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Yet more tales from Counselor’s Corner

I must be doing something right as yet another former Nintendo Power Game Play Counselor has fallen into my interview trap! Unsuspecting ex-GPC Matthew Glidden stumbled across what is quickly becoming a GPC Hall of Fame and made the mistake of leaving a comment…so naturally he had to be interviewed.

Coming soon, the GPC Hall of Fame

After three interviews it was kind of difficult coming up with new questions about Nintendo that would be interesting. Some questions are just standard but this time around I thought I’d dig a bit deeper into what life was like at Nintendo Power when the Super Nintendo was released and how that changed the culture at Nintendo HQ.

Interview with Matthew Glidden, former Nintendo Power GPC

Morning Toast: Tell the tale of how you ended up at Nintendo. Where were you at the time and how did you end up as a GPC? Was being a GPC something you wanted to do or was it just a job that wasn’t something worse?

Matthew Glidden: I started phone work as a 15 year-old in early 1988, doing data surveys part-time after school. Our company, just 20 people in one call center, sat a half-mile from Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, WA. I grew up in next-door Bellevue (part of the greater Seattle area), but didn’t realize how close they were or that Nintendo might actually hire real people. A job that great should be awarded by some kind of lottery ticket, right?

After six months at the data company, I learned that some departed co-workers interviewed at Nintendo and one actually got hired. That was the light bulb–those guys didn’t work the phone any better than me, right? Shouldn’t I get in while the getting is good?

Nintendo hired many of their call center folks through local contract agencies, so that’s where I applied and interviewed. During the conversation, they asked (for clarification) if I wanted to be doing customer support–in other words, hardware troubleshooting–or game counseling. Wow, GPC was an option? Join those people who know everything? Heck with you, tech support! It took less than a week to interview, wait for a response, and get a start date. (They really wanted bodies on the phones, given the approaching 1988 Christmas season)

Zelda 2, a game I never played but millions of others did

Zelda 2, not the sequel it should have been

MT: You said you worked as a GPC from 1989-1993 which spanned the release of SNES and perhaps the death of the NES. What was it like at GPC HQ when it was released? What type of changes came about…different rules, politics or anything like that? Or did it just mean you had a ton of new games to learn? How was the NES then viewed?

MG: Late in 1988, Nintendo prepared to double-down on gaming twice, first by releasing Zelda II (at Christmas) to huge customer demand and next by debuting the Game Boy (in late spring). The number of calls really grew during 1989 and they expanded the call center in 1990. At that point, more than 100 GPCs could take calls at any one time, plus another 50 customer support folks. It was a high-energy place!

SNES meant a big jump over NES, that’s for sure, though Sega’s emergence made a bigger impact on day-to-day phone work. (I don’t remember people calling GPCs to debate the relative merits of SNES and NES, but it happened every day once Sega started promoting the Genesis.) GPCs are people too, so we all got excited to play the SNES, but still needed to know as many games as possible. Callers asked regularly about NES games well into the 90s, so you couldn’t just flip a switch and stop playing them.

MT: Were you ever a featured GPC in Nintendo Power? Even if you weren’t, what “Best NES Accomplishment” would have appeared with your profile?

MG: Yes, I appeared in issue #33, but after they transitioned away from counselor biographies, so am shown answering a question about the SNES game Actraiser. My best NES accomplishment would be either “Finished Solomon’s Key” (the classically hard Tecmo action-puzzle game) or “Finished original TMNT in under an hour.”

River City Ransom, a brutal game...and where's our remake?!

River City Ransom, a brutal game…and where’s our remake?!

MT: What are some of your favorite NES and SNES games?

MG: River City Ransom and Super Dodge Ball still stand out from the NES days. You can imagine my excitement when Scott Pilgrim vs. The World basically remade River City Ransom for modern consoles. For SNES, Super Metroid and Super Bomberman. (My circle of friends played a ton of Bomberman for NES, SNES, TurboGrafx–you name it. Anything that could play Bomberman, we used.)

MT: All the GPCs I’ve talked to so far spoke about the cherished position of writing letters rather than answering the hotline, would you agree? Did answering phones make you dread going to work?

MG: True, they assigned just a small number of GPCs to the letter-writing, as it was a nice break from 9-to-5 phone work. I never dreaded going in and putting on a headset, though, since receiving calls puts you in a better position than making calls, like in my previous job. Almost all our customers wanted to talk with GPCs because they saw us as a “helpful authority,” which feels pretty good as an 18 year-old, when you’re usually the source of problems.

MT: Were you drinking the NIntendo Kool-Aid like the rest of us, or because you were on the “inside” did the appeal of Nintendo wear off quickly?

