From The Archive: When Media Molecule interviewed Ralph Baer

From The Archive: When Media Molecule interviewed Ralph Baer

By Develop

December 8th 2014 at 10:58AM

In advance of next week's Paris GDC, we were offered the chance to interview a number of the key speakers. But rather than trot out the usual dry 'so why are you attending the conference spiel', we thought it was time for something different.

Originally published June 18th, 2008.

So, we turned to two very different games pioneers attending the event - Ralph Baer and Media Molecule - and pit them head to head for a Develop Q&A.

We think you'll agree the two represent the different ends of the games development spectrum, and also share a lot in common as innovators. Baer is the man who kickstarted the console market via his invention of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home games machine, while Mark Healey and Alex Evans are the co-founders of the up and coming studio developing PS3 big hope LittleBigPlanet, which looks to revolutionise the way players engage with games in a manner akin to the way the Odyssey changed the way people engaged with their televisions…

About Ralph Baer:
In 1951, Ralph Baer introduced an interactive game for TV, which he later developed at Sanders Associates between 1966 and 1968. By 1968 he produces a prototype of a video game on a cabled network. The Brown Box, the final version of the very first game, was shown to several TV manufacturers. In 1972, Magnavox sells the first console: l’Odyssey. Baer later invented the handheld game Simon. In 2005 Baer received the National Medal of technology in reward for its contribution to the development of a worldwide industry. He is 86.

About Media Molecule:
Mark Healey -
A veteran of the games industry since 1988, Healey is currently the Creative Director at Media Molecule. He has coded, designed, and contributed to game audio for Bullfrog Productions and Lionhead Studios. Having contributed to acclaimed titles such as Fable, Theme Park, and the Black and White series, Healey then led the development of the cult hit title, Rag Doll Kung Fu, which became available through Valve’s digital distribution system Steam, in 2007.

Alex Evans - After writing software renderers for Bullfrog Productions, Evans joined Lionhead Studios where he worked on the 3D engine of the milestone title Black & White. In 2006, Evans and Healey formed Media Molecule, where he is the Technical Director, in hopes of bringing creative gaming to life on PlayStation 3. The result was the world-renowned LittleBigPlanet.


Do you think that games are just one of the inevitable end products of technology? What I mean by that is that someone invents something out of necessity, then later perhaps when there is a bit more time either the same person or someone else uses it for something different that the original purpose. To illustrate, caveman A figures out that he can club more buffalo using a stick. Much later, Caveman B figures that he can hit a rock with the club and invents baseball. If this is the case is the Olympics a bit lacking in innovation? The shotput hasn't really moved on much now, has it, and what's with all that running...

Long-winded question with a short answer: Absolutely!

No inventor can foresee the full extent of where his or her invention may lead and often enough the process winds up creating products or services that were far from the inventor's starting point and initial intent.


You said that inventors can't foresee the ultimate use of their technology - so how have games moved on from what you originally designed and intended with the Odyssey?

Games moved in lock-step with the advances in semiconductor electronics and especially the development of affordable and powerful micro-processor devices.


What was your original thinking back when designing the Odyssey - was there any specific aim or goal? Do you think you achieved it?

The goal was very specific: To design a product, to attach something – anything – to the antenna terminals of some 40 million TV sets then in use in 1966 USA and to another 40 million in the rest of the world, something that would be fun to own and would rack up substantial sales. Out of that thought came the concept of playing games. Of course that aim has been achieved, and of course not just by me but by countless others whose skill and creativity have made videogames a big industry.


If you were asked to make a game now and could ignore the practicality of technology, what would you make?

I would make it a game in which the players are part of actual, ongoing adventures such as Moon and Mars explorations, the Space Shuttle and Platform in order to create a sense of participation in the space program. In addition to being a different sort of fun, such game would undoubtedly result in unforeseen objectives for the real international space program (which ought to be one of the underlying objectives).


Did you ever think that games would ever reach a state of complexity where people could consider them a form of art? Do you believe video games have reached that point yet?

An apple posed next to a banana on a white canvas can be as much art as the Mona Lisa. I certainly think that our early (1960's) primitive overlays for use with the Brown Box and those of the Magnavox Odyssey game were works of art. Anybody who even casually looks at a complex video game scene and cannot recognize it as high visual art must come from some other planet.


Do you still play games? What are your top three game experiences and why?

Only when my grandkids visit with their PSXs or Xboxes or whatever and when they invite me to play; that isn't often because they live across the country from me and I am an old-timer with bad reflexes and aging eyeballs.

I have no preferred game experiences that I would want to comment on except for my approval of the physically interactive tennis, bowling, baseball games of the Wii and of DDR-related games ; all of these finally have come around to do what I demonstrated ca. 1990 to representatives of Konami and others who promptly sat on their hands and did nothing along that line for the next 15 years.


Is there anything you think that the industry has forgotten in its evolution since the launch of the Brown Box that you think needs to be revived to ‘help’ the industry?

Yes, obviously. I'm 86. Games for old-timers (any one over 55) who, after all, represent a large segment of the population but have practically zero participation in videogames.


A movie of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's life, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Bushnell, has just gone into production. Who would play you in the film based on your life?

First of all, the DiCaprio movie is probably just one of many on his schedule...so it may never happen. Furthermore, I have no idea of what's in the script. I have not been involved. Hollywood generally takes in some independent writer's script and revises it to the point where any similarity to the real thing is purely coincidental. So, if it ever gets made and released, don't expect the film to be a historical document.

Hysterical, yes – but not historical.

Both Ralph Baer and Media Molecule are speaking at Paris GDC, which takes place on June 23rd and 24th. Head here for more information.

Image credit: KCDigitalArts