• Interview with Zack Hample at Funspot

    June 3, 2000- We're interviewing Zack Hample at the Funspot-Twin Galaxies 2nd annual tournament. Zack is from New York City. He's 22 and he's the Arkanoid record holder. He's also the author of "How to Snag Major League Baseballs: More Than 100 Tested Tips That Really Work".

    Twin Galaxies: Zack, did you set another Arkanoid record last night?
    Zack Hample: Yes, on regular Arkanoid.

    TG: And what was your score?
    ZH: I got 1, 658,110. It extended my previous record by about 70 or 80,000 points. So that was a significant jump.

    TG: And did you win 1000 bucks?
    ZH: That's what they told me.

    TG: Way to go. Congratulations. We're all celebrating you.
    ZH: I wish more people played Arkanoid. I could use the competition.

    TG: How many hours did you play yesterday?
    ZH: Usually my games run an hour and 45 minutes.

    TG: You're lucky you play a game you can finish so fast.
    ZH: Yeah, I really am. Galaga takes 10 hours. I couldn't deal with that. As it is, Arkanoid is a game where you have to be standing to play your best. So if you're standing that long, your knees and feet start to hurt. And I remember last night when I was playing the last board on the record game, I was standing with my feet really far apart so I could get down low and have a good view of the screen. And my feet were really aching. So I was jumping around and doing little stretches in between lives. And I heard people laughing behind me. I guess it was kind of funny. But I really had to do it. My neck was getting stiff and my feet and knees were hurting. Not just from that one game but from the previous games too, from playing four days in a row. All that standing and bending down and staring at the computer screen takes its toll.

    TG: Do you ever close your eyes at night and see the game images running across the screen?

    ZH: Not so much with Arkanoid. But definitely with Tetris, more than any other game. I've played more Tetris in my life than Arkanoid, just because I've owned Tetris my whole life and I've only owned Arkanoid for about six months. I used to play hours of Tetris everyday. And wherever I went, whatever I saw during the day-like I'd see a windowsill and say "Oh, a square could fit perfectly there." I was always visualizing. And it drove me crazy. Luckily Arkanoid hasn't gotten that bad. I still sometimes figure angles in my head. I'm sure anybody who plays a game that much probably visualizes between games. Probably Pac-Man players see dots, and maybe bananas and stuff like that.

    TG: Little yellow heads turned sideways with big open mouths.

    ZH: Right. But I think it's important to visualize those things because it shows that you're playing a lot and you really care. If you hated the game, you probably wouldn't be thinking about it, unless you were having nightmares. But to become a champion the game has to be your passion. And if it's your passion you have to be thinking about it even when you're not playing, so I think it's perfectly natural.

    TG: Did you play many games yesterday before you played your champion game last night?

    ZH: Yeah, I was playing all day.

    TG: So the last game of the day was the winner?

    ZH: Yeah. If the champion game had been my first game, I wouldn't have played any more after that. My goal was to break 1.6. And to get that, you have to be playing perfectly and have the luck in your favor. So if I wasn't playing well early on in the game or I wasn't getting lucky with the extra lives, I'd just start a new game. So I must've started dozens of new games yesterday. Just bang-bang-bang, one after the other. As soon as I knew I didn't have a chance to break the record, even on level 1 or level 2, I just quit and start again. There's no point in playing for an hour or two, only to fall 100,000 points short in the end. So I did what I had to do. And even with all the restarts that I made, there was still no guarantee. The odds are incredible. It's more likely to happen to me because I'm good at the game. But there's still luck involved.

    TG: I'm fascinated by this factor of luck, because when I watch good players it seems like they're so practiced and calculated and familiar with what they're doing. They've played the screen before, they know how to anticipate and how everything behaves and they know what to do. Where does this factor of luck come in? And how does it work? And does it apply to every game?

    ZH: I don't know about all games. But I think there's a wide range. I really like the games that are not based at all on luck, that are purely based on skill. But I think the fact that a game involves both luck and skill makes it harder to achieve a world record. Because then you have to have two factors going in your favor. If it were just skill you could say, "Okay, well as long as I'm on top of my game, that's all there is to it." And if were purely luck then you'd say, "Well, it doesn't matter how well I play as long as I'm lucky." But when a game requires both it makes it harder because everything has to be perfect.

