Our next Trading Card Spotlight features John Newcomer, who currently is displayed on card number 626 from the Superstars of 2014 Collection. John is the creator of the ever-popular game “Joust”. Joust is considered one of the golden age games from the original arcade era. A toy designer by trade, John hired by Williams to invigorate the pinball company. While there he joined up with a team and created a non-fighter, non-shooter arcade game. Joust was an instant success and still is popular today in arcades. In 1999 John shifted his creative skills to the mobile gaming genre. He has been involved as a lead designer, design manager and creative director for several global companies. John is currently a senior designer making casual mobile games.
Permission to use these answers granted provided: prior knowledge is given and recognition that John was the source of the answers.
What inspired you to create Joust?
Several things. First, was a longtime love for fantasy and science fiction… movies and comic books and Frazetta. Second, I thought there was a hole in the market for a flying game and the twist would be to NOT use spaceships or planes. Third, I did my homework on commonality of fantasy and dreams. I saw studies that showed people wished they could fly, have flying be their super-power, have flying be a gut level wish for freedom. What gets you closer to such a feeling is to be a bird (or other flying creature) or be on a bird… not enclosed in a mechanical contraption.
Do you remember when you created your first video game or arcade and what do you remember about the experience?
I had made some handheld electronic games as a toy inventor working for Gordon Barlow (a renowned inventor for decades and my mentor). These were mostly the toy industry’s push to grab the coattails of the beginning of the arcade phenomenon with Space Invaders and the first wave of arcade classics. Working on these gave me an appreciation for what went into arcade games and how these coin-op classics were sure to evolve into the future of game entertainment.
I learned what I could from going to the arcades, and then shifted my career to coin-op. I was hired by Williams Electronics as a lead designer and team lead. My first game was Joust. It was a transition period for the company as Larry DeMar and Eugene Jarvis had left the company to form Vid Kidz. Now Williams had to look for other ways to get ideas for new games internally and form new groups to support production in addition to what they would get from Vid Kidz externally. The timing provided the opportunity. Williams was one of the first companies to entertain the possibility of a non-programmer to design and lead a game, interacting with all the departments, which was something a toy inventor was accustomed to doing. I believe Williams was more willing to do this since they had experience having non-programmer designers lead their pinball projects. My first task was to look for holes in the market and come up with a few rough game ideas (Joust was one of three top concepts I was pitching). Then, pinball programmer Bill Pfutzenreuter, became available and wanted to work on the Joust concept and move to video. I wrote a game design (something very few designers of that time did) so there would be a more complete vision to start with and iterate. Bill (Pfutz) and I worked very closely on how to translate the concept to fit the limits of the technology and perfect some of the rules. Jan Hendricks was then added to create the animations. She was also fairly new to Williams, and it was her ability to make realistic pixelated characters that was an integral part of the game. Basically, we had the right fit to break the traditional rules currently available at the arcades. And Williams was in a place where they were open to giving a maverick a chance. I campaigned for breaking some rules to allow for how these games could evolve and branch in more directions.
Did you ever think Joust would still be in the mainstream media and still played today?
I always wondered how long the classic games would still be played considering all the advancement in tech, game evolution, and cultural changes. Have always found it cool to see some of these classic games get a second look and still have a niche of players who remember them. And am appreciative of those who keep the history alive.
How long did it take to create Joust and what was the first impression?
Exactly 6 months. Williams was a manufacturer with a hungry production line that had to keep going. You couldn’t release a dog, but you also didn’t have the luxury to evolve the game until it was perfect or else you could literally watch real people on the assembly line get laid off. We had to be on time so Joust could start ramping up as Robotron was ending its run.
The first impression was complicated to explain. Most of the time while the game was being developed, it was done quietly by the immediate team and not many outside the team understood what it was. When it started to become visible in the halls for anyone to play many didn’t know what to think because the game was so different. There were sceptics, some vocal whose opinions carried weight that were quite negative because it wasn’t a fast action macho shooter. There were doubts about two-player simultaneous play as well. One industry expert was consulted by our President to review the game and his opinion was pretty brutal… coming just prior to being taken to our first secret test at a local arcade in Batavia, IL. I will always be grateful that our upper management held their ground and let us go through with the test without changes (Pres. Mike Stroll; VP Engineering Ken Fedesna; Software Manager Paul Dussault; VP Sales Joe Dillon and others). This was quite a risk for them, but fortunately it paid off. Joust did very well on the first test and then on our wider test across the Chicago area, and then at key arcades across the country. As hoped, Joust filled a void for players looking for something different. I was very happy for the support of the team and those in management who stood by this game and gave it a chance!
What are your opinions about today’s generation of video games? How do you compare them to older, classic games?
I love seeing how games evolve. It was always apparent that more memory, art tools, and technology would keep giving us cooler and cooler games to play. But it is also important to appreciate the branches. We have games which push story and graphics and tech to get us closer to interactive movies. Then we have casual games for iPhones which are sometimes designed to reach new players including formerly non-gamers. Then we have the push to esports, VR and other venues. All this is very exciting.
The older, classic games serve as a reminder of our roots. You had to grab players with a core gameplay that was so addictive, a player could do something very repetitive and be entertained… and want to replay over and over. They voted on the experience one quarter at a time. Sometimes, when you have an abundance of tech and fantastic art it is easy to cover that a game is missing the addictive core experience. “All sizzle and no steak.” I frequently find it a good reminder to go back and play a few games of Robotron, Galaga, Pac-Man, Tempest to get refocused on what is truly important.
Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a video game trading card?
