Oliver's Travels

By Dan Oliver
(2013-2018)

This is a compilation of Dan Oliver's recollections of working for Games By Apollo, VentureVision, and Atari in the early 1980s.


Apollo

I was 26 when I started at Apollo.  When I interviewed with them, I was looking for a part-time job just so I could see what was going on in the industry.  Back at North Texas, we were learning about how to make RAM by hand, wire-wrapped, one bit at a time.  We'd just gotten a micro lab with Apple IIs, TI, TRS80s... but no one knew much about them.  The Apollo gig came up, and it seemed like leading-edge stuff to me.  They offered a full-time job and asked how much I wanted to leave college.  I'd researched programmer pay for a 4-year degree and knew I'd expect to earn $15k, so I said $16K on the phone.  Ed Salvo laughed and said, "We were going to offer you $22K".  When I went in to sign the employment agreement, there it was in black & white - $16K.  It was clear this was all business, which is perfectly fine with me.  But that door swings both ways.

There was some shady stuff, like stealing info.  Apollo had someone from Atari willing to sell a 2600 manual, at least that's the story I was told.  I heard they had lunch, and the guy wanted $100K.  There was a lot of paranoia, that we didn't know about some secret registers that would allow us to do better games.  I remember management asking me if I thought there were unknown registers.  Don't ask me how a person would know about something unknown; I was never in management.  I'd worked at Apollo for a couple of weeks and had already downloaded and studied at least a few games and figured, if there were any more registers, we'd find them that way.

Space Cavern
I just read on Wikipedia or someplace that Pat Roper saw Demon Attack at CES and gave me a game design without telling me it came from Demon Attack.  This came from an interview with Ed Salvo (Ed.: Ed Salvo claims he was the person who went
out to CES and saw Demon Attack).  OK, so I had like zero knowledge of what actually went on at Apollo behind closed doors and Ed was in the loop, so he probably knew a lot more than me.  And memory is not a perfect thing.  So with those disclaimers, here's how I remember it...

My memory is Pat trying to describe Demon Attack and saying that's the game I should write.  He told me he'd seen it at CES and that everyone thought it was the best game there, mainly because of the graphics.  Maybe he wasn't supposed to tell me he was describing Demon Attack, but I certainly knew he was describing a game he saw at CES.  And a short time later when he could get a copy, he plunked it on my desk and said something like, "We need one of these" or, "Make this."  He said the copy was hard to get, and that he'd gotten it from a distributor or something.  He might even have had to return it, but I certainly saw Demon Attack very early.  Video games at the time were a very cloak-and-dagger deal.

I downloaded the Demon Attack cart and studied the code; if not Demon Attack specifically, certainly other games.  That's how we learned.  Ed had a manual with the 2600 registers, and he told us a bunch of stuff about vertical sync, etc, but as I remember it, we learned most of the specific and different techniques from reverse-engineering other games.  They didn't want a knockoff, specifically, they mainly wanted great graphics, which I obviously came up short on.  The Demon Attack bar was pretty high for someone who'd learned some 6502 only a couple of weeks before.  It took 4 weeks to create Space Cavern, and maybe a few more days.  The rush was because they'd pre-sold a ton of them already without anyone ever seeing anything.  When I started at Apollo, I'd never seen an Atari game, and they had me play some, and I noticed some of the boxes proclaimed "30 Different Games!", and they were just changing the background color.  I thought that seemed to be important, and Space Cavern had some absurd number of "games" (Ed.: 48 variations).  That idea of having "lots of stuff" stuck with me.  That was my style back then - throw a lot of different stuff in and hope something stuck.  It became a crutch, though. 

Backups
To get to our office, we walked through the warehouse where they'd set up the assembly line for the cartridges.  It seemed like everyday the line was changed - bigger and with more people.  Skeet Shoot and Spacechase were coming off the line at that point.

The night I finished Space Cavern, they had the line workers come in to start production.  It was after dark.  There were no testers or any testing, just me pounding a keyboard and burning EPROMs.  I told someone I'd fixed the last bug (it's easier to declare "last bug" when you don't do any testing).  I backed up the code and printed a hard copy because that's what they considered to be the copyrighted material, and I burned the production EPROM.  I handed it off and headed home 55 miles away in Denton.  I'd been away from home pretty much 24/7 for a month, so the wife, myself, and a couple of friends went out to celebrate, which we did.  At midnight or something, we we're at a bar and they said I had a phone call.  That's not normal stuff back then.  I didn't even know what bar I was in.  It was Apollo.  They must have been calling every bar in Denton.  I forget who it was, but they were very nice and told me there's a problem with the game; the bug wasn't fixed.  They had like 15 workers there.  I'm too smashed, so I went home to sleep a few hours.  Next morning, I went in, hung over.  It may have been a Saturday, and I had to walk by the line with all the workers just standing around.  No pressure.  I'd screwed up and backed up the wrong source, and lost my fixes.  A couple hours later we were in business, and the line was humming.  Crazy.  When I sat down to write Space Cavern in 4 weeks, with only about 3 days of Assembly Language experience and working on a hardware platform that we hardly knew anything about, I'm pretty sure most people didn't think a cart would fall of the line in 4 weeks.

Ed Salvo
Ed Salvo had come from some real data processing shop and he wore a tie.  He thought all programmers should wear ties.  I didn't know crap; I'd dropped out of college to do this game stuff.  So I bought some polyester short sleeve pastel shirts and some clip-on ties.  Ed told me about the clip-on tie thing.  He also always had a pocket protector, but I had no clue where one of those could be found or what they were even called.  Ed didn't tell me to get one, so I didn't.  I thought maybe it was a status thing or something.  Looking back now... we were all "Dilberts".

Larry Minor was a COBOL programmer who wore a 3-piece suit and had just come from some huge Blue Cross project that had cratered in grand corporate style.  Larry would stand around with a ubiquitous coffee cup in his hand and tell us lots of stories about the Blue Cross project, and about women and about office politics.  Larry first told me that companies expected each programmer to write a specific number of lines of code per week or something.  He was a character and hopefully still is.

