STEVE'S ATARI DAYS
Steve joined Atari for 6 years in 1977 at the very beginning of the first video game boom. The year he joined Atari at the Sunnyvale, California complex was the first year of year around production. Prior to that it had only been seasonal manufacturing. Video games were about to explode into the entertainment world during this boom with sales that would exceed even feature film revenues. This is the story of Steve’s adventures at Atari.
Steve’s years at Atari were heady times. This was the first boom in video games (1977-1984) and they were all over the news, in movies, TV shows and magazines. As a glib spokesman, Steve regularly did “booth duty” at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Chicago every year where all the new electronic appliances were shown. Atari had a huge, glamorous booth befitting the new giant of the entertainment industry and Steve introduced all the exciting new Atari games to enthralled audiences and at press events. Steve actually appeared on several TV shows including the “Today Show” with Bryant Gumbel, and was featured in news stories and magazine articles.
Steve initially joined Atari as the manager of the LSI (Large Scale Integration) chip testing department. The Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) was essentially a 6502 microprocessor connected to a proprietary LSI digital video chip. The in-house name of this video chip was “Stella” (named after someone’s girlfriend) and it was highly sophisticated for the day. To avoid rejects on the assembly line it was given 100% testing in the QA receiving department along with the 6502 microprocessors using huge automated Fairchild Sentry 7 parametric chip testing machines. Lacking any kind of computerized record keeping (this was 1977) Steve taught himself the programming language “Basic” and wrote one.
Becoming an Atari Game Designer
Establishing himself as clever and creative, Steve was soon invited to join the home video game department in 1979. A stunning development, because in those days each video game was designed and programmed by a single software engineer or BSEE writing 6502 assembler language. The only programming language Steve knew was Basic, which he had taught himself. The thinking was that it was easier to teach a creative guy (Steve) programming than to teach a BSEE guy (engineer) creativity.
Undaunted, Steve proceeded to teach himself 6502 assembler programming and the Stella chip with the assistance of some very patient engineers. Noticing that the Stella chip had no programmers guide, Steve decided to write one as a way of learning the chip. Incredibly, the Stella programmer’s guide written by Steve can still be found on the internet to this day.
Steve’s first video game design assignment was to create a soccer game to be named Championship Soccer. A daunting task considering that the Atari 2600 game console only had only 128 bytes of RAM (yes, 128 bytes!) and the Stella chip’s graphic capabilities were limited to two sprites (shapes), two bullets (for shooting things) and a “ball”. Further, up to that time the capacity of the game cartridges was 2K (yes, 2 kilobytes!) but for Championship Soccer they introduced the first 4K game cartridge. Swank!
Championship Soccer introduced four innovations in video gaming. First, of course, was the awesome 4K cartridge making room for more graphics and sound effects. Second was the vertically scrolling playfield. Up to this point all game screens were static with just the sprites moving around. Third was a “payoff”. When a player scored a goal the screen switched to a fireworks display accompanied by a roaring crowd. The fourth innovation was the manual. Up to this point a video game “manual” was a sterile 2 or 3 page foldout pamphlet describing the gameplay. For Championship Soccer Steve wrote the manual himself and lead with a funny story about the characters on the rival teams complete with humorous illustrations reminiscent of the comic characters in Mad Magazine. To this day video games come wrapped in a story.
Click here to see the actual gameplay of Championship Soccer and the dazzling (for the time) fireworks display.
On a side note, a year or so after Championship Soccer was released Pele became all the rage in soccer so Atari licensed his name and renamed the cartridge to “Pele’s Soccer” for marketing purposes. Same game, but tragically the manual was given a sterile re-write to talk about Pele.
The Evolution in Atari Graphics
The brilliant thing about the Atari 2600 (as it turned out) was that in those days LSI hardware was expensive so it had to be as simple as possible. This meant that all the “smarts” had to be in the software. It soon became clear that by being clever, the game programmer could actually exceed the limited capabilities of the hardware. This blew open the creative possibilities in video game design. The name of the game became how to outsmart the hardware with the software. Below are two examples, “Combat” from the early days and “Pitfall” (Activision) just five years later demonstrating the huge increase in graphic sophistication on the exact same hardware platform.
Combat – early graphics circa 1977
Pitfall – advanced graphics circa 1982
In 1980 there was a dustup at Atari when the marketing department found out that Warren Robinett, the game programmer for “Adventure”, the very popular original action-adventure game, had hidden a secret message in the game - “Created by Warren Robinett”. By now Steve was the manager of the home video game department and the Atari management complained bitterly and wanted Warren to be admonished.
