Tom Sloper interview

By Scott Stilphen
(2009)

Tom began his entertainment career as a theater set and lighting designer before becoming a game designer and modelmaker.  At Western Technologies, he designed Spike and Bedlam for the Vectrex, as well as games for other systems, and later at Sega Enterprises as well.  He joined Atari Corp. in 1986 as Director of Product Development.  He left Atari the following year, and became a Produced at Activision in 1988, which is a role he's held at several other companies since then.  No doubt Tom's theatrical training has served him well in countless interviews throughout his career, as it did for mine.

 

Q: What inspired you to go into game design?

Tom Sloper: I had no idea I was going to become a game designer when I took a job with Western Technologies as a model maker.

Q: Were there any programmers or games that inspired you?

Tom Sloper: I don't know how a programmer could inspire me.  I mean, I've liked many of them I've worked with, and admired the skill of them.  As for games that inspired me, I was very impressed with Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, which I played all the way through last year.  Not many of them inspire me to stay with them all the way through.

Q: Did you work for anyone prior to Western Technologies (after school)?

Tom Sloper: Yes.  Several odd jobs, and several years as an engineering model maker in Cincinnati.

Q: How did you hear about WT?

Tom Sloper: They had a want ad in the newspaper (they were a "toy think tank" looking for a draftsman).  I figured, if they design toys, and they need draftsmen, they might need model makers.  It turned out I figured right.  I worked there from 1979-83.

Q: According to Paul Allen Newell, Jeff Corsiglia and yourself were the main game designers at WT.  I know that your game design career started with working on the GCE Game Time and Arcade Time watches, and the Space-N-Counter calculators.  How much did that experience help in working with the Vectrex and VCS?

Tom Sloper: Immensely.  By the time I was assigned to work on those consoles, I already had the design lingo down - and I had a computer with word processing software.  No more writing out game designs by hand and having Jay's secretary type them.

Q: What was the game development process like?

Tom Sloper: Well, Jay Smith would tell me what he wanted designed, and then I'd write a design.  A programmer would then be assigned to work on it.  The programmer would read the design and let me know if there were parts of the design that weren't doable or needed further explanation.  Apparently, that process wasn't in wide use in the industry at that time.  A lot of interviewers keep asking me what it was like to program for the Vectrex.  I never did.

Q: Why did you leave WT?

Tom Sloper: Jay offered me a new sort of deal - rather than continuing as an employee, I'd be a sort of partner, and would be paid according to the profitability of my products.  And for a product that wasn't profitable, that could cost me money.  At the same time, I was offered a job at Datascan, where some ex-WT people had gone.  I would have the opportunity to learn a little about programming, and continue to design games.  That opportunity seemed more attractive than the new deal Jay had proposed.  That job lasted 9 months, and then I got the job offer at Sega.

Q: Did you work with anyone else when designing games back then (pre-Nintendo NES)?

Tom Sloper: I worked with numerous artists and at least one musician. But those game systems were so limited graphically that it was often easy enough for the designer or the programmer to just go ahead and create the art himself.  We had one musician (I don't remember his name) who was good at understanding the limitations of the audio processors, and making tunes that worked.  I had one friend who helped create some art I could use in a design document, but I don't know if he wants his name used.

Q: How did the VCS version of Sega’s Up ‘N Down come about?

Tom Sloper: When I was assigned to do the port of this game, I predicted that it would be impossible to do it on the 2600.  I went ahead and wrote a design document, which was sent to Beck Tech in Berkeley.  When I went up to visit the Beck Tech office, I was astounded to see that a programmer had actually succeeded in making a passable 2600 version of Up 'N Down.  I have forgotten his name, but I remember that he was a Vietnamese refugee who had come to America on a rickety boat - his engineering skills were used to repair some problem on the boat, which resulted in the survival and arrival on these shores of the refugees shortly after the fall of South Vietnam to the communists.

I should add that in writing the designs for both Up 'N Down and Tapper (all my work at Sega was ports of arcade games), all I did was study the arcade games and write documents that described (in each case) the arcade game, as it would be played on a home system like the 2600 (or the Colecovision, or the IBM PCjr, or the Apple II...).  And in doing so, I made sure that the controls would be similar for all games I designed on a particular system (based on the most widely-used controls on that system).  It was a system of standards, that was adopted by others at Sega, and that I took with me when I went to Atari and Activision.

Q: Were you involved with any other Sega titles?

