Acclaim: A Retrospective, Tribute and Eulogy

| | Comments (0)
Carrie Gouskos

In the fall of 1997, I moved to New York City for my first year of undergraduate school at NYU. While settling in and looking for a new job in The City, a friend, aware of my video game fascination, circled an ad in the Village Voice looking for game testers at Acclaim Entertainment. I joked that this was the perfect job for me (as people often had), but decided it really was too good to be true when I found out they were located on Long Island. At the time, I was dating a guy who lived in Montauk (the LI spot furthest from NYC) – so my idea of Long Island was of this place an ungodly distance from the city, and no matter how great the opportunity, I looked into it no further.

Early in 1999, I was living in Brooklyn, still roughing it out at NYU, and working at Starbucks. A Long Island friend of mine invited me to a good old-fashioned house party, something which had been sorely lacking in the boroughs. It was much closer than I realized. I spent the entire night on the couch in front of an imported Dreamcast playing some great rounds of Power Stone. The guys were impressed. "This system isn't out yet – how do you know how to play it?" "How much do you play video games?" A young man, who later turned out to be a friend, and even later an integral part of the Grand Theft Auto 3 team, sat me on the couch and drilled me on my game knowledge. Before I left that night, they extended the invitation for me to apply for a job where they worked, at Acclaim Entertainment.

On my application, I wrote an essay about why I believed that Final Fantasy VII was the best game of all time. I remember my interview with this total hardass. He asked me what was the last game I had beaten. "Well, I beat Cool Boarders 2 for the first time recently," I began as he took notes. Then, remembering the only advice I had been given – to be absolutely honest, I retracted my claim. "I didn't get the last unlockable character, but he's impossible to open. I mean, who gets a perfect score on the half pipe competition?" I watched, horrified, as he scratched it off my complete games list. Somehow, without the Jamaican snowboarder in Cool Boarders 2 (I maintain that my 711 straight tricks in the pro trick competition is a greater feat), I was still hired at Acclaim Entertainment on May 17th, 1999.

A New Life Begins

This is not a real bug, but it should have been.
On my first day, they took me into this tiny room with TVs crammed together. There were approximately sixty guys on the night shift and they were adding thirty for the summer. All of the new staff were assigned to test the multiplayer for Re-Volt (the undervalued PC toy car racer). The sixteen-person matches we had in that game were some of the most fun I've ever had video gaming. I realized after a week of sheer fun that I should probably focus more on the work aspect. I became very good at the single player, winning the time trials and championship with ease, so I became the person responsible for playing through each version. Every time a new burn (an updated version of a potential game) came from the developer, I would sit down and play through the whole game, unlocking everything, and giving the unlocked save to people to use instead of cheats. I remember being hurt that the credits were submitted before I became a core tester on the project. I remember my first bug sheet, which was reworded by some jerk with a red pen in front of all of QA. I remember when I got a letter after the game went gold saying that I was crucial to the game. I remember the day they let go almost all of the summer staff ... except me.

I was faced with a new dilemma. As an acting major at NYU, my acting classes ran from 9-5 three days a week, and that didn't work with any shift in QA. I did one more semester of all academic classes, hating every minute of school, before I dropped out to work at Acclaim full time. I used to regret that decision, but I don't anymore. In the next few years I moved up to Senior Tester and then Project Lead, which meant that I was maintaining databases, assigning testing tasks, and keeping in constant contact with the producer and developers. On several occasions, new responsibilities brought new burdens, like pulling 24-hour shifts right before a game's turnover (an attempt for it to go gold, and thus be ready for consumers). Those were the nights where we played four-player Circuit Breakers while waiting for the next version of All-Star Baseball. When the version was burned, it would become a race to see who could find a fatal bug first, so that we could report it and go back to playing Circuit Breakers.

Just before he was chased away. *sigh*
I was sent to work at E3 four times, and I can never thank Acclaim enough for my introduction to the event I hold to be the holy of holies. My first year there was unreal. I wandered around with a giant smile plastered across my face. I was happy to work thirteen-hour days setting up the booth, just to be amidst all that gleeful chaos. I met many celebrities associated with Acclaim and stammered my way through a conversation with Jeremy McGrath while I prepared to show off his Supercross 2000 to the E3 masses. Right in the middle of attempting to flatter the adorable McGrath, a BMX rider who had been following me around for a few days and who was there to show off Acclaim's featured half-pipe jumped in on our conversation. He screamed at poor little Jeremy, "Why are you trying to steal my girlfriend? Don't you know that Motocross isn't a real sport? Only BMX is a real sport!" McGrath wandered off and I stood there, simultaneously mortified and mesmerized. I refer to that story as the time that McGrath got in a fight over me – it sounds better.

