"To think that one null pointer reference could have prevented Grand Theft Auto from being released…that was pretty crazy to me."
Patrick Hickey Jr., author of the Minds Behind the Games book series, developed a passion for gaming at an early age, cutting his teeth on the NES and developing a love for the narrative and aesthetics of games via his Game Boy.
His writing career began while attending Kingsborough Community College, where he wrote about sports and entertainment. After graduating, he landed jobs as a news editor at NBC and the National Video Games Writer at The Examiner. A prolific writer, he also published articles that were featured in the New York Times and New York Daily News.
Now, Hickey is an English Lecturer and the Assistant Director of Journalism at his alma mater. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of ReviewFix.com, and does voice acting on several indie video games, including "The Padre" and the upcoming "Relentless Rex".
Recently, he has garnered even more recognition and praise for his Minds Behind the Games book series, comprised of interviews with classic video game developers of varying genres. With The Minds Behind Sports Games scheduled for release in just a few weeks, we at Quickscope were fortunate enough to speak to Hickey and learn more about him and his series.
Quickscope: How did you first get into gaming and video game writing?
"I love gaming. I wanted to find out more. And then I did."
Patrick Hickey Jr.: I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn, where owning a game system was a symbol that you were cool. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, my dad always made sure we had the most up-to-date console.
I was first introduced to gaming through the NES, and I had gotten a Game Boy very early in the console's history; that console had a huge impact on my life.Through the Game Boy, I started to really fall in love with the narrative and the aesthetics of games. Games like Kirby and Super Mario Land 2 felt so full and so rich, despite being on such a tiny screen.
Once the PlayStation came out, I had already been bitten by the bug, so, I moved the PlayStation into my room and from then on, I haven't looked back. I haven't traded in a game since I was 12 years old. And I've been writing about video games since I was about 20. I'm 37 now. It's just always been a part of my life.
I'm a big, big believer in doing the things that you like. You talk about them first and then you either do them, or you're one of those people that just talks their entire life: “I could have been this, I could have been that.” With me, it was always: I love gaming. I want to find out more. And then I did.
Quickscope: How did you decide to write the first book in the Minds Behind the Games series?
Patrick: When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I thought, man, I'm going to have a kid soon. I'm not going to be able to be writing for all these sites anymore, I’ve got to start picking and choosing the things that I want to do.
I suggested to a coworker that we create a multimedia journalism course for the college, but he was uninterested; so, I just snapped and said, “Okay, then I'm going to write a book.” And his answer was, “Then go write a book.”
That night I discussed it with my wife, and she said, “Don’t talk about it. Do it.” Then I had to stop and consider what I’d possibly want to write a book about. I started pulling games out: Wonder Boy in Monster World, King’s Bounty, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, and I thought, I know who made these games, and I know there's a story there. I'm sure that somebody would be interested.
So, I reached out to those six or seven developers via email, and said to myself, if half of them get back to me, that's three chapters, and I think that's enough to pitch a book to somebody. Within a week, all of them got back to me, and I thought, let’s do it.
Quickscope: Was it difficult reaching out to creators and developers when you first started working on your books?
"If I reached out for an interview and the developer was like, “Bro, I can only do it through smoke signals or Morse code”, I would have to learn smoke signals and Morse code."
Patrick: What obviously helped was I had 10 combined years of experience with NBC, Daily News, and Review Fix. At one time, I was the most read video game writer on Examiner, before they closed down.
Luckily, those six or seven developers got back to me relatively quickly, and by Thanksgiving, I had all of those chapters written, 35,000 words in total. I reached out to the publisher McFarland & Company, who said that while they'd love to publish it, they needed 75,000-100,000 words, which meant I'd need at least 26 games. I thought, how the hell am I going to get 26 games—26 good games—for this book?
I ended up with 36. It worked out. I make it sound easy, but it was hard; every day I sent out hundreds of pitches to developers, and I still have people getting back to me two years later.
You have to make sure that your pitches are concise and to the point. These guys prioritize their time, so if they tell you they only have 20 minutes, then they only have 20 minutes. If they say they can only answer via email, then you can only send them questions via email. And if they ask to meet face-to-face, then you’ve hit the jackpot.
You have to make yourself as approachable as possible, you have to compromise as much as possible. If I reached out for an interview and the developer was like, “Bro, I can only do it through smoke signals or Morse code”, I would have to learn smoke signals and Morse code. I've had to have interviews translated from Spanish and Japanese before.
There are all sorts of things you have to do to try and accommodate people. But it’s worth it.
Quickscope: Can you go into more detail about your writing process? How do you usually approach writing the story behind a video game's development?
