I wasted a lot of my life playing video games.
I can tell you the simple joys of beating Castlevania or Metroid or the OG version of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and seeing the scroll of names, the designers and producers of the game itself, who I could thank for taking up every ounce of fresh free time I had. There is something rather strange about the time warp one goes through when you look at your watch after getting blasted, again, trying to make it past a level only to see hours evaporated like acetone.
I never thought what it must have been like for the men and women who were behind the keyboard, cranking out the 1’s and 0’s that made up engrossing hours of entertainment. Some of the people who were great went on to create corporations and empires based on the adolescent need to escape while some of the others who were, well, not so great would wind up driving their Ford into the side of their employer’s building in retaliation for them not recognizing their genius. More on that later.
Adam De La Pena, the man and myth behind Minoriteam and the whipping post of every whim that Gary Busey had in I’m With Busey, is back with Code Monkeys, an 8-bit show dedicated to sending up the lives of programmers and the things they have to endure at the hands of ignorant management while forging the path that so many would follow after the 80’s introduced home video gaming to young men everywhere.
Adam was nice enough to take some time out of his hectic schedule, in between his brief stints in taking bets on Super Mario Brothers (more on that, as well, later), to explain how he got Steve Wozniak to add his voice to the program and whether programmers operate on a beta level different from the rest of us.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: So…Why the hell do I have to see the commercial every time some program on G4 goes to break? Is the show going to take over the network?
ADAM DE LA PENA: I’ll tell you why the commercial is on all the time…It’s the only damn show on that network.
Like…they don’t tell you anything when you’re doing television. It’s, “Hey, how many times is the show going to run?”
The show is going to be running like 20 times! I think at point even I’m going to fucking hate it. But, really, they’re going to run the crap out of it. But at least there’s 13 of them and it’s not like it’s a 6 episode order. And the first episode…Did they send you a screener or anything like that?
STIPP: No, no. This was kind of a last minute interview but I did make my way to the G4 site and then to Break.com where I was able to see the offered clips.
DE LA PENA: Oh yeah, Break. The classiest site on the web?
STIPP: Yeah, where you can see clips of Code Monkeys and then catch the brutality of some idiot kid on a skateboard landing on their face after some failed jump.
DE LA PENA: Break…I was first like, “Uh…what’s this site?” And then I go on to learn that around 200,000 people have seen the whole thing. I was kind of shocked by that.
DE LA PENA: Yeah, it’s pretty high for people who’ve sat and watched the whole thing.
STIPP: I did and I honestly thought it was really amusing. It’s kinetic but funny at the same time which I thing fits well with the ADD addled youth this program is aimed at.
DE LA PENA: My biggest victory is that Neil Diamond is a character. My biggest victory. That and I’m able to tell the story of two guys, Dave and Jerry, where I play Dave. These guys work at a game company and they’re perfectly comfortable there, they like it, and then the company gets sold to a crazy Texas guy, Larry, who is based on this guy in the early days of the video game industry that didn’t know a thing about video games but then he goes on to own this code factory, his son told him to invest money in it, and it suddenly becomes Atari or ColecoVision.
STIPP: And the episodes have a distinctive look to them; It’s not unlike video games that a lot of us Gen Xers grew up playing…
DE LA PENA: Yes… It’s a mixture of Photoshop After Effects and Final Cut. I wanted to do something without interference from anybody so I kind of did it by myself with my friends. We did it and we were going to just throw it up on the Web…and we had a 7 minute piece of animation that we were happy with and we showed it around. A bunch of people were actually interested in it but G4 made the best offer of like, “Look, we’re not the biggest network but your show will actually find a home here.” And that was the most important thing to me so we said, “Yeah, give us some money and we’ll do a bunch of episodes.”
The thing is, they gave us money for a pilot, a half-hour pilot, and they were really cool about it. Essentially they made it clear like, “Just don’t screw up the pilot and it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion we’ll pick up the show.” So, the pilot, which is not really the first episode, because they can’t air the pilot because it would get a TV-14, which is something they can’t air on their network, we just went, “Fine, we’ll do another pilot.” I’m sure it’ll end up on the DVD or on the Internet.
I think they had a problem with a scene where this monkey skull humps this girl…[I laugh]
Yeah, a lot of horrible things happen in these episodes. But the pilot that does air has Steve Wozniak in it.
STIPP: That must have been a big coup…How did you land him of all people?
