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.
Q: Hi,cool stuff about your atari expirence but my question is how do you think up this original game ideas and how you think up that sound stuff like the splash of a towel
Owen: Some people use to say we were all on strange drugs, and for some people at Atari that would have been true. Not me, didn't do them!
I am not trying to sound conceited, but I think it just takes a creative or artistic mind to think up crazy solutions to strange problems. And to be honest, there are a lot more creative people than I out there. But I can come up with clever ideas as well. And, usually you do not do it yourself, and accepting that is often difficult for people to handle so they try and fail. It takes more than one person to make a great game (usually.)
Game ideas go through many revisions and changes before the public ever seems them. More often than not, the old Atari games that got published were not the ideas that they started out to be. Major Havoc started out as a game called Tholian Web, named after an old Star Trek episode where the ship was caught by other ships that locked the ship into a web. You can see part of that original game in the third space wave actually. Tempest actually started out as a 3D version of Space Invaders! There are lots of other examples actually.
Basically, you come up with a game idea, you get people together to "brain storm" about the idea, come up with additional ideas (the rule of a brain storm has to be NO NEGATIVE COMMENTS, only positive ideas) and then idea starts taking shape and growing. Then a prototype game is created with simple graphics, and more changes and ideas evolve. Major Havoc took almost 18 months from concept to ship (believe it or not) to be good enough to put out. Other games I did I used an existing idea from another game and those I did in 8 weeks!
As far as the sound, I needed a splat sound. I tried a lot of things that just did not work. One morning I was in the shower, I dropped the wash cloth and I thought: Paper Towels would work great!
From Mark Alpiger:
Q: I saw your web site from a link on VG-Network. I love Atari's classic games, and really like Sente too (tho they had a number of titles that were too off-the-wall / off-topic for me - read, 'duds' / sports). Four of my top-five all-time favorites are from these two companies.
Owen: Actually, I am not a big sports fan, but thought Hat Trick was a great game. The other early games from Sente were cool, but very strange in some cases.
Q: By the way, my friend... Kelly, and I used to joke about all the bugs in Atari's games, especially after the Paperboy debacle !! Of course, even Major has the classic 'logic error' with the finger 'trick', tho I consider this less severe than a bug (like Paperboy). What did you think about that trick, when you first heard of it ??
Owen: You make it sound like it was a bug! :-) Actually, in some cases we added these "Easter eggs" on purpose. In the case of MH, I overlooked something and it should not have happened (the finger). I actually laughed when someone told me about it, and knew EXACTLY why it happened. I was more embarrassed that it could happen than it did. It was an easy fix.
Q: Oh, one last thing; do you know anything about the designer of Snakepit, one of my faves ?? Any stories on it ?? That's one great game... OK, now, this is the last thing; what do you call the control on Major Havoc; did you have an 'official' name for it ?? I'll tell you what I think it should be called when I hear from you and write back...
Owen: I believe Lee Actor was the creator of snake pit (or was it Dave Ross?). Lee was one of the first programmers at Sente, and one of the last to leave. He also did Hat Trick and several other games for Sente, and when I moved there I got to know him well. He still designs games as part of his own company (they contract out to do games for other companies) but really does not need to. He did some great games "behind the scenes" for other companies and became quite wealthy doing it. He is mostly retired now. With a major in music, he is doing some playing with symphony.
I have no stories, that was before my Sente time. I do remember when they were going to announce it at one trade show, but I believe it was not ready. So all the team was standing around a draped cabinet, wearing buttons that said "No Comment". That was funny.
We called the roller control a "whirlygig" if I remember correctly. But I believe they also called the knob on tempest the same thing occasionally. Don't know if it had a "real" name. It was simply a one dimensional track ball!
From Mark Longridge (Hi Mark! How's the cube collecting going?):
Q: Hi Owen!
I have been always fascinated by Atari games in general and Dig Dug in particular. I see you mention you have a Dig Dug prototype, but what does that mean, it's the first Dig Dug, or the first Dig Dug made in North America?
Owen: Namco sent the game to Atari to "convert" it from Japanese to English, and make some minor changes. I recall helping some on the conversion at the time, but for the life of me remember very little.
Q: I know the original game was programmed by Namco Japan, but I was never able to figure out who had the source code, or who programmed the original japanese version. I wanted to ask the programmer's why all the monsters freez on Dig Dug on round 136 (in later rounds they move turtle slow). Why did that Atari guy change Dig Dug? It seems to play just about identical to the japanese rom...
Owen: I do not recall if we had the source or had to reverse engineer the changes we wanted. Could not answer this.
Q: Jed Margolin told me that Atari didn't go to great pains to archive the source code of their old coin-op games. Did you keep the source code for the games you wrote? I finally understand why vector games were used in the early days, better resolution.
