There have been several biographies from people in the video game industry written in the last few years. They range from developers to world record holders. Some of them have come from people who made my favorite games. Back in the 90s, I never thought I would be reading books written by Sid Meier or Ken Williams. Mostly because I didn’t know who they were when I was 10.
I never thought about the people who made the games, ran the companies, or tried for the high scores back then. Now, I find these stories fascinating. I love hearing about the different things that went into the games I spent so many hours playing.
I grabbed five of the biographies, which I think are the best. Each of them taught me something about the video game industry, the games I played, and some of the niche communities in the hobby of video games. This isn’t a complete list of the biographies out there; these are just the ones I like the most.
Honorable mentions go to Imagine That! by Ed Smith and Benj Edward, and Creating Q*bert by Warren Davis.
Significant Zero by Walt Williams
Walt Williams is a video game writer. His best-known work was on Spec Ops: The Line. He also worked on Star Wars Battlefront II, BioShock, and Borderlands. He is one of the many people I had never heard of until I started reading and reviewing books about video games. His book is my favorite out of all the video game books I’ve read over the last few years.
This is one of the first books I read for my YouTube channel. It was a strange time for me as I tried to find something I would enjoy doing videos on. I was going through a bit of a rough patch at work, and I retreated into my hobbies for some escape. Both books and video games were things I enjoyed. I just started searching for books on video games, and I stumbled upon this one. I was so glad that I did!
Walt explains how he got into the video game industry in his book. He describes how he never wanted to make video games and walks the reader through his early experiences with video games. I liked the story about Marble Madness being his first experience with “NES Hard” and Final Fantasy being his entry point for JRPGs. While reading this, he reminded me of some of my friends. Not anyone specific, but different parts of each of them.
I liked Walt’s book because he explains getting into video games and the other jobs he tried to get when he moved to New York. Specifically, the movie script he wrote for some dude and applied to write for Marvel.
The part that makes this book stand out is when he talks about Spec Ops: The Line. This was the first time I remember reading about making a video game. Reading Walt’s account made me feel sorry for him and the other people who go through this. What stood out to me was just what he was putting himself through so he could make a game.
This book is so good! He talks about his concerns with violence in video games, his experiences making them, and his story gives a lot of insight into the video game industry. Before reading this, I didn’t know much about the people who write the stories in the games.
Once Upon Atari by Howard Scott Warshaw
I’m sure many people know about E.T. on the Atari 2600. Allegedly the worst game ever made, responsible for the North American video game crash, and buried in a New Mexico desert. Well, this is the story of the man behind the game. Howard is a fascinating person who has lived a remarkable life.
I didn’t know much about the other two games Howard made and the games he wanted to make after E.T. had been released. While working on the game, I also didn’t know much about E.T.’s development and all of the other stuff. Howard tells us the stories of renegotiating his contract at Atari, thinking about leaving Atari to work at 20th Century Fox and having an unrealistic time frame to complete the game.
I had no idea he made a documentary about Atari before reading this book. Howard did a lot of things between Atari and becoming a therapist. While they were interesting, I found the stories about working at Atari to be my favorite. It seemed like a strange place run by people who didn’t want to be in the traditional workplaces of the 80s. I remember seeing an interview that Howard did where he talked about how working at Atari affected his other jobs for a bit. At least, I think it was Howard. I think it could have applied to several former Atari employees.
What I like about this book is what Howard says about work-life balance and finding the right career for you. He talks about not knowing what he wanted to do until he became a therapist. He had an exciting career path. I enjoyed reading this one.
Missile Commander by Tony Temple
This is a fun book! I didn’t know much about the Missile Command high score that was going on during the 2000s. The Donkey Kong scores are talked about more, and the issues with Twin Galaxies were made into a few documentaries. Tony Temple’s story about chasing the Missile Command high score and his interactions with the previous record-holder are covered here.
I like the part of this the most is Tony talking about his life. He explains what Missile Command means to him, how he went about getting the high score, and some of the things you have to do so you can try to get it yourself. As someone who didn’t grow up near an arcade, I didn’t know much about chasing high scores. By the time I started playing video games, high scores were meaningless. However, while reading this, I was getting a little excited for Tony as he talked about getting the world record and then breaking it.
