Interview with Leonard Herman

#Last Month, I did a review of Phoenix, the Fall and Rise of Video Games.  This excellent book chronicles the history of video games from the very beginning, up to recent times.  I thought it would be great to do an interview with Leonard and find out a little about how the Phoenix project began and how he feels about the industry.  When someone puts as much time and effort into a project like this, they tend to get very close to the subject.  With this in mind, I wanted to see a little into the mind of the man.  So if you ever wanted to know a little more about Leonard Herman and his great book, this is your chance!

1-Tell us a little about the history of your Phoenix book, how it came about, the reasons, etc...

Phoenix actually began in the early '80's. Back then there was so many games available for the Atari, some good and many bad, and many many of them were clones of each other but there was really no way to distinguish what they were. I decided to write a buyer's guide that would summarize these hundreds of games. The result was ABC To The VCS (A Directory of Software for the Atari 2600). Since I wanted the book to be complete and contain every game for the system, this resulted in a problem that it could never be completed. Obviously when new games stopped coming out, there no longer was a need for such a book.

When the Nintendo Entertainment System became popular I thought about doing the same type of book for that system but decided against it. But I wanted to write some kind of book about videogames. Then I realized that I had so much information about videogames lying around in different forms, that maybe I could compile this information and write a book about the history, since such a book did not exist at the time. The result was Phoenix.

The title Phoenix was used for several reasons. One of course was because the industry died and a new one arose from its ashes. Another is because of the Phoenix game by Centuri which was used by Atari in a lawsuit again Imagic. Lawsuits abound in videogaming history. Finally, the new book was born after the original book, ABC To The VCS, died.

Surprisingly, the Atari fan has asked me to release ABC To The VCS anyway. So in 1995 I put together a 160 photo booklet that contained minuscule print. I'm now contemplating putting out a second edition which would be professionally bound and include all of the prototypes and homebrews that have been found or released since the first book came out.

#2-Where did you get all your information? Was it difficult to find the information?

Most of the information was gleamed from press kits and magazines. Most of the information existed before but never in one place. The hardest part was when I was presented with conflicting information and had to write what I believed was the truth. This was before the Internet was popular.

#3-What changes are in the 3rd edition?

a)First of all, the size. The original Phoenix books were 5 x 8. The new one is 8.5 x 11. The 2nd edition contained photos but in many cases they were too small to see so I rectified this by making the book, and typeface, larger.
b) The 3d edition adds an additional four chapters to the 2nd, bringing the history of videogames up to the end of 2000.
c) Additional photos throughout.
d) Known errors have been fixed - particularly the definition of 'bank-switching' which haunted me from the first two editions.
e) Focus-On sections: In-depth-columns featuring people and places which go beyond the normal history.
f) Cover gallery of American videogame magazines and books.

#4-After doing three editions of this book, which one posed the greatest challenge?

Each one poses its own special challenges. In the latter two editions I had to figure out a way to make the book better than the previous one in ways other than adding new chapters.

#5-While compiling the information, was there any old video game myths that you found the truth about and were surprised by them?  (AKA-the real origin of Donkey Kong's name, the reason for the first Easter Egg, etc...)

I didn't know that Warren Robinett left Atari long before his name was discovered in Adventure. In the first two editions I wrote that Warren hadn't been reprimanded by Atari because they were happy with the publicity they received. This was updated in the third edition when I learned that he wasn't even with the company any more.

#6-Are there any video game companies that you have less respect for, after doing this book? Any you have more respect for?

Every company had its share of good and bad. I have no respect for Tramiel's Atari even though I am an ardent Atari supporter. On the other hand, I have never been a fan of Nintendo during their monopolistic days but I am admiring them more and more now.

#7-Lawsuits are a big part of the history of video games. Was there a specific lawsuit that you felt the verdict was wrong?

I've always felt that Nintendo got off too easy in 1991 when it threatened dealers not to charge less than $99 for each NES unit. It's punishment was to send $5 coupons to all NES owners who purchased the unit during the particular time frame. Everyone had to purchase a Nintendo product to use their coupon so Nintendo wound up winning anyway.

#8-Is there video game, a system or a company that you felt made a considerable contribution to the video game industry, but is largely overlooked?

Yes, Magnavox. They introduced the very first videogame console but they always take a back-seat to Atari. The truth is that Magnavox didn't know how to market their product and Atari did. Later, Magnavox released its Master Strategy Series which brought together videogames and board games. It was a great innovative idea that never caught on.

#9-There is an old saying that "History repeats itself". Do you find this to be true in the video game industry? Do you find companies making the same mistakes as previous companies?

The crash of 1983 was caused by a lot of cheap crap on the market that was selling in place of the expensive stuff and causing a domino ripple through the industry. We now have brand-new games for the Playstation which cost less than $10. There is just too much product out there and not enough disposable income to keep up with it.

#10-There is a saying in the video game industry that the market will not support more than two systems. Do you find this to be true of the video game industry in the past? Do you think with the rapidly increasing size of the industry that this is still true?

The only times we've ever had a successful third machine is when the third one was a bargain machine. For instance, the 5200 and Colecovision fought it out but the 2600 was still popular because it was an inexpensive machine at that time. We've never had three machines in the same price range to successfully compete. In the early '90's the Turbografx-16 had no chance against the Genesis and SNES. The Saturn and Jaguar were losers against the Playstation and N64. Even the Dreamcast, which many cite as the best machine out there, couldn't hold its own against Sony and Nintendo. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft fares. Hype will carry it initially but where will it go from there?

#11-If you could go back in time and view any event in the video game industry, what would it be and why?

The time when Nintendo offered the NES to Atari. Imagine what the industry would be like today if Coleco did not run Donkey Kong on the Adam!

#12-If you could go back in time and run any video game company, which one would it be? What would you do differently?

I think Coleco. They were players almost from the beginning. They were innovative (they introduced the first steering controller) and they had a great machine in the Colecovision. But they threw it all away by developing the Adam which eventually destroyed the company.

#13-How has the industry responded to your book?

The 2nd edition was received favorably. It was used in college classes and I was told that many developers have it on their bookshelves. The 3rd edition isn't selling as briskly. One reason, probably, is because Amazon doesn't carry it. Also, there haven't been any reviews out as there had been with the 2nd edition. I think a lot of people don't know it's available

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