Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 6    October 1998

World of Atari '98

The World-Builders Speak

by Chris Federico

It was a lot of fun listening to these people, glimpsing through the windows they opened into their memories and gleaning the insights they provided. Most every word was interesting, but I won't lay a whole transcription on you; here are some of the highlights from a productive few hours with a tape recorder.

Donald A. Thomas, Jr. spoke first, and he's a friendly guy who retains a sincere interest in gaming; you can tell he's a game-player. He didn't join Atari until 1989, but he was able to provide some clarification about how the Tramiels approached marketing. They apparently didn't know about many of the games, not being players themselves, and relied heavily on cosmetic qualities, assuming that the slick Jaguar would sell through promotion only and forgetting that word of mouth was their strongest asset. Jack Tramiel allegedly didn't think that the availability of many and varied games was as important as bombarding the public with commercials and magazine ads. It was the usual "the consumer is stupid" mindset.

Dan Kramer and Jerry Jessop, two hardware designers, talked about testing new products in their lab. While they were being sent ridiculous things to work on, like the 5200 controller that almost everyone at the company hated, Mr. Kramer fooled with the wiring of a Trak-Ball controller that he'd yanked from a Missile Command coin-op. He knew that the analogue controller would make a lot of games unplayable, so he concocted a home version of the Trak-Ball in time to get them onto store shelves very shortly after the 5200 itself came out. He also designed the 2600 version of that controller.

Arnie Katz, Joyce Worley and Bill "Game Doctor" Kunkel, the three founders of Electronic Games Magazine, each took their turns to speak, and they all provided some commentary about the gaming community in both the past and the present.

Mr. Katz spoke about classic games vs. newer ones: "What they have is a crystalline simplicity." It's tough for anyone to articulate why old games hold such fascination, but Mr. Katz is one of the true enthusiasts, and he speaks with vigor about the addictive qualities of any well-done game, new or old: "Very much, I think that Tetris was a return to the Atari video-game values, re-expressed in computer terms. I don't think that the essence of what makes a good game has ever changed.

"Bill Kunkel and I worked on many game designs together, and one of the things that Bill always said is that if you can't describe the game in a sentence, you're already in trouble. I think that if you look at some of the games that are coming out now, some of the games that are going to be forgotten in six months, what they have in common is that they are way too esoteric, they're way too convoluted, they're closed in on themselves and they're for people who are basically going to exhange having a life for playing a game.

"I think that complexity and deep richness in games is very good, but when it comes at the expense of playability, when it comes at the expense of the experience, then I think you're going from something that interests a mass audience of millions of video and computer gamers to something that's going to interest 100,000 hard-core players. It has its place, but we should recognize it."

He addressed questions from the audience, as all of the speakers did, and one of the subjects that always came up was the state of gaming today: "Where I would like to see it go is toward more innovation -- fewer 'me too,' generic clone games." Yeah, you're not alone there!

He also had strong opinions about the way in which gamers are viewed by our society: "What I would like to see in the largest sense is for the general public to have to gain an appreciation of our audience, and see outside trying to regulate the games we can play, trying to limit the content of games and trying to characterize us all as feeble-minded twelve-year-olds. That really sticks in my craw. That really bugs me. I would like to see a recognition that video and computer gaming is the world's most dynamic hobby, and in fact is one of the largest leisure-time interests in this country. We're talking about a hobby that, in dollars, is equivalent to the movie business.

"So I think it's time that we should get a little respect for the fact that this is our interest, this is what we like. We are not little children."

Mr. Katz was the only speaker to address violence. "Basically, I feel that the legislators who have made an issue of video-game violence are electioneering a headline," he remarked with conviction. "I think that it's one of the most cynical attacks that I've seen in a long time. It's very reminiscent of the attack against rock-and-roll music in the '50s and '60s, and it's very reminiscent of the attacks against comic books in the early '50s. At one time, whenever they arrested somebody and you heard the report on the radio or on TV, they would always add, 'A quantity of comic books was found in the closet.' Y'know, as if reading Superman...meant that you were on the road to perdition. I just don't see that!

"I think that when it comes to violence, you can see more violence on the news, you can see more violence in movies that are on TV, and certainly a lot more violence in movies that you can rent and take home, or go to the theater and see -- and which twelve-year-olds go to every single day. The violence in games is cartoon violence.

"As I said recently in commenting on the new spate of hunting games, no animals were hurt in the play of this game. Somebody sat there and killed pixels instead of Bambi. And as far as I'm concerned, the violence that worries me is the violence in the streets, the violence in our schools, the violence on our roads and the violence that permeates our society. I honestly don't think that playing Mortal Kombat encourages kids to go out and rip somebody's spine out. It's not real! Kids know it's not real. We know it's not real. The only people in the country who don't know it's not real are those senators who are holding the hearings. Well, I think they're smarter than that; I think they know it's not real too."

