If you have a question for me, feel free to send it to owen-at-orubin-dot-com. I can't promise that EVERY question will be put on these pages, but I'll post as many as possible!
All letters are pasted exactly as I get them.
From Matt Caswell (arpwell@yahooXXXXXXXX.net)
Matt: Hi Owen,
I found your site through Atariage.com's forums, and I have to say that I'm impressed with your site- not least of which is the fact that it was done with a Mac.
Owen: You need to thank Brian Deuel for the site, he is the person who has created it and keeps it up to date. I am very appreciative of his on-going work, as he is doing this out of the kindness of his heart. (Thanks Brian) (My pleasure- B.)
Matt: First, I wanted to thank you for creating Major Havoc, one of my all time favorite games. I wanted to ask you directly since nobody on the Atari Age forums knew, and/or never replied to my post about whether or not MH actually lands on Planet Vaxx. (Actually, I answered this post on 1-7, but it was a little late -B.) Is this possible? I would really appreciate an answer to this MOST important question. :)
Owen: Actually, the answer is NO! When we originally designed it, you were going to get to "A" home world every fourth wave. You will not along the left side of the screen during the "tactical scan" part of the game there are 4 dots and the edge of a planet, and as you move through the 4 waves, the ship gets closer to the planet. Because of time, we never got the planet waves done.
Then we thought that we would END the game with a large planet wave, that was Vaxx. It was designed on paper a bit, but again, time and ROM space kept us from doing it.
I know, it says "Keep playing, the home world is near." I inserted a bunch of messages into the message table very early on in the game for each wave and never removed them later. So that message got left behind when the original design was to reach the home world.
The wave was going to be like a ship wave, except after you fought ALL the enemies at the same time in space (web spinners, ships, fish, and lines) you would land on the planet. Inside the planet, just like a base ship would be ALL the objects you had seen before. The only difference was that you would have about 3 to 4 minutes of time to trigger 3 or 4 reactors, each of which would count down. The countdown was longer of course, but your time was limited by oxygen as usual (but lots more) and then the 180 seconds of it takes each reactor to blow. (of course, if one blows, they ALL blow!) The maze was going to be VERY large, with lots of transporters, and it would take much time to learn. I am just sorry we never had time to finish that.
There is a story going about that when the game was in the arcade, one person spent several thousands of dollars trying to find the home world. Seems he saw the message, and kept playing. We received a picture of a screen shot on level 56 (or close), which means that the last 4 waves were played over and over getting harder and harder, and as you know, you cannot start higher then level 12! This person was good. But they threatened to sue Atari for the thousands they spent playing the game looking for the end.
I had left Atari by that time, and I understand that Atari sent him a check, and his own copy of the game.
I never imagined a small message left in the game would cause such problems. *SIGH*
Thanks for the question, it is a very good one!
From Rob Carroll (robert.carroll30@verizonXXXXXXX.com):
Rob: I am a collector of 80's coin ops. The two biggest conributions of yours in my game room (that I know of), are my BZ with the erupting volcano and my newly-acquired Major Havoc.
Major Havoc is a game with a history for me, as are nearly all the games in my collection. As a younger boy (I'm 28 now, probably 11 or so at the time), I distinctly remember playing it at a movie theater (the Satuit Playhouse in Scituate, Massachusetts, as it so happens, and I think it was a dedicated because I vaguely remember the roller-controller). Sadly, the next time I visited this movie theater, MH was gone. Probably replaced with a Konami Jailbreak or something (imagine the horror??) But I read a long article in one of the current gaming rags of the day, and it always stuck with me. Major Havoc was the game I only played once (before MAME) but could never forget. From the day I started my collection, MH was a game I intended to own. Now, thanks to my wife, this dream is realized. Merry Christmas to me. :^)
I also love BZ and, although I know you're not responisble for the bulk of the game, I must say that the volcano's eruptions really add a degree of realism to one of the first FPS ever. No bullshit here.
I also love reading your stories from the "field" on Brian Deuel's site from time to time (Hi Rob! -B.). Very insightful and exactly why I love collecting. I'm more into knowing about my games than playing most of them! MH being the execption, naturally, as it's my most recent acquisition.
OK. I'm rambling. Too much egg nog (read: beer and wine) or something. Anyhow, I was wondering if I might get an autograph of some sort to hang above my Major Havoc on my game room wall? I'd truly appreciate it and would gladly PayPal (or snail mail) some compenstation for postage, materials, time, etc.
My deepest gratitude and, if you're ever in the Boston area, I'd be honored to take you out for a couple beers (or dinner, etc., if you're not a drinker). Stories of the "old days" never fail to fascinate me.
Kindest regards and Happy Holidays
Owen: Hi Rob,
Let me see what I can figure out and get something your way. I would love to see a photo (if you can take an electronic shot) of your game room and your Major Havoc. I thank you for the great note, it please me that you are able to re-live that time when you first saw the game. It had a strong following, but because it was vector, and the operators had been having trouble with vector, it did not do as well as it could have. Too bad really, I still play my game and still love it too (thanks to Mark Cerney and his last 4 waves that I STILL cannot get through!) I am happy you found one, they are difficult at best to locate.
As for payment for the autograph, have you been to my web site (which Brian maintains for me) recently (see www.orubin.com)? If you go there, I ask people who want to ≥thank me≤ to send a donation to a charity that is very close to my heart.
You see, I am the Chairman of the Board of the Alameda County Community Food Bank (located in Oakland, California) and we feed about 120,000 or more hungry people every month. As you can imagine, with the economy what it is, there are MANY more hungry people than we can possible feed. And you can donate something via their website. All I ask is that you put my name in the ≥in honor of≤ field so that I know that you have made the donation, as the food bank staff will tell me.
So, even though I have been unemployed for 20 months myself and would love a few extra dollars, I made a deal with myself long ago that I would never charge fans who took the time to write me about my games. And I am sticking to that.
So, if you will do that for me, I will make a color photo copy of either the sales sheet or the front of the repair manual for you (which ever I can find easiest), sign it across the front (please tell me what you want me to say) and send it off to you as soon as I get the chance. Will that work? I have your address (which I sniped off this copy so it will not show on the web site if we post this message), so look for it soon.
