Robert Jaeger interview
By John Hardie and Scott Stilphen
We caught up with Robert Jaeger, creator of Montezuma’s Revenge and several other software titles, and asked the burning questions that have been on our minds for all these years…
Q: How did you first get interested in programming? What system and languages did you start with?
Robert Jaeger: I was an arcade junkie from the moment I was tall enough to stand on a crate to play a pinball machine. I knew for certain by age 11 that I would make a career out of making video games. I really wanted to work for Atari or Bally/Midway. I started with BASIC and then moved to Z-80 Assembly language. My first system was the Bally Astrocade which was a fantastic game system that never had great commercial success. This pre-Atari 800 game system had a BASIC programming cartridge and cassette data interface. I created a few BASIC games on this platform. Once I had my Atari 800, I quickly learned 6502 coding.
Q: How did Utopia Software come into existence?
Robert Jaeger: It was common at the time for one-man operations to publish their own software. We had a basement shop where we boxed and sold copies of my early games.
Q: Was Utopia always a one-man operation or were there other employees?
Robert Jaeger: My father helped me a lot in those years. He wasn't technical but offered a tremendous amount of support and did a lot of work in all the other aspects of the business.
Screenshots of Chomper and Pinhead respectively.
Q: What other software products did you create besides Montezuma's Revenge?
Robert Jaeger: I designed several games that were highly derivative of coin-op games of the time. My first commercial game was a Pac-Man derivative called Chomper. Then I created a game called Pinhead which was similar to the little-known arcade game Kickman. Montezuma too was a bit derivative of Donkey Kong and some other games of the time.
Q: Chomper was released by MMG Micro while Pinhead seems to be the first Utopia release. How hard was it for a kid like yourself to get any kind of widespread distribution of your games?
Robert Jaeger: MMG was a tiny publisher created by the founders of the local Atari User's Group. The game did not have good exposure, but Chomper was nothing special - it was Pac-Man on a grid. We sold to distributors and also direct to stores. Software distribution channels were not well established in the early 80's. We were amateurs and learned a lot as we did our thing. No, we did not make much money from this.
Q: There was also a program called The Jawbreaker Construction Set that lists you and Craig Shummer as authors and has the Utopia Software name. Can you tell us more on this? Who is Craig Shummer, and was this a commercial release?
Robert Jaeger: Jawbreaker Construction Set was an early hacking project of mine. This was never a commercial project and was never intended to be distributed; I did this just for fun. If a copy was ever sold, I had nothing to do with it.
Jawbreaker was a fantastic Pac-Man clone which was published by a then fairly unknown Sierra Online. I had nothing to do with the creation of Jawbreaker, but I really loved the game. JCS was just an unauthorized maze editor for this game.
Shummer was a friend and Atari enthusiast who was really amazed with what I was doing at the time so I gave him credit as a goof.
Screenshots of The Jawbreaker Construction Set
Q: Regarding Montezuma, who is Mark Sunshine and what was his role?
Robert Jaeger: Mark is a great friend and artist. He is currently the lead singer for the band RiotGod (www.myspace.com/riotgod). Back in 1983 when I told him I wanted to start a new game, something more original and larger-scale than my previous games, he immediately suggested, "Why don't you make a game with a Meso-American theme and call it Montezuma's Revenge?" He also offered a lot of moral support throughout the development. You should look him up and check out his art and music.
Q: Did you work with anyone else on any of your other products?
Robert Jaeger: My 8-bit games were all solo projects. During the Utopia Technologies days, we had about 12 very talented consultants contributing to various aspects of the projects.
Q: How did your friends react to you being a successful game designer?
Robert Jaeger: My success was related to the fact that I spent my entire days and nights working on games. I didn't get out much and I neglected school and failed many classes. I always had a few good friends, and they just treated it like it was cool, that's all. Many of my friends today are the same people who were my friends before I had any success.
Most people didn't know about my success until many years later. I was in such a dark mood most of the time; I shunned all publicity.
(LEFT) The original Utopia version of Montezuma's Revenge; (RIGHT) Parker Brothers version
Q: How did Parker Brothers end up with the game?
Robert Jaeger: Utopia Software had a tiny booth at the 1983 or 1984 C.E.S. This was pre-E3 when all home electronics, games, and adult entertainment all shared the same show. We had a tiny booth, away from all the major players in games and near the porn stars. I had an early version of Montezuma on display and it created a lot of buzz. People from Parker Brothers convinced me that this game deserved an international marketing effort.
Q: There are several versions of the game out there. Can you comment on them? Starting with the original Utopia version with the awesome music, script title intro, and fade screens. Regarded by some to be a prototype because it appears incomplete. Was this a CES Demo? Is there any way to finish the game/level? Can the giant Indian be defeated?
