Patricia Goodson

Patricia Goodson is a musician, visual artist, and writer who, working for General Computer Company, created original music for games such as PacMan Jr., Desert Falcon and Food Fight, and “reverse-engineered” music and sound effects for dozens of Atari 2600 and 5200 games.

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, and went on to earn at Master`s in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, with no idea that she would go into the game (or for that matter any ) industry.  She grew up in a milieu in which women, if they worked outside the home at all, worked as secretaries or teachers and were expected to quit upon marriage.  This was not the path she saw for herself, but given the dearth of role models at the time, she had little idea of what might be possible in professional life and no idea at all of the workings of the business world.

Patricia got into the game industry through her brother, who had gone to M.I.T. with the founders of General Computer Company ( GCC ). GCC had had runaway success with the “speed-up” kits for the popular arcade games “ Super Missile Attack” (originally “Missile Command”) and “Ms PacMan”.  The founders were looking to develop new games and build upon their success. and particularly wanted to expand their market to include women. Patricia`s brother`s description of her as “very creative” was enough to lead to an interview.

She was amazed when they flew her, a self-employed musician living precariously in New York counting every penny, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the interview.  It seemed an incredible extravagance.  She was about 26, and was one year out of graduate school in piano performance.

She began working for GCC from New York, sending a stream of storyboards of game concepts to Cambridge, without knowing what a storyboard was. She recalls: “They liked the fact that I had never played a video game”. She created booklets with hand-drawn cartoons in ink and water color. She remembers one about cockroaches taking over the world. She explains: “It was a story about rapidly multiplying cockroaches —I called it Kookaratchi —based on my experiences with cockroaches in my New York apartment.”

After a trip to Disney World – an even more impressive 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.  She had mixed feelings about leaving the world of art, but liked the idea of a steady income- it was not like there were jobs for concert pianists waiting around.  Also, she liked the people at the company, and working on video games was intriguing.

None of her proposals turned into actual games largely because programmers wanted to create games based upon their own concepts. She  remembers discussing the creative process with management in an attempt to create a pipeline to foster team collaboration. They looked to Patricia 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 I liked the intellectual stimulation, it was just fascinating to me because their intelligence was different from musical intelligence.  I felt out of place, like 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 nature.  But for them to grasp me at all? I didn`t think so (laughs). Doubtless I underestimate them, but I mean they liked me as a friend, as a person, as a girl and stuff.  But like artistic temperament—I thought they wouldn’t get that, no. So I kind of hid that. They might remember it otherwise – I don’t know.

As to how she got into writing the music and sound effects, she recalls “One of the founders used to ask me to answer the phone if the receptionist was out.  I did it once, in a sort of “we`re all in this together spirit”, but when he said it was important to have a woman`s voice answering the phone, I flipped out and refused.  He got very angry and theatrically slammed the phone down without answering when it rang several times during our conversation.  I suppose it`s a wonder he didn`t fire me.  Anyway, I saw I`d better figure out a way to make myself useful, as none of my game concepts were being realized.”

At about that time General Computer signed a contract with Atari to convert existing coin-operated games for the Atari 2600, and later 5200, home market. The new cartridges needed music and sound, so Patricia saw an opportunity even though she didn`t know how to program.

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 had two sound-producing oscillators. A GCC engineer wrote a driver so Patricia could experiment with the oscillators and create data for the sounds, so soon she was banging away on GenRad emulators like everyone else.

The tone of the oscillators could be divided in increments of 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.  to produce an assortment of musical pitches, albeit in pure intervals which do not correspond to the “tempered” scale used in modern Western music.  Patricia explains: “You could cobble together really odd scales.   That’s why the early games sound so weird—the intervals are pure and they sound out of tune unless you really work at it, and even then, in some cases it was impossible to be in tune.”

Creating music for the Atari 2600 required her to think about music in terms of bits of memory – not even bytes.   Memory was so short that sometimes a sound effect would call or “borrow” a snippet of code – a series of hexadecimal numbers –  that had another primary function.   She  also developed various strategies of skipping among sound registers 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 them. This included sounds such as explosions, which are comprised of a different pitches, even if just “noise” pitches. For extremely complex sounds, she  slowed the sounds down on a tape recorder in order to identify and copy their components.

Patricia “reverse engineered” the soundscape for about 35 games for the 2600 and 5200 Atari console – she also did 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.

She also created original music for the arcade games Junior PacMan and Food Fight. For Junior Pacman, she created four tunes, but left the original PacMan  sound effects alone, regarding them as classic.

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`s classical musical education had prepared her for.  People were often amazed that such a job existed.  Patricia remembers: “I can remember talking to some music colleagues —faculty at Wellesley and other schools  —and I was embarrassed I was doing this goofy commercial stuff because they were “serious” composers with doctorates.  And they were like, “are you kidding? Look—you’re making way more money than most of us. 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 was laid off and, while ambivalent about continuing in the field,  contacted 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.  Should have told him to erase it and get his own tune.”

While Patricia worked on many games, she particularly enjoyed creating music for Jonathan Hurd’s Food Fight. 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.”

Upon being laid off after working for two years at GCC, she spent another two in advertising 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, even if it meant financial insecurity and family disapproval.  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, recording and performing. And it worked.“

Patricia always had a fascination with Europe, where the music she loves came from – so in 1991, soon after the fall of communism, she moved to Prague. She had bought a Steinway grand with her video game royalties.  The piano stayed in the USA for 6 years, before it followed her to Europe. Since then, she has performed in concerts all over the world, organized music festivals, hosted radio shows, and recorded several landmark CDs.  She has premiered dozens of new works, many of which were especially written for her, and has been a champion of women composers such as Geraldine Mucha.  She has also researched and performed music by composers whose lives and reputations were destroyed by the Nazis.  Active as a painter, arranger and singer, today she lives in Prague with her husband, Ivan Karhan and dog Ollie, and teaches piano performance at NYU in Prague.