Tim Skelly

Slowly but surely, game designers are coming out of the closet. Skelly is among the first. Not only does he enjoy meeting the press, but signed his latest project, Reactor - A Tim Skelly Game.


At the age of 30, Tim Skelly is one of the foremost video game designers in America. He is personally more responsible for more arcade hits - including Rip-Off, Star Castle, and Armor Attack - than anyone in the industry. Working alone where other tend to dwell in groups. Skelly is a maverick - something he proved recently by designing Reactor for Gottlieb.

    Reactor defies the conventional wisdom of modern video game-ology. It's a target game - but you don't shoot. It's a raster game (broad images instead of lines) - but the graphics are almost abstract instead of representational. It involves destruction - but depends on subtle positioning. Reactor is sub-atomic bumper cars on a TV screen, an imaginative, potentially new direction for video games. But, it may also be an example of too much innovation - a game ahead of it's time.

Skelly is a young veteran of five years in the coin-op business. His experiences during that time - as well as his iconoclastic opinions - offer valuable insights into the boomtown psychology of the ever-profitable video game industry. VIDEO GAMES asked Neil Tesser, columnist for the Chicago Reader and jazz commentator for National Public Radio in Chicago (who also happens to be a college chum of Skelly's), to talk with Skelly. Tesser reports:

   "Tim Skelly has his moods. When we first spoke about doing the interview, he had just agreed to begin work on a new game with Gottlieb, and was quite pleased. But by the time we set up the interview date, conditions had changed and he was debating whether or not to even do a next game. And by the time we actually sat down with the tape recorder, he had begun weighing options outside the industry altogether. These include going into film animation - Tim's a passionate and knowledgeable cinemaniac - and assembling a book of cartoons depicting the lighter side of video games.

    "The cartooning comes as no surprise: Skelly drew all through college. In fact, that was probably the first of his talents I encountered. I soon found he had a knack for radio productions and electronic music, plus his video art was pretty wild for Northwestern in the early '70s.

    "Tim Skelly is tall, bright and articulate. He laughs easily. His long curly hair and intense manner remind me of Dr. Who. Since he's in love with my third floor neighbor, he's been around my building a lot these days; I just invited him down to the dining room and we talked over caffeine-laced tea.

    "My earliest memory of Skelly is the time at Northwestern when he dragged me out to Lack Michigan to commemorate Walpurgis Night. This involved standing on the rocks and yelling - to the accompaniment of Frank Zappa on a cassette deck - imprecations about the woes of our lives, hurling them like verbal boats upon the water. That was in 1970; so in a way, I've been preparing to interview Tim for 12 years."

VIDEO GAMES: Around the industry, you're becoming almost as well known for your theory on video gaming as your are for the games themselves. Why don't you lay it out for the folks watching at home?

SKELLY: Well, one of the things I learned when I was doing video art is that a light source, such as a video monitor, is inherently more fascinating than any source of reflected light. For instance, if you're in a bar, and there's a television on, most people will sit there and tend to glance up at the TV without even really watching what's going on. There's something primitive there; it's like looking in a fire.

    Once you have the light source, your attention is already riveted. But most successful games, you'll notice, have a black background to them. Originally, this was for technical reasons. I have since realized that by having a black background and having only the featured figures in bright colors, you create a situation where the primary features on the screen are inherently more fascinating than anything else. Well, with that much concentration, you're already in a light hypnotic trance. Anybody who's watched television and hasn't been able to get up and turn the damned thing off has experienced this. It's meditative, calming. But at this point you're still thinking about the kid who stole your lunch money, or that business deal that didn't go through, or whatever drove you into the arcade in the first place.

"Reactor violates a standard rule of arcade xenophobia, which is: Anything that touches you, kills you."

"There's something primitive about TV - it's like looking into a fire."

VG: This all sounds fairly manipulative. What happens next?

SKELLY: When the game starts, you have what I think of as the little electronic Zen master, which is anxiety. If you're careless, if you don't concentrate on what you're doing, you're going to lose a ship - and that's the little Zen master slapping you upside the head saying, "Pay attention, Grasshopper!" So you pay attention - you pay lots of attention - so that by the time the game is over, as long as it wasn't a complete washout, you've already accomplished one thing, which is that your mind has been cleared. You feel that your problems are a little more distant than they were when you started playing.

    Now, if you really played well - and you're already in this suggestible state - then you feel really good. It's almost imprinted on you, and it lasts longer than the time you spent playing that one game. And if you don't do well - even though you might get frustrated and angry - there's still a feeling of involvement. I think games are sort of like theta wave meditation. You're dealing not with a relaxed state of mind, but with an excited state, and that has its own pros and cons.

VG: Certainly, these are not the thought of some technology-crazed programmed wearing digital blinders. Just what is your background?

