Interview: Patrick Hickey, Jr of "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers"

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Today we interview an accomplished interviewer! Professor and journalist Patrick Hickey, Jr. has written "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers." He will be at the Coleco Retro Expo and Long Island Retro Gaming Expo in August. He’s been a journalist for 12 years and in the process has talked to some interesting people, including: Channing Tatum, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Walker. But, he notes in an email, “this book is, to me, the best thing I've ever done.”

How did your recent talk at the Borough Con at St. John's University go?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “I'd say it went well, definitely a learning experience. It was my first time speaking in such a huge room and even though I've been a College Professor for eight years and worked at a college for 10, St. John's is top shelf. Seeing my Powerpoint presentation on the projector there was pretty cool and then being able to connect with new people who were interested in my work was even cooler. Truth be told, however, it was Borough Con's first year and it was a bit smaller in scale than expected. Nevertheless, I'm happy that I went. Sometimes getting an opportunity to connect well with a few people is better than being thrown in front of a large group where you have no time to really talk.

“I'm speaking at the Coleco Retro Expo in August (5) and the Long Island Retro Gaming Expo the week after, so those are the ones I'm getting really excited about. Every time I do my presentation, whether it be at a smaller con like the Brooklyn Geek Fest or Borough Con, or even for students at Kingsborough Community College, where I am the Assistant Director of the Journalism Program, it gets better. That being said, I think the presentation went well at St. John's and I'm ready for the next speaking engagement.”

You've been a journalist for 12 years. What are some of your most interesting interviews?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “I'd say Phillip Seymour Hoffman is up there as one of my favorites. He was such a down-to-earth and mellow guy. Very easy to talk to. When he passed away, it was rough because even though my experience with him was only about a half hour, I learned a lot about dedication to a craft through him. On the other end of the spectrum, WWE legend The Ultimate Warrior was one of the most intense people I had ever met. I'm 6'4" and over 300 pounds and that dude scared me, haha. Again, when he passed away, it was another learning experience. Here was a guy that wasn't the most talented, but found a way to be a star. I think every one of us can pull something from that. Somewhere in the middle, I'd say Channing Tatum, who has everyone fooled. He is not just a good-looking dude. Classy, and mega-intelligent, I really enjoyed being able to talk to him.”

You describe your book as the best thing you have ever done? Why?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “This was my first real crack at long-form journalism. before this book, the longest piece I ever wrote, was 5,000 words- my master's thesis, on the trials and tribulations, emotionally and physically, of the people involved in professional wrestling (ironically, it's the subject of my next book. I've already started working with a Brooklyn and Bronx-based promotion, Battle Club Pro, who are giving me access to their talent for interviews). Over the course of writing that piece, I could have died, as I got a staph infection on my face, from being in the wrestling ring and not cleaning the hands properly. I went untreated for a few weeks and half my face was blistered with a flesh-eating virus. When I finally went to the Emergency Room, they told me if I waited a few more days, I could have died. I was so dedicated to that piece -- I absolutely loved writing it and a few people featured in it told me they nearly cried when I was telling their parts of the story. That was in 2011. I missed that feeling of being so focused on one piece.

“This book is 100K words, over 300 pages without pictures, and with over 75 photos, it's going to be massive. I've read the book over a dozen times while editing it before I sent it to my publisher, MacFarland & Company. Every time I read through it, it got tighter and punchier. I've had the privilege of working with some wonderful journalists from my time at NBC, Dick Belsky, Dan Macht and Jere Hester and had wonderful professors at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Jan Simpson and the stubborn and evil, but intelligent Tim Harper, who I'd hear in the back of my head while I was writing. I hope that they pick it up because everything they taught me is there. At the same time, all the things I teach my students, to ask the important questions, to be persistent, to never give up on a source, that's all there too. While writing the book, I'd share war stories with my students, how I was e-mailing developers and calling their jobs and just being a persistent pain in the ass and it definitely affected some of them. That was part of the plan as well. That's why this book, to me, at least is the best thing I've done to date. The fact that I finished this book while changing diapers and spending time with my mother, who is battling cancer, makes it an even more important project to me.”

4) How did the idea come up for "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers"?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: My awesome wife, Melissa (who puts up with me having over 2,000 video games across 30 consoles) was five months pregnant. She was working 40 hours a week and more sometimes and when she'd come home, she'd be exhausted. With her relaxing, that left me with a lot more time on my hands. A book was something I always wanted to do and I felt like with my wife pregnant that this would be the best time to really challenge myself. As well, I have a wonderful job at Kingsborough that gives me the freedom to pursue my other interests. Most people with full-time jobs can't run a website, freelance hockey pieces for and write a book. Having a full-time position at a CUNY college is a luxury that allowed me to make some of my other dreams come true.

