ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Monday, February 23, 2004
 
Video-Game Trailblazers

Two decades after the collapse of the first video-game boom, the "Blue Sky Rangers" are back, and so are their old Intellivision games.



Left: HAVING THEIR CAKE: Gabriel Baum, left, and Keith Robinson prepare to serve cake during the Blue Sky Rangers party this month that marked the 20th anniversary of the day the group of programmers lost their jobs at video-game pioneer Intellivision.
Right: H-E-Y!: Blue Sky Rangers Joe King and Keith Robinson -- "Still blocky after all these years."
-- ANDY TEMPLETON, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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By TAMARA CHUANG
The Orange County Register


At some point in the interview, Mark Urbaniec knew he wasn't going to get the job a dream job, developing video games for the biggest toy maker in America. With a computer science degree and experience in high-tech electronics, he had the background. But the more questions Urbaniec answered, the less interested the interviewer seemed.

"It was the first time I ever gave up on an interview during the interview," Urbaniec remembered. "So, when (interviewer Gabriel Baum) asked me, 'Why do you want to be a game programmer?' I just said, 'I guess I'm weird.' "His face lit up. That's what he wanted to hear."

Urbaniec joined the elite Blue Sky Rangers, a quirky team of video-game programmers in the early 1980s who brought the world Mattel Inc.'s Intellivision console system the first real competitor to the pioneering Atari 2600. These trailblazers in what today is a $21 billion-a-year industry helped make video games the it toy for adolescents everywhere. Video games became cultural darlings, landing on the cover of Time magazine, becoming a topic of discussion on "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and spawning a Disney movie, 1982's "Tron."

Then, as quickly as it sprang up, the game industry crashed. Under competitive pressure, companies released games before they were ready, leaving players feeling cheated by poorly made products. The novelty of video games faded, and the companies were left with truckloads of games that consumers wouldn't buy. Unlike today, the early days of video games targeted one genre of gamers home console users. When that collapsed, so did the industry.

In January 1984, Mattel shut down 4-year-old Intellivision and laid off the 100-plus Blue Sky Rangers.

That evening, the unemployed programmers gathered to mourn the loss of the best jobs they had ever had. They drank a toast to Intellivision. And then they did it again the following year. And the next year. And the next.

Earlier this month, dozens of Blue Sky Rangers met at their former haunt, the aging Malibu Castle Park in Redondo Beach, a miniature-golf park and arcade near their former Hawthorne office. It was in memory of the 20th anniversary of the day they lost their jobs.

"It was like a family," said Keith Robinson, 48, and developer of the game "Tron Solar Sailer." A family with plenty of eccentric cousins, such as the Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, the ballet dancer and the piano-bar singer.

"A billion-dollar company was relying on these 20-year-olds who were making $20,000 a year.

Some days, you had to work 24 hours straight. So, we hung out together. A lot." Some are still involved in the game world. A few pursued cartooning and other creative fields. One is now an actor. Others returned to the drudgery of corporate information technology, supplying tech support to banks, automakers and other businesses.

Regardless, the game makers, now two decades older, still have a child like enthusiasm when talking about life at Intellivision.

"It was really a fun, fun place," said Urbaniec, now 46 and living in Fountain Valley as a manager of information systems for a local bank. "I've never worked at a job and I'm sure I never will again where on Sunday night, I was really excited to go to work."


Video-Game Fever


The energy that fueled the early 1980s video game industry was rawer than the early days of the dot-com phenomena. There were no stock options. Salaries weren't extravagant. There weren't even royalties at first. Intellivision programmers weren't allowed to put their names on games because Mattel feared that would attract headhunters scouting for other game developers.

Several of the software programmers had left jobs with aerospace firms and stuffy corporations for a chance to get paid less, work more, and most importantly play games.

Steve Roney, who now lives in Ladera Ranch, wanted to work at Intellivision so intensely that he deleted from his resume his top-secret experience at Hughes Aircraft when he applied for the job. Instead, he said he owned 100 board games. At 29, he got the job and took a slight pay cut.

"People at my old job couldn't believe I was doing this," said Roney, 51, a regular of the annual reunion. "It was a lot more fun. We had arcade games. People would play golf in the hallway. Part of your job was to play other people's games. You got to take a break by playing someone else's games!"

San Clemente native Joe King bolted from computer-graphics studies at the University of California, Irvine, to be a graphics designer for Intellivision.

"When I walked in, I asked, 'Where's the time clock?' Everyone laughed," he said. "Then I asked, 'What am I supposed to do?' And they said, 'Well, take a couple of weeks and play the games.' You'd think that people would abuse it but I was soon working around the clock, 60 hours a week."


