entering medical school.
Let's thank Bill, Matt, and Mark for their interview – and be sure to check out the site!
– Steven Savage