Monday, September 13, 2010

Reflections on John Perkins

You'll have to excuse me for this seemingly off topic post.  In fact, while none of you knew John Perkins he is an integral part of my history that made it possible for me to be in a position to be a part of the digital die cutter community.  I just learned about John's death from a man named Dave Nutting who gathered together one of the most creative and brilliant group of people I've ever known.  The reason for me taking this space now, on this blog, is that one can't find much information of John.  And yet, he was a very important player in video game development history.  And, I want to make sure that there is SOME reference to him for those interested in the history of video games when they go to make an internet search.

I first met John Perkins when I was working with Astrocade.  At that time he was very much in the same situation that I'm in with eCraft... an engaged owner  He was a Bally Professional Arcade fan and on his own had created some enhancements for the game system.  The more we communicated with him the more we realized that we needed the expertise he brought to the table and we hired him as a consultant and video game designer.  He created Artillery Duel, one of our most popular games.

John was one of those rare people that knew both hardware and software.  Our software and hardware came from a Bally owned company called Dave Nutting Associates.  As I said, Dave Nutting had pulled together a brilliant team of renaissance people.  Just to give you an idea of the diversity of their talents I'll just point out that Dave, himself, designed the Willy's Jeep Grand Wagoneer, the Enstrom helicopter and invented the electronic pinball game.  But, the creativity didn't end with Dave Nutting.  Jamie (Jay) Fenton, a programmer for Dave, went on to found MacroMind and MacroMedia.  Gorf and Galaga were Jamie's creations.  Dr. Tom DeFanti, was their graphics language guru.  It was a fantastic team.

The lead programmer for Dace Nutting Associates was Bob Ogdon.  Bob and John became a formidable team of game designers and after the video game system crash in 1983, which wiped out Asctrocade, they formed their own company, Action Graphics, which was responsible for many of the early ColecoVision games.
John, Bob and I worked together on the first demonstration of motion graphics on a CD for Microscoft's First International CD-ROM Conference in 1986.  By today's standard it was very crude.  But, John and Bob's work was the breakthrough that brought about everything you can do with DVDs on a computer.  They even designed the now familar button style interface that most DVD video programs use to this day.

Bob and John taught me a very valuable lesson.  Technically they worked UNDER Astrocade.  But, in reality we saw each other as peers.  The important lesson I learned was to always be nice to those that work for you because, if you do, they might remember you when they rise above you.  I later worked for them!  And, they were responsible for my being offered the position of VP of Electronic Games at Parker Brothers.  Even though I did not take them up on the offer, I was flattered that such talented people would have referred me to such a great company.  (At 39 I would have been the oldest member of the management team and really wasn't so sure if could deal with corporate politics  It turned out that I made a good decision since they disbanded that division less than 6 months later.)
The last time I had the opportunity to work with John Perkins was the project that REALLY showed me his amazing genious.  Talk about thinking outside the box!  Nolan Bushnell had been given several million by Hasbro to develop a video game system based on video tape.  (DVDs had not been fully developed as  yet.)  His team at Axlon, led by Tom Zito, a former Washington Post rock music critic, made a valiant effort in several different directions; but, they were in danger of coming up empty handed and having to pay back that money when someone found John Perkins, who then called me in on the project.  John came up with an ingenious solution that involved interleaving multiple video streams into a single video stream!  He built the encoder to combine the signals and a decoder to pick out any one of the videos.  It was picked up by Hasbro and the development effort was code-named NEMO.

If you watch the YouTube video, John has his back to the camera on the far left of the screen. This is actually the second showing to Hasbro personnel; but, the first to include the Hassenfeld brothers, Steve and Alan.

Now, here is where I am going to correct some history. Wikipedia claims that Tom Zito developed the NEMO video game console.  That's a bit misleading.  I don't know if Tom brought John Perkins into the project or not.  I only know that his team at Axlon had worked for quite a while and had failed come up with anything before John Perkins was brought in.  Proof that it was John that invented that unique system can be found by reading just one of the patents for this innovative system officially named ISIX.  He deserves the credit he is due for his contributions to the history of video gaming. After the NEMO project was disbanded, John Perkins was the ONLY person on the ISIX team retained by Hasbro.  They thought that much of him.  And, rightly so.  I think Alan Hassenfeld would second everything I have to say about John... both professionally and personally.

But, while his achievements were notable... and, as much as I marvel at his accomplishments, what I really cherish was his friendship and that of Karen, his wife.  That friendship was golden and will be with me forever.  I'm very sorry to hear that he is gone.  But, I'm also very happy to be able to insert a little bit of his history into the blogosphere and search engines.  He deserves the credit he is due.


Ruthie said...

Sounds like he was a great guy and that this little article reflects him well - good job!


Tom Meeks said...

John was a great guy. Bob Ogdon and John Perkins are among my creative heroes.

Unfortunately, most of his breakthroughs came pre-internet, so there is little on the web about his accomplishments. I hope this will change that.