Gravis Gamepad: A Conversation with Ron Haidenger
Ron Haidenger worked at Advanced Gravis Computer Technology Ltd. (Gravis) from early 1988 to late 1995. He started as the Product Manager for the Macintosh product line and was the Director of Product Management when he left to start a new venture in partnership with Grant Russell, one of Gravis‘ co-founders. The interview was conducted by Henner Thomsen of Stay Forever as part of the research into a podcast episode about the Gravis gamepad.
Stay Forever: Can you tell us how Gravis was founded?
Ron: As you likely know, Gravis was started by two school buddies, Dennis Scott-Jackson and Grant Russell. They enjoyed music and planned to build guitar amplifiers, but they also enjoyed video games and that led them to developing their first joystick. One of their frustrations when playing video games was the poor quality of joysticks that were unable to withstand the vigor of serious gameplay. Dennis (Denny), who had access to machining tools at home, designed a new joystick with a unique gimbal mechanism, which later became the basis for the Gravis joystick line.
Stay Forever: Some sources say Gravis was founded in 1982, while others claim 1985 (which was when the first product was introduced). Which one is true?
Ron: I initially met Grant Russell in 1985 while working with him in the head office of an oil company. I was heavily involved in Macintosh products then and I had started a sideline business providing Mac support and data gathering (yes, that was a business before the internet). Grant hired me to do some staff training in the Gravis office. At that time, Grant was working part-time managing Gravis. He left the oil company in late 1987 and when he heard I was looking for a change, he asked me to come join Gravis as the Mac expert just as the first Mac MouseStick came onto the market. I would expect the 1982 date may well be accurate as the founding date, with development and manufacturing being more of a garage-based business until 1985 when they upgraded to a more formal manufacturing facility and began marketing their joystick brand.
Stay Forever: What was your role at Gravis when the PC GamePad was introduced in 1991?
Ron: I was the Product Manager at Gravis, responsible for all of our controllers. I was part of the design team and was in charge of all aspects of the GamePad’s marketing. I also came up with its name.
Stay Forever: How did you at Gravis (I think it was mostly Dennis Scott-Jackson?) come up with the concept of the PC GamePad? Was the concept inspired by the SNES controller, or just the shape?
Ron: Yes, Denny came up with the concept and technology of the GamePad. Its concept really had nothing to do with the Nintendo, and only during its later industrial design stage did it take on some similarities to the SNES controller. We worked with an industrial design company to define the shape and colors of a controller that would satisfy our product goals, one of which was being useable for right- and left-handed gamers.
Stay Forever: I found some press reviews from the early nineties which claimed that there had been other gamepads/joypads on the PC before (albeit without success). But I couldn’t find any proof, only a few digital joysticks from the eighties – do you know if there were other PC gamepads before the Gravis GamePad from 1991?
Ron: To the best of my knowledge, the GamePad was the first digital controller for the PC. It was easy to build a digital controller for platforms like the Amiga, but DOS/Windows-based PCs were limited by the existing game ports which only supported two axes of analog input and two digital buttons per controller.
Stay Forever: What do you think, why did it take so long until a true PC gamepad was introduced – 8 years after Nintendo’s Famicom controller (in Japan) popularized the concept?
Ron: The need was evident but, as mentioned above, devices were limited by the existing game ports used universally throughout the MS-DOS PC world. What was limiting at that time was the lack of digital directional control (X & Y axis) and the availability of only two buttons.
Stay Forever: The GamePad was compatible with all joystick-controlled PC games, but it lacked the PC joystick’s analog signals (which would be necessary for most flight sims). What kind of games were you expecting people to play with the GamePad?
Ron: We never envisioned the GamePad to be an all-purpose controller, it was designed specifically for arcade-style games such as those popular on systems like the Nintendo and other set-top machines. We had a very popular analog joystick so there was no reason for the GamePad to service analog needs, such as for flight simulators.