When you get it, have a look at my site (www.orubin.com) and click on the Food Bank Logo. It will take you directly to the food banks web site and you can make a donation from there. ANY amount is a help, even if only $5, and I thank you in advance for it.
Thanks for writing, and Happy Holidays.
From Joh Lee (johlee1976@hotmailXXXXXXXX.com):
Joh: Hy Mister Owen Orubin,
i was wondering if the beautifull videolaser game called Firefox based on Clint Eastwood's action thriller "Firefox" from 1982 is still available, 'cos I've searched about nearly everywhere on the internet for how to buy that videogame.
The only thing I once stumbled upon was the videocabinet that was made a year after the movie it's release in 1982, in 1983, the actual coin-up machine. if you please could tell me where and how to still buy this wonderful videogame, and how it could be available, to emulator programs, or if I have to pay for such an emulator, if you could tell me where and how I can still get this videogame, because I cannot believe that this videogame is pratically not to be found anymore, I look forward to receiving your answer.
Owen: I have no idea. Of course they are not for sale in retail, so you would have to find one the way you are doing it, on the web. And this late in the game, I suspect there are very few left. That is all I know. Sorry I can not help you more, but I will have your letter put on my site. If someone has a Firefox for sale, please contact Joh Lee.
As for emulators, there is a thing called LaserMame, but you would have to find the game to get the ROM images and the Laser Disk image. Other than that, again, I am of no help.
Sorry, best of luck!
From Mark (mentor66@btinternetXXXXXXXXXXX.com):
Mark: Thanks for passing my message on it is very good of you. (To whom? -B.) Can you please tell me how you did the [shot] routines in your games? I am finding it a very interesting area to work in.
Owen: I'll give you the quick details on Space Duel's logic of shooting saucers...
In Space Duel, the computer ships, known as saucers, needed to shoot at the player ships or remaining objects on the screen to move the play along. However, you do not want to make them too good too fast.
So, I would have each ship pick a target based on some game logic, which was a random WEIGHTED choice. Early in the game, the saucers picked objects as targets about 90% of the time. As game TIME went on, the objects picked the players more and more until it was 90/10 the other way after about 5 minutes of play. And, each object was weighted to pick on one player or the other more often, so a green object had more chance to pick on a green player, but not always. Objects of other colors were simply a red or green object disguised with a different picture, but the logic was the same.
To "aim" at the target, I would calculate a target vector using the shooter's speed and vector, and the targets speed and vector and distance. I would then calculate an ideal target vector and speed, that, if used as calculated, and neither object changes direction or speed, would score a direct hit.
Of course, you did not want to score a direct hit every time, or the game would seem unfair. So, based on how long the game had been playing, a random element was added to the vector angle (plus or minus some angle) and a random variance was added to the speed (plus or minus velocity) which would make the targeting "not so good". The deltas were random within a range of values whose delta got smaller over time, so a shot COULD be very accurate, or way off, it was a random delta. However, if the player altered their vector or speed after the shot was calculated, they could avoid the shot, or they could alter in such a way as to steer into the random element.
As the game time increased, the amount of variance possible was made smaller and smaller, thus making the shots more accurate. It looked as if the ships got smarter and better over time, and required to the players to keep moving and changing their position to keep from dieing.
The rate of shooting also increased with time, as did the appearance of the saucers. If you left two or less objects on the screen for a period of time (whose length became smaller as game time increased as well), the saucers were ALWAYS launched as soon as possible. This also made the game harder over time as more saucers would be launched as the game got harder.
An interesting bug came from all this: If a saucer was targeting a player and that player died (hit by an object or another player's shot), the saucer was supposed to immediately target the other player. However, a small bug kept this from working correctly all the time. A dead player, when ready to be reset on the filed, would be set at a random position on the screen and marked invisible. The game logic would wait until the player could be safely reappeared on the screen, another check to make sure there were no objects within some set distance before activating the player. The same logic told any saucers targeting that ship to leave the screen, meaning that when they reached an edge, they would not be restarted for some period of time. However, it is possible to collide with a saucer with shields on and cause the saucer to stop moving, or go very slowly on the screen. When the player it was targeting was randomly set to a new screen position to reappear, the saucer would star shooting at that spot as if it were trying to shoot the player, which of course was not there yet really. The safe entry detection did not check for shots, as they were not supposed to be any, as the saucer was SUPPOSED to leave the screen. A reappearing ship in this case would be shot at immediately. This did not happen very often, but to compensate for any possible errors in any collisions or shots, and give the player a reasonable chance, all reappearing ships are invulnerable for a few seconds as they "blink" in, giving the player time to move and shield before the ship could be hit again.
In one mode of the game a set of saucers would appear together (called a mine sweeper) and they would juggle shots back and forth very fast between them trying to clear the field of objects. Each "pass" across the screen they would separate a bit farther and continue to shoot at each other. Their shots would not kill each other (just absorbed) but would kill players and objects on the screen. These shots used the exact same targeting method except their track was altered to ALWAYS hit the other saucer exactly, so there was not variance. If you shot one of the saucers though, the very fast shots aimed at it from the other saucer did not hit anything, so they just kept going very fast. A dangerous thing to do because the shots could easily hit you.
Hope this helps you.
From WareWolf (warewolf@pxiXXXXXXX.net):
Although it might sound terribly cheesy, thanks for your stories on your website. I have enjoyed reading them, and encourage you to continue sharing your good times and the journey's you embark upon as you rebuild old coin-op games.
I was a kid when these were in the mainstream, and filled many machines with most of my allowance, on a regular basis.
Again, thanks - its heartwarming to see that someone else still has a passion for these gentle giants.
Owen: Thanks for the message. I know people enjoy the stories, so when someone asks something that makes me remember one, I try and get it posted. So if you think of any questions, feel free to ask.