    And the thing about Arkanoid is that there is no pattern. It's not predictable at all. The only thing that's predictable is tendencies. And you get that by playing a lot and gaining instincts. There's no set pattern. You never know where exactly you have to be. Or which steps to take. You're pretty much on your own every time. And for me, that certainly makes it a very enjoyable game.

    TG: So are you equating instinct with luck?

    ZH: No. Instinct and luck are two totally different things.

    TG: I would agree with that. Can you give us some examples of luck in the game of Arkanoid?

    ZH: The main way that luck comes into play is in the number of extra lives that the game drops. I've seen as few as two or three extra lives in a complete game and as many as fourteen. So you have a wide range.

    TG: So all the games are different?

    ZH: Right. And every life is worth 15,000 points at the end of the game. So the difference between three extra lives and 13 extra lives is ten lives, that's 150,000 points. Plus you get extra lives every 60,000. So that means that bad luck can cost you 200,000 points in Arkanoid. That's how luck is involved. And then there are more specific examples of luck in the game where maybe you're saving a column of bricks on the right of the screen and you're angling the ball on the left while you shoot the floating enemies. And you can continue to rack up your score as long as the bricks are there. And let's say you miss hitting the ball and it's going toward the bricks and you're going to lose one of your remaining bricks. And let's say a floating enemy just happens to come down at the right moment and deflects the ball and prevents it from hitting the brick. That's luck. It can extend that level a few more minutes and you can get a few extra thousand points. But that's sort of minor in the grand scheme of things. Really, the main way that luck makes a difference in Arkanoid is in the number of extra lives.

    TG: A number of players have mentioned that when they play the same game in two different arcades, that even though the game should be identical, it's always a little different.

    ZH: Definitely. Arkanoid was hard for me to play my first day here. I scored a low 1.4, which may have been considered a high score here, but it was below average for me. The control knob on this game is larger than mine at home, and it's also more responsive. You turn it a little bit and the paddle on the bottom of the screen moves further. If you're used to that, that's probably an easier way to play because you can make some quick moves. But it was hard for me to adjust to. And a bigger difference is that this screen is upright and vertical. The one I have is angled at 45 degrees, so you're looking down at it, and it's looking up at you right in the face. And here you're looking down on an angle. You're not looking directly at it so you have to bend down and duck, and that's why the neck gets sore, and the knees get sore. At home I can just stand upright. But I also don't play for eight to ten hours a day at home. So it was really tough. In the first game here I died so many times. I must have died at least 10 times, or more, which is really awful. But I finally got the hang of it. The next game I died five times, and the next game I died only once. I finally got used to it. You know, it's like borrowing someone's baseball glove. It always feels weird but if you play for a little bit you get the hang of it. Probably when I go home now and play on my machine it's gonna screw me up for a little while. But actually, I don't think I'll be playing Arkanoid for a long time after I go home. I don't know if burned-out is the right word but it's getting there. And I don't want to burn myself out. I don't want to start to dislike the game from overdoing it. So I'm definitely going to take a break. I haven't even played it today. I just played a couple of games on Tournament Arkanoid but I didn't even have any interest. After that once-in-a-lifetime game last night I feel like what can I possibly do to top that? So I'm just having fun playing other games.

    TG: Do you plan on taking a break from Arkanoid or from playing altogether?

    ZH: Arkanoid is the only arcade game that I own. I know I'll still play video games but they're sort of stupid, cheap games that I have on my computer, like old Nintendo games. Sometimes I play those, not obsessively, not passionately like Arkanoid. But they're fun to take a break on every now and then.

    TG: Do you go to the arcades in New York?

