Intellivision World

Inventing the graphic artist

With nearly thirty years of experience in electronic and traditional entertainment, Michael Becker worked with designers, artists, writers, software teams and production houses worldwide. In 1982 Michael created one of the first ever group of artists to work with programmers: a privileged witness in the rise and fall of the Imagic legend.

Michael Becker today

Model for Atlantis game

Building the model for Beauty and the Beast box

Microsurgeon original art

Dragonfire was converted for almost every platform of the eighties

Box art for Solar Storm game

Interview by Valter Prette

Mr. Becker, when did you start working for Imagic?

I applied for a job there in 1982. I had been working as a creative director for a small ad agency in the Bay Area and read a Time magazine article about how videogames (coin op games at that time) were going to be a big industry. I was sick and tired of the noise of printing presses and promised to look for a new job as my New Year's Resolution. I saw an ad in the paper and was one of 350 people who applied as Imagic's Art Director. I stayed with them through their entire lifespan, including working on contract projects with Parker Brothers and Bantam Electronic Publishing, and even helped do an unpublished Sherlock Holmes game with Mark Klein after they had closed their doors and put everything into a shoe box.

Was that the first time you got involved in the videogame industry?

I had been involved in designing, writing and illustrating a few board games before that - a fantasy game about Eastern Middle Earth named Sword Lords and a sci-fi roleplaying game called Star Rovers. I worked on these because my hobby was quickly becoming fantasy wargaming and I was lucky I did those projects! Imagic held onto these games for a week, showed them to president Bill Grubb, and before I knew it I had been hired. They also mentioned that the programmers didn't do very good game art, so would I mind helping with that, too? I said yes, how hard could it be? Well, before long Wilfredo Aguilar joined me there (I had worked with him formerly), and we created the first videogame art department. We could usually do all the graphics for a game on a weekend or so, using an Atari 800 with a joystick, driving software that Bob Smith and Rob Fulop wrote for us.

How you remember the industry of the 80ties? Was that a romantic approach compared to today?

It was real small compared to today. I walked in to interview a couple days after Demon Attack had appeared at their first CES, and the phones were ringing like crazy. We grew really fast and before we knew it we were working on all the platforms of the time, primarily 2600 and Intellivision and then porting to Coleco and Vic-20. I did a couple Odyssey games, using characters instead of graphics (demons were the letter 'V' and the cannon was the letter 'A'. Shots were an I). It was real exciting, helping design our first trade shows, multimedia presentations, and even helping build the booths. But it crashed so fast that the romance ended rather quickly and seeing all my friends being laid off really soured the game industry for me for a while, so I joined up with Rob and we started doing multimedia projects for Apple and other very cutting-edge stuff as a contract design firm (first called Interactive Productions and later pfmagic). By then it was the late 80s and we did some CD titles for Philips but I realized these projects were getting huge and that they required big budgets and teams, so I went to EA in 1992.

Why Imagic decided to use such a different approach from other companies?

The 2600 games were designed to look cool on black backgrounds. That was what everybody thought looked great, so that became a signature look for those screens. For Intellivision, Brian and his guys had created a slick toolset to build those games, so they got a lot of UC programmers and we created tons of Intellivision games relatively easily. Those had a more colorful display and we used it. I was particularly pleased at how my 'searchlight' design for Atlantis on the Intellivision worked out. The big dragon in Swords & Serpents was pretty cool, too. Brian didn't want to keep it because it was so memory intensive, but I made him do it.

How did you choose the subjects of the boxes? Did you test the games still under development to understand the plot of the story?

The boxes just sort of evolved. At first Jim Goldberg's marketing group (one of the two groups I managed art for; the other was engineering) tested a bunch of box designs and one kid took a foil box and hid it on his lap he wanted it so much. They decided 'That's the box we want!'. It was real expensive to print on it because you had to print white ink first, let it dry, and then print color on top of it. But it really gave Imagic a unique graphic look. As for the images, Willy and I looked at the first models (such as the rubber demons with the rockets stuck up their behinds) and said 'We can do better than that! And cheaper, too.' So we built the models in the evenings and on the weekends and had them professionally photographed.
As for the stories, we just sort of made them up. I remember talking with Bob Smith. He wanted to do a game that used a play mechanic like jacks,
where you used the joystick to sweep up things, and we both loved the Hobbit, so we somehow came up with the idea of Dragonfire. I put a lot of sprites together to make an animated dragon and Bob did all the hard work.

Were other people involved in the process?

Always. We had one other game artist, Karen Eliot and quite a few people in the art department, designing beautiful things. Wendy Zeto was the art director for most of the print material, as I quickly moved to become Creative Director since I knew that making the games was where the action was, but I still managed the Art Department.

Who made the models that you use for making  the pictures?

All of them, except for the demons of Demon Attack and the model for Star Voyager, were made either by me or by me working with Wilfredo Aguilar. I still have a few of them in the attic.

What was the technique used to realize the pictures?

We worked with an optical house, Full Spectrum, who did multimedia shows (slide shows in those days). They shot the models on black and used a lot of the same compositing and lighting tricks that were being used by the first Star Wars films, but only on single 4x5 images. I think it cost about $2000 to make a final image.

We know Demon Attack box art was suddenly changed after the launch of the game, making the original version of the box a precious item for collectors. Are you able to finally reveal the truth about this choice made by Imagic?

We didn't think much about it. We were working with a very talented painter and he did a great painting of demons over a moon, so we used that when it was finished. Nobody particularly loved the first box art at that time; I guess it's something that had to grow on you ;o) I kept the last rubber demon and gave it back to Rob several years later. We put it up on the pfmagic Christmas tree for a while. A couple years ago I 'returned' the Star Voyager model to Bob Smith at the Classic Gaming Expo, after a long orbit of the solar system. He donated it to their museum.

Read the extended interview in the Official Intellivision Collector's Guide 2008!

Intellivision World

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