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A few of my games may be put into the Smithsonian!

April 13th, 2011 by Rob

A few of my prior games have been selected to possibly appear in The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian Art Museum.   This exhibit is one of the first exhibitions to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies. The exhibition will feature some of the most influential artists and designers during five eras of game technology, from early developers such as David Crane and Warren Robinett (and maybe even me if I make the cut:)  to contemporary designers like Kellee Santiago and David Jaffe. It also will explore the many influences on game designers, and the pervasive presence video games have in the broader popular culture, with new relationships to video art, film and television, educational practices, and professional skill training. Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels and collector of video games and gaming systems, is the curator of the exhibition.

The exhibit website is here:

http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/

The 80 or so games selected will be culled down via online voting by the general public at the below address
http://www.artofvideogames.org/

Obviously it would be great to see Missile Command or Demon Attack make the cut, so if you have a moment please go put in your vote!    Thanks!

Killing One’s Children - lessons from Fathom

April 14th, 2008 by Rob

One of the more challenging aspects of making something for public consumption is tossing out features that once were deemed to be ‘great’ .. but as the project moves forward, becomes less and less relevant and appropriate. Any creative person knows this as a distasteful duty … feature films are filled with scenes that don’t make any sense to the viewer, put there by the writer/director early on .. and left until the bitter end because they never had the ‘heart’ to toss it away. The tossing away part is a BIG challenge.

I call the tossing out part .. ‘killing my children” .. I dunno where I got the name .. maybe from Dorothy Parker, the famous writer. Basically I “kill my children” whenever I ruthlessly rip out an early feature that either never worked right and kept breaking something else .. or I never got to polishing quite right anyway and so it always stuck out. They are called “my children” because typically these are the features that got me and everybody else all worked up early on, and then over time, we realize that they really don’t work any more and we have so much better stuff now anyway, that the only reason to keep the feature there is because of some nostalgic reason that only the dev team cares about anyway .. “oh we can’t toss that … don’t you remember how excited we were the first time we got it working?”. So one day I just rip the thing out and I usually felt better about it immediately. I have come to believe that a hallmark of a “pro” is their willingness to be ruthlessly savage in killing their children.
Because if you don’t kill certain children, they haunt you FOREVER.

A good example is in FATHOM, the way the dolphin jumps out of the water. That animation, actually, was completed before the game was even started. Michael Becker and I were talking about dolphins one day, and the next morning, he shows me a rough version of a dolphin jumping out of the water. So I stuck it up on the screen, and started writing a kernal where the dolphin could swim around under the water. And the game grew from there.

But I never really liked how the dolphin jumping out of the water never really seemlessly segued from the dolphin swimming up from under the water .. it’s a real cheat, obviously .. at some point I take away joystick control from the user and just smash the animation up on the screen .. letting the user control the dolphin again when it lands. The “right” way to do it would be to actually move the dolphin itself OUT of the water and either morph it into a seagull right in front of your eyes … OR .. have the dolphin arc and dive back in to the water … with a little splash animation. Such is how I wanted it to work, anyway.

But nobody could bare the thought of tossing out the little dolphin jump animation .. after all .. such had been the genesis of the whole game … that animation was truly a “precious little child” .. and my wanting to “kill it” was quickly shot down by Dennis Koble … and when we disagreed .. Dennis brought in the marketing people, and Bill Grubb, the CEO .. and they beat me up pretty bad that it was fine as it is. So that little animation remained … and to this day .. I can’t look at Fathom because of it .. it’s just sooooo annoying knowing that another week or so would have made the dolphin jump sequence sooooooo much cooler. Ever since then, I make it a point to kill my children a LOT earlier in the dev cycle .. tossing out our early first efforts that looked great the first time, but as we got better at the task at hand, quickly became “second rate” .. turning into an acne faced teen, at best. If left too long, the ‘ugly teenager’ becomes even uglier sometimes .. a true eyesore, that lingers forever after. Because once the thing ships, one’s adorable little child has all of a sudden become a ‘good for nothing grown up” who will long outlive everybody involved.

