Programmer. Artist. Musician. Designer. Producer. Editor. Collector.
Video games comprise a multibillion-dollar industry thanks to the people who make and play them. From designers and producers to collectors, community managers, editors, and hardware manufacturers, each plays a role in maintaining and advancing the medium of interactive entertainment.
Each has a story to tell.
Collected from the author's archives, GameDev Stories: Interviews About Game Development and Culture gathers conversations with individuals from all corners of the industry: Who they are, the paths they paved, and their contributions to our hobby.
•John Romero, co-founder of id Software
•Jennell Jaquays, writer and designer
•Scott Miller, founder of Apogee Software and shareware pioneer
•Kyoko Higo, former associate marketer at Square U. S.
•S. D. Perry, novelist
•David Brevik, co-creator of Diablo and Diablo 2
•"The Immortal" John Hancock, collector
•Meagan Marie, writer and community manager
"All kinds of great, nuanced interviews with game developers that I care about, from Scott Miller through David Brevik to Jennell Jaquays, John Romero and way beyond. An unmissable hotpot of goodness." – Simon Carless
"By giving bedroom hackers equal billing with company founders, Craddock successfully illustrates the tremendous breadth of voices behind the creation of video games. Taken as a whole, Craddock's interviews masterfully weave together the artistry, business, and humanity of game development into a work that explains what game development is far more successfully than any individual could ever hope to."– Frank Cifaldi, game developer, founder of The Video Game History Foundation
"In GameDev Stories, Craddock opens closed doors to reveal how games are made in a collection of wide-ranging interviews. You'll hear from programmers and designers, but also from individuals in positions often overlooked such as marketers, user experience researchers, and community managers. A must-read for anyone curious about what goes on behind the scenes of the games industry."– John Keefer, managing editor, Neowin.net
When I set out to write about the history of cheat codes, Dan Amrich topped my list of people to talk to. Before I go any further, I should apologize to Dan for ending that sentence with a preposition. Not only was Dan one of the leading voices in gaming magazines from Game Pro to OXM and Games Radar, he was one of the first editors with whom I worked (better, Dan?). When I entered the freelance scene in 2007, OXM was one of my first clients, and Dan one of my first contacts.
This was the first occasion I'd had to pick Dan's brain about his work. As expected, he was a font of fascinating tidbits, among which was the revelation that he helped to disseminate one of my favorite cheats: The DULLARD menu in Mortal Kombat for Sega Genesis.
Craddock: What was your earliest experience with cheat codes? Discovering one, trying one, etc.
Dan Amrich: I grew up in the era of Atari and arcades, so cheat codes were not as prevalent. I was fascinated with Easter eggs in games—the secret dot from Atari's Adventure was the first significant one I remember. They were basically urban legends at that point, and I would trade stories with friends at school, then we'd spend an afternoon trying to see if we could find this hidden stuff. It wasn't until the 16-bit era that I started hearing about cheat codes, and to be honest, I was not really a fan of them. I was very into the idea of playing the game "with honor" and facing the challenge that had been designed for me. If the game was too hard, I didn't want to get 30 free lives—I wanted to get better. So I liked the idea of hidden stuff, but I didn't like the idea of cheating to win.
I have always been into puzzles and hidden treasure stories, so while I didn't get into using the cheat codes myself, I did enjoy hearing about them and trying to test them. My college social circle was small when it came to games and none of us could really afford enough games to test out a bunch of stuff. I wound up helping find and test them when I joined the media.
Craddock: At GamePro, one of your primary duties was answering letters from readers. You mentioned to me that you have many memories of fans asking for cheats. During your tenure, what codes/secrets were especially in-demand?
DA: Whatever the last game was that came out. That's what bugged me, actually—a game people had anticipated for a year would finally ship, and the next day we'd get an email asking for cheat codes for that game. I had issues with that approach: "I can't wait to play this game so I can not play the game." This attitude exists today in the form of people who watch YouTube playthroughs but never actually play the games. For some people, knowing what the game contains was more important than the experience of playing the game itself. The information of knowing more than your friends is more valuable to them.