DE LA PENA: Here’s how I landed it: G4 gave us this list of all these people of we know, tech people, who would want to do the show. I was kind of like, “Yeah, ok, alright. But what about Steve Wozniak?” And they said, “Oh, we don’t know about him. He’s the founder of Apple…” Whatever. I literally found his number through some crazy chain on the Internet.
STIPP: You’re kidding.
DE LA PENA: I called it…And he answers the phone. Coolest guy in the world. Like no bullshit guy in the world, says he’d do it, and it was like the easiest thing to set up. We basically went to the Sunnyvale area, booked the recording studio, and the whole time I’m thinking, “He’s not going to show up.” He shows up, couldn’t be nicer, does an interview, does everything we ask for, says it’s one of the best things he’s ever done, being animated…He said, “It’s like when they asked me to program for Atari.” I was like, “What?!” “Yeah,” he said, “Like when I was making Pong…” And luckily I got this all on tape so no one can call “Bullshit” on me.
It’s awesome because Steve is playing himself but, in the show, he wants to concentrate on Apple but Dave is convinced that computers are a passing fad, like MTV…And that Dave thinks Wozniak lacks vision.
STIPP: What made you want to render the show’s visual appeal to that 80’s era, Atari/Intellivision style?
DE LA PENA: Well, I spent the vast majority of my childhood, like I’m sure many of those same people who visit your site, watching TV…and a lot of people talk about the influences of TV and movies but I also spent a lot of time playing video games when I wasn’t directly watching TV. And I’ve only done 2 animated shows but I’ve always known that you’ve got to have a reason for how it looks, not the other way around. When you do an animated script you’ve to ask, “Why does this have to be animated?” But the reason for me why it was going to be in the style that it’s in is that the games that these guys make are reflective of the way the show progresses. It has a really strong look. For example, when I was doing Minoriteam it had this very strong, Jack Kirby influenced, limited animation style. And even Adult Swim, who was notorious for giving everyone their space was like, “Are you sure want to animate it this way?” The answer was, “Of course! We don’t want it to be Superfriends. This is it.” We stuck to it, we stuck to that animation style and I’m really happy we did because it gave the show the look that it did.
STIPP: It was distinctive! Not to bag on Cartoon Network but after a certain hour of the night you could easily see how a lot of their various Japanimation incarnations could all run together and you wouldn’t even know what’s what.
DE LA PENA: Yeah, and one of the things is that, on paper, if you just read it you would be like, “It’s crazy, I guess, but how is this different from any other office comedy?” And I think once the show comes out you’ll be able to see how the story ideas are really influenced by video games and pop culture more so than the standard sitcom crap that’s on TV.
STIPP: And this show transpires in the 80’s? Are you going to be breaking out all the culture from back then or are you planning on incorporating modern…
DE LA PENA: It takes place in the 80’s but it was really important to not be like really overt with it. For example, E.T. That was a huge moment but that game sucked and people were pissed that it sucked and developers made a lot of these kinds of games. It’s incorporating these kinds of things with original ideas like one of the running themes in the show is that Larry fires people who will become the best game programmers, designers, in the world. Like he fires Dave Jaffe, the God of War designer, when he’s a little kid. Dave Jaffe does his voice and says, “Larry, I have this great idea for a game called God of War.” And Larry says “I don’t need no war games” and literally kicks him in the head. So Larry goes on to fire some of the best designers in the world; Nolan Bushnell from Atari, Steve Wozniak, all of them, so that’s one of the running gags. But, also, we’re taking modern video games and putting them in an 80’s context. Like we’ve got the guys from Red vs. Blue and they’re in our prison episode, they play prison guards.
STIPP: How did you sell the people on doing the show? Was it hard for them to go along with the idea?
DE LA PENA: Not really. I hate going through agents or managers so I’ll try and call them up. Like, I called Nolan Bushnell’s number and talked to him and he was totally cool. Setting up the time was the only hard thing. Dave Jaffe couldn’t have been nicer. Dave literally said, “Oh, I think I have time on Saturday…I don’t know if I can do it Saturday…” The last e-mail he sent me was, “I think I’ll be in town on Saturday.” I was just working on Saturday with my friend and he just shows up and says, “Want to record now?” Uh, yeah, great, thanks for coming…Steve Wozniak was relatively easy, the Red Vs. Blue guys…they’ve been great. I mean, we’re going to have a lot of other guest stars but those are the real guest stars for us. We’re more about going after the video game designers than we are going after Molly Ringwald.