Tom Sloper: I was assigned to write a design for a Congo Bongo II arcade game, but Jeff Rochlis, the company CEO, didn't like it.  He wanted the game to take place on amusement park rides, and I wanted it to take place in a lost jungle where prehistoric creatures still lived.  My friend Patrick King worked on the Spy Hunter ports, and Sam Palahnuk worked on Star Trek.

Q: There were also a number of movie-based titles that Sega announced (in a CES press kit) for the VCS that were never released - box art for most of these can be seen HERE.  Do you know anything regarding these titles?

Tom Sloper: Interesting.  I never heard of any of those.  I was only at Sega from January to December 1984, you understand.  When the video game industry crashed, I started working on toys and board games.

Q: What prompted you to shift from video games to that?

Tom Sloper: The video game industry had crashed.  Maybe you've heard of that.

Q: Yes, I not only heard of it, but I lived through it (and wrote some articles about it) :)  The home console side of it crashed for a few years, but there was plenty of game development for the various home computers during that time.  Which is what I meant – there was still an option to continue working with video games, maybe not at Sega but somewhere else.  Regardless, it wasn't long before you were back working in the video game industry again, at Atari.

Several of Atari’s VCS games that were started prior to 1986 eventually saw release under Atari Corp, such as Bob Polaro’s Road Runner).  As Director of Product Development at Atari Corp, were you involved with assessing any of these older titles for possible release?

Tom Sloper: I produced a large number of games while I was with Atari Corp.  I don't remember Road Runner, but I do remember hiring Bob to work on a couple of 2600 games when I was at Atari Corp.  If I remember correctly, the only two we were able to resurrect were Ballblazer and Desert Falcon (both for the 7800).  The source code was all on computer tape.  I made friends with the IT guy, and he enjoyed helping me find unfinished game code on the tapes of those old machines.  I called a lot of the old programmers, got phone numbers of other programmers, and talked to them about the status of those old unfinished games.  Most of them couldn't be finished without a lot of time.  And of course, time is money (Ed: Former Atarian John Skruch stated in the January 1996 issue of Ultimate Gamer magazine that it was his job to identify and catalog all of the various prototype games and determine if any of them could be completed. Road Runner ended up being one of the projects that was salvaged.).

Q: Atari had acquired the rights to release VCS games from several companies, including Coleco.  Do you recall anything regarding Coleco’s VCS Turbo? Atari had a CX# assigned to it but it was never released.

Tom Sloper: That title may have been before my time at Atari Corp.  If that was the same Turbo that was a Sega arcade classic, I became very good friends with its creator, Noriyuki Hanawa, when I worked at Sega.

Q: After Atari, you worked at Activision for 12 years.  How was it working for the original 3rd-party video game developer?

Tom Sloper: That was a great job.  How was it?  Well, we went through several address changes and a major management change, I got to work in Japan, and I got to design and produce numerous Shanghai games.  It was an awesome experience.

Q: There’s long been some debate as to whether or not Activision owns the rights to Imagic’s software library, or merely acquired the rights to re-release them (they started doing this while known as Mediagenic).  According to former Imagic CEO Bill Grubb, they didn’t own them, then or now. Do you know anything about this?

Tom Sloper: All I know is that Bruce Davis said they had the rights, so I produced the re-releases of some Imagic titles.

Q: Do you remember what early or tentative titles your other games had (if any)?  We know of at least two – US Games Entombed (aka "Pharaoh's Tomb") and Picnic (aka "Catch The Fly").

Tom Sloper: Almost every game I ever worked on went through a title change between concept and release.  It's standard operating procedure in the game industry.

Q: Occasionally, programmers would put little “Easter eggs” in some of their games that would reveal their name, or a message.  Are there Easter eggs in any of your titles?  Do you recall any fellow co-workers that did?

Tom Sloper: Some, yes.

Q: Care to elaborate?

Tom Sloper: I don't think my Vectrex games had Easter eggs.  The only Easter eggs I definitely remember are Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 (The Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X), in 1992, when Activision went through that awful bankruptcy, and moved to Los Angeles, and Shanghai: Great Moments (the Windows 95 version).  LGOP2 had an obscure Easter egg if you pressed a particular series of keys, then you'd get to see the player character wearing a fig leaf.  And ShGM had my associate producer's baby's picture in one of the folders on the CD.  But since both of those are computer games that require obsolete operating systems, and since I'd need a Macintosh to read the file that gives the details of those and any other possible Easter eggs, that's about all I can tell you.

