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Keith Robinson

Blue Sky Ranger
Video Game Developer
California, USA

When did you know that you wanted to become a video game developer?

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a video game.  We had pinball machines and electric games like Operation, where a light bulb goes on and a buzzer sounds if you make a mistake  Video games were invented at the beginning of the 1970s, when I was in high school.  They started putting video arcade machines – like Space War and Pong – into pizza parlors.  My friend Chris and I played Pong at Shakey's Pizza a lot back then.  There was also the home video game Odyssey you hooked up to your TV, but it was expensive and my dad wouldn't get me one.  He thought it was a fad – something I'd play with for a short time and then forget about.  When I saw them, I certainly wanted to find out how they worked and to create one, but I never thought I would eventually get a job doing it.

When you were young what did you want to grow up to be?

An architect.  I liked to draw and my dad was an engineer – it seemed like a job that would combine creative and technical skills.  Of course, ultimately, so did video game development.

What subjects did you like best in school?

Electronics class was great.  We had a teacher who loved to tinker, and he realized that being a high school Electronics teacher would give him a chance to do that with a room full of assistants – us, his students.  He loved experimenting and passed that along to us.  I took Electronics each year of high school.  We tore stuff apart and built new items from the components.  That was back when integrated circuits were just starting to come into common, affordable use.  We built everything in that class from amplifiers to computers.

What subjects prepared you for your career?

My four years of high school Electronics prepared me for video games better than anything I took in college.  I did get a Master of Science degree from UCLA in Computer Science so I learned the theories behind the trial-and-error experiments we were doing in high school, but the high school class really showed me tech stuff could be creative and fun.  I also took classes in art, creative writing and filmmaking, which helped develop my creative imagination.

How did you get a job working for Mattel Electronics on Intellivision games?

There was an ad on the radio that Mattel was looking for video game programmers – they were going to have a job fair in the Mattel cafeteria on the weekend.  I lived nearby and I was curious about how video games were created, so I stopped by.  I had been working for a very small company – 7 or 8 employees total – and the idea of being part of a big creative team sounded fun.  I met the head of the division at the job fair; he and I hit if off and he asked me to come back for a formal interview.  Within a week or two I had the job.

What was it like working there?

Sure enough, it was a fun place to work.  We were all working on our own games, but everyone contributed ideas and support to everyone else.  When I started there were about 15 game developers in the department, but we were growing fast.  In a couple years, there were a hundred.  The building we were in operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It was buzzing with creativity and activity, always.  And we were all young – early twenties mostly.  For many, it was their first job out of college.

How do you get the ideas for a game and how do you go about making one?

The bosses at Mattel had a list of types of games.  Sports, popular arcade games, types of board games.  So if a programmer didn't have an idea, he or she could look over the list and say, "I like bowling.  I'll do a bowling game."  Or, "I like the arcade game Pac-Man, how about if I create a maze game that's kind of like Pac-Man?"  Occasionally they would have a brain-storming session where the developers would go to a park or a restaurant and just start throwing out various concepts for a game.  "Air traffic controller!"  "Dungeons and Dragons."  The good ideas would be added to the list and maybe later turned into a game.

In my case, Mattel had bought the video game rights to the movie TRON and wanted to make two or three games with a TRON theme.  I wound up doing one of those; it was called TRON Solar Sailer.  Notice the spelling of Sailer.  A sailer -- as in this case -- is something a person sails on.  A sailor is someone who sails.  It took months to convince the Marketing Department how to spell the name of this game!

Solar Sailer was the only video game I programmed myself.  I was promoted to manager and supervised the development of other people's games.  I liked that, because I could be involved with three or four games at once.

Of the games you did for Intellivision, which one was your favorite and why?