MG: Clocking in at NOA definitely felt like being “on the Nintendo team.” The older GPCs probably looked at it differently, but even small things like a discount at the company store made a psychological difference when you’re working that first “real” job. They offered custom team jackets with “GAME PLAY COUNSELOR” on the back and I bought two.

MT: Needless to say you played a lot of games during your time at Nintendo. What game do you think was the most overrated game of the time? Which game(s) could you not stand being asked about over and over?

MG: I’m sure Nintendo sold a ton of copies and people enjoyed playing it, but Zelda II: Adventure of Link should be a better bridge between NES Legend of Zelda and SNES Link to the Past. Those two games were so good! Zelda II’s side-scrolling style just didn’t serve its action-puzzle roots very well. It also generated many, many GPC questions because of the lousy clues offered in the game itself. On one occasion, I got five straight “WHERE IS THE HAMMER IN ZELDA II?” calls, which hopefully doesn’t prejudice me against the game itself. :-)

MT: When it came to answering questions from kids like me, is there any one question that stands out in your memory to this day? Maybe one that was so weird or dumb or ridiculous…

MG: One kid claimed the family’s new television allowed him to “play games in 5 dimensions” and would not accept my physics-based arguments to the contrary. Must’ve been a sweet TV!

Ken Griffey Jr...off limits to Nintendo employees

Ken Griffey Jr…off limits to Nintendo employees

MT: We all know that when the Nintendo consoles were hot everybody had one, celebrities included. Did you ever get any questions from or meet any famous (or even half famous) people?

MG: Sorry, can’t remember anyone who brought it up during a call or asked for special help because they were famous. Ken Griffey, Jr. took a company tour (including the call center) one afternoon, not long before we released his SNES baseball game, but management told us in advance not to talk to him during the tour, so we just saw the group walking around.

MT: And on the topic of half famous people, did your time at Nintendo ever lead to meeting any game industry celebrities?

MG: We almost certainly worked with key people, though it’s hard to remember now who was famous outside the company itself. Howard Philips, for example, was a prominent face for NOA and Nintendo Power, but did more PR than actual design. (Most of our games came from teams in Japan.) I did represent NOA at a Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show when Stunt Race FX came out and saw Steven Spielberg move through our area. Unfortunately, he went by too fast to start a conversation.

MT: As is standard now for all my GPC interviews…what was a “good” day for Matthew Glidden at Nintendo?

MG: In 1989, days had a sine-wave rhythm, as questions came in nonstop near the top of each hour, but dropped off in-between. Good days included those breaks, since it helped GPCs collect our thoughts. We usually answered calls and played our own NES/SNES games simultaneously, so a solid hour without small breaks could make you feel scattered. (Managers scheduled breaks to start at particular times and criticized more than 15 total minutes of “down time,” so you couldn’t slack off for long.) If you felt helpful for people on the phone and accomplished something big in your own game, count that day as good!

…and what was a “bad” day?

By 1990, so many people played Nintendo games that calls came nonstop, except for the earliest and latest hours of each day. (We stayed open 4am to midnight Pacific time.) That didn’t make days “bad,” but it did mean changing your on-call habits to avoid the scatterbrain feeling. If I was really caught up in my own game (especially an engrossing RPG), taking calls could feel like a grating distraction, so it was better to turn off my screen for awhile or I’d get really snappy with people.

Killer Instinct, hot tournament action

Killer Instinct, hot tournament action

MT: In my mind I always pictured mini in-office game tournaments and competitions happening all the time…were there? And if so, how’d that go down and what games were popular challenge titles? Did you have an arch rival?

MG: Believe it or not, most of the competitions happened outside of work at friends’ houses, at least in groups my age (18-21). I remember playing a lot of Mario Kart and the aforementioned Bomberman. At NOA, our lunch room “arcade” (with about 6 stand-up games) added a Killer Instinct cabinet at one point and that became a real focus for head-to-head fighting. Some people put in hundreds of hours practicing to keep their skills ahead of other GPCs. My biggest rivals were fellow counselors (and friends) Shane and Paul. The latter once spent all 20 hours on an off-day practicing on our KI machine; these guys were in it to win.

MT: One thing Paul Reed mentioned in his interview was the increase in GPC staff. I assume when you started in ’89 it was a smaller group of folks. How did the dynamic around the office change as Nintendo Power grew and more staff was brought on board? Did you have to “break up the band” or did cliques form and West Side Story-like rumbles follow?

MG: As the staff size grew, it did muddle group identifications. Originally, being a GPC felt like top dog, since it took both decent phone skills and game-playing acumen. Some people didn’t want to learn the games, so they “just” did customer support work. (Same kind of phone work, but no game questions and thus no NES/SNES systems at their desk.) That’s where it stood when I came on-board.

MT: How else did things change over the four years you were at Nintendo as a GPC?

