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Richard Levine was an integral part of the birth of video games

Richard Levine, 58, of Clearwater holds an artist’s conceptual rendering done for his Microsurgeon game before it was developed in 1982. It was a gift to Levine. He worked for 15 years in the video games business.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Richard Levine, 58, of Clearwater holds an artist’s conceptual rendering done for his Microsurgeon game before it was developed in 1982. It was a gift to Levine. He worked for 15 years in the video games business.

In the ever-changing world of video and computer gaming, few 50-somethings get as excited as Richard Levine about the future. ¶ The Clearwater resident is one of the early designers and programmers of video games and interactive programs for Mattel, Imagic, RCA Laboratories, Microsoft and American Airlines. His works have featured technology from the late 1970s to the more sophisticated interactive video works of today.

Recently, his most popular video game — Mattel Intellivision's Microsurgeon — was one of 240 games nominated to appear at the 2012 Smithsonian exhibit, the Art of Video Games, in Washington, D.C. Though Microsurgeon didn't win in the public voting, the nomination of Levine's work highlighted his contributions to the gaming world.

Microsurgeon, a game that sold about 300,000 copies, allowed players to explore inside the human body and fight diseases.

We sat down with Levine at his home office, where his old Intellivision game system and games he designed sit on the shelves, to talk about his work in the video game industry, how it has it evolved and the prospects for the future.

Here is what the 58-year-old techie had to say:

How did you become involved in designing and developing video games?

When I was a kid, my family loved board games. I was a math major in college at UCLA. When I graduated from UCLA, I became a teacher. After a few years of teaching, I went to UC Irvine, and I got a computer science degree. Then I saw a job offering at Mattel.

I thought, "Mattel?" I was thinking the Barbie doll.

I and one other guy, we were the first in-home developers for (Mattel's video game system) Intellivision.

What was the first game you designed?

The first game I designed was a bowling game. I started to work on a motorcycle game.

What happened?

I left Mattel, and I worked for a medical technology company. I did devices for surgeons who did cataract surgery. I wanted to be a doctor at one time. It didn't work out. Then I got a call about a job in Northern California to work with a company called Imagic. I worked with a whole bunch of guys from Atari and Mattel — real smart guys.

Is that when you developed Microsurgeon, at Imagic?

Yes. I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun if people could play surgery?"

When was this?

This was in 1982. At Imagic, we started with about 30 people. We grew to a hundred. In the first year, they did like $30 million in business. There were a lot of 24-hour days and late nights. I would never take it back.

Microsurgeon is now considered the first game for health in the video games industry.

How long did it take to develop a game?

It takes about three to six months. There were usually one to two people working on a game.

By comparison today, you see 100 to 200 people. There's a big difference.

Did you all expect games to evolve to where they are now, with the Wii, Xbox and PlayStation?

We didn't really have an idea where games were headed. Now you see 3-D games.

Social games, like Farmville, are a big deal. I don't get a thrill out of Farmville.

How long before we see holographic games?

We're seeing part of that now. But we're decades from Holodeck (virtual world) games like Star Trek.

What do you like to play?

I never have been a big game player. I liked designing them.

I tend to play casual games, whether it's a simple parking lot game or driving a taxicab or puzzle games. Tetris is probably the most popular puzzle game I liked.

What are you working on now? Have you considered an updated version of Microsurgeon?

I'm writing science fiction. I actively considered a version of Microsurgeon for XBox. It's a lot of work.

I do think about combining the writing with the games. An online video game/fiction publication, I think it would be interesting. There's a lot of science fiction in video games.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Richard Levine was an integral part of the birth of video games 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 4:30am]
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