Brad Stewart interview
By Scott Stilphen
From helping a criminal escape...to tracking them down...to being a hero, either on the ground or in outer space- Brad Stewart’s games have it covered. Besides being a successful game programmer and designer, he’s also an accomplished musician, and currently an engineer at Pinnacle Systems, which is a leading manufacturer of professional video equipment. He was kind enough to take some time out and reflect on his past work in the video game industry.
Q: Ok, let’s start with the “requisite” question on your educational/technical background!
Brad Stewart: I have a B.S. in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, 1972. I actually have more credits in computer science than psychology, but at the time Pitt didn't offer an undergraduate degree in C.S.
Q: After school, did you work anywhere before going to Atari?
Brad Stewart: My first job out of school was with Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. I wrote software for a prototype computer mounted under the hood of a car which controlled spark timing and exhaust gas recirculation. At the same time, Ford's aerospace division in Palo Alto wanted to build the production computers, since they had experience designing electronics for hostile environments, such as satellites. They tried to transfer someone from California to Michigan to become familiar with the project, but couldn't get anyone to volunteer to move. Instead, they hired me on-site and transferred me to California. I worked for Ford for two years before joining Atari in May of 1977. I can't remember exactly who hired me, but Bob Brown was the manager of the department at the time.
Q: Breakout is a remarkable translation. Besides (obviously) playing many hours of the coin-op version, did you have any technical hurdles to overcome with the translation? If so, did the programmer/designer of the game offer any advice or help?
Brad Stewart: No, I didn't talk to the programmer. I'm not even sure there was one since it's quite possible the coin-op version was done in hardware. I don't even know who the designers were.
There were no obstacles to overcome except for my learning curve with the TIA display chip. One day Joe Decuir mentioned, "If I was doing this game, this is what I would do." and in a few minutes the light dawned and the rest of the implementation was (relatively) straightforward.
Q: You once mentioned that the PAL version of Breakout had a “bug” in it, with respect to the ball hitting the paddle. I noticed it sometimes really” jumps” off it, especially if the ball hits the middle of the paddle. Was a corrected version ever released?
Brad Stewart: I don't know if they fixed the PAL version. Perhaps not, since it was described as the "jump" variation in the manual, and they then would have had to redo the manual, too (Ed.: In the Breakout manual (under the ‘Playing Tips’ section) the ball jumping glitch is mentioned: “When the ball makes contact with the center section of the paddle, the ball will jump”).
Q: At the recent Classic Gaming Expo show, you recalled a great story about how you became the programmer for Breakout. Would you mind re-telling it?
Brad Stewart: I had been working on the Rosemary project, which was a base unit using a Signetics chip set. This was, I believe, intended as a backup in case something went wrong with production of the VCS 2600 base units. Eventually this project was cancelled, and I was ready to start writing a VCS game. Another programmer, Ian Shepherd, became available at the same time. Since Breakout was one of the titles we were going to do, and since there was a coin-op Breakout game in the coffee room, Ian and I decided to play for the coding rights. I can't remember which of us went first, but I managed to knock down both walls of bricks with one ball, then leave the game in "lock up" mode where the ball continues to bounce off the same place on a motionless paddle and retrace the same path over and over. Ian missed when it was his turn to play, so the coding rights went to me.
Q: Out of curiosity, have you ever read David Sudnow’s book, Pilgrim in the Microworld (which basically deals with his obsession with Breakout)?
Brad Stewart: Yes, I have. David interviewed me for the book and was nice enough to send me an autographed copy.
Q: So you were the programmer he wrote of, who he contacted at Atari when doing his research?
Brad Stewart: Yes, although I can't remember if he interviewed anyone else. I think it's interesting that he approached video games from the viewpoint of a pianist learning how to apply his hand-eye skills to video games. Some time after the book came out I learned how to play the oboe, so I applied my skills in the opposite direction from David.
Q: I believe Asteroids was the first bank-switched (8K) VCS game ever released. Were you involved with developing the bank-switching technology?
Brad Stewart: The bank switching hardware was developed by Carl Nielsen's group. The only software required was a half a dozen or so lines of code in each bank. Asteroids needed the 8K, though. After the game was complete, Bob Smith and I spent some time using every trick we knew to try to get it into 4K, but it just... would... not... fit!
Q: There are two “versions” of Asteroids that exist - one with a “(c) 1981 Atari, Inc.” copyright screen and the other w/o it. Do you remember what version you made (copyright screen or no copyright screen)?
Brad Stewart: There was no copyright screen in my version. I was never consulted about this, and I don't know who added the copyright.
Q: Along the left side of the screen is an area (roughly the size of a medium asteroid in width) that, if your ship is in it, you can harmlessly pass through any asteroid that is moving to the right (wrapping around from the right side) for a few seconds, unless most of the asteroid is visible (the trick is most effective with the large asteroids). When you approach this area (from the right), your ship takes a little "jump" as it enters it. Also, it seems that your shots aren't always lined up with the nose of the ship. This is a bit more noticeable in the area described above. Were you aware of either of these?