To England And A New Role

I was definitely not the drunkest person there.
E3 wasn't the only time I got a chance to do something special for Acclaim. I dressed up in a mascot suit, playing the part of a Fur Fighter for the New York City Toy Fair. I went on trips to Sony and Wal-Mart to help demo games. I spent half a year in England to help with Shadow Man 2. Acclaim's founder, Greg Fischbach, who often acted as a father figure to me, took me aside memorably before I left. "I know you like to party, Carrie," he said. He must have been referring to the Christmas parties and Summer Clambakes, but I was certainly no drunker than anyone else there. "Don't party too hard in England," he recommended. If only he knew that in England I was considered an American wimp who couldn't drink as much as an English toddler. He was always acknowledging me in some way or another, though. In many meetings with him, he accused me of being PC-biased, console-biased, and too much of a hardcore gamer. I loved my job.
I even got a better desk.
My job got even better after I got back from the Shadow Man 2 trip. I was moved over to the Evaluation Department, which was set up by a very knowledgeable guy in QA to help express what gamers like to all the folks upstairs. It was just what Acclaim needed, I thought. I went over with many hopes and dreams. As a Game Analyst there, I took on the role of Assistant Producer in many respects. I read game proposals and design documents. I met with developers and listened to them try to sell their games to us. I played both our games and those of our competitors and dissected their merits and flaws in word format. I loved my job even more, but it was much more frustrating.

At this point, in 2002, Acclaim could no longer afford the luxury of taking a chance on new games. They were being supported entirely by sales of the Mary Kate and Ashley and Burnout games. The Mirra franchise, once profitable, had taken a nosedive with BMX XXX. Turok 4 ... well... Aggressive Inline was horribly underrated. (Imagine that – an underrated Acclaim game!) Despite the problems, it's hard to find blame in the individuals who worked there. The little lies that different departments told, like all video game departments tell, spiraled into the tornado that tore apart the company. The team creating the engine didn't meet their deadline, things that were promised were cut out here and there, and the necessary became unnecessary. Everybody was trying hard to make good games with what they had. Only QA and Evaluation could tell all of the truth, and nobody listened to us. What did we know? We were just kids.

I was making good money, especially for what I was doing, and working in what was basically a college dorm. All around me were fun people my age with the same hobbies and interests. We stayed past work until the next shift came in, playing twenty-person Counter-Strike on all kinds of great custom maps. We would rush to EB on lunch breaks when big games came out and buy every copy they had. But there was something unsatisfying about it. My job was unimportant and the company wasn't getting any better. Each quarterly conference call was more terrifying than the last. Just shy of my four year anniversary with Acclaim, I quit and went back to school.

When on August 27, 2004, I heard from a few friends still at Acclaim that they were told to leave and not come back, I cried. I cried for the memories of running through those halls. I cried for my friends who stayed behind to try to help (or really just to make money playing video games) and now have no jobs. I cried for the four years of my life that seemed too good to be true, that were over, and that there was absolutely no hope of rekindling.

A Sad Bet On The Wrong Horse

The President of Acclaim laughs it up with some QA guys.
Acclaim was the company that everyone loved to laugh at, but nobody can deny how crucial it was to the beginnings of the game industry. A lot of their history was infamous, but they were a vital presence, all the same. I distinctly remember a quote in The Ultimate History of Video Games from Greg Fischbach, "We kind of all looked at it and chuckled as we walked through the show because we all knew that video games were dead. Everybody was talking about the Amiga and the Atari ST. That was where everybody thought the business was, really. Nobody thought that Nintendo had much of a chance, and they kind of all laughed at what [Nintendo was] doing." Clearly he didn't always have his thumb on the pulse of video gaming. But Acclaim's turn from industry giant to industry scapegoat was not the fault of any one person. They ran their business like other companies run their businesses. Their problems really began with the single worst decision they ever made – to back the N64 instead of the PlayStation. That decision resulted in what was probably the poorest relationship imaginable between a first- and third-party, and it all went downhill from there.

I'm going to miss seeing my Acclaim friends at E3 each year. That was the one thing I could count on – a few familiar faces that could toast to my years there with a drink at El Coyote. Many of the people who left have moved on, as I did (quite a few went to Rockstar Games), and I will see them at E3 with another company, but there will never be a gathering of those same people again, and I'm sorry for it.

I hope this is an adequate tribute to Acclaim. Although it was a corporation, and at times a bad one, it was also a group of wonderful people. It was a place where I spent a huge portion of my youth, and a place where I learned a lot of the hard facts about life and business. I love you Acclaim, and I'm sad to see you go.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 30, 2004 9:13 AM.

Linden Lab and Transactions in Second Life was the previous entry.

Nyko SpeakerCom Review is the next entry.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Add to Technorati Favorites