Ed Salvo interview
By Scott Stilphen
Q: What’s your educational background?
Ed Salvo: University of Wisconsin, Parkside. Majored in Chemistry, minored in Math and Physics. I never completed the degree. I completed at night a 6-month associate degree in Programming at Manpower Business Training Institute in Milwaukee, WI.
Q: What inspired you to go into game design?
Ed Salvo: I had just moved to Iowa to be a Project Leader on a project that was cancelled the day I walked in the door. I bought myself an Atari 800 and was looking for a way to make some money using it. The dealer that sold me the machine wanted to create a flight simulator for the 2600. So using the MagicCard I taught myself how to program the 2600 and developed a flight simulator for him under contract for $5,000. It took me about 2 months. It was not released as he had lost interest in the project.
Q: Do you recall who the dealer was that you did the VCS flight simulator for, or what the name of the game was?
Ed Salvo: No.
Q: Were there any programmers or games that inspired you?
Ed Salvo: I am first and foremost a programmer. I have worked on many applications for many companies and to me games were just another application. I did like the Atari 400/800 version of Missile Command.
Q: Did you work for anyone prior to Games By Apollo (after school)?
Ed Salvo: My first computer job was at Harley Davidson. I ran punched card sorters, reproducers, and interpreters and decollated paper output from an IBM 370/135. I made my way to Programmer after being an Operator for a while. I programmed in PL/I. I then went to JI Case as a COBOL programmer and got involved with IBM Series 1 Assembler. I then moved to Iowa to work for Collins Radio (a division of Rockwell).
Q: Apollo was the second 3rd-party Atari VCS software company to start up (after Activision), and sadly, the first to go out of business. How did you hear about Apollo? When did you start working there? Were you the 1st person (programmer) hired?
Ed Salvo: While living in Iowa, a friend sent me an ad from the Dallas newspaper. The ad was for a video games programmer. I contacted Pat Roper and offered him a game that I had developed in about 4 weeks - Skeet Shoot. He flew me to Dallas and we talked. His company, National Career Consultants (NCC), was a small filmstrip producer - the kind that schools used with the recording that says “beep, turn to the next frame”. He offered me a job to lead the development for a new company that he was forming, Games by Apollo. I turned him down; I thought it was too risky. Back in Iowa, Pat contacted me and offered to buy Skeet Shoot for $5,000. I accepted and agreed to a contract with him to develop Spacechase. After Spacechase was done, I accepted a position with the new Games by Apollo as their Director of Development. I was tasked with hiring 25 programmers to build a staff and develop games.
Q: The original company name was Games By Apollo when they debuted in 1981, and was so named because the name “Apollo” appealed to owner Pat Roper because it was recognizable and a symbol of youth an activity. Do you know who designed the original logo? Or who did all the box artwork for the games?
Ed Salvo: No, sorry, I don’t. I do remember the programmers had a great laugh at the logo. We all thought Apollo looked pretty pansy.
Q: The following year, the company name was changed to simply Apollo. Do you recall why it was changed?
Ed Salvo: I have no idea; I don’t remember any discussions at the time. As a matter of fact I didn’t even know it had happened.
Q: What was the development process like? What kind of equipment was used?
Ed Salvo: I started out using an Atari 800 and burning an EPROM in order to test. Later, I commissioned an electrical engineer to construct a shared RAM device that attached to the 800 through the game controllers on the front and plugged into the 2600. This allowed for rapid program changes. We still had no way to instruction-step through our code. I developed software that could be put into the game to display RAM values while the game was running.
Q: Was this the same Atari 800-based system that was later sold by VSS - the READS 2600 development system?
Ed Salvo: Yes, this was the same equipment sold by VSS, along with a "How To" manual that I wrote.
Q: Do you recall how many were sold? I haven't heard of any being found yet.
Ed Salvo: I’m not sure we sold any.
Q: Was the Atari VCS the only system you worked on at Apollo?
