Sunday, December 6, 2009

Portrait of videogames as a young industry: Q&A with Leonard Herman

And so a new industry was born. It has had its ups and downs but it has mostly kept on roaring ahead in step with technology. It has done its share of contributing to great technical advancements in the art of displaying complex graphics on a display. Most importantly, it has put imaginative, interactive gaming within reach of everybody.

Ralph H. Baer ( in the Preface to Phoenix)

Upon confirming the indefinite delay of a fourth edition whose creation is still in progress, Leonard Herman has decided to reprint the third edition of his milestone Phoenix The Fall & Rise of Videogames, previously released in 2001. While a decade has passed since its original publication, this last existing edition of his original 1994 book continues to be one of the most valuable resources on the subject of videogame history, covering the events of a time line that starts in 1970 (with a comprehensive introduction on computer history starting in the early days of Pascal) up until 2001 and the emerging 128-Bit console systems.

Phoenix has warranted strong reactions in what relates to its particular style of writing: whereas some are very keen and enthusiastic on its impassive chronicle, others have discredited the book for being an unpleasant and far from compelling read. As soon as I got my hands on the book I immediately began to understand how Herman’s scientific and largely unbiased writing method may be perceived as expressionless. Notwithstanding, this is a book regarding the History of videogames: and one so impartial and scientific in the way it addresses the subject at hand that one can't help but recommend it and vouch for it.

Not unlike other popular publications that succeeded it, in Phoenix should only expect to find the history of how videogames became a leading form of entertainment in North-America – the cradle of the early industry models – but also the critical stage for Japan’s rush for global home console market domination. In truth, the composition of a book concerning the global history of the videogame business could not happen without the active collaboration of several experts around the world performing a cooperative research. Ambitions of an ideal and all-encompassing volume on the history of videogames apart, there is no denying that Herman’s solo research has gathered enough data to make any of his book editions a complete guide to help the reader build an accurate mental picture of the home console chronology (computer games not being an actual priority to this work); or to simply be used as a reference in studies or mere fact checking.

The origins of this compilation of the videogame reality date back to several years before its actual release. I first understood the difficulties implied in the publication of a book of this kind so early in the 1990’s decade after contacting the author about that matter. I was surprised to learn that while the videogame industry had risen from its complete inexistence to one of the most profitable businesses on a global scale in a matter of a few decades, no book publisher was willing to risk the sponsoring of Herman’s book. Even today, Phoenix Fall and Rise and its publisher, Rolenta Press, remain an epitome of independent book publishing - its presentation simple and humble unlike that of most game-related books. And hardly ever has the expression do not judge a book by its cover been so appropriate: Phoenix is unquestionably one of the most important studies ever made on the subject of videogame History.

Mr. Herman was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding this object of his pursuit, a dynamic and sporadically revised information resource that continues to renew itself with every new inprint.

CoreGaming : Phoenix is often presented as the first true account of the videogame history. Please tell me a little more about its origins and the difficulties implied in the publication of this sort of book given th the year of its original release.

Leonard Herman : In 1982 I began writing a book called ABC To The VCS, which was a directory of all of the games that were available for the Atari 2600. After the crash, I realized that there would be very little demand for such a book so I scrapped it. Around 1986, I thought about writing a similar book about the NES, but I really didn’t relish the thought of doing it, especially since at the time I wasn’t a fan of Nintendo and didn’t even own an NES! However I didn’t want to give up the idea about writing a book about videogames.

For a while I began writing a book about each of the videogame companies, such as Atari, and Mattel. But a lot of the information overlapped. So that was when I got the idea of writing a chronological history of videogames, since such a book didn’t exist.

I spent the four years writing the book, using my large collection of magazines and press kits as source (since the Internet as we know it didn’t exist yet). My goal was to get the book published in 1992, which was the 20th anniversary of the release of the Odyssey and Pong. Unfortunately, No publishers were interested. Prima, which eventually published Steve Kent’s book in 2001, wrote to me in an August 1993 letter: “…we believe there is not enough interest in the general history of video games at this time.”

In 1994 I learned about self-publishing so I founded Rolenta Press and published Phoenix that way.

CoreGaming : Sometime ago you presented the fourth edition of Phoenix as a book containing information about the last years in the industry of videogames. However you decided not to move forward with the fourth edition for now and publish the 3rd once again. What originated that decision and how actual (or up-to-date) do you think this book today?

Leonard Herman : Well I am moving forward with the fourth edition, however the work is not progressing as quickly as I would like. In addition to adding new chapters, I have also decided to update the entire book, and fix any errors that have been in there that I’m aware of. I’m also including Japanese system prior to the Famicom so that is additional research that has to be done. And sometimes I get held up for stupid little reasons.

For example, in 1989 View-Master released the Interactive Vision. I found information from several places citing that this system was awarded “Game of the Year”. The only problem was I couldn’t find who gave it that award! I contacted the Toy Industry of America, but they’re records only went back to 2001. I even contacted one of the designers of the console, and while he remembered the system getting the prize, he couldn’t remember who it got the prize from. I spent over a month looking for this information and finally had to give up on it.

CoreGaming : Since you first decided to research the subject of videogame history, many other authors and researchers have been publishing their own books regarding the history of videogames: either focusing on specific contents, like David Sheff and his Game Over History of Nintendo; or more broad and wide-randing like Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames and Russel deMaria's High Score. What do you think that Phoenix offers to readers today that none of these books does?

Leonard Herman : Actually, the first edition of David Sheff’s book came out before mine. Anyway, one of my best supporters is Steve Kent, who tells everyone that our books complement each other. While his book tells the story of videogames through the words of the actual participants, mine is an encyclopedia of all the little details that aren’t covered anywhere else.

One of the main criticisms of the book is that the writing is dry and not entertaining. This was done by design. The book was written to educate, not to entertain.

CoreGamer : As a researcher, you must have spent thousands of hours going through different sources of information regarding videogames. Of all the interesting episodes in the history of videogames, which one do you think is the most enticing?

Leonard Herman : One of my favorite stories is the story of Tetris. In fact, for the 4th edition I’m removing it from the main body of the book and inserting it into a Focus On section where it stands out by itself.

CoreGaming : Finally, as someone who has been particularly close to videogame issues and debates since their dawn, how do you see the industry today? Were there such dramatic changes or are things closely the same as to what they were two or three decades ago, in spite of the drastic popularity increase?

Leonard Herman : Well three decades ago everything was new, so any change was a dramatic one! But we are still seeing new things today. The Wii changed forever how humans interact with videogames (although Nintendo wasn’t the first to do it). The only difference between now and 30 years ago was that the dramatic changes took place a lot more often back then.

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