My favorite was a game called Thin Ice.  It's my favorite for a number of reasons – first, the concept was mine: cute little penguins skating around a frozen lake.  Second, although only two of the people who worked for me were formally assigned to work on it – a programmer and an artist - everyone in my group loved the game and helped out.  Even people from other groups in the division were pitching in.  Contributing music, helping on the programming, tossing out ideas.  It was like a big family project, a lot of fun.  And finally, Mattel never manufactured the game.  They got out of the video game business.  But they sold the game to another company that DID manufacture it.  That was a small company which didn't have any artists to design the game boxes, so they hired me.  I did the cartoon illustration for the Thin Ice box cover.  More than any other game, I was involved in every aspect of it.

Julie Hoshizaki, programmer of the game Thin Ice, in a mock-documentary about Mattel, satirizes the tendency for programmers to become overly identified with their games.  Julie talks to an interviewer, played by programmer Mark Urbaniec as other programmers, Mike Sanders, Josh Jeffe, Keith Robinson and Mike Minkoff interrupt.


Intellivision's Thin Ice graphics are shown in this fan created video.


Did you enjoy any non-Mattel games?

I liked some of the early Atari ones: Breakout and Ka-Boom.  In the arcades, Tempest, Centipede and Donkey Kong were favorites of mine.  But my very favorites were the text adventures of computers.  No graphics, just text telling a story.  "You are in a cavern.  There is an axe here."  You type, "Pick up axe," because you know you will need it later.  I loved those – very creative.  You created these great images in your mind.  But as the graphics on games got better, no one wanted to use their imaginations anymore.  They wanted to see the cavern.  See the axe.

How do video games today differ from the ones you created for Mattel Intellivision?

Back then, one person pretty much did the whole game.  An artist or a musician might help.  Today, hundreds of people might work on one game: writers, mapmakers, 2-D artists, 3-D artists, character designers, composers, and dozens of programmers.  Sometime there are so many elements to coordinate and make sure they all get finished and integrated and work together, they don't have the time to spend on how fun the game play is.  Our games at Intellivision were pretty simple.  So you could spend a lot of time playing it or watch others playing it to judge if it was fun and make changes so it was MORE fun.

Do you play video games today?  If so, what do you play?

The games today are very impressive, the quality of movies, but a lot of our Intellivision games, with their blocky graphics and simple bleep-bloop sounds are more fun to play.  I rarely play any of the newer games.  Maybe a car race game now and then.

Was there any other education that might have been helpful for your job that you may have missed when pursuing your degree?

I think my college education background was perfect for my job at Mattel – couldn't have been better if I had planned it.  I had a Masters of Computer Science.  I had taken extensive Business and Management courses, and classes in design, writing, and filmmaking.  My goal in college was to go into visual effects for motion pictures, which I did for a couple years after college.  Turned out the preparation was also right for video games.

Why did you make the old Intellivision games available on CD-ROM?

I created a website about Intellivision in 1995, mainly to tell the history of Intellivision.  It was really just for fun, but quickly thousands of people started visiting the site.  Many of them started to e-mail me, "I grew up with these games.  Is there a way I can play them today?"  Well, I talked to a couple of my friends who worked at Mattel with me. They said sure, we could create software on a PC or Mac that would play our old games.  One of those friends, Stephen Roney, and I decided to make a business out of it: Intellivision Productions, Inc.

Was it difficult to get the rights and then convert the games?

It took several months to track down the guy who then owned the Intellivision rights and another couple of months to negotiate the sale.  Stephen Roney wrote the Mac emulation software – it essentially is a software version of the Intellivision console.  It "plays" the actual game software that was in the cartridges, so the individual games don't have to be converted or rewritten. The emulation software takes care of everything.  Steve wrote the Mac software so it would be easily transportable; that is, it can be converted to other machines fairly easily.  We have released Intellivision collections for Windows, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, iPhone, iPad, and most recently the Nintendo DS.  We might do a Wii version next.

What kind of market is there for the old "classic" video games?