Whereas Mr. Katz was pensive and measured, Bill Kunkel (ribbingly introduced as Ego Boy by Mr. Katz) was like a comedian, just as willing to entertain with his reminiscences as to disclose insights. "[Atari headquarters] was a city," he began. "This place needed a monorail system! I have never seen anything like it in my life. I think that if Atari symbolizes gaming in a lot of ways to a lot of people, it's because nothing, not even Nintendo at its biggest, ever had a city."

While the statement itself is tongue-in-cheek, he nailed the embodiment of all that Atari, this mysterious wizards' cavern, stood for. "I mean, this place was incredible. I remember watching them putting together Red Baron machines in the coin-op department, and going over and seeing Championship Soccer being developed, and the developer going up to his boss to tell him that he was gonna do it in a vertical scroll -- and the boss telling him, 'You can't do a vertical scroll on the 2600.' And he said, 'I'm glad you didn't tell me that last week!'"

The willingness of designers to push the limits of the 2600 and take risks came up quite often during the keynotes. It set them quite apart from the relatively safe designing environs that cultivate the formula-driven games seen on the shelves these days. "I learned a long time ago that there are two kinds of people in this business," Mr. Kunkel continued. "There are the people who say, 'Well, here are the rules; here's what you can do, and here's what you can't do,' and there are the people who say, 'Here's what I wanna do; I'll find a way to do it.'"

He went on to describe the inception of the famed magazine that he'd helped to ignite. "We had this idea for a magazine, okay? We knew that there were going to be magazines about games. There are always magazines about anything that people will take as part of their lifestyles. The question was, could we get that magazine out first?

"We had about a five-month stretch between when we first put to bed Electronic Games #1 and the day when it actually hit the stands. And I went out every day to the news stand, truly expecting to see another magazine sitting there that had beat us. Every day I went, and that magazine was never there. As a matter of fact, that magazine didn't turn up for about six months after our first issue appeared. So for six months, we were the gaming press."

His memories of those days remain vivid: "I remember walking around the halls at my first CES [Consumer Electronics Show] in Chicago in 1981, and I've got about 100 copies of the cover of the first issue of Electronic Games, which is kind of burnt into my brain -- the image of that Space Invaders ship coming out of the television set and zapping the kid playing it. I had that, and on the back-side of it, there were bullet points for why this magazine was going to be the next great thing in the world of publishing. There were the usual three or four companies to go visit, and I handed each one of them this sheet. It would take them about five minutes to figure out that it was actually saying that we were going to publish a magazine that was going to be exclusively devoted to games. Every one of the companies said the same thing to me: 'Where are you gonna get all the games?' I had faith. 'They'll come. You guys'll make them, and if you're successful, more people will make them.' None of them believed it!"

Mr. Kunkel went on to share reflections on his judicial involvement in support of the industry's underdogs. "In 1982, I testified for Magnavox against Atari," he said sardonically. "Probably not the best career choice one could make, yet I happened to believe that Odyssey was right. It involved a game called K.C. Munchin!. I don't know if anybody remembers that game, but at the time, Atari had decided that it had paid damn good money for its Pac-Man license, and it was not going to allow any other gobble games to live on the face of the earth, in any format, on any machine. They originally went after all of the small developers who had put out games like Ghost Chase, Jawbreaker, Piranha and Snackman. And here's one company, Odyssey, who develops a gobble game that's unique!

"The idea of this game is that the fewer dots on the screen, the faster they move. You've gotta chase them around and catch them. To me, this was as major a step beyond the original game as Galaxian had been past Space Invaders. I felt that it was totally legitimate." This was, to me, one of the most important parts of any of the lectures. For a magazine writer who was surely offered perks from companies that stood to benefit from whatever he wrote, given the magazine's unwitting monopoly over the gaming press, the Game Doctor kept his integrity intact, even if it meant risking his career in some way. My admiration for the man skyrocketed when I heard about this. If only so-called "music journalists" were that unwilling to blindly push the trends that are most heavily invested in by their back-slappers.

Like Mr. Katz, Mr. Kunkel addressed the modern video-game community, venturing opinions on the collapse of Atari in spite of its fantastic later machines. "If there's no stability, it's so hard," he said earnestly. "You're just getting to the point with a system where you know what it can do, where you know what its powers are and what its strengths are; and lord love a duck, the magazines are already pumping out the specs to you for the next machine, which may or may not ever appear in Japan, even! I think that this is how our industry, and especially the press in this industry, eats its young.