STIPP: Since you’ve spent so much time surrounded by it, and since you’re probably like me with the way you grew up in the midst of all the evolution in video games, is there any one thing designers or programmers say about what’s changed for them as things have become more complex?
DE LA PENA: Well, I’ve talked to a bunch of designers and they say, “Yeah, we really like the show because, back then, it really was one guy designing a game.” A lot of the guys who came through that are now managers of people who make these games. It used to be 1 or 2 guys putting out a Pitfall or a Castlevania.
So, we have talked to designers who are still in the business that used to be around back in the day. And there’s this one guy who told us a great story that we’re using in the show…There was this one designer who was developing this one engine for game. He kept designing and kept designing, working all by himself for like months on end. They kept asking, “When’s it going to be done? When’s it going to be done?” “Ah! It’ll be done when it’s done!” he said. He was really cranky kind of guy. But they couldn’t wait! So, they bought an engine from another company, shipped the game, and never told him. He came out one day and was like, “What’s going on? I’m done with it.” And they said, “Well, we already shipped it.”
The guy lost his mind.
He ran out of the company, literally, and those who were there said all they saw was his tiny little Ford car running into the side of the building. But he kept working there later on. He was just a crazy guy and they put up with it.
STIPP: Are programmers just a different breed of people?
DE LA PENA: I don’t think they’re so different. I come from a directing and writing background and I can relate to locking myself in a room to work.
Like, in Code Monkeys, we have lots of different types of programmers. There’s Todd who does nothing but Quest games; he has a horn helmet and works alone and he’s designed his room like a lair and he’s all about the future of video games. There’s Dave, who’s really the best programmer but who spends his time putting turds in microwaves and blowing them up. There’s Jerry who is always worried about the ship date, the video game industry is all about ship dates. I was told this one story about a bunch of game designers who went to Japan, they were all working like crazy to meet the ship date and once they did they all got hammered and drunk and crazy. Obliterated for like 2 days and then went back to work on the next game. It’s just like any other industry…crazy pressure.
STIPP: Is there any loyalty to particular companies…
DE LA PENA: What happened, and it’s really interesting, the companies that started out small and would eventually become the players like EA…the game designers wanted their names on the boxes like Steven Spielberg. They thought their work was that important and they were right. They did this and they were a one man show. They started wanting more and more and eventually realized they could go and start their own companies. So, I think what happened was that early video game companies didn’t treat them very well.
STIPP: Did any of these guys point to any one thing that changed the industry on the whole?
DE LA PENA: I would have to say that it would probably be the Atari system because it was the first mass distributed home system that everyone had to have. Before then, these guys were designing games for upright cabinets that kids were putting quarters in. Atari opened…made it possible for a lot of these guys to work on games in general…different types of games, different titles. After that it would probably be the NES. Things took a big leap.
There were also things that were huge but just didn’t sell well for whatever reason. Like, the Sega had the Dreamcast system…Everything was incredible on the system but it just didn’t do well. The games, everything. It was just one of those things.
So, I think that’s the kind of thing they would say, when games came into the home. Now I think it’s the ability to be connected with other game players. That’s huge.
STIPP: Yeah. I think I’ve missed the boat on that because I haven’t really had the urge to be connected with kids from Guam.
DE LA PENA: And you’re yelling at some kid in Puerto Rico you just beat the shit out of in Halo. The Internet is all about community but there’s these game clans that exist within games like Halo…really serious gamers.
STIPP: Some of these people take these things way too seriously.
DE LA PENA: Oh yeah. My friend literally has to, when he works, when he’s on a television show, or if he’s designing, he literally has to take his X-Box or whatever system he’s using…put the system in a box, tape the box up and send it to somebody’s house so he doesn’t use it.
DE LA PENA: Because he would be consumed with it. One time we’re working and someone brought one in, like a GameCube or something, and he said, “What the fuck is that? Get it out of here! I can’t have it in the office!”
STIPP: Do you still play?
DE LA PENA: I do. Have I played in the last couple of months? No. But what we have been playing is a lot of the old games. I’ve always had an older system but now we’re really getting into the old NES games: Castlevania, Super Mario Brothers. Now we’re taking things a step further and now we’re playing for things like fastest time on the 1st level with the flag. We’re betting money and paychecks, which is getting sad. But it’s keeping everybody sane here so it’s good.
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