Ernie Runyon
I just read this interview with Ernie Runyon, which was great.  It's funny how these things jog my memory.  I wasn't sure about the room for reverse-engineering games, but that seems right.  I did take listings back to my desk and studied them.  Ernie said, "I remember Dan had it roughest.  I think he may have had a new-born at home," which made me laugh.  I didn't have a new-born at home, but that sounds like something I would say.  I did have a fairly new wife who was freaking out at all the hours, and I lived 55 miles away, so travel time didn't help.  I remember talking to her on the phone one night from Apollo, and she was really upset.  This computer stuff was so new then that people just had no frame of reference.  She kind of gave me an ultimatum.  I remember looking at my computer screen and I had to make a choice.  What I learned was, never give a person an ultimatum, which I found useful in my next marriage, which has been great.

Ernie also said, "I also remember coming in late one night to do some coding and happened upon a co-worker chasing a scantily-clad young lady around the production line.  I was sworn to secrecy."  IT HAD TO BE LARRY!  Chasing, not catching - that sounds like Larry.

Wabbit
Apollo hired a bunch of people just before I left.  One was an ex-air traffic controller from the 1981 strike.  I assume he did Final Approach.  While Googling around, I saw Wabbit and the programmer credited is Ban Tran who, if I have the right person, is a Vietnamese woman.  Our office faced the parking lot and we could see interviewees parking and walking up.  Ban was extremely attractive and when she walked by, there was a rush into Ed's office begging him to hire her.  We kept walking by his office trying to crack him up.  It's not like anybody there required any experience, but there was probably very little expectation Ban would become a game designer because she was not a nerd in any sense of the word.  Ban came up with a game idea really fast - the only one in the new group I remember doing so.  It was an extremely-intense concept and made Night Trap look like a bedtime story for kids, but it was 20 years ahead of its time and way too intense for the VCS.  She was explaining it like it was a picnic at the beach, so pretty quickly the stereotype started to fall.

Lots of people mailed game ideas to Apollo, which we looked through.  The idea for Wabbit came from two completely different letters from different people.  It was freaky, because both ideas were almost the same.  Ban was given the Wabbit idea, and her original idea I assume was placed into a time capsule and removed years later, toned down, and became Grand Theft Auto.  She went on to do 5200 stuff at Micro GraphicImage.

Wabbit looks impressive to me considering zero experience and the state of Apollo at the time, which must have been a mad house with all the new people and platforms.  The player graphic is really good, and female, which also makes me think Ban is the woman I'm thinking of.  In the letters, the players were male farmers, I believe.  Not too many VCS games were done by women, so that's pretty cool.  Ban would have been hired at Apollo around June 1982, knocked out Wabbit by July/August 1982, and then jumped to Micro GraphicImage with other Apollo people and had Solar Fox ready by September 1983.  That's impressive in my book, and her port of Solar Fox was well reviewed to boot.

Leaving orbit
Right when Space Cavern was released, an article in Forbes came out about video games and all the money to be made and how game programmers should be considered artists and their names and images should be on the box.  I had been creating and selling oil paintings before Apollo, so I was kind of aware what an artist was.  Someone brought in the magazine (Larry, I'd bet), and I read it.  I set the magazine down and took off my tie and threw it in my trash bin.  Larry was basically trying to organize us to demand stuff like credit on the box.  The next day, I'm wearing jeans.  I'm getting the looks - not bad looks but worried looks.  Very worried looks.  The crap was hitting the fan.  I'm sure Larry had been lobbying Ed, and Ed was talking to Pat.  Pretty quickly, like, that day, they said names on box, no problem, and everyone's salary was doubled.

But at around this same time, Pat was talking about personal helicopters.  Not good.  Someone came by to show us the blueprints for the new office complex they were building, and every office had a fireplace.  Not good.  We started hiring "programmers" with the joke being our only interview question was, "Can you spell 6502?"  My confidence was not growing.  But the kicker was walking by the production line every day.  Now there were 2 or 3 shifts, with like 3 or 4 lines with a cart falling off the end every couple of seconds.  Thanks to the article, I knew each plunk was worth $10.  Someone told me that Space Cavern had pre-sold 75,000 copies.  I did some quick math in my head.  I was paid about $1,300 to produce Space Cavern, say 80 hours a week, so that's about $4 per hour.  But yeah, they'd just doubled that, so say $2,600 per game versus $750,000 on just the pre-sales.  That's profit, not revenue.  Let's just say my mind wandered.

Ernie is right about us not being a tight group.  We were all in one, large room with no walls, working 80 hours a week or more, and hardly knew anything about each other.  It was just total focusing on the game - not just the code, but the game.  You lived in there.  Everyone liked everyone, and I certainly enjoyed their company, but we just rarely had free time.  After Space Cavern, and after reading the Forbes article about how other game programmers were being treated, I did get to talk to people a bit more, and when I gave my 2 weeks notice, Apollo made me stay, so I basically sat around, so that was nice.

VentureVision

I got a newspaper and looked through the want ads.  Bingo.  "Wanted: Programmer for video games."  I called them up, and he (possibly Robert Hesler) had the start-up money, experience running companies, and a real desire to sell games.  We met an
d in his hands was the Forbes magazine.  That was VentureVision.  There must have been 20 game companies started that month from that article.  I can't believe that all happened in like 2 months.  It was like a gold rush and very exciting.

How VentureVision released games
My 2 partners - really great entrepreneurs, before the term was cool - had started and run several businesses.  All were run very well and they taught me a lot, but their other businesses were unrelated.  They had a used car lot where they'd buy cars out of the paper, put it on the lot, and charge X but allow Y down and payments.  The Y down covered their cost and they'd get however many payments they could.  They had a countertop repair service in another city.  They'd also just closed down a pretty large custom cabinet shop.  Our first meetings were in the closed cabinet shop.  There was a third partner who was Robert's good friend and partner in all of their businesses, who's name I can't remember his name (Ed.: Danny Abshire).

So there wasn't really any kind of "plan".  Games came out as fast as we could make them.  There may have been some story arc between them, but that would have been done more after the game was done.  It's kind of weird now to think about, but there were no storyboards or any description at all as far as I remember.  Basically while working on one game, you'd be thinking about the next.  So it was completely in your head.  You just sit down and start coding.  Robert Hesler wrote all the backstories for the games, and he tied all 3 games together, but each game was created first and then the backstory was added.  The idea for Innerspace was developed while I was working on Rescue Terra I, and Solar Defense was totally Robert Weatherby's creation.

