December 13, 2017
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Retired developer who created ‘NHL ‘94’ video game in Maine barn reflects on career

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

SURRY, Maine — One of the most popular sports video games was developed in 1993 in a barn in Brooklin.

Its creator was Mark Lesser, an electrical engineer who stumbled into game development at the dawn of an industry. He created some of the first handheld electronic games. Later he programmed sports games for American video game giant Electronic Arts.

One of those games was “NHL ‘94,” a game so widely known for its “firsts,” that it’s still regarded by many as one of the best, most influential games ever. Its legacy was potent enough that when EA released “NHL ‘14” in 2013, it included a gameplay mode to mimic the 20-year-old version of the game.

“I bounced around. I worked very hard and opportunity came on me, and I jumped,” Lesser, 66, said during a recent interview at his coastal Surry home overlooking Union River Bay.

“None of this was planned,” he said.

An accidental career

Lesser, an MIT graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, was working for Rockwell International in Anaheim, California, as a circuit designer in the early 1970s. He’d just wrapped up a project, and his boss brought him a stack of other proposals and asked him what he wanted to work on next.

One idea, a pitch from Mattel Electronics, caught his eye. Mattel wanted to convert a handheld digital calculator into a game.

The project was “small potatoes,” Lesser said. Rockwell dealt in everything from major military and defense contracts to industrial automation, so this sort of tinkering with a calculator likely wasn’t envisioned as a high-profile project.

Still, it gave Lesser the opportunity to try his hand at something completely new.

Lesser took an existing calculator chip, redesigned and reprogrammed it to display and flash LED lights in sequences and patterns to create a game. The game became known as “Mattel Auto Race” — the first digital handheld game.

Lesser created seven handheld games in all in his four years at Rockwell. The most recognizable was “Football,” a game in which the player tries to move one LED light past other LED lights, representing the defense, to score a touchdown at the opposite side of the screen. That game was released in 1977, with a “sequel” the following year.

The original “Football” was re-released in 2000, finding its way back onto store shelves.

“It was just so much fun, it really was a gas,” Lesser said. “It was just blips and LED lights bouncing around. It turned out, people really latched onto it.”

After leaving Rockwell, Lesser moved to a cabin in Sedgwick with his wife because she wanted to live in Maine. When he says “cabin,” he means it. His home had no electricity or plumbing.

Later, Rockwell and Mattel asked him to come back to work on more games as a contractor, so he commuted back and forth between Maine and California for several more years, producing more handheld games.

About 1980, Lesser started working with Parker Brothers, where he developed “Frogger II” for the Atari 2600. He stayed with Parker Brothers for about four years. After that, he worked with Microsmiths for several years, a company that made games for systems including the Apple IIGS, Atari ST, PC, Mac, Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis.

Eventually, Lesser started his own company, MBL Research Inc.

In 1991, he met Paul Neurath of what was then Blue Sky Productions. Neurath had negotiated a contract with EA to make “Madden ‘93” — one of the early versions of the football video game franchise that remains popular to this day. Lesser worked on that game as a subcontractor under Blue Sky Productions.

EA apparently took note of Lesser’s work and in 1993 asked him to develop “ NHL ‘94” — the fourth installment of another sports video game franchise.

The icon

Lesser accepted the offer.

Then living in Brooklin, Lesser started programming the hockey game. One problem: he knew nothing about hockey.

“I’d never watched a hockey game, I didn’t know anything about it,” Lesser said.

Early in the process, Lesser visited EA staffers in California, who took him to an Anaheim Mighty Ducks game. Most people working on the NHL franchise at the time were rabid hockey fans.

“I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. I just smiled a lot,” Lesser said.

He learned as much about the sport as he could, then returned to Maine to start programming the game for the Sega Genesis. Back in those days, games often were programmed by one person, with another doing artwork. A larger staff of producers told the programmer what they wanted in the game and testers tried out the product before it went to the shelves.

The game was a hit. It featured things not seen in a hockey video game before. For the first time, players could perform one-timers, a way of shooting the puck, and control the goalie. Fans pounded on the glass, a wayward slapshot could shatter the glass behind the net, records were kept throughout the season and more.

The only player to appear in “NHL 94” still playing in the NHL is the New Jersey Devils’ 42-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr.

Lesser went on to develop NHL games through 1999. Most of that work happened on the Maine coast on Lesser’s computer. His last game collaborating with EA was a motocross game in 2000.

After that, he retired.

“As usual with me, by the time they found out I didn’t know what I was doing, I did,” Lesser said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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