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.

Scott Stilphen - Actionauts Impressions

October 2nd, 2007 by Scott Stilphen

Scott Stilphen is a classic gamer/archivist who has been active in the Classic Gaming community for many years. Recently Scott had a chance to spend a few minutes with the 2600 version of Actionauts.


“I had first caught a glimpse of Actionauts years ago at one of the Classic Gaming Expos, and remember thinking at the time that, for an unfinished game, it looked very close to being finished. A few weeks ago I had a chance to spend a few minutes talking with Rob about the game while he demonstrated it, after which he offered me a chance to play it! The game has an ‘action’ screen and the ‘programming’ screen, and both are rendered quite nicely and look very professional. The effect of alternating between both screens is particularly well done as the screen simply doesn’t alternate between the two but instead shows a nice transition, with the programming screen vertically sliding over the action screen (from the bottom). It’s an impressive effect that I don’t recall being used in a VCS game before.

The programming screen is especially neat, and immediately reminded me of those classic sci-fi computers, with their dozens of blinking lights. The game is rather challenging, even in its unfinished state. I would compare the gameplay to the classic Milton Bradley programmable tank toy, Big Trak. The program itself consists of a list of icons that you can change (via the joystick). The action screen I saw showed a simple maze (for level 1. Perhaps subsequent level mazes are more intricate…).

Besides some of the obvious commands (go forward, turn left, right, etc.) there were a few that Rob mentioned were never fully realized (i.e. you can fire and jump, but there’s nothing to jump or shoot at). Not having a feel for how far the robot travels with each command, I had him into a wall in no time :) Alas, my turn ended before I could create a successful program and get the robotic “mouse” to the cheese.

As prototypes go, this one is quite playable and I didn’t notice any graphics glitches or bugs. It’s unfortunate that it was never completed as I could immediately see the potential in having 2 players in head-to-head competition, jumping and firing as they scrambled to reach the goal first. Sounds effects were also minimal (or missing altogether?). Nevertheless, I look forward to spending more time with it upon its release.”

Scott Stilphen - Oct 1, 2007

Actionauts - my last Atari 2600 game

October 1st, 2007 by Rob

Spring, 1984. The videogame business was taking a severe nosedive. Leaving Imagic had been difficult for me. I missed the infrastructure of the organization I had been a founding member of. I missed the security of a regular paycheck, as well as the quarterly royalties from Demon Attack, Cosmic Ark, and Fathom. Most of all, I missed my colleagues, some of whom I had worked side-by-side with since I started at Atari. It was hard for me to accept that Imagic was gone. I didn’t really understand what had happened. We had all worked hard, we had done some great games that enjoyed a lot of market success, we were in all the game magazines. The creeping thought that “videogames are really over” was not a possibility I was prepared to accept. Not yet.

imagicsized.jpg

I had my mind made up to make a game on my own. It would be so easy … a piece of cake. I purchased a Kontron development system, a 6502 compiler, and some office equipment, and had everything delivered to a little office I had rented a few miles from my Palo Alto apartment. I even had a vague notion of a game that I thought was a “natural” at the time.

The early 1980s had featured the introduction of several low cost home computers. “Programming” was all the rage in high schools. Technology ‘bandits’ known as “Hackers” were becoming cultural icons. And in the world of stuff for kids, robots had essentially taken over popular culture. Robots were EVERYWHERE. I’d walk into a newstand, robots were on the cover of major magazines. I’d turn on the TV on Saturday morning, most of the shows featured armies of robots forever battling, speaking in deep mech like voices. Toys R Us morphed into Transformers R’ Us. Many robots came from Japan, the hippest ones of all still featuring their original Kanji packaging, which instantly branded the contents as obviously MUCH cooler since it was Japanese.

robots.jpg

I set out to make a game featuring a programmable robot. Such occured to me at the time as a “natural”. My goal was to create a simple and fun programming game, with the principal challenge consisting of the experience of “debugging” - doing the basic “how did I blow it THIS time” shuffle .. a familiar dance near and dear to the heart on anybody whose written even the simplest BASIC program.

