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From TV Guide, June 19, 1982

Behind the scenes with the Blue Sky Rangers who dream up Mattel's video games

By Howard Polskin

I'm surrounded by the Blue Sky Rangers, nine guys who talk as though they could do their math homework without hand-held calculators.

We're sitting in a windowless conference room at Mattel's corporate offices just south of Los Angeles airport. The giant toy company's electronic games division is holding a formal brainstorming session to dream up new programs for the voracious video-game market. The process is known as blue-skying. The programmers who probe the outer boundaries of their imagination for ideas are the Blue Sky Rangers.

Blue-skying is the first and one of the most important steps in video-game development, a process that takes as long as 20 months to develop a $30 plastic cartridge that can be inserted into Mattel's video game Intellivision, a sophisticated $250 piece of hardware that connects to any color-TV set.

The nine programmers chosen for this meeting are part of a specialized, 22 person (18 men, four women) team of video-game programmers (whose ranks have since more than doubled). Because Mattel fears that rival firms would lure their people away if their identities were revealed, I've changed their names.

Except for Hal, the gentle 36-year-old group leader, they're mostly under 30 and border on that fine line between eccentric and brilliant. They're paid to think (between $20,000 and $40,000 a year) and it reflects in their appearance. They're haphazardly dressed. For the most part, their eyes seem sunken and hollow from countless hours spent toiling indoors in front of computer terminals. They all work in carpeted cubicles in a vast windowless room that seems designed to turn their thoughts inward.

For all the Blue Sky Rangers, video-game programming is not an occupation but a joyful passion. Many times during the work day, programmers let out shrieks of delight as they engage in one of the "routines" of the job: playing with the product. During coffee breaks, programmers will sometimes drop what they are doing -- which is often developing a new game -- only to play another game already created. At the end of a hard day's work, it is not uncommon for programmers to wind down by heading to a local arcade to play the more sophisticated coin-operated games.

About 70 per cent of a programmer's time will be spent actually sitting at a computer terminal, programming a game. The rest of the time is occupied by thinking up and talking about new games.

The formal creative sessions are held in a variety of locations to spark as much creativity as possible. One of Mattel's most productive brainstorming meetings took place in a Los Angeles park on a beautiful spring day in 1981.

About 10 programmers, led by Hal, drove to the park. They loosened up their minds and bodies by tossing around a few Frisbees. At lunch they nibbled on sandwiches provided by Mattel. Most of all, they talked about new video games in the cool shade of a large gazebo in the center of the park. Their only distraction was a park custodian who was painting the gazebo. They joked all day that he was a spy from Atari, a rival firm.

The programmers tried to conceive games that would use Mattel's newly developed device called Intellivoice, which adds the realism of human-sounding voices speaking to the player. All day they struggled for inspiration. Then, toward dusk, the brilliant idea surfaced.

No one quite knows who suggested it, although four programmers got credit for the idea, including Josh, a computer whiz from Princeton. The game, eventually called B-17 Bomber, would simulate an Allied aircraft flying over occupied Europe while avoiding flak and enemy aircraft. Different crew members positioned off-screen talk to the pilot via Intellivoice, advising him to take appropriate actions such as "Drop bombs" or "Zoom to the left." The game seemed to have those magical qualities that instantly identified it as a winner.

Soon after the meeting, Hal assigned Josh, one of his top programmers, to develop the concept further. Josh recently completed programming Astrosmash, one of Mattel's biggest-selling cartridges. Before joining Mattel, Josh worked at the UCLA School of Medicine in bio-mathematical cancer research. His senior thesis at Princeton was a statistical linguistic analysis of the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In his spare time, he presides over a society of Sherlock Holmes freaks in Santa Monica.

For the task of developing B-17 Bomber, Josh drove himself relentlessly. Besides often working till midnight at the computer terminal, he made several visits to the Air Museum outside Los Angeles, where, after befriending the curator, he was allowed to crawl through an old B-17 on exhibit. He learned how the aircraft operated, where the gunners sat and how targets looked to them. Soon his small office was cluttered with models of B-17s sitting next to his Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.

After more than a year of development, many of Josh's fellow programmers feel that it is one of the best home-video games ever devised. Soon they'll know if the public feels the same way. Sometime in late summer or early fall, B-17 Bomber will be made available to the home video game market.

At the blue-sky meeting I'm attending, Josh is one of the most talkative programmers, spewing out an assortment of off beat ideas and jokes. The session begins informally with Hal inserting a new video game cartridge, tentatively called ZZAP, into the master component. Sometimes, a game that's well under development will be critiqued to iron out weak spots. Hal pushes a button, and computer-generated images of ships at sea chased by submarines appear on the screen.

"It doesn't have something," says Hal. "I can't figure it out."