From Alexander Santos (email@example.comXXXXXXX.pl)
I want to send out to you a very warm hello and a special thank you for giving my friends and I some of the greatest moments of our lives. The 80's and Atari was such a wonderful thing. As a kid I dreamed of working at Atari developing awesome games. I have to tell you that it is a real opportunity for me to be able to send out an email to someone who was part of what was a very magical time for me. I was mesmerized at the graphics and sound coming out of those cabinets. Actually a friend of mine bought a space duel at an auction in Toronto, it was 200 dollars and worked beautifully, this must have been around 1986 or thereabouts. In fact vector games were one of my favorites due to their high res and unique graphics. The games you were involved in are definite favorites of mine.
Alas, it is so sad that Atari went supernova. It was a spectacular company, especially the arcade division. I am impressed by the calibre of people involved at Atari, they seemed like a wonderful bunch from the arcade hall. When I frequented video arcades with a friend of mine, we would speak to the technicians there, in particular one fellow there, and he was really into the Atari hardware, he said it was the most well designed stuff he would see. You guys did a great job. Thanks for the memories!
Owen: Thanks for the message, and I appreciate the great words. We had a great time making them too, but it is very cool to see people still enjoying games this long after their creation.
Tell you friend to go to my web site and read the new story about on the main page about the ZVG, a new vector generator that connects to a PC and the monitor in a Space Duel. By using this cool device, he can download VectorMame, and play all 32 or so original vector graphics games on the real vector generator game.
At the show I went to, the took an old Space Duel game, added a roller controller (like on Tempest) to the cabinet control panel, and hooked the monitor up to a PC, the button up through another device to the PC, and you could play all these great vector games on the Space Duel. It looked and felt JUST like the real games...no, in fact, it looked better.
Have him look at the my story on the main page (scroll down to it) and it lists links and such to all the companies that make this possible. For about $300 in parts, his existing PC, and a Space Duel game (which seems to work the best) he can have multiple vector games. (and no, I do not get paid to sell these things, I just think they are VERY cool addition to Mame.
As for Atari, I agree, Williams, who owned the last of Atari Games, is obviously not paying attention to the market. Retro games are big again, and what a GREAT (rolling eyes) time to dump all the product and blow up the original. Just dumb in my opinion.
Thanks again for the message. Feel free to write or ask questions any time. I try and answer as soon as I can, depending on my travel and work commitments.
ALexander: Does this mean that Atari Games is really really gone?
Owen:Well, the Atari in the US we knew is gone. But some might argue that it was gone long ago. But the last of the Atari employees that were holding on to their fun jobs at what was left of the old Atari in Milpitas in gone.
Alexander: You know through MacMame I am getting my son into the Atari games and he really likes them, thought I would let you know.
Owen: I love this. Its why I think Mame is so cool.
Tell me something Owen, did you ever get a chance to meet Nolan Bushnel? He must be pretty sad about all that has happened to his company, it must have been hard for him to swallow huh? Personally I am in a kind of denial. What about yourself? Is it sad for you too?
Owen: Well, the game industry has been sad for a long time for me. The first game machine I bought in a long time was a Nintendo 64, of which I obtained about 10 games. I was not impressed with most of the games. And Nintendo not supporting the older games in their newer machine made me not want to buy one again.
As for meeting Nolan, I was (am?) a friend of his, and use to spend time at his house in Woodside when he lived there. I also worked for a number of his start-ups (although never really paid to do so) when he created then. He is now in southern California so now I do not see him at all except at an occasional trade show.
As for his being sad, it was not obvious to me. In fact, I think he is thrilled to see what he started (with others of course) build into such a HUGE industry actually. I worked with him at Bally Sente again after leaving Atari and he just wanted to create cool games. I do not believe he had any anger or frustration with Atari. He is a move on kind of person, and has moved on.
Alexander: What sort of projects are you involved in right now? Do you own or use macs at all?
Owen: I am unemployed right now, going on 16 months of not being able to find technical management work in California. I own MANY Macintosh computers, as I worked for Apple for almost 7 years! So, if you know of people looking for engineering or business development management, my resume is on my website.
Alexander: A few more questions. I am sorry to be bothering you, I hope I am not.
Alexander: When I visited your site, of course I went through most of it and did see the link to ZVG, I thought it was fascinating that they are people so into this, and man is it ever cool. But I didn't see any mention of the card working on Macs. Will it? Does it?
Owen: No, it runs on DOS only on a PC. But any PC with about 700 Mhz PIII or above, something you can get for $250 OR LESS on the net will work fine. You do not need Windows, so you can get a DOS PC cheap to do this and never deal with (much of) Microsoft.
Alexander: I am considering a G5 purchase and would love one of these cards. But to use it I would need a vector machine right? Or would a vector monitor suffice? Does Wells Gardner still make these kind of monitors? Are vector monitors completely different from raster ones?
Owen: Follow the link on my page to their website. You only need a vector monitor, and almost ANY vector monitor will do. And of course you could use a keyboard instead of buttons, that works fine too.
Alexander: Gee whiz so many questions. It's not everyday I get to email a legend like yourself, it's true! Let me tell you something. I want to tell you about my experience with Major Havoc.
Owen: (rolling eyes) OK, enough of THAT!
Alexander: First of all the game was completely unusual for me. It was so different, it had that beautiful modern cabinet design like irobot and firefox, all I tried, especially irobot, but I loved the 'track ball' controller your game had, how it illuminated! Wow, that was amazing,
Owen: OK, the cabinet was original done for Major Havoc, but my game was delayed so I, Robot came out in it first, so everyone calls it the I, Robot cabinet. But it was the Major Havoc cabinet that I, Robot used. I also did not want a ball, so the industrial design people created me a 2 dimensional ball, the roller. My game has a different color roller, a blue one as that was the original color as well, but the light did not show through it well, thus we tried yellow and green. I did not like the green, so blue it was. The engineer who designed the hardware gave me control over the light, so I could flash it.
Alexander: It was a little hard to play.
Owen: Well, it took a bit of practice to get good at, but I never felt it was particularly difficult. In fact, I went to great pains to make the game easy at the start.
Alexander: I loved the so smooth scrolling text describing the characters in the game and the story of this strange world major havoc found himself in.
Owen: Vector games allowed an item to be moved smoothly, so text is just another object.
