An Interview with Bill Kunkel

by Chris Federico
(June, 2002)

In this exclusive OC&GS interview, Bill Kunkel answers questions about video games, the pioneering of a journalistic field, and the present game-coverage climate.

Any writer who covers electronic entertainment has been influenced by Bill Kunkel, whether he knows it or not. Mr. Kunkel was one of three people who founded and edited the very first mainstream magazine about video games.

Along with Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, Bill created Electronic Games in 1981. It quickly became a hugely popular window on the industry.

Bill was also the most prominent writer of features and reviews within EG's colorful, glossy pages, sometimes under his Game Doctor pseudonym. He's an extremely nice guy who agreed to be subjected to the following June 14, 2002 interview.

CF: Straightaway, our readers and I would like to thank you for taking the time to grant this interview.

BK: My pleasure. It still amazes me that anyone even remembers me. Arnie Katz, Joyce Worley and I recently did an interview for Gamer.TV, the British TV/Internet game-related series, and I find I can still run on at the mouth on almost any subject involving games. In fact, with Game Informer and Tips & Tricks both running pieces on us, I almost feel like I'm hot again!

What have you been up to lately?

I just completed a contract with Westwood; I'm doing some work on the Persistent World game and Earth & Beyond, and I'm always in touch with my buds at Running With Scissors, who are getting Postal 2 ready for publication.

Actually, though, I write more about pro wrestling these days than about gaming. Arnie and I are featured prominently on the Pro Wrestling Daily website, and I do the play-by-play on the only wrestling program based in Las Vegas.

I have also gotten into writing fiction. I just finished serving as an editor/co-author (under my fiction name, M. Burroughs) on a book called The Noble Society by Melissa Henry. I hope to have my first novel out before the end of the year. It's about drug addicts in 1970s New York.

Sounds like you're keeping as busy as ever. I'm looking forward to the novel, especially if your usual sense of humor comes through in the rhetoric.

It's a comedy, though I wouldn't recommend it for children.

Jumping backward, what did you do before you started writing the small column for Video in the late '70s?

I was a professional musician in the late '60s and early '70s. In '71, I sold my first comic book script to DC Comics; by '78, I had worked for DC, Marvel and Harvey Comics. I also did odds and ends, some fiction, and some freelance in trade magazines.

What led to your writing about video games from there?

Well, I was a Liberal Arts guy in college, but I learned very little there. Writers learn how to write by writing. Creativity is like a muscle; because of genetics or whatever, that muscle can grow to a certain size, but you've got to exercise it to get maximum results.

I wanted to make my living as a writer; but until gaming came along, I didn't have my own "franchise," so to speak. And working with Arnie Katz was more of an education than I ever got in college. He was already a successful trade magazine editor, and we just wanted to write about something we really liked, rather than, say, frozen fish.

The game journalism thing was so obvious to us, but I guess we were the only ones. We knew Video editor Bruce Apar from the trade mag business, and he bought into the column immediately. A couple of years later, we pitched Jay Rosenfield, the publisher at Reese (which published Video), on a whole magazine. He was smart enough to go with it. Jay was a great guy; I have very fond memories of him.

But was there a concrete reason for which you switched to writing about the fledgling video game industry, leaving the comic world behind?

Honestly, if the comic companies had paid a little better, I might never have gotten into game journalism. But we really loved these games, and it was such an opportunity -- I could never believe that there weren't all kinds of game magazines out there, given that Atari had busted things open in '78, and here it was the summer of '81! We were still the only ones who seemed to get it. Even the game companies wondered why we were writing about them!

Assuming that you were aware of it, what were other journalists' perceptions of you back in the early '80s? You have a reputation of being quite a good-humored, cocky kind of guy. Did this make any waves back then?

I've always been a smart-ass, and I'd be nuts to deny it. But you know, when you're the first to do something, you get a certain level of respect, even from your peers; there were probably times I got away with murder, because I had always been there. As far back as anybody could remember, I was there. With seniority, you get insulated. I was always treated really well, considering that I was probably a pretty good-sized asshole much of the time. Hey, I don't believe anything is so serious that you can't laugh at it, especially yourself.

