-['GDRI Wisdom' is a bi-weekly column presenting highlights from select interviews with overlooked game developers of years past, as seen on Game Developer Research Institute (GDRI).]

Tom Sloper is a long-time veteran of the game industry. For the bulk of his career, he worked for Activision as a producer, involved with the popular Shanghai series and other titles.

Prior to that, he had stints designing games at Western Technologies, Datascan, and Sega Enterprises and was Director of Product Development at Atari Corporation as that company tried entering the post-NES video game market with the 2600 and 7800 systems.

Today, he works as a freelance game development consultant under the name Sloperama Productions. He also teaches a game design and production class at the University of Southern California. GDRI chatted to him about his fascinating history in the game biz.

GDRI: Could you tell us about your time at Atari Corporation?

TS: That was the worst job I ever had in games. But it was also the best learning experience I could have asked for. The company "structure" was basically a bunch of little independent kingdoms. Every interdepartmental request was a negotiation. Sam Tramiel would say, "Just talk to so-and-so, and he'll help you with that." I'd go to so-and-so, and he'd say, "Oh yeah? What's in it for me?" I had to solder my own devkits! And getting my developers paid. Hoo! Don't get me started.

GDRI: The Sega Master System games you produced at Activision say on the front of the box "Distributed by Activision." Did Activision and Sega have a special deal in place (i.e., Sega published, Activision merely distributed)?

TS: Sort of. [Then head of Activision] Bruce Davis met with [Sega CEO Hayao] Nakayama-san and hatched a deal so Activision (Mediagenic) could be the first publisher on all three platform holders' systems at the same time. Until this, Nintendo apparently held a tight rein on its licensed publishers. Publish on our system and our system only, that kinda thing.

GDRI: Why did Activision release those Master System games instead of Sega (or Tonka or whoever decided what came over to the US)?

TS: Bruce Davis and Nakayama-san got to talking, and they both wanted to break Nintendo's exclusivity stranglehold. Bruce wanted Mediagenic (Activision) to publish games on all the major consoles, and Nakayama-san wanted to get some of the big Nintendo third party publishers to publish games on Sega consoles. I have no idea what this Tonka reference is about.

[ED: Tonka was the distributor of Master System products in the US for a time.]

GDRI: The ending for NES Ghostbusters has been made fun of in recent years for its bad English. In another interview, you said you "produced the reverse localization (from Japanese back into English)." Why was this not fixed for the US version?

TS: It was. This isn't the released US version depicted. See how the Gatekeeper (the character portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the movie) looks to be topless? I fixed that. I asked the development team to dress her top. They put a colored band across her breasts. And I never would have permitted that "conglaturations" to go through to Nintendo, and Nintendo never would have approved it. Either these videos were made from the Japanese version, or they were made from a pre-release ROM.

[ED: "The Angry Video Game Nerd" appears to be playing an actual US cartridge in his review (WARNING: crude language), yet the topless Gozer and "bad English" ending still appear.]

GDRI: What was the deal between Pack-In-Video and Activision? For example, NES Die Hard was designed in the States, but it came out in Japan first.

TS: At this time (1988 to 1993), Activision was actively engaged in sublicensing properties to Japan as a way of synergizing licenses for games. We called them "Knight Rider deals." Someone licensed the TV show Knight Rider for games and then, instead of starting off by spending money to develop the game for North America, took the rights to Japan and sublicensed them. The Japanese sublicensee would develop the game for the Japanese market first, then we would localize the game for the North American market. It was a way of reducing development cost, but it had some disadvantages in terms of creative control and such.

GDRI: Did Activision have a deal with Tokyo Shoseki (NES Tombs & Treasure, et al.) as well?

TS: Yes. That whole period we did dozens of deals with a whole slew of Japanese companies. I flew to Japan, like, 3 times a year back then.

GDRI: What was Activision Japan? Was anything developed there, or was it merely a production/publishing house?

TS: When I was there in 1990, we were actually Mediagenic Japan. But since my games always bore the Activision logo, I just always refer to the company as Activision.

I was the first American to work at Activision's Japanese operation. Our mandate in 1990 was to facilitate licensing. "Licensing in" referred to licensing US or UK titles to Japanese publishers, and "licensing out" referred to licensing Japanese titles for publication in our other markets. Because my experience was in production, I also facilitated localization efforts.