Rescue Terra I

 

I would have given my left nut to have any of the current VCS homebrew artists to do the packaging for Rescue Terra I.  We found a guy who painted really great oil paintings of space nebula-type stuff, but packaging is a different thing, and we probably didn't pay him much.  Of course, in the end it didn't matter.  The difference, which to me is kind of amazing, is the Internet.  Finding an artist in Dallas/Forth Worth was really hard, and finding one who could do packaging was just about impossible.  Today, with a few clicks, pages of great artists can be found around the world.

We sold about 10 copies of Rescue Terra I (Ed.: Dan claimed in a 1997 interview 20,000 carts were made and 384 were sold).  The irony of a Rescue Terra I selling for more now than pretty much VentureVision's entire gross revenue is not lost on me, but I can always say, at least it wasn't E.T.  Rescue Terra I didn't even make it to the discount table.  Our biggest, and maybe only sale, was to a couple of guys from South America who stopped by our CES booth at the close and offered to buy all we had with us - a couple of dozen.  I have no idea what they wanted them for.  My kid brother sold copies door to door.  He said he sold all 12 but never sent us our cut.  Kid brothers.  I don't know what Bob did with the rest of them.  I remember we spent a lot of time putting carts together and boxing them.  When you have programmers boxing carts instead of writing code, you know things aren't good.

We had "sold" 10,000 carts to a distributor and we ordered the ROMs, which took a few weeks.  When we called the distributor back, the guy no longer worked there; they were out of the games business.  That was the crash.  This was the third week of October 1983.  We knew the gold rush was over, but we kept trying.  I went to CES in January 1983 and saw Pat Roper in the Apollo "booth" which was just a big, empty space with a couple of folding chairs in the middle with Pat sitting there.  I guess he was trying to sell off whatever he could.  It was not a happy time, but Bob did teach me to play craps, and he was good at it.

At one point we hooked up with some multi-level marketing people and they seemed pretty interested, in the same way sharks are interested in things splashing around in the water.  After a bit, they became more interested in an application program to help them track all the money.  Apparently those things sell fast, but not for too long.  They had stories of garbage cans full of letters, checks, and cash that they couldn't get through fast enough.  No computers - they had to doing everything by hand.  A $10 sale meant $1 went to one person, $0.50 to another, and on and on, like 7-10 cuts for every sale.  It was a nightmare.  A lot of those guys went to jail and multi-level marketing was outlawed only because they just couldn't do the accounting if a product sold a lot.  They didn't pay people because they couldn't figure out how much and to who.  So they wanted me to write an Apple II app, which I did.  It was pretty simple, but then they wanted to put me into hotels and keep moving me around while their scheme played out.  They said it was common in their business so that law enforcement couldn't find them.  Apparently it was kind of up in the air as to whether or not these things are legal or not.  It depends on how many levels deep and whether the product is real or not.  Selling a 5 cent pen for $100 would be illegal, but they thought selling a $50 Rescue Terra I would be legal... probably... in most states, but why take the chance?  Let us put you into a hotel? Thanks, but no thanks, boys.

I'd never heard of programmers not getting paid back then.  In those days, game programmers were treated very well, I thought.  If you weren't, you'd just go next door or start your own company.

Contest
I'm pretty sure Bob Hesler came up with the idea to promote the game with the contest.  He was a serious game player and played the heck out of Rescue Terra I.  I just found one of the contest fliers, and after reading it, it's a lot more involved than I'd remembered.  I thought it was just whoever had set the high score first would collect the prize.  I'd forgotten (conveniently) there was suppose to a drawing and flying people around, etc.

My memory is Bob saying something like, "Don't worry, no one is ever going to reach Terra I" in response to his partner not wanting to do the contest.  It couldn't have been a week later, and we got a few screen photos of people at Terra I, and Bob was real quiet.  You had to know that this money was coming right out of Bob's pocket, and Bob was no millionaire by any means.  Until now, I'd always hoped that first photo was paid as the winner, but now looking at the rules, there was no drawing, no flying of anyone to Dallas, and no local competition.  I know Bob would have loved for the game to have sold well enough to have had the contest.  He was/is very honest as was his partner.  We were off (with the release) by maybe 2 weeks.  Had 10,000 sold, which would have been maybe $50k clear, it would have been enough for the contest.  So now I'd have to consider the contest a sham, I'm ashamed to say.

Innerspace inspiration
There was a game I was "inspired" by called Caverns of Mars for the Atari 800.  Apollo bought a few games for us to play.  We programmed on an 800, so that must have been where I saw it.  I thought Caverns was really fun.  So there was a connection between Rescue Terra I and Innerspace, but mainly it was I liked space shooters.  Like most of my games, it was very derivative.  I also liked the look of arcade Defender, but never really played it.  And vertical scrolling games on the VCS were so boring to me, but of course the 2600 made vertical scrolling easier.

I was driven mainly by graphics.  My background had been fine art painting and such.  The thing I'm most proud of for example is that the explosions in Innerspace are not exactly sprites.  Normally you'd have say 3 or 4 hard-coded explosion shapes in ROM and just animate them.  For Innerspace, I created each explosion "sprite" at runtime in RAM.  Each explosion particle had its own "physics" (6502 128 byte RAM physics, mind you), but I thought it was cool.  I used the same concept in Final Legacy and some other stuff.  As far as I know, no one else ever did that in a VCS game, but it's possible.  And because the sprite image was in RAM, I put it just above the stack so I could use PLA, which was a faster instruction than LDA, so I had an edge there I thought.  All VCS programmers were always in search of some magic combination of hardware registers or instructions that would give us an edge.

Innerspace / Laser Gates

 

Innerspace was the title at VentureVision.  I was nearing completion of it when VentureVision ran out of money.  I was one of 3 owners and we hadn't been taking much of a salary, so I had no savings and had to leave the company while the other 2 guys, business guys, closed down.  I traded Innerspace for my part of the company.

I got the game to Imagic, but I don't remember how.  They bought it.  When I went into their office building to sign the papers, I spoke to a single suit.  The entire office building was a ghost town; Imagic was shutting down.  He showed me the game running on a TV and explained they'd changed the name and fixed some bugs.  I remember him saying 4 bugs, but I'm not sure.  For sure I had a bug in the lower-left side of the screen where one scanline was late, so you'd see like a 1/2" black scanline, which was common on VCS games.  I was very impressed because it was a bug I had tried to fix and didn't, and they did this without the source code - they just downloaded it, disassembled it, and made changes.  To me, Imagic had always been tops, right behind Activision, so it was a great compliment that one of their engineers had worked on my code.  I'd "complimented" them earlier by disassembling Demon Attack when writing Space Cavern.