Alexander: It was awsome how the point of view would switch, bring the player close up to the ship and then away to the landing sequence, fantastic. It was so different, so unique,
Owen: I had a lot of fun with that. From an over shoulder view to a full third person, it took some time to get the transitions right. I liked to too.
Alexander: and very beautiful, bright, great side panel art, clean design. Man, you guys were totally ahead of the competition. One time I went to the Major Havoc Game a guy was racking up a huge score and on the weirdest of levels, he was a pro, he moved so smoothly through the game. That was game playing!
Owen: There are 16 levels, and the last four repeat with a few changes in colors. Each level is harder and requires more tricks and skills than the previous, and what you learned in a previous you needed to get better and better at each successive level. I though it was well balanced.
Alexander: I remember, this was in Toronto, I now live in Poland just under a year and lived in Portugal for three years, and back then, around 84 or 85, things were changing in the arcades, and not for the better, the problem was definitely a crisis in the creativity area.
Owen: I don't know if it was a crisis. I think the focus went to mind blowing special graphics effects (not to say we did not do that earlier, like the sparkling vectors in Major Havoc), but the main focus seemed to be trying to outdo the previous game with better and better graphics. I think the focus on game play got lost in the graphics.
Alexander: There were many games from Japan most of them shooters and fighters, over and over again. The Atari Games were not often played, I think Atari may have felt this trickle down to HQ as the numbers were not adding up anymore in terms of sales as arcade operators noticed that Ataris were not revenue winners anymore.
Owen: Personally, if I saw another side scrolling jump punch kick game I think I was going to scream. But they earned money. It took Atari a long time to figure out they needed one, and their first one that I remembered, that Dinosaur game was good, but not as much fun for most people. Atari had this "no attacking people" in their games, and all the Mortal Kombat games were gory and violent. I guess that sells, but I sure was not into them at all.
Alexander: Before I expected and played constantly changing games now it seemed to be the same thing over and over in a new package. Personally I was losing not interest but enthusiasm by all of it. I kept visiting the arcades to play my old favorites, of course the old Ataris and so on, I was hoping Atari would come out with another great game. This must have been around ohh 87? Not sure now.
Owen: I was gone by then, but Atari did come out with some great games: Paperboy, Gauntlet, 720, Hard Drivin, Stun Runner to name just a few.
Alexander: I must admit though, I don't play much anymore. Although MacMame of course, Unreal was great and is I think, because the arena is huge and multiplayer but still it can get repetitive in a way. I wonder what your thoughts or your peers thoughts are on gaming today. It's too bad but out here in Poland it is pretty dry, I don't know of one arcade here.
Owen: I started playing again on Unreal, which I love (although no longer play because all the people I played against are now elsewhere) and I also liked Marathon, a similar game. BUT, I do not play much anymore either.
Alexander: Well Owen, I hope I didn't bombard you with too many questions. I appreciate your time and thoughts, and thanks for reading this.
Owen: My pleasure.
Alexander: I would actually enjoy writing about some of these things, are there sites that want writers?
Owen: Google is a great place to start looking! I have no other ideas for that on you.(WEBMASTER NOTE: put together your own site? :) )
From Gerardo (jgsoto@caribeXXXXX.net):
My name is Gerardo from Puerto Rico. First... my english isnot the best... he he! Well Im a Atari collector. I have a little collection of game ( 2- 2600, 1 2600jr, 1 5200, 1- 7800, 1 Linx and 1 pong and many games) I only need de Jaguar.
I love Atari, I remember my young days... how I loved play. The other day I bought a 2600 for $3.00 in a fleamarket and its worked perfect.
Surfing the internet today I found your page... then I decided to write you this e-mail to say Thanks for those great days that me and my brothers had playing in the 2600 and the others great games. I say thanks to you because I dont know other person or internet site like yours and you are part of the Atari Team.
Well... I dont know if a express fine my self... I hope you understand that I want to say.
Owen: Thank you for your message. I do understand you and I thank you for your words. I am sorry to say that I made coin operated arcade games, and not the games that went into the home. Some of my games did get converted to the 2600, but I did not make the conversions.
I like that you found a 2600 for $3.00. That is amazing.
An exchange between Owen and matthew@mundomateoXXXXX.com:
Matthew: It would seem that the modern approach is to redraw the entire display for every frame, but back in 1983 I can't imagine this was being done? For modern 3D games I understand this is necessary, but for a 2D game it seems like a waste of CPU power. It makes me mad that some 2D (and even 3D) games of today require 1GHz+ CPUs, massive hard drives, 64MB RAM, 3D-graphics cards, etc., and can't match games in the 80's that only had 1MHz to 8MHz CPUs, 90K of code, and 6K of RAM!
Owen: Well, all the vector games of yesterday actually did just that, they redrew the entire frame each and every time. The display memory was broken into two parts, the one being drawn by the vector hardware display engine (a state machine that drew to the display.) If you did not restart the display when it was done drawing, it would go black! So, why the display was drawing from one half the memory, the main CPU was calculating and placing instructions into the other half of the memory. You had to do this as close to the time it took to draw the screen as possible. Occasionally, the calculations would take longer than the drawing, so a loop was put into the display to redraw the same frame again, and this can be seen in a slowdown of the drawing speed on some of my vector games, especially Space Duel when lots of objects are on the screen.
I agree with you, I am amazed that some modern 2D games need such powerful processors, and often ask myself why? But keep in mind that we built dedicated hardware to help us make the games what they were, and the hardware helped us a lot. In addition, our resolutions were much lower, typically 640x480 in my days (for raster games) and our bit depth was smaller (8 bits at best) compared to some of today's true color display depths at 1400x1200 or higher. Today, there is a LOT more data to move, so that takes some time as well.
Matthew: So, the assembly programmer and minimalist in me wants to know how the> display was managed on the mid-80's games, both on the hardware and software side. On my TI, there was just not enough time to redraw the whole screen as well as do all the game logic, so you only moved what changed. The TI had 8x8 characters that you could define the shape of, and then display in any of the 24x32 screen locations. The TI had hardware sprites as well, but only 1 color each. When I look at some of the older games, I'm floored at how much movement is going on, and that collisions don't miss (generally), so there must be some secrets to making all this happen on a 1MHz CPU with 90K of ROM and 6K of RAM...
