Dave Akers - Atari Games Jul 16, 2015 12:18:17 GMT
Post by The Laird on Jul 16, 2015 12:18:17 GMT
First of all can we get a little bit of background on you, how you got hired at Atari Games and got involved on Robot Monsters?
I studied Electrical Engineering in college, but took a lot of programming courses. After graduation, I got a job in aerospace, but I enjoyed playing video games in my spare time. I remember reading the first issue of "Electronics Games" magazine and realizing that some people were actually making a living at developing games. Why couldn't I do that?
I was living in the Los Angeles area at the time, and thought I would have to move to Silicon Valley to work at a game company, but then Mattel Electronics started advertising for game programmers for their Intellivision console. Mattel's headquarters was about a mile from where I was currently working. So I applied for a job there and was accepted.
For 2 years I worked on Atari 2600 games at Mattel, but then the game market crashed in America, and Mattel Electronics closed down.
After that, I got a job working for a graphics start-up company in Portland Oregon. They did graphics software for IBM PC's and compatibles. Unfortunately, like most start-up companies, the company was never more than modestly successful…
4 years later a headhunter called me and asked if I wanted to work at a video game company. I told him I wanted to work at Atari Games. I was a big fan of their arcade games - games like Marble Madness, Gauntlet, Roadblasters, XYbots, etc. Fortunately, Atari Games was looking for programmers, and they hired me.
When I got to Atari Games, the developers of the games listed above, and such games as Asteroids, Missile Command, Tempest, I Robot, and Star Wars arcade, were all still there! Hard Driving and Cyberball were being worked on! It was great to be able to work with such talented people!!!!
At the time (summer 1988) , Escape From the Planet of the Robot Monsters (lets just call it "Escape" for short - most people did then) had been in progress for about a year. There were two core (full time) team members - Mark Stephen Pierce - a combination producer, game designer and artist, and Bonnie Smithson - the programmer. Many other people supported the team with hardware designs, sound effects, system software, etc, but those two were the full time team members.
They showed me one level that was pretty much completely working - my first reaction upon seeing it was "This game is almost done! What do they need me for?" But it turned out that this one level had been created by working out the details on graph paper and typing the numbers that described the level into the computer by hand. This was a fine way to create a test level, but a very tedious was to try and develop all the levels of the game.
Meanwhile, another programmer, Dennis Harper, had recently finished a game called "Toobin'". For this game, he wrote a level editor that ran on the arcade development hardware. Using this level editor, he could create a new level using the arcade game controls, and then instantly play it and try it out. He could go back and forth over and over between editing and playing until he was happy with the level, and then he could upload it to the main computer to be included in the game. (At this point, programmers did not have PC's - programs were created and compiled on terminals connected to a central computer (a vax?). The compiled program was downloaded to an arcade machine that had some extra buttons (like freeze and single frame step, and an expensive box called an ICE (In Circuit Emulator) for debugging.)
Anyway, Mark wanted this editing capability for Escape. There was a meeting before I got there, and it was decided that rather than Bonnie writing an editor like Dennis' from scratch, it would better to rewrite Escape to match the internal structure of Toobin', then Dennis's editor could be adapted to Escape. So, for my first few months at Atari Games, Bonnie and I worked at tearing apart the Escape code and rewriting it to work like Toobin'. After months of work, we had a game that looked almost exactly like it looked when I first saw it - but now it incorporated the level editing code and Mark was able to quickly create the other levels for the game…
After that we added in the cybersled levels, more weapons and obstacles, the big Reptilon bosses at the end, and worked on tuning the game.
Do you remember any background info on how the game was actually designed and programmed?
The game was programmed almost entirely in C, with a little bit of assembly. At the time Motorola 68000 processors were cheap - under 10 dollars. The next significant step up, the 68020 cost a lot more money.
So, the Escape hardware used 2 68000 processors. At first, I thought this would make it twice as fast as a single 68000 system. Unfortunately this was not the case. First, only one processor could talk to the video hardware and read the controls. The 2nd processor could only talk to a common ram block. So we had to invent jobs for the 2nd processor to do, and then send it a message to start, and then check back later to see if it was done. With all the handshaking needed, it ended up being around 1.5 times as fast as a single processor.
Do you have any interesting or amusing stories about the making of the game?
At one point management put a lot of pressure on us to put the game out in an arcade and see how people reacted to it. We said the game wasn't ready yet, but they insisted, so one night Mark and I drove the game out to an arcade and set it up. At that time the player had to pick up a "key" to "unlock" the "electro-stairs" (i.e. the escalator). But the first person to try the game in the arcade picked up the key and then their character died before they could unlock the electro-stairs. When the character reappeared, the key was gone, the player didn't have the key, and the stairs were still locked.
"What can I do now?" he wanted to know. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do. We were totally embarrassed. We refunded his money, and went back to the lab to fix the software,,, (Later, marketing told us "Keys are overused in video games!", so we replaced the keys with the big power switches, which fit the game theme better anyway…)
Another story from testing… In Escape, there are slaves chained to the consoles, working. If your character touches them, they are transported to freedom and you get points. But if you shoot them before you touch them, they change to a "fried" appearance, and you don't get the points (or maybe just less points) when you rescue them. But some players in the arcades, if they accidentally shot one of slaves, they would angrily exclaim "Stupid Slave!!" They blamed the slave for getting shot, (rather than their own carelessness…)
At one point in the game development we decided we wanted to fade the screen to black, and then change the picture, and then fade the screen back in. We looked at doing this by adjusting the colour palettes, but finally we asked the hardware team about it. They said they could easily add a register that set the overall brightness of the game. We could manipulate this one register and fade the screen smoothly in and out. How cool was that! This was the great thing about working on arcade games - if the hardware didn't have a feature you wanted - you could ask for it and get it (sometimes anyway…)
What challenges did you face making it, did the game turn out exactly how it was planned?
The isometric point of view meant that characters in the game moved in 8 different angles. So everything had to be animated at 5 different angles (the sprites could be flipped to provide the other 3 angles). This took a lot of graphics memory.
There wasn't enough graphics memory to animate the big reptilons in at different angles. So they had to do everything from one angle and with limited animation frames.
Also the priorities were tricky - figuring out if a player was in front of or behind a cabinet and setting flags to make the display look correct.
Despite these limitations, I think the game turned out pretty well. The vision (as I saw it) was to make a fun two person isometric view Gauntlet type game with a 50's retro science fiction theme, and I think we accomplished that.
How pleased are you that the game is so well remembered today?
I'm glad to hear it. I enjoyed working on and playing this game. There weren't many isometric view games done in the arcades.
This interview was conducted by Kieren Hawken and is not to be shared elsewhere without strict permission.