David Lamkins interview

By Scott Stilphen
(2004)

 

Q: What college did you attend, and what was your degree in?

David Lamkins: I graduated from UMass/Amherst with a BS in Computer Science.  I should have graduated in '76, but took some time off half-way through and graduated in '79.  I was in the first group of undergrads to matriculate with a CS degree.  The undergrad program was not actually certified at the time I graduated, so the University gave me a general science degree and changed it to CS once they had dotted all their “I”’s and crossed all their “T”'s.

The really cool thing about going through the program when I did is that there was really no separation between the graduate students and the undergrads going through the CS program.  We all took the same classes, so I was really encouraged to dig right in and do useful, interesting work right from the start.


           (LEFT) Some of Executive Games' staff.  Glen Dash is the 4th from the left; (RIGHT) Dave Lamkins and Jim Riggins playing one of Executive Games' games

 


Executive Games Face-Off system.  Photo courtesy of Todd Marshall.

 

Q: Before going to Parker Brothers, you worked as a repair technician at Executive Games.  You mentioned that during your time at Executive Games, you were “encouraged” as you say to promote a fictitious product.  Did you have any issue with being asked to do that?  What was the point of Executive Games doing that if they had no intention of building the product?  A last-ditch effort to seek investment capital?

David Lamkins: I was young, and Executive Games was the first real company I had worked for (this was one of the things I did in between the first and second halves of my college education).  With the benefit of hindsight, I probably should have balked at participating in that ruse.  The company's owner appealed to my creative side - I basically invented the product during a telephone conversation with a member of the press.  Too bad I never got to develop that idea...

Frankly, I'm not sure that Executive Games had no intention of developing a microprocessor-based game.  With the MIT grads Executive Games had as co-founders, they certainly had the talent to be able to go ahead with development. Still, I recall having the impression that pre-announcing an undeveloped product was (at least partially) a matter of pride for the company's owner - his response to the announcement of the Fairchild console.

Q: Although your primary game development at Parker Brothers was limited to doing music and sound effects, your overall experience is different from a typical game programmer, in that you’re quite adept at hardware design as well.  But what you were able to achieve with the 2600’s sound capabilities is just amazing.  Very few games exploited the system’s 2 sound channels so distinctively as much as a game like Frogger.  Do you attribute this to your experience with hardware, or are you a musician?

David Lamkins: You have to remember that it wasn't unusual for programmers to know a lot about hardware in those days.  The computer science program at UMass, for example, covered everything from digital logic design to AI.  Even programmers who got into the field without formal education in computer science were better off if they could read a schematics and chip spec sheets, especially if they worked in real-time programming or hardware interfacing of some sort.

Q: You mentioned (in the 2600 Connection) that when you started at Parker Brothers, Rex Bradford’s Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back game was nearly finished.  Given that Parker Brothers' first 2 releases were Frogger and ESB, and knowing that you did the soundtrack for Frogger, do you recall if Frogger was nearly done as well?  Did it originally have any music coded before you worked on it?

David Lamkins: I think that the Frogger development had just started when I joined the company.

The Frogger theme music was the second thing I did at Parker Brothers, right after finishing the development system hardware and software.  The sound chip on the VCS used a programmable frequency divider to generate musical tones.  There were only 5 bits of resolution in that divider.  The two highest notes were an octave apart, and lower notes got closer together.  The frequency ratio between the two lowest notes was 31/32. Obviously, this arrangement was not going to give you notes on an even-tempered scale.

Jim McGinnis had written a BASIC program to run on the DEC minicomputer that hosted our 6502 cross-assembler.  I think he and Rex used that to help them adapt the Star Wars theme for the first Parker Brothers cartridge.  The program knew about the frequencies that the VCS sound chip could produce, and compared those to the notes of an even-tempered scale.  If I remember correctly, you fed the program a set of desired musical notes and it responded by telling you which VCS divisors to use and how close to proper intonation each note would be.