Owen: Ok, on our raster games, we had both a playfield, usually either a set of 8x8 or 16x16 "stamps" that could be drawn to a background, or a memory mapped display to create the background. We also had something called motion objects (which varied in size based on the game, called sprites by some) which were, typically a memory mapped object that was "placed" over the background by the hardware. That means this object could easily be moved around the background by simply changing two registers that specified its X and Y position on the screen. So a few short instructions could easily move an object around the screen. In today's PCs, to move a "motion object" the computer has to write the object into the bit map display, then erase it, replace the background, and draw the object at its new location. A lot more instructions for just moving an object. In addition, the image in the motion object could be changed by simply putting a new value into a register that specified the next picture to draw. Early games had graphics in ROMs, and the motion object hardware would draw the proper picture from the ROM based on this register. This means no moving data to change the object picture as well.
Think about this. To make a person run across a complex screen: We would draw and store a series of pictures of a person running into ROM. Then we could raw the background once! Now, to make the person run, simply place the motion object of the man running at the left edge of the screen and select picture one from the ROM, a few simple instructions. When it "runs", you simply update the position of the object (a few memory stores) and change the picture to the next in the series, a few more instructions.
Compare this to a modern PC: Again, create the pictures of the running person and put them in memory. Then draw the background on the screen. Now you draw the person on the screen. To move the person, you have to erase the old drawing by replacing the person with the background, then redraw the person with the next picture in the series at the next location.
OK, I have simplified this a lot. Obviously, you can streamline the move on a PC by only drawing pixels that actually change, but in a complex motion object, this could be a lot of pixels. And with a lot of objects, this gets processor intensive.
Later games had RAM instead of ROM for motion objects, so the object itself could be altered.
Collisions were ALL software. We tried hardware that told us when two motion objects touched each other, but it was not very useful for so many reasons. We spent a lot of time on doing collisions well. That is a whole different discussion.
Display: As for the display, I understand completely what you described about the motion objects, but what about color depth of them? Were you limited to 1 or 2 colors for the motion objects? Was there a limit to how many you could have or how big they could be? Was the video processor reading completely from ROM to produce the dislay? It amazes me that a ROM (back then) could be read fast enough to provide bitmap data to the video hardware for drawing the display.
Owen: It of course depended on the hardware. Some hardware had small and large depth motion objects. Some, for shots for example, might be 2 bits deep. Player objects, large in size, might be 4 to 8 bits deep. Rarely did we have any deeper than while I was there.
Matthew: I wonder why modern graphics systems have done away with support for motion objects? I suppose the speed and power they have makes a blit operation more efficient. But my biggest gripe is that it is sloppy software that pushes us to require faster hardware.
Owen: Strangely enough they would have little use except for game machines. Although the cursor could be done that way. I wondered why myself there is not better support. EXCEPT, what would be the right amount, size, depth, etc. of motion objects? If you had 4 of them, why not 8? Would it really make modern game programming better? Some games have 100's of moving objects. A good bit-blitter is probably better. I would rather see multiple graphics layers instead of motion objects. That way, you would not have to redraw the background, only the object. A lot less drawing.
Matthew: Also, I'm curious about how scrolling playfields were done. One of the early (early for me) games I loved in the arcade was Xevious. I tried and tried to reproduce that game on my TI, of course it just didn't have the hardware to do it. But even today I don't know how you would go about such motion with the hardware limitations you were working with then.
Owen: Much simpler than you think. The actual memory map is bigger than the screen, and a set of "scroll registers" say where in that map to start drawing. Change the pointers, you scroll. The program simply has to draw into the map outside the visible area to keep the map full. This was not that different from X-Y games and how they scrolled. Make sense?
Collision: When you do collisions, do you perform a bounding box check, or exact pixels, or a combination of both (bounding box to get close, then pixel check for exact collision)?
Owen: You do a rough check in X and Y to see if you are close. If you care, you can do a more elaborate check based on the size and shape of the object. In Major Havoc, I checked the feet, knees, waist, chest and head of a single drawing as if they were separate objects. Made for collisions that did different things depending on where they were hit.
Game Loop: Did you have a game loop?
Owen: Yes, something like that. Although the switches and controls were usually read during something called the Vblank interval. A non maskable interrupt was generated each frame at the start of the time when the beam stops drawing on the bottom and returns to the top. This is the black bar you see when you make a TV roll. This was also used to sync the game with the display. Sounds were done here too, so they always sounded the same regardless of how busy the game got.
Matthew: This is what I see in modern examples, but I cannot find anyplace that talks about the "game loop", how it came to be, or alternative ways of doing things. Of course each of the "display" functions above would blit the given images to the background, whereas the old game software would not have to do this since the video hardware takes care of drawing?
Owen: Well, there are still problems. Some older games you might notice the motion objects "split" during the drawing. You wanted to move all the objects during the vblank interval. But there was a lot to do in only 16 ms, so sometimes the interval routine would run long, and the update would not take place until into the active video. If you moved a motion object close to the top of the screen, you would see part of the object at place one, and then the other part shifted because the software would update its position while it was being drawn.
Be aware that we had some games that were much like today's PC. Missile Command was like that for example... A large bit map.
Matthew: I suppose I should dig into MAME's source to see how the hardware was used. I've also been thinking about writing a game on an older game machine just to see what it was like for you back then. What hardware/software did you typically have to develop with?
Owen: Our computer genius Dave Shepperd modified DEC's PDP-11 macro language for us to use with 6502 and 6800 processors. We wrote in assembler for the most part until the mid 80's, but I left by then.
From Barry (harper3@sympaticoXXXXXX.ca):
I found your web page after doing some info search on the Atari> upright Pong game. I'm a pinball guy and bought this classic game and have had a hoot reading and learning about the early video days.
Unfortunately do to space, I have to sell the pong game.
But I just wanted to let you know how much I've enjoyed your web site and stories.....The internet has many faults----BUT the information sharing is wonderful!
Reading your stories and insites have made me feel like I was there with you and your co-workers.
