Pause Screen: Observing and Simulating with Jennell Jaquays
Chapter 13
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Pause Screen: Observing and Simulating with Jennell Jaquays

Before joining id as a level designer on Quake 2, Jennell Jaquays tested her creative mettle at Coleco during the rise and fall of console games in North America.


Over months of interviews and research, I got to know the names behind the credits screens on each Quake game. These developer profiles offer snapshots of our conversations that extend beyond discussion of id Software's culture and the Quake franchise.

Right around the time the bottom dropped out from under the North American videogame market, Jennell Jaquays was stepping up. Already a veteran designer, Jaquays cut her teeth designing campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons and publishing The Dungeoneer, one of the first magazines tailored to gaming hobbyists. Her desire to try her hand at designing and creating art for different types of games—as well as a burning need to earn a living wage—led her to Coleco around the time the leather company released the ColecoVision to go head-to-head with Atari's Video Computer System (2600) and Mattel's Intellivision.

Her mission as one of Coleco's principal designers was to recruit teams of engineers and artists and convert popular arcade games to the 8-bit system. There was just one catch. They were given no code, no art assets, no documentation—no foundation on which to duplicate hits like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. To create faithful adaptations on Coleco's notoriously thrifty budgets, Jaquays and her team took the only approach available to them: observe and simulate.

Over our two-and-a-half-hour interview, Jaquays and I discussed her introduction to tabletop roleplaying, how she became one of the first publishers of a gaming magazine, and what it was like to work before and during the North American videogame market crash of the 1980s.

Jennell Jaquays.

You attended college when tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were in their infancy. What led to your interest in games?

Jennell Jaquays: Before college, I played some [wargames]. My friends in high school played Risk, and we did play some of the Avalon Hill wargames. My younger brother was an avid wargamer—still is, actually—so it wasn't until college that I discovered fantasy roleplaying games, or any roleplaying games, because it didn't exist before then. Before then it was just tabletop wargaming. I played stuff like that with my brother; we used to fighting miniature battles on our dad's pool table. In fact, not long after he built it, he never got to play pool on it again. We just co-opted the surface and would set up armies, and have these massive battles.

I know some wargamers who enjoy the hobby for the deep tactics and strategy, while others see it as a form of roleplaying. What drew you to it?

Jennell Jaquays: I'd always been kind of a world designer, even as a child. Growing up, my influences were having really cool sets of blocks, and having a lot of small plastic toys. Not as many big toys, but smaller figures. My dad was a model railroader, so he was a world builder in that sense. I got exposed to what he did as a very young person. He was a hobbyist all his life, so just about every single hobby he got involved in, I got involved in, in some way. He read comic books, too, and Mad magazine. This was the early '60s. I started reading the comics he collected, finding ones I liked, and I started collecting them. I'd read the ones my friends would read.

I came into roleplaying games with this rich experience of make-believe worlds, and [an interest in] fantasy and science fiction. Later on came Doctor Doolittle, a lot of young adult stories about exotic worlds. I used to love that. I used blocks to build those worlds and populate them with small characters. My brother and I each had our personal avatars that we would put into our play. He'd be this figure, and I'd be that figure, and they would be our characters in the world. This was in the mid-'60s and early '70s, before [roleplaying games were prolific].

Did you have an avatar that you carried from game to game, or did it change depending on the game?

Jennell Jaquays: A lot of times we played with small plastic animals. I actually had a couple avatars that represented me. I don't have them here at my desk, but I still have them.

What led to the founding of the Fantastic Dungeoning Society gaming group at your college?

Jennell Jaquays: My friends Mark [Hendricks] and Merle [Davenport] and I said, "Hey, let's take these skills that I [Jennell] am learning from doing the school newspaper"—I did production on my college newspaper—"and [create material for] this game we're interested in. From our perspective, no one seemed to be making material for it. We were all writers and liked sharing our experiences, so we said, "Let's make a magazine and see if anyone's interested in it."

It was originally just the three of us, and then we created an organization that represented [our interest]. There was no organized "society"; that was just a name we created for publishing. Then we realized after the fact—it's not a thing these days—back in the '70s, there was a thing called FDS: Feminine Deodorant Spray. We didn't make the [connection] between the acronym and ours at the time.

The City-State of the World Emperor, Viridistan, The Immortal City (Jennell Jaquays, The Dungeoneer Journal 23, Judges Guild, Oct/Nov 1980).

What did you learn about campaign creation and storytelling while working on The Dungeoneer?