Now, I didn't write the Frogger music.  What I did do was to adapt the attract-mode music of the arcade game to fit within the musical capabilities of the VCS.  I had to tinker with the melody a bit so all the notes would be in tune when played on the VCS.  If you listen to the arcade game and the VCS game side by side, you'll find that the music is similar, but not identical.  Jim's program eliminated a lot of the tedium, but the process of adapting the theme music to the VCS was still largely trial-and-error.

Q: Was Jim able to take that program with him to use at Activision?

David Lamkins: I don't know.  I don't recall having used it at Activision.  Jim was very conscientious about respecting intellectual-property rights, so I'm sure we wouldn't have taken that program if it belonged to Parker Brothers.

Q: Do you have any recollections or stories involving your work with the Spider-Man game?

David Lamkins: I believe that was Laura Nikolich's first game.  The big technical challenge in that one was drawing the web without using a lot of resources.  I remember that when Jim described the algorithm, I immediately recognized it (from my hardware background) as a digital differential analyzer (DDA) even though I don't think we were calling it that.

I worked on the music and sound effects for Spider-Man.  In this case, we were developing the game from an in-house concept rather than an arcade machine.  If I recall correctly, there was a Spider-Man cartoon on Saturday-morning TV that we used as a point of departure.  Since the cartoon theme music ran far too long for our purposes, I got to take some liberties in adapting the theme for the game.  Creating convincing sounds for "thwip" and "splat" was a lot of fun.  I knew I was done with that when people started coming into my office and saying, "Yes, that's *it*!"

Q: Were there any other games that you wanted to do the sound or music for, but didn't get the chance?

David Lamkins: Not really.  Doing music and sound effects didn't take up a lot of my time.  And aside from Reactor, there wasn't much video game music that I found at all inspiring.  I came of age in the era of acid rock and hard rock music, and cartoon-y theme music just didn't excite me.

A major part of my job was being a liason between the Marketing people and the developers.  The way the company worked, it was the Marketing people who effectively had creative control over the choice of games, gameplay concepts, etc.  I spent a lot of time patiently explaining to the Marketing people that last-minute brilliant ideas, no matter their creative merit, would be a bigger change than they anticipated and would delay the release of the game.  I lost track of how many times I had to answer the argument, "It's just code, can't you people type faster?".  I spent a lot of time in the latter days of my brief stay at Parker Brothers involved in discussions about retention plans (which led to a deferred royalty payment system for the programmers) and in selection of new development tools to meet the company's anticipated growth.

Q: Besides the in-house VCS development system you helped design for Parker Brothers, what other equipment or tools were available?

David Lamkins: We used a PDP-11 system for editing and assembling code.  Rob Orlov and Jon Hueras were Parker Brothers' full-time computer gurus, responsible for operating and maintaining it. The PDP-11 was a bit underpowered for the number of programmers we had, and we knew it was only going to get worse.  DEC was just introducing the VAX as a high-powered successor to the PDP-11, but Rob's contacts told us that the VAX wasn't quite fully baked back then. We spent a lot of time researching and justifying alternatives, and ended up dropping close to a million dollars on a DEC PDP-10.  The 10 certainly had the horsepower to support a small army of game programmers.  Its best feature, though, was a multiplayer point-of-view space war game that you could play on the character-based video terminals.

Somehow we also managed to buy a New England Digital Synclavier to use for development of music and sound effects.  If I remember correctly, the argument was that - looking beyond the VCS - we'd soon be dealing with games that had much better music and sound capabilities and we'd need a more appropriate tool (than Jim's BASIC program) on which to compose musical scores.

Q: Were the games you worked on chosen by you, or assigned?

David Lamkins: All the games were selected because they were licensable properties.  I was told that's the way Parker Brothers worked - they wanted the license owners to worry about defending the intellectual property.  That's why Parker Brothers never did original games (at least not before the Gang of Five left - I didn't pay much attention to what happened at Parker Brothers after that.)

If you're asking how it was decided who worked on what game, I honestly don't remember.