Bill Swartz replaced me in Japan. After Bobby Kotick and partners acquired Activision in 1991, Bill became the head guy of Activision Japan. The office employed producers and marketing people, but not programmers and artists. It wasn't a development studio, if that's what you're asking.

GDRI: Some of the naming of these Shanghai games is a bit of a mess. I'm looking at a list here, and there's Dragon's Eye Plus: Shanghai III, Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye, Shanghai III: Dragon's Eye, Super Shanghai: Dragon's Eye (which was released in the States as Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye)...Is there an explanation for this?

TS: Bill and I noticed that, too. Every time we made a new Shanghai of our own (as opposed to licensing to a Japanese publisher), the marketing folks wanted to bump up the Roman numeral, but Bill and I knew that Japan was already out of synch with any numbering, and that numbering no longer made any sense whatsoever. Bill and I talked, and he proposed two rules: 1. No more numbers; 2. The word "Shanghai" should always be first in the title. But Bill didn't want to play the bad cop with the Japanese publishers. He asked me to do that. By this time, I'd been through the Alien vs. Predator mess with 20th Century Fox, and I knew exactly how the bad cop game ought to be played.

But even though we'd established this naming protocol, I had to make an exception with Sanrio Shanghai [SFC]. There was no denying that Sanrio had the bigger name and had more clout. I did have to enforce some design rules on that one, though - they weren't going to implement the most user-friendly features, and I insisted that for kids, those were imperative. But now I've wandered.

GDRI: What is a Brand Manager?

TS: The role is defined differently by different companies. Sometimes it's a marketing person who's responsible for a line of games. Because of my nine years' experience with the Shanghai brand or franchise, with a number of marketing people who came and went, I regard what I did, managing the licensing, as essentially a form of brand management.

GDRI: If you don't mind me asking, why did you leave Activision?

TS: I was regarded as a casual game producer, and the new studio VP didn't want to carry my high salary further, given the company's new focus on high-profile (AAA) titles.

GDRI: Having worked and interacted with American and Japanese game makers, did you notice any differences between the two in terms of developing games?

TS: Of course. They called artists "designers," and they called designers "planners." But more significantly, they didn't believe in writing game design documents. Case in point: Alien vs. Predator SNES. I needed a GDD to provide to 20th Century Fox to get design approval. It took quite a bit of back-and-forth and a little arm-twisting to get them to write me something. And when I got it, it was just 3 pages of bullet points. Reading it, it seemed like a reasonable concept. Not spectacular, but reasonable. And I didn't have time to ask them to do more.

Fox approved it, but when we got the actual game from the developer, we (Bill and Fox and I) were surprised (and I don't mean that a good way). It was a fighting game. The Predator (the player character) was punching Aliens most of the time in the game. Going back and re-reading the design, I finally saw that I could have figured this out if I'd been better at reading between the lines. The document said that the Predator would run into pickups which would give him cool Predator weapons and as an aside, when the weapons were gone, he'd have to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Aliens. It wasn't at all clear that most of the time, he'd be punching the Aliens. I asked the Japanese what they were thinking, and they said, "Fighting games are very popular in Japan now."

Also, if you give a Japanese developer a GDD, they don't treat it as a guideline. GDDs are taken literally there. Tony Van wrote a design for Die Hard NES and when I got the game back from Pack-In-Video, I was blown away by how the game was exactly like the design. Give a design to a developer in any other part of the world, and you'll see all kinds of liberties taken. But not in Japan.

My first experience with that was the story I tell on my site in article 19 about the scrolling landscape in Space-N-Counter [game calculator]. I'd laid out the landscape in my GDD as a series of frames. The Toshiba programmer took that literally and said there wasn't enough ROM to program it that way. I asked, "If the landscape was one long piece of data, and the screen was like a 'window' moving along it, would that fit?" He said it would, but when I asked him to just visualize it that way, he asked me to give it to him that way. I used scissors and Scotch tape to make him a paper image of the game's landscape, and he was able to implement it from that.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This was just a portion of the interview - read more at the GDRI website.]

[Game Developer Research Institute is a website dedicated to finding out more about game development companies and people in the industry.]