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Interview: Bill Kunkel — The Game Doctor

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Last week I was able to talk with Bill Kunkel about gaming and his book Confessions of the Game Doctor for a couple hours. It’s an interesting read that you really shouldn’t miss. Once you’re done reading head on over to Rolenta Press and buy the book.

Rob Faraldi (RF): How do you think the public has taken to your book?

Bill Kunkel (BK): Well, I think the gamers, especially the folks who were between, say, 12 and 21 when the first issue of EG [Electronic Games] came out, they love it. But I haven’t been able to get much mainstream coverage in terms of reviews and stuff outside the game magazines and sites. I’ve gotten a great personal response from the people who’ve read it, which is cool.

RF: Why do you think the mainstream press hasn’t picked up on it? You’re a pioneer! They cover the 80-year-old gamer grandma but not you? Why do you do you think that is? The 80-year gamer grandma was on Tucker Carlson last night on MSNBC.

BK: I think it’s because game journalism is simply not much respected. You’ve got people reviewing games in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, but beyond a really nice review in his Wired blog by Chris Kohler, even Wired won’t review it in their magazine.

RF: That sucks. How have game journalists and industry folk taken to your book? What were the reviews like?

BK: Other than a snide comment or two in the Brit magazine Edge (the book was all about “me, me, me,” which I felt oddly appropriate given the book was my memoirs), the reviews have been 100% positive and people have seemed to really dig it. Just saw the new Game Informer that had a short but very sweet review and the comments on the boards seem to be very favorable, so I guess that target audience is enjoying it.

RF: Edge is sort of Next Generation‘s UK counterpart isn’t it? I always got that vibe anytime I picked it up.

BK: Yeah, and a pretty good magazine, but after all, I guess I’m not a “legend” in England where they had their own journalists.

RF: That’s interesting. Are you saying there were UK game journalists before you? Or just that they have their own heroes?

BK: Oddly enough, it is my belief that the SECOND game magazine was, in fact, published in England a matter of a month or two after EG launched over here. But I don’t know that it survived. We also had licensed French, German, etc. editions of EG like Tilt! and Tele-Match which translated and reprinted our stuff.

RF: And you were writing about games years before EG.

BK: Oh yeah, in Video. As for the Brit, I think he was just being snarky, but he gave me a good idea for a chapter that I’ll be writing in my column on the Digital Press site.

RF: I can’t wait to check it out.

BK: Actually, he suggested a chapter I didn’t write and, in retrospect, he was correct; I should have written about it. The wanker.

RF: Do you feel game journalism is too politically correct today? It seems that as videogame journalism grows, the journalists have become as bland as politicians trying to pander to everyone. It seems that selling a magazine or whatever takes priority over everything else. Was it always this way? Is it right to place magazine sales or website hits over integrity? Is lack of integrity part of the reason video game journalism is still not accepted?

BK: I don’t think that today’s game journalists lack integrity, but they do lack other things. The magazines are all too specialized, there are virtually no magazines that treat electronic gaming, be it console, PC, arcade, PSP, DS, whatever, as a hobby or even a lifestyle. Just because I tend to enjoy console games doesn’t mean I don’t want to know all about, say, the new Petroglyph Star Wars game on PC, or why Doom 3 got such indifferent reviews — and even why the movie didn’t work successfully. It’s all integrated, it’s all synergistic. Instead, if you own a PS2, you buy a PS2 magazine and so on — you’re only looking down one of many interesting corridors in the game universe. Also, the Internet has eroded the foundations of print journalism. If you graduate from the U. of Missouri School of Journalism, you don’t want to write for Xbox Magazine because the money isn’t there, among other reasons. The Internet can give you the information so much faster. Magazines can offer in-depth analysis, but it doesn’t seem as if that’s always their mission. Also, the industry, and especially the game media, are always fixated on the NEXT generation of games rather than appreciating the systems they already have.

RF: But there are multi-platform magazines like Game Informer that has the largest readership of any game mag on the planet. GI started out as an advertising tool for Funcoland so is that what the problem is? Are magazines just ads for game companies? And because of that you’re not allowed to stretch your “journalistic muscle?”