Owen: Actually, not entirely true. ALL games were backed up onto tape on the Vax computer we used. Until recently, I still had a whole box of tapes from Sente, but they got ruined in a flood, and I could not find people to read old TU-78 Vax tapes anyway. I did keep a few printouts of games I worked on, LARGE binders of paper in my garage. The Major Havoc listings were used to help the guys working on the Mame clone for Major Havoc, and I used the Tunnel Hunt sources to help the author on the Mame version of that as well.
And yes, vector had better resolution, but just looked cool too!
Q: You guys did some very very good work on those early machines. When I think about how slow the hardware was, and how little memory the games had... of course the hardware was designed to only play that particular game, but still, real time 3d, like that game Battlezone, incredible. But I must ask, who would know who programmed Dig Dug?
Owen: Sorry, no idea on this. Funny though, I often wondered how the idea came about. Makes me wonder if something got lost in the translation. Some execs probably said "Make a game where the hero blows things up!" Poor translation I suspect! :-)
Q: Just wanted to say thanks, it must have been quite an experience in the late 70's working at Atari.
Owen: It was for me. My first job out of college and then doing games for the next 12 to 13 years. It was a lot of fun. Thanks for the message.
From Scott Burton:
Q: I read your letter in the mailbax of classicgaming.com. I agree with you. > Games of the 80's were (and are) much better in quality and gameplay than the arcade games of today. It appears that gameplay is sacrificed for graphics and sound. With the games of the 80's, you could go on forever with one quarter/token (asteroids, ms pac-man, space duel, etc). Now, they intentionally make games nothing more than quarter munchers.
Owen: Thanks, obviously you know how I feel. But with lousy graphics and sounds, we had to have a good game play, and it was important to give people their money's worth. Would you believe that we wanted games to last 90 seconds on average though? Its true. But good players were rewarded with longer games.
Q: I remember playing the breakout subgame within Major Havoc. What there any secrets to that or was it just to rack up bonus points. Also, what were the differences between Major Havoc and the Return to Vax?
Owen: If you got all the bricks, you get a free life, and some points as well. That was it, it was just me being obnoxious. After all, what else would a good space fighter do during travel times between battles? Play video games! :-)
From Norbert Kehrer (author of Java Space Duel, among other emulators):
Q: Hi Owen,
thanks for putting up such a great site. Being a great fan of the old vector games, I am totally impressed. Especially the stories and the pictures of the Atari team are very cool.
Owen: If I find more, I will put them up. I know I have some shots of a bunch of Atari people hanging around Nolan's pool! :-)
Q: How about some information about the things that you and the other Atari programmers are doing today. I know that not everybody likes it, that such recent and personal information about him is online, but I think it would be really interesting for all classic arcade fans.
Owen: I cannot speak for others, they would have to do that. But for me:
I left Atari and went to work for Bally Sente until they closed it 3+ years later. I joined Rob Fullop (from Atari) to help create a start-up doing combined graphics and live video, long before they called it "multimedia." I also helped design a system there that AOL (it was then called Quantum Link) used to create on-line games that were written once, but played on PCs, Commodores, Macs, and Apple IIs. Rob Fullop's Rabbit Jack's Casino game for AOL was built on the system. I left there shortly after and joined Apple as an engineer working on new Mac designs, Mac software, and all around Mac generalists (after doing a bunch of Apple II stuff for them first.) After almost 7 years at Apple, I did a short stint at Berkeley Systems, then moved on to Pacific Bell, where I was a technical director on their broadband system for cable TV, high speed cable data, video on demand, and interactive TV. Unfortunately, even though it worked VERY well and we were ready to deploy it in California, after 5 years, SBC bought Pac Bell and shut it down, the fools. We would have had a system WAY ahead of ANYTHING available in the world really, and this was in 1995! I left there and went to work for Paul Allen's think tank research center in Palo Alto called Interval Research as his Broadband Research Lead. But Interval closed the next year, so I moved to yet another Interactive TV company called NetTV (now Lumenati) where were building a set top box based on PC parts, and a cool interactive video/audio player for the PC. But I did not feel as if I fit (that is a long story itself), so I have since joined my old boss from Pacific Bell at a new start-up doing some highly secretive stuff in electronics where I am the VP of Engineering for a software division of the company.
From Curt Vendel, webmaster of Atari-History.Com
Q: Among all of your amazing designs and creations, I personally would love to see the robot you designed and built while at Atari.... can you put up some photo's and a detailed story behind it?
Owen: Believe it or not, I still have it in the garage, and unfortunately, while it still boots up, many of the parts have given out, so he does not run as well as he used to. If I get some free time, I may try and restore it again.
But to be fair, I did not build it. This was designed and built by the Grass Valley group of Atari. I "rescued" it and started making changes and programming additions to the design. I added and enabled many of the sensors for the guy, and basically kept him running. I was told that this was an inspiration to Nolan Bushnell for Petsters, a company he founded that sold small, inexpensive pet robots (I wanted to attach a picture of the cat version, but none of my new Macs will transfer from the camera...need a serial port, and Belkin adapter does not work!)
He is called Kermit, and I will get some photos of him posted as soon as I can. Thanks for asking about it. How did you find out about it?
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