"A lot of the early developers didn't have video games to draw inspiration from, so instead of looking at other video games, these guys were creating D&D adventures or playing Strat-O-Matic"
Patrick: For my research, I try to dig in as much as possible. One of the first things I do when researching a game is play it and beat it. I joke with my wife now that even when I'm playing video games, I'm doing research.
I also do in-depth research into a developer's background. I try to find out where the person went to school, what their life was like when they started developing the game, what they used as inspiration, etc. Going into the interview with as much knowledge as possible is key.
I found out so many cool things, too, especially about a lot of the game developers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For example, Dungeons and Dragons played such an integral role in so many of these guys’ lives. A lot of the early developers didn't have video games to draw inspiration from, so instead of looking at other video games, these guys were creating D&D adventures or playing Strat-O-Matic. Because of this, I’ve gone back and played these games to try and get into the minds of these people and get to know them better.
When it comes to writing, I spend the first three or four paragraphs introducing the person (or team) and the game. I want the reader to know why the game matters and why the work that the developer did on the game was so important. After the first few paragraphs, I just let the developers tell their stories.
Quickscope: When do you know that you don’t have enough information from an interview?
"I want my interviewees to feel like this is their story, and this is the way they want it to be represented for the rest of existence."
Patrick: Luckily, that hasn’t really happened for me with the developer interviews.
95% of the time, I've been in a great situation where the person's giving me great stuff. The other 5% is me emailing them after an interview and asking a few additional questions, getting more context. The people that I interview generally know that it's your job as an interviewer to break their balls as much as possible until the interview is over.
One of the things I do that's different from a lot of gaming writers, is when I finish a chapter, I send it to the interviewee before it's published. And I tell them, this is what's going to be published, and if there's anything in here that's factually incorrect, or anything that you want to try and clarify, do it now. Sometimes they’ll say, "You know what, it might be better if I say it this way, because then that leads into another story that I could give for more background."
These books are in over 100 libraries now, including college libraries, all over the world. People are reading these and they're going to have an effect. I know these books will be especially important in 20 years or so when a lot of these developers start to pass away. So, I want the developers to understand that they have power over their legacy. I'm not in the business of “gotcha journalism”.
I don't want to be somebody who says, I got you to say that, now it’s in the book. I want my interviewees to feel like this is their story, and this is the way they want it to be represented for the rest of existence.
Quickscope: You mentioned that in every book, you’ve tried to include stories that don’t exist anywhere else. What have been some of the most surprising stories that have come out of interviews…things that have really blown your mind?
"These are the types of stories that you're not going to read about anywhere else. That’s the stuff I try and find."
Patrick: I interviewed Rob Fulop, the programmer on Missile Command, who was also the programmer on Night Trap, one of the most infamous video games of all time. When the game came out, the negative reception actually caused his girlfriend at the time to leave him.
So he had Missile Command on his resume, which is considered one of the greatest Atari 2600 games of all time, but also Night Trap, this extremely infamous game. So he sits down and thinks, "You know what I’m going to do? I'm going to create the cutest game of all time." Then he made the DOGZ and CATZ series for the PC, which was the first virtual pet video game that paved the way for a game like Nintendogs. He sold 45 million copies of that entire franchise.
So he's known for one of the greatest games of all time, one of the most controversial games of all time, and then one of the cutest games of all time. Crazy stuff.
Another great story is one that's in The Minds Behind Adventure Games. The original Grand Theft Auto was almost never released, because Sony was getting a bug that was killing the game. Sony contacted DMG, who was producing the game at the time, and DMG asked them to replicate the bug. And Sony said "No, and if you can't fix it, we can't release the game". DMG ended up going through all of the lines of code and found a single null pointer reference, this tiny piece of code. They took it out, sent it back to Sony with their fingers crossed, and that ended up being the bug.
They found out after the original Grand Theft Auto came out that the bug was happening because they were testing the backwards compatibility of the PS1 on the PS2, but the PS2 hadn't come out yet, which nobody could know, because no one even knew that the PS2 was a thing yet. To think that one null pointer reference could have prevented Grand Theft Auto from being released…that was pretty crazy to me.
These are the types of stories that you're not going to read about anywhere else. That’s the stuff I try and find.
Quickscope: How has coronavirus affected your interviewing process?
Patrick: The face-to-face has definitely slowed down, but I've done tons of Zoom calls with people.
COVID sent a lot of people home and gave these men and women time to do things that they wouldn't do before. So, in a weird way, COVID was one of the best things that ever happened to the documentation of video game history, at least for me, because now some of these people that were always busy suddenly have time for me. And, since we're talking about stuff that they're passionate about, it's not even busywork for them. So, it turned out really well.