Q: Up until now, the information I had about Western Tech was from Parker Brothers programmer Joe Gaucher, who did the James Bond 007 game for the VCS.  Apparently W.T. originally had the contract to do a game based on the James Bond license (which was to be based on the Octopussy movie and involved train cars). This was advertised in magazines (pictures can be seen HERE) but the released version ended up being completely different.

Tom Sloper: I vaguely recall somebody else asking about a James Bond game.  I do not recall anyone at the Santa Monica office working on such a game, so if it was done at the Florida office, that explains that.  I don't remember much about the Florida operation, but I think it wasn't as smoothly run as the home office was.  Western Technologies was headquartered at the corner of Centinela and Nebraska in Santa Monica, California.  There was a Florida office for a time.  My recollection was that Picnic was programmed in Santa Monica.  I don't know the names of the Florida folks.

Q: Speaking of Picnic, I recently discovered a programmer's name that was "buried" within the code - David J. Donnaf.  I don't have any information about him and I've been unable to find anything online.

Tom Sloper: I have no idea who David J. Donnaf is.  And, sorry to say, I don't remember who programmed Picnic.  Jeff Corsiglia was the original designer on that - he left Western Technologies before the game was finished, and I took over answering the programmer's questions.

Q: Well, I suppose that's another question for the programmer, whoever he is.  I also had a question regarding Parker Brothers' VCS Q*bert game.  I have Ray "Raymo" Miller down as the programmer of this, but I found an interview online where you stated Dave Hampton programmed it and you did the graphics.  I'm hoping you can help clarify this for me.

Tom Sloper: I have no idea who Raymo Miller is.  Maybe Dave Hampton knows.  You may have seen in that interview that I worked on 2600 Q*bert twice - once at WT and once at Atari Corp.  When I was at Atari Corp., I needed to make a PAL version of Q*bert, so I phoned Dave.  He told me the exact address to change a value in the ROM to make the PAL version.  If he didn't program it, and Raymo did, how could Dave have told me that (Ed.: converting games from NTSC to PAL was a fairly routine task, according to Atari graphics artist Jerome Domurat).

As for Ray, best guess I can come up with is that he worked on one of the other versions of Q*bert.  Parker released the game on numerous platforms, not only the 2600 - maybe he worked on one of those (Ed.: and yet, there's a Q*bert poster in former Parker Brothers programmer Laura Nikolich's home that was signed by Ray Miller).

Q: Obviously the interview I'm referring to was erroneous, as changing a byte value doesn't equate to being responsible for the graphics :)  If you had a chance to redo any of your games, what would you change (if anything)?

Tom Sloper: I don't want to redo any of them.

Q: Were there any games or projects that you worked on that ultimately never got released or even finished?

Tom Sloper: Of course.  Most of the games that got cancelled never got much beyond the paper concept phase, so I doubt that your readers would find them all that interesting.

Q: Did you ever attend any industry shows, such as CES or Toy Fair?

Tom Sloper: Of course.

Q: What were some of your best/worst experiences at all the companies you’ve worked at?  Any stories or anecdotes from those days that you recall?

Tom Sloper: Sure, lots of stories.  You're going to have to let me think about which ones would be most entertaining without requiring me to type too much.  The worst game company I worked for was Atari Corp.  The most enjoyable job I had was at Western Technologies, but I also treasure my many years at Activision.

Q: Do you still own any of your games for these systems, either as a keepsake, or to show friends or family?

Tom Sloper: Of course.  Every one.

Q: Which of your titles are your favorite, and what types of games in general?

Tom Sloper: That's a toughie.  I guess the Shanghai games that I designed are all favorites.  I tend to like card games, table games (including Mah-Jongg and Sudoku) and adventure games best.

Q: What are your thoughts on how the video game industry has evolved?

Tom Sloper: Whoa!  Can you narrow that question down for me?  I think it's obvious how it's evolved.  What kind of thoughts are you looking for?

Q: For example, although the graphics and sound of a driving game like Project Gotham are 1000s of times more powerful than they were 20 years ago with say, Pole Position, the gameplay of both is fundamentally still the same.  So in effect, in most cases all we’re offered is a prettier picture.  Many seem to feel it’s the inevitable result of the rising costs of development – as with movies, companies are less likely to invest in an unproven concept, but rather stick with “tried-and-true” successes.  Do you feel games today are better or worse than they were 10, 20, or even 30 years ago?

Tom Sloper: Simply put: better.

Q: Well, you're just a wellspring of information, Tom.  How much of it is accurate, I'm not sure. :)

 

For more details on Tom’s video gaming career, visit his website, at: http://www.sloperama.com/business/prodlist.htm


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