Q: Did Parker Brothers suggest what type of game to design with these non-arcade titles, or was that solely up to the programmer to decide?  And if so, why wasn't that enough, in terms having the freedom of designing an 'original' game, per se, or was the main reason for the desire to do unlicensed games strictly for royalty payments?

David Lamkins: As I recall, there was some pretty specific input from Marketing.  I think they did the game storyboards.  The programmer's role was limited to interpretation.  So although there were some "original" games based upon licensed characters, the programmer's role in game development was still severely constrained.

Q: Parker Brothers' 30-day code freeze is something I have not heard of any other company doing (either then or now).  Do you recall who’s idea that was?  It’s unfortunate that today’s market simply won’t allow such a strict QA policy.  If anything, games now certainly could benefit from it.

David Lamkins: Jim McGinnis told me about it when I joined the company.  He was, from what I saw, the most vocal and articulate defender of that policy.  As far as I knew, his boss supported that policy.  From an economic viewpoint, the policy made a lot of sense.  Time to market was everything.  If we missed getting a cartridge on the retailers' shelves in time for the Christmas buying season, it would have been bad news.  Everything had to be scheduled so we'd have plenty of time to get the ROMs manufactured and QA’d, then get production of the cartridges ramped up.

We also knew that any bugs that customers found could hurt our business. We discussed it in terms of potentially having to issue a product recall if we shipped buggy code.

Q: Do you recall what projects you were working on (that were unfinished) when you and the “gang of 5” decided to leave?

David Lamkins: I remember that Mike Brodie was working on Super Cobra, a side-scroller with a helicopter flying a mission inside caverns.  The only reason I remember that is because Parker Brothers wanted to make sure that Mike didn't take with him some code that he invented specifically for that game. The only relative info I have about Super Cobra was that it was originally set for release as a 4K cart but was re-programmed as an 8K cart, and released 9-12 months late (possibly b/c of Mike leaving?  If so, I don't know who finished it).

The rest of us, I'm not sure...

Q: When did you leave Parker Brothers to start up Activision’s Boston group?  When did it close up?

David Lamkins: Unless the dates on my resume have mutated, we would have left Parker Brothers in late '82.  It took a couple months for Activision to locate and set up an office for us.  The office closed in the spring of '84.

Q: What was the outcome of the suit Parker Brothers brought against you and the others (when you left Parker Brothers)?  I can't imagine it went very far, since as you mentioned, nearly all of Parker Brothers' "trade secrets" were gleaned from looking at Activision's own games!

David Lamkins: It was settled out of court with the usual restrictions on disclosure. Aside from a meeting or two during the discovery process, the Gang of Five was effectively shielded from whatever legal maneuverings took place.

Q: You once mentioned some of the projects that others were working on - Rex had a 3-D perspective golf game based on fractal terrain generation, Charlie Heath had a scrolling cave-exploration game, Mike was working on fancy display techniques, and you were working on your “bird” game.  I’m guessing that the Boston office wasn’t open very long, since neither Rex’s or Charlie’s game sounds like any game that Activision released.  Were any games from your office released? 

David Lamkins: No, they weren't.

Q: Was there any pressure, either from your manager, Jim Charne, or the main office in CA to have something ready to release by such-and-such a date (considering the office was open for just over a year before being closed down)?

David Lamkins: No, there wasn't any explicit deadline pressure.  Activision had a policy of treating their programmers as creative talent (some of the execs came from the music business) and tried their best to provide a work environment where creativity could flourish.  Business was booming at the time Parker Brothers' crew "defected" to Activision, but it hit a rather dramatic downturn over the course of the following year.  During that year, Activision went public with very disappointing results.

Q: From your description, Bird sounded very original!   Do you recall if it would have been an 8k game (or larger)?

David Lamkins: It was an 8K game, using bank switching.

Q: Do you have any notes or concept drawings from its development?