Agreed. In fact, speaking of something to laugh at, is it true that the initial, unreleased version of the debut EG cover was replaced because the first kid looked stoned?

Actually, you can go to Good-Deal Games and, under "Articles," see the original cover. I won't say the kid looked stoned, but he WAS pretty damned green. He also had this pop-eyed look, and some people at the magazine thought it looked like he was having a bad time with a Roman Catholic priest or something. They always make changes. They even changed the logo, because GAMES magazine bitched, as I recall.

People always find something to complain about. Back then, however, something that was definitely in the hands of the writer himself was the private development of a video game. Which games, for which boxes, did you and Arnie design back in the '80s? Are they still available?

Jeez, I just compiled a moderately complete list of the games I worked on. They include:

Borrowed Time (Interplay) (Later republished as Time to Die by Virgin/Mastertronic)
MicroLeague Baseball II (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling Add-On Disk 1 (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling Add-On Disk 2 (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling Add-On Disk 3 (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling Add-On Disk 4 (MLSA)
WWF Wrestling Add-On Disk 5 (MLSA)
The Simpsons: Bart's Nightmare (Acclaim)
Batman Returns (Konami)
Superman: Man of Steel (Capstone)
1st-Person Pinball (Tynesoft) (Republished as 3-D Pinball by Villa Crespo Software)
Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Games (Tynesoft)
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show & Rodeo (Tynesoft)
Star Trek: First Contact (Simon & Schuster Electronics)
The Omnicron Conspiracy (Epyx)
Blood Bowl (MLSA)
Beverly Hills Cop II (Tynesoft)
Roller Coaster Rumbler (Tynesoft)
Earth & Beyond (Westwood)

Good luck finding any of these today -- maybe Bart's Nightmare for the NES. But most of them were computer games for systems that are no longer in play. If you've got a working C-64, Atari ST or Amiga, you could probably find copies. Most of the Tynesoft games were only sold in England, though Villa Crespo republished some of them. My personal favorites are the WWF Wrestling game (but only on the ST or Amiga, NOT the C-64 versions) and the ST/Amiga versions of Superman: Man of Steel.

Holy shit! I had no idea that you'd made so many! It's good to know that you're still designing. What would your feelings have been about how you presently make a living, not to mention your influential status, had you been able to glimpse the future back when you were writing the column for Video?

I've always believed that a journalist has got to entertain the reader. I tried to adopt a style, an attitude if you will, and I think writers with distinctive styles are always popular. I don't think I would have done anything differently, had I been able to glimpse the future (other than buying plenty of AOL and Microsoft shares, of course). I was always writing to please myself, basically, and I probably still am.

Does anything bug you these days about how you're perceived (or approached)?

Naw. People are great to me. When young writers such as yourself treat me with respect, I'm amazed that you guys could even remember me. Amazed and flattered, I might add.

What sort of reaction did you, Arnie and Joyce expect from the first issue of EG, not only in terms of game company and vendor support, but also regarding readership?

I thought it would be HUGE. Always. As long as no one beat us to the newsstand. And it took the imitators more than half a year to get out there -- I would've been blown away if it had flopped. I know Arnie and Joyce were optimistic, but they were probably a little more experienced and cynical, knowing how slim a new magazine's chances are. I was ignorant enough to be totally secure that we'd succeed.

I admit that the industry did not immediately embrace us to the same degree that the readers did. They seemed baffled by our existence. It was only when Activision came into play that we had a company that "got it." Of course, a couple of issues in, and we were the darlings of the industry -- imagine the PR mechanisms of a major new industry directed exclusively at three people. They treated us like we were the freakin' Mafia, to be honest -- for the first couple of years, we were untouchable.

Had you expected any immediate competition? Did anything even serve as competition during the crucial first year?

As I said, I expected that there would be a magazine out there in 1980, but there was nothing for most of '82. And we got along well with the rest of the journalists. The only magazine we didn't like was Electronic Fun, because they were such obvious imitators (the same publisher had already ripped off Video with Video Review).

But EG had the first full year of "inside company" scoops. What made the Atari corporation so full of mystique back in the early '80s for young gamers?

Think about it; these guys were the kings of the home game market, they ruled in the arcades, and they put out the first reasonably priced home computer for gamers. The company was massive, a city unto itself; it was where most of the early game developers got started. That's mystique, my friend.