Steve declined. He pointed out to management that the kids loved finding the “Easter Egg” hidden in the game and that it had created a great deal of buzz and therefore was good for sales. This was an argument that management could appreciate. Further, Steve made it official game development policy from that day forth that all future games should have an Easter Egg in them. It has since become a standard feature of video game designs.
Read the excerpt "How does one get to the secret room in Adventure, and how did the secret get termed 'Easter Egg?'" from Warren Robinett's interview at Good Deal Games.
The Evolution in Game Design
When Steve joined the home video game programming department in 1979 the entire game was designed and coded by a single software engineer. After Steve became manager of game development he introduced the radical concept of collaborative game development by having graphic artists work on the graphics and musicians on the music and sound effects.
One of the first efforts along this new line of game development was the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” children’s game. Steve actually hired the musician that wrote the original iconic music for the Charlie Brown TV show, believed to be Clark Gesner. The amazing thing about this story was that the audio capabilities of the Atari 2600 were incredibly primitive but Steve showed Clark how to program the audio circuits to make music so Clark was actually able to faithfully duplicate the Charlie Brown music theme.
Turning graphics into hex code
Graphic designers were now on staff and were becoming key players in game development trying to get the most convincing characters possible out of primitive 8 pixel wide sprites. They even helped the game programmers by creating animation for them such as walk cycles, explosions, and other animated effects.
The graphic here shows how geeky it was to convert even a simple graphic design like a happy face into a sprite code for the Atari 2600 to draw on screen. The first step was to draw the graphic on graph paper by coloring in the squares. The next step was to convert each row of colored squares into binary code using “0” for an empty square and “1” for a filled square. The last step was to convert each row of the binary table into a hexadecimal code that the 6502 processor could understand then type it into the computer. No wonder programmers were the first graphic artists.
The Temple of Doom
One day in 1983 while Steve was the manager of the home video game department he was called to a marketing meeting with all the senior management of Atari. Presenting at the meeting was a young woman from a license marketing firm pitching a new film that was in production. Using a slide projector presentation of production shots for the upcoming movie, she was pitching for Atari to purchase the video game rights of a movie that was still in production.
While the production photos were pretty cool, she was pitching an unknown “exciting new director” named Spielberg or something. The movie also had an unknown “exciting new actor” named Harrison Ford. While home video games had been doing very well by converting arcade games to the home market, no one had tried to convert a movie to a home video game. Unimpressed, Steve recommended against the idea so Atari passed on licensing the rights to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Darn. Some years later Atari did license Indiana Jones and the The Temple of Doom and turned it into a stand-up arcade game.
Children’s Television Workshop Games
Video games were becoming wildly popular appearing in magazines, TV shows and the news. The marketing department wanted to expand the market for video games to young children so they inked a deal with Children’s Computer Workshop (CCW), a child of Children’s Television Workshop. Steve would supervise the design of a series of educational games for young children with the benevolent guidance of CCW to ensure appropriate game play for little kids. Steve was now heading up the Special Projects department which was awarded the contract as it seemed inappropriate to have games for small children development by the main “shoot’em up” game development department.
Children’s Television Workshop was quite famous for their “Sesame Street” TV show with famous puppet characters like “Big Bird” and “the Cookie Monster” designed by Jim Henson. A great story was that during difficult financial times Jim Henson offered to sell CTW all the rights to the characters for $50,000, but they declined. Big mistake, as they were subsequently worth millions.
CCW was in New York so several trips were made by Steve and some of the programmers to test games with real kids and to get CCW child guidance feedback. Referring to adults as “human beings, the CCW staff liked to call the wee ones “kidney beans”. One of the interesting things about young children is their incredible tolerance for repetition, so many of the games were highly repetitious. The Atari / CCW collaboration resulted in such classics as “Big Bird’s Egg Catch”, “Cookie Monster Munch”, “Oscar’s Trash Race”, among others.
The Video Game Simulator
One of the reasons for starting the Special Projects department that Steve managed was an idea he had for a new game development technology – a game simulator. Programming a new video game was a painful 9 to 12 month job, then after it was finally done and the game was focus group tested it may not be a winner. This was a huge waste of time and very expensive resources. By now the game programmers had become rock stars and the pay had skyrocketed.
Steve’s idea was to develop a rapid prototyping game system where a new game could be developed in weeks, play tested and, if found to be worthy, then and only then assigned to a programmer. Huge concept, but difficult to do with the computers of the day. The Stella graphics chip could push pixels at an astounding rate (for the day) and getting general purpose machines to replicate this graphics power was a daunting task. Also, coding the game logic in 6502 assembler was painfully slow so a high level language was needed to make programming the game logic much faster.