SKELLY: Here's a good place to start. When I was in high school, in Canton, Ohio, the school had one of the first desktop computers - which in fact was nothing more than a glorified calculator - and we were taught how to program the thing. This sparker my fascination with computers. Then one day I had this amazing revelation: I realized the reason I liked computers was that I thought hey looked really nice. I couldn't care less what went on inside of them.

    I'd already done some radio stuff around Canton, so I decided to go in for radio-TV-film when I made Northwestern. I ended up accumulating enough work there to eventually put on an electronic show at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.

    I also studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. I've got quite a lot of art training; in fact, I used to support myself by doing graphic design for various and sundry purposes - letterheads, logos, matchbook covers, you name it.

VG: What made you go back to computers?

SKELLY: Doing video art, and also electronic music, I got hooked up to the notion that computers would be something I was going to have to work with at some point. A few years later, after not very successfully making commercials and industrial films, I found myself in Akron, Ohio, selling records and I decided I could do something a lot better with my time. So I took a couple of courses in assembly language programming and digital electronics. But I had no notion of applying it.

    Two years later, I was sitting in a bar, after I'd been fired from a sandwich-making job in Kansas City, and a guy walked in with a microprocessor under his arm. I look at it and said, "You mean that's the whole computer?" He was planning to open up an arcade-like establishment, where people would play computer-type games as opposed to arcade games. This was 1977, a year before Space Invaders, at that time, about the most sophisticated thing on the market was Atari's Starship.

VG: So, you started programming computer games for the microprocessor guy?

SKELLY: Not at first. See, I didn't have anything else to do, and I figured I'd help the guy set up; I thought I'd end up designing a logo for him. One night, when I was helping him, I said, "Hey, you got a manual for this thing? I'd like to try something." I wound up programming home type games, comparable to the kind of thing you see on the Atari VCS.

    Now that I realized I had the ability to program games, I began looking for a steady job. Frankly, I really wanted a position in Atari's art department. So I sent out resumes to all the game companies on the West Coast.

    Cinematronics hired me immediately; at the time, all the company had was one designer, and he was about to leave. When I got to San Diego, two weeks later, he was gone. He'd split with all the hardware and all the software - including the operations codes - and I had no idea what to do. I had never written a full-length program in my life - at least, not one that worked. I actually would've picked up and left had it not been for about a hundred employees at the company who were depending on me to come up with a game.

"I'm seeing a trend towards pattern games. Zaxxon is probably closer to Pac-Man than Defender."

"The philosophy at Cinematronics was make it loud, make it fast, and make it shoot a lot."

"The initial tests on Reactor were very bad. I had forgotten there was very little there for the initial player."

VG: This all reminds me of the inspired madness your hear in the tales of the early TV industry. Here you are, barely qualified in a technical sense, trailblazing your way out to the coast and leaping into a new field - with the fate of an entire company hanging in the balance no less. You designed - and programmed - Starhawk, which was a hit and which saved Cinematronics. After that you did Sundance -

SKELLY: - a total dog -

VG: - and then Rip-Off, a truly innovative game. How did Rip-Off come about?

SKELLY: Well, I had been kicking around one idea that wasn't very good. The idea was just to sort of get attacked by a whole bunch of little guys and shoot your way out. From the notion of Space Wars, I like having two-players on the screen at the same time. Then, I heard of an FM radio survey saying that kids were really angry, frustrated, and wanted to strike out, but they also had the desire to team up with their peers. I thought, "Great - I'll put both players on the screen together and team them up." Now, I just had to set it up so they couldn't shoot each other.

    Rip-Off turned out to be real successful because, instead of fighting each other, the players teamed up against the meatballs in the middle. By the way, just to show you how game ideas evolve - the fuel canisters or meatballs in the middle were originally watermelons in a watermelon patch.

VG: Was there an overriding philosophy for the Cinematronics games?

SKELLY: Yeah - make it loud, make it fast, and make it shoot a lot. At the time, Cinematronics was only using vector graphics - a la Tempest - as opposed to raster games, such as Space Invaders or Pac-Man. We did have a certain unique quality with vector. But on the other hand, we couldn't fill the screen with color or solid areas or anything like that. I mean, most of the early Cinematronics games were pretty boring to look at. So what we went for was a lot of visceral impact - exciting explosions, really loud noises, and a lot of action.

VG: You also did Armor Attack and Star Castle for Cinematronics - two more successful games - but then you left. Why?

SKELLY: I left because Gremlin (which is also in San Diego) - now Sega/Gremlin - had been trying to hire me for over a year. Out of loyalty to Cinematronics, I'd been saying no. Finally, Gremlin offered me a royalty on my games, which was something I wasn't getting. So I went to Cinematronics and asked for a royalty - a smaller one, actually - and they cried poor, said I was killing them. They wouldn't do it. So I finished the games I was working on and left.

VG: I understand you ran into some problems at Gremlin. What happened?

SKELLY: I got a little ways into my first game - and developed some interesting routines for their vector monitor - when Cinematronics sued myself and Gremlin. Cinematronics holds applications patents for vector displays and was trying to harass us out of using the vector. Though eventually the suit was dropped, at the time I had to stop working on the vector game because Cinematronics had gotten a temporary injunction against my doing that.

