To a lot of gamers video games have been a daily part of our lives for an incredibly long time, or at least since we were old enough to hold a controller, mash some buttons, and deduct that shooting the bad guy or repeatedly hitting them guarantees us complete victory. The history of video games may not seem that deep since most people know about the established systems like the Atari, the SNES, and the Sega Genesis, but there’s a lot about the video game industry that predates the late 1970s and there are countless stories behind each console or game that holds us a special place in our hearts.
The medium of video games as an entertainment form may still be young compared to film and even TV, but the history is deep and is something that deserves to be archived for future generations or even those who have just started out gaming to become aware that important games did pre-date things like Halo and Call of Duty.
Thankfully there’s someone out there who not only cares about video games but cares about their history as well and that person happens to be Rusel DeMaria. A veteran writer of the video game press industry, Rusel is hoping to give gamers an updated account of video game history in a 3rd edition of his book High Score!: The Illustrated History of Video Games. Previously released in 2002 and then reprinted in 2003, High Score provided an in-depth account of video game history from the old days in the 1970s up til the 2000s through interviews with those who helped establish the industry such as 3DO and EA founder Trip Hawkins along with taking us to the early era of games in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
To release a 3rd edition of High Score filled with new interviews and segments on games released in the last few years Rusel has taken to Kickstarter to raise awareness on the project and ultimately receive the funding he needs to make the book a reality. It may sound odd that the Kickstarter craze has caught on so much that now projects involving video game books are on the site, but I think it’s something gamers should take note of as it’s important to recognize the past of video games as we move on in various ways as the years progress.
“I don’t know if Kickstarter is going to be the big game changer but it definitely is a game changer in the idea of crowdsourcing funding is pretty radical. It allows people to do things that otherwise they couldn’t do like this book,” said Rusel in an interview with me when asked of the almost ever growing impact Kickstarter has made in the video game industry over the last two months.
On the nature of Kickstarter and the success one can achieve on the site Rusel said, “Well Kickstarter is not an easy thing and I found that out when I started it. You really have to work it and you have to work hard at it to make it successful. How you present your project helps and I’ve seen some projects where they did a little video that really got me interested and I thought this was cool and interesting.” Rusel went on to say, “But if it isn’t compelling it’s not going to get much attention. Secondly, and this is another thing I found out, people want something back. Most people will not just give you money to do a project no matter how much they like it. They want to get something back in a tangible form so you have to think of things to give to your donors.”
With Rusel’s High Score Kickstarter page he certainly has hit an attention grabber as far as interesting things to give back to those who made pledges to the project. Besides offering fairly standard things such as free copies of the book, a t-shirt, or being acknowledged in the book, Rusel will also be giving gamers a chance to have dinner with industry veterans such as David Perry (former head of Shiny and current honcho at Galkai), former Microsoft Game Studios head Ed Fries, and none other than id Software co-founder and DOOM creator John Romero. All in all those are some rather nice Kickstarter prizes for those who opt to pledge.
High Score may be bound for release as an “old-fashioned” book if all goes according to plan, but Rusel revealed that a digital version is in the works and may have a more interactive element to it. "One of my future projects is going to be what I would call is a deluxe e-book and I’ve been trying to talk to people who have the technology for what I want to do and that would be an interactive and much more complete treatment of all the material that I have,” said Rusel. It sounds like we could receive a rather sizeable e-book as Rusel continued to say, “I can’t put everything into the print book that I have. I have longer interviews, lots more graphical material, rare stuff that I can’t do justice to in the print book. So that’s one of my future plans is to offer that and I have thoughts to do a website as well which would be very interactive.”
I was a fan of High Score back when it was released in 2002 so I’m really excited to possibly see the book return, this time for a new generation, if the project gets off the ground thanks to Kickstarter. Right now with only eight days left the project is just $4,000 short of its $25,000 goal so it’s not too far away from being successful. But of course the difference between success and failure lays within gamers out there as the project will only get off the ground if you fine people decide to pledge money towards the project. I think High Score is a worthy cause in the end since Rusel is one of the few people out there that cares about games enough to chronicle their history in book form and it’s essentially become the go-to source for such a thing at this point.
If you want to make a pledge to High Score then head over to the Kickstarter page. Also, you can check out the full interview I conducted with Rusel which covers a few other topics as well since Rusel has been in the industry for over thirty years.
Ian Fisher: With your goal to get a 3rd edition of High Score printed you went the Kickstarter route to drum up awareness and hopefully receive the funding you need to help make the book a reality again. Kickstarter has gotten a huge boost of interest as of late thanks to developers such as Tim Schafer going that route to fund projects that otherwise would never receive funding from a developer. So what do you think the ultimate impact of Kickstarter will be on the video game industry? Will it be minimal to an extent since only major developers can get receiving the funding they require or do you think it’ll finally catch on so that lesser known companies with an interesting concept can get funding and get their projects off the ground?
Rusel DeMaria: It definitely has had some impact now with Tim and InXile with getting Wasteland 2 through Kickstarter and in both of them being far more successful than I think anyone had expected. There are lot of smaller game projects getting funded as well. I don’t know if Kickstarter is going to be the big game changer but it definitely is a game changer in the idea of crowdsourcing funding is pretty radical. It allows people to do things that otherwise they couldn’t do like this book. I really can’t afford to spend the four to six months working on it and people don’t realize that publishers really can’t support their authors for that long. So the decision I made was to try the Kickstarter route, see if I can get enough money, and then worry about the future after that.
