Todd Rogers interview
By Bill Kunkel and Scott Stilphen
Known to most top game players as ďMr. ActivisionĒ, Todd Rogers has stood atop the list of celebrated console players for over 20 years. You may recall seeing his name or picture mentioned in early 80s video game magazines; in fact, he wrote many in-depth articles for Joystik magazine, plus co-authored the book, How To Win At E.T., the Video Game.
Q: What started your game-playing addiction?
Todd Rogers: Thatís an easy one - Activisionís Dragster. This is the mother of all gaming competitiveness. The first day reading the instruction booklet on how to play, I saw the possibilities of being famous by playing a game and being better then anyone else on it, and that started the addiction.
Q: What gaming achievements are you most proud of?
Todd Rogers: There are so many. First is the Dragster one - beating the computerís perfect run (Ed.: The simulated perfect run by Activision was 5.57. Todd beat this "perfect" score by not using first gear at all. Activision hadn't considered this. Their simulation only "max revved" in each gear, so Todd's explanation of how he scored 5.51 was accepted, although there's still a question as to whether or not David Crane or others witnessed him achieve that time). Second - beating Bruce Jenner at Decathlon the first time I played the game. Also beating Michael Jordan on a one-on-one video basketball game, and Iron Mike Tyson in video boxing game. I would have loved to actually spar with him back in the day, as I competed in Kick Boxing.
Q: How do you feel about breaking the ďboundariesĒ in games, in what the programmers perceive them to be (such as the case with Dragster)?
Todd Rogers: It feels great! Itís always a notch in anyoneís cap to say that you are the only one to have beaten a computer-programmed perfect run on such a game like Dragster. But it didnít stop there. People ask if other players get offended or just want to quit if I enter a contest? Possibly, but again it wasnít just about beating other players; I just simply couldnít stand the idea of being beaten by a computer Ė even today.
Q: Being a veteran of marathon playing, what were some of your best and worst experiences?
Todd Rogers: One of my best experiences was followed by the worst in the same game. I was playing Worm Whomper for a couple of days straight and I took a picture of my game as it was paused - I had 26+ million. One of my friends, who was over to witness my score, bumped the switch box and my game was gone! However, later on that year I played 72+ hours straight, and then through the remainder of the 8 days, to max the game out at 99,999,999. Another best experience was when I entered a Centipede contest. It had a 3-minute time limit for the most points achieved. No one that was running this contest knew who I was, so I could bluff the other players into thinking I was an average player. I killed off my first couple of men right away to have them think I didnít have a chance, but then at the last minute I swept the game to come away with 1st place. It was rather risky, but I knew I could do it. Another bad experience was not being able to compete when the sponsors are paying you to demo the contest and you know you can take the prize if you entered. (Ed.: Couple of notes to make. 1- Bumping a switch box wouldn't erase a score or reset a system. 2- Playing a game over 8 days is not the same as marathoning a game for 8 days! 3- He's since claims $105,779,605 over 85.4 on Atari VCS/2600 Journey Escape, except other videos have shown a scoring rate w/o breaks - the game allows you to pause between every level - would take twice as long to achieve.)
Q: Were there any other times when (during a record game), the hardware failed you - console burning out, controllers breaking, power going out, etc.?
Todd Rogers: Itís funny you should ask that. My God yes! Iíve burnt out 3 Colecovisions, 4 Intellivisions, 4 Atari 2600ís, 1 Atari 5200 and I donít know how many Nintendo systems. Iím quite certain that I put the limits of those systems to the test. I also broke the ďunbreakableĒ TAC-2 joystick from Suncom. I was playing Decathlon (what else) and the metal rod inside broke right in half! I also promoted 2 other joysticks for Suncom: the Slick Stick and the Starfighter. They were smaller, and very stiff, and I hated the button. They were priced differently, but were both the same. I broke those, tooÖ
Q: How did you get involved with Joystik magazine?
Todd Rogers: I guess they were looking for players that could review games at an expert level of game play, and they contacted Activision. I was their elected choice for home gaming consoles. Joystik also employed players like Eric Ginner (the Centipede champion at the time) and other lesser-known players.
Q: You collaborated with your brother, Scott, in writing the book, How To Win At E.T., the Video Game for Consumer Guide. Why arenít either of you listed as the authors?
