Sounds of Success: An Interview with David Warhol

Posted: February 23, 2011 in Retro
Tags: , ,


Dave’s appearance in the credits level of Zombies Ate My Neighbors

At last month’s Intellivision Lives! event I was introduced to David Warhol, Blue Sky Ranger and President of developer Realtime Associates. He was nice enough to grant me an interview on the gaming industry, serious games, and market oversaturation.

 BnB: First, what got you involved in game development?

DW: I got my start professionally in 1982 at Mattel Electronics as a game designer/programmer, which was my first job right out of college.  I was always a fan of classic arcade machines which had become popular by that time, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Defender, those things, and my family had an Atari 2600.   Looking back a little earlier, I was writing games played on teletypes over 300 baud dial-up modems connected to our school district’s computer (which I also inadvertently crashed for a day and a half while I was poking around on it…).  And looking further back, when I was in about the fourth grade, I would get together with friends and design and then play our own board games.  So I have always been interested in them, and have been fortunate enough to have been working in them my whole life.


BnB: Since you’ve been in the industry since it began, how have things changed for independent companies like Realtime Associates?

 DW: When teams were smaller, it was easier to keep everyone moving productively.  We always had something in pre-production, something in production, and something in test.  So we could move artists, designers and programmers to different projects more readily.  With larger games, unless you’re doing many of them simultaneously, you need a much smaller staff at the beginning and ending of a cycle, so balancing the labor throughout becomes more tricky.  This seems to me why, once indies get to be a certain size for them to do front line work for a publisher, the publisher will often buy them out.  Things are more license driven nowadays too, and people specialize much more across the board.  We used to have 3D modelers who would build, texture, rig and animate a model, now those are four different disciplines.  It wasn’t uncommon for a team lead programmer to design and develop a tool as well as write the engine that ran the data from the tool.

BnB: Serious games were one of the subjects you brought up at the Intellivision Lives event that really caught my interest. While it’s (from the research I’ve done) actually a surprisingly large field, is there a particular niche you find yourself working in?

DW: Realtime has been working in serious games that address health care (Re-Mission, Cool School) and military applications (JFETS, ELECT Bi-LAT), though on the latter we work for agencies who work for the government, instead of working directly for the government.  I’m surprised you consider it a large field!  There seem to be so few large scale serious games efforts from my perspective.  One problem with serious games is that it’s hard to find a customer; in entertainment software, there are like ten companies to bring your ideas to; in serious games, there’s tens of thousands of doors to knock on.

BnB: I was reading up on your resume at MobyGames and I noticed you did the sound engine and work on Zombies Ate my Neighbors. Now I’m totally geeking out about that. I think anyone who’s played it for more than an hour has the neighbor’s scream burned into their brain with a big “Oh no!” response. (Speaking of which, I’ve attached an image from the “Credits Level”). Considering sounds like that, and certain others (like the sound of Pac Man’s chomps or Mario’s coins), are instantly recognizable to the people who have played these games, do you find that sound in games (or film for that matter) can be just as important as the images on screen?

DW: Thanks for the Zombie comment and screen shot. I forgot about that! Based on the picture I think I must have hired George “Fatman” Sanger to write the music.

Even as an (ex-) audio designer, I don’t think that audio is as important as the images on the screen, in VIDEOgames that is. That being said, a few years back, we released an AUDIOgame for the iPhone / iPod touch called Soul Trapper. We call the genre “audio adventures”, they are like an interactive radio drama or an audio version of a text adventure. If in a videogame you get most/all of the gameplay cues from the screen, in Soul Trapper you get all of the gameplay from stereo earphones (mandatory). It’s an interactive narrative interwoven with action and memory-based mini-games. (First four chapters are free in the app store, and we have a couple videos on You Tube, check it out!).

There have been a couple games where the voice acting was so bad I stopped playing the game. That doesn’t happen that often.

BnB: When you’re not working on games, do you still play a lot of them? Or do you prefer to spend time on other pursuits outside of work?

DW: I play games outside of work a lot, half having fun and half doing critical analysis (pacing, artwork, interface, you name it…).  Fun part of the job!  I have a WoW character up to level 85, keep cycling through a few casual/Facebook games, and play at least a couple hours of the major console releases.

BnB: Finally, in light of Activision dropping their Guitar Hero series recently, do you think the license/franchise-driven attitudes of the current gaming market are good for developers and gamers? Or are they simply responsible for stagnation and brands being dropped at the first sign of sagging profits?

DW: I don’t have any bad things to say against publishers who move away from product areas that are not performing or that have passed their prime.  Technically, a publisher’s job is to make money, not to make games.  Their shareholders demand it.  Someone somewhere does the math and makes the call, fair game.

Licenses are important for sales as a platform matures.  If you look at the launch of a console, that’s when the new IPs come out.  After a while you need a license to break through the noise.  I’d rather have games be about gameplay first and foremost.  But that’s not a universally held notion.  We did a real-time spell-casting prototype, gosh, ten years ago that we didn’t sell.  But if we threw Harry Potter on it, I think it would have been awesome!

The sudden move away from music games has to do with a couple things in my opinion.  One, a lot of the margin is in selling the peripherals, and once pretty much everyone who wanted one had one, business volumes slowed down much faster than if it was a game franchise alone.  Managing that kind of inventory is more expensive than just the software.  A second thing is that so many group/artist variations were released that it kind of saturated, I’m reminded of the Army Men franchise from 3DO ten years or so ago.

I still have a lot of hope for the music genre in ways that aren’t manifested by Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

BnB:  And on a final, fun note, what kind of music do you like listening to?

DW: Wow, that’s all over the place… I’m a big fan of Brian Eno, William Orbit, guitarists like Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, and Steve Morse (& the Dixie Dregs).  I listen to a lot of soundtracks, particularly Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Wall-E, to name only a couple).  Whenever I travel abroad I tune in to the local music TV channels and pick up international pop, that’s fun because you get all of the emotion and power of the music without having a clue as to what they are singing about.  I own a lot of classic rock too.  And the classics themselves, I find orchestral music written from about 1800 on to be interesting, big favorites there are Beethoven, Ravel, Strauss, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, Copeland, Prokokief….

BnB: You’ve got interesting and good taste, sir! I fruitlessly tried to emulate Steve Vai’s guitar playing style throughout high school! Since you’ve done music and sound for a variety of games, did you find a lot of those diverse influences creeping in?

 DW: When I was writing music, my classical background gave me my best pieces.  My personal favorite is the C64 Pool Of Radiance which was patterned after Wagner (there’s a brief quote from Sigfried in there, hah!).  And I liked the music for Adventure Construction Set too, the fugue in that actually was from a class assignment I did once.  Though I listen to a lot of rock/pop music too, I don’t think my rock writing for games was particularly  profound, my best work was when I would work with another composer and then do the arrangement/adaptation to the console myself.  When I originally was doing music and sound for games, it was because you had to be technical as well to get the most out of the console.  Once MIDI became established and enabled non-technical people to contribute compositions, I went on to other things (well, producing games).

Thanks to Dave for being such a good sport and granting the interview. It was great chatting with you!


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