Craddock: What were some of your favorite rumors or theories around codes and secrets during your time at GamePro? And was GamePro behind any of them?
DA: Now we're at the intersection of cheat codes and cruelty. For the April issue, both GamePro and EGM [Electronic Gaming Monthly] used to do jokes. GamePro's were clearly labeled under a section called LamePro; it was basically a four-page section of terrible puns and jokes that weren't as funny as any of the writers had hoped—but hey, it was openly called LamePro, so it was often lame. EGM took a different approach; they would just put in a fake news story about, say, Sonic and Tails being unlockable in Super Smash Bros Melee, or unlocking different versions of James Bond in Goldeneye. Their most famous one was that there was a secret unlockable character named Sheng Long in Street Fighter II, but the phrase "Sheng Long" was really just a translation error from Japanese to English.
The very real problem about EGM's joke stories is that people would write in and ask GamePro to confirm them—so we'd have to be the wet blanket and tell these poor kids that they would never be able to play the game they now dreamed about playing. I felt that was the responsible thing to do. I just hated the idea of someone saying, "I can't trust this magazine, they lie to me," so I went out of my way to let the kids know we were being honest with them at every turn.
At GamePro, a lot of kids would read a code in one magazine and then immediately copy it down and send it to another magazine, hoping to get the prize or fame. We'd usually get 30 or 40 letters with the same code around the same time. We did test the cheat codes before printing them in GamePro or OXM—I was in charge of the small cheats section at OXM when I worked there.
Craddock: Given that GamePro consisted of many types of content, how important were codes and secrets to the magazine's success?
DA: Early on, very. Cheat codes were the currency of cool—a way to show your friends that you knew more secrets than they did, that you were more into gaming than they were. In the same way that fans buy t-shirts or cosplay [to support] their favorite nerdy culture things, gamers who knew all the cheats were considered hardcore. That knowledge was power, and everybody wanted to play with power.
Being a magazine that had The Latest Information and was one option of many, cheats were as important as the newest reviews or previews—to some readers, more important, because it was tangible and something they could use to prove themselves. The fact that Tips & Tricks was one of the longest-running videogame magazines in the industry was not a coincidence; the lure of forbidden knowledge was strong.
Craddock: How did editors go about finding cheat codes? Did publishers/developers supply codes and secrets to the magazine? Did the staff have to hunt and peck for them themselves?
DA: A mix of all of the above. We'd often get them directly from the publishers or developers, but some were sent in from readers who were more diligent in scouring Usenet for snippets of info. By the time I got to Official Xbox Magazine in the late" 00s, I had to scour the internet for them myself and ask publishers if they had any to share.
Craddock: Did editors have to work out with publishers which codes and secrets they could share, and when?
DA: Sometimes if we were doing a feature or a big review, we might get some codes as part of that arrangement, but usually the codes were supplied by our PR contacts three or four months after a game had gone on sale. It was clearly a way to renew interest in a title that might have fallen off the radar, so they were really used as promotional tools by some publishers. They were valuable—the audience wanted them, we wanted them—so I never saw harm in that. It was also assumed that, by that time, gamers who were really interested in that game would have finished it legitimately, so there was no reason not to let them loose with a cheat code.
Craddock: I remember reading that Nintendo kept its secrets, codes, and walkthroughs for Nintendo Power, then published in-house. Did GamePro have access to Nintendo's first- or third-party games, or did that happen over time? And if access was restricted, how did that affect the magazine's ability to publish codes, strategies, and other material in a timely manner?
DA: When it was time to review a game, Nintendo would send a console with an EPROM locked into it and a person from the Treehouse [Nintendo of America's product development division] to accompany it. You had to review the game while they were in the room; they'd take it with them back to their hotel room that night and bring it back to the office the following day. So doing in-depth strategy guides was generally done after the fact with Nintendo games. Stuff like RPG walkthroughs would take so long to create that the delay almost didn't matter.