    ZH: I used to go occasionally. But I never was really big into the arcade scene. Mainly because in 1982, in the Golden Age of video arcades, I was four years old. And by the time Arkanoid came out I was only eight, and the Golden Age was winding down at that point. And by the time I was old enough to go to these arcades, you had all these new games that cost one or two dollars to play. And they're just not fun like the classic games. I wish there were more arcades with classic games like this because there are so many games here that I would love to get into-Joust, Wheels, Spy Hunter. Tetris. There are a bunch of games that I'm not really very good at but I'm enjoying playing them. But after today, I'm not going to get to play these games again. Where am I going to find them? I'm not going to buy the machines. And I'm not going to be able to attain world champion status on a game I can only play four days out of a year. So I think Arkanoid is gonna be it for me, as far as the competition goes. Everything else is just gonna be on a pure fun basis, which is okay.

    TG: Maybe the arcades aren't aware of the demand for the classics.

    ZH: The kids growing up now, the ten- and fifteen-year-olds, they don't even know about the classics. I do a little bit because at least I was alive then. I overheard a conversation at lunch today, some kid said he was born in 1989. That was after all this stuff happened. So I can't imagine the arcades getting back into these old games. I mean when I look at a game like Dig Dug-I'm looking at it over your shoulder-I mean it's just so primitive-looking and so basic. A kid who's already seen Nintendo 64 that's three-dimensional and has 50 buttons on the controller, a game like Dig Dug or any of these classic games is gonna look stupid to them. "One controller? You just go forward or up? How boring." But I think these older games test skill more than the new games. The new games are about memorizing which buttons to press and when, and the emphasis is on the graphics and not about the skills. So that's why I've never gotten into the new games. And the players who grew up on the new games probably won't get into the old ones.

    TG: Do you think the newer games are easier to master?

    ZH: I don't know. I've never played them. I refuse to play them. I watch other people play and they're not appealing in any way. So I don't know. It seems like some of these old games are based more on endurance. You're doing the same thing over and over but it continues to get harder and harder, which I think is a great test of skill. It seems like in some of the newer games, as you move on to different levels, it's always changing and always different and it seems like you're playing a new game at every level. Maybe I'm wrong. But it doesn't seem like there's a persistence factor involved. And now these days everything is about money, so the video game makers don't want to make a game that you can play for ten hours on one coin. They make these games where you put your money in and you're done playing in two minutes, and you're out of a dollar or two. Which is also not fun for me. I like to play Arkanoid for an hour for 25 cents. My friends, meanwhile, are pumping quarters into all these machines and I spend a dollar the whole day. I think the old system is great. I don't want to spend fifty dollars in a weekend or a day. So there are all these factors. There's a big contrast between the old games and the new ones.

    TG: Well, congratulations on your champion game, Zack. It's a great accomplishment. We're very proud of you.
    ZH: Oh, thanks, I'm very proud of myself. I think that's part of my love for video games. Of course you want to be better than the next guy. But it's also a self-motivating thing. I wanted to break 1.6 million. Not to show off to the world or to win money. Sure that was a motivating factor. But I wanted to do it for me. I knew that it could be done and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. So I had several reasons to keep trying. And when I did it I felt great for all those reasons. So it's definitely a sense of accomplishment.

    Zack and Steve Krogman

    And it's no wonder why so many people are passionate about playing video games. To the outside person it might not make sense. They might think "What a bunch of dorks, these guys are spending four days playing games." But they would just be missing the point. And you could say that about any passion that anybody has, I mean, what's the point? But if you love it, that's all that matters. And I love it and I love sharing this with like-minded people who share my passions. I feel that way about Scrabble. It was well into my Scrabble career that I discovered a National Scrabble Association and competitive play. And I met a wonderful group of people. And likewise for snagging baseballs. When I finally got a little publicity for my book, I started meeting other people who were into it. And it's always a great feeling to know that yes, I'm not alone in doing this, there are other people who love doing it as well. I feel great having come to this competition and experiencing this.

    TG: What about your big winnings? What are you going to do with the money?
    ZH: Um (laughs), I remember thinking yesterday that if I won $1000 I was going to treat myself to a trip to Kansas City to see my first Kansas City Royals home game. I was planning to go this summer but I've already spent $2000 this year traveling to baseball games. So I thought maybe I should give it a rest until next year. But now that I've won, it's tempting.

    TG: Thanks so much, Zack, for talking to us. And congratulations.
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