Dan Oliver interview

By Mark Androvich


Q: How did you get started programming games for the Atari 2600?

Dan Oliver: Two years into college I'd taken a few programming classes and wanted to get a part-time programming job to see what it was really like.  I had just spent every dime I had on an Apple II, so the money wouldn't hurt, either.  I saw a help wanted ad in a Dallas newspaper for a 6502 programmer with an art background.  I had some art training and owned a book on how to program the 6502 for a few days, so I figured I was qualified.

The company was Games by Apollo.  They had just released their first game, Skeet Shoot, and had a ton of orders for more games.  I was interviewing more as an artist but said I'd take a shot at doing a game.  In those days, they'd take anyone willing to even try.  A few days later, the president of the company threw a manual for Demon Attack on my desk and said, "Here, do this one.  We've sold 75,000 of them."  About 30 days later, I finished Space Cavern, a not very flattering "tribute" to Demon Attack.

Q: What was your most memorable experience with Space Cavern?

Dan Oliver: I fixed the last, few known bugs on a Saturday afternoon and gave the floppy to the production guy.  They were going to bring in the production staff on Sunday to get it out the door.  I preceded to go out and get very drunk.  Saturday night, I got a call from the president of Apollo saying the floppy had an old copy on it and there was no backup.  I was in no condition to code, so I came in Sunday morning.  To get to the programming area, I had to walk through the production area.  I remember walking by all those people sitting around, waiting - no pressure!  It was a real rush, though.

Q: As I recall, Space Cavern sold well.  But nevertheless, Games by Apollo was one of the first third-party companies to go bankrupt (Ed.: It was the first).  Were you there at the end, or had you already left the company?

Dan Oliver: Space Cavern did sell well.  It made Apollo $1.5 million profit in the first couple of months.  Any game sold well then, but I still made $3.50 per hour.  I thought I might be able to do a little better and started looking around.  I saw another ad in the paper from a couple of guys wanting to start a game company.  They had the cash, I'd do the game, and VentureVision was started.

The first game I did for VentureVision was Rescue Terra I.  We made 20,000 units and sold 384.  It came out about a week after the crash.  The buyer at the distributor who promised to buy the game all of a sudden was no longer employed.

Q: How did you come to work for Imagic?

Dan Oliver: I never worked for Imagic; I just sold them a game.  Just about the time VentureVision was heading south, I was finishing up a game called Innerspace.  When we split up VentureVision, I kept Innerspace.  Imagic picked it up and renamed it Laser Gates.

When I went into Imagic to sign the papers, they were already in Chapter 11.  I don't think there was anyone left in the building except for the 'suit'.  My golden touch continued - 3 games, 3 companies out of business!  So I turned my sights on Atari...

Q: Who also went out of business, but just recently, so they can't blame you!  What did you do at Atari?

Dan Oliver: The next game I did was for Atari - an 800 game called Final Legacy, with 16K of RAM - "infinite" memory!  It was released the week Atari was bought out.  It was in the warehouse, ready to go.  I heard later it showed up in some Atari-only stores.  Never really got that timing thing down.

When Atari was bought out, I stayed on to work on the Atari ST operating system.  I have no idea why they kept me on; I had only written games.  It was very weird!  One day there were thousands of employees; the next day, a few dozen.  We walked through huge buildings that looked like something out of Mad Max... building after building.  Atari had been losing so much money so fast that it was cheaper to just leave everything.  Computers were still running.  The real expensive stuff got piled in the halls of one building against the walls.  Being engineers, we dragged as much as we could into our offices.  Lisp machines make pretty good end tables.

After the ST came out and it was clear the new Atari had no idea what software was, I went to Apple.  Got to do a lot of the Toolbox and Finder for the Apple IIGS.

Q: What are your current activities?

Dan Oliver: The past couple of years I got back into games at Digital Pictures and Any River Entertainment.  Ported some FMV CD-ROM games.  I'm out of games for now - too many other things taking off.  I've never seen so many things in the valley being started.

Q: What were the unique challenges involved in creating a 2600 game?

Dan Oliver: I think the biggest challenge was the ever-increasing level of technical achievement.  The first 2600 games would change a sprite ever 8 or so scanlines - the blocky look.  Every few months, a game would come out and be better; changing a sprite every 6 scanlines, then 4, 3, 2, and then every scanline in games like Demon Attack.  Programmers were increasing the resolution of players' machines, the same machine.  Just when you thought that's as much as could possibly be done, Pitfall! (by Activision) comes out.

Q: Of the games you created for the 2600, which one is your favorite?

Dan Oliver: Laser Gates was my favorite.  I was really proud of the explosions.  Each pixel in the explosion had its own random path with momentum and gravity. Nothing real fancy, but it was cool to watch and never know what you'd see.  Up until then, everything was done with fixed sprites.  It was just a shooter, but I love shooters.

Q: Were there any games you worked on that were never released?