Craddock: Have you ever discovered a cheat code? How did you do it, and were you looking for a code, or just messing around?
DA: I was the guy who sent the big DULLARD cheat code in to GamePro. Fresh out of college, I preordered Mortal Kombat for the Genesis in 1993—it was supposed to come out September 13 on "Mortal Monday." Stores broke street date and I was able to pick it up on Friday the 10th instead. That same day, my friend Carl said "Hey, there's this code that someone posted on Usenet, but nobody really knows what it does—did you get your copy yet? Can you test it?" The code was not the ABACABB blood code, but a different one—Down, Up, Left, Left, A, Right, Down. DULLARD opened a developer debug menu that let you not only toggle the blood on and off, but several other dev-test things, like making Reptile appear.
The problem was, they were all designated with nondescript FLAG tags—eight of them, if I remember. The only way to determine what they did was to go through, methodically, and test them. So I did that basically all weekend and came up with the definitive guide for what seven of the eight flags did. So on the day the game was supposed to come out, I had written up an exhaustive document explaining the DULLARD code and I asked my dad to fax it to GamePro magazine—I really wanted the free t-shirt they promised for sending in a code! A few days later I got a phone call from one of their editors, Lawrence—'scary Larry"—asking me how I got the code and if I was using this on a retail copy of the game. They had the EPROM for review, but they hadn't gotten final retail versions yet. I assured them that it was legit and told them how I'd figured out all the flags.
He said "I have to tell you, this is really well-written, too—we don't usually get cheat submissions that are this clear and complete." I said "Thanks, and you know, I'm a freelance writer, so I'm looking for work." Alas, it didn't turn into anything. They wound up running it as a full page in GamePro and as a two-page spread in their cheat code special issue, S.W.A.T.Pro.
Two years later I was writing for other outlets and I met Lawrence in person at E3, while waiting for a Sega demo. I introduced myself as the guy who sent in the DULLARD code, and I totally got the "Yeah, whatever, kid" brush-off from him! I remember swearing with my tiny fists that one day I would have that guy's job. I liked to tease Lawrence about that moment once we started working together (E3 is a blur and I came to understand how distracted he probably was), but eventually, when he moved on to work for Pokemon USA, I did assume his duties as Features Editor. So I literally did get that guy's job!
The sad part: I wrote several letters after they printed my code and begged them to send me that t-shirt, and when it finally arrived many months later…it was too small. When I worked there later, I remember finding a GamePro shirt in a storage area and loudly proclaiming "THIS IS MINE! YOU OWE ME THIS!"
Also, I'm a secret character in NBA Hangtime, but that's another story.
Craddock: The Konami code is arguably the most prolific code ever made. What do you feel accounts for its popularity?
DA: Its ubiquity! Not only was it powerful and gave players a huge advantage, but it was consistently used across several games. If you knew the Konami Code, you could cheat in just about any of their games, so that made it worth memorizing. As time went on, people who had used it and loved it decided to honor it by using it in their own games. It kind of belongs to everyone now.
Craddock: The code industry evolved in several stages: from POKE and PEEK commands in memory, to button presses like the Konami code, to utilities like Game Genie and Game Shark, and PC programs like "Trainers." At what point, if any, do you feel cheat codes and their kin compromised game development, or playing games as a consumer?
DA: I think they compromised the player's experience right away. As for compromising game development, that's a strong way to put it, but I do think it became an intentional thing that developers and publishers wanted to put in there to keep people talking about what may or may not be hidden in their game, and therefore give you a reason to pick it up. NBA Jam is a great example: People would hear about a combination of initials and birthdate that unlocked a secret player, so they'd go back to play again and put more quarters in to see if it was true, and try them for themselves. NBA Jam brought in a billion dollars—in quarters. I really think the secret characters were part of the reason it made so much. It was a great game, but it also had a ton of secrets that people were willing to pay to experience for themselves.