Jennell Jaquays: We only worked on the magazine for around two years. It was less, actually. I'd say it was a year and a half, until the end of 1977, but we learned a lot about creating magazines and even more about how to get a magazine into the hands of people who might be interested in buying it. We learned how to shorthand, how to teach people to fill out a room, drawing maps that you could print. A lot of [what we learned] was production oriented. 

We didn't realize at the time that we were making history; for us, it was just a hobby. It was something fun to do, and we found out other people were interested in it and were willing to give us money to do this. [laughs] Not much money, even in 1976 terms, but we were able to do it and make enough money to pay for the printing and distribution.

How far removed from publishing The Dungeoneer did you learn that yours was one of the first for the hobby?

Jennell Jaquays: Realistically, we knew there wasn't a lot out there at the time. I went to a small Christian college in southern Michigan, and when I lived there, the town I lived in had a big toy store, but it really focused on toys and modeling hobbies; there was no gaming. We used to go up to Michigan State University's campus and check out stores around there. That's when we realized that there wasn't a lot out there for DND or other roleplaying games. There were some places that stock [material], and we could buy miniature figurines, but that was about it.

So, we decided to make this thing. Later, as I published more and more, there were other magazines out there. And later on, some of them did publish adventure [campaigns]. But—and I didn't learn this until maybe 35 years later—that I was the second. Not the first, but the second to published a fully-worked-out game adventure in a publication of any kind, and the first to publish a mini-adventure.

Is that how you got your foot in the door at TSR?

Jennell Jaquays: Actually, no. TSR at that point was one of my clients. I was throwing sketches at [Dragon] magazine to publish. I actually have a drawing in the first issue of Dragon magazine. It's not a very big drawing, and it's not a very good drawing, but it's in there. When I left school—I graduated with an art degree in the summer of '78—my first job out of college was doing paste-up [the process of doing page layout prior to desktop publishing] for a local print shop. I'd worked there part-time during the school year, so after graduation I went to work for them full-time.

I was there for a month, maybe two months, and got let go. There was extended sewer construction on the street they were located on. It blocked off walk-in traffic; no walk-in traffic meant they couldn't support the staff, so I got let go. That was around the time I started finding other clients. I worked for Martian Metals [manufacturer of miniature figures with six-sided bases] doing some concept artwork and advertising artwork, and I worked for the guy I'd sold my magazine to about nine or 10 months earlier. He was now working for Judges Guild. 

At that time, Judges Guild was the only licensed publisher of DND material. They were starting to publish my magazine. Chuck had taken the magazine with him to the company, and they were gearing up to publish the ninth issue. I had done [issues] one through six; Chuck had done seven and eight; they would publish nine in a new format. I went down to interview with them. They were in another state; that was the longest trip I'd done driving by myself, and I interviewed for a couple of days. They hired me and bought a bunch of artwork I'd brought down. I went back [home] and started working on my first commercial dungeon, one that would be included in the ninth issue of the magazine.

That's how I got my start. It wasn't with TSR; it was with one of their licensees.

"Cryson’s Reward" by Jennell Jaquays, cover of Dragon No 152, TSR, December 1989.

How did that work lead you to the videogame industry?

Jennell Jaquays: I worked for Judges Guild as an adventure designer and illustrator for one year. Everything I produced back then—well, nearly everything—is still in print. I was not making as much money as I wanted to. I'll be honest, it was minimum wage plus 10 cents an hour. That's all I was making, but I did get health insurance, which wasn't a big deal because it wasn't expensive back then as it was now.

So, I went freelance and started working for other clients. I did that for about a year. I bought my first computer to do word processing; worked with a number of clients both in gaming and outside of the industry. At the end of that year, someone I'd met at a game convention, just weeks before, called me up and said, "I'm working for this toy company in Connecticut. They need one more designer. Would you want to come out and interview with them?" I said, "Sure!" Because I was kind of broke at the time. I'd been working with clients and not making as much money as I needed to.

They flew me out to Connecticut, and I interviewed with Coleco Industries, Inc., and they hired me that day. They expected me to just start working, and I said, "No, I've got to go home and shut down my life back in Michigan." So, I flew back, made some commitments for my life at that point, packed up enough stuff to live out of a suitcase for a few weeks, and moved to Hartford, Connecticut. I found my contract for that job recently. It was for 15 weeks working as a designer, doing electronic toys.