You were the first one to state that the secret to writing a great video or computer game could be summed up with the simple description, "Easy to say, hard to do." Which home-system milestones during the first enthusiastic gaming era (late '70s through the NES's duration) achieved this motif most successfully, in your opinion?

I think most of the major systems had games that met that standard. I think I originally said that a great game should take a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. I came up with different ways of explaining that, and you've just cited one of them. Obviously, Space Invaders did that, as did Pac-Man. My personal all-time favorite is probably Tetris. It meets all my standards: It can only be played in the electronic universe; it's an original idea; it's fun and immediately comprehensible; and completing those lines of horizontal blocks gives you a wonderful sense of closure. You can play it forever and never get bored. Now, THAT'S a game.

Which arcade games were true pioneering efforts, regarding influence and the broadening of the industry?

Back in the '70s and '80s, all the great ideas seemed to come from the coin-op universe. They had the best designers and the best technology, and each game was individually crafted, from the type of control system and monitor to the game cabinet. For driving games, for example, I like to be in a sit-down model. For Pac-Man, I prefer the cocktail model, where the monitor's embedded in a table on its back.

There are obvious games, of course. But I'd add Atari's Night Driver, which offered visual simplicity and sophistication at the same time. Different games expanded the horizon in different ways. Some used sound (Crazy Climber), some used visuals (Tempest), and some had great, new play mechanics (Data East's Karate Champ, which spawned the whole fighting genre).

Today, of course, the arcades are full of conversion games and those dreadful redemption games. The arcades never even got into First-Person Shooters. The problem is the limitations imposed on a medium where you can't let the player play for too long or you lose money.

What was your opinion of the Atari Jaguar? Could it have been a contender at the time? Do you have any insights as to what killed it prematurely?

Most companies in the hardware business are dead for a while before they get buried (look at Sega). The Atari Jaguar was never THE machine. It wasn't a bad machine, it just wasn't THE machine. Too much competition. And once Warner sold Atari, it was just one degradation after another. Even the Lynx, which Epyx originally made, and which was a magnificent hand-held, was doomed because it had the Atari name (while the original Game Boy was a disgrace, but is still around because it was Nintendo). Atari didn't have the hot games, and the new generation of gamers didn't perceive Atari as being cool.

Which of the current consoles is superior in your eyes, if any?

The hardware technology rarely impresses me. Now that it has some games in its library, the X-Box is obviously a hot piece of hardware. Nintendo's Game Cube is the coolest-looking system I've ever seen, but it doesn't have enough games in enough categories. The PS2, meanwhile, seems to be clearly second-rate in terms of its technology, but they can always make up for it with the software.

Hey, I still love the N64, and I spend more time playing the THQ WCW wrestling games and The World Is Not Enough than I do playing anything else.

Do the same essential qualities apply to a good game on a modern system or PC (regardless of trends) as back when you first proclaimed, "A minute to learn and a lifetime to master"?

It seems as if some of the PC games I get are like a challenge to the player, like they're DARING you to understand the complexity of the thing they've created. I also think that game paradigms have evolved, as they should. Controllers are more complex, offer more commands and offer a wider range of experiences. I love the Sims, for example, and the Westwood RTS stuff, but I wouldn't say they fit my definition that well, since they take a while to learn.

But the technology can handle it now, and gamers are much more sophisticated. I still like playing simple games, like Marbles. On the other hand, I also like a good strategy game.

So I'd say that my old rule of thumb has changed quite a bit; but to this day, if you can produce a game that I can learn, enjoy in a minute and keep playing for months, you've got money there.

What recent games do you like? What makes them stand out?

I love sports games. I like the UFC game; I like HALO and any hot hockey or baseball game (the football games tend to get overly complex with the play-calling for my taste). I also had a chance to play the FPS version of Command & Conquer, which impressed me quite a bit.

I don't much care for any of the existing Persistent World games -- even Earth & Beyond is derivative drivel, frankly, Chris -- but I have a design for one that would absolutely coin money. Let's just hope Running With Scissors makes enough money on Postal 2 that we can develop it.

