Patricia Goodson

Patricia Goodson is educated in piano performance from Peabody Conservatory, is an artist, writer and musician and created original music to Atari games such as PacMan Jr., Desert Falcon and Food Fight.

During my interview at the ad agency, my future boss said—right away—he said, “If you can play Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata, what are you doing here?” He is still my very good friend to this day, as he was the first person in the business world that seemed to get me at all.”

Patricia Goodson

Patricia graduated with honors from Duke University, one of the top academic institutions in the United States, with no idea that she would go into the game – or for that matter any – industry. She got into the game industry through her brother, who knew the founders of General Computer Company ( GCC ). GCC had had runaway success with  “speed-up” kits for the popular arcade games  Missile Command (called “ Super Missile Attack”) and Pac-Man (“Ms Pac-Man”).  At the time, it sufficed to tell them his sister was “very creative”, as the founders were inexperienced young men in their early twenties looking to develop new games and build upon their success. They particularly wanted to expand their market to include women, whom they saw as a large potential market, and as Patricia Goodson remembers: “They liked the fact that I had never played a video game”. She was dazzled when they flew her, a self-employed musician living hand to mouth, from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an interview.  It seemed an delightful extravagance.  Patricia was about 26, and had just finished graduate school in piano performance. It was not like there were jobs for concert pianists waiting around, so working on video games seemed an interesting opportunity. She began working for the company from New York, sending a stream of storyboards of game concepts to Cambridge, without knowing what a storyboard was. She created little booklets, with hand-drawn cartoons in ink and water color. She remembers one about cockroaches taking over the world. She explains: “It was a little story about rapidly multiplying cockroaches —I called it Kookarachi —based on my experiences with cockroaches in my New York apartment.”

After a trip to Disney World – an even greater extravagance – with the entire staff of the fledgling company ( perhaps 13 people ), Patricia accepted GCC’s invitation  to move to Cambridge in 1982 and join the company in a vaguely defined creative capacity. None of her proposals turned into actual games largely because programmers wanted to create games based upon their own concepts. She  remembers how she did discuss the creative process with management trying to figure out a pipeline fostering team collaboration. They all looked to Patricia for how to do that, but she, though the oldest at the time in the company, was every bit as inexperienced with this as they were.

When asked about her experience working with the software developers, Patricia says: “I loved it. I loved it because they were brilliant young people. They were so smart.  And they had so many interests different than my own. And personally I just liked the intellectual stimulation, it was just fascinating to me. I felt different, because I was an artist.  I mean I was from a different planet.  I could adapt to them because I grew up having to do that, having to fit in, having in fact to hide my artistic talent.  But for them to grasp me at all? I don’t think so (laughs). Doubtless I underestimated them, but I mean they liked me as a friend, as a person, as a girl and stuff.  But like artistic temperament—they wouldn’t get that, no. So I kind of hid that. They might think otherwise – I don’t know.

After Patricia saw that her concepts for games where going nowhere, she thought to herself that she had better find a different way to contribute. At about that time General Computer signed a contract with Atari to convert existing coin-operated games (arcade games) for the Atari 2600, and later 5200, home market. All the new cartridges needed music and sound, so Patricia saw an opportunity.

Creating music for the Atari 2600 required Patricia to think about music in terms of bits of memory – not even bytes –  because the console did not have a sound chip. One of the Atari engineers had created a “ kludge” to the television interface adapter—they called it the TIA, nicknamed “María”—which incorporated two sound producing oscillators. One of the GCC engineers wrote a driver so Patricia could experiment with the oscillators and create data for the sounds. The tone of the oscillators could be manipulated to produce an assortment of white noises and musical pitches, the latter of which did not correspond to conventional Western musical scales.  Patricia explains: “You could have these really weird scales.   That’s why the early games sounds so weird—they sound wildly out of tune unless you really worked at it, and even then, in some cases it was impossible to be in tune.”

Creating music for Atari 2600, Patricia developed various strategies to make the music sound at least somewhat in tune.  Furthermore, thanks to her musical training, she was able to listen to the sound effects of an arcade game like, say, Donna Bailey’s Centipede – and reverse-engineer the music. Sounds such as explosions are actually comprised of a different pitches, even if just “noise” pitches. For some complex sounds, she  slowed the sounds way down on a tape recorder, to identify and copy pitches.

Patricia “reverse engineered” the soundscape for about 35 games for the 2600 and 5200 Atari console – she also did all the music for General Computers own 7800 console, which, due to turmoil at Atari and its subsequent sale, was released too late to make the impact it should have.

Patricia created original music for the arcade games PacMan Junior and Food Fight. For Pacman Jr, she created 4 tunes, which are used in the game, but left the original PacMan  sound effects alone.

Beside creating music Patricia Goodson also created artwork for the early games. Before hiring a team of visual artists, she designed plexiglas signs so new games could be placed in arcades for tests. Moreover she initiated a weekly internal newsletter, called ERTE, for Escaping Reality Through Electronics, for which she would interview the employees about their progress during the week, and share bits of industry news.

Creating music for games was very different from what Patricia Goodson musical education had prepared her for.  When talking about her work at the time,  people were often amazed, because they did not know that this existed as a job. Patricia remembers: “I can remember talking to some music colleagues —at Wellesley and other schools  —and I was embarrassed to be doing this goofy commercial stuff because they were avant-garde or  academic composers with doctorates.  And they were like, “are you kidding me? Look—you’re making way more money than we are. And people are listening to it”.  So it was a cool job and in those days what we were doing with the games was cutting edge, or at least we thought it was.

When the game industry crashed, Patricia tried contacting other game companies to see if they might have an opening. She remembers calling one manager and getting his answering machine: “And on his answering machine was one of my tunes from a game called “Desert Falcon.” So I thought, “well, cool, that’s a good sign.  He likes MY tune, it’s on HIS answering machine.” So when I finally talked to him, he said, “ah well, no , we’re not hiring anybody except PhDs in composition from, like, Berkeley.”  I went, “Yeah, but you have my tune on your answering machine, dude.”

While Patricia worked on many games, she particularly enjoyed creating music for Jonathan Hurd’s Food Fight. The challenge was that when a player reached a particular level,  he or she would be rewarded with a replay of the game they just finished. This replay scene could be from 11 to 33 seconds in length, depending on the player’s game. Thus, the replay scenes needed music which could have variable lengths and still make sense. Patricia  explains: “I wrote, say, eight units of music that could be connected in various way to be extensible from 11 seconds to 33 second and still make decent musical sense—so no matter how it was done, it would be a reasonably satisfying, complete piece of music for any length animation. Working on this was just plain fun, it was a cool little technical and  musical challenge.” After working in the tech business for two years, she spent another two in the advertising industry before returning to performing and teaching full time. She remembers: “I simply had to go back into music.  I loved it too much and just couldn’t bear not spending my life on it.  So, with some savings and exactly two students as a source of income, I just sort of jumped off the cliff and back into the music world—teaching piano, and performing.   And never looked back.”

Patricia Goodson had always had a fascination with Europe, where the music she loved came from – so in 1991, she moved to Prague. The money she made from video games  she spent on a Steinway grand piano. The piano stayed in the USA for 6 years, before it followed Patricia Goodson to Europe. Since then, Patricia Goodson has performed in concerts all over the world, hosted radio shows, organized music festivals, and recorded several landmark CDs. Today she continue to live in Prague.