Programmers pushed themselves to improve on the games' still-crude graphics because competition was fierce. Atari, which had been in the market since 1977, led the pack. Intellivision came out in 1980. Coleco Industries Inc. launched the ColecoVision in 1982. That year, at least 100 games were released for the different consoles, according to Gamerland.com.

Mattel was in a hiring frenzy. The Intellivision group went from two dozen people in 1981 to 140 programmers two years later. A TV Guide reporter coined the term "Blue Sky Rangers" in a piece about Intellivision's programmers and their brainstorming sessions, which they called "blue skying."

Bill Fisher, a computer-science major at University of California, Los Angeles, had job offers from TRW and Hughes but chose Mattel.

"I thought that if I ever screw up, I can always get another job somewhere else," said Fisher, who worked on "B-17 Bomber" and "Astrosmash." After Intellivision folded, he went on to launch his own game company, Quicksilver Software in Irvine.

Gabriel Baum, then in his mid-30s, was older than most of the team, which he hand-picked.

"All I cared about was finding something freaky. 'Weird,' in my view, was a compliment," said Baum, now vice president of technology at Navigation Technologies, a digital-mapping company in Chicago.

"The people we put together from Mattel always had some sort of creative extra to them," Robinson said. "Andy Sells he was one of the (sound) programmers his previous job was singing for the piano bar at Tony Roma's in Santa Monica. Eddie Dombrower worked on electronic dance systems because he had trained with the Joffrey Ballet. George Sanger was a musician. He's now a top guy in the industry."

Crash, Boom, Thud

Then came 1983.

The price wars began, cutting the profits of Atari, Intellivision and Coleco. Tandy Corp. and Commodore International jumped in with "educational" computers, which also were used to play games.

In 1983, Atari lost $539 million and laid off 2,500 people. The Intellivision unit, which generated record profits for Mattel in 1982, posted a $381 million loss the next year. Market researcher Future Computing said 75 million game cartridges sold in 1983, up from 15 million the year before. But 40 percent sold at a few dollars instead of $25 to $35.

"There were just too many games out there. They couldn't sell enough of them to make any money," said Lee Barnes, 55, a Blue Sky Ranger who left games to start B&L Engineering in Tustin.

Games such as Atari's "ET" were rushed to meet Christmas deadlines.

"The industry dug its own grave by thinking that all you had to do was put something in a box and the public would buy it," Roger Sharpe, editor of Video Games magazine, told The New York Times in 1984. In September 1983, Atari dumped 14 truckloads of game cartridges including about 5 million "ET" games in a New Mexico landfill.

"Atari was the biggest company, so they were sort of iconic in the crash," said Dave "Fargo"Kosak, executive editor of GameSpy.com of Irvine, an online portal that reviews and covers the game industry. "When Atari went down, they took the industry with them."

Kosak remembers 1983 differently. As a 10-year-old, it was a time of joy.

"As a kid, I didn't really understand what was going on. All I knew was there were big bins of games for as cheap as $2 each," he said. "It was awesome. I didn't realize that the clearance bin meant there weren't going to be anymore games."

Rock On

Many observers say the disaster of 1983 isn't likely again, though nearly 500 games were released last year.

"Just the fact that all these people have grown up with games makes it different for these people to market and target an audience," Roney said. "I think of the game industry as more of a market that now isn't going to completely go away, like movies."

Video games have become a source of entertainment, reaching well beyond teenage boys. And, unlike the early '80s, the industry is diversified, with little crossover between computer gamers and PlayStation 2 addicts. The folks who play solitaire and poker on their computers aren't usually the same ones who buy the latest "Grand Theft Auto." People who grew up playing games in the 1970s and 1980s either never stopped playing or are returning to the scene, thanks to modern-day game companies re-releasing "classic" titles.

Robinson and Roney bought the rights to Intellivision products in 1998 and launched Intellivision Productions to repurpose the older games for cell phones, computers and consoles, most recently, the Xbox.

"Classic arcade games is a small category but, believe it or not, it's actually growing," said Richard Ow, analyst for The NPD Group, a market research firm. NPD said U.S. sales of classic games reached $58 million last year, up from $40 million the year before. Nostalgia is a driving factor, he said.

"But outside of nostalgia, they are still a good game," Ow said.

Robinson, president of Intellivision Productions, continues to pursue licensing agreements and rights to publish all of the old Intellivision games. Someday, he said, the company might release a new title of its own, something easy to play and probably set in the 1980s.

"The casual gamer just wants to pick up a game for 15 minutes, stop and go back to it later," he said. "We want to bring back that feeling, with some '80s humor."


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