Ed Salvo: I was directing 25 developers and had little time to actually develop games. I kicked out a couple games for the VCS, but spent a lot of my time teaching and developing algorithms for the others.
Q: Can you talk a bit about each game that you did? What the inspiration for each one was, what the easiest/hardest part of designing it was, how long each took (approximately), etc.
Ed Salvo: Skeet Shoot was done independently; I think it took about a month at home at night.
Spacechase - 6 weeks. This was done under contract (Ed: An article in the January 1983 issue of Electronic Fun (pg. 61) states the game took 9 weeks).
Racquetball - About 4 weeks.
Lost Luggage - About 4 weeks.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - About 6 weeks. I'm not real proud of this one, but we had to eat.
Glacier Patrol - About 3 weeks. This went so fast that Pat Roper tried to claim that I had worked on it while working at Apollo, which was not true.
Mountain King - 6 weeks.
Gust Buster - 6 weeks. This was an attempt to provide a new way for the player to interact with the controller. By controlling the vertical motion, the player could indirectly control horizontal motion. They had to think ahead, instead of just reacting.
Q: Were the titles you worked on assigned, or chosen by yourself? Dan Oliver once stated Mr. Roper handed him another company’s game (Imagic’s Demon Attack) and told him to make a game like that (which became Space Cavern).
Ed Salvo: Pat actually flew me out to CES in Vegas to see Demon Attack. He was very impressed and wanted one just like it. He gave Dan the idea/specs for Space Cavern without identifying were he got the idea. I think that was the only game that Pat actually thought up. The other games were all developed by the staff. No, I take that back, I think Pat thought up Racquetball, also. I remember waiting for my luggage at DFW and watching the carousel go round; that’s where Lost Luggage came from.
Q: About Lost Luggage – why were 2 versions made?
Ed Salvo: This is news to me. I don’t remember doing any of this, and I can’t conceive of anyone at Apollo messing with the game after it went to production (Ed: Ernie Runyon programmed Lost Luggage, with a lot of help from Ed).
Q: There were also 2 versions of another game - Lochjaw; it was renamed Shark Attack but there are slight differences between the two.
Ed Salvo: I don't remember Lochjaw.
Q: Did you work with any graphics or sound artists? If so, do you recall who helped with what?
Ed Salvo: I worked with Byron Parks who was a sound engineer. He had perfect pitch. I remember we wanted to create a laser sound for Spacechase. He taped a sound using a reel-to-reel. Then he played the sound by hand listening to each note in a distorted form and told me what note it was, C3 C4, etc. I programmed what he said and played it at real speed and we tweaked it to get the sound effect. He also came up with the frequencies for each note by listening to me program them and adjusting the pitch to get what we wanted. He also created the music for Racquetball and lots of the other sound effects.
Q: Were you responsible for writing the manuals, or did someone else handle that? In comparing the manual descriptions for Spacechase and Space Cavern, it would appear that Space Cavern was a ‘sequel’ to Spacechase. Was this planned, or a coincidence?
Ed Salvo: The manuals were done by Pat’s office staff. The only input the developers had was to relate how the game operated to the manual creators.
Q: Your first Apollo game, Skeet Shoot, was initially released with a glitch that caused the picture to roll. Do you know approximately how many shipped with that? Apollo must have done a good job of either recalling them or catching the problem very early, as we’ve yet to come across a cart with the problem.
Ed Salvo: The games that rolled were all European versions for PAL. We were informed of it early on and corrected the problem by adding more screen lines to the game.
Spacechase's "day" and "night" variations.
Q: Spacechase was Apollo’s best-selling title. I clearly remember how visually impressive it was at the time, as the effect of flying over a planet surface was unlike anything else at the time. The addition of a “night time” effect was also ground-breaking. Do you know how many copies were sold?
Ed Salvo: Yes, I am particularly proud of Spacechase. I developed the scrolling moon on purpose. The nighttime version was the result of looking for easy ways to make more options on the cart.