BK: Certainly, too many magazines are being published by people whose interests conflict with those of the game players. Diehard Gamefan was perceived as objective, but was it? This is an industry where literal tools of the game companies are bought by readers who believe they’re reading something with credibility as an objective source. Hell, Nintendo Power may well be the most financially successful magazine in the history of this business, but anybody who trusted in the objectivity of the magazine was drinking Mario’s Kool-Aid, so to speak. Magazines that start off as marketing vehicles never lose that stink and serious journalists are generally appalled by the way game writers are romanced so easily by the game companies.

RF: I hate interviewing company reps, there’s no bigger waste of time. I’ve interviewed reps all the way up to VP’s. I try not to.

BK: Well, they’re just doing their job. You don’t expect the company VP to badmouth his company’s game, and you can’t expect Nintendo to badmouth one of its own games in its own magazine.

RF: Of course not, but it’s still lame. What do you think about videogame television programming? It doesn’t seem to be working well considering G4 is transitioning into an all male channel a la Spike. Spike is trying to get “into the game” so to speak, too. Again, what’s your take?

BK: Spike hasn’t had a clue from Day One and probably never will. That company seems to re-imagine itself every year or so. As for G4, they don’t have much on to appeal to female viewers, but I think their coverage of E3, for example, is fantastic. If you’re into games, I’d be watching G4 — and, in fact, I do watch it a good deal — before I’d read a game magazine. G4 can SHOW me the game; there aren’t enough unique voices among today’s game journalists. You still have some of the old school people around, but there are too many kid reviewers who have no historical perspective and can’t put the games in context. Magazines need hot writers and there just don’t seem to be enough of those out there.

RF: Besides yours truly (sense the sarcasm), are there any hot game journalists out there? If so who are they?

BK: Oh there are. I mentioned Chris Kohler, and Zach Meston, of course, and old schoolers like Chris Bieniek who is, in my opinion, largely wasted on a magazine like Tips & Tricks where the most interesting stuff is jammed into the back pages. And again, G4 and Gamer.TV have produced a generation of reviewers who are very good at capsule reviews. Talking head journalism with a lot of hair gel. The people who review games for the mainstream publications, however, are all over the place, from good to horrible.

RF: Chris Bieniek was one of the heads of Videogame Magazine in the 90’s, Meston was there too. Meston does Videogame Collector (Meston is no longer with that magazine), now which I’m not too impressed with.

BK: They were the young guys coming up when I was moving more toward other areas of gaming, such as design and consulting. I was sorry to see Steve Kent leave the biz; the world doesn’t need more bad sci-fi novels.

RF: That’s hilarious. I was pissed when he wrote his farewell in Game Informer, but I respect him a lot. I thought his book was a great companion piece to Leonard Herman’s.

BK: Kent really put in the time on that book, too. I know he spent a lot of time talking with me and I was probably just a minor source. You know, when I was writing comics for DC and Marvel, everybody there wanted to write novels, movies, or TV, thinking those fields were “classy”. The grass is always greener, but I’d rather be a top notch game journalist than a third-rate novelist. Not that I want to pre-condemn Steve’s work but it does have that Michael-Jordan-Wants-to-Play-Baseball vibe to it, you know? The comic wants to do Shakespeare, the great actor wants to get belly laughs.

RF: At least two of those guys you mentioned are kind of old school by today’s standards (Meston and Beniek). Would it be accurate to say there’s really no new talent worth a damn at this point?

BK: I can’t say that, quite honestly, because I simply don’t read enough game magazines or hit that many sites. My game-related work — except for the classes I teach on game design and some consulting — is almost exclusively for Running With Scissors and the Postal franchise. And from that point of view, we not only don’t see much talent among game reviewers, we don’t see any guts. We literally get email from the reviewers with the link to a review where they rave about Postal 2 or one of the add-on games then apologize in the email (and sometimes even in the review!) that they could only rate it a 6 or a 7 because, well, you know, you’re not supposed to notice that Postal 2 is actually an excellent game.

RF: But will it be an excellent movie? I’m interesting in seeing it.

