Sunday, May 17, 2020

Interview with Activision Co-Founder Jim Levy

I recently had the terrific opportunity to interview Jim Levy, who co-founded Activision, which started off as a third-party publisher for the Atari 2600. The interview originally appeared in Old School Gamer Magazine. Enjoy!

BRETTWEISS: How did you get involved with Activision?

JIM LEVY: I started it. That’s the short answer. Activision was founded by five people. The four game designers who came out of Atari and me. I was the founding chairman and CEO. That’s how I got involved. I created it.

WEISS: Who approached whom? Could you tell me a little bit more about the genesis of the company?

LEVY: There are two parallel paths that came together. The Atari guys began to look for a way to get out of there and do game programming on their own as an independent design group. As I recall, their idea was to do that work and then license it or sell it to marketers or publishers.

WEISS: So their original idea was not to create their own new company?

LEVY: No, it was not. First of all, none of them had the management chops to do that experiment. What the were was game designers. So, at the same time this was happening, which was he early part of 1979, I was at a company that had been failing for some time but had a little startup division that was working on personal computer software publishing. In the very early days of personal computers. That division of the company reported to me. I was the corporate vice president. I started shopping the idea in the investment community of forming a company to do personal computer software. Around the second week of June of that year, I got a call from a friend of mine who was a lawyer, who I had been working with for a couple of years. He had been involved with me shopping the personal computer software. He called me up and said, “I have your design team in my office.” And that was the four games from Atari.

WEISS: David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead.

LEVY: They had been referred to him for guidance about how to go about what they wanted to do, which was to form this independent design group. So, they showed up at my house that afternoon. Over the next couple of weeks, we had extensive discussions. I convinced them that the thing to do was to start a company doing game cartridges for the Atari VCS. The would be the design team, and I would run the business. So, basically, I took the core of the business plan that I had been working on and rewrote it to fit the video game profile. At the same time, I had been talking to one venture capitalist who was very interested in backing the personal computer software idea. He was ready to do so when I went back to him and said, “I think we have a better idea here.” And they became the primary backers of Activision.

WEISS: Interesting.

LEVY: In the summer of ’79, most of the guys were still working at Atari, and I was working on a business plan. I eventually got the money secured from the venture capital investors and introduced them to the game design team. We had a deal by September. The two parallel paths were the game designers who wanted to leave Atari and do their own thing, but not form a company like Activision, and me, who was ready to form a company to publish personal computer software. We came together, and that’s how Activision was formed.

WEISS: That’s great how that worked out. Activision had a lot of great marketing ideas: the color-coded boxes, treating designers like rock stars, having the designer’s tips, trips, and photos in the instruction manuals. Was most of that your idea? I know the programmers wanted more recognition, but the actual marketing—was that your doing?
LEVY: That was all me. If you look at Activision in its early days, the four programmers were in a lab, designing games. I didn’t muck with them much. They would come out and tell me what they wanted to do, what they were working on, and I just let them run. I came out of creative industries: the publishing industry and the music industry, so I was used to dealing with creative people at arm’s length. Occasionally providing general guidance in terms of how marketable certain products might be and so forth. But I was not involved in the process of what these guys did and how they did it. I was only allowed in design lab about once a week [laughs].

WEISS: [laughs] You let them do their job.

LEVY: Yes. They designated one of their guys to be the liaison to the business side of things. He was the guy who I would deal with in terms of information flow back and forth. All of the work that created what you have seen as the face of Activision, including the name, which was mine, the logo, the flying V design, and how the packaging and manuals were put together, all that stuff, that was my responsibility in the development of the company. It was a lot of fun.

WEISS: I’ll bet it was.

LEVY: My background was primarily from a skillset was primarily marketing, and also entrepreneurial management in development ventures.

WEISS: Activision was definitely marketed well. Very distinctive packaging and everything. Is it true the programmers wanted more credit for their work? I know money was the main reason they left Atari, but were they also wanting more recognition?

LEVY: I don’t recall from our early conversations that that’s what they came to the table with originally. It was an automatic for me, having dealt with artists in the music industry for most of the 70s. The paradigm was that the artist was in fact the brand. I don’t know how many people could tell you what label the Eagles are on and whether it matters or not. My whole view of game design was that the programmers were the stars. They were the creators; they were the authors; they were the musicians. And eventually they would have their own brand. David Crane, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan—they would establish their own identities for the games they designed. Activision itself was a brand within the trade and was the name above the title, and was a presenting and producing organization, but the work was created by the guys. Pitfall!, for example, which was the best-selling game in the early days, was designed by David Crane. If you went and talked to a hundred people who played that game, they could tell you both that it was an Activision game, and that David Crane had designed it. That worked to our benefit the next time David designed a game. So, it was just like working with recording artists, like the next album from the Eagles.

WEISS: That was definitely a new way to go about things for the video game industry.

LEVY: Yeah. I came to the table with that. I don’t recall that it was as big of an issue for the designers early on. I do recall they were very upset with how they were being paid by Atari. They were being treated as if they were just mechanics and had no name value or financial value other than being workers in a lab.

WEISS: How did the high score patches program come about? Where did you get the idea?

LEVY: Okay, I’m going back 39 years now, when this first happened [laughs]. Of the first four games we released, the big title was Dragster. David Crane’s first Activision game. It was a drag racing game. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen it.

