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I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts!
By Christina Erskine
Published on 09/3/2006
We spoke to the writer and designer of Ghostbusters, David Crane, Activision's top programmer, when he visited this country from California recently, Ghostbusters was far from David's first big success - he wrote many early games for Activision on the Atari VCS machines, not to mention Pitfall and Decathlon, also available on the Commodore.

David Crane Activision

David Crane, top programmer for Activision, lets Christina Erskine in on the secrets behind Pitfall, Ghostbusters and his other top-selling games.

Last Year's Christmas hit in the software industry was undoubtedly Ghostbusters.

The Commodore 64 version alone sold over 100,000 units in the UK, and its use of music and speech synthesis is probably the most spectacular yet on a home micro.

We spoke to the writer and designer of Ghostbusters, David Crane, Activision's top programmer, when he visited this country from California recently, Ghostbusters was far from David's first big success - he wrote many early games for Activision on the Atari VCS machines, not to mention Pitfall and Decathlon, also available on the Commodore.

Ghostbusters was, however, the first game David programmed directly on to the Commodore - previously he had always written primarily for the Atari micros - Commodore versions coming later.

"The first time I went to see the movie in the USA - when it was breaking box office records - I had no idea that Activision was negotiating with Columbia for computer rights. It was a good thing I enjoyed the movie. A couple of weeks or so later, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a game to be based around Ghostbusters. I was interested, but the big problem was that they wanted it finished in six weeks time.

"I usually spend around eight months over a game - the first two months I work out an overall game plan and write the screens and then spend six months refining it, going over all the small details and debugging."
Ghostbusters Columbia Pictures Inc
Ghostbusters Movie Poster
© Copyright 1984 Columbia Pictures Inc.

"I was interested in Ghostbusters, but I said I didn't think I could do it on my own. So for the first time, Activision decided we could do Ghostbusters as a team effort - I could work on how the game was to look and what would be contained, but we could get others to help with the implementation and refining job."

"That evening I went to see the movie again - this time from a rather different viewpoint - and I realised I already had some screens for a game I had been playing around with that could be used in Ghostbusters. It seemed to make the job a little easier. I agreed to do it, and began burning the midnight oil from that day on."

Ghostbusters Columbia Pictures Inc
Ghostbusters Movie Photo
© Copyright 1984 Columbia Pictures Inc.

The screens David had been 'playing around with' previously were the equipment buying stages and the vertical view of the car on the road, used in the final version when the ghost busting team set off to trap slimers.

"I had this vague idea for a game whereby you were buying weapons to wipe out some kind of baddies you might then meet on the road. They fitted in quite nicely with Ghostbusters."

Ghostbusters Equipment Activision
Ghostbusters by Activision

David worked on these screens as a starting point. "In the first two days that I worked on it I had my game plan defined, by sitting down and looking at the constraints I had to work within. I had some screens, I had to produce something that was recognisably from the movie, I had to include features from it, I wanted to include some of the humour in the movie. At the same time, I very much wanted to write a game that would stand up on its own as a game without the Ghostbusters logo attached to it.

"The comic elements - such as the vacuum cleaner and the tins of marshmallow sensor, I was particularly keen on. After all, it's hardly hi-tech to go around chasing ghosts with a vacuum cleaner."
The music, which was distinctive on Ghostbusters, was also David's. "That was fairly easy - it was just a case of sitting down with the sheet music from Ray Parker Jnr's song and tailoring it to the capabilities of the Commodore.

Then, as the song was such a big hit at the time, I thought it would be nice to include the lyrics, and came up with the bouncing ball idea at the beginning.

"The speech, which I didn't do - that was commissioned by Activision from Electronic Speech Systems (ESS), a Californian company - went in because it was fun, and that was the main idea we wanted to put across in the game."

"The final version of Ghostbusters was handed in at Activision bang on the six week deadline."

Ghostbusters by Activision
Flash video - press play button to start.

Since then, David has not yet started work on a new game. He was so enthused by the way that the 'team' format had worked for Ghostbusters that he is keen to try it for all future Activision releases.

"I'm trying to promote the idea of a group project, and setting up a team within Activision with some of our younger designers. Though if I get an idea for a new game, I can always drop everything and go and work on it."