Owen: Thanks for the great message. I appreciate your message. And I am happy that you found the stories entertaining. That was the whole reason for putting them up there. We had a great time (if not hard work) doing what we did back then, and sharing it is fun as well. If you have other questions, please feel free to send them along, I would be happy to answer you the best I can.
Q: Would you happen to have any additional images (or description) of the prototype Dig Dug pictured on the initial page of your web site? I'm curious to see/hear about any differences between the proto and the production game.
Thanks for your time.
Owen: Game play wise, there is no difference at all. The board has the final ROMs in it. We (Atari) bought the game completed, and just needed to make localization changes for the US market. I do not recall any programming changes at all. The graphics are hand made on parts of the cabinet...paper cut outs in some places. If I get a chance, I will take a few more photos and put them up there.
Thanks for the question.
From Thomas Rahbar:
Q: Don?t want to consume a lot of your time, but I just wanted to introduce myself and say ?Hi!?. My name is Thomas Rahbar and I live in Edmond, Oklahoma. I grew up during the heyday of arcade games and always enjoyed going to the local arcade. Atari has always had a significance in my life. My first computer was an Atari 800, and I kind of went from there. I am now a system analyst/network engineer and I feel like it is because of the influence of my childhood. Anyway, I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for the creativity you and your team had on the games you worked on/created in the 80?s - creativity which has been lost in my opinion today. In fact, I now own 25 or so arcade games in my home. One of them which is a Major Havoc that I proudly display in my game room as the centerpiece. I still play it every day or so and it is my prized possession. I recently acquired a Battlezone for my boss and just got the XY working. Nice volcanoes! ;)
I just thought it would be great to have an email from one of the ?great ones? of the day. And to say that I truly appreciate everything you have done for the staple of my childhood and so many others. I think it is really great that you have a website where fans can leave you email and that you take the time to respond to them.
Owen: Hi Thomas,
Sorry, seemed to miss your message when it came around originally, found it in my in basket this morning. Sorry for the delay in replying.
No waste of time at all, feel free to ask any questions you like. I would love to see a photo or two of your game room, and maybe even a picture of your high score table from Havoc. How far have you gotten?
Thanks for the great words, I appreciate it. I find myself very nostalgic for the times these days, now that I am yet another high tech worker looking for work (almost a year now!) The high tech sector out here sucks, and jobs, especially at my level (VP or Director) are far and few between. I guess I need to start programming again? :-)
Let me know if there are questions I can answer about the games, or feel free to drop a line any time.
Another question from the Webmaster:
Q: Heard of this one (description is second game down): http://www.arcadeflyers.com/?page=flyerdb&subpage=flyer&id=3510&image=1 (NOTE: A game called UFO).
In the last 70?s early 80?s there were bar wall games making the rounds. Basically there was a wireless controller with 1 button (typically, this may have had three) and two controllers, one for each player if multiplayer, which this was. On the wall was a rather large game (rather flat, but maybe 5 to 6 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet tall, with a series of graphics on plex with lights behind each graphics, so that if you sequenced the lights correctly, an animation of a sort will show up. These wall games included horse shoes, duck hunting, and Atari did one called UFO.
The UFO would ?streak? across the sky on one of several paths. You pressed the button to shoot at the UFO, and a shot would come up from the bottom. If your shot sequence hit the UFO (basically, the lamps would light at the same time) the UFO would sequence to a crash.
Typically, the game required you to press the button to start the animation, and then after some time, let it go, or press it again to release. I do not recall the exact game play for UFO. In horseshoes for example, pressing the button started the throwers arm moving. You presses again to release. The closer to the exact release timing, the closer the horse show would get to the pin. The UFO game played much in the same way.
Somewhere in the back of my sick mind, I recall doing some software for this machine, but I may be wrong. But it was NOT my game by any means. I wish I could remember more.
A three-way exchange between Owen, Curt Vendel (from atarimuseum.com) and Mike Albaugh, another former Atari engineer.
Curt: I have some notes from Steve Calfee on a Gremlines coin-op, but I heard rumor long ago of a possible ET coin-op being considered. Did this actual make it to a prototype or test unit? You guys know who would've been assigned to this project?
Mike: I'm CC'ing Owen in case he remembers more, but I am probably closer to this subject.
"E.T." was one of three games proposed for the hardware that was used for "Return of the Jedi". The third was Ed Logg's version of Road Runner. Only Jedi was produced, but as I recall E.T. got to the prototype, maybe focus-group stage. The programmer was Robin Ziegler. The game-play was simply to guide E.T. through a number of scenes, avoiding the "scientists" and picking up parts of the "phone" to phone-home. Gary Stempler would have been the engineer, as he was the designer of this hardware. I do not recall who the animator or composer were.
As a side-note, Robin also (because of this?) worked on Atari's last pinball, also E.T.-themed originally, but when the (negative) marketting ramifications of the E.T. name (combined with large royalties) caused the abandonment of that name, the game was re-done as "4x4", with the backglass featuring a recognizable Milt Loper and Carol (Branham) Vedell. This was also never produced. Robin had a protoype, with 4x4 playfield, until I bought it, but time and money pressures led me to "pass it on". If I grub back through my email I _might_ be able to find the name of the guy who bought it.
Googling around finds:
Although I realize that's not what you asked for. I'm just amazed at what one can find...
Owen: There is not much more I can add to that, that is how I recall it as well. I do remember the forest scene where ET had to drop and then pick up small candy bits.
I also remember Steven Spielberg coming into Atari to see the game and others. I was working on Major Havoc at the time, he had a quick look and then later said to me that he wanted to see it again. I said he would have no problem finding it. I ran to the vending machine and bought a bag of Reese's Pieces and led a trail from where he was to my game down the hall. He showed up a bit later with a handful of the candy, which he dumped into the trash, asked if there were any left (seems he liked them as well) and then played Havoc. He liked the game I recall, but at the time I only had 3 levels and he made it through all three!
Mike, you did forget that I also did the golf simulator on the same hardware, and it did not ship either.
Mike: I do remember the Golf Sim., but did not recall that it used the same hardware. Do you happen to recall whether the Laser-based Road Runner came before or after the one on this hardware? I know both came before the System-I version by Norm and Greg.