The idea was pretty basic. A robot on the screen would be controlled by a linear series of ‘commands’, it’s program if you will. There would be four commands to start with … consisting of the most primitive things a robot could be told to do. The player needed to get the robot to acheive a number of onscreen objectives.

commands.gif

Actionauts (the early working name was “Microbots”) consists of two screens. The main play screen features a single robot in a simple playfield maze, a “target”, in this case a piece of cheese, and a vertically scrolling command display at the bottom of the screen. Every time a command rolls off the screen, the robot ‘executes’ that command. Player control in this mode is limited to setting the speed of the system, indicated at the bottom right, and starting/stopping the robot’s execution of it’s commands. The object of the game is to create the proper sequence of instructions so that the Robot reaches the cheese.

actionauts.jpg

ACTIONAUTS MAIN SCREEN

Obviously the Robot won’t always get to the cheese, due to faulty ‘logic’ on the part of the player. When the robot crashes and can no longer make any progress, the player can switch to the “program editor”, where they have control over the sequence of commands the robot will execute when it next ‘runs’.

Switiching modes causes the program screen to segue front and center (I was especially proud of the seamless segue effect which helped keep continuity as to “where” the player was in relation to the two screens.

On the programming screen, users scroll a blinking cursor up and down through the various commands, with left/right joystick used to scroll through the four possible commands for each ‘link’ in the chain. When the player thinks the sequence is “ready” … a quick tap of the joystick returns to the Main Screen, where the robot runs through the program again.

actionscreen2.jpg

ACTIONAUTS PROGRAMMING SCREEN

The play challenge in the game comes primarily from “debugging” .. with the player needing to remember what the robot last did, what went wrong, and find /fix the appropriate command (s). There are nine playfields in the game.

By June, 1984 it become pretty clear that there was no longer any sort of viable market for Stella games. At that time, Actionauts was basically in it’s current state. The program editor screen was there, the interface reasonably smooth, and pretty easy to get around. The Main Screen was functional, yet not “polished” in terms of visual appeal. I had planned a more robotic looking central character, and the cheese was just a cardboard ‘prop’ simply to get the game functional. also had always intended a secondary character, primarily to serve as ‘conflict’ in later levels. I also was planning to add a significant number of additional levels beyond the nine that now exist. In terms of development, I consider Actionauts about 1/2 way completed.

People ask why the back end of the game is solid, while the front end is not as polished. Such is because I was then, and still am today, a firm believer in building games “backwards” In other words, I get the game up and going as soon as possible, typically crafting the first level to be as hard as I think it should be. Then I build backwards from the hardest level. This way, the first level of the game, which is the one that the player will see right away, is only undertaken when I know as MUCH as possible about the contents of the game itself. Also, by the end, I’m about as good as I’m ever are going to get at crafting levels for this particular game, which is important because it’s the early levels that get the most play. A lot of designers build their games front-to-back, so that the first levels the player encountered, are also the first levels the designer had built. Night Driver was the only game I did front to back. And such is why Night Driver has a gawd awful ramp in terms of moving the player through a learning curve. And that’s why Actionauts isn’t as polished when one first fires it up … I started at the end, with the programming part … and never got to the ‘beginning’ since there was not a lot for the player to do on the main screen but watch his little robot do it’s thing.

It wasn’t an easy decision to abandon Actionauts when I did … it was going to the last CES in June of that year that sealed the coffin shut. I eventually put a lot of the ideas that came out of Actionauts into a more sophisticated version for the Commodore 64.

But that’s a story for another day.

Classic game collectors interested in receiving information about acquiring a privately released copy of Actionauts can register by clicking the link below to get on the mailing list … or HERE to read frequently asked questions about how the sale will be conducted.

ACTIONAUTS MAILING LIST SIGNUP