David Lamkins: Sadly, I took nothing with me except one prototype cartridge of Bird (and I wasn't even supposed to have that) when Activision closed the office in 1984.  That prototype is long gone from my hands.  I'm just not big on hanging on to things that I don't use.  It's possible that I sold it at my yard sale before moving to Oregon in 1994, so it could still be out there in someone's collection.  It's equally possible that it ended up in the trash long before that.  I just have no idea.  Activision wasn't interested in publishing the game, so to me it was effectively dead.  I never imagined that someone might actually be interested in the game some twenty years later.

There would have been a cartridge or two in the materials inventoried from the Boston office, and the source code was on the hard disk from the office minicomputer, but that's all apparently long gone as well.

Q: Do you recall any “Easter eggs” or hidden tricks/messages in any games that either you worked on, or games by others?

David Lamkins: Nothing useful, I'm afraid.

I do remember someone (probably Rex) discovering that the original Parker Brothers cartridge, The Empire Strikes Back, was remarkably resilient even if you started running the program from the wrong memory location.  (That's something you can do using the development system, but not the game console.)  It didn't play correctly, of course, but all sorts of interesting sounds and graphic effects resulted.

Q: Were there any glitches or bugs in any games (after they had been released)?  Do you recall any games having to be revised to fix something?

David Lamkins: Not while I was there.

Q: Why did you ultimately decided to leave the game industry?  And have you ever thought of returning to it?

David Lamkins: At the time the Activision office closed, the industry was in a crisis fed by too much product of questionable quality.  I was a young father and first-time homeowner at the time, and didn't want the financial risks of going independent.  (In fact, I closed on my first house right after the Activision office closed.)

No, I haven't considered going back into the industry.  I like being able to work on projects where I get to have a good understanding of everything that's happening.  Video games have become complex enough that I'd probably have to specialize in one particular area in order to participate.  (I have to admit, though, to being intrigued by the notion of developing game AI.)

Music is my creative outlet now.  I play guitar in a couple of local bands that perform original music.

Q: Valid reasons, to be sure!  I know that Rex, Charlie, Mark Lesser, and Ray Miller went on to found Microsmiths in 1984, after Activision…

David Lamkins: Those guys had a passion for video games that I didn't share.  After Activison/Massachusetts shut down, I went straight to Motorola/Codex to develop a videoconferencing system.  I just wasn't interested in making a sacrifice to stay in an industry that was, at the time, rapidly declining.

Rex, Charlie, Mark, and Ray all lived and breathed video games.  They looked ahead to better times, and were willing to make sacrifices to stay in the industry they loved.  But I'm pretty sure they went through some really lean times while the industry "rebooted" itself. 

Q: I heard you attended the infamous "prototype party" where Bird was demoed.  Is this true?  If so, do you recall any details from that gathering?

David Lamkins: I went to a number of parties at Laura Nikolich's house.  I don't recall a specific "prototype party".  If it happened after 1994, that was after my move to Oregon.  I didn't visit Massachusetts again until 2002.

Q: Are you still in touch with any former Parker Brothers programmers/alumni, or have any contact info for them?

David Lamkins: No, I've been completely out of touch since leaving Massachusetts.  Before that, I only saw the Parker Brothers gang once a year at Rex's fall party.

I could have sworn that Laura was programming a Care Bears game when the Gang of Five departed Parker Brothers (Ed.: She was.).  Maybe I'm getting that confused with Strawberry Shortcake...

I remember hearing that Mark Lesser had moved over to doing game console programming.  While I was at Parker Brothers, Mark did programming for the hand-held games.  I associate his name with a Lord of the Rings game for the 2600, but I don't know whether he had anything to do with the planned sequel, LOTR II.

Q: What are some of your personal favorite games (for any platform)?  What are your thoughts on the current state of gaming?

David Lamkins: I haven't paid much attention at all to video games since I got out of the industry.  Back in the early 80s, my favorite games were the arcade games: Zaxxon, Xevious, Tempest, and Tac-Scan.  They're all visually striking (each in its own way) and they all invoke a strong visceral response.  Runner-up would have to be Reactor, not so much for the game play, but for that great guitar riff it played in attract mode.

