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Making Crane Cry — The Origin of Cosmic Ark

April 14th, 2008 by Rob

The competition between 2600 developers ‘back in the day’ was OUT OF CONTROL. Sure, we were paid salaries, some of the lucky ones were even paid a modest royalty. But let there be NO DOUBT .. when we showed up at the June Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, where Imagic, Activision, and Atari rolled out their new releases for the upcoming Xmas season … there was SERIOUS competition going on. Deadly serious. The pecking order was Activision, then Imagic, with Atari holding up the rear. My former colleagues at Atari ran over to the Imagic booth, were we smugly showed off Demon Attack, refusing to say ONE WORD about how the graphics were done. But as soon as they left, I remember running over to the Activision booth straight away and seeing Pitfall for the first time, and just getting SICK over how crisp and clean the execution was .. and how much gameplay was squeezed into a 4K ROM. I was inconsolable for the remainder of the show …. no joke. And the Activision guys were so much more smug then we were .. here’s how smug they were.

David Crane never even bothered coming to see the Imagic stuff, which really annoyed the stuffing out of me. None of them came by, actually. Whitehead, Miller, Kaplan … not one of them ever came by. If I wanted to chat with them, since we had all worked together at Atari … I’d have to go to the Activision booth, and ohh and ahh over Pitfall a few more times. Seriously, I mean, weren’t these guys even CURIOUS about what we had done at Imagic? Like Crane can’t be bothered to come by and take a little peek, what?

It was totally about “one upsmanship” in those days .. and NOTHING to do with money. Not from my perspective anyway. I vowed to myself that the next time Imagic was at this show, a year later, that I would show people something so cool on the VCS, that even David Crane himself would have no choice but to come by our booth and check it out. And then he would start crying. That was my goal. To show Crane something so cool that he would have no choice but to start crying because he didn’t know how it was done.

And such is when the starfield from Cosmic Ark was born. In that moment of pure competitive resolve. The whole reason I made Cosmic Ark, was to show Crane the starfield and hopefully offer him a tissue.

The starfield already existed .. it appeared one day from a total accident, btw … a few years earlier I was stumbling through making the kernal for Missile Command … and was trying to reposition the ball graphic over and over again for some reason, and I think maybe I put the wrong value in the wrong place at the wrong time, I dunno … all of a sudden this cool starfield just APPPEARS on the screen, like a magic trick. I had NO CLUE why, or what was going on. Nobody could figure it out … but it seemed to be pretty replicable on any unit.

Anyway, Cosmic Ark was made for the express reason to show off the starfield trick to Crane and Whitehead .. no other reason. And one year later, there was Cosmic Ark featured in the Imagic booth at CES … and about two hours after the show opens .. sure enough .. Crane and Whitehead come strolling by .. just as casual as they can be .. “dum de dum, dum de dum”. Obviously they could not appear overly interested in Cosmic Ark .. but it was just as obvious that it just TORTURED them … they walk up and down the aisle three times .. it made me SOOOO happy. Finally Crane just cannot take it anymore, and comes over and ever so subtle, chats me up “how ya doin, Rob? Cosmic Ark looks great, blah blah”. We make nice for about three minutes. “I like the way you are using the Playfield for the stars, Rob”. GAWD, I was soooo luvin life at that moment. Can he be any more obvious in his attempt to probe how the starfield was made? Of course I said NOT ONE WORD, other than “Yup, it’s just the playfield, obviously”. Truly a memorable moment in my young life!

So yeah, make no mistake … the 2600 was ALWAYS about who could show the coolest stuff .. and NEVER about the money. Obviously we all knew that the coolest stuff would usually get the most money anyway at the end of the day, but our motivation was to blow each other away .. plain and simple.

7 Responses to “Making Crane Cry — The Origin of Cosmic Ark”

  1. Brian Gordon Says:

    This is the second time I have read this story, probably won’t be the last time either. Even though I knew what was going to happen I still had that feeling of suspense while waiting for the “payback” in the end. Man, that must have felt great! Thanks for an awesome story.

  2. Matthew Hubbard Says:

    Hey, Rob! Thanks for posting a comment on my blog. I have a lot of readers who love stories about the old days. My contributions to the field were minor, but I was definitely pals with the big guns.

    I’ll put a link to you blog in my blog buddy list today. Again, it’s good to hear from you.

  3. Splotchy Says:

    Hiya, came here from a post on M. Hubbard’s site.

    For what it’s worth, the place in my heart for Demon Attack is bigger than the one for Pitfall.

    I just played Demon Attack a few days ago in preparing an Atari 2600 “MEGA” sound quiz on my site. It’s wonderful to read behind-the-scenes stories of games programmers.

    If you write ‘em, I’ll read ‘em.

  4. iwan-iwanowitsch-goratschin Says:

    Obviously we all knew that the coolest stuff would usually get the most money anyway at the end of the day, but our motivation was to blow each other away .. plain and simple.

    -just brilliant-

  5. Mike Kennedy Says:

    Rob - Thanks for getting me on your mailing list. Great stuff. Imagic and Activision were my two favorite game companies back in the day. You guys all rocked!

  6. tammy Says:

    I really liked your blog! i read 4 others that are on similar subjets, but they domt update very often, thanks.

  7. Jessica Says:

    informative piece there, Thanks for this.its wonderfull to see someone with a like mind.

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