I _really_ gotta start setting aside time for making entries into a "Atari, as I remember it" article. Like, what was the name of the operator who was neither Cynthia nor Linda? Before Linda of the dubious mushrooms who married Dave Wiebenson.
Owen: I had the laser based system the same time as Ed [Logg- Asteroids, Gauntlet] had it for Road Runner. We shared code and development a bit. I continued with the Laser based system after he stopped because I had to have it, he, according to the people who "knew", did not! So, I assume it was the same hardware. Maybe Jed did some modifications to it thought for the sensor inputs.
The Laser version was first if I understand your question.
Argh. I remember that operator. Short, blonde. I can picture her well, but damn if I remember her name.
Mike: I thought it preceded the one he did on the ET/Jedi hdw. That hardware was very different, and not at all what I intended to say. "Jedi" (and the other two) had a scrolling playfield with "pixel interpolation", an "Alphanumeric" overlay, and System-I-ish Motion-objects, but a 6502 rather than a 68K (It preceded System-I). The point of the Pixel-interpolation was to be able to afford a lot of playfield graphics without paying for a lot of ROM. It used 1/2 the resolution of the other two video elements, and "averaged" the surrounding pixels to fill in the pixels that were not stored. I quoted "averaged" because of course it did nothing of the sort, being table-driven rather than algorithmic. This hardware also had "fully decoded" Color-ram, so each unique combination of alpha, playfield, and motion-object video could be a distinct color. This was used to "matte" the foreground/background (done in alphanum) against playfield and M.O., and to provide effects like E.T.'s flashlight.
Owen: Hmm. I believe the one I had was 6502. I may be the one confused.
As for the details, I do not recall. All I know was I used the same hardware that Ed used for the Road Runner laser disk game. You know more about the details than I.
From: John Hardie, Organizer of Classic Gaming Expo (this message went out to all Classic Gaming Expo alumnus and speakers):
Q: Dear Classic Gaming Alumni,
Digital Press would like to know "the most memorable moment of your classic gaming career"!
Recently we asked everyone to let us know what one special moment from the classic gaming days stands out the most from all others. We received a bunch of responses but we're still in need of about 25 of these memories. Some people had one incident which they fondly remembered while others had 2 or 3. All we ask is that you take a few minutes to write a few sentences to tell us all about it, if you haven't already done so.
This could be anything at all (a software or hardware breakthrough or achievement, an award you won, a party you attended, a party you shouldn't have attended, etc.)
Don't delay! Here's your chance to be immortalized in the annals of Digital Press. Help keep our senior editor from killing me for going past the deadline with this feature. Unfortunately I need these as soon as possible, so any help would be greatly appreciated.
My thanks in advance and looking forward to seeing many of you in Vegas again this year.
Best wishes and many thanks,
Editor, Digital Press
Organizer, Classic Gaming Expo
Owen: This is hard to answer, as there were many great moments. But here are 2 I still recall fondly to this day:
My most memorable moment was the very first time I got to see people play one of my games on a field test. I created the code for Cannon Ball (my first game) completely by hand (which is another long story available on my web site) and it was put out for testing at a local arcade to see how it would collect. I decided to sneak out to the arcade and watch people play. It was not a perfect game (which is why it was there) and we were not allowed to tell people who we were, but when I saw players laughing, joking, and having a good time while playing the game, I knew it was going to be a great job!
Second most memorable time: I worked in a secondary building behind the main Atari building on Division Street in Los Gatos at the time (1976.) In our area our team was developing 8 player Tank, one of the first games to use a microprocessor actually. During lunch, a large group of executives would come into the lab to "play" the game. Well, not really play, but watch, and this was why: The game did not have computer controlled players when any paid player was playing because management believed that people might walk up and think they were playing a tank when actually the computer was, and then not put in any money. If ANY player put in a coin, ALL other tanks stopped in their home parking place waiting for a coin. However, when no one was playing, the tanks were all controlled by a somewhat random computer algorithm in an attract mode, where they attacked each other. The tanks would keep playing for 3 minutes or so, and scores would actually tally on the screen. Now why management did not believe that people walking up to the game during attract would not think they were playing was beyond me, but I digress. ANYWAY, the executives would place best on the tanks to see which would "win" attract play. Lots of money would be dropped down on the glass top with each executive betting on of the 8 colored tanks. Lots of yelling would take place as the cheered on their tanks. After one such betting session, one of the executives stayed behind, just sitting at the game and watching the tanks. I walked up, sat down and we started to chat. I had no idea who this was, and I gladly answered all sorts of questions, including ones about what I liked about Atari, and also what I did not think worked. We talked for about 35 to 40 minutes about both the good and bad at Atari. He thanked me for the chart, shook my hand and walked out.
My boss then walked up to me and said "Nice having you work here Owen.. Good luck in your next job!" I asked him what that meant, and he told me I was, as he put it, complaining to Nolan Bushnell! Well, I was in a panic for a short while, because I did answer his questions on both the good AND bad. Was I going to be fired for that? Well, as it turns out, Nolan came back the next day, found me in my office, properly introduced himself, and thanked me for my candor with him the day before. He told me that he appreciated that I was "just myself" with him and did not try so hard to impress him. He told me that I was welcome to find him and chat about Atari, or anything else I wished anytime. And I did, and I considered myself one of his friends for quite some time after that. Lucky for me I did not know who he was at the time. I was also invited to place my bets with the executive team during lunch, but I was not that crazy. :-)
An exchange with Marcel (MGONZAL3@CRDUS.JNJNOSPAM.COM):
First of all, I send you a nice firm handshake on all the Atari projects you have made in the past. I am very fond of the Atari Vectors you created. I am doing a bit of research in order to create a really nice 80s laserdisc-game related website. I was wondering if you were involved in the Atari Firefox project in anyway.
Owen: I was not directly related to the Firefox project, but did lend some "input" if you will.
