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Vintage video game design: Atari & Activision (1983)

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Video game designers: Their work is all fun and games

Fantasy: Your alarm rings. You wake up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and leave your house to go to work. You arrive at your place of employment, open the door, and are greeted by the sounds of bleeps, blasts, blurps, and hums spilling happily from the video game screens that surround you.

This is your office, and your job is to play games until you feel inspired enough to create a new one. Maybe it will be the next Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. This is work? Well, it may be just a fantasy for you, but for some people this fantasy is a reality. These people are video game designers, who have become the superstars of the ’80s.

To find out more about these new celebrities, ARCADE sent games expert Phil Wiswell to the gamers’ fantasyland — an area in Northern California so filled with video game companies it’s called Silicon Valley! Here’s his report.

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Behind the scenes of the screens

How does a designer go about creating a video game? Where do the ideas come from? How does a designer make something interesting happen on screen? To answer these and other questions, I started my trip with a visit to Activision.

Activision was the first company other than Atari to produce software for the VCS. Although they are not as large a corporation as Atari, Activision did very well last year. They had $65 million in sales! Representatives of Activision showed me around the place then said “Sure, you can talk to our game designers. Wait right here.”

Moments later, David Crane (a founding designer who has created Dragster, Fishing Derby, Laser Blast, Grand Prix, and Pitfall) and Steve Cartwright (a new designer whose first game, Barnstorming, had just been released) met me in a conