A Conversation with Sean Newton, author of Bits, Sticks, and Buttons

I recently discovered Sean’s great new book and was so impressed by it that I wanted to learn more. Bits, Sticks, and Buttons is a listing of the 50 greatest arcade games in history. They are listed in order, with gorgeous photographs and detailed information about what made the games important, compelling, and memorable. Many of the words are from arcade collectors that own the games themselves. The book sports a very attractive look and layout and is highly recommended to all arcade fans.

First off I am really enjoying the book. I am a huge fan of arcade games, so obviously the content is to my liking. But I have to give you some props on the quality of the book. It is laid out professionally, the pictures and formatting look great, and the idea to have different collectors sharing their own views on their favorite games was truly inspired. So where did the idea to write this book come from? Is this your first book?

“The idea to narrow down the entire library of known video arcade machines into the “best of the best” list stemmed from my buddy’s vision to open up a retro arcade to the public. About four years ago he began the daunting task of trying to hoard away as many arcade games as he could to build up the inventory. We quickly realized space was being chewed up storing these games, and that he would never have enough floor space to house every possible good game that he came across. We had to decide which machines had to go and which could stay. We also noticed there were many more, which he still had to acquire in order to be on par with the expectations of classic gamers. The list of the greatest arcade games was officially born. We narrowed the field to an iconic 100 games. From this list, I tweaked it, gathered data, listened to other retrospective analysis from other collectors, studied other fan favorites and honed the list to a more objective look at the 50 greatest.

I wanted to steer clear of making this book just another encyclopedia of video games, and instead wanted it to have a very human quality to it. Having others joining me in the countdown just gave it that little edge as well as enforce the prowess of certain machines.

The list sat for a couple years, eating away valuable neurons in my brain. I decided to de-frag my noggin and make the leap to paper with the list in response to a thread on the Killer List of Video Games website forums. I secretly asked certain members both there, as well as other gaming forums, for pictures of themselves standing with certain icons to the arcades. I also asked each person to give me their opinions on what made these machines so great. I wanted to steer clear of making this book just another encyclopedia of video games, and instead wanted it to have a very human quality to it. Having others joining me in the countdown just gave it that little edge as well as enforce the prowess of certain machines. Several people appeared more than once. I think the idea I was going for was kind of like a VH1 “Best Week Ever” type of feel, where the same folks keep offering their opinions. After I unleashed the book onto the KLOV forums by surprise, there was an overwhelming positive response. People were asking me how many other books I had written before this, in order to capture the correct mood and pull the very thoughts out of their minds and place them on paper. I was like, “Huh? It’s my first book, dudes. I’m just a Landscape Designer, not a writer. But I’m damn glad you guys liked it.” I was very fortunate during the writing process in that the self-publishing website I chose (Blurb.com) had very easy to learn software available for their authors to use. The software is more or less just a simplified version of Adobe Illustrator, and gives the author template styles for inserting their text and photos, as well as offers a variety of fonts, colors, and themes to better suit the book’s overall style. For my book however, I had to throw all that out and customize almost every page to match a certain look and layout, and was often finding myself getting creative to find ways to overlap multiple layers of text and photos to find pleasing ways to fill each page. A lot of trial and error. Hopefully the end result is something the reader can appreciate and find themselves coming back to time and time again.” Bits, Sticks, and Buttons Page Example

Paring things down to 50 surely was a daunting task I am sure. I was shocked that Joust did not make the list. What game were you personally upset about having to leave out of the book? “I knew I would catch some static from gamers everywhere by leaving Joust and Q-bert off the top 50. Which is why those two games (as well as a few others) were given honorable mention on the last pages of the book. Several other icons like Paperboy and Simpsons, which just missed the list were mentioned throughout the book as well. For me personally, I was sad that one of my personal favorites Guerilla War couldn’t make the cut.”

Speaking of favorites. What games do you have in your own personal game room? “I’m a little light right now, having recently sold much of my collection to help buy a new truck. I have a Star Wars Trilogy and a Demolition Man pinball on loan from my buddy. The only game I currently own right now is a Dynamo Z-back running a Blue Elf jamma cartridge. Plays 309 games on one system. Good for gamers who lack space, bad if you’re a fan of Altered Beast (it plays awful on it).”

I feel your pain. I just sold a Monster Bash pinball machine to help fund a down payment on a house. Nobody liked seeing that one go. That brings up another topic. What do you think of arcade games and pinball machines as alternative investments? For example, I was able to sell my Monster Bash for $1500 more than I purchased it for four years ago. Heck even breaking even would have been a bonus — considering the years of free game play. “I’ve always thought this was a very liquid hobby. Games come in and games go out. Machines can always be sold or traded to fund purchases or buy new machines. In my opinion, pinball machines will always hold their values stronger than video arcade games. They have always demanded a higher price range and can be sold later to the right buyer for top dollar. I’ve slowly watched the everyday resell value of video games plummet over the last few years. Machines that use to sell for $800 are lucky to go for $500 these days. Classics still seem to hold a high dollar value like Tron, Donkey Kong, and Star Wars, but nowhere near the sick money I see Limited Edition Addams Family pins go for. The pinball experience just cannot be emulated and played as easily as what MAME has done with video games. It’ll be interesting to see in the next 5 years what the Virtual Pinball movement does to the selling price on pinball values.”

Bits, Sticks, and Buttons Page Example

Getting back to the book. Tell me what your favorite part of it is? “My favorite part was being able to include so many other gamers into the book. This is especially important on the two feature sections of the book. It was my way of tipping my hat to the folks that keep this hobby strong.”

That was probably my favorite part also. Being a first time author, what have you learned that you may do differently next time? Do you think you may author another book in the near future? “There will be another book coming soon. It will focus on the people in this hobby (professional gamers and programmers mostly). Lots of tidbits and stories as well as weird facts and stats from our favorites to both arcade games and pinballs. It will have the same style and feel of the first, but I’m going to try and find another publisher to keep the book more reasonably priced. This time around I’m going to have an editor cover my bases and nurse me through trouble spots (a luxury I didn’t have the first go around). There were a few grammatical errors that dawned on me after the book was released, and they act like a sliver in my mind every time I pick it up and read.”

Cool…I will look forward to the new book. Sounds like another good one. Take a look at Lulu.com. I used them for a book I put out a few years back and found their prices and service to be decent. Do you have a website or twitter feed where people can keep abreast with your future arcade endeavors? “Thanks Kevin. I’ll check that site out. Always looking around to try and find the least expensive alternative for the reader as possible. I’m hoping to get a website started next year to showcase my 3D digital arcade models, but for now, the best way for people to hear about what I’m up to or for those that want to contact me, I can be found on the KLOV.com forums. My handle there (as well as YouTube and Google Sketchup) is Gozer5454.”

Thanks again for your time, Sean. Please keep me in the loop on your future projects.