    So, I started working on a raster game and was about halfway through that when it became clear to me that Gremlin didn't seem really interested in protecting me in the event, say, their new vector game came out and Cinematronics decided to accuse me of violating the injunction. I just felt I needed to get out of there - it was a dangerous situation. I'd received an offer from Gottlieb to come to Chicago and do a game, so I took off.

VG: Now, the way I understand it, you're doing games for Gottlieb, but are not on staff. In a sense, you're an independent contractor. How does this work?

SKELLY: Well, since each company has its own hardware system, it would be difficult to do a game from scratch and then sell it. I don't want to do that. Being an independent simply amounts to my having my own computer, which I can hook up and adapt to everybody else's hardware, and then contracting with a company for x number of games. With the state of the art moving along as fast as it does, owning your own equipment can actually be a liability. You're definitely better off getting someone else to supply the hardware.

VG: Your first game as an independent, Reactor, is so different from most video games that people don't seem to know what to make of it. Where on earth did it come from?

SKELLY: It stemmed from one simple idea. I was used to doing shooting games and one day I just thought: "Hey, what if you were your own projectile? Human cannonball? What if when you hit the fire button, instead of firing anything, your own ship goes shooting forward?" It just sort of evolved from there - that and the idea of creating the necessary anxiety by decreasing the play area with an expanding core. You just ram into other objects. In fact, the original name was Ram-It.

VG: I've played Reactor and I love it. But I'm not the masses . . . well, let's face it, the game hasn't been doing to well, has it?

SKELLY: The initial tests were very bad, but the things that led to them being bad I corrected almost immediately. I was so into playing the game at the higher levels that I had forgotten there was very little there for the initial player. So, I made a lot of changes - basically, I sped the game up - and it did substantially better. I do think it's going to do well eventually.

    You see, in order to pull off Reactor properly, I had to include some elements that are not intuitively obvious. One of my first rules for game design - which I broke for Reactor - is that when you walk up to a game, you should not have to read the instructions; you should just be able to play it and figure out quickly what you are supposed to do. Well, there was no easy way - in fact, not even a difficult way, short of putting up little signs - of telling the players it's very important to knock in the control rods (video drop targets) because they make the core stop expanding, which buys you time. There's also no way of making it intuitively obvious that you should chase after the particles and not wait for them to come to you. Reactor violates a standard rule of xenophobia, which is: Anything that touches you, kills you. That's not true here. The only thing that kills you in Reactor is touching the wall. You can touch the particles all you want; in fact, that's the idea - to smash them into the wall.

VG: How did Gottlieb react initially to the poor test results?

SKELLY: Well, it's the hit syndrome. If you haven't got something that's number one in the arcades immediately, the company wants to back off. I can understand that because an operator - the guy who buys the game - invests real money, and he has to pay interest. And if he doesn't get the money back within a certain period of time, what with the interest, he can end up hopelessly in debt. I can even understand that. Fortunately, the game has done much better the second time out, and I think in the long run it will do better than just good. At this point I'm philosophical about it. But, back then, of course, I was pretty upset: Reactor took nine months out of my life.

VG: It's easy to see how the hit syndrome - the need to cash in, even to the point of copying an existing game - can stifle experimentation. How will this experience with Reactor affect your next game project?

SKELLY: With Reactor, I had a chance to do something experimental and I enjoyed it. But, I've already decided that next I'm going to do what I know best - which is a real action-type game. So far, we've had Japanese cartoon games based on humor and we've had adventure-excitement games. I think it might be a lot of fun to do a monster-movie type of game: something that's scary in addition to being exciting. Something not for the squeamish. I don't know whether I'll be able to pull it off.

VG: While we're on the subject of new ideas, what do you see the other guys coming up with in the future?

SKELLY: One trend I'm seeing now is toward pattern games. For instance, Zaxxon has really neat graphics, but it goes back to the Space Invaders thing. One of the major innovations of Space Invaders was that it introduced the concept of "Gosh, I could've played forever if I had just zigged instead of zagged." That's what happens in Zaxxon. Even though it's a shooting game, Zaxxon is probably closer to Pac-Man than it is to Defender. It depends a lot on remembering when to dive, when to pull out, and so on.

    I'm afraid that what I see in the future is a heckuva lot more mundane than what most people come up with. I think that imaging will become a lot more realistic; that's been the trend all along. As a result of that, I'm sure there will be a lot more simulation games, like Battlezone. Other than that, video games are just here to stay. Whether or not they're still in arcades, or are going to be computer-matrixed to homes, that's all just details. The fact is, they're fun, they're a totally new form of entertainment, and they are here to stay.

    There are certainly fad aspects to it - for instance, Pac-Man. Pac-Man is the Uncle Miltie of video games. years from now, people will fondly remember ol' Pac-Man.