Ninterview: Learning Retro Secrets With A Former Nintendo Game Play Counselor

"We couldn't say 'kill', we had to say 'defeat'"

In the remainder of 2016 we'll re-share some of our favourite feature articles from the year. We're actually cheating with this one, as it was originally published way back on 20th January 2015; with the NES Mini hype of 2016, however, it nevertheless seemed worth sharing once again.

In its day the 8-bit NES took North America by storm, and it was so popular that in 1986 Nintendo set up a phone hotline so people who were stuck in their games could call at nearly any hour and speak to a live "game counselor", who could help walk the caller through the level which was giving them trouble. Keen to distance themselves from the Atari video game crash of the early '80s, the hotline started out as a free service; naturally its popularity and potential dollars to be made prompted Nintendo to eventually charge for the service.

It was arguably as visible a part of Nintendo as the beloved magazine Nintendo Power, often advertised and plugged as the source of all secrets and required tips. It ran across multiple generations of hardware before it was eventually discontinued in 2005.

Keen to learn more about the rockstars of early Nintendo of America, those that knew more about games - apparently - than anyone, we spoke to Erich Waas, a former Nintendo Game Play Counselor. He's now moved on from Nintendo and is an Executive Producer at Zenimax Online Studios, having worked on projects such as The Elder Scrolls Online. He was more than happy to dig into a past life with us, however, and give us an insight into the life of a Nintendo Game Counselor.

To kick things off, how did you hear about the job and go about applying for it? How did it feel to get this coveted position?

I was attending the University of Washington and needed a part time job. My Dad saw an article in the paper from a temp agency looking for potential Game Play Counselors. I never would have believed there were openings and immediately called the temp agency to apply. I was ecstatic when I got the position and couldn't believe my own dumb luck… which wouldn't be the last time I wouldn't believe my luck in my career.

Do you remember much about the interview process and how your suitability for the role was evaluated? Were you much of a gamer at the time?

The interview with the temp agency tested my knowledge retention with questions from three different popular games at the time — Metroid, Zelda and Dragon Warrior. The agency told me the three games they would ask about and gave me a week before the interview. I had come down with chicken pox from my part time job at the time, a YMCA morning counselor for kids who's parents worked early, so I had the time to plow through the games. I had always been a gamer and owned systems from the Atari 2600/Odyssey 2 days. Ultima: Exodus is the game that made me want to make games for a living.

We couldn't say “kill", we had to say “defeat" when talking to gamers. Kill was too harsh for fun games and Nintendo wanted a fun, family atmosphere.

What year did you join the team? What was happening in the world of Nintendo at that time?

I joined the beginning of 1990. The Game Boy had recently been released and the SNES was about a year away. A few of the hot games when I first started were both Zelda games, Dragon Warrior and Shadowgate. The Nintendo World Championships were using the special game cartridge (Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer and Tetris) and the movie The Wizard with Fred Savage had been made.

How many people worked in the hotline department during your time there? How would you describe the atmosphere?

When I started, there were around 250 people in various positions of Game Play Counselors (GPC) and Customer Service Representatives (CSR). Working at Nintendo was amazing! For the first month, all I did was play games that were popular at the time and received training for how to help gamers with their games with fun clues and tips instead of blurting out answers that would take the reward away from them. It was an entire front line image Nintendo wanted to set with making interacting with Nintendo fun. We couldn't say “kill", we had to say “defeat" when talking to gamers. Kill was too harsh for fun games and Nintendo wanted a fun, family atmosphere.

What were some of the best perks in the job?

The best perk was easily the free game checkout center. Any game you wanted to play was yours to check-out from our internal library system. Nintendo encouraged game playing as it strengthened our knowledge as Game Play Counselors. At the time, Nintendo's Christmas parties were legendary and the summer picnics were great family fun. Looking back at my Nintendo days, the best perk is easily the training, professional growth and opportunity Nintendo offered me to continue a career in video game development that continues today.

Which types of games did you specialise in, and were there any genres that you tried to avoid?

I enjoyed most games back then and sought out the tough games very few GPC's played to help the call center out. During my GPC career, I finished over 800 NES, Game Boy and SNES games.