No, and I didn’t have a good grasp of how the classic arcade games would be part of history. When someone makes such an effort to preserve history, all I can say is “Thank you! And thank you for your vision in capturing games as an industry and culture!” What is cool about the cards is it includes everyone involved. Not just designers, programmers and creators, but players and many other influential people. It is a true representation of the community it takes to make a game industry. As a look down the road, think of how esports is becoming bigger. Why wouldn’t Esports players become more widely known and appreciated mainstream skilled talents?
Have you ever received any media coverage for your appearance on the trading card? If so, where?
There were a couple of mentions and references to it in articles around the time I was included.
When did you first meet Walter Day and where was it at?
I met Walter at a gathering put together by Joust champ, Lonnie McDonald. Lonnie is on a mission to roll over the scores on all Joust machines. A few years ago, he did a landmark rollover at WMS (formerly where Williams/Midway was) and Walter was invited as part of the event. I knew about Walter for many years and was delighted to finally meet him. Would love to spend more time with him and pick his brain, listen to stories.
If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would that word be and why?
Emissary or Ambassador. Because he is an accredited authority representing all facets of the gaming world. Thank-you Walter!
What is your favorite portable gaming device and why?
iPad. I like casual mobile gaming, the screen is large enough for my old eyes, and I can play it anywhere.
What games today do you play and what are your favorite genres of games?
Mostly very casual games like all forms of Match-3, Word Games, Puzzles, an occasional fighting game. I am a spectator as my kids zip through Minecraft. Occasionally will grab a game like Mario Kart for a change. I keep meaning to hit Diablo III again. I keep meaning to pick up Chess again. My hesitance on the last two is they would end up becoming hobbies that I will spend too much time on.
What does it take to be a video game designer, and what advice would you give a person today who would like to get into the industry?
A video game designer needs to be a student of the world around them. What stimulates yourself creatively? Play games… yes; but don’t forget to watch movies, TV, look for clever solutions in commercials, look at people and observe mannerisms and behavior. This job is a study of fun and human psychology. Come up with a clear definition for “Fun” so you know what you are working towards. Be honest when reviewing your game. If it doesn’t feel right, if it is not “fun” … admit it, then roll up your sleeves and figure out why and devise a plan of what to do about it. A little OCD is not a bad thing.
Are video games today aimed mainly at children, adolescents or adults?
All of the above depending on the genre and title. Every project starts with a target audience it is aimed at. A designer has to figure out their target and hit what they are aiming at.
Do you believe some video games are too violent and lead to violence in America today?
The ultimate loaded question. When it comes to violence, I hold people accountable for their own actions. That said, people react differently to violent stimulation. For many, watching a violent movie or playing a violent game is a release from tension and stress. A way to work out aggression. I can watch a Tarantino movie or John Wick and actually feel stress get reduced… an outlet for frustrations. Had the same feeling playing Doom. But my wife has the opposite reaction and is turned away by the violence. My kids would have nightmares. Ultimately, I believe in informed decisions. A company is irresponsible if they do not openly give information to help the customer or guardian make a decision that is right for you or your family. I am a parent with school aged kids. I know when they get upset and what they may react adversely to. So, I set guidelines until they are older to make a responsible, informed decision. I will also say that I have worked on a couple games that added over-the-top violence and blood sprays to make a buck. I did not feel good working on them, nor passing them to customers especially if they were not adequately warned what was included. Given a choice, I prefer to work on casual games with no bloody violence. Lastly, I also do not like the game industry to be scapegoated with society’s problems. What I see in the news, reality, is much more upsetting to me. Most upsetting movie I ever saw… “Saving Private Ryan.” I think people need to answer this question for themselves. What is right for me, is not necessarily right for someone else.
Which company today, in your opinion, makes the best games and why?
Impossible to answer because there is such a range in genre and many companies shine on one or a couple landmark titles. My impulse is to say Blizzard because of the care they take with a stable of games. I can’t forget Mojang and Notch because of Minecraft’s wide appeal when at a glance the graphics could be misinterpreted as crude. And you can’t forget Mobile and think of companies like King and Playrix.
Who is your favorite video game character of all time and what makes that character special?
Mario because he is not only endearing, but he stands the test of time to appeal to generations. As a humanoid, he can show emotion and depth. And because I hold Shigeru Miyamoto with highest regard.
What is your favorite game you have worked on in your career?
Joust. Hard to top your first game which became a huge hit and featured unique gameplay and unique visuals.
Are you still involved with gaming today, and what role do you play?
I shifted to casual games around 1999 and quickly evolved to mobile gaming when it began. I have been involved as a lead designer, design manager and creative director for several global companies… mostly mobile, but one was PC. I am currently a senior designer making casual mobile games.
Where do you see video gaming in the next 20 years?
The tech path will continue to make more and more realistic interactive movies. VR will take root as the tech gets better. Social interaction continues to evolve. And I think there will still be a place for casual experiences for those who only want to invest snippets of time. I would like “F2P (Free to Play)” to go away. The notion that a player can justify playing games for free and still complain because they actually have to watch an ad so developers can make some money is just plain wrong. I want a fair economy where developers can make some money for their work, and players of all economic means can experience game entertainment.
This is one of an ongoing series of articles based on the Walter Day Collection of e-sports/video gaming trading cards – check out more information at thewalterdaycollection.com.
Todd Friedman is currently a writer for Old School Gamer Magazine and the Walter Day Trading Card Collection. He is the author of 2 books and has co-promoted the Video Game Summit for the last 15 years. Todd is also a board member of the International Video Game Hall of Fame.