Robert Jaeger: This is my original version that was leaked a month or two before the official release. There really is no way to complete the game. The giant Indian was "King Montezuma" and there was no way to defeat him.
Q: How did the original version get leaked?
Robert Jaeger: I don't know.
Q: The Parker Brothers version that was released was tremendously scaled down. Was this the same version released by BCI and Databyte (in the U.K.)? What was the relationship with BCI?
Robert Jaeger: Yes, they are the same. When the rights reverted back to us after a few years, we licensed the game to these companies. BCI released it in the USA, Databyte in the UK and other European countries.
Q: There's a pirated file version known as "Preliminary Monty". Is this different from the Parker Brothers release?
Robert Jaeger: I've heard of this version, but I had thought it was the same as my original 48K incomplete version.
Q: What were the reasons for the changes Parker Brothers made?
Robert Jaeger: Parker Brothers reduced the game for a few reasons. First of all, the full version required a 48K Atari with a floppy disk drive. At the time, that limited the marketing potential. They wanted a 16K cartridge version for consistency with the rest of their product line and for broader marketing potential. They also felt that having a cartridge would limit piracy.
Q: That’s interesting considering they never released a cartridge version for the Atari 8-bit computers, but they did for the 5200. Aside from memory restrictions, did they feel the game was too ethnic?
Robert Jaeger: Actually this never was even brought up. This was a time before political correctness. I did no research whatsoever into Montezuma or the culture, and really just thought it was a colorful theme and a cool name. Btw, I now get more fan mail from Latin America than anywhere else in the world.
Q: If there were no worries about being too ethnic, why the change of the character’s look and the name from Pedro to Panama Joe? Is it possible Parker Brothers was trying to broaden its appeal by hinting at an Indiana Jones-type adventurer?
Robert Jaeger: The character went through many name changes. For a brief period he was known as "Panama Jack" and then they caught wind that a clothing manufacturer already had the trademark.
I assume they wanted to brand and promote a character. They didn't own the rights to Montezuma's Revenge, and I recall before the industry crash they were working on a project called "The Continuing Adventures of Panama Joe" or something like that.
At the CES where Parker Brothers promoted Montezuma, they had a model dressed up as "Panama Joe". I must admit that he reminded me a lot of Indy! I have a photo with him somewhere.
The success of Indiana Jones did not hurt the popularity of Montezuma, but I assure you that the any similarities are purely coincidental. I started work on Montezuma before I or anyone had heard of Indiana Jones.
Q: How was it that you used the theme song from The Dating Game TV show for the game?
Robert Jaeger: It was kind of a "place holder" tune until I wrote an original tune. I wanted something to show off the music engine software, so I selected an old song with a loose association to the theme "Spanish Flea". Keep in mind that I never intended for the popular version of Monte to ever be released.
Q: After Parker Brothers licensed the games, who made the programming changes they wanted? What are your feelings on these changes?
Robert Jaeger: Parker Brothers made all the changes. The 48K version is my game and after that I did not do any programming. I did not suggest any of the reductions. I was struggling with a proper ending and was kind of relieved when they told me, "Don't worry about the ending.". I was really tired from working 16-hour days. I thought they did a great job with all the different ports. The Montezuma source code was heavily dependent upon the Atari graphics chips. They really had to re-engineer it for the other versions.
Q: The December 1984 issue of Electronic Games featured Montezuma's Revenge as its "Game of the Month". What effect do you feel that exposure had on sales of the game?
Robert Jaeger: Who can forget the feeling of excitement every month when the new issue of Electronic Games came out? It was a great honor to be featured in Electronic Games. That was one magazine that truly was the pulse of its time. Electronic Games was the best exposure that any game could have. Many thanks to Bill Kunkel, Arnie Katz, and Joyce Worley for all that they did during that magical period. Also I must thank Bob Wanke at Parker Brothers for being the champion of the product.
Q: The article also mentions that at the time it was written you were putting the finishing touches on your latest work. What was that?
Robert Jaeger: It was probably the game Crossfire Canyon which never saw the light of day. Soon after Montezuma was released, the game business suffered probably the worst of its cyclical downturns. It was difficult to get any deals done. Huge companies like Parker Brothers left the business altogether. Even Electronic Games closed its operations. I moved on to Wall Street as a programmer.
Q: Can you tell us about Crossfire Canyon? What did it play like? Was it finished? And do you still have a copy?
Robert Jaeger: Crossfire Canyon was a game originally created by my friend Dave Sullivan on the VIC-20. I ported it to the Commodore 64. It was very psychedelic, simple, and fun. You were a guy trapped on a platform on the bottom of a canyon. There were two volcanoes that showered a stream of rocks on the left and right sides. All you
could do is run left and right and pick up and throw rocks and debris that landed on the canyon floor. Enemy creatures emerged from caves on the left and right side. They arranged themselves in stacks and pushed rocks at the player and they would land on the canyon floor.