 

To learn more about Mr. Lamkins work history, you can view his resume online, at: http://psg.com/~dlamkins/dbl/home.php

For a great overview of Executive Games’ history, featuring a nice sidebar written by David, visit: http://www.pong-story.com/executivegames.htm.

Below is an autobiography that appeared in the July / August 2002 (#74) issue of the "2600 Connection" newsletter:

My name is David Lamkins.  I worked for Parker Brothers in 1982, and was one of the Gang of Five to ‘defect’ to Activision.  I’ve been out of touch with the games industry since the market cratered in 1984.  Lately, as a result of my lovely young wife’s public teasing about my involvement with Parker Brothers' port of Frogger, I’ve become aware that there are a lot of retro gamers who are interested in what things were like “back in the day”.  I keep trying to tell people that it’s not as exciting as they may think, but still they persist…  This then, is my story.

First, let me cut to the chase.  You’ve never seen a 2600 game authored entirely by me.  I adapted the arcade soundtracks for Parker Brothers' Frogger and Spider-Man, and programmed some of the Spider-Man sound effects.  So why did I work at Parker Brothers, if not to create games?

I had been working for several years in a consulting firm that created microprocessor hardware and firmware (a.k.a. software in ROM) for customers that were known primarily to scientists and engineers.  In other words, not a very broad market.  I had been wanting for some time to find a job where my work would be appreciated by a larger audience.  I had been scanning the help wanted ads for months, not really finding anything that wasn’t at least as unfulfilling as my current job.  The technology companies of the day were, for the most part, old-school spin-offs of the declining aerospace and mainframe computer industries.

Imagine, then, my joy and surprise when I saw Parker Brothers running an ad for software engineers for an exciting new (yet unannounced) product.  At Parker Brothers' next employment open house, I met Jim McGinnis, the hiring manager.  We did the whole initial interview thing on the spot.  Jim struck me as being a bright, articulate guy and I (I later learned) struck Jim as being maybe a bit too laid back for their group.  If I remember correctly, I had to ask repeatedly what the nature of the project was for which Jim was hiring.  Eventually, he relented and – after swearing me to secrecy – took me behind a screen to see an almost-finished version of Rex Bradford’s Star Wars Empire Strikes Back game (other Parker Brothers people were also present at the open house, but in retrospect I’m not sure who I met that evening).  I had seen the 2600 in local department stores with the included Combat game (either the market was just on the verge of taking off, or I wasn’t paying much attention to games at the time).  That Star Wars game was the coolest thing I had ever seen, especially the music.  I loved the musical soundtrack to the game.

Over the next week I called Jim a couple times and told him I was really interested in working on 2600 games at Parker Brothers.  Eventually Jim told me that he and the other people I talked to at the open house got the impression I wasn’t very excited about what they were doing.  I managed to convince Jim during that phone call that I was indeed excited about working on video games, and he offered me a job as a game developer.

Parker Brothers was my 3rd full-time job.  Jim was certainly not the last manager who noted that I’m reserved about things which excite everyone else.  I can quickly grasp the possibilities of something new and exciting, but I tend to keep things to myself until I’ve thought through all the angles and know how to separate viable possibilities from pipe dreams and half-baked ideas.  My employers have learned to spin that part of my personality in a positive light – I’m often cited by my managers has having a “calming influence upon the development process” thanks to my tendency to try to fully understand a problem before proposing a solution.

On the day I started working at Parker Brothers, the Star Wars game was nearly finished.  I wish that I could remember exactly who was already working there, but 20+ years have taken its toll.   I know that Rex and Jim were already there, as was Mark Lesser (Mark was still working on handheld games at that time). I’m almost certain that the “Eds” (Ed English and Ed Temple) were already there.  Beyond that, my memory fails me.  Parker Brothers hired a lot of people in a very short time, all at about the same time I started.