Apart from the speed at which Ghostbusters was produced, the game marked a departure for David in other ways.

"Previously, I had simply been developing my own ideas, rather than being given a theme to write around. Over the five years I've spent at Activision, I've experimented with all types of games - I think the only thing I've never tried is a straight adventure program.

"Normally, I would be working on something which I would be aiming at the market about eight months later. So while everyone was writing space games, I would know that the one thing I couldn't be doing was writing a space game, because by the time it was finished, they could well have gone right out of fashion."

David's early programs, for those with long memories, were titles such as Dragster, Fishing Derby, Laser Blast, Freeway and Grand Prix, all for Atari VCS. The US market concentrated on video console games, as distinct from home computer games, for longer than in Britain.

"When I joined Activision as a founder member, five years ago, we felt that the video game market would gradually give over to home computers by early 1985. That's more or less what happened in the USA, except that we didn't envisage video games going up, and then coming down so fast."

"David's first big computer software success was with Pitfall, then Pitfall II, followed by Activision's Decathlon, which also sold well, though in this country it was rather overshadowed by Ocean's Daley Thompson product. In the US, though, he has carved out the sort of following that, say, Jeff Minter, has over here.

He's always been something of an electronics whiz kid, and designed his first computer at the age of thirteen.

Dragster Activision David Crane
Dragster (Atari 2600 VCS) by Activision
Pitfall II David Crane Activision
Pitfall II (C64) By Activision

"I took all the extra courses in computing and electronics that I could at High School in Indiana, which is where I come from originally. There I designed a computer specifically to play Tic-Tac-Toe." "I wasn't sure quite how momentous an achievement this was, until the language problem was solved. Tic-Tac-Toe is American for Noughts and Crosses. Well, it's a start."

"By the time I left High School, I could program in three different languages, but there didn't seem to be anything very exciting I could do with that. It would have been easy to get a programming job in say a bank, but I went off to college instead to do an electronic engineering course."

After leaving college, David headed for Silicon Valley, and designed microchips for a living. A friend was at the time working as a games designer for Atari, and did his best to persuade David that this was what he should be doing. "I was a little suspicious - it seems to involve an awful lot of programming. But eventually he convinced me that it would be a lot of fun, and I joined him at Atari."

Whether games designing turned out to be all David hoped for or not, it's a market he definitely wants to stay in.

Music Studio Activision
Music Studio by Activision

"The industry seems to have settled down a lot in the USA now - obviously some companies are having problems, but I think there should be a stable growth in the home computer field now. I want to stay in the computer entertainment field for at least another two years, which should be very interesting, as the term entertainment is broadening out rapidly. For example, you get products now like Activision's Designer Pencil or the Music Studio, which are entertainment, but at the same time useful."

I wondered how David felt about impending developments in the hardware industry, with Jack Tramiel threatening to bounce back into the limelight.

"Well, we at Activision don't really mind who is battling it out for the hardware market, since we're exclusively a software company. We'll write our games for whichever machine is selling.

"As for the Atari machines - I'll believe them when I see them. You can't fault Jack Tramiel's track record and there's a lot of rubber-gloved respect for him in the USA. Certainly a machine as powerful as the Macintosh at a third of the price sounds very impressive.

"Then there's Commodore's C128, which as I understand will be similar to the C64, but with extra features. I'd say if we wrote for the C128 and used those features, then we ought to do it so that you can still do the game for the C64, because of its huge user base."

And how does David feel about the British market? "It's a funny thing about the market in Britain - while it may not be ahead of the USA, the USA always watch the British developments from a distribution and marketing point of view, to see what we'll be doing in a couple of years time.

Commodore 128
C128 by Commodore Business Machines (CBM)

"The thing I can't understand is why you go through all that business of loading software from a cassette - in the USA we never had the patience to do that."

Article reproduced from Commodore Horizons magazine May 1985 edition.
Although all text appears unchanged, some photographs or images have been added or modified for aesthetic purposes.

Thank you to the following websites which were used for sourcing some images that appear in this article:
Atari Age, Commodore, Wikipedia.