The Imagic guy gave me a check for the advance on the royalties, and told me they were buying the game to fulfill contract requirements.  I thought, hey, you're making my head swell.  I turned over the source code, picked up the check, and started to leave, and the guy said, "Hey, don't you want to know how to get your future royalty checks?"  Not really, dude.  I don't know if this guy actually still thought VCS games were going to be around in a month, or was just going through the motions.  Laser Gates went right to the discount tables.

So, to me Innerspace and Laser Gates were the same game.  But from a collector's point of view, they'd have to be different games.  There were some minor changes to the Laser Gates ROM, but changes nonetheless.  There were no changes to gameplay that I know of.  VentureVision never released Innerspace and I'm pretty sure there was never a box or manual for it.

Solar Defense

 

I don't remember the name, but the screenshots posted are of a real game and it may have well been called Solar Defense.  I can't believe people know about this stuff.  I had to really think a while to remember.  Solar Defense was created and programmed by a really good, natural programmer named Robert Weatherby.  He barely had any programming experience, but without hardly any programming manual and probably 10 minutes of instruction from me, he had a game up on the VCS in a couple of weeks.  He 'got it' from the get go.  He was just out of college with a degree in music.  He was way into music and audio.  According to his LinkedIn page he stayed in games so, good for him.  Solar Defense would have been 100% his design and implementation.

I'm ashamed to say I don't think I liked Solar Defense much as I remember, but that really means nothing, as I only liked shooters.  My motto was, if it wasn't a shooter, it wasn't good.  But to Robert's credit, he had a vision for a game and went for it.  To me that's a game developer.  I left before it was completed, but it seemed pretty darn cool.  It used paddles and supported up to 4 players.  It was maybe a bit like Breakout, or an inside-out Warlords, and probably had great audio.  I don't know what happen to the game after that.  Certainly VentureVision couldn't have released it, as they had 0 cash.  Hopefully they gave the rights for it to Robert.  It'd sure be cool to play it now, finished or not.  It was definitely at least playable the last time I saw it.

Things like PLA instructions I remember 30 years later.  Robert Weatherby's name and the names of my business partners... not so much.  That kind of says it all.

Final venture
I wish that VentureVision deal could have worked out better, but we were a year too late to the party.  You hear about entrepreneurs and I've met many, but these two guys were the real deal.  They put it all on the line, and they pulled a lot off.  They had zero experience with this type of stuff, and they were getting press, suppliers, and manufacturing, and even got us to CES.

Atari

After VentureVision folded and I sold Innerspace to Imagic, I was still living in a trailer in Denton TX because I'd been going to North Texas State on the GI bill.  It was time to look for a job, so I looked through the game magazines and found a bunch of companies looking for programmers.  This was kind of the apex of companies looking for people, just before the crash.  All the companies seemed to be in CA.  I interviewed with a bunch; the smaller the company, the faster they responded to getting a resume.  It was very wild, with all kinds of companies and all kinds of people.

After a few weeks, I was about to accept a job in Sacramento for a company doing desktop computer games on floppies, when Atari called.  I went out and interviewed with Chris Horseman, who I thought was younger than me; he was the youngest VP ever at Atari, of which he was very proud and rightly so.  He was talking a mile a minute about coming from Thorn EMI, and about his submarine game.  He said he was starting an Advanced Games group at Atari that will have maybe 10 of the best developers in the world.  He said he was talking to the dude that wrote Star Raiders (Ed.: Douglas Neubauer), which dropped my jaw because that's a mythic game.  I assumed at the time that the creator of Star Raiders didn't work at Atari.  I'm not really understanding why Chris was telling me all this (Space Cavern is not even in the same zip code as Star Raiders).  Chris then said something like, "Obviously you're not of that caliber.."... which sent me back to reality, "but we're willing to take a chance on a couple of programmers that we think we could teach."  Sign me the F up!  I couldn't believe my luck.

First day at work and it's me, Chris, and Ritta (?), who was Chris's secretary (personal assistant).  Chris was pretty new to Atari, but would never let on.  Ritta actually knew everything.  She took me to a huge filing cabinet and flung open the doors, and this thing was packed.  She said, "Take whatever you want, and if there's anything else you want, just let me know and I'll get it."  She said "want", not "need", and the way she said it, I got the impression if I asked for a lap dance from William Shatner that Ritta would make it happen in a single phone call.

I was given tours of other groups to see their games, and it seemed like they had tons of concepts and prototypes.  I remember seeing a pretty good (graphically, anyways) fighting game like Mortal Kombat.  I remember thinking, and probably saying, "That kind of game will never be popular".  I sure had my finger on the pulse of the future.  If it wasn't a shooter, it wasn't a game.  I still don't get fighting games.  I can go down to the corner bar and get into a fight - very realistic, with excellent audio.  Spaceship blasting creatures?  Now that's cool.

There were only three things missing from the Advanced Games Group:

1. Group
2. Advanced
3. Games

I was kind of waiting for the 'A' team to show up and start showing me their secrets, and then tell me their lunch orders, of course.  But Chris wasn't interviewing anyone I could see.  I started thinking about Final Legacy and studying the Atari 800 internals.  I assume the idea of the sea theme came from Chris; he may have been trying to get me to make a certain game, I don't know.  I did know it didn't work that way.  You can't spec a game.  It has to come from the individual.

I pretty quickly figured out why I'd been hired into the Advanced Games Group - they couldn't find anyone else!  A VP must have at least one employee other than a personal assistant.  I think that's a rule.  The next hire was a hardware guy who knew nothing about games, and didn't really want to know anything about games, but he needed a job to stay in the U.S.  He was from England, like Chris.  He was a funny guy in a Blackadder way and did some good work on a Last Starfighter arcade game.

Soon after, Chris said the "group" was moving to new offices - a room in a coin-op warehouse in the middle of nowhere.  Forklifts, trucks, noise, flumes... the whole enchilada.  I don't know the whole story, but the impression I got was this was when Warner announced the first big loss, like $500 million, which was a lot of money back then.  Chris probably saw the crapstorm on the horizon and hid us under a rock.  I'll bet our budget went tiny real fast.  Smart move, Chris.

