Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 4    June 1998

Behind The Pioneer's Eyes

Where Some Ideas For Classic Games Came From

by Chris Federico

I don't know about y'all, but I think it's cool to read about how the designers of yesterday hit upon their game themes. It's funny -- newer titles wouldn't be as interesting to hear about. Writing a game in the '80s was more like writing a book. There had to have been an impetus for each idea, an implementation into a reasonable game format, and the actual coding that those guys undertook to see their ideas through and create their worlds. Nowadays, quoting the head graphics designer assigned to a game project, for instance, would be boring in comparison:

"Yeah, so I saw this cool picture, and I thought it would be neat to make that the scenery of one of the rooms in the game. So I took a picture with my digital camera, put in on a Zip disk, did some touch-up work on the shading, and voila!"


Video games break my no-nostalgia rule. I usually hate the idea of finding things from the past better than the present. It's a sign of pessimism to me. But in the context of games, with a half-handful of exceptions, the older ones were more interesting and more fun on many levels. One way in which they're more intriguing is from the standpoint of design. So here's a look at the germination of some beloved old contests from the creators' perspectives.

The April, 1983 issue of Electronic Fun With Computers and Games featured an interview with Garry Kitchen, one of Activision's most renowned creative minds. Besides pointing out that his brothers, Steve and Dan Kitchen, also worked for Activision, the article fills the reader in on many nifty details, among them the fact that Garry did 2600 Donkey Kong and Steve did 2600 Carnival, both for Coleco, as extra work. So apparently, Activision didn't have a policy similar to Atari's that prevented designers from moonlighting.

The interview centers around Keystone Kapers, the multi-screen 2600 platform game that ranked among the hottest titles in Activision's old catalogue. The interview was conducted just before the game was released, so Garry wasn't sure how well it would sell yet. Electronic Fun asked him how the game came about.

"I was going to do a game with a cop chasing a crook," he replied. "The Keystone Kop was my wife's idea. The cop chases the crook through a department store... I had a great police car in the game at one point, called the Paddy Wagon. I had to take it out because it didn't fit in with the game play at all." If only more programmers subscribed to this ethic!

He went on to explain other elements that didn't make it into the game. "At one point, there was a TV set. I took that out because it didn't make sense -- the Keystone Kops were around before there was a television. I had a bomb in there too, but it wasn't very important to the game, so I got rid of it."

Garry also elaborated on what it was like to work at Activision. "I called up Dan and said, 'Look, I want an object you can duck under.' He thought about it and suggested an airplane, and I put it in. I do it with the other guys at the Activision Eastern Design Center too. I'll be working on something, and I'll say to the other guys, 'What do you think of this color? Is it weird?' There's a lot of teamwork."

By including a full expose about the development of Crystal Castles, the March/April, 1984 issue of Atari Age hinted at the excitement Atari felt about that coin-op when it first hit the streets. Scott Fuller, the game's project leader, elaborated on its inception and the way it wound up in its final form. Evidently, it started out as an Asteroids variant. The screen featured a topographical landscape of valleys and hills, angled for a 3-D perspective that the player had to somehow guide his ship around. The ever-present rocks fell from the sky instead of floating around. It was called Toporoids.

Fuller informed Atari Age that the main reason the idea was dropped was the less-than-awesome title. But Scott and the team liked the topography idea, so that was reworked into the now-familiar series of castle-based mazes and corridors. The falling rocks turned into a series of weird bad guys that initially fell from the sky but then chased the hero, Bentley Bear, around the angled, isometric mazes as he collected gems to pass levels and see new landscapes. The game didn't do too well when it was initially tested in selected arcades; the pretty graphics lured people over to the machine, but the game was too hard. It was reworked a bit, and then sent out in the form we know.