How did you approach a new game when they came in? Did you simply play it and take notes or did you develop a more methodical system? Was your knowledge tested by your line managers?

It all depended on the game. A game like The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants didn't need note taking other than to remember where the extra lives were and a few sticking points like how to jump on the dino's head. I was one of the first GPC's to get StarTropics so I created maps of the overwolds and levels as I went through the chapters. In the early days of GPC's, we had green manuals of game notes, maps and Q&A that we collectively contributed to. A few of us even tracked passwords of games we played although we were never supposed to give these out. Later, a dos-based knowledge database we called “ELMO" was created and a team of GPC's created walkthroughs and FAQ's for games to help all GPC's.

What tools did you have at your disposal to assist a caller on a game which you weren't too familiar with?

We initially had Green Binders with paper FAQ's and maps for a few games that we could use. Later, we had ELMO as I mentioned and for the games a GPC didn't know, they'd frantically scour ELMO as they asked probing questions to understand where the gamer was. Some games had very common sticking points so even if you hadn't played the game, you knew answers from previous gamers calling-in to ask questions. Lastly, if any of us weren't able to help the gamer out, we could transfer the gamer to a GPC who had played the game in question. For this purpose, we kept a game knowledge base of all GPC's with a list of games each GPC had played. The rule was that you had to finish the game to list it as one you knew and could help gamers with.

In addition to the swarms of kids who phoned the hotline, did you also get a variety of people from other walks of life?

There were definitely some different calls at times, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. During the Christmas holiday, I would occasionally get a lonely gamer who didn't have anyone to talk to and would stay on the line as long as possible.

Was there specific terminology you were told to use, and did you have secondary goals such as upselling products to those that called?

As I mentioned, we couldn't say “kill" due to the world being violent. We had to say “defeat" because if you turned the game off and on, the foes would return so you didn't really “kill" them. We were also trained to get excited about the game the gamer was playing. They obviously felt the game was worth playing so it was part of our job to affirm their gaming choice. The “counselor" in Game Play Counselor was taken seriously and we were trained to not blurt out answers but rather lead the gamer down the path with hints, until they discovered the answer themselves to also make them feel they accomplished the discovery themselves.

Everything we were trained to do as Game Play Counselors was to have fun with our callers, make the experience fun, get the gamer back to having fun with their game and generally provide great, positive experiences with Nintendo to foster loyalty. We were never required to upsell but occasionally we would respond to questions of other similar games to play if asked.

The “counselor" in Game Play Counselor was taken seriously and we were trained to not blurt out answers but rather lead the gamer down the path with hints, until they discovered the answer themselves.

What was the general consensus on the Game Genie with hotline staff? Did some worry that it could put them out of a job?

We never worried about Game Genie putting us out of a job but at the time, Nintendo was very keen promoting products that had the Nintendo seal of quality and not helping non-licensed products of which the Game Genie was one.

There's been debate and even studies, believe it or not, on whether blowing on cartridges helps them to work. What was the official stance of the hotline or your own opinion on this?

The official stance was that blowing on cartridges was bad and that you could blow moisture and possibly worse into the pins. An official NES Cleaning Kit was recommended to help clean the cartridge and 72-pin connector. Personally, I think blowing on the cartridge more often dislodged dust and got a game working again, although it's definitely not fool-proof.

What were some of the most notoriously difficult NES games, in your opinion?

There were a number of tough NES games and it's impossible to name them all. Some that immediately come to mind are Legacy of the Wizard, Solomon's Key, Battletoads, Kid Kool, Adventure Island, The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants, Mega Man and Athena.

Some NES games such as Maniac Mansion famously snuck past Nintendo's game standards policy. Did this have any impact on the counselling team?

Placing the hamster in the Microwave wasn't necessary to defeat the game so our instructions were to not bring this up and down play this if it did come up.

What are some of your most memorable moments from your time as a Nintendo Game Counselor? Were any calls particularly noteworthy?

There are many fond memories of my time as a Game Play Counselor both because of the era in gaming, having a fun job and the friendships I made while working there. A lot of memorable moments came about because of the people I know from Nintendo.