When a company shuts down, which I have a great deal of experience with, it's not fun.  People just obsess and worry, and no work gets done.  Out in the warehouse, I could just program, and that's where I got most of Final Legacy done.  We did move back into a normal building at some point, and the group got one or two other people - Eric (?) and an artist working on a laserdisc thing or a music video, using the Twilight Zone song.  As far as I know, Final Legacy was the only game to come out of the Advanced Games Group and it barely got out.

I don't remember ever doing concepts or prototypes, which is kind of strange now that I think about it.  I do remember doing an hourglass where each grain of sand had its own physics.  I'm talking fake video game-type physics, but it looked good to me.  I don't think it was ever used in a game.

Final Legacy


The only mention of Final Legacy in the final issue of Atari Age, March/April 1984 (pg. 13).

Final Legacy was my first chance to have all the time I wanted, with lots of hardware resources - no excuses.  It was all my design, my programming, and my graphics (Ed.: Steve Englehart claims he helped work on ideas for the game, and that the released version is a truncated version of what was originally conceived).  I don't have many Final Legacy stories.  It was basically long, hard work.  I have little idea how long it took.  I started at Atari in April 1983 according to my resume, and probably started working on it a month or two after starting at Atari, so I'd say 1 year.  I was told the game was in manufacturing when Tramiel took over that July (1984), and that some number had been produced (maybe 8,000).  I'm pretty sure someone gave me a copy, which was very nice.

I've always liked post apocalyptic stories - new beginnings, do it right in 2.0 type deals, so the process i
s knowing what can be done on the hardware and melting the story idea into that.  I kind of imagine myself inside the computer and everything is black, turned off.  I can see the RAM, the hardware registers, the CPU... and I start turning on stuff to start building a world.  It was fun being able to be in that story for the 7-12 months Final Legacy took.  It's my favorite theme by far.

I was almost 100% sure Robert Weatherby did the music, but I've since been told Brad Fuller did it.  All these years later, the theme song to Star Trek: Next Generation sounds like Final Legacy and it always make me think of Robert (Ed.: The music was reused from Atari's Superman III game, which Brad also did).  However, the impression I have is Brad wasn't interested in Final Legacy for whatever reason.  I don't think I had a lot of interaction with him, so maybe he just sent me some audio, or maybe only had time for some effects?  I'm less than 99.9% sure now who did the music, but I'm 100% sure I had nothing to do with the composition in any way.  And I sure would have liked Brad to have done the audio, that's for sure.  He was very highly respected as I remember.

Some databases credit Chris for programming and graphics, but I don't remember Chris doing any programming at all on anything (Ed.: The manual credits Chris and Dan for the design, and Dan for the design, programming, and graphics).  I remember seeing him trying to program for a day or two on something and asking a lot of questions when we were in the warehouse.  I thought he was trying to learn programming because Atari was falling apart at that time.  He really looked stressed at the keyboard.  After a day or two, he put his suit back on and went back to whatever VPs do.  He must have been very good at it because he saved our butts many times.  Certainly Final Legacy wouldn't have ever been done without Chris doing all those VP things.  I'm sure lots of other people had suggestions that I probably used, but to me, Final Legacy was a kind of test.  Am I a game designer?  To me, it proved I was never going to be a breakthrough original game designer.  Don't get me wrong, I've very proud of my work.  I'm not a modest person, but there's a reality.  I just couldn't see into the future.  I didn't have the vision to do games on the systems that were coming.  Maybe I just wasn't that into games, so I didn't have enough source material to steal from.  When the ST came along I found what I really liked to do, which was user interface stuff.

   

   

The main map screen was developed first because I was learning about the Atari computer and what it could do.  The expanding/collapsing map was a simple trick which I thought was cool.  Now when I look at the videos of people playing the game I'm like, "Why didn't I speed that up or have a preference for instant switching?"  It looks painfully slow.  Just having a instant switch was a bit jarring, so some transition helped, but come on.  It's not really an Easter egg, but in the game, the city of Kendall is a tiny town in upstate NY where I grew up.

Regarding the international version, it certainly was a standard thing to use icons to internationalize products, at least in my little world.  It was preferred to localizing text.  I must have had a reason as to why all the versions of the game didn't all use icons because they all went out on basically the same day, and having all use icons would have been easier.  My guess is selecting the 4 screens could be done in one joystick move, and the icons were too large for the N-S-E-W layout, so it had to be a horizontal layout requiring more joystick moves (Ed.: The icons are selected with one move.  From right-to-left, the icons are selected UP, LEFT, RIGHT, DOWN).  I remember really liking the one-move selection.

With the green grid screen (Ed.: The Sea to Land E-Beam screen), I was trying to steal from arcade Battlezone.  I loved that game, and loved vector graphics.

Shooting the incoming missiles was basically stealing from arcade Centipede.  I loved when you lined up on the centipede and just whaled away on the fire button, blowing it to bits.  This screen was also tweaked for the Atari Trak-Ball, which they were looking for any game to support. The Trak-Ball worked well for the missiles, as you could get into a rhythm and blow them away like a centipede.  I would have liked to have stolen from Missile Command, too, but I wanted perspective, and Missile Command really only works in 2D.

The torpedo view was pretty original, at least for me.  I was proud of the clouds scrolling at different speeds, and the light from explosions reflecting off the clouds.  I now wish I would have flashed the white in the clouds when the user got hit.  Chris Horseman had done a submarine game for Thorn EMI before coming to Atari, but I'm not sure (Ed.: The only submarine game Thorn EMI released was Submarine Commander, which was programmed by Dean M. Lock, and Chris wasn't a programmer as noted earlier).  It seemed like he talked about some submarine game a lot, and made it sound very realistic, which seemed like a good idea, until you realized being on a sub is pretty boring 99% of the time, which Chris understood.  I wanted more action and didn't let too much reality get in the way, so the bow of the user's ship is suppose to look like a sub running on the surface where in theory it could move faster.  The torpedoes were gray-colored, to appear beneath the water.

 

After seeing photos of Thorn EMI's Submarine Commander, those screens are a lot closer to Final Legacy, especially the map and the periscope screens, so maybe Chris had a lot more input on the design than I remember.  Chris probably wanted Submarine Commander but with more action, and must have showed me the game and offered a lot of ideas about what game I should do, at least initially.  I'm sure I came up with the post apocalyptic angle, which to me was the design.  At least that's my impression, but when brainstorming, a person isn't always aware where an idea actually came from - all ideas that you like become your ideas, and all rejected ideas must have been someone else's.  It's not a fair process.