Brad Stewart: No. The area on the left of the screen would seem to be the result of a quirk in the ship-asteroid collision detection, probably caused by the wrap-around of coordinates at the edge of the screen. I don't remember trying to fix this during the debugging process, so either it would have taken too much time or code to remedy, or else I missed it entirely. Nor did I do anything about the shot alignment. There is a tendency, while developing a game, to ignore flaws like this because they begin to seem normal, and the eye ceases to notice them. You would think that during the testing process other people would have seen these, but perhaps the expectations of quality were not as high back in that era.
(LEFT) Artistic rendering shown in catalogs; (RIGHT) Screenshot from a hacked version showing the reserve ship icons
Q: Someone recently discovered some code in your Asteroids game that displays reserve ship icons on the screen! The code was disabled, but he was able to make a version with it enabled. Early catalog photos showed a game screen with these ship icons. I was curious to know if you remember why this was dropped from the final version.
Brad Stewart: Wow, I had forgotten all about that until I saw the photos you sent. I'm afraid I'm continuing to forget, though. I have no idea why this was disabled. I do remember that just before the cartridge was released I was trying desperately to squeeze it into 4K. It would make sense that removing the ship icon display would save some bytes. Perhaps after the decision was made to go with 8K the code was compiled back in, but that wouldn't explain why it remained disabled. This is just a theory, as I have no recollection of what actually happened. Too many years have gone by.
News blurb from the Winter 1981 issue of Electronic Games, claiming a 4K version of the game was shown a year before being released
Q: You also did Music Composer for the Atari 400/800 computers. Did you write any other games, or were you involved in any other projects, outside of programming for the VCS, while at Atari?
Brad Stewart: Besides the Rosemary project I mentioned before, I tried to get the R&D people interested in designing a personal music keyboard, along with John Dunn. I even named the project "Wanda", but it never caught on with management and never had any resources allocated to it. Oh well, the success of the Casio keyboards and others like it proved the idea was a good one.
Q: When did you join Imagic?
Brad Stewart: I joined Imagic in September of 1981.
Q: What was the idea/motivation behind Firefighter...
Brad Stewart: When I first joined Imagic, the president of the company thought a bullfighting cartridge would be a good idea. I went as far as getting a book on bullfighting out of the library, but reading about what was involved made me vaguely queasy. I thought about doing something less violent, and remembered a kid in my homeroom in school that was nuts about being a fireman. I figured there were enough other people out there that could identify with being a hero fighting fires that the game would have appeal.
Q: ...and Sky Patrol?
Brad Stewart: I'm not sure where the idea for Sky Patrol originated. I do remember that when I was in college I helped out on a hot air balloon's ground crew. It was foggy that day, so the balloon never lifted off, but the pilot sure talked a lot to pass the time while we were waiting for the weather to clear. He mentioned the time delay between hitting the burners and when the balloon would actually rise. This struck me as an idea for good game play; to require the player to perform an action now that won't have an effect until some time later. The player would always have to be thinking a step or two ahead of what was happening at the moment.
Q: Was it completed? Can you describe how to play it, or what the goal in the game is (or was to be)?
Brad Stewart: No, sadly, Sky Patrol remains unfinished. I envisioned the goal as getting from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time. There would be clouds at several different altitudes that would show the speed and direction of the winds at that level. The player would then burn fuel to ascend, or dump hot air to descend to the altitude that had the most favorable winds. Of course, the supply of fuel would be limited, and the winds would constantly be shifting.
Q: I remember seeing a tank/anti-aircraft gun somewhere in the game. Judging from the game's artwork, there were going to be biplanes as well (a German Fokker from the looks of it). Was a two-player option ever an idea - one player controlling an Allied observation balloon, the other German planes or Central power ground artillery?
Brad Stewart: There was an anti-aircraft gun in the game design that would force the player to ascend. As I remember it, ascending was a good thing because faster winds would be blowing at higher altitudes. Biplanes might have been hard to work into the game play because they made short work of barrage balloons. The player would have no easy escape. All cartridges had a two player option, but I planned on having a race between two balloons.
Q: Were these the only 2 games you did for Imagic?
Brad Stewart: I also did the Apple II version of an adventure game based on Sherlock Holmes. I don't remember what title wound up on the box. We always referred to it as "Sherlock Holmes”. This was the first and last time I worked on a game as part of a team. We had a professional writer (Pete Golden) for the text of the game, and an artist (Michael Becker) to do a graphic of each character to be displayed when that person was in the room. The team was a real foreshadowing of the way games are developed today.
Q: When did you start at Parker Brothers? Was Star Wars: The Arcade Game the only game/project you did for them?
Brad Stewart: Actually, I never worked for Parker Brothers as an employee. Originally, Imagic had a contract with Parker Brothers to produce Star Wars. Parker Brothers paid Imagic, and Imagic then paid me. When Imagic collapsed, the project wasn't finished. I became an independent contractor to Parker Brothers, and they paid me directly. It was then I discovered the joys of paying my own social security tax. Star Wars was the only game I did for Parker Brothers.