As for calls, there were a quite a few memorable calls. There were Friday night calls where things like a gamer not knowing what game they were playing other than that it was a gold game occurred. In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past a gamer asked when the Uncle was coming back because he left the home (the very beginning of the game) and told Link to “wait there" so the gamer was waiting, not knowing that all they had to do was step outside the house to start an amazing adventure.

One very long call that comes to mind is when a gamer was in a very impossible situation in the game Willow. They were very far in the game with only the beginning sword. I was certain they were using a Game Genie but they assured me they weren't and that they wouldn't get off the phone until I helped them. After getting the ok from my supervisor, I got a copy of the game from check-out and went through each of their passwords to see for myself what happened. As it turns out, they had written down one letter incorrectly and it sent them far into the game with poor equipment. Games have come a long way from the day of passwords with difficult to read letters and numbers. I think Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus and Willow were the worst.

The popularity of Nintendo game systems may ebb and flow but they always find new ways to innovate and challenge the industry.

When and why did you eventually quit working on Nintendo's hotline?

I was a Game Play Counselor for a couple of years and progressed in the call center to the correspondence group where there was more letter writing than call answering. In another day where I couldn't believe my dumb luck, I got a job as a QA Lead in Nintendo's QA department. That was the new best day in my life until nine months later where I walked in to work one day and was told the following Monday I would start working in the Treehouse in a production capacity. I have both Michael Kelbaugh and Ken Lobb to thank for giving me opportunities in my game development career.

We understand that the hotline was officially discontinued by Nintendo in 2005. Are you surprised it lasted as long as it did given the advent of the Internet?

When I started working at Nintendo, the game play hotline was a free call although it was a toll line so people had long distance to pay for. A couple of years after I moved on, the hotline changed to a 1-900 number. That was the writing on the wall although it's impressive the line lasted as long as it did. I think it speaks both to the line's popularity and to Nintendo's commitment to great customer service (aside from the 1-900 line chargers for game calls). It's weird to have a job that was needed because the internet didn't exist in any relevant way.

Do you feel modern games are generally less challenging than those of the 8 and 16-bit era. If so, is this a good or a bad thing?

Games have evolved. In the NES days, games were hard because you had finite lives and if you were playing Ninja Gaiden and you ran out of lives, you had to start over — no saving and no passwords. This made a game artificially hard due to forcing the gamer to rehash already played areas. There were also cheap deaths where you didn't know what was below you but you had to make trial and error leaps of faith at times. Games were harder in the 8-bit and 16-bit era but games also had cheaper deaths and more often forced rehashing areas.

Game development constantly tries to better understand what gamers want and give them more of the good stuff. Technology also evolves game play from things like graphic quality to connectivity to movement. The definition of what a game is has also evolved to not only include level based games but also games that are more about exploration or experiencing emotion. Yoshi's Story on the N64 was a game that was less about goals and more about interacting with a world.

What are your thoughts on the current gaming landscape which Nintendo find themselves in?

Nintendo has always been a pioneer in evolving game interactions. The NES introduced the directional pad and battery back-ups. The SNES introduced shoulder buttons. The Game Boy introduced a new level of portable gaming. The N64 introduced a mainstream analog stick and the rumble for gaming. The Wii brought motion gaming.

Nintendo started out as a playing card company and has always been focused on fun entertainment. They aren't looking to own living rooms or have a corporate strategy that spans multiple divisions of a corporation. Nintendo simply tries to provide fun games and innovate on those games. The popularity of Nintendo game systems may ebb and flow but they always find new ways to innovate and challenge the industry. Not every effort is a smashing success and occasionally a valiant but failed effort like the Virtual Boy comes out. But Nintendo has always had games that are highly enjoyable and family friendly.

What are some of your fondest memories and proudest achievements from your time working at Nintendo?

I worked at Nintendo for almost ten years and my time as a Game Play Counselor, Tester and Treehouse Producer has given me an incredible foundation for a career in game development. The highlights of talking about games I was working on with Shigeru Miyamoto-san will forever be positively etched in my mind. Having access to all NES, Game Boy and SNES games and finishing 800+ of them is both an achievement I'm proud of and a foundation for fundamentals in gaming I still draw from. By far though, my fondest memories will be of the people I worked with, the friendships I made and the moments in life that I shared with others there.


Thanks to Erich for taking the time to speak to us.

Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.