Jim showed me around the office on my first day.  I learned that 2600 programming depended upon knowledge of trade secrets.  There was no programmer’s manual.  Parker Brothers had retained the services of an MIT graduate, an electrical engineer named Glen Dash, to reverse-engineer the 2600.  Glen’s team uncapped Atari’s custom chip to expose the silicon and examined it under an electron microscope.  They diagrammed every transistor on that chip to create a circuit diagram, and then analyzed the diagram to learn how the chip responded to programming commands.  This knowledge helped Parker Brothers' engineers to understand code that they disassembled from Atari and Activision games.

Seven years earlier, Glen Dash had hired me to work for Executive Games as a technician repairing circuit boards for the TV Tennis and TV Hockey games.  The video competed with Atari’s Pong and similar games from at least a half-dozen other companies.  The first microprocessor-based game, Fairchild’s Channel F, was just reaching the market during Executive Games’ final Christmas selling season before losing all of their financial records and production machinery to the hands of vandals.  Executive Games recognized that the microprocessor-based games would kill their product lines, but had nothing with which to compete.  Shortly before the company shut down, I was ‘encouraged’ to participate in a telephone interview with a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily (back then, there was no dedicated games press, and manufacturers had to get publicity wherever they could.  Executive Games’ owners also operated a company which made tote bags and umbrellas, so they had connections with the clothing industry).  During the interview, I touted the benefits of Executive Games’ own (fictional) microprocessor-based game.  It was my first exposure to vaporware, long before the software industry popularized the term.

But I digress…

During my first-day tour of Parker Brothers I also learned that Rex and the others would write game code on a small timeshared computer and download it to an emulator plugged into the cartridge slot of a modified 2600 console.  The emulators were once commercial products, but the company had since gone out of business.  With a bunch of new game developers coming into the company, Parker Brothers was facing a problem obtaining enough development systems.  For a variety of really boring technical reasons, other commercial emulators wouldn’t work well for 2600 game development.  As we were walking around, Jim described an idea he had for building emulators in-house.  It was really similar to things I had been doing in my prior job, and was a simple and quick project, so I volunteered to lead it.  I drew block diagrams and schematics for the emulator and handed them off to a couple of the hardware engineers who normally worked on the handheld games.  While they put together the hardware, I wrote the software.  The whole project only lasted about a month, but it sort of set the tone for my doing things other than writing games at Parker Brothers.

As the emulator project finished, Jim had expressed interest in getting out of management and taking a more hands-on role in game development.  With agreement from his boss, Jim and I literally swapped roles and offices, netting me a promotion, a raise, and the occasional headaches of acting as the liaison between Parker Brothers' Marketing department and the game developers.

I have to say that Parker Brothers had a really good handle on what it took to get reliable software into production.  Their projects were well-defined (for the most part the definition was, “copy an arcade game as best you can within the limitations of the 2600”) and the programmer was (largely thanks to my running interference) rarely second-guessed by Marketing.  Development cycles were short, and once a game was finished the code was frozen for 30 days while everyone beat the heck out of it trying to find problems.  If anything bad turned up, we’d fix it and enter another 30-day freeze before we’d send the code off to be burned into ROMs for the games.  Parker Brothers' code freezes were absolute.  We couldn’t change so much as a typo in a comment for fear that something unrelated would inadvertently get screwed up.  20 years and 5 employers later, I have yet to work for another software development organization with that degree of commitment to quality.

The only time we had a real disconnect with the Marketing department at Parker Brothers was during the development of Rex’s second Star Wars game, Jedi Arena.  This was kind of an abstract game involving repulsive forces (a concept which would shortly resurface in Charlie Heath’s port of Reactor).  Rex was having problems getting a good controller feel for the game.  At the same time, the Marketing department was feeling the pressure of advertising a lot of games all at once, and they scheduled the commercial shoot to happen before Rex decided whether to use the paddle or joystick controllers.  We tried to dissuade them from shooting the commercial based upon the unfinished game, and even suggested that they fake some shots with the alternate controller.  But they went ahead and shot and edited the commercial showing the wrong controller, with no alternate plane.  Once Rex finished the game, we took a lot of flak for having used the wrong controller.  We even got some pressure to change the game to match the commercial!  But we stood our ground (aided largely by the threat of another 30-day code freeze) and Marketing ended up adding a textual disclaimer to the commercial.

