Insomniac’s Spider-Man came out last week, the latest game to feature Marvel’s crime-fighting superhero. It took hundreds of developers multiple years to create the game, which likely costed anything up to $100 million to create.
Those numbers are a long way from the first Spider-Man, which was created by one woman, working alone, over a period of six months. Laura Nikolich worked at toy company Parker Brothers in the early 1980s, and as part of a small team that created licensed games for the Atari 2600. Her colleagues worked on Star Wars games, while she was given Spider-Man.
Nikolich created a vertical-scrolling game in which Spider-Man swings across buildings, taking out enemies along the way. They, in turn, are trying to snip Spider-Man’s web. Spidey avoids bombs thrown by Green Goblin, finally taking out the game’s villain. The game then starts over, just a little faster this time. There’s no ending.
“I had full creative control, and decided to go with a vertical scrolling game,” said Nikolich in a phone interview with Polygon. “The Star Wars game we were working on was vertical-scrolling, which was more difficult, technically. They wanted to have the Walkers moving along. A vertical game also made sense, because Spider-Man swings across tall buildings.”
Spider-Man came out in 1982, and was backed by a television advertising campaign. The Atari video game market meltdown was still more than a year away, and Spider-Man was a commercial success, and is still regarded fondly by 2600 aficionados.
Nikolich, who is now retired, fell into game design almost by accident. She earned an MBA and a Bachelors’ degree in engineering technology, with a particular interest in computer programming. Subsequently, she worked at a nuclear power plant, programming monitoring systems.
At an employment fair, she fell into conversation from some people from Parker Brothers. “They really wanted me to come and work for them,” she recalled. “I had the skills, but as a woman, I also helped them hit diversity hiring quotas. So they worked hard to persuade me. And when I worked there, they always treated me well.”
She said that some of her friends at the time thought she was making a mistake. “They couldn’t understand why I’d go and make video games,” she said. “Games were seen as trivial, but I guess, looking at how far games have come, my instincts were right.”
Nikolich describes her time at Parker Brothers as the best of her career. The small team of developers would visit coin-op arcades in order to generate ideas. They’d discuss their work over dinner, socializing as they figured out specific programming problems.
“We all worked hard. We were solving problems that hadn’t been solved before. It was fun.”
In those days, licencors such as Marvel were happy to take money from games companies and stand back. Nikolich said she had no contact with Marvel at the time, not even to present the game’s design. It’s a long way from today’s contracts, in which games companies work closely with rights holders on every last in-game detail.
Following Spider-Man, Nikolich made a Care Bears game. Soon after, the Atari market crashed in the wake of the ET debacle, and she was laid off. By the time consumers came around to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, Nikolich had started a family, going on to raise four children.
She says the Laura Nikolich of 1982 would have been astonished at the “cinematic quality and the popularity” of today’s games. And she still has a connection to the games industry: Two of her children work for top developers. Kyle Nikolich is a senior technical artist at DICE. Evan Nikolich is design lead at Bungie.
“Games were always a part of the family when the children were growing up,” she said. “And I think they were proud of the fact that I’d made a game. I’m certainly proud of it.”