Q: Apollo also offered to make customized or ‘monogrammed’ versions of Spacechase. Do you recall how many were made/sold?
Ed Salvo: I think less than 10.
Q: As of now, the organizers of Classic Gaming Expo managed to find the only known copy (formerly owned by Electronic Games co-founder Arnie Katz). A quote from you appeared in Russ Perry Jr's newsletter, Slap-Dah: "A monogrammed Space Chase was made on camera for Leeza Gibbons of Entertainment Tonight (or maybe it was PM Magazine at the time?)." Do you recall this, and what show it was for?
Ed Salvo: PM Magazine came to our offices to film a segment. They did film me doing it, but I don’t have a copy. I was camera dumbstruck. I remember all of the developers crowding into the doorway of my office laughing their heads off. I was a blubbering idiot. I think about 5 seconds of my interview made it to the piece, and that had all the “ughs” and blank tape edited out. While Leeza was there I did make a customized Spacechase. This involved changing the 3 shapes in the explosion graphic to her initials. When her ship died her initials appeared.
(LEFT) PM Magazine show segment with Ed Salvo, Steve Stringfellow, and Ernie Runyon; (RIGHT) Footage of Arnie Katz's monogrammed Spacechase
Q: I recall there was some public outcry over both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween’s violent theme. Looking at how violent games have become now, it’s almost laughable games like those, or Exidy’s old Death Race coin-op, could create so much “unwanted” attention. Although, such media attention invariably only serves to help sell more copies…
Ed Salvo: I really didn’t want to do it. As a matter of fact, none of us had seen the movie, and we had to watch it to get game ideas.
Halloween was done by VSS, but we contracted it out to a couple of ex-Apollo programmers I don’t remember who (Ed.: Tim Martin and Robert Barber, with Micro GraphicImage).
Q: Wizard Games cartridges used Apollo pcbs and Telesys cart shells. Do you know why this was?
Ed Salvo: VSS put the Wizard Games people in contact with the Apollo suppliers.
Q: Was Infiltrate the only other game not designed in-house by Apollo (besides your first 2 games)? Do you know who did Infiltrate?
Ed Salvo: Yes, we did all of the other games. No, I don’t remember who did it.
Q: Were there any games or projects that you or others worked on at Apollo that ultimately never got released or even finished?
Ed Salvo: When I left Apollo, I think there were about 6 2600, 4 5200, and 4 Colecovision games under development. I don’t remember what happened to them.
Q: I found some other notes I had for you, in regards to Kyphus and Commander Warp II. Do you recall anything about these?
Ed Salvo: I remember the name Kyphus, but not anything about either game.
Q: You were also 1 of 4 partners in VSS, who contracted to write games for other companies. I’m guessing this was after Apollo had folded? What did VSS stand for, and who were the other partners?
Ed Salvo: Four of us working at Apollo left when it appeared that Pat was not taking the right steps to stay in business. I was Director of Development, Terry Grantham was Director of Finance, Mike Smith was Director of Operations, and George (last name forgotten) was Head of Accounting. The four of us formed VSS (Video Software Specialists, although we never used anything but “VSS”). VSS was the contract development arm, and with Sunrise we were the manufacturing arm. VSS developed games for CBS Electronics, Ktel (Xonox), Sunrise, and Wizard Games.
Q: Mountain King was one of the first “cross-platform” games (made for the VCS, 400/800, 5200, Colecovision, and Commodore 64). How did the deal with E.F. Dreyer come about? Was Robert Matson (programmer for the Atari 8-bit version) an employee at VSS? How much (if at all) did either of them help you with your VCS version? And did you develop the bank-switching process that allowed for it to be 12K?
Ed Salvo: Boy, things are fuzzy. No, Matson was not a VSS employee. I think we were approached at CES to program the 2600 version. The 12K cart was developed outside of VSS. I did all of the programming. I had an 800 version of the game, which I was to emulate. The 12K cart, in addition to providing 3 4K banks switchable under software control, also had an extra 128 bytes of RAM, bringing the available total to 256 bytes.