First, I was Atari's so-called laser disk "expert", having been sent by Atari to MIT for graduate sessions in laser disk technology. I originally suggested that Atari NOT do the game because of technical limitations of the hardware. My conclusion was that the hardware would not hold up to arcade abuse, AND, that the technology was not fast enough to do a reasonably good game. I knew it would have problems. After all, they sent me to MIT to learn what I could and help make decisions. They decided to build the game anyway.
My other "contribution" was just before its public display at a trade show. Many of the Atari engineers had gone to AMOA, a trade show on amusement machines being held in New Orleans. I opted not to go, I believe I was still working on Major Havoc at the time, and was just too tired to do a trade show because I had been working so hard on my project.
Well, they had Clint Eastwood planned to attend the show and were going to present the game with Clint Eastwood showing it off. They had a huge stage in the booth. So the day of the show, they plug in Firefox and it does not work. They plug in the second board and it does not work. The show opened with Clint Eastwood standing in front of a big red curtain with a Firefox coming soon sign. They were in a panic.
So I get this frantic call right after the show opens. Please go to the lab of the team that was creating it, and see if I can make it work. They were going to send back Nolan Bushnell's Lear Jet to San Jose with a stand-by crew, so that when we got it working, they would wisk us off to New Orleans. So a couple of engineers and I go to the Firefox lab and boot up the development system. We load the program and it works. But it seems that when put into EPROM, problems occurred. Long story short, after about 14 hours of work (after already working many hours on my own game) we fixed several problems, burned several sets of EPROMS, and grabbed another board (tested it!) and headed for the airport to fly us off to New Orleans. We get there about the time of the opening of the second day of the show, someone meets us to rush us off to the show and they get the game running. The actual timing of this is not clear in my head anymore; this may have actually been the third day- I am not sure. I do recall that I was so exhausted by that time, that I did not attend the show, but rather opted to sleep on the plane as it was going back later that same day, and I did not have a hotel room anyway.
But it was fun!, in a strange sort of way.
I should add a few more pieces of info.
Atari started several other laser disc games that never saw the light of day. I was starting Battle Star Galactica and Knight Rider as possible laser disk games (testing), Road Runner was originally a laser disk game with real cartoon clips and laser backgrounds. VERY cool. I also did a golf simulator where you hit a real ball with your own clubs at a big screen (there was a net in front of the screen) and we projected a ball over a laser disk image from the gold course. We then offered fly over views of the course (never implemented as we never shot the scenes for the test), golf lessons (we had a good number of pros do lessons, including some humors ones) and other laser disk video.
Galactica was a fighter and land game using the laser disk to show progress. We shot a test landing sequence using only laser disk footage where you had to land on the Galactica. You could spin 360 degrees and had to land flat. Never got far. We also looked at tons of footage from Knight Rider, and there was some great footage of KITT landing that the audience never saw. Seems in the early shows they actually jumped a real car. They had cameras all over the place, including in and on the car. Except when the car hit, it was usually nose down, and the front was usually crumpled beyond recognition. They had many cars, one for just Michael driving, one for parked close ups, one for when it drove itself (the drive was inside the driver seat looking through the head rest, a cheap effect if you look closely) and MANY cars for jumping. So, in the game, if you missed a jump, we had lots of footage for crumpled landings. This game was killed before we did anything because of problems with laser disk games.
I have some of the test footage on a laser disk from golf and Galactica. I was also a Cube Quest fan, and I believe I still have a laser disk from Cube Quest as well.
Marcel: This is really great information. Let me tell you what I have been doing:
Star Rider and Firefox were most frequently played by myself in my teens. I managed to spend all my Publix bagboy allowance on them for about 2 weeks until they started to experience technical problems with the laserdisc games, including these two. So last year, I bought a badly broken down Star Rider upright. Broken player, monitor, and missing boards! Thankfully the cabinet was in good shape and the laserdisc had not rotted. I gave it 8 months of my life to bring it back to life. Being overly impressed with the system and the CG work, I started trying to gather as much information on the Star Rider. It seems that very little people actually care about the game, so I did not have any luck at first. Slow but surely, I started to find and meet folks. I met up with several people who worked at Computer Creations, Inc. in South Bend, Indiana. They were the ones that used all the ultra-expensive equipment to make the CG. Extremely nice people. I met up with most of the members of the Star Rider project team who worked at Williams. I spoke to Python Anghelo, who was the man behind the game and art concept.
What I got from the people at Computer Creations was ecstatic! They took great pride in their work, commenting that "they had never achieved a scale of CG before". The Star Rider CG footage had actually won an award and it appeared in SIGGRAPH. I got some very informative stuff.. the hardware they used, the amount of grueling time they spent on solving problems, the VAX units they had to buy for the production work, etc. Amazing stuff. People I spoke to: Herman Towles, Ken Lantz, and 2 other gentlemen I can't think of their names right now.
What I got from the people at Williams was also informative, but rather dissapointing. Everyone I talked to was very hesitant to talk to me about the project. Pretty much at first they all asked me "Why do you want to know about this" very harshly, but after I told them my reasons they agreed to spend some time on the computer with me. What I found out is that almost the ENTIRE Williams R&D and operations personnel was DISMISSED from work because of the outcome this one game had! Not very good news came out from these peoples' mouths! I did get in-depth information from an ex-electrical engineer about the DISCAN system; the boards; the capabilities of the PR-8210 player, etc.
The only Williams guy that gave me a true-to-the-fact story was Mr. Anghelo. He told me of all the things that Star Rider could have been, and all the things that the company totally screwed up on. Star Rider was supposed to have a similiar track layering scheme as in Firefox, to include player options. Star Rider was supposed to use the rear-view-mirror effect for throwing fireballs at opponents. There were other videodiscs planned for this 'revolutionary' (Williams DISCAN) system, one being an Afterburner-type 3D shooter game, and another one being a Powerboat-race game.
So anyways, I will get all this information and make a nice detailed site about it. If nobody cares about it, it won't bum me a bit. The game deserves praise for its art concept and all the blood and guts that went to it, at least to me.
Again, thanks for your time!! I would love any more input you can give me. When Firefox was placed on test location, what were the results? Was it basically the Phillips player crapping out ?
If and when I do create the site, I will include a 'Firefox' section... they were some really great games despite its technical faults!!
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