"I'd like to see the industry stabilize. Just say, 'Let's sit still for a while, guys.' Even if we can make a more technically proficient system, isn't it better that for once, we max-out the potential a little bit more on these systems before we throw them in the dustbin? Every machine, every platform I've ever watched...I've seen the best games for it, in most cases, come out just before it's dumped."

His outlook ultimately came across as optimistic: "Have computer games and console games ever sold this well at the same time? Not in my memory! But that's what I'd like to see: stability, and the potential of these systems really explored."

Like Mr. Kunkel, Rob Fulop was uninhibited with his words, and spoke with ease and humor. He gave his keynote shortly after I talked with him (see the nifty interview article elsewhere in this issue). He approached the podium holding up a boxed copy of his first 2600 game. "I just bought one of these: Night Driver. There's nothing like buying your own game! The fun thing about buying your own game is when you have to bargain with the guy. You don't want him to come down in price. You really want him to keep it high!"

He recalled the circumstances under which he'd met the founder of Atari. "I dropped out of Berkeley in the late '70s to be a professional Backgammon and Poker player. I kinda stumbled around Las Vegas a lot...Reno, Lake Tahoe, places like that. I ran into a guy at a Backgammon tournament named Nolan Bushnell, who was the guy who'd invented Pong, and he was my opponent in, I think, the quarter-finals of the Backgammon tournament. The guy got a double-match point, which is pretty intense with one more game to play in the match. I lost the game against Nolan, and he won the tournament, but I got a job. So that was the big break that I had.

"He gave me a job in the coin-op division at Atari, making Pinball soundtracks. Superman -- stuff like that. But then I did a couple of games at Atari: Night Driver, Space Invaders for the Atari 400/800, and Missile Command [for the 2600], which I think was probably the funnest game that I did at Atari."

He explained the motivation behind Cubicolor, his most recent cartridge, which he'd sold himself as a limited edition. "I had done Space Invaders, Missile Command, Demon Attack and Cosmic Ark," he explained. "It was enough space for me -- four space games in a row. So I did Cubicolor. It was a little puzzle game that never got released. And then I did a game called Fathom, which was not my best work. Before leaving Imagic, I did a little game called Actionaut, which no one has ever seen. I think there's a ROM somewhere in my attic. You had to program robots." Sounds like a prescient Hacker II!

Mr. Fulop's memories of his fellow designers were rooted in pride: "The beauty of early Atari is that we figured out all of the premises. In the first five years of Atari, we figured out, I think, the basic five premises of games, the first of which I put into Night Driver. It's the same as Pole Position. It's the same as Grand Prix. Nothing's really changed; they have eighteen virtual reality stations in a row, and it's all the same premise. The premise of all of these games is basically: go fast. It worked ten years ago, it worked twenty years ago, and I guarantee that thirty years from now, we'll have the same guy sitting there, really old, sitting around an old VCS, because the same basic games work. Go fast.

"Premise number two: You've got Pong, Breakout, Frogger, Tetris -- the premise of all these games is basically anticipation. They're all about waiting for that little thing to get there: 'nnnnnNOW!'. It still works.

"The games Space Invaders, Galaxian, Phoenix, Robotron, Centipede and Demon Attack -- anyone know the premise of those games? Kill everything, basically. Kill them before they kill you. Those games, they work; they've always worked; and they're always gonna work. You put a bunch of shit up there, and you gotta kill it all."

His insights into game design remained fascinating throughout his dissertation. I was happy to hear him mention a point that I'd brought up in the very issue of OC&GS that I'd given him (in the article "Making Worlds"). He illustrated the concept when he explained the appeal of Pac-Man: "[It] has a really difficult premise. A lot of people don't get it. Anyone know the premise of Pac-Man? The deep play pattern, and why it works? The funnest part of Pac-Man is what? Pac-Man is about revenge. It's about: I'm helpless, I'm helpless, I'm helpless -- I'm powerful.' That's why the game works. It may be one of the reasons women like that game. I don't know. There's a pretty deep connection to that feeling of being helpless and then being strong. I haven't seen that play pattern in a lot of games. It's really powerful, actually.

"And then, Adventure, King's Quest, Myst, Riven -- does anyone know the premise of those? A treasure hunt, basically. And the excitement of finding. The old Adventure game, right? Warren Robinett's game, where you find the Black Castle? That was just as exciting twenty years ago as going into Riven and finding a new world when you go underground. There's not one bit of difference. It's a treasure hunt. Finding new things.

"The old lesson at Atari that Nolan yawned us over and over again with was that you gotta make it easy to learn and difficult to master. I say it like this: Easy to say, hard to do."