It was criticized by everyone for being too simplistic for its time. I still love very simple games. I don't know where it is, but will probably come across it some time. Since it wasn't my original game, I would not want to release it.
Q: There was another rumored title around that time - an underwater-themed sequel to Montezuma’s Revenge called Barbados Booty. The only reference we've found says it was planned for the Colecovision. Is that title familiar to you?
Robert Jaeger: That might have been the byline of the sequel that Parker Brothers was working on. Sounds vaguely familiar but I don't really know.
Q: Were there any Easter eggs in Montezuma's Revenge?
Robert Jaeger: No.
Q: In 1998, Utopia Technologies released Montezuma's Return for the PC and Game Boy Color. Were you involved with either game or Utopia Technologies?
Robert Jaeger: Utopia Technologies was a game development company I had started in the 90's. We had a series of successful coin-op tavern touch screen games called Countertop Champion.
Montezuma's Return for the PC was a technical marvel for its time, but it was pretty much a commercial flop. Like most games, the end result had very little to do with my original concept. I really wanted to do a 3-D game in the spirit of Montezuma, with no fighting. Utopia Technologies had a very difficult time with lots of conflict among the team members, principals, and publishers. The project went through many
incarnations and we had to make a lot of compromises. To say it was a stressful time is to put it mildly.
My company had nothing to do with the development of the Game Boy version. It was part of the licensing deal with Montezuma's Return for the PC.
Q: Did you know that one of the cheat passwords for the Game Boy Color version of Montezuma’s Return is “Sunshine” (an obvious reference to Mark Sunshine)? When entered, it allows you to walk through closed doors.
Robert Jaeger: I did not know this.
Q: What are you doing now?
Robert Jaeger: Although it may seem that my teenage years were glorious, actually it was a very difficult period of my life. I was a very miserable and angry young man. I never made much money from Montezuma's Revenge because the vast majority of copies were pirated. Of course, for a 16-year-old, the minimum
contractual obligation was a good sum. Success of this type does not make a miserable person less miserable, and sometimes can make things worse. It took me some time to get my priorities and life in order.
I'm a totally different person now. I'm semi-retired now and extremely happy. I'm very lucky to have had two successful careers both in computer games and financial technology. These days I do some internet marketing. I play a lot of online poker. I maintain a few web sites for non-profit groups and charities that I like. I'm active in my running club. I'm also very involved in meditation and yoga philosophy.
Q: Did you keep any of your old games or paperwork from the Utopia Software days?
Robert Jaeger: I have some art, sure. It was all done on graph paper. I've kept magazines with ads and interviews. The source code is somewhere deep in my parent's house. We had fliers made for Pinhead that we used at CES. Montezuma was too new at the time. The CES demo perhaps had the intro and 7 rooms.
Q: If you could go back and do one thing differently in regards to the whole Montezuma’s Revenge saga, what would it be?
Robert Jaeger: I had the opportunity to release Montezuma as part of one of the early games for the original Nintendo. At the time, it seemed that the Nintendo was doomed for failure like other consoles of the era. They were offering nothing as far as advances or guaranteed sales, and it seemed like holding out for a decent offer made sense. In hindsight, of course it was a big mistake.
Q: Is there a question about you or your work that you wish somebody would ask you? Something nobody's ever asked but you wish they would so you could say your piece?
Robert Jaeger: “Do you have any advice for aspiring game developers?” The game business is highly competitive and very difficult. Many products fail or never even get distribution. A software cycle is typically 10% creative work and 90% debugging and working out problems. It takes talent, hard work, and a LOT of luck to have success. Some new platforms like the iPhone offer individuals the chance to take great ideas from concept to completion, but most game development has become like movie-studio efforts. It's a great and interesting way to learn programming, but programmers can work half as hard and make twice the money in almost any other industry.
Q: Thanks for your time, Rob. Before we end; one more question - will we ever see another Montezuma game?
Robert Jaeger: Perhaps…
Below is Robert's original artwork for Montezuma's Revenge's "Pedro" and the player's character in Pinhead:
For maps for both the 16K and 48K versions of Montezuma's Revenge, click HERE.
In 2020, Jaeger not only completed his original version of Montezuma's Revenge, he also created a version with updated graphics (LINK). You can find a copy of it HERE.
|Chomper||Atari 400/800||MMG Micro Software||released|
|Pinhead||Atari 400/800||Utopia Software||released|
|The Jawbreaker Construction Set||Atari 400/800||Utopia Software||unreleased|
|Montezuma's Revenge (48K)||Atari 400/800||Utopia Software||not completed|
|Montezuma's Revenge (16K)||Atari 400/800||Parker Brothers||released|
|Crossfire Canyon||C-64||Utopia Software||unreleased|
|Montezuma's Return||PC||Utopia Technologies||released|
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