Todd Rogers: The publishers from Consumer's Guide didnít get permission from Spielbergís company to use any info on or about the E.T. character, so to avoid any possible lawsuit against us, they decided to omit our names. Scott was the one who came up with the E.T. cube map that you see in the book.
Q: As a result of your gaming accomplishments, youíve had the chance to meet with many high-profile people Ė actors, sports stars, programmers Ė over the years. Were there any in particular that impressed you, or any that you had hoped to meet but didnít?
Todd Rogers: Over the years I guess I have met many famous people and itís hard to pinpoint one in particular. I did however get the chance to meet my favorite wrestler, Andre the Giant, before he died, but he was a ďbad guyĒ at the time. Programmers - my hat goes off to the original designers from Activision. Those guys are geniuses. What a collection of wisdom they had at their disposal. The only actor that made me nervous in meeting him was the Doctor from the BBC TV series Doctor Who, Tom Baker. I donít know why, maybe because I saw his show every Sunday night? Iíd love to meet Sandra Bullock , Donald Sutherland , and WWEís Vince McMahon.
Q: Speaking of acting, you had a bit part in the 1986 movie, Wildcats. Have you done any other film work?
Todd Rogers: Most of what I have done in the form of ďmovieĒ exposure has been on TV or radio; my silver screen involvement has been limited. I had an opportunity to work with Steven Segal in Hard To Kill. It was filmed right in the Chicago CES show (which is now E3), and a part in the TV series, Miami Vice. I spoke with Michael Mann, the producer of the show, but my agent at the time didnít negotiate funds properly. I had a short ad segment with Pepsi, even though I liked Coke better! Iíve done numerous endorsements for other notable companies but that would fill a separate interview.
Q: On your web site thereís a picture of you (with Barbi Benton) wearing a Greatest American Hero shirtÖ with the Activision logo on it! What do you recall of the contest (mentioned in Activisions #4, pg. 2; winners announced in #5, pg. 2)? Was there any talk of Activision doing a game based on that TV show?
Todd Rogers: The contest was on the game Starmaster, and if you qualified you would have a part in the TV show. I was ranked 4th out of 40,000 entries. When the referees came to your house, you had to play on their system and with their controllers. Mine were already broke in and theirs were just plain stiff. So I started a game and let it run out Ė thatís how I ended up with 4th place. I donít think they had any plans to make a game based on that show though.
Q: You're still currently the world-record holder on the arcade game, Gorf. Why is it you preferred home games to arcade games?
Todd Rogers: Wow, itís been 20 years since I got that 653,990 score on Gorf (Ed.: Both of Todd's Gorf records - 3 and 6 ships - have been broken). Well, I donít actually prefer home games. My concern is what arcade (back in the day and even now) would stay open as long as I needed them too. By playing at home I could concentrate more without being interrupted by an arcade owner saying, "We got to close, sorry...". Every once in a while the arcade would acknowledge the fact that I was going for a world record, but then again after a while of cranking out so many high scores even they got tired of having to stay open or having their employees staying later.
Q: Which do you think best describes your gaming prowess (or what percentage of each do you feel you possess) Ė inherent ability or learned skill?
Todd Rogers: I think the ability not to make the same mistakes over-and-over is inherent, and the ability to learn from others and by your mistakes is a learned skill. So I would have to be safe in saying they average out 50/50.
Q: What advice can you offer players out there who are looking to improve their skills?
Todd Rogers: My advice to the players out there is not to give up, and to set a goal (as small as it may be) and do it! Videotape your methods, see your mistakes, and donít repeat them. Making the same mistakes only wastes time and makes you mad. Watch other players play and learn from them, too (and from their mistakes). If there is a particular game style that youíre good at (like shooters, patterns, or puzzles), stick to and master those first. When people see your ability, it will make you feel good about your gaming skills.
Q: Currently we're seeing a tremendous emphasis on online gaming. What's your take on this?
Todd Rogers: The online gaming industry is booming Ė these days literally thousands of players can compete online, whereas 20 years ago we were limited to competing either in our homes (on one console) or in company-promoted contests. It allows us to really see the talent of players that are out there now and what they're capable of, not only online but also in promoted contests like the Unreal tournaments.
Q: Is it possible for the top gamers to actually make a living exclusively based on being a top player? And do you foresee a time when there will be an actual "circuit"?
