The state of video game preservation is in dire straits. Video games are designed with a planned obsolescence – a built-in shelf life. Books about the makers and the history of these “obsolete” products are slowly being released. Mark Flitman’s memoir It’s Not All Fun and Games: A Life in Film Production, Video Games, and Toys tells the story of his career as a video game and toy producer. Flitman spent most of his career working on licensed products ranging from Marvel Comics, Major League Baseball, and the Simpsons, to name a few.
Even among the most die-hard fans, collectors, and video game literati, the names of those who worked in the various roles required to create a game are seldom known. Flitman is no exception. Like many of those involved in the creation of video games, he has received little recognition for his work. Unsurprisingly, the same industry whose workers are largely unknown to the public is also the industry whose creations are increasingly at risk of being lost forever. Last year, amidst all the news of layoffs in the industry came the revelation that 87% of the video games released in the US before 2010 are “critically endangered”.
I first heard of Flitman in a 2022 New Yorker article, “The Collectors Who Save Video-Game History from Oblivion”. It describes how Flitman’s collection, a treasure trove of video game memorabilia and design documents, was being examined by the Video Game History Foundation. The article reveals that Flitman, now semi-retired, was working on a memoir. My interest was piqued.
The result, It’s Not All Fun and Games, is more than a memoir. It’s a historical record of Flitman’s career and a compendium of details, pictures, and materials relating to video games and toys, some that were released and others that didn’t make it out of the production process. Many readers will encounter, for the first time, production materials and details on canceled games. Two such games discussed are Marvel 2099, whose potential will make fans salivate, and Phantasmagoria III, which might have involved the legendary designer Roberta Williams, the King’s Quest series designer. Furthermore, It’s Not All Fun and Games is an excellent introduction to game production and design. Flitman has a lot of wisdom to share relating to how games are made.
A Gaming Life
It’s Not All Fun and Games opens with Flitman telling his first-grade teacher that he wants to be six years old “forever”. Flitman’s childhood in the 1960s was idyllic and filled with toys. His childhood, as portrayed in the book, is a peek at US consumerist culture. Like many American children, he was enculturated into a specific way of life, that of the consumer. He grew up reading comic books, collecting baseball cards and Hot Wheels, and playing with Wham-O Superballs (a ball that, according to its advertisement, holds “50,000 pounds of compressed energy”). Though video games were not yet ubiquitous as a form of household entertainment, Pinball machines provided a widespread pastime. Video games, specifically arcade games, would gain popularity when Flitman was in college in the late 1970s. Flitman writes the first video game that made a lasting impression on him was the interactive Dragon’s Lair (1983).
Flitman began his film production career before working in the video game industry. His time in the game industry was a whirlwind, to say the least. His first professional job in games was as a quality assurance tester for Mindscape in Northbrook, Illinois 1988. After Mindscape, he joined the famed Japanese company Konami. In 1992, Flitman began working at Acclaim, known for their video game adaptations of media licenses, as a Research and Development Administrative Manager. Several cross-country moves and companies later, he worked as a producer at Atari, “…one of the most important companies in the video games business”. This abridged retelling captures Flitman’s firsthand experience with the volatility of working in the video game industry.
It’s Not All Fun and Games includes pictures and memorabilia from throughout Flitman’s career and life. Eventually, Flitman transitioned to working in the toy industry as an employee at Hasbro. However, the conditions that made the toy industry a more desirable place to work than the video game industry changed. “The stability that initially attracted me was slowly disappearing, Hasbro had begun going out of the inventive, artistic atmosphere that I found so refreshing, turning into a big corporation where the employees didn’t matter as much as the upper-level management and their bonuses did.” Still, throughout the ups and downs in his career, Flitman describes his work as both fun and challenging. He is proud of what he has accomplished. Many of the games he helped create are remembered fondly, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System versions of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1989) and King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990), and the MLB Slugfest series.
It’s Not All Fun and Games is at its best when Flitman goes into the nitty gritty of game development and production, such as how to track the program schedule of a given game during his time as a producer. It’s also a treat when Flitman reveals secrets about the various games he worked on. For example, the Simpsons tie-in game Virtual Bart (1994) was designed to have stereoscopic 3D, a feature that was dropped later during the game’s development. Flitman writes that you can use 3D glasses (like the ones given out at movie theaters) to experience the stereoscopic visuals in the early stages of Virtual Bart. This type of information makes headlines on video game sites today.
It’s Not All Fun and Games Flitman also offers practical advice relating to aspects of game production that are taken for granted. Some chapters end with Flitman sharing some of the “lessons” he learned at various moments throughout his career. Some of my favorite professional advice offered is “not everyone in a position of power is there because of talent”. The other is “each week, or possibly a few times a week, a producer of development should receive updates. The more you see during the early stages of development, the more problems you can avoid down the road.” This advice might seem obvious; yet it’s often not followed by many producers, as evident by the disastrous development of The Day Before (2023) where there was little communication between the game’s developers and other members of their teams. Producers even refused to listen to feedback and retaliated by firing contractors who spoke out about issues relating to the game’s troubled production.
It’s Not All Fun and Games is written in a straightforward manner. It’s not verbose and is unconcerned with critical introspection. It’s a practical affair that spends a lot of effort noting how games are produced through words and images. This, in some respects, is for the better, as the book begins as the story of a boy growing up in a consumerist culture, nurtured by it, and later grows up to have a career in creating the same things he enjoyed as a child. The book benefits from this approach, especially in sections where Flitman discusses game production.
The link between working on licensed products and Flitman’s name-dropping of celebrities is present throughout It’s Not All Fun and Games. Unrelated at first glance, this speaks to our collective obsession with the famous. Even before Flitman began working on video game licenses, he wanted to work in film. The book has several lengthy sections detailing Flitman’s meetings with celebrities. This pursuit of “cultural” cache is fascinating and reminds me of Miles Davis’ 1989 autobiography and how the famed jazz musician would go on about meeting Marlon Brando and other celebrities for no discernable narrative reason except to relay to the reader that Davis knew a lot of famous people. It’s a ploy that attracts readers, given that we are obsessed with celebrities as a culture.
Though charming, It’s Not All Fun and Games has its issues. It is slow to start, but the narrative picks up once Flitman begins writing about game development. It serves as a good entry point for those who want to learn more about the process of making games in a bygone era.
In a brief email correspondence with Jeremy Parish, the head of Press Run, I asked what he considers to be the emblematic book of the young press company. Parish told me that It’s Not All Fun and Games is “the platonic ideal of the Press Run line”. It’s Not All Fun and Games is the Iwata Ask from the perspective of American game production and development.
Coleman, Jack. “The Day Before ‘Was Never An MMO’, Says Ex-Fntastic Staff”. Dual Shockers. 12 December 2023.
Stephen, Bijan. “The Collectors Who Save Video-Game History from Oblivion“. The New Yorker. 1 September 2022.