The popular designs from the potent mind of David Crane were explained by Colin Covert in a long interview he conducted with Crane for the January, 1984 issue of Hi-Res. "Crane, who's known as a graphics virtuoso, begins by creating visual images, and then building a game around them." It's not hard to imagine how Pitfall, and especially its first sequel, came about this way. "Sometimes a premise occurs to him like lightning striking the primordial soup, and the game evolves smoothly. More often, Crane says, designing video games is a process of eliminating every idea that doesn't fit."

Crane himself spoke about driving to a trade show in Chicago. He evidently saw a guy dodging cars in an attempt to get across Lake Shore Drive. "But for how to hook everything up, the idea was there in ten minutes," he told Covert. "That was fun. The rest was just hard work." The work resulted, of course, in the Freeway cart.

Crane made technical advances along with the imaginative ones. "I often start a game by coming up with a new way to fool the machine, and seeing what kind of game it will become. Grand Prix is an example. It was unthinkable before that to make a car the shape and color of those." Activision designers were known as code-crunching adepts anyway; it was one of the reasons their games shined. "People were telling me there was no way to pack that much information into the limited amount of memory space we had available. So I did. So there!"

Activision was its own test-playing team: "If it's fun for half-a-dozen video game designers to play, it's a good game," Crane elaborated.

The January, 1983 issue of Video Games featured an interview with Bill Grubb and Dennis Koble, the two ex-Atari guys who started Imagic. Koble, who created Atlantis, explained the tiny spaceship that flies away at the game-over point.

"I can remember the day in the lab when me and Rob decided to tie the two games together. He was working on Reaction, a shoot-'em-up-type game that was the precursor to Cosmic Ark, and we started kicking around the idea of the survivors from Atlantis showing up in Cosmic Ark with the mission to go from planet to planet, getting two of every creature from these various planets to repopulate Atlantis. We just thought it would be neat." The little ship escaping at the end of Cosmic Ark isn't explained; maybe there was a third tie-in in the works that never happened.

Doug Neubauer designed Star Raiders for the Atari 8-bit; few folks realize that the same guy designed the POKEY, the chip inside the Atari 400/800 that handles sound, controller reading, keyboard reading, random number generation and serial communication to peripherals. In October of 1986, he told Lee Pappas of Analog Computing that the 800 was "originally planned to [have] the same audio as on the 2600." Pappas asked him what the inspiration for his famous game was.

"Star Raiders was to be a 3-D version of the Star Trek game played on the mainframe computers of that time. The Star Trek game was all text and not played in real time, but it had the idea of ship damage and sector scanners and charts. It also used names like 'Commander' or 'Super Commander,' which gave me the idea of a rating rather than a score."

Before working at Atari, Neubauer had been at National Semiconductor. "While at National, I did up some demo screens of star backgrounds, and the whole thing seemed feasible. But I didn't get to implement it until a couple of years later."

There were no games for the 400/800 when Neubauer started working on the game in early 1979. The interviewer explained that a lot of Analog Computing's readers had bought their 8-bits just to get Star Raiders. "It's pretty amazing, the way the game caught on," said Neubauer. "I think it was the first game to combine action with a strategy screen, and luckily, the concept worked out pretty well. I guess the part I liked best was the [enemy ship] explosion; I never was really satisfied with the hyperwarp display."

Pappas got him to talk about the actual coding of the game. "The routines in Star Raiders are total hacks!" Neubauer revealed. "It was the first game to use 3-D algorithms, and the ones I came up with were terrible. They worked, but were slow. That's why the game slows down when there's an explosion. The explosion consists of about 64 separate pieces, and moving them around in 3-D space took a lot of computation time."

Pappas asked him what he could have done with Star Raiders if there had been more then 8K available. "It would be interesting to try and get a planet-landing sequence, where you start from space and approach the planet, and as it gets bigger, more detail appears."

He went on to design the incredible Solaris for the 2600, of course; but Star Raiders is the daddy of windshield shooters. Can you imagine some guy designing a revolutionary microchip and a revolutionary game in the climate of the industry in the '90s?

Me either. -- CF