Q: Were there any games that you started, but didn't finish or get released (besides Sky Patrol)? Also, do you recall any other titles that others were working on but weren't released (either at Atari or Imagic)?
Brad Stewart: Wow, this question really makes me realize how much I've forgotten since I've left the industry. I have a hard enough time keeping track of games that were released! I did toy with a version of the old game, Battleship, right after I finished Breakout, but I never went anywhere with it, and I don't have any ROMs, of course.
At Imagic I wrote a kernel to simulate a radar screen with the idea of writing an air traffic control game, but that idea languished as well.
Q: Were the games that you wrote ones that were chosen or assigned?
Brad Stewart: All the games I've done I've chosen. Sometimes it was from a rather short list, but there was always a choice involved.
Q: Do any of your other games have any differences (like those with Breakout and Asteroids) or glitches/bugs in them?
Brad Stewart: Not to my knowledge, but every program has an undiscovered bug, doesn't it?
Q: Great answer! Yes, I suppose they do :) Are there any Easter eggs in any of your titles?
Brad Stewart: No, I never had the time or extra bytes to implement any of these (Ed: I discovered later that Firefighter does in fact have some Easter eggs! Hidden in the flame animation are the initials “BS”, along with a smiley face - link).
Q: How was it working for companies like Atari and Imagic?
Brad Stewart: I enjoyed working at both places. I came to Atari from Ford Aerospace, so I had some culture shock going from an old, established company to a young, energetic one. They never had beer bash Fridays at Ford. The bad experiences all seem to stem from the long hours at the end of a project, trying to shake the last bugs out of the code, or making the game fit in the cartridge size. The good experiences revolved from being around the bright, creative people who worked with me.
Q: Besides at shows like CGE, do you ever see any of your fellow ex-Atari and Imagic game programmers around?
Brad Stewart: CGE was great. I'm really glad I went. It's interesting that people recognize playing the old games as a different, but still enjoyable, experience from the games of today. Except for Bob Smith, the only time I see my old cronies is at events such as CGE.
Q: What are/were some of your favorite games?
Brad Stewart: My favorite coin-op game was Missile Command. Perhaps this was because it was the only one that I became even moderately skilled in playing. I also liked Battlezone. I never got to the point where I would play a VCS game for hours on end, so I can't say I have a favorite. The two computer games that I played a lot were Myst and F18/Hornet.
Q: From your work with Music Composer and the Wanda project, I take it you are a musician. Is this a hobby of yours, or have you played in bands?
Brad Stewart: Yes, I do have an interest in music. I started playing guitar in college, mostly bass. I never had any formal lessons, though. When my daughters began taking band in jr. high, I decided to learn how to play another instrument. Since one daughter was learning flute and the other clarinet, I thought the oboe would be a good choice, so that we could play as a trio. Little did I know how hard the oboe is to play. Eventually I joined the San Jose Metropolitan Band, which is non-profit, whose members play for fun. They play marches, show tunes, classics, etc., at art and wine festivals, Fourth-of-July fireworks shows, malls at Christmas, and so on. Unfortunately, I'm not with them anymore as I started taking night classes in Chemistry, and the lab was the same night as rehearsals.
Q: Can you describe your career, between Parker Brothers and now, and why you left the video game industry?
Brad Stewart: I left the industry because I got burned out on games after 12 years. I worked for a graphics display company, Ramtek, for a short time before joining a start-up called Digital F/X. They made professional-level ($100,000+) video equipment and tried to branch out into desktop video before going under. My next job was at the opposite end of the price spectrum - Videonics makes consumer video editing equipment, and most of their units sell for just a few hundred dollars. It was nice that Videonics went public while I was there. Some engineers I had worked with at Digital F/X lured me to Pinnacle Systems in Mountain View. Pinnacle makes a broad range of video equipment from the professional to consumer-level (see our web site at www.pinnaclesys.com). The project I'm working on at the moment allows our company's TARGA 3000 graphics board to be used as an accelerator for the Adobe Premiere video editing application.
TV commercials for Breakout, Asteroids, and Star Wars: The Arcade Game:
Be sure to check out the PBS show Enterprise's documentary on Imagic:
For more information on Sky Patrol, see this article.
Below are screen shots from the PBS show, Enterprise, which showcased Imagic in one of their episodes (click on photos for larger pictures). Near the end of the show, there is footage showing programmer Brad Stewart and Imagic president Bill Grubb discussing some ideas for the game (including storm clouds) while riding in a hot air balloon!
|Rosemary project||Atari||not completed|
|Battleship||Atari VCS/2600||Atari||not completed|
|Load 'N Go||Atari 400/800||Atari (APX)||released|
|Music Composer I||Atari 400/800/5200||Atari||released|
|Wanda keyboard project||Atari||not completed|
|Sky Patrol||Atari VCS/2600||Imagic||not completed|
|"air traffic control" game||Atari VCS/2600||Imagic||not completed|
|Sherlock Holmes in Under the Boardwalk||Apple II||Imagic||unreleased|
|Star Wars: The Arcade Game||Atari VCS/2600||Parker Brothers||released|
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