MG: At some point (1991?), Nintendo realized they could save total employee costs by training people to cover multiple phone lines, so they paid an extra 50 cents per hour to people who could answer support calls and another 50 cents to people who could also handle Nintendo Power subscription calls. Doing all three made you a “Super Agent,” which management played up a little more than they should’ve. Some people took it as a major personal achievement, when it was really just a way to get $7 an hour instead of $6. (Don’t get me wrong, I took the training, but “Super Agent” sounds kind of silly. Nintendo even used “Super Agent” as a promotional term for GPCs pushing the Virtual Boy in 1995!)

MT: If you don’t mind sharing, what brought your time at Nintendo to an end? Were you burned out, bored or was it just time? And did you happen to remain in the game industry after Nintendo or did you go into something entirely different?

MG: I moved “up” from answering GPC calls to game testing after 4 years, ending my time on the phone, but continued at Nintendo until 1995. The company paid for several college night classes, but it would’ve taken 8 years to get a Bachelor’s going one-at-a-time, so I left NOA to finish full-time studies in September 1995. There wasn’t much higher to go without a degree or more varied business experience! I’ve stayed in the software industry since graduation, but haven’t returned to games, since it often means long hours and job instability, at least compared to the corporate world.

Battletoads. Memorize or die.

Battletoads. Memorize or die.

MT: The gaming landscape has obviously changed quite a bit since ’89. Being around video games like you were, you saw game evolution happen firsthand. Any particular thoughts on the gaming scene today? Where do you think the game industry will or can go next? What’s left to do?

MG: We played some incredibly tough games in the 80s and 90s. Punishingly hard games with no way to save, no tutorials, and (often) no continues. The lesson: play this until your brain and fingers know exactly what to do, accepting no substitutes.

Today, companies compete on accessibility and try to bring people to games, rather than just expecting anything on a cartridge to sell. It was excellent being a game counselor in that first console era, but I think we’re better off as gamers now. Want to play for hundreds of hours, just ten minutes, or something in-between? No problem, you’ve got dozens of options. That’s a pretty sweet spot for gaming.

I’m not great at predicting the future, but hope the next ten years will help solve more real-world problems by framing them in game-like terms. We already have projects like SETI@home searching for signals of life on other planets. Imagine something like Minecraft, but linked to actual building materials in remote locations (deserts? ice fields? space?)…

MT: Now 18 years later, what do think working as a Nintendo GPC prepared you for, both in life at large and professionally?

MG: Taking calls at Nintendo helped me deal with dozens or hundreds of different people every day, a tough prospect for an introverted high schooler. You learn to make small talk, empathize, and help frustrated people with thorny problems, sometimes by completely changing how they look at game situations. Definitely skills that carry over to other adult work!

MT: And last but not least, do you have any good campfire stories you want to share about your time at Nintendo?

MG: Here are four that come to mind:

  • Nintendo Power held annual sales drives that encouraged GPCs to push magazine subscriptions, personified with cardboard horses tacked on a wall that tracked our “race.” My team manager labeled us the Marquis de Sade, always “whipping up from behind.” (He thought it was a silly promotion and we finished last, with 1 subscription sold.)
  • NOA hosted huge Christmas parties during that era, often at four-star Seattle hotels. One year, they hired TV comedy team Almost Live! to perform an hour-long stage show during the festivities. (That’s the group that launched Bill Nye and Joel McHale, so no lightweights.) Pretty heady stuff for your first real job.
  • Our head of facility security’s real name was Dick Force. No joke required!
  • Prior to its runaway gaming success, Nintendo produced internal components for other companies, including previous hot commodity Teddy Ruxpin. During one team meeting, my friend Tom asked our manager why there was all this “stuff” (i.e., not games) stashed around the room, including every Ruxpin-related mechanical doll. Quoth he: “because we work for a fucking toy company.” (Indeed we did!)

MT: Care to talk about anything you’re doing now?

MG: Now that it’s 2011, I work in large-scale data storage during the day and do after-hours volunteer work for a Boston startup called Venture Cafe, shooting and editing its A/V projects. Gaming remains a regular hobby and I’m fortunate that Rock Band creators Harmonix also do their stuff in the same town. Anyone who hasn’t attended their monthly Rock Band night at ImprovBoston should make a point of it! (And I’ll probably be there.)

Welcome to the club, Matthew

I want to thank Matthew for taking some time to answer my questions. Despite the days of Nintendo Power being long gone and perhaps the glory days of Nintendo also being long gone, many of us remember the good old days and these tales from the inside are always a treat.

And who knows…maybe Matthew’s interview will lure another ex-Nintendo employee into my clutches.

Relive reliving the past

Read the complete anthology of Tales from Counselor’s Corner with more interviews and rare Nintendo Power letters.

Originally posted on Mar 26, 2011

Image credits:  Source

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