It's strange my earlier prototype carts only say "Legacy", as I thought "Final Legacy" was used earlier.  I came up with the "Legacy" name pretty much right off, but I distinctly remember who came up with "Final Legacy".  Myself, Chris, and his friend and Product Manager whose name I can't remember (this was the same PM who asked me to do Telepathy) (Ed.: Anthony Jones), were talking about the name.  Maybe the PM and Chris had already been talking about this, but there was some issue with "Legacy" already being used or it was too general a name to clear legal.   anyway the PM came up with Final Legacy, and Chris and I instantly liked it.  I guess that happened later than I remember, after the focus test.

I have a poster of the box artwork, which is a cropped part of the poster.  The poster would have been a giveaway to retailers.  The one I have looks like it's from a production run.  I assumed Atari printed a bunch of them.  I was very proud of the poster when they gave it to me.  To think such a good artist created that for my game was very flattering.  It's probably my most- prized game-related possession because I've kept it and have never considered getting rid of it.

Focus tests and stealing from Atari
To focus test, I made a cart for each tester, with an EPROM in the cart which I had to burn.  These testers were mostly kids found by a company that tests all kinds of products, so I had to make like 12-15 carts.  The video game industry was super paranoid about everything, and with good reason, as we'd steal anything by almost any means, so I burned a unique serial number into each EPROM.  The carts were sent to the kids to play for a week or so, and then they came in on a Friday as a group to discuss the game.  One of the kids said, "Why can't I blow up my own cities?"  Future game designer.

On Monday morning someone (Eric?) pops his head in my office and says, "Your game got ripped off."  Within a week, one of these kids I assumed had duplicated the EPROM and was handing out or selling copies and it had already got back to me.  Small world.  Someone got me a copy, and I found the serial number.  This was a world Chris Horseman excelled at.  Within a really short time, he had the "Stormtroopers" at the ready and formulated a battle plan to make this kid dump a deuce in his shorts.  The plan was to have some PI named "Mad Dog" go have a talk with the kid.  I was in Chris's office when Mad Dog debriefed him.

Mad Dog went to the kid's house and told his mom that a game got lost, and he was investigating.  Mind you, Mad Dog was telling this like a story, and Mad Dog knows we're eating this up.  So he got into the house and asked if he could look through the kid's computer stuff just to make sure the missing game isn't there, you know, by total mistake.  Part of the process involved Mad Dog flicking through the kid's floppies one at a time.  Mad Dog wore several large rings, and he explained that the rings were strong magnets, at which time Chris and I were consumed by laughter, and Mad Dog knew he's collecting a bonus.  There is justice and there is getting even.  Getting even is always better.  Mad Dog then told the kid and mom that the carts were serialized and we knew he was making duplicates.  Deuce hits the shorts, and mom switched from pro-life to pro-choice in a heartbeat.  Kid gave up everything, from his hidden porn stash to where the cart went.  He'd given the cart to a dude working at Hewlett-Packard who used HP's equipment to download the EPROM and make copies.  Mad Dog wasn't involved in what happened to the HP dude, and I have no knowledge of said dude's whereabouts today.  I'm guessing a dozen suits showed up at HP and conveyed Atari's concerns.

So, for the collectors out there, there are 12-15 of these.  All were returned to me at Atari; where they all went from there, I have no idea except for one which I have.  The label was a white paper label handwritten by me - "LEGACY ATARI 1983 Rev 5.3" - and a "CONFIDENTIAL" stamp at the top in red.  They all had exactly the same text, but each ROM image would be different by at least a byte for the serial number.  I don't remember which one was stolen, so there would be more copies of at least one of these.  I'm not sure how copies could be verified (Ed.: By having the original cartridge each came from).  As far as I know, these serialized copies are the only other ones out there.  I probably made some copies for magazines.  Handing out copies was a very scary thing, so I wouldn't even have given my mom a copy.

MindLink and Telepathy


InfoWorld July 9th, 1984 (pg. 35-36).


(RIGHT) Forbes June 4th 1984; (LEFT) Enter September 1984 (pg. 17)

The MindLink Product Manager was a real nice British guy who's name I can't remember (Ed.: Anthony Jones), who was a friend of Chris Horseman's.  He asked me to make the Telepathy prototype.  I didn't meet anyone who worked on the MindLink, just the Product Manager, who asked me to do something in a rush.  He was in some kind of jam and needed it fast, like in a few days, and dumped a bunch of stuff on my desk.  He hung around a lot and offered encouragement, which helped.  I had a reputation for getting something done fast.  It might not be the best, but at least you'd get something.  I thought the MindLink was really dumb at first and too limiting, but after a while I really got to like it.  I got good enough that I could turn down the sensitivity to the point that people couldn't see my eyebrows moving, so it really looked like a mind controller.  It was strange being perfectly still while playing a game.  When I worked on the game, the headset was plugged into the machine.  They had a wireless deal, too, because I guess parents have a problem with wiring their kid's heads to something plugged into the wall.  But I hardly ever used the wireless thing because it ran on batteries.

   

 

Telepathy was meant to just be a short prototype game for playtesting the MindLink controller.  I can't remember using the name Telepathy; that probably came toward the end.  I just think of it as the Mind Controller game.  I don't think they had anything that ran on the MindLink prior to that.  Maybe the hardware engineers had done some software for testing.  Come to think of it, they must have, so I must have been given that.  There wasn't any special programming hardware-wise.  I believe I just read a paddle port.

The unit I used had a (crude) sensitivity dial on it and that determined how much you had to tense your forehead/eyebrow muscles.  At first it could be a real mess for some people, but with a little thinking and practice, you could turn down the sensitivity so much that you could play a game without other people being able to see any movement at all.  It seemed like you were controlling the game with your mind.  It actually got to be relaxing to just sit there playing a game with no movement, almost like yoga. 

The game itself did/could/should do most of the adjusting.  For example, in Telepathy, I start out with a simple screen like Kaboom, where gold nuggets come towards you in a pattern.  I always start the nuggets on the right side of the screen so I can track what kind of max values I read.  That give a basis for what "max" is, and that can be adjusted over and over again.  With only a value that ranged from near 0 to some higher number, there was no up, down, left, right, or fire button, so the game had to be designed accordingly.  For example, in the mine, if you walk over a hole, gravity can move you down.  In the underground river, water flow would move you forward if you swam left or right, which lined you up with an opening.  In the mine, you fall down into the shaft to rescue a hurt miner.  When you hit a wall and keep walking into the wall, the logic changes to mean "climb up" the wall.  So even though you can only move left or right, the player onscreen can be controlled to move up and down, too.