Quickscope: You focus mainly on classic video games; do you have any interest in writing about games that have come out more recently?
"I would love to write about modern battle royale games maybe in five years, when people are starting to feel nostalgic about them."
Patrick: I don’t think that the people that are playing today's modern games care as much about the history and development of a game. Kids now aren’t conditioned to want to know the story behind a game.
The majority of my reader base is in their 30s or 40s, because these are the people that grew up on these games, and now want to know more about them. I do think the series is great for young developers that want to get involved in the industry.
I also think it's great for young people that look at some of these older games and think, "This game sucks!", without understanding how it laid the groundwork for the more modern games they know and love. Without a game like Deus Ex, for example, there wouldn't be Fallout 3. There wouldn't be Skyrim. There wouldn't be all of the RPG elements of GTA 5.
I would love to write about modern battle royale games maybe in five years, when people are starting to feel nostalgic about them. That's when my book would make sense.
Quickscope: How did you get into voice acting for games?
"I went to the developers and said, 'I think I can do something better.' "
Patrick: After the first book came out, I came across an indie game called The Padre. I interviewed the developers, and they asked me if I wanted to play a beta version of the game.
While playing this version, I realized that the game dialogue needed some editing, so I helped out with that. Then, about two weeks before we were getting ready to go to Kickstarter, the voice actor of the main character left. So, I went to the developers and said, "I think I can do something better."
I've always been good at that movie trailer voice, but I knew I couldn’t do that voice because people would just laugh for the entire game. So, I decided to combine that with an English accent, and before I knew it, I was recording dialogue. We didn't get paid through Kickstarter, but we ended up signing with a publisher instead. It worked out great. The Padre came out last year on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam, and Nintendo Switch.
I went on to voice the T-rex in Relentless Rex and The Padre II, which are coming out soon.
Quickscope: What does your typical day look like?
Patrick: To quote Mase and Puff Daddy, “Can't stop won't stop.” It's an all-day thing. I’m a college professor, and since we’re off during the summer, I'm writing in one way or another about four hours a day, Saturday and Sunday included.
When I'm not writing, I'm on my phone, reading and researching; I'm feeding my son in one hand and I'm researching on my phone in the other. If I’m not asleep by 11:45 PM, I'm reading and researching again until around two o'clock in the morning.
It doesn’t stop. And now, for the last two and a half years, I've been doing voiceover acting and story editing for a bunch of indie games. I'm actually writing for another game right now that I can't talk about. It’s pretty intense.
Quickscope: What are you working on right now?
Patrick: The Minds Behind the Games has been published, and The Minds Behind Adventure Games has been published. In two weeks, The Minds Behind Sports Games is going to be published, and in January, The Minds Behind Shooter Games is going to be published.
I have also signed contracts for The Minds Behind the Sega Genesis Games and The Minds Behind the Sony Playstation Games. The Minds Behind the Sega Genesis Games is about 99.9% done; I'm actually waiting on sources from inside Sega.
It's the biggest book that I've done so far, with over 40 games. I knew a couple of people at Sega that I'd worked with over the years, so I went to them, and one of the guys had bought my first two books. I pitched the idea of Sega going in on a Sega book, and now I'm just waiting on that content to come together.
Quickscope: Well, this was awesome, thanks again for doing this interview with us, Patrick. Is there anything else you want to mention before we go?
Patrick: The most important thing that I would say is, if you really love the work of an author, or a video game developer, there are two things that you can do.
The first and most important thing is to buy their stuff, directly. My books are $40, they're expensive. Digitally, they're much cheaper, around $15, but I understand that some people like having the physical book in their hand.
That's one of the reasons why, if you order the book on my website, I will personalize it for you. I will sign it. I will put trading cards in there. I will do anything to show that I really care about my fans as readers and want them to have a fun time reading my books. I want to have a relationship with my readers.
The second thing you can do is support authors and creators on social media. Shout them out. Maybe you can't afford $40, but you think an author's work is cool—if you shout it out on social media, you could end up introducing the work to somebody that will buy it. This is one of the reasons why I have a little community on Instagram called the Retro Game Mafia.
Ask them questions, engage with them. A lot of the chapters in The Minds Behind Adventure Games came directly from readers on my Facebook page. The more you interact with the people that affect you and influence you, the more you can impact them too.
I'm also very different from a lot of authors and people in any industry, in the fact that I answer everybody that contacts me; as a writer, I feel that's extremely important. There are two different types of writers: there are writers that write for themselves, and there are writers that write to be read, and I'm definitely the latter. I want to be read.
Check out Patrick's books and blog here, and look out for The Minds Behind Sports Games, coming in just a few weeks!
Note: This interview was edited for the sake of clarity and length.