I worked in their advanced research department with [fantasy author and Wasteland co-designer] Mike Stackpole. The two of us had come in to design a roleplaying game for a new toy that was using two super-hot new technologies in late 1980: barcode reading, and a speech synthesis chip. We designed the game, and the way it worked is you would create cards and use a plotter to create a barcode that had the faux-names for a word or short phrase on it. So, we could put together a set of roleplaying rules where you used the cards like dice, or to reveal secret information. You fed cards through this reader, and it would say, "Roll 20" or "You hit." We did some other games. We did a detective game where you would try to guess who was the murderer, but with spies, so you could find clues.

We did these things, made prototypes, but when they were done, Coleco said, "Eh, there's not enough interest. Next!" I stayed with them, but Mike ended up deciding that, rather than a career making electronic games, he went back to Arizona and became a famous science fiction and fantasy author. And he did. But I got the same offer [from Coleco], and I stayed. I was with the company from November 1980 through early June of 1985, so I was there when they came up with the idea for the Colecovision. 

I was one of the designers of record on their tabletop electronics: Pac-Man, Galaxian, Donkey Kong—that was the one I had the most input into. The reason I say that is because at that point, I worked with one engineer and was one of the only designers left on staff. We had a cocktail table version of the game, and we sat there and took measurements, analyzed what was happening on the screen. Between the two of us, we turned that into an engineering design that would create a vacuum florescent tube of static images that, when turned on and off, would simulate movement. I drew the production art for that. That's one of my claims to fame in handheld electronics.

But I was there when we started the Colecovision, and by that time the design department had gone through some reductions to the point where I was the only designer left on staff. Because of that, and because I had a good relationship with the department's vice president, I ended up becoming the manager of the group. And then later, the chief designer; and later, the director of design. So, my basic responsibility was to recruit, train, and guide—both creatively and as a personnel manager—all of the art and design teams for all Colecovision and ADAM games that came out of Coleco.

So, a guy whom I'd met at a convention, whom I'd become friends with because he was another RPG designer, called me up two weeks after I'd met him to work with him at a company that, to be honest, I'd never heard of. But they were paying real money, relatively speaking.

"Dragons at War is a cover I did for TSR's Dragonlance paper back line." -Jennell Jaquays

I'd love to hear some of your anecdotes from that period working on the Colecovision. That was a really interesting time in the industry, especially in North America, when consoles hit their peak and then the market bottomed out. What was it like to work in the industry at that time?

Jennell Jaquays: The interesting thing was we really didn't realize we were coming in at the end. Coleco, as a company, their corporate philosophy was, "See what other people are doing. If it's successful, imitate it for cheaper and make money." That was basically their philosophy. They were a me-too company. They saw Mattel and Atari in the toy market—there was no [console] market at that point—selling these electronic consoles, and they said, "We think we can do that better and cheaper." They were able to create a console that was mostly built from off-the-shelf parts: a Z80 microprocessor, and a TI color chip. That was the core of it: parts that were off-the-shelf and easy to get, and they figured out a way to do it without a lot of video RAM [random access memory]. So, they had a fairly economical console.

They figured they would jump into the market by licensing arcade consoles, because another thing Coleco did was they wanted someone else to pre-sell their work. They liked licensing, and they'd already found out from the tabletop electronics they'd sold that people knew what Pac-Man was, people knew what Donkey Kong was, people knew what Galaxian was. [Consumers] liked the game and wanted to play them at home. That is the experience that, as Colecovision designers and artists, we were expected to reproduce, and to be honest, we did.

Colecovision and Intellivision could do similar types of games. They used tile-based systems, much like the Commodore 64 later on. You made graphics from smaller tiles that you could store in memory. Colecovision had a higher resolution: it was 320x200, which was high resolution in 1982 terms. The Intellivision never got anywhere close to that. It used much coarser graphic tiles. Our graphics system was close to what arcade games were doing. They weren't exactly the same; ours was a lower resolution, and we couldn't use quite as many colors, but we could simulate the arcades. But when Coleco got these licenses, they expected us to simulate the arcade games not only on Colecovision, but on the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision.

Over the course of that period, two of these things are not like the other. We were able to recreate a few games fairly well on the Atari. We hooked up with some super-talented programmers who knew the systems and could make them jump through hoops. For Intellivision, we found people who had reverse engineered it, but it really wasn't designed to [run ports of] arcade games. It worked really well with the types of games Intellivision's designers created for it, but they were creating new, original content that made use of what the console could do. So, in a way, [Colecovision and Intellivision] were apples and oranges.