BK: And because Postal is the only franchise the company has, the whole industry can dump on it and pretend their games aren’t far more violent. As for the movie, you’ve probably heard that Uwe Boll is the director. I can only say that Dr. Boll has promised that Postal 2 is, indeed, his favorite game and he sincerely wants input from Running With Scissors. I suspect it will be funny, violent, and sexy. At this point, there isn’t even a finished screenplay, so it’s way early to tell. You know how Uwe casts his movies?

RF: With a blindfold?

BK: Sort of, actually. He waits ’til about a month before he’s going to shoot and he sees who’s not working. Next thing you know, he’s got Ben Kingsley or Burt Reynolds signed to some generally inappropriate role, but he gets those big names and they make his money back.

RF: That’s amazing! I was wondering how he pulled that off with BloodRayne.

BK: Yeah, I guess they shoot them quickly and they go home with many thousands of dollars for a week or so’s work.

RF: Must be nice! I recall that you’re into titles that take a minute to learn and lifetime to master. It seems Nintendo is taking that direction with some of their DS titles. They’ve also expressed interest in doing the same with their Revolution console. Are you excited or appalled?

BK: I’m… intrigued. When it was first released, I thought the DS had all the potential in the world, but I don’t hear any real buzz for it. I like the fact that they appear to have simplified their Revolution controllers because it was just getting ridiculous. I have no idea how anybody can play with an Xbox controller — all those buttons, analog joysticks, directional commands, yadda yadda yadda…

RF: Everybody knows how to use a TV remote.

BK: As PC and home games have moved closer, the console gamers have been forced to use the sort of complex, multi-command interfaces favored by PCs — since they have keyboards.

RF: Yeah.

BK: I thought the N64 controller was just about perfect.

RF: And not every gamer has the money to shell out for console keyboards if they’re offered at all… the N64 claw!

BK: Then everybody jumped the shark.

RF: I thought the Dreamcast controller was just about perfect for 3D stuff, especially racing games.

BK: Yeah, what a sad story that system was.

RF: Yeah, to say I was upset when they killed that system is an understatement. Dreamcast had the second most successful console launch in history behind the PS2.

BK: It just shows how foolish is our obsession with “the specs” of each new system really is. The most elegant machine often loses its round because of pricing, marketing and, of course, a lack of killer app titles. Remember the 3DO?

RF: In Sega’s case it was a history of console failures. Of course! 3DO made sense on paper, design a console and let a third party manufacturer take the risk. Trip Hawkins has come up with some great ideas.

BK: Trip Hawkins wrote the most brilliant business plan — people who were there still marvel at it. But you can’t price the thing at $700 or whatever — it was like asking the early adopters: “Okay, so just how big a tool ARE you?”

RF: Yeah, it was $700.

BK: It’s one of the oldest and surest axioms of the game business: You can’t sell a console list at a SRP higher than $300. Just can’t do it.

RF: I’m with you…until this gen. $300 isn’t what it used to be but obviously a lot of people are still with you, Microsoft for one. That $299 core system for 360 is a load of crap.

BK: Of course inflation will change that number, but whatever $300 was worth in, say, 1990, you can’t go higher than that for any system.

BK: They also make you buy the memory cards and an extra controller — and what happened to the game that comes WITH the system?

RF: A $299 console in 1995 costs about $380 today. They kind of chucked the pack-in out with the launch of Playstation.

BK: I wouldn’t try selling a console system, bare bones, for more than $350.

RF: The $399 Xbox 360 isn’t a bad buy. I’d love to pay nothing for it but that’s not going to happen.

BK: Well I was spoiled. I bought an Odyssey2 in 1978 and didn’t have to pay for a new system until the late 90s, so I’m not as quick to jump in and debug somebody’s new system. I never buy a system the first year it’s out. The people who do wind up bug testing the thing, the company rebuilds it, sells it for less, and makes games that aren’t compatible with their “older” systems.

RF: And that’s another point. The majority of folks who buy any successful system don’t buy it within the first year at “full price.”

BK: Of course not. They don’t want another Dreamcast or Saturn.

RF: I do! But I want them to succeed.

BK: Though both systems were well worth owning.

RF: Yeah.

BK: I let the market fight it out. But really, Sony’s backwards compatibility is so sweet, I can still play my favorite PS games and if I buy a PS3, I’ll be able to play NHL Hockey ’06 on it.