His interactions with the previous record-holder and the previous high score issues are discussed. This story, combined with all the other drama over the Donkey Kong scores, told me a lot about some people who made a name for themselves back in the 80s.
Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams
There are a few companies I remember from my childhood. When I was five, Nintendo was the company I most associated with video games. When I got older, my family got a computer, and I discovered Sierra. I don’t remember them for the games they made; I remember them for the games they published. If I saw the Sierra logo, I believed the game would be good, or at the very least interesting.
I didn’t know anything about the people behind that logo. I didn’t know anything about the games they had made before the early 90s. It wasn’t until I got older, and quite frankly, when I had a lot of spare time in the Navy, that I learned more about the games from the companies I liked.
The story of Sierra is one of the most interesting in video game history. Ken Williams, one of the founders of Sierra, gives the reader his view of what happened at the company. His book is spectacular! He tells the reader what he remembers and doesn’t blame people when things went wrong. Ken comes across like one of the bosses I wish I had.
From reading this, it sounds like he was very driven. He didn’t think about getting into the video game industry, and at the time, there wasn’t much of an industry. When Sierra was created, Ken and Roberta gave it their all and ended up making considerable contributions to the graphical-adventure genre.
Ken talks a lot about the business side of Sierra and what he would have done differently. Especially when he gets into having investors and selling his company, the promises made to him didn’t get fulfilled, but he didn’t regret selling the company. This was just my reading of the book.
There are two stories in here that I was glad to hear about. The first was Sierra’s attempt to buy id Software. I had heard this story in a few other places, but they were always from the perspective of id Software. Hearing Ken’s side of the story was great. It wasn’t too different from what I had already heard, but reading it was something that the historian in me wanted.
The other story was about Outpost. Ken shoulders a lot of the blame here. He talks about what he could have done better to ensure the game wasn’t broken when shipped. Back in the 90s, stuff like this happened with many PC games. If you didn’t have access to the internet, you wouldn’t know about it, and you wouldn’t be able to get the patches to fix it. The way Ken tells this story is very interesting. It gives you some insight into the business side of the video game industry.
If you were a fan of Sierra or just like reading about video game history, I would highly recommend this book!
Sid Meier’s Memoir! by Sid Meier
This book answered the biggest question my 10-year-old self had back in the 90s. Who the heck is Sid Meier, and why is his nave on this video game? As far as I knew, it was just a made-up name and didn’t matter. The game was what was important to me.
If there was a series of games to which I gladly lost weekends and summers, it would be Civilization. There were several Microprose games that I could say this about. Civilization, specifically Civilization II, is one of those games that pulls you in—assuming that you’re into strategy games like this.
I didn’t know much about Sid Meier or the origins of Microprose. I found the story of the company to be interesting. It’s not too different from many other companies I’ve read about. It was created by a few people and grew over the years. Eventually, it was sold, and it fell apart after the sale.
What I like about this book was how you get the stories of the games before Civilization and learn why Sid’s name ended up on some of their games. It almost turned into a seal of quality in many ways. I’m not saying every game will be for everyone, but for me, it meant those games would have been fun!
Sid gives the reader a lot of insight into how he made video games. He never threw any idea away, and when one game didn’t work out, he would save it to maybe revisit it later. He would also refine his ideas and improve upon them to make the games better. It was one of the many parts of the book I enjoyed.
There are so many stories in this book about Sid’s games. Several of them were rather eye-opening to me. Reading how he had to fight for some of the more iconic games to be published was strange. Granted, I’m looking back at them after they have been successful. It seemed like a disconnect between the developers and the company executives. The developers knew a game was fun, but the executives didn’t understand the games they were trying to sell.
These five books are great. I would recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more about video game history or if they want to know more about the games from the 80s and 90s. There are other biographies and autobiographies out there; I just haven’t found them yet.
Looking at all of the books I’ve read since I started reviewing books about video games, these five stood out to me. They covered topics I didn’t know much about, wanted to hear from the people there, or shed some light on a topic of interest. There was a lot of nostalgia tied up in some of these books for me.
There are more books like these being made. It seems like they often sneak up on me. I’m always glad when they do, though. It’s like discovering an easter egg or finding a secret that many people might not know about. I’m so happy I could share these books with all of you!