Q: Did Byron Parks compose the music for VCS Mountain King?
Ed Salvo: No.
Q: All versions of Mountain King have “E.F. Dreyer” on the title screen (or “E.F. Dreyer, Inc”). Do you know anything about this person/company (where he was located, or if he approached VSS with Mountain King)? Robert Matson is another mystery, as the only game he’s credited for is the Atari 800 version.
Ed Salvo: No.
Q: Your “secret kingdom” in VCS Mountain King is well-known. Are there Easter eggs in any of your other titles? Do you recall any fellow co-workers that put them in their games?
Ed Salvo: I personally do not like Easter eggs that promote the developer. VSS did not allow developers to put them in our games unless the contractor asked for them. The secret level in Mountain King was a feature of the 800 game and I duplicated it. That was the only game I recall that had one.
VCS Mountain King Easter eggs
Q: You also did at least one non-VCS game (that we know of) – Gust Buster, for the Colecovision. Was this the only non-VCS title you did?
Ed Salvo: I think we (VSS) initially did 4 for the Colecovision - Gust Buster, Campaign ’84, Rolloverture and Quest for Quintana Roo. Quest for Quintana Roo was developed by VSS for both the 2600 and Colecovision machines for Sunrise. VSS only did Mountain King for the 2600.
I also did Rolloverture for Sunrise, and a game for the Odyssey2 from England (Videopac). I don’t remember what it was called. I remember a penguin on some ice. I think it was a kid’s educational game.
Q: A sequel to Quest for Quintana Roo, titled Wrath of Quintana Roo, was announced. Does this sound familiar at all?
Ed Salvo: No.
Q: The penguin game you mentioned really has me stumped. I checked with some knowledgeable Odyssey2 collectors and nobody knows of any Odyssey/Videopac (the Euro version of the O2) game as you described. Was this done while you were at VSS?
Ed Salvo: Sorry, I only have a vague recollection of an educational game with letters of the alphabet; there was a second game done by VSS, which had math. I remember you had to run around building equations.
Q: The C-64 and VIC-20 versions of Mountain King were done by Beyond, and the game’s design (in both) are a bit different from the other versions (for one thing, there’s no spider’s lair at the bottom. The VIC-20 version doesn’t even have a spider!). I’m guessing VSS didn’t program for those platforms?
Ed Salvo: Correct.
Q: With your games, were there any features you would have liked to added, or any known bugs or glitches that gave you trouble (or never got resolved)?
Ed Salvo: None that I remember.
Q: Do you remember what early or tentative titles your games might have had (if any)?
Ed Salvo: No.
Q: If you had a chance to redo any of your games, what would you change (if anything)?
Ed Salvo: I think Racquetball had too many shadows, denoting the ball’s position in 3-D space.
Q: Over the years, we’ve heard some stories as to why Apollo went out of business (well before the industry's infamous “crash”), such as owner Pat Roper using the company’s profits to buy a helicopter (or a plan about designing/selling 2-person helicopters?). Is that true? Can you describe what (and when) the final days of Apollo were like?
Ed Salvo: Pat starting early on trying to emulate Activision. I remember him saying at one staff meeting that Activision had 26 million in sales its first year so we would have 27. Activision had a campus with 7 buildings - each 7 stories high, so we would have 8 buildings of 8 stories. He built up production and inventory to sell 27 million, but sales didn’t happen. I think we had 9 million in 9 months. Yes, Pat thought the answer to Dallas’ Central Expressway was two-man helicopters ala the Jetsons. He hired an engineer and bought a helicopter kit. I told him they (drivers) have problems in two-dimensions with lines; can you imagine 3-dimensions with no lines? 2 weeks after the four of us left, I think the sheriff chained the doors as Apollo was forced into bankruptcy.