At first we thought that only older players would be interested in these collections: people who found an Intellivision under the Christmas tree when they were seven and grew up on the games.  But we quickly discovered that young kids loved these games, too.  Even though they laughed at first when they saw the simple graphics, they found the games were actually fun to play!

What do you think makes a good video game?

The phrase we used to use back in the early days was that a game "should be easy to learn but hard to master."  That still holds true.  Any game is a series of challenges and rewards.  If the challenges are too difficult, you'll give up.  If the rewards are insufficient, you won't want to continue.  Challenge and reward.  Challenge and reward.  Perfectly balanced.

Do you believe the old games were more "fun"?  Why?

I think many of the games today are fantastic for the hardcore gamer.   They are immersive worlds that take days to conquer.  But in creating these complex games, the industry left behind the casual gamer – the guy who just wants to take a ten-minute break at work to play Solitaire on his computer.  I wouldn't say our games are better or more fun than current games, but they provide a quick, addictive experience that a lot of people want and haven't been finding in the last decade or two.

What were some of the memorable experiences from your time as a video game developer at Mattel?

Before working at Mattel I was working for a company that did special effects for TV shows and movies.  Sometimes I would talk to people who worked at other special effects companies to find out what was going on in the industry.  One day late in 1981 I was at a company doing computer graphics for the original TRON movie, seeing what they were doing and learning about the movie.  So a week later when I visited the job fair at Mattel, they were very interested in me because I knew what TRON was.

One of the people who interviewed me, Don Daglow, was the programmer on a game in development called TRON Solar Sailer.  He had just been promoted to Director of the department, so wouldn't have time to work on the game anymore; he needed to find a replacement.  I seemed like the logical choice.  For the next year I worked on that game.  I got copies of the script and storyboards and went out to Disney studios regularly to see the movie in progress to help me design the game.  Mine was a voice game, so I was there as we cast voice actors and recorded them for the game.

What did you think when you heard there was going to be an updated TRON movie?

TRON was my life from October 1981 to October 1982, so I've been very excited following the progress of the new TRON movie.  I pulled some strings to get into the very first screening of the completed TRON Legacy, about two months before the movie came out.  I was so excited.  I loved it – seeing how they updated the graphics.  I think they are going to make more – and I'll be there.

Where did the term Blue Sky Ranger come from and what did it mean?

TV Guide magazine did an article in 1982 profiling the Intellivision programmers.  The writer, though, thought our department had a boring name: Application Software.  He asked if we had a more exciting name that we called ourselves, but we didn't.  But someone had referred to one of our brainstorming sessions as a "blue sky" session. (I'd heard that phrase before but never at Mattel.)  Anyway, the writer used that to come up with the name "The Blue Sky Rangers" to refer to the Intellivision programmers.  It stuck; we've been called that ever since.

When did you start having reunions of the Blue Sky Rangers?  What was your purpose in organizing these events?

As things in the video game industry started going bad, Mattel started cutting back on staff.  About 2/3 of the programmers were laid off in August 1983.  The remainder were cut in January 1984.  We all went our separate ways.  But in early 1985, one of the former programmers, Ron Surratt, had a barbecue at his home in San Pedro, California, and invited a bunch of the other former programmers.  It was so much fun catching up, that we decided to have a reunion every year from then on.  Now we meet on the third Saturday of each January to catch up with each other.  Most of these reunions have taken place at Jino's Pizza in Lawndale, California, where we often have lunch when we worked at Mattel.

We did have fancier reunions on the tenth and twentieth anniversaries in 1994 and 2004.  For the tenth we rented a banquet room at a local hotel, and for the twentieth we rented out a local video arcade.  Not sure yet what we'll do in 2014.

How long have the Blue Sky Rangers been participating in other events like the Classic Gaming Expo?