One of the terms I miss from back then is "arcade perfect." I loved comparing and contrasting home ports with arcade games. It seemed like the executive game-design du jour of that era was, "Okay, Donkey Kong's popular. That brings in a lot of quarters, so make that." These mandates often came from people who knew business but didn't follow games. What were some of the tips you gleaned for making a good, faithful console port?

Jennell Jaquays: Most of them were done with the monitor set on end so the scan lines went up and down, so one tip we had to invent for ourselves was, "How do we take these vertically oriented games and put them on a horizontal screen, at a lower resolution?" We would look at [the arcade game] and get best estimates of proportion and scaling, because to be clear, we never got design documents of every kind. We never even got code or [art assets]. Everything we made was created from observation. Observation and documentation.

We had an art team of usually one or two people, and a designer team, usually just one person. They would spend time with a manual stopwatch, wax markers, and measuring tape, and we would figure out what was going on in the game and write up an order that we could give a programmer to replicate that, and to an artist, all to make a game based on what we observed. If there were secrets about a game we never found out in the arcade, they didn't make it into the console port.

Another thing was to figure out what were the most important features. If we had to sacrifice something, what would it be? In Donkey Kong, the main map is one ramp lower [than the coin-op original], and the character starts on the opposite side than he does in the arcade. The graphics are simpler. Those were some things: We had to figure out how to overcome technical limitations of the graphics chip, and how much memory we could use.

That was the other limiting factor. When Coleco would figure out a budget for a game, they were looking at Atari cartridges that had 2K or 4K of ROM on them. At that point, manufactured ROM was fairly expensive, so that was one of Coleco's biggest expense points, and they were looking at these Atari cartridges that were really small. What they didn't factor in was that Atari did graphics through timing and calculation. Colecovision primarily did them by using data sets of tiles. We had to store a tile-data set, a color-data set. Each screen had to have an array map [of tile data]. Another map over that remembered the colors for each of those tiles, and there were different modes we could use.

So, we were making a lot of choices about color modes, the amount of detail we could include, the complexity of the graphics. Sometimes, we opted for the most expensive graphic quality we could use; other times we opted for, "Can we do this in half-pixel-block squares?" We did a few cartridges that way. The result was we ended up with larger cartridges, around four times as large, minimum: 16K cartridges.

"The Throwback spies are from the first project I worked on for Coleco when I went there as a contract designer (a guessing game that used both bar code scanning and voice synthesis)." -Jennell Jaquays

That's incredible. I'm endlessly fascinated by that era of the industry. What are some of your fondest memories from that time?

Jennell Jaquays: Mostly, the people I worked with. Because I was initially the hiring manager for both the art and the game design for projects, every designer and technical writer who came in went through me. I was able to put together a team that really worked well together. A lot of us had come from the roleplaying-game industry, like I had. We brought in people who were writers, and system designers, and storytellers, but we rarely got to make original games. We were mostly doing arcade knock-offs. 

The closest we got to original games was making a game connected to a cartoon character license. That was Tarzan. There was a Tarzan movie that came out in the mid-'80s. I was the designer on War Games, based on a movie that came out [in 1983]. We did Smurfs. We actually had quite a few [licensed projects]; later on we did a Cabbage Patch games, but most of those were conversions of other people's games.

I've talked to a lot of people who got their start in the 1980s and '90s, and one common theme is that teams were small, so everyone wore a lot of hats. Today, you have mega publishers like Ubisoft and team sizes in the hundreds. You're someone who could this, that, and the other. Do you find today that people still need to be able to multifaceted, or have you noticed more specialization?

Jennell Jaquays: Specialization is huge, but it really depends on the size of the team you end up on. A lot of independent developers, if you're on the art side, you pretty much do everything, or at least you need to know how to do everything from 2D graphics through 3D. Programmers need to have more than one specialty: they're not just a gameplay programmer, they're not just a bug fixer. They've got to be able to write engine components, game mechanics, tool construction. The smaller the team, the more general you have to be.

Larger teams become more focused. They're like an animation studio where you have a talent to do a particular thing, but that's all you're going to do at the company: that thing. You never do anything but the thing. If you want to get out of the niche, you have to go somewhere else.

Early on, when I was working at Coleco, we had one animator. He was our go-to guy. He did all the character animation. He'd come from the film animation industry, and he was good at what he did. He was good at getting things to happen with very few frames. But most artists had to do backgrounds, character designer. The same thing for the designers.