Ian: As you said Kickstarter is somewhat of a game changer but do you think the success we’ve seen with Double Fine is too focused on established studios? I’ve spoken to developers who have had Kickstarter projects that weren’t successful, one of them being an indie studio while the other is currently making the Tony Hawk games for Activision. So do you think Kickstarter has to mature a bit or that gamers and those who follow Kickstarter just need to be more aware of projects that aren’t funded by a particular studio they love?
Rusel: Well Kickstarter is not an easy thing and I found that out when I started it. You really have to work it and you have to work hard at it to make it successful. How you present your project helps and I’ve seen some projects where they did a little video that really got me interested and I thought this was cool and interesting. But if it isn’t compelling it’s not going to get much attention. Secondly, and this is another thing I found out, people want something back. Most people will not just give you money to do a project no matter how much they like it. They want to get something back in a tangible form so you have to think of things to give to your donors, the people who pledge to you, something that makes them feel good.
Ian: Just like video games, books are in this weird place where people are keener to download a book or a game rather than buy a physical copy if that option is available. It may be early to say, but will there be any plans to release a digital version of High Score if all goes according to plan and if such a thing does happen would you want to have any interactive elements to it?
Rusel: One of my future projects is going to be what I would call is a deluxe e-book and I’ve been trying to talk to people who have the technology for what I want to do and that would be an interactive and much more complete treatment of all the material that I have. I can’t put everything into the print book that I have. I have longer interviews, lots more graphical material, rare stuff that I can’t do justice to in the print book. So that’s one of my future plans is to offer that and I have thoughts to do a website as well which would be very interactive.
Ian: Looking back at some of the games you’ve covered in High Score and some of the folks you talked to I kind of think that some video games have lost something special in their simplicity and perhaps the immediate pick up and play action that arcade games presented. Back in the 1980s and 1990s there were a lot of pioneers in the industry, some of whom you’ve talked to, and these days it seems like true originality amongst developers is limited and games are ruled by whatever themes the market dictates as popular and in at that moment. So do you think that video games have lost that something special which makes them totally unique in this modern era?
Rusel: I think there’s a lot of truth to that or there has been but in the last decade so much has changed. Now with mobile games and social games and games that have a much lower cost to entry and quicker turnaround times there’s a lot more innovation coming along. Then we got people like students who did Portal and indie developers who are growing in numbers and are much like the original pioneers of the industry by doing experimental games like Braid. I think we’re reaching a new time in the industry where what was true about 10 years ago when it was very corporate and risk averse now there are people willing to take risks and do new things and expand our ability to do games that are just not by the book. I think this is a very positive thing for the industry and I still love some of the games that come out from the big companies and I see a balance. Games are becoming bigger and bigger and people are playing them so all I can say is that it’s great.
Ian: Having seen video games change through the years and chronicling their history in a book, do you think we’ll see a big shift of sorts in the next few years thanks to the ever growing rise of popularity iOS based gaming is receiving?
Rusel: I think that mobile types of gaming definitely are one of the areas that are growing and will continue to grow. It’s so portable and so available that it makes sense to have games on your phone or your iPad or whatever the future will hold for that. But I also think that there’s going to be a place for some kind of console type of thing and with cloud based computing there are a lot of different directions things may be going. As there was a big change going to digital downloads as opposed to exclusively brick and mortar stores I think there may be new directions like Galkai, OnLive, and Steam where we never really need to go anywhere, we just can download them and start playing them.
Ian: Being a writer and a longtime member of the video game industry, what are your thoughts on the modern state of video game journalism? Obviously writing books about games is different than that of covering news, reviews and features, but are you generally pleased with how the press industry has grown since the old era of magazine publications in the 1990s to how things are with web based publications or do you think there’s a lot of room for improvement?
Rusel: Games journalism was never that scientific in the beginning and I think very few people who were writing about games in the early days had any kind of journalism background – including me I didn’t have any journalism background and I just liked writing. I think there are better and worse types of people doing this; there are people who I think are unprofessional and people who I think are fantastically professional so I think there’s no single answer. The one thing that’s interesting is that there’s such a wide range of different people, different types of websites, different genre focus and that type of thing. I think that when people find a site that they trust that’s going to give them good information it’s all to the good for them.
Ian: So if all goes according to plan when could we expect to see the new edition of High Score made available?
Rusel: My hope is that it might be released by November or so but that’s more hopeful than necessarily a firm plan. These things really don’t… how do I say this… it never goes in a smooth arc. There’s always these backtracks, stumbling blocks, people you can’t reach that you need to, permissions you need to get from people so I don’t have a firm schedule but that would be my preference if I can have it out by November. I definitely want to have it out by GDC next March so I meet with people there and have some of the industry pioneers sign it for the people who donated. And if this project is funded over the goal by a certain amount I want to have a party at GDC that everybody who backs the project will be invited to and there will be industry pioneers at that party.
Huge thanks to Rusel for chatting with me and if you want to support the new edition of High Score then head over to the Kickstarter page.