He closed his designing lesson with one more explanation of why certain games work well. "The really good games have laid into them the thing that I call O.I.C. [It's] that moment in time when you lose the game and you go, 'Oh, I see...I see what I gotta do.' Then you play it again, and you go, 'Oh, I got it,' and you play it again. The really good game designers lay those things in there for you to find. It's amazing how the new games that I've played in the last five years don't have those O.I.C.s in there. Every time you lose a game, you should go, 'Oh, I see.'"

"Then, on top of that, you lay your decorations. Again, you get a lot of games now where I don't see the decorations as [being] nearly as powerful. The decorations are simply bonus ideas; instead of giving you fifty points at the end of Missile Command, I give you five points ten times. It goes, 'Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding!' That's powerful stuff. That makes you feel like, 'Wow! I got so many points, it can't even count! Look how many points I got!' That's really powerful, as well as the little sound effects."

He went on to describe his actual working environment: "Old Atari, when I was there in '79, '80, '81 -- the culture of the company really made these games work. The reason was that the culture was so loose. We had lab benches set up, and we had the programmers, who were individual artists -- authors, basically -- working in a lab. You had a lab bench. So you wouldn't work in an office; your game was up there for public dunking every day. You put your game up there, and it was all peer review. The guys -- and one girl -- went to lunch every day, and if the game was fun, guys would stand around someone's play station and play the game. And that was how you knew if you had a good game. If no one would play your game, your game basically was bogus... You lose it or get it better. That's really why it worked."

He relayed memories of one of Atari's most innovative coin-ops. "The winners just came bubbling around to the top," he reiterated. "Tempest was a beautiful game, and it was started by the guy who'd made [the coin-op] Missile Command, Dave Theurer. He wanted to do 3-D Space Invaders. So he sat, and it took about a year. There was a lot of difficulty to the game, and screen real estate was a big problem. The monsters looked great -- they were vectored monsters -- but the game never played well, and it just basically sucked.

"Finally, he couldn't take it anymore. We were teasing him so much about it. It was very much his decision: He trashed it one day, and four weeks later, he showed us Tempest... He would never in a million years have sat down and just dreamed that thing up on a piece of graph paper and said, 'Here.'"

Someone asked him what he thought of the game that I'd just implicated him in underrating: "You know what I've taken out of Fathom? My first provocative thing. After you won, the mermaid would go downward [off the lower screen edge], and the little dolphin would go downward, and all these bubbles came up. I saw it in a James Bond movie. They told me, 'Take out the bubbles.' I said, 'Hey, it's all in your head, man!'."

John Harris took the stand and recalled the creation of the Atari 8-bit game Jawbreaker with some bemusement: "I really just wrote Pac-Man. I had seen other people doing it; as a nineteen-year-old kid, I didn't even know what a copyright was. I didn't know that it was wrong to copy someone else's work. So I took it up to [Sierra On-Line president] Ken Williams, and I guess I just got into the industry right at the time when the video-game companies started cracking down on home-computer versions. So he took a look at it and said, 'I'm sorry -- I can't sell that. It looks too much like Pac-Man. You're going to have to disguise it a little bit if you want me to sell it.' So I brought it in the next day, and I'd put mustaches and sunglasses on all the ghosts. While good for a laugh, it was obviously not what they had in mind. I still have that version."

He also recalled how his respected coin-op translation came about. "I wanted to do Frogger," he explained, "and I went to Ken Williams and said that I thought it would be a really good license, and 'why don't we just go out and, y'know, literally see if we can get a legal license for this, and do the real thing?'. And we were able to get that from Sega. After we got approved, Ken said, 'Y'know, I got a computer show coming up in three days. What can you give me as a demo?' I said, 'Well, I'll see what I can do.' And I worked something like twenty to twenty-two hours a day for three days, and came up with what ended up being the shipping version of all the graphics -- all fifty colors on the screen, all the motion and everything. There was a static frog sitting on the bottom of the screen that you couldn't move yet, but basically, everything else was done. I gave it to him, and I was really thrilled; I really loved promoting Atari machines."

A smirk formed as he ended the story: "I didn't find out until a long time down the road that that show was an Applefest! He literally had a big-screen TV, an Apple computer sitting in front of it, and an Atari computer in a cardboard box behind it! The only thing that made that incident fun for me was when I saw the Apple version of Frogger, and what it actually looked like. It was so bad. They took so much heat over that, because they'd showed this other version."

The designers who spoke gave off an overall impression of detachment from the industry they worked for. Hearing things like John Harris's last comment above, the listener got the impression that these were inventive, risk-taking builders who remain, to this day, confounded about the decisions that their companies made. I hope you had as much fun reading about these memories and insights as Adam and I had listening! -- CF