As game developers at Parker Brothers, we always envied our counterparts at other companies for their ability to create original games.  Parker had a corporate policy of creating licensed products; the policy relieved them of the burden of defending their intellectual property against knock-off artists.  At the same time, we saw other developers reaping the financial benefits of royalties and profit-sharing while we worked for a fixed (although relatively generous) salary.  These two pressures led to some intense lobbying to rectify both situations.  The issues first came to a head when Ed Temple and Ed English left to become independent contractors working for Coleco.  Parker Brothers put a profit-sharing plan in place the same week they left.  I’m not sure whether the plan was a poorly-timed effort to try to retain them, or whether it was intended to dissuade other developers from leaving.  Regardless, it was a pretty generous plan.  If I had stayed at Parker Brothers for another year or so, I would have collected from the plan an amount double my salary.  I remember this after 20 years because my (ex) wife never let me live down the ‘folly’ of following my create desires instead of taking the ‘easy’ money.

Anyhow, after the Eds left Parker Brothers, we continued (unsuccessfully) to lobby for the ability to create original games.  During this time, I managed the development of the games (easy, considering the skill of the engineers), translated Marketing-speak to Engineering-speak and vice-versa, played a minor role in the programming of a few games, helped to hire more engineers, and worked with our computer systems managers, Rob Orlov and John Hueras, to make sure that we had the best development tools we could find.

One day, Jim called me and invited me to dinner.  This was the beginning of what became the ‘Gang of Five’: Jim, Rex, Charlie, Mike Brodie, and me.  I suspect that I was the last one invited, since the idea seemed pretty well fleshed out by the time we sat down to dinner.  It was a pretty simple premise: take five developers with a proven track record and a desire to create original games, and offer their services (as a group) to companies we respected for their track record in publishing good original games.

Jim made the initial contacts with Atari, Activision, and Imagic.  Atari was pretty obviously tearing itself apart from the inside, so we didn’t pursue them further.  We arranged an interview trip to meet with Activision and Imagic in California.  Each company knew of the other’s involvement, and they shared the expenses of the trip.  I don’t know whether there was an intent to engage the companies in a bidding war.  If there was, it didn’t work.  We received offers from both companies; the salaries were identical.

Imagic’s president tried to impress us with his Ivy league pedigree and a bunch of commercials.  Their lead developer, Rob Fulop, extolled the virtues of the company’s free stress-management seminars.  I don’t think either one realized that he was pushing the wrong buttons.  In the end, the deciding factor was Imagic’s insistence that we move to California.  We didn’t want to do that.

Activision was no stranger to setting up remote offices.  They already had a remove development center in New Jersey, and offered to set one up in Boston for us.  Then there was the whole bit about treating game developers like rock stars.  Yes, I’m sure they knew they were pushing the right buttons.  We accepted the offer, tendered our resignation, and were promptly escorted from the Parker Brothers facility.  We were honestly surprised by the vehemence of Parker Brothers' reaction.  We had offered to stay on long enough to bring others up to speed on our ongoing projects.

A day or two later, we were served with legal documents alleging theft of trade secrets and (citing Jim specifically) fomenting dissent.  Activision retained a legal firm in downtown Boston, where we all went twice so the lawyers could engage in discovery.  I thought the whole thing was ridiculous; the trade secrets we were allegedly stealing were mostly reverse-engineered from Activision code!  The lawyers did their thing, and we got on with our new jobs.

