Work the room

That first time I went to Classic Gaming Expo was quite something. I had won, in a contest on the Digital Press forum, a pass to attend the alumni dinner held the night before the opening of the show proper. This event was a closed-doors event where the game designers, programmers and executives got to mingle and have a bite to eat and a few drinks without the pressure of the paying guests who’d be asking, the next day, “what was it like when…” questions that they probably get asked every year. Me, I was neither a game designer nor a programmer. I had, in fact, played Atari today, but I hadn’t worked there. I liked to think of myself as a historian and a game journalist at best, but definitely felt out of my depth. To my mind, this meant one thing: sit back, shut up, soak it all up and remember it. Listen, don’t interject. This ain’t your party, but you got in anyway, just relax and enjoy like you belong there. In short, it’s advice I’ve given to my kids as they grow up: it’s not all about you.

Well, that’s what I thought going in anyway. Some of the show’s honored guests graced us with their presence on the forums and we were already acquainted in an internet kind of way. I was almost immediately greeted by ex-Apple-and-Atari programmer Steve Woita, who is a bundle of almost-zen-like friendly in a Hawaiian shirt, and he immediately introduced me to Keith Robinson, president of Intellivision Productions. Keith and his cohorts – the “Blue Sky Rangers” – had been the original programmers for the Intellivision game console in the ’80s, and when Mattel Electronics dropped the video game business like the hot potato fad they thought it was, Keith bought the rights to the software, the hardware, and the name. It has to be pointed out what a unique situation this was: the Atari that releases games now is neither the Atari that Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney started in Ted’s guest room, nor is it the boom-years giant that it became after Warner Bros. bought it from Nolan. Modern Atari is an intellectual property holding company that scooped up the remains of 1980s Atari at fire-sale clearance prices. Same with the current holders of the Colecovision name and IP. These IP portfolios have changed hands many a time. Intellivision Productions, though? That was always the same bunch of people who had made the games in the first place. And at the center of that web, as its organizing force and its public face, was Keith Robinson.

Keith Robinson

You couldn’t miss Keith in the room, by the way. A tall phenomenon of seemingly boundless energy topped with a shock of white hair and a white beard, Keith was kind of like the Father Christmas of the classic gaming world. About half the time he’d top this off with the Burgertime chef hat, which made him even larger than life. He knew everybody. And, after Steve introduced me to Keith by saying “Earl’s the guy who runs Phosphor Dot Fossils” – as if that was something that everyone would automatically know about – Keith made sure I knew just about everybody in the room. “C’mon, work the room!” he laughed at one point, sensing my awkward shyness at the sudden whirl of activity. He just kind of swept me up and started making introductions. “Relax and enjoy like you belong there,” I kept telling myself. Keith Robinson made sure I did belong there.

That was my introduction to Mr. Intellivision himself. CGE always enjoyed quite a retinue of past and present Intellivision designers and programmers, and Intellivision was always still a going concern because Keith decreed it to be so. Intellivision games were being ported to cell phones, Intellivision games lived again on plug-and-play units that started out as funky blue banana-shaped controllers and eventually evolved, years later, into miniature replicas of the Intellivision itself, complete with that utterly unique controller consisting of a keypad and a “directional disc”. And yes, Keith was there to make a buck, but he was a firm believer in the gaming scene – he’d sit down and indoctrinate new players into the wondrous world of Night Stalker, for example.

Keith Robinson

The takeaway I always got from Keith’s bottomless well of stories about the old days and even more recent ones was that he and his cohorts had the time of their lives making Intellivision what it was…and they were happy to keep doing that, because it was still a lot of fun. I was sold on that idea. I forked over cash into the man’s hand on several occasions, and not once did I feel like I’d been schmoozed out of it. I felt like I was pitching in for an old friend (who I’d just met) who was living the dream. We should all be so lucky.

You always knew when CGE was winding down because, on Sunday afternoons before the show floor was closed to the public, Keith and his staff had a hard choice to make: pack a bunch of unclaimed Intellivision swag back into boxes, which they’d have to lug back home…or just start chucking freebies into the crowd.

Keith Robinson
Keith Robinson
Keith Robinson

And there was always a crowd there, because Keith Robinson was just about the friendliest guy in classic gaming. He never felt like an invited guest – he was one of us.

Keith Robinson died at the age of 61 on June 14th from long-standing heart and kidney issues, and he’ll be sorely missed. The end of a life punctuating the end of an era. As long as Keith was still around, Intellivision lived – it needed no gang of fanboys to evangelize it, because who needed that when you had Keith’s larger-than-life personality and infectious enthusiasm filling the room? And it’s thanks to that tireless enthusiasm that Intellivision will still live…even though it won’t be quite the same without the guy at the center of it all.

Now who wants to come over and play Shark Shark?

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