Bob Bates interview

Bob Bates interview 1
Bob Bates interview 1

With so many adventure game legends coming out of the woodwork in recent years, longtime genre fans may be wondering, “What about Bob?” I’m speaking, of course, about Bob Bates, originally of Infocom before becoming the co-founder of Legend Entertainment. One of the industry’s most influential early pioneers, Bates is the mastermind behind such titles as Sherlock! Riddle of the Crown Jewels, Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, TIMEQUEST and John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles. And while adventure fans haven’t heard much from Bob in many years, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down a prolific career both at Zynga and as an independent consultant that includes such far-ranging titles as Spider-Man 3, Sacred 2, Cursed Mountain and even a corporate sexual harassment training game. He’s also been a highly sought-after guest lecturer, and even written a number of successful books on game design.

But text-heavy, story-driven adventures remain Bob’s primary claim to fame, and he’s long overdue for a return to his particular area of expertise. So good news!! We are pleased to break the exclusive announcement that a new Bob Bates text adventure is on the way! It’s called Bodgers, a “comic fantasy that uses spells set in modern-day New York City.” (Update: Since time of writing, the game has been re-christened Thaumistry: In Charm's Way.) That’s about all we can say for now, as a Kickstarter is planned for late January, and we don’t want to steal any of the campaign’s thunder ahead of time. Rest assured, however, when that times comes we’ll have an in-depth look at the game ready and waiting.

In light of this welcome news, what better time for a chat with the man himself? And so, with a little help from passionate Bates fan and fellow developer Agustín Cordes, I conducted an interview with Bob that actually spread out over the course of many months as the big day approached. In the first of two articles (the second still to come, focusing primarily on Thaumistry), we take a detailed look back at his illustrious career, from its humble beginnings as a tour guide in Washington DC to the acclaimed videogame writer and designer he is today. Enjoy!

Ingmar Böke: Hello Bob, it’s my pleasure to welcome another industry legend to Adventure Gamers. We’re eager to talk about your illustrious career as a designer, but let’s begin by going farther back than that. What was your background before you got into the game industry?

Bob Bates: There are only two jobs I’ve ever wanted in my life. The first was to be a teacher. I was convinced until my sophomore year of college that I would become a teacher, probably of high school seniors, because that’s when people seem to “wake up” and start to become themselves.

But in college, I decided that I wanted to be a writer, and that has been my ambition ever since, and what still drives me today.

Unfortunately, the school I was attending (Georgetown University) didn’t have a single writing class. They had lots of literature courses, but nothing that would teach you to write. So I had a choice: transfer to a different school, or stay at Georgetown and find ways to actively learn and practice the craft. I chose the latter. I became Sports Editor of one of the two college papers, then Managing Editor, then a Contributing Editor and humor columnist for the other paper, and finally Editor in Chief of the yearbook.

Bob Bates, circa 2001

After college I was faced with a similar challenge: I had to earn a living, but I wanted to write – which is a profession that notoriously doesn’t pay people enough to live on. So I chose an unusual job, that of a tour guide in Washington DC, near where I grew up. The way this job was structured, I would be with a tourist group 24 hours a day for several days in a row, staying with them in the hotel and guiding them through all their activities in the city. But then I would have several days off between groups, where I could (theoretically) devote all my time to writing. That sort of happened, but I found that I couldn’t actually spend an entire day writing. For whatever reason, my writing sessions are much shorter than a full day.

Over time, I became involved in the management of that tour company, and I eventually started my own company. We were quite successful and by some measures became the largest group tour company in Washington DC.

But during those years, I wasn’t writing, or at least not much. I told my wife that when I turned 30, no matter what, I would get out of the tour business and come back to writing. This came to pass. Within 3 weeks of my 30th birthday, I sold the company (to someone who made only the first payment, and none thereafter!) and started to write a book. I had enough money to live on for two years, and I believed (at the time) that anyone who couldn’t write a novel in two years was just not working hard enough.

[Insert Fate laughing here.]

Two years later, I had half a novel. I got in touch with a literary agent who actually was interested in the book and said he could get me a $20,000 advance for it. He asked how long it would take to finish. I estimated another two years and did the quick math that said that $5,000/year wasn’t enough to make a living. I now know that this offer was actually a strong statement of faith in the book, but I didn’t realize it at the time. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have taken that offer.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I had to start looking around for a job where I could write, but also get paid enough to eat.

While I was working on the book, my father (a computer expert from the time the machines filled entire rooms) gave me one of his old computers to use as a word-processor – quite a new thing in those days, when all my previous writing had been done on a beloved IBM Correcting Selectric II with its amazing trackball. This computer was a TRS80 (with dual 5.25” floppies!), and on it was a game called Zork.

The possibilities were immediately obvious to me. Here was a business that didn’t have the high barrier-to-entry of the New York literary scene, where a writer of modest talent could make a living creating the kind of games that he loved to play.

I started a business with a friend, Dave Wilt, whom I had met through singing, and in 1986 we created the company called Challenge. The idea was that if you thought Infocom games were hard, just wait until you played a Challenge game! Little did we know that this was exactly when Infocom was deciding (correctly) that its games were too hard.

The story goes on from there. But that’s the story of what I did before I got involved in the games industry.

Ingmar: How did your fascination with games start?

Bob: I come from a family of eight children, and games have always been a part of our lives. They still are – whenever the family gets together, you can be sure we’ll be playing games within minutes.  My parents – both mathematicians – were avid bridge players. My father taught us chess and several of us became much better-than-average chess players. (We knew those things back then, because Chess Life magazine would publish national rankings every month).

So I grew up with games of all sorts – Poker, Chess, Bridge, Whist, Cribbage, Hearts, and of course board games of every stripe.

Looking back, I suspect this might have been a survival strategy on the part of my parents. If you have eight unruly kids, how do you corral them into one spot so you can have some peace and quiet? Have them play games!

Ingmar: Please tell us how you got involved with Infocom and what your early memories of that company are.

Bob: When I started Challenge, it was to compete with Infocom. But one of the first things my partner said was, “Why build a game engine from scratch if you can license one? Who has a good adventure game engine?” Well the answer, of course, was Infocom, but I told him it was unlikely that they’d want to license the engine to a potential competitor. He said to call them anyway, and so with my heart in my mouth, I did.

Infocom’s answer was that they might be interested in licensing the engine, but that the cost would be $1 Million. That was well beyond anything we could consider, but I went back to them and said, “What if we did a 10-game deal with you, with a license fee of $100,000 per game?” They said they would think about it.

As it happened, this was soon after Infocom had been bought by Activision (called Mediagenic at the time), and the CEO of that company, Jim Levy, was planning to connect on a flight through Dulles Airport, near where I live outside of Washington DC. I booked a conference room at the airport and we met on a Friday afternoon.

When I walked in he asked, “Why should we license our engine to you?” I answered by saying, “I don’t have access to your sales records, but here are the Infocom games that I think have been successful, and here and the ones that I think have not, and here are the reasons why.” We had a good conversation, and the following Monday I got a phone call from Infocom saying, “Let’s forget about the licensing deal, how would you like to develop games directly for us?”

So that’s how I became Infocom’s first developer who wasn’t located in their Cambridge office.

Continued on the next page...

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