RF: In this round, I’m digging Nintendo’s backwards compatibility. Sony will let you play PS and PS2 games on PS3 but there’s no memory card or controller plugs. so if I want to play Taiko Drum Master with my awesome PS2 drum, I can’t. Microsoft is the same way. Nintendo has pretty much provided a Gamecube and Revolution console in one. Sony’s backwards compatibility is good for most games but it could have been a tick better.

BK: And Sony’s online play isn’t close to where it should be.

RF: Right, they’re promising a lot; well the rumor is they’re promising a lot with their Xbox Live Killer. We’ll see.

BK: Ever know a company to say, “Our next gen system really isn’t going to be that impressive?”

RF: No not really. They all love to talk shit, I guess that’s their jobs.

BK: Yeah, but this four to five year cycle is ridiculous. They have got to let these systems to hang out longer and stop getting people all worked up about what’s coming NEXT. Give the systems seven to eight years, let the developers teach them how to stand up and do tricks and when you can make a quantum leap, then make it. But with these guys, it’s planned obsolescence on a four year rotation and it kills the existing systems.

RF: I agree especially with longer dev cycles. Two to three years to make a proper game in a five-year lifecycle isn’t enough.

BK: Of course it isn’t. As you say, we’re looking at development cycles that are longer than most films and yet, even if you start development on the first day the system launches, you have to sweat as to whether it’ll still be the “hot” system by the time your software arrives — or will the company be trumpeting its Next Big Thing?

RF: Most films? Almost every film! unless you develop EA games, they shit those glorified upgrades out fast.

BK: True, but remember the screenwriting process is generally not included in movies.

RF: True that. I’m a filmmaker and I definitely know what you’re talking about! Is a woman’s place in the kitchen or online playing you in Halo?

BK: If it’s Halo, she’s probably kicking my ass. I don’t like that game — rather play Goldeneye (the original). But you bring up a crucial point. The demographic breakdowns are indicating a world that is pretty much 50-50 male and female. Designers are going to need new paradigms, such as Will Wright, who is a genius, created The Sims. Women aren’t satisfied by a rail gun and a bunch of zombies; they want something different and game designers better be thinking about what that is — especially the female designers.

RF: I find it strange that women didn’t pick up on gaming especially early on. You always had violent stuff but some of the biggest games Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Mario, and Sonic seemed to appeal to men and women.

BK: I think that it’s a major misconception that women and girls didn’t enjoy videogames back in the early days. Centipede was huge among the female audience, and of course Pac-Man was as well, but women tended to play primarily at arcades, as a “night out” thing. The idea of tying a videogame system to their TV set and sitting there for hours wasn’t quite so appealing.

RF: How do you feel about arcades drying up? Will they ever come back?

BK: Not until they find a way to offer something that you can’t get at home — and at a reasonable price. We have a Gameworks here in Vegas and it’s a really great arcade but man, those credit cards they sell you to play the games dry up fast and you just can’t spend the kind of time and money learning to master a game that you did in the old days. Also, the arcades are so clogged with those mindless redemption games and even the videogames are all kits, whereas every coin-op back in the day was designed to be a unique unit, from controls to monitor type to cabinet design. Now they’re mostly glorified home systems, big Neo-Geos.

RF: But they did that to reduce cost.

BK: Of course.

RF: The cabinets from the golden age are amazing. Works of art!

BK: Arcade owners lost a fortune on laserdisc games. Remember that Tron cabinet?

RF: Yep.

BK: What a beaut!

RF: There’s an arcade in Pennsylvania called Challenge Arcade. They have rare modern stuff and classic cabinets all set to their original prices: a quarter. That’s the way I like it, I just wish I lived closer.

BK: Wow, I’m impressed. As I said, today it’s all rows of racing cars and mini-batting cages and all, but the big ideas don’t come from the arcades anymore, which is why they’ve dropped so far back in terms of popular culture.

RF: If you could bring back any videogame series what would it be and why?

BK: Toejam & Earl. Especially the first one. One of the most delightful game experiences I’ve ever had. The second was great for a platform game, but I’m not a huge platform game fan.

RF: Toejam & Earl came out for Xbox but I didn’t think it was great.

BK: So I’m told.

RF: I think the original developers did it too.

BK: I believe so.