In 1999, Intellivision was invited to take part in a new show in Las Vegas celebrating early video games: The Classic Gaming Expo.  Me and about a dozen other Blue Sky Rangers went to the show, talked about how Intellivision started and met the fans, people who grew up playing these games, who remember playing them under the Christmas tree with their brothers and sisters.  We posed for pictures and signed autographs.  We felt like rock stars!  We've been back every year.

When did you first develop an interest in drawing?  Do you have any drawings from an early age?

I've drawn cartoons all my life.  I started out copying Peanuts cartoons then things from MAD Magazine until I finally started developing my own style and ideas.  My dad still has birthday cards I drew for him with cartoons on them from when I was 6 or 7.  I got in trouble sometimes drawing cartoons in class, but the teachers were pretty smart.  Starting in junior high school, when I was 11 or 12, they put me to work drawing cartoons for the school newspaper and yearbook.  That continued in high school.  I also did cartoons for my college paper at UCLA.

How long have you been working as a cartoonist?  Does this type of work pay well?  Who pays for your work?

After Mattel, in 1985, I started a comic strip called Making It for my city's local newspaper.  They paid me $25 per week.  In 2010 the strip celebrated its 25 anniversary.  They still pay me $25 a week.  There isn't a lot of money in newspaper cartoons.  Except for the most famous cartoonists, cartoonists have to have another job to make money.  Even the ones who make enough money to live on do so because of the sales of books or calendars, not the income from the newspapers running the comic strip.  For a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Making It was distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.  I was in over 50 newspapers in the United States and Canada, but I was barely making $500 a week.

Since the Internet, newspapers have been going out of business.  It's harder than ever to make a living off of newspaper comic strips.  But I still do it because it's so much fun.  I can't imagine not drawing cartoons.

How did you go about getting your books of cartoons published?

Major publishers, Harper & Row and Andrews/McMeel published my first two book collections.  My third was self-published.  I'll probably do another collection soon, which I will probably self-publish.  It's hard for anyone but the top cartoonists to get a book deal for comic collections today.  It's easier to do it yourself.

What kind of hours do you work?  Do you travel for your job(s)?

I try not to overdo it, but most weeks I do, working maybe 80 hours.  But it's what I love to do.  Right now it usually breaks down to five or six days a week on video games, one or two days a week cartooning.  But I can make my own schedule so I can switch around what I'm working on or take a day off to spend with friends.  I don't travel as much as I used to; most years I make just two trips: in May each year is the National Cartoonists Society awards weekend.  That's always a fun weekend, held in a different city each year.  It's basically a four-day party with cartoonists – a funny, crazy group.  In August is the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, a chance to hang out for a couple of days with friends I've know for 30 years and with the fans who love the games.

What do you like best about your job?

The only part of my jobs – both cartooning and the video game publishing – that I don't like is the amount of time I work by myself.  I don't want to work for someone else anymore – I like being my own boss – but I like being around others and working with a team.  Cartooning is mostly solitary work; so is running Intellivision.  That's why I love the cartoon awards weekend and the video game expo – hanging out with creative people.  The one thing I would like to work more into my schedule now is making videos.  When I was a kid, that was my main fun: making funny 8mm films with my friends.  There are so many great tools for making videos today I'd love to play with them!

What advice do you have for students who are reading this interview?

The secret of becoming successful at anything is just to keep working on it, so that the techniques and tools become second nature.  Then your creativity can come out when you aren't thinking about the craft.  That's true in cartooning or in creating video games.  The advantage today is that many colleges have classes and majors in gaming; in my day, we had to learn it on the job.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

Back in the 1980s, when we worked for Intellivision, a famous writer named George Plimpton was the spokesman for Intellivision.  He appeared in our commercials.  Plimpton was from a rich family and had a very proper background, but he was famous for trying everything: playing professional sports, joining a circus, creating fireworks displays, acting in movies.  When asked about this, he once remarked:

"I've never believed there was anything intrinsically wrong in having fun."

I agree. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, find something else to do.

- 3 April 2011


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Last Updated:
24 June 2011

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