Was it difficult contacting some of these iconic video game developers?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “Yes and no. Some of them like Howard Scott Warshaw, Rob Fulop, David Crane and Garry Kitchen, legendary creators on the Atari 2600, were extremely forthcoming. They made my job incredibly easy and at the same time challenged me to be the best that I could since they took so much time out for me. Other developers spoke different languages or were in other parts of the world, so that created issues that were sometimes tricky. The only developers I'd say that were difficult to get a hold of where Mark Turmell (NBA Jam) and David A. Palmer (Doom). And for two completely different reasons. Turmell is an amazing person. He congratulated me when my daughter was born. We even traded pics and he gave me some parenting advice. Getting him to answer the questions by the deadline was a challenge though. He's a mega busy guy and we were able to get him in the book literally days before the manuscript was due. He also helped me nab John Tobias for the Mortal Kombat chapter. With Turmell, the book is good, but with him and Tobias, it's sexy. In the case of Palmer, he was one of the first sources I ever wanted to speak to, but I found out he was battling cancer. Literally two days before the manuscript was due, I e-mailed him and told him I still wanted to feature him in the book and if there was anything I could do to help make things easier for him. The next day, I had a ton of answers. I was literally writing that chapter while at a department meeting at Kingsborough.

“All in all, I got 36 developers to discuss their games with me, but I sent out over 150 pitches. Only three concrete nos. One was from Donna Bailey, the co-creator of Centipede. She was very nice, but didn't think she'd be a good fit. I read somewhere she's working on a book of her own on her life in gaming. Makes sense. The same thing goes for the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov. He's got a movie coming out about his life soon. The last one was from Nintendo. I wanted Pokemon in the book as it's my favorite series of all time away from Fallout and the NHL franchise. They were super polite and gave me about 20 pages of info on the series. If this was any other book I could have featured the game in the book. But I needed direct quotation. I didn't want to tell the story, I wanted the people that made these games to talk.”

Why is the history of gaming important?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “Because it's an industry that affects every other pop culture medium today more than any other. Video game characters are in film, comic books- they get mentioned in rap tracks all the time. And at the same time, they are affected and influenced by literature and every other form of media as well. God of War and Max Payne, for example, are heavily influenced by Greek and Norse mythology. Bully is influenced by Catcher in the Rye. Fallout takes a lot from Mad Max. Everything takes from everywhere else, but video games are unique in the fact that they allow the player to take control of the world they are in. Read a book, you read about things, you get immersed. Watch a film, you get a "feel" for the tone and cinematography. Play a game? You get it all. The fact that most developers can't be picked out by their biggest fans in public and you have a huge problem. These guys are rock stars and I wanted to give them their due and share some of the stories that even Wikipedia didn't have.”

Tell us about

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “Some people fix classic cars. Some collect things. I have a website. Since 2009, ReviewFix has allowed me to review video games, go to the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, get invited to E3, go to New York Comic Con and sponsor everything from Theatre Festivals and Pro Wrestling cards to youth basketball tournaments. Way before was covering everything in the entertainment world, Review Fix was doing it. In Graduate School, Jeff Jarvis, the founder of Entertainment Weekly, an amazing guy, told me my site was too broad and that I should cut out a few of the topics. Nearly a decade later — and everyone is doing it. We get a few thousand unique viewers a day and we always have exclusive interviews, so I'm proud of the footprint it has. My hope is that the book leads more people to it and helps make it easier for myself and my staff to get more attention. While I already have a daughter, the site is my first child.”

Just between me and you, what do you think is the coolest game ever invented?

Patrick Hickey, Jr.: “That's so hard! It's a toss up between the original Pokemon Red and NBA Jam. Decades after their releases and they still hold up wonderfully. I run retro video game tournaments at Brooklyn Video Games at 6801 20th Ave in Brooklyn and we had an old-school Pokemon tournament and there were so many people still in love with the first game. it's like magic. The core gameplay is still perfect. The same thing goes for NBA Jam. The game made a billion bucks in the arcade its first year in arcades- a quarter or two at a time. 25 years later and it's still one of the most enjoyable basketball experiences any gamer can have.”

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