SXSW: Ernest Cline, Intellivision forebears talk impact of early games

March 13, 2015 | 4:09 p.m.

THE PLAYER

AUSTIN, Texas — Video game conferences are places to wow with new tech – virtual reality headsets that may or may not become commonplace, or upcoming games boasting hi-def cinematics.

But the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas, began with a casual look back, celebrating in its Friday morning talks the everlasting influence of an early video game console, the Intellivision, as well as retired games from the ’80s and ’90s. There were laughs, such as a look at a little-known Japanese game like “Uncle Poo,” in which flatulence was power, and there were attempts to connect the days of old to the video game industry of today – and of the future.

The Intellivision console was poplar in the early '80s. (Intellivision Productions, Inc)

The Intellivision console was poplar in the early ’80s. (Intellivision Productions, Inc)

In separate talks, “Ready Player One” novelist Ernest Cline offered sci-fi visions of where we’re heading, and Intellivision President Keith Robinson spoke of the dark days of video game past, namely the crash of 1983, which eventually led to Intellivision maker Mattel abandoning the console.

The culprit? Too many games and too many bad games.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Robinson doesn’t assign blame to quickly churned-out licensed games such as “E.T.” that hurt the pre-Nintendo Entertainment System industry.

“I think more damaging was a game like ‘Pac-Man,’” Robinson said. “It was a game [people] knew in the arcade but they took it home to play it on the Intellivision and the Atari and it was horrible.”

Another factor: Console makers didn’t receive any revenue from games sold, a fact that would forever change the industry. Nintendo, for instance, with the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the early-to-mid 80s, instituted an officially licensed program.

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“When a company put a game on an Intellivision cartridge, they made money. Mattel didn’t,” Robinson said. “If someone had a kit, we didn’t make any money. The industry today works on a different dynamic. Any company today can make a game on the PlayStation, but you have to have Sony make the disc for you.”

But these were not hard-core business talks.

More fun were tidbits that led to Intellivision games such as “Thin Ice.” Originally developed by Japanese company Data East, the game in its first incarnation was known as “Disco No. 1.” It was nixed as sexist, as the game required male skaters to skate circles around female skaters, essentially entrapping them. The game was remade with penguins.

Some such old games are at risk of forever being lost. Jason Scott of the Internet Archive has created an online video game library that emulates vintage games.

“You would be impoverished not to know the story of Intellivision and video games and home consoles,” said Scott.

As an example, he cited a computer game called “Snack Attack II,” an early riff on “Pac-Man.” It’s largely forgotten, but one of its developers was Michael Abrash, who would eventually go on to become a well-known programmer and today is working in the virtual reality space.

Author Cline spoke of how early video games shaped “Ready Player One” and will continue to inform his upcoming novel, “Armada.” Cline said the new book was inspired by how “Star Wars” impacted the video game industry, citing a “Star Wars”-influenced game such as “Space Invaders.”

“The idea behind ‘Armada’ is that was all by design, to teach us all to control drones to fight off an alien infestation,” Cline said. “That fantasy of all these video game skills I’ve been honing — what if they had value in real life?”

It gets right to the core appeal of games, Cline said. “The role video games fill in society is they fill this hunter-gatherer need,” he said.

“All of us are hardwired by millions of years of human evolution to form teams, hunt, gather … social climb, organize things,” he continued. “These are things that are hardwired into us that we don’t do anymore. We sit in cubicles and we do things that are not related to our hunter-gatherer tribal instincts. Video games let us do all that. They let us form clans and find treasures and conquer worlds. Humans are explorers.”

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.

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