Activision set us up in some temporary office space in an office park while they leased a very nice office in Lexington, right at the junction of Route 2 and Route 128.  They did everything for us: shipped out a computer system, got the offices furnished, hired a secretary, etc.  All we had to do was show up and write games.  There was quite a bit of wasted time at the beginning, because we really couldn’t get much done at the temporary space.  But once we settled in to the Lexington office (Activision called it the Boston office - that was close enough for them) we started writing games.  Rex started work on his golf game, which featured fractal terrain generation.  Charlie was doing some kind of scrolling cave-exploration game.  I don’t remember what games Jim and Mike worked on – I do recall that Jim tended to fall back into his manager role and challenged the rest of us to come up with something that was really new and exciting, and Mike was working on some fancy display techniques.

I spent my time at Activision working on a 2600 game I called Bird.  I’ve heard that Rex later described it as “a pterodactyl on a bombing run”, which is pretty good as a brief description.  My inspiration for Bird came party from the Heavy Metal movie (the scenes with the girl riding the bird into battle), and partly from Activision’s Battlezone clone, Robot Tank (the point-of-view perspective of the playing field).  The player piloted a bird which had a limited endurance that was affected partly by the intensity of the player’s maneuvers and partly by damage incurred from missiles fired by ground-based hostiles somewhat reminiscent of Dr. Who’s Daleks.

There was something like 12 objects on screen at any time, all positioned in a perspective view of a 3-D playing field.  The POV was that of a 3rd-person following the bird, as if in a chase plane.  The viewpoint tracked the bird’s maneuvers with a reaction lag.  If the bird maneuvered hard to the right, the viewpoint would catch up with the bird and bring the bird’s position back to the center of the screen while panning the playing field in the opposite direction to show the bird’s relative motion.  I thought it was a really cool camera effect, almost cinematic.

Positioning all those objects in 3-D space took a lot of computation.  If you know anything about 2600 programming, you’re aware that your program runs synchronously with the display and can either work on the display or on the gameplay.  Every 2600 game did all of its gameplay computation during the time in between frames while the TV blanked the electron beam to return from the bottom-right back to the top-left of the screen, plus maybe a few scan lines at the top and bottom of the screen.  Bird had so much computation for its gameplay that I had to leave blank a bunch of scan lines at both the top and bottom of the screen, which gave the playing field more of a letterbox aspect ratio.

The Bird game was really based around subtlety and survival.  The player had to be sparing in his moves in order to make it to the next round.  It was a shooter game, but not so much an aggressive game.  It had kind of a Zen quality to it – probably way too cerebral for the market. 

Jim Charne was Activision’s ‘local’ manager for our office.  Jim lived in New Jersey, where he also managed that remote development center (home to the Kitchen brothers, Dan and Gary).  Jim spent one day a week with us in Boston.  His typical schedule was to arrive in the morning, spend a lot of time on the phone talking to people in New Jersey and California, take us out to lunch, and leave in the early evening.

I never really hit it off with Jim C.  In retrospect, I’d have to say that some of that was my fault for taking too seriously my autonomy as a developer.  I never really made an effort to ‘sell’ my game concept to Jim.  On the other hand, Jim never seemed to care much about what I was trying to accomplish.  He made a few attempts to play early copies of Bird, and gave me no feedback until he awarded bonuses to everyone else.  When questioned, Jim made it quite clear that he didn’t think much of my game and wouldn’t recommend it for publication.

My not being able to connect on a professional level with Jim C. had hurt my chances of ever getting Bird published, even if the office had stayed open through the industry’s downturn in 1984.

I was recently contacted by Activision’s Ken Love, who is in the process of putting together a definitive collection of Activision games, including all the unreleased and prototype games.  Ken wanted to acquire a copy of Bird.  If any such copies exist, it’s either on a 20-year-old hard drive in some Activision storage locker, or in a dusty prototype cartridge in someone’s closet.  That’s kind of a shame.  I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it one more time…

 

GAME SYSTEM COMPANY STATUS
Atari VCS development hardware custom Parker Brothers unknown
Frogger Atari VCS/2600 Parker Brothers released
Spider-Man Atari VCS/2600 Parker Brothers released
"bird" Atari VCS/2600 Activision not completed


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