Stay Forever: Were arcade-style games and platformers like Commander Keen already joystick-compatible when the GamePad was introduced, or did you have to convince the developers to include joystick support?
Ron: Commander Keen was an arcade-style game, built with conventional analog joystick support for the PC market. The lack of a more appropriate digital controller hampered its abilities on the PC platform. For marketing reasons, I wanted a sample arcade-style game to ship with the GamePad and Keen was a great example. I contacted the developer and we licensed it to be included with the PC GamePad. Since our digital controls worked with analog game ports, no changes were required in the game.
Stay Forever: Did you ever consider turning the d-pad into a fully analog mini joystick (or analog stick)?
Ron: The GamePad was designed for, and included a small removable joystick handle. This was never intended to work as an analog controller, but we did recognize that some users would want the availability of a joystick-style handle.
Stay Forever: Was the little d-pad joystick included to avoid legal problems? Did you ever get in trouble for using a D-pad (which was patented by Nintendo at the time)?
Ron: As mentioned, the mini-joystick was included simply to meet anticipated consumer demand. There was no conflict with Nintendo as our methods did not infringe upon their patents and the shape and coloration of their controller was not covered by their patent. As you will have likely noted, many controllers have used similar visual designs and colors.
Stay Forever: With the d-pad joystick and rubber feet on the back, the GamePad works fine while lying down on the table – did you expect people to use it that way? Do you know if they did?
Ron: Yes, the rubber feet were provided to increase usability on a desk surface. We did not expect many people to use that configuration for playing arcade games, but our controllers were used for many additional applications beyond gaming.
Stay Forever: The Mac GamePad and the PC GamePad Pro could emulate the keyboard with extra software – wouldn’t this have made sense for the original model as well, since most arcade-style games were keyboard-controlled?
Ron: Yes, it would have made sense to do that originally, except it was something that had never been done before. We had enabled a form of keyboard emulation in the original MouseStick for the Macintosh, but this required a microprocessor and a very awkward programming process that the user had to perform. For the PC, it was not a great leap to turn button presses into keystrokes, but it was a major hurdle on the Mac. These were the first programmable gaming devices able to be used with any game that provided keystroke support.
Stay Forever: According to the game port’s specifications, it does support up to four buttons in total (even though most sticks and games only used two). But according to the PC GamePad’s original box, „dual game ports“ are required for four-button support. So if I understand this correctly, you had to connect the GamePad to two game ports at once? How was this done, and why was it even necessary?
Ron: A PC game port, as mentioned earlier, supports two analog inputs plus two fire buttons per port. By providing a simple Y-connector we were able to utilize the capabilities of both game ports at the same time, giving us support for 4 axes and 4 fire buttons.
Stay Forever: Can you share any sales numbers? Was the PC GamePad an immediate success, or were sales depending on specific game releases?
Ron: If I remembered any of the sales numbers I would gladly share them with you, but I do not. The GamePad was a huge success, right from the very beginning as it had no direct competitor. It really needed the right games to show its power, there were a number of arcade games already on the market but they previously required keyboard input to be played competitively. The GamePad changed all that immediately.
Stay Forever: Do you remember when the ST/Amiga version was introduced? I couldn’t find a date for this one. (I would have loved to use a GamePad on my ST back in the day!)
Ron: I don’t recall a specific date, but it was an initial target for the GamePad product line so it would have been at the same time as the PC version or very shortly after. Only the Mac version lagged on the release timing as it was vastly more complex.
Stay Forever: The GamePad is featured as a collectible item in Epic’s Jazz Jackrabbit, was this due to some official cooperation or just a nice gesture from the development team?
Ron: It was entirely an Epic effort. We did work closely with all the leading players in the gaming market and that may have had something to do with it, but I don’t recall having any input into that. Both Gravis and a number of us working for Gravis have had our contributions recognized by several developers.
Stay Forever: Ron, thank you very much!