RF: Would you want it in 2D or keep with the times and plaster it with polygons?

BK: I’d like it in two-thirds perspective like the original. Just bigger, with more levels, new prizes, etc. I think they had a classic there.

RF: I’ve got to play it again!

BK: How about Zombies Ate My Neighbors? I’d like to see them redo that one. Konami for the SNES.

RF: And Genesis.

BK: Riiiight.

RF: I was playing it for Genny the other day…no kidding!

BK: If you got to keep your weapons on the saved levels, it would have been awesome.

RF: Some new attacks would be great too.

BK: Of course.

RF: And to give something to the newer gamers there’d be an unlockable code via Gameshark to have sex with the zombies. That would put it over the top.

BK: And make Jack Thompson a very happy fascist.

RF: He claims that kids mimic videogames and proposed a game to kill a developer. Something like that. If they designed a title to off Mr. Thompson, I’d be cool with that.

BK: He can claim the world is flat, too, but he’s still full of shit. Actually, the developer in question was Vince Desi, CEO of Running With Scissors and a game was actually developed and I hear it’s hilarious.

RF: I’d like to check that out. What is your favorite game and system?

BK: So many systems… From the old days, the Bally Home Arcade was just sweet. The N64 I still play and I love the sports games on the PS2. My favorite game? It just depends on what I’m playing at the time. But I have stated that I believe Tetris is the most perfect videogame ever created.

RF: And you have a great Tetris portion in your book.

BK: Thank you. It’s not only a brilliant game, but it has one of the great back-stories of any game in history.

RF: Yes it is.

BK: I mean, people wound up dead!

RF: It’s truly wild. I think there are pictures on rotten.com. Tetris is so non-violent.

BK: Yeah, but it was money, and there was a double-cross and when the Soviet government got involved it just became surreal. They really should make a film about its sale.

RF: Tetris for Gameboy is one of the best selling games of all time.

BK: Tetris MADE the Game Boy.

RF: For good reason. I know you’ve smoked a lot of weed, have you done it while playing games? Do anything else while you play? I tripped on mushrooms and played Sonic Adventure many years ago, the game looked like Toy Story! Do drugs help enhance playing games?

BK: I’ve never believed that smoking pot enhances movies, TV, videogames, comic books, or anything else. It just so happens to be my drug of choice. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke cigarettes, so it tends to be what I do when I’m relaxing. But when I’m really into a game, I don’t stop for anything. Heroin, on the other hand, definitely makes games better. (Only kidding!)

RF: I barely smoke anymore, but I do enjoy a joint and some videogames every once in a while.

BK: I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s my vice and I ask only that other people leave me and Bill Maher alone.

RF: So what are you up to these days besides writing great books?

BK: Well, I still get called in to consult and even to do seminars with development groups, but I sign so many NDAs regarding that stuff I don’t think I can actually talk about it. You can read my stuff at the Go POSTAL site by visiting the Newsletter where I write as both “The Gimp” and under my old Game Doctor moniker. I got a LOT of interview requests coming off the book and I’m actually doing some research now on a couple of potential products. I also wrote my first novel recently (it’s not sci-fi and its setting predates the arrival of Pong by a year) but I do that under another name because they’re really a totally different thing and I wouldn’t want to confuse people. Besides, pseudonyms have been berry, berry good to me. I’m also working with a local filmmaker on something that I believe will make a major splash on the festival scene. And other stuff, but that’s enough, I think, for now.

RF: Very good! Any plans for another book on gaming?

BK: It IS possible. Actually, my wife Laurie Yates and I were already working on a textbook for game design instruction when the Game Doctor book came along. Since then, the textbook idea has sort of morphed again but I’d say yes, there’s a very good chance you’ll see another game-related book from me within the next, say, three to four years.

RF: I can’t wait.

Thanks a lot Bill for doing the interview. Remember to pick up Confessions of the Game Doctor at Rolenta Press. You can thank me later.

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About Rob Faraldi

  • Rob F

    What a wonderful interview!

  • Rob F

    Check out my video interview with Bill on http://www.coin-op.tv. I dig it! Of course I would.

  • http://www.gamersunitemagazine.com RCM

    What does that have to do with anything Kayne?