Q: Do you know what became of Pat Roper after Apollo shut down?
Ed Salvo: After the demise of Apollo, I think he continued with National Career Consultants.
Q: Did Apollo’s bankruptcy also put NCC out of business?
Ed Salvo: I don’t think so. I don’t know what happened to it.
Q: I never realized Apollo had so many programmers (25). It certainly sounds as though Mr. Roper was trying to expand the company too quickly (and you’re quite right – personal helicopters are a horrible idea- then and now). Do you recall the names of any other Apollo programmers?
Ed Salvo: Sorry, I’m drawing a blank.
Q: Did you ever attended any of the industry shows back then (such as CES or Toy Fair)? Leonard Herman also recalled that Apollo had a booth at the January 1983 CES in Las Vegas, but that there weren’t any company executives or game demonstrators in the booth!
Ed Salvo: Apollo had a presence at Chicago in 1982. They hired models to demo the games.
Photos from the January 1983 issue of Electronic Fun w/ Computers & Games of Apollo's unreleased Atari 8-bit games - Antic, Cosmic War, and Space Cavern.
Q: As far as non-VCS Apollo games, I’m only aware of two 5200 games – Antic and Space Cavern. Do you know anything about games planned for other systems (Intellivision, Colecovision, TI-99/4a, etc.)?
Ed Salvo: As I said we were developing games for Intellivision and Colecovision, but I don’t remember them.
Q: Can you describe your career, between your time with Apollo and now? Have you stayed within the field of game design?
Ed Salvo: I was at VSS for about 2 years. When VSS started we were making contracts for game development for about $50,000. After about a year, contracts were down to $20,000. VSS continued by making games for Sunrise, which didn’t sell very well as the whole market was gone.
After I left VSS, I went to Harris Corp as a programmer on financial systems. When I left Harris I ported Super Off-Road to the Atari Lynx under a contract with Telegames. Then I joined forces with David Mahaffey (a former VSS developer) and my wife, Janet. We contracted with Terry Grantham to develop Double Dragon V for the Atari Jaguar. When that game was done, I went back to mainframe development at AT&T. While there I became involved with Visual Basic and the internet. I left AT&T for EDS where I developed internet applications. Several of my co-workers at EDS went to a company called MH2 which was developing an internet application for homebuilders and suppliers. They invited me to come over and I accepted. MH2 changed its name to Hyphen Solutions, and I ended my career there, retiring in 2004.
Q: Do you still own any of your games for these systems, either as a keepsake, or to show friends or family?
Ed Salvo: Nope.
Q: Which of your titles are your favorite, and what types of games in general?
Ed Salvo: I still think Spacechase was my best work. I enjoyed playing Mountain King. Today the only games I play are poker online (for free).
Q: Have you stayed in touch with any of your former co-programmers?
Ed Salvo: David Mahaffey lives around the corner from me.
Q: What are your thoughts on how the industry has evolved?
Ed Salvo: No opinion. To me it was always one more application with one more set of specs. I’m a programmer at heart.
CBS Electronics commercials for Mountain King:
|"flight simulator"||Atari VCS/2600||unknown||unreleased|
|Skeet Shoot||Atari VCS/2600||Apollo||released|
|Lost Luggage (*helped)||Atari VCS/2600||Apollo||released|
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre||Atari VCS/2600||Wizard Video - VSS||released|
|Glacier Patrol||Atari VCS/2600||Telegames - VSS||released|
|Mountain King||Atari VCS/2600||CBS - VSS||released|
|Gust Buster||Colecovision||Sunrise - VSS||released|
|Rolloverture||Colecovision||Sunrise - VSS||released|
|"educational spelling game w/ penguin and letters"||unknown (Odyssey?)||Sunrise - VSS||unknown|
|"educational math game w/ penguin and equations"||unknown (Odyssey?)||Sunrise - VSS||unknown|
|Double Dragon V||Jaguar||Telegames||released|
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