The answer was to take an Artificial Intelligence computer, the Symbolics Lisp machine, and mate it to an Ikonas frame buffer. Steve hired Paul Hughett, an aerospace computer design engineer to head up the project, who chose Lisp as the game logic language because it was an object oriented language - perfect for game logic. Lisp only ran on the Symbolics Lisp computer native, so that machine became the stand-in for the 6502 processor.
The Ikonas frame buffer was, at the time, the biggest and baddest graphics processing engine (literally the size of a refrigerator) so it played the role of the Stella graphics chip. Getting the two totally different machines to talk to each other and respond to an Atari joystick took the better part of a year. But when it was finished a completely playable game could be prototyped in just a few weeks. Atari was now the proud owner of a $200,000 one ton Atari 2600. However, just as it was about to be thrown into game development Hollywood called.
Time Warner owned Atari as well as Warner Brothers film. In 1982 Warner Brothers was in production on Superman III (Christopher Reeve, Richard Prior and Margot Kidder) and the director, Richard Lester, wanted a climax sequence where the evil villain (Robert Vaughn) fired missiles at Superman from a super smart computer with the whole sequence being displayed on the computer screen as if it were a video game. Keep in mind that video games were peaking at this time.
The late Steve Ross, the CEO of Time Warner, sent a letter to Ray Kassar, the CEO of Atari (the darling of the entire Time Warner empire at the time) asking him if Atari could produce the video game footage, and Ray Kassar handed the letter to Steve. Realizing that the video game rapid prototyping system being developed in his Special Project department was the perfect system for the job, Steve said “Sure. All I need is a 35mm film recorder”. Suffice it to say, in a few weeks Special Projects was the proud owner of a shiny new Matrix film recorder with an Acme 35mm animation camera mounted on top.
Now the rapid prototyping game system consisted of a Symbolic Lisp machine connected to an Ikonas frame buffer connected to a Matrix film recorder connect to an Acme 35mm animation camera. Shooting computer graphics to film is mundane today, but in 1982 it was a very bold concept. The only person Steve could find that could set up and calibrate a 35mm film recorder was a young computer animation ace named Carl Rosendahl that had just started his own computer animation studio named PDI in Sunnyvale. So Steve hired Carl to set up and calibrate his new computer animation film recorder system.
They system was built and the task was set, so Steve and the simulator development team began developing the video game animation for the Superman III movie. There was a trip to Pinewood Studios near London to meet the director Richard Lester as well as a chance meeting with Margot Kidder in the commissary. Because the game simulator had recently been completed the animation footage was produced and shot out to film rather quickly. The sequence was even presented in the 1983 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
In 1982 the overwhelming box office smash hit was “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” by none other than Steven Spielberg. So popular was this movie that companies like Atari would actually screen the film during the day at a local theater and give the staff time off to go watch it. Steve was still managing the Special Projects department when he received a discrete phone call from Atari’s CEO, Ray Kassar. In a hushed voice Ray revealed that Time Warner had just licensed the video game rights to E.T. – an absolutely electrifying development.
Thrilled to the bone to be talking about developing what was to be no doubt the biggest blockbuster video game of all time based on the biggest blockbuster movie of all time (at that time), the mood was shattered when Ray added “but it must be done in 6 weeks”. Mindful of the fact that it took 9 months to a year to develop a video game Steve demurred saying that it could not be done. So Ray took the proposal to the main home video game department, and the rest is history. E.T. became the worst debacle in the video game industry and accelerated the crash of the video game industry in 1984.
To be fair, the effort was truly heroic. A tiger team of top game programmers was formed to put multiple programmers on the game by dividing the programming tasks into separable chunks. However, at Atari video game programming had always been a one man job. There was no history of teams working on a game so there was no experience or, more importantly, tools suitable to the task. The other problem was that with such a short development cycle there was no time to test the game play or start over if it stunk. They had to go to market with the first effort. As a result, the game was panned and of the four million cartridges produced 3.5 million were returned to Atari. There was even an ignominious dumping of unsold cartridges in a New Mexico landfill.
The Thread of History
Joining Atari was clearly the starting point in Steve’s film career. It was at Atari that Steve first learned to entertain people with computer graphics and got his first exposure to filmmaking with Superman III. It was from Atari that Steve was hired into Sega/Paramount and moved to Hollywood to developed video games based on Paramount film properties. This planted Steve right in the middle of the Hollywood movie business. From there he went to Robert Abel & Associates, an award winning 3D animation studio in Hollywood producing stunning computer animation for high end television commercials. As the visual effects industry churned and evolved Robert Abel went out of business so Steve joined up with a partner, Steve Sidley, to form Sidley-Wright & Associates. It was at Sidley-Wright that Steve specialized in visual effects compositing and created effects for dozens of television commercials and feature films.