Craddock: Along the same line, cheat codes transitioned from overt cheats like god mode and extra cash, to more "just for fun" modifications like big-head mode. Were you aware of that shift? What do you think was responsible for it?
DA: I don't rightly know. I like the cosmetic stuff more; big head doesn't give one player an unfair advantage. It's the same way DLC has evolved too: You can buy gun camos for Call of Duty weapons, but you can't buy more bullets or more accuracy. Fun or personalized stuff is cool with me, but I don't know when it made the shift.
Craddock: You mentioned being at OXM when cheat codes were "no longer a thing." Could you walk me through your transition from GamePro, to Games Radar, and then to OXM, and discuss how and why cheat codes declined relative to their popularity during the 1980s and '90s?
DA: Wow, big question. I was at GamePro from 1997 to 2003, and cheats were major attractions during those years. GamesRadar had a cheats editor, Joe McNeilly, whose whole job was to find, test, and document cheats with videos. It was not glamorous because he had so much information to sort through, some of which was bogus. But it was a big enough deal that Joe was hired for that position, with business cards and everything.
OXM, which for me was 2006 to 2009, was the last gasp of cheat codes. Achievements wound up taking their place. That was a publicly sharable metric of your gaming accomplishments, so cheat codes became less important to the audience as well as the developers. Cheat codes were no longer the currency of hardcore gamers once Achievements appeared. They were another creative outlet for the dev teams and they were required by Microsoft, so the effort that would go into cheats went into Achievements instead.
Craddock: How did the decline of codes affect OXM and/or Games Radar? Or had the magazine and web mediums pivoted to emphasize other content and coverage by that time?
DA: Both of those publications didn't really hang their hat on cheats as much as features, listicles, and reviews. Cheats were the side dish. The last few cheat codes I ran in OXM were 1/3 pagers or less space—and sometimes I wouldn't run any if they were just not interesting or something I felt the audience would find fun.
Craddock: The ubiquity of the Internet can make any attempt to stash codes and secrets in a game feel futile: most if not all codes and secrets will be widely available within a day or so of a game's release. How can developers maintain an air of secrecy? Should they bother?
DA: Well, the DULLARD code appeared on Usenet. I think the internet has always been a vehicle for cheat codes. Where it really excels is being a storage facility for them, too. As soon as one person knows your cheat code, everyone will know it, because it gets posted to a public discussion. I still don't think that's a bad thing—it gives your game community something to discuss and a reason to bond and share information.
In addition to the clear promotional benefits, cheat codes always felt like a gift from the developers to the players—"we're not supposed to show you this, but we like you, so here's something special." At least, that's how I interpreted them. The developer became your older friend who hooked you up with insider info. I think it made some gamers feel closer to the people who created the games, because they got to see things and play the game in a way that was outside the realm of normal. Remember, you often had to seek out cheat codes—there was effort involved in finding them, testing them, and verifying them, even for the players. So a code that worked felt like a reward, and that reward came straight from the people who made the game.
Craddock: I wouldn't go so far as to say that today's games are less fun or mysterious for their lack of codes (relative to older games), but I do miss the aura of mystery and possibility they added to gaming. What are your thoughts on the decline of codes? Do you miss them, or are they better left in the past?
DA: I didn't miss them until doing this interview. I see them differently now; I understand the role they played in making that player/developer connection. ARGs [alternate reality games] now exist as a way to engage your fan base in something creative and secret; lots of games have used those to tell more interesting stories but still impart that sense of insider info. There are still other secrets too—collectible items in-game, alternate outfits, sometimes even narrative things like character audio logs or journals in BioShock. The air of mystery is still there; it just takes different forms.
I think bringing back cheat codes now would be pretty awesome. Gaming culture has properly elevated the past and respects retro gaming at a level I did not expect to see, so I would like to see them reappear from time to time. There could be no greater tribute than to make a thoroughly modern game with an old-school wink and smile.