LEVY: It was a killer of a game, and it was a joystick breaker. Shortly after the game was released in the fall of ’80, people started sending us Polaroid pictures of their scores. Somebody would get a score of 6.9 seconds or whatever, and we’d get a picture. This flow of mail from users and purchasers of the game led us to think about how to respond from a customer relations standpoint. How to talk to them. At first, we sent congratulatory thank-you letters. And then we started thinking that maybe we should put a newsletter together and build a mailing list. So there was a newsletter we put together called “Activisions.” I do not recall exactly who came up with the idea for the patch. It was either me or one of the other people in the customer relations marketing crew. The idea to form a club, a club of Dragster players. I don’t think there was a threshold required. If you sent us a picture of your best time, we would send you a patch. You were a member of the Dragster club. Eventually, over a period of time—that first year we were releasing product—not every game was as competitive as Dragster. But if you communicated with us regarding the playing of any of our games, and your achievement with the game, you were going to get a patch. Ultimately, every game ended up with its club. There was a Tennis club and a Skiing club. Bob Whitehead’s Skiing game did have timed results. This developed over time, so every time we released a game, we created a patch, and it was a way of rewarding feedback from game players.

WEISS: Brilliant idea.

LEVY: The patches and the newsletter were our primary ways have contact with customers. This was before the days of electronic communication, so everything was on paper. We were getting thousands of pieces of mail per week. At one point we had an organization—10 or 12 people who would answer the mail.

WEISS: Wow, that’s a lot [laughs].

LEVY: Before I talked to you, I reached out to the leader of that organization—the woman that I hired to run it. Unfortunately, she’s in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, so obviously she wasn’t going to be much help with this article.

WEISS: Oh, no, I’m sorry to hear that. Do you recall who manufactured the patches?

LEVY: No, I don’t, but I think it was a promotional products company. Activision was also in the clothing business [laughs]. Not to make money. All of our people had jackets and T-shirts and hats. We were in the luggage business. Our entire sales team had Activision luggage so they could be identified in airports. For a few years, you couldn’t go through an airport without seeing somebody carrying or wearing some piece of Activision paraphernalia.

WEISS: Great branding.

LEVY: Yeah, and the patches continued as we went into PC games instead of just console games. That era is what one writer called Activision 2.0. That was sort of the redefinition of the company after Atari caved in and blew big hole in the industry.

WEISS: Have you seen the prices of the patches recently on the collectibles market? They go for quite a bit. Around $20 to $70 each, depending on the patch and the condition.

LEVY: I’ve heard about it.

WEISS: I think that speaks to people’s fondness of the games while growing up.

LEVY: My daughter, who was in her teens when Activision was roaring along, she actually worked for the company one summer as a writer. She wrote manuals. She may have been the best single manual writer we ever had. She was really good. I have a whole collection of Activision memorabilia: posters, games, cutouts of Pitfall Harry, stuff like that. She has told me in no uncertain terms that I am not to destroy or give away any of that. She wants to come and go through it with me piece by piece. She said to me, complete sets of original games, which I have are pretty valuable. She hasn’t mentioned the patches, per say, but she’s made me aware of there being a huge market for original Activision material. I’m sure I have a whole bunch of the patches, but I’m not sure if I have a complete set.

WEISS: About 12 years or so ago, retro gaming started getting mainstream. Prices on all this stuff started going way up. Now it’s just crazy, some of the prices [laughs].

LEVY: I’m not really watching that. I’m pretty detached from the game industry now because it’s so totally different from what it was when we started Activision. But I do have occasional situations where I’ll run into someone, and they’ll ask me what I did, and I’ll tell them I was with this video game company in the ’80s called Activision, and they go nuts.

WEISS: Oh, yeah, I’ll bet!

LEVY: They’ll says something like, “Oh, my god, I spent my childhood playing those games. I thank them for helping me build my house.”

WEISS: [laughs] If you don’t mind me asking, what are you up to these days?

LEVY: I’m retired. I’m not actively involved in any business venture, but I am on a couple of boards for small, startup companies. My wife and I live in Sonoma, California now, and we’re very involved with some local organizations. I’m on the board of the Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, a regional theater group. She’s on the board of the local hospital. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing. Before Activision, I had a radio background. Before and after Activision, I had a broadcasting background. I did some local broadcasting work the first 10 years or so I was retired, but things are quieter now. We travel quite a bit and work on the local organizations. That’s pretty much life as we know it today.

WEISS: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it!

LEVY: By the way, are you aware of the National Video Game Museum outside of Dallas?

WEISS: Yeah, in Frisco. I live about 45 minutes from there. I’ve been 13 times [laughs].

LEVY: They cosponsored a 40th Activision reunion a couple of months ago. There were about 100 people there. I’d say close to 40 ex-Activision employees. There were some groups of patches that people brought in and put up in the archive corner.

WEISS: Yeah, I took some photos of the patches last time I was there to get some good pictures for the article.

LEVY: Someone sent me a photograph from one of the current gaming conventions, where they had encountered a whole wall of Activision patches, but I’m pretty much out of it now.

WEISS: Understood. Thank you again, I really appreciate it. It’s been fascinating talking to you.

LEVY: Thanks, I look forward to seeing the article.

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