Todd Rogers: Itís funny you should ask that because thatís how I made my living years ago! Itís very possible and Iím sure there are a few now who are doing this, but it all depends on the efforts of the gaming companies and sponsors, and the growth of the gaming industry. I believe itís difficult to compare, say video games competition and sports, but itís debatable. Gaming fans love to watch the very best go head-to-head, because the players themselves strive to be the best at whatever game it is that they play, and Iíve seen this at many of the conventions and contests that Iíve attended in recent times. But if the companies donít continue to produce marketable products that entice the players, then being a beta tester would probably be the only way to earn a living in that regard.
Q: What gaming goals are you planning for in the near future?
Todd Rogers: My near future gaming goals are to play out on one single game for 100 hours, and also to videotape the 5.51 on Dragster again so others can see it done. My ďnon-gamingĒ (or career) plans in the near future are to pursue my acting possibilities and software design.
Iím also currently working with Dark Unicorn on a Berzerk revamp concept of mine called Delerium. The artwork, the sounds, and programming will all be done by me, and as I get closer to a finished product I will have Ron and Brien (from Twin Galaxies) as well as Shane and Brian (from Dark Unicornís Production Team) beta test it first before public release.
Q: Todayís games put less emphasis on scores and more on creating interesting environments and movie-like experiences. As a player and a designer, do you think adding a scoring component hurts the "realism" of games?
Todd Rogers: No, but I think if youíre going to add a scoring feature to games, it should be based on something that gives you a challenge to achieve a score without cheating. Iím being biased to the older games and whatís involved to attract that type of gamer, but todayís gamers seem to be preoccupied by cinema graphics, and how much you can kill, and what cheat code to use to get to the end of the game. Gamers of today also want the interactivity and realism of being ďinĒ the game.
Q: Do you think there will ever be a significant audience appeal for video games?
Todd Rogers: The video gaming audience is already there. There are many of us who grew up on gaming, and as we get older Iím quite sure that we will not let video games die. But for a significant amountÖ thatís entirely up to us gamers to keep the interest there. As time goes on we see more and more of these EXPOS and shows promoting older and newer games, so yes, in the future weíll see a larger supportive audience for them.
Q: What were some of your experiences in being a member of the short-lived U.S. National Video Game Team?
Todd Rogers: Telling the president of Atari in 1986 that I had the "runs", and to watch my post for me. I was demonstrating some kind of virtual flying game that Atari was promoting and I didnít know who he was until I got back and one of the other real Atari employees said, "Do you know who you just told to watch your post?". At that point I didnít care - all I cared about was finding a rest room! Another experience was when Steve Harris, Perry Rodgers, Jeff Peters, and myself went out to the AMOA and Pinball Expo shows in 1986, and just killed everyoneís scores on just about everything. That was fun, though I hated those white suits that we had to wear; I felt like Casper the Ghost.
Q: What past experiences with recent video game shows stand out for you?
Todd Rogers: There are so many great experiences at the past few CGE's that Iíve been to, like meeting all of the people with Digital Press, and the Dark Unicorn Production team, but it doesnít stop there.
One year at CGE I ran a Dragster competition and had a kick out of watching players duke it out over who could get the fastest time. I had a hand-written scoring table above the TVs so players could view what the fastest time was. Well at this particular point the time was down to 5.91 and like I said, players were very competitive in getting their times below 6 seconds. There were these two players in particular really going back-and-forth. I had to keep re-writing their times as they went from the 7s down to the lower 6ís. Here's where the fun came into play! One player gave up for a few runs, and I took over and raced against his friend. His friend was so into the game he didnít at first notice me taking over. I scored a 5.77 and the look on this guyís face was priceless. Then he turned and saw it was me and still didnít realize that I was running the contest. I said, ďThatís nothing. Letís race again.Ē and reset the game, which freaked him out! Later on I was racing by myself when someone came over and joined in. I noticed this player was also getting really good times! When I looked over it was none other than David Crane. I was now the person with the look of surprise! After 20 years of us knowing each other and playing this game, itís nice to know that we have not lost our touch.
2017 UPDATE: In the years since conducting this interview, some of Todd's world record scores have come under intense scrutiny. Several years ago, I sent Todd a refurbished system and some controllers, as well as over a dozen cartridges, with the hope he'd use them to respond to the increasing number of people who were doubting some of his scores. Needless to say, that hasn't happened, and more gamers (myself included) have started to voice their concerns.
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