The comparable position to a designer [from back then] on my team now would be an associate producer with design responsibilities. Someone who has to get everything done: managing design, communication, all the aspects of working with outside teams. He wouldn't have to be a programmer or an artist, but he would have to be a communicator. That was the key skill. We also had production managers who did bean counting for us and managed contracts.

Observe and simulate—that was our job.

Following your tenure at Coleco, what were some of the projects you worked on that kind of paved your path to id Software?

Jennell Jaquays: When I left Coleco, we were all laid off. I was one of the last to be let go from the design side. My wife is over here saying everyone else got turned into Cabbage Patch Kids. [laughs] I went to a small, local company that had been started by my first boss at Coleco. The name of the company was International OmniCorp, Inc. Later on, that became Penguin Products. I joined as a design director, and I was there nine months, maybe. It just wasn't working out. It wasn't a creative position, and I needed a creative position.

I ended up being let go. One of the guys who worked there with me had been my second-in-command at Coleco as a designer, and he was just heartbroken to see me leave the company. But I was feeling better that day than I had in months. So, he's crying, he's this wonderful gentleman, 16 years older than me, and was just brokenhearted that day. But I'm feeling like, "I'm free!"

I went freelance at that time, and went back to two industries I knew. One was fantasy roleplaying games. The other was being a design contractor to people who had originally been our contractors at Coleco. I ended up working with a developer who was creating stuff for Epyx. I actually interviewed with Epyx for a design position near the end [of the company] and decided not to take it, even after being offered the job. So, I was working with this developer making stuff for Epyx, and my only design that got produced by them was 4x4 Off-Road Racing, a truck-racing game. Even though I wrote the design document and a lot of the content of the game, I am credited with "theme."

[laughs] What does that mean?

Jennell Jaquays: Modern historians have interpreted that as, "Jennell wrote the music!" No! That's one of the things I don't know how to do. I had to go into IMDB, where I was credited for that, and change it to... I think it was "Miscellaneous" or a "Design" credit. But at some places I am still credited with that.

I didn't realize I was talking to the great composer, Jennell Jaquays.

Jennell Jaquays: [laughs] I know composers, and I'm no composer. But there were other big projects I worked on. I worked on some of my own big book series called Central Casting, which were game aids for roleplaying games. I produced a series of books called City Book for a publisher, Flying Buffalo, where I did everything for the book except print it. I worked for Interplay as a freelance designer on Lord of the Rings: Volume I, which was what they were allowed to call Fellowship of the Ring. I was the content designer on that. It ended up coming out on the PC. I worked with EA on the original Bard's Tale IV project, which ended up being killed because it was costing too much money, it was not going to make money, and by the time it would have come out, the technology would have been outdated.

Because EA changed their policy for how they worked with outside developers, I couldn't work with them anymore. They needed a full [internal] team. If you weren't a full team, they didn't want to work with you. Raven, up in Madison, they were working with [EA] and got to stay in the family, but I got booted out.

After that, I ended up focusing on art—doing illustrations, primarily, and really focusing on becoming a better painter. I got hired by TSR, the DND people, as a staff artist. I painted covers and other stuff, including a stint as a director of graphic design. I worked for them for three years right up to the point when it looked like they were starting to tank. I was at a game convention in Chicago during a stormy winter weekend in January, and one of the other guests at the show happened to be Sandy Petersen. He took me out to lunch and proceeded to sell me on coming to interview with id.

Now, the curious thing on that is that 12 years previous, I had brought Sandy out to interview for a position on one of my teams. He wisely refused it, and ended up at MicroProse. Id flew me down, and I interviewed with them for a week.

"Olympica is a cover for a small format SF combat board game produced by Metagaming back in the 70s (they were my first game client)." -Jennell Jaquays

At Coleco, nobody expected me to make a game level. I just went out, showed a lot of the design I'd done. I had a lot of credits already. At id, I would make the jump from being a roleplaying-game designer, to making really interesting maps with a 3D ideology behind them. In fact, that's what I became known for: not necessarily the way I drew them, but the way I could seed them. I was an illustrator at that point, so I knew my way around art, just not around modern art tools and not around 3D [level] editors.

I took a week of vacation I had coming at TSR; that's when id flew me down and I stayed with Sandy Petersen for a week. I went into work with him and edited maps for the week. I learned [the tool] that would eventually become Quake2Edit, and made my first Quake 2 map. At the end of the week they sent me home. That was around Valentine's Day. I think it was Monday before they offered me a job.

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