"The motions of the subs are random," says Josh. "But I like it because you get to hit a lot of things and they blow up. I mean, isn't that the purpose of life?"

Everyone laughs.

Hal isn't convinced, though.

"Maybe we should make the graphics better and change the speed of the torpedoes," he suggests.

Bob, at 23 the youngest member of the group and an avid reader of Shakespeare and science fiction, says he doesn't like the game.

"OK," says Hal, "then let's think of other games."

That triggers a flood of ideas for the next hour. The game with ships and submarines appears to be forgotten, although it is being considered as a Mattel product. Hal keeps nodding wisely, never putting down anyone, no matter how ludicrous the suggestions.

Finally, one idea hits. It is another air plane game and, like B-17 Bomber, it, too, will utilize Intellivoice. No one's sure what form the game should take but everyone tends to agree that the plane should be in some sort of trouble.

After 15 minutes' nonstop discussion, Hal seems to feel that the Blue Sky Rangers, who are now clearly excited by this game, have talked enough about it. Later he will review the notes of the meeting and decide if the idea warrants further development.

"Ideas for other games," he now commands gently.

More comments flow from all corners of the room. The programmers talk about games with sorcerers, games with comic book heroes and games with weird monsters. The suggestions dwindle. The programmers seem restless. Hal senses the change in mood and tells everyone that the meeting will now be shifted to Barnabey's, a local hotel in Manhattan Beach, down the road from Mattel.

It's 5 o'clock and they've been at it for more than two hours, but Hal thinks he can milk some more ideas out of them. In his 18 months at Mattel, he's accumulated more than 1000 video-game ideas, but feels he can never have enough.

As we drive to Barnabey's, Hal explains to me that he ended the meeting because his guys needed a break. The change of atmosphere might spark their thinking. Also, he plans to pump some wine into them to help loosen their thoughts.

At Barnabey's, Hal has rented a large private room, where dinner will be served later in the evening. First, one of the programmers, Jason, gathers everyone into the center of the room. He takes out a large bag and scatters its contents on the floor. About 20 toys come tumbling out, including a plastic rat, a flag gun, a spiked coin and fake mouse ears.

"Pick up a toy and make a game that relates to it," says Jason. "After dinner, we'll report back on what we came up with."

They all grab toys and huddle in groups of three. As they play with the toys, befuddled waiters hover over them, pouring glasses of wine. After 45 minutes, the programmers sit down to dinner in the suite. They bring their toys to the table.

But as they eat and drink, the wine and toys fail to trigger any brilliant plans for video games. They toss out concepts for games about ethnic folklore, Greek mythology and even video Ouija boards.

The ideas and wine keep flowing. But either the ideas are deteriorating or they are getting so strange that I can't follow them. When one programmer starts elaborating on a game based on a Hawaiian war chant, I know that the Blue Sky Rangers have soared out of orbit. No one's mentioned holographic video games but I know if we stay here another hour and drink more of this cheap California wine, someone will suggest it and Hal will nod knowingly.

At 8:30, after more than five and a half hours of brainstorming, Hal announces that he'd like to end the meeting. But some of the Blue Sky Rangers don't want to quit. They're having too much fun. Their circuits must be overloaded because even as they're getting into their cars to drive away, they keep rambling on like defective computers, spitting out meaningless data about their beloved video games. They're so hopelessly addicted to their work that some, like Josh, will go back to their offices and work till 2 A.M.

Hal's job in the next few days will be to examine the notes from the meeting and select versions of the better ideas. If he likes what he sees, he brings the game before a group of four to six Mattel executives, who examine the concept from technical, marketing and financial viewpoints. Ultimately, they will decide if it will become a product. Most of the time, when Hal thinks that a game is worth bringing before this committee, it stands an excellent chance of being developed. Some times, as in the case of a sailboat game that one of the programmers devised, they can't get a decent visualization and the game is scrapped.

After a game is given the go-ahead, another two to five months are spent programming the cartridge. At this stage, product engineering and marketing groups are brought into the picture, and Hal's role starts to fade. The businessmen get out their pencils and hammer out production schedules, marketing plans and profit projections. Compared to working with the programmers, it's bland, boring stuff. The Blue Sky Rangers are special. They get paid to have fun. The more fun they have, the better they create.

When Mattel wants to stroke them, it knows which buttons to push. For instance, the night following the creative session at Barnabey's, the company threw a party for the programmers (and the marketing people), thanking them for all their hard work.

Mattel didn't rent a yacht or take them to a fancy disco. It went one step further. The company created an event that is probably every Blue Sky Ranger's definition of heaven.

The party was held in an empty Redondo Beach video game arcade, and every game was free for the night.

Used by permission of Howard Polskin and TV Guide.


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