Dan Oliver: The only 2600 game I worked on that wasn't released was a prototype for the MindLink controller.  The game never had a name that I know of, but there were some prototypes and demos.  It had a little man like Pitfall Harry.  There were two game elements.  In one, gold nuggets would scroll down toward you in a zig-zag pattern like in Kaboom! and you'd move the man back and forth at the bottom of the screen picking up the rocks.  After that, you'd move the man down a mine shaft to rescue a little girl, I think, very much like Pitfall.  It was just to demonstrate types of play that could be done with that type of controller.

Q: And now the question that everyone always asks - are there any special endings, hidden messages, or secrets in your games?

Dan Oliver: I didn't think people would ever get to the end of Laser Gates.  I spent weeks making sure it's almost impossible to get to the end.  As the creator, your jaw really hits the ground when a player just kind of matter-of-factly reveals the end.  We get kind of full of ourselves sometimes, and players were always there to let a little air out.

You might now better than me, but I think the last digit on the "650_" in Laser Gates was the key to which pins on the chip had to be shot in order to win.  Convert the last digit to binary and then shoot the pins that would be ones.  I don't remember if pin 1 was on top or bottom, though.

In one of my games, I don't remember which, you could flip the B&W switch and maybe a couple of other switches and the joystick could be rotated 90 degrees clockwise.  it wasn't an Easter egg, and may have even been mentioned in the manual.  I did it so a left-handed player wouldn't have to reach around to press the fire button.  Great idea, except that left-handed players had learned to use the stick in the standard configuration and had just as much trouble with the new configuration as right-handed players!

Q: Science fiction is a common theme of your games - Space Cavern, Rescue Terra I, and Laser Gates.  What were the inspirations for these games?

Dan Oliver: Space Cavern was based on Demon Attack.  I did try to add a few new things, but it of course never came close to Demon Attack, which we played a lot.  We disassembled many games and studied how they were done.  Most games you could tell just by looking at the screen, but not Demon Attack.  The code was really something to see.  I used what I learned from Demon Attack's code in Laser Gates.

Rescue Terra I was probably based on several games, but not one in particular.

Laser Gates was based - big time - on Caverns of Mars for the Atari 800.  I like the idea of flying underground in a confined space.  Now I wish I had put in some real narrow spots.  I even "stole" the red Earth.

Q: Do you also enjoy playing video games, or do you just like to program them?

Dan Oliver: I like playing video games, but never have the time.  I find programming to be very much like playing a game.  It's tough, but not always clear what the end is, but there always seems to be a path through.  When you're done, a zillion players (hopefully) play against you.

Q: What are some of your favorite video games?

Dan Oliver: My favorite game would be the coin-op Gravitar.  I liked the physics of the movement.  But there were lots of others - Berzerk on the Atari 800, Centipede on the 5200, and the Star Wars coin-op.  Firepower - you never can have too much!

Q: Your favorite game, Laser Gates, came out in 1983 just as the video game market "crashed".  I myself never saw it in stores and only picked it up years later.  I must say that it is a great game.  Was it disappointing to know that this game never got the attention it deserved?

Dan Oliver: Whenever I had a game being released, I made a point to cruise the mall trying to find it.  I saw Laser Gates a few weeks after its release in a big bin in front of a store - the bargain bin!  It was kind of tough knowing it never had a chance, but I was really happy it got out at all.  At least some people got to play it and that was really the rush.  When I'd see my game on a shelf or see someone pick it up, my heart would race until I'd think I'd pass out.

Q: And your favorite video game systems?

Dan Oliver: The 2600 is the best game unit ever.

Q: How did you learn about the 2600 Connection and the fact that people are still interested in this "ancient" system and its games?

Dan Oliver: I ran into all the 2600 stuff on the net by luck, just surfin' the Internet.  I was very surprise.  I was really blown away by how much people knew.  I had pretty much forgotten about Innerspace and there it was.  It blew me away when I saw on the Net that anyone knew about Innerspace.  There couldn't have been more than a dozen people who ever even heard the name.

Q: Can you believe that your first game, Space Cavern, came out 16 years ago?  And Laser Gates is already 14 years old!  It must be exciting to see video games progress.

Dan Oliver: 14 years, what a sweet ride.  And it's only getting better.  There are some really great teams out there doing real breakthrough stuff.  Just saw F-22 - too real!  The boyz at id continue to kick butt.  It's good to see.

Q: Thank you, Dan, for taking the time to speak with us.

Dan Oliver: Thanks for the chance to remember.  They were the best of days.

See this recent article from Dan Oliver for more information about his experiences.


Space Cavern Atari VCS/2600 Games by Apollo released
Rescue Terra I Atari VCS/2600 VentureVision released
Innerspace Atari VCS/2600 VentureVision unreleased
Laser Gates Atari VCS/2600 Imagic released
Telepathy Atari VCS/2600 Atari unreleased
Final Legacy Atari 400/800 Atari released
ST OS (contributor) Atari ST Atari released
Desert Falcon (debug) Atari 7800 Atari released
Finder Apple IIGS Apple released
Finder Apple IIGS Apple released
Night Trap PC, Mac Digital Pictures released
What's My Story? Mac Digital Pictures released

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