In 1998, you had a minor complaint about the industry's failure to encourage longevity. Have console developers gotten any closer to waiting until their boxes are maxed-out, in terms of potential, before building new systems?

I think they have, but as you get older, time goes by faster; so I'm always bitching about having to install a new system when I'm still having fun with the original PlayStation and the N64.

As for the PC, they've upped the ante for the power of your machine required to play the hot new games -- to the point at which I could give a crap. I liked the FPS version of C&C, as I said, but I am NOT upgrading to a Pentium 4.5 to play the damned thing when my Pentium 2 works just fine for all my word processing, Power Point, scanning and Internet needs.

Which game(s), from any era, do you consider yourself a game master at?

We will sit down and play Goldeneye on the N64, Air-Sea Battle on the 2600 or Diamond-Mine Baseball on the PC, and we'll see who be the last man standing, brah. Also, give me a week or two to bone up on Archon, and we can throw that in!

Is that so? I might have to take you up on that Archon challenge someday! Speaking of which, that animation was terrific at the time, but things have gotten a lot more realistic. Has there been, in all frankness, any particular game that you've felt crossed the line, concerning violence?

None that I've played. I mean, it's not real, is it? If it isn't real, who cares? I don't feel a special need to see skulls split open and brains flowing out, but good, cinematic, Sam Peckinpah-type violence is just perfect for electronic games.

Hey, I did a lot of the PR and background work on the original Postal, and we showed that you could make a game controversial just by issuing appropriately snarky press releases about it. I loved the Postmaster General for tripping over it -- he gave us a lot of great material there for marketing purposes.

How does the quality and coverage supplied by the newer gaming magazines compare with what EG provided? Do the newer mags live up to the standards set by yourself, Arnie and Joyce, or is it more a case of apples vs. oranges?

Are there still game magazines, Chris?

I don't mean that sarcastically; I mean, where did they all go? I moved from magazines to Internet sites, and watched the free game sites put the magazines out of business. Then the game sites that paid writers started folding. Tips & Tricks is a great magazine for what it is, but I always hated that stuff (even though I wrote about a dozen game strategy books; what can I say? They dumped all this money on my front lawn and... I'M ONLY HUMAN, CHRIS!).

I miss the intelligent analysis that magazines can provide. Today, you get half-assed game coverage in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, and there seems to be no interest in a magazine for adults who are into gaming.

How can that be, when the audience is probably 10 times bigger today than it was when we had a smash hit with EG in 1982? I think Next Generation was the last of the non-system-specific magazines, wasn't it? You can't be system-exclusive; you've got to look at gaming as a whole, or you won't sell me. We used to cover everything from hand-helds to actual pilot-trainer flight simulators, because it was all the same thing to us. A PC game or a Game Boy game, they should appeal to the same person, right?

I couldn't agree more. It's the lowest common denominator thing. Intelligent analysis doesn't make money in our society today. It's only fun to read, as far as I'm concerned, if it's written intelligently. Most people don't think that way these days. And you're right -- nothing truly diverse, let alone anything with an intelligent approach, has graced the physical stands since Next Generation. Would you be able to name the primary thing you'd like to see changed about the current coverage of video games in magazines and on the Internet?

I'd like to see a little perspective. I've seen lists that claim to feature the Top 100 games of "all time," and the oldest entry is, like, two years old. For some reason, it seems that game journalism in the '90s got so focused on What's Next? that they forgot about what came before.

Are PCs overrated nowadays? Do you think the '70s dreams of the first Commodore and Apple designers have been fulfilled to an optimum extent?

I think that when guys who were developing games for the Apple II or Trash-80 look at today's PC games, they must feel like they were in a different business. Technologically, it's like the difference between one of those animation flip books and Toy Story 2.

What are your hopes for the industry in the years ahead?

Original ideas for entertaining experiences are all any of us can ask for. I'd like to see the industry reach the point where it could say, okay, we've got 50 driving games on this console system; let's not do another one. Or at least, if you've got to do another one, add something new, like GTA 3 did.

I'd also welcome an RPG that I actually find entertaining. Haven't enjoyed one of 'em since the Apshai series went away.

Thank you a million times for granting this interview. Break a leg out there!

Thank YOU, Chris.

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