I assume I did the sound for it.  The Product Manager was very active on the development, and could have gone out and found an audio engineer and had them do the audio, and then just handed me some files.  I wouldn't remember if something like that happened.  I could do some things, but I wasn't good at audio.  If there's any music in Telepathy, I'd be pretty sure that would have been done by someone else.  I don't believe I ever created any music myself, as I don't think I'd have a clue how to.

Development flew because the Product Manager really helped with feedback and encouragement, plus I'd written an "instant assembler" and I had a 500K RAM drive, so I could make a change and see it on the screen in 1-3 seconds.  Before that, the turn-around was like 2-3 minutes, so I was doing like 10, 20, 30 times more turns per day.  It completely changed the way I programmed.  Before that, you kind of had to make 3 or 4 changes, which made finding bugs harder.  I could then make a small change and test, and I could try tons more tweaks and experiment way more.  Anyways, I sure don't remember Telepathy taking very long - maybe 3 weeks, but I don't think 4 weeks; probably more like 1-2 weeks.  And the really weird thing was, I was only working 8-hour days.  The concept of working an 8-hour day was very alien while developing a game.  It was thanks to the instant assembler system.  Previously, most of your time was spend waiting for a build, and I'd spend that time thinking about features, coding tricks, and letting previous lessons sink in.  With instant turn-around, that time was removed along with the needed design time.  We'd always considered waiting for builds to be "wasted", but I found out it was important.  So after 8 hours, or even less, I'd run out of things to implement; I was out of ideas, so I'd have to go home and daydream about the game and hit it again the next day.  It was very strange, very different.  The PM was pretty sure nothing at all could be done in 1 or 2 weeks.  After all, Demon Attack couldn't be done, Pitfall couldn't be done, and Pitfall II certainly wasn't possible.

I got to go to the scheduled playtesting for it - one-way glass type stuff with about 20 suits watching.  The biggest problem I remember is, when we focus tested the unit (at least this was the only focus test I saw) and all these kids started using the game, it didn't work.  After a bunch of hardware guys ran around for a while, they figured out the fluorescent lights were messing up the wireless, so the rest of the testing was done pretty much in the dark.  The unit I'd been using for development didn't have a RF transmitter; it was wired directly into the 2600.  I assume the RF problem could have been fixed, but at the time it was a serious issue. 

At first, people would have basically 2 moves - 0 and max.  That would cause the player to move across the sc
reen and you could kind of play Telepathy that way, but that could be exhausting, because to get max, they'd tense their face a lot.  But when you calmed down and actually controlled the player in the middle of the screen, it was fun and required almost no effort.  I enjoyed using the MindLink a great deal, but I probably logged about 100 hours of use on it.  My muscles were a bit tired after the first couple of hours, but then I figured out it didn't take hardly any movement at all.  I don't think I played the game much with a stick.  It was tweaked specifically for the MindLink, and it took maybe 30-60 minutes of play with the controller before a person could start to really play, so it wasn't really a viable product.  We strapped controllers around our legs and arms, so you'd have 4 controllers on you.  I forget how that went; we might have been just screwing around.  I recently learned there were 2 more games that were developed for it - Bionic Breakthrough & Mind Maze.  Looking at it now, Bionic Breakthrough would have been just to user test the MindLink, and it looks like the programmer spent too much time on the splash screen - a classic mistake I've seen made a few times on different projects.   Things like splash screens and Easter egg initials should all be added toward the end if there's time IMO.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty amazing piece of engineering.  I'm not sure the actual reason the project was scrapped was because people got headaches from using it or not.  That's the story I've read on Wikipedia, but that could be more myth than true.  Peoples' hands also got tired when first using a joystick, but that didn't stop joysticks from being released.  People learned you didn't have to hold them so tight or jam the stick.  There were probably several factors that stopped the MindLink - cost vs. profit, low adoption rate, specialized games required, etc.  Plus it's not like the MindLink was a better controller by any means.  It was just unique.  That's a tough business for a company selling into the mass market.  Besides, Atari was just about out of business by the time the MindLink would have come out, but the headache excuse sounds better.

NES preview
Nintendo was ready to roll with their NES mid-1983 (Ed.: According to this memo, Nintendo first approached Atari in April 1983 while their Famicom was still being developed).  Tramiel took over Atari July 1984, so Nintendo would have been looking for titles for the 1985 launch in North American.  The meeting I saw must have happened July or August, because we were all in Monterey by early September.  To me, it looked like they'd been in a meeting for a long time, and this was the end, as no one was sitting.  This happened at like 7 or 8pm at this building on the 2nd floor.  I remember it being dark outside.  Some of us were ushered into a fancy conference room where a game console was set up, and they told us the specs for it, which were impressive.  I don't know, but I think that machine was an NES.  The people there were from Japan, which is the only reason I even think this was Nintendo, but I don't remember anyone telling me it was Nintendo.  The Tramiel boys were all there as well, so it was a high-level meeting.  I hardly ever saw Sam or Gary before then.

The other programmers I can remember who were there (and who might have more info) were Jim Eisenstein, Matt Householder, Dave Staugas, and maybe Dave Getreu and Landon Dyer.  It seemed like they just brought us in as a kind of a courtesy to Nintendo or whoever this was, to feign interest.  The Japanese back then were way into certain social procedures.  I wouldn't say Tramiel was stalling; I don't think they were interested even a little bit because they didn't want anything to do with games, but this was too big a company to blow off.  We were ushered back out into the hallway and quickly asked a few questions about it and no one was excited.  "What'd you think?" was about as in-depth as it got, and they didn't seem interested in our answers, as no one was excited.  That was that.  I don't remember any programmers talking about it later.  "Why would anyone want to put out a new platform?" was the thinking.  The other programmers may have been more interested and played some games, but I wasn't interested even a little.  I figured video games were done forever.  We were surrounded by abandoned office buildings, and the mushroom clouds from the crash were just starting to dissipate.  We were focused on the ST, but Tramiel had less than zero interest in games.  For example, they owned all these titles and I don't remember anyone ever suggesting we should port anything to the ST for its release. They just didn't see value in software, like Apple did.  Just before I left Atari, I'd written a kind of Finder rip-off for the ST (I did Finder for the Apple IIGS) and a Switcher with the help of the OS guys.  Tramiel thought GEM was as good as Mac.  Good luck with that.  I loved the ST, but thought it deserved better software.

My guess is Nintendo would have been looking for Atari programmers to do NES conversions, because if it was just licenses they were after, I assume Tramiel would have been happy to sell licenses all day long, since he had no plans for them.  I don't know the NES very well at all, and I don't know of any Atari games ported to NES, at least in 1985.  Now I'm wondering if the reason programmers were marched through the meeting was to just show Nintendo that Tramiel hadn't fired every programmer.  Basically, we would have been meat on the hoof.  That might also explain why Tramiel had kept some VCS programmers around for a little while, just in case they could make some money off of them, but word was he was charging them rent on their cubes, phones, etc.  They were kept separate from the ST project, and I never even met them.  I don't know why Tramiel did that.

Final Days
I was so at the tail end as I saw only a little bit of the old Atari.  The best stories I've ever heard were from Dave Staugas.  He had some beauties and was funny as hell.  When Tramiel took over, it was a post-apocalyptic world, with empty multi-story office buildings and warehouses with absolutely not a single person in them.  The people just left, with millions of dollars of computer systems all sitting there, still on.  The dozen or so programmers who remained carried away as much as we could and stacked it like cord wood in our "new offices" and in the hallway, but Tramiel pretty quickly got a handle on that.  Weird that it never occurred to me to go to the warehouse, wherever the hell that was, and grab as much of the Final Legacy stuff as I could.  Whoever gave me a copy of it may have gotten it from a warehouse.  Instead, we were going through 40 yard dumpsters and pulling out office supplies and piling up $100k computer systems in our offices like packrats.  I got so many staplers that, in the past 30 years, I've never had to reload a stapler.  I just toss an empty stapler and use the next one.  I don't do a lot of stapling, but geez...  staplers I save, games I leave.  They're freakin good staplers, though; they never jam.  Warner may not have known disk about games, but they knew their office supplies.  I also still have boxes of staples just in case I run out of staplers.

After Atari
I was surprised when Atari got back into games.  They'd called me to do some debugging work on 7800 Desert Falcon after I'd left.  It had a bitch of a bug and locked up after running in demo mode for like 10 hours.  I got it down to running stable for 40 hours, but never found the bug, and I wasn't really that interested, either.  I don't know who the original programmer was or why they didn't finish it.  I'm not even sure I had the source code to use.

I kind of hate to call what we did back in the 80's and what they do today as both being "games".  It's so different.  I went back to games in 1994 and did some larger games at Digital Pictures (Night Trap, What's My Story?), and Any River Entertainment, but I didn't really enjoy those kinds of games at all.  The programming was great fun, though.  Companies like Digital Pictures got it.  The boss would pop his head in and ask, "Need anything?"   "Yeah, a bigger monitor."  20 minutes later... "Where do you want it?"  We had meals every night; anything you wanted.  Anything that would take you away from programming, they eliminated, and we loved that. They had really great game designers, and great management, but the wrong medium, which I guess is a management fault.  I loved working there.  The guys at Digital Pictures told me that having Night Trap in the Congressional hearings and banned from stores put that game on the map.  I got to port the PC and Mac versions because of the infamy.  There's no such thing as bad publicity.  I would have killed to have a game of mine banned in Germany.

When I was at Any River, they had an aliens-on-Earth themed game that was about to come out when the infamous alien autopsy was still hot in the press.  They started getting questions from the press about whether the game was based on the alien autopsy, and they had a meeting to discuss what could be done.  I was like, "Hell yes!  The game is absolutely all about the alien cover-up.  Aliens are real.  We need to do a commercial showing how the alien was killed in our game... yada yada yada.  Hire some lobbyist to make sure the CEO is called before Congress."  But they were worried about getting negative press.  Are you freakin kidding me?!  First company I ever worked at where the venture capitalists shut down the company before the money ran out.  It was the biggest train wreck ever.

I also interviewed a few years back at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment to write tools for Stargate Worlds out here in Phoenix.  It was a huge project, with gigabytes flying everywhere, and more artists than I've ever seen.  They had a full-size Stargate game in the lobby and the typical, hot, "are they of age?" babe receptionists.  It seemed like the old days, except everyone was working on the same game.  All I could think of was, why is this all in Phoenix?  Tons of people, sharp engineers, and I love Stargate, so I thought that was a super license.  They really seemed to know their stuff in every way.  I would have liked making tools for them, but the headhunter made a total mess of it, plus the offer was pretty low, which told me why they were in Phoenix (looking for cheap labor).  That's a red flag to me, so I passed.  I've ridden a lot of companies into the beach, so I can almost smell death being right around the corner.

Final thoughts
I liked FreeCell and would play it 12-15 hours at a time.  FreeCell!  That's not healthy.  I had to block it from my browser.  So it's a Catch-22; if I liked a game, I'd have to stop playing it.  I go out of my way to not play games for fear of addiction.  I won't play golf or try Altoids, either.  My addiction to programming at least pays the rent...  some months.  I don't even have my 2600 anymore.  I sold it like years ago at a yard sale.  The guy who bought it really lit up seeing the 2600, as it brought back memories for him.  His wife didn't seem as thrilled.  I had what I thought was a high price, maybe $50, because I would had just as soon keep it.  I probably should have told him I programmed games for it.  Maybe he would have paid full price.  I got rid of all my Apple computers.  I had a Woz machine.  I might still have that.  I'm trying to be more of minimalist.  If I kept everything I'd worked on, I'd be buried.

I don't know if this is common knowledge or not but, most game programmers I met back then were either into audio or visual arts.  I forget where but, several us were sitting around shooting the breeze and someone said something about playing an instrument and someone else said that they also played an instrument.  Pretty soon we realized everyone there played a musical instrument or had been a painter.  I remember it being a little freaky and us all being surprised.  We kind of wondered if that was why we all did games.

If the concept for Tempest had been focus tested, it would have never been made.  After Tempest was out, people could then say they wanted more games like Tempest.  The axiom remains true.  Product development doesn't really have a lot to do with what people currently want.  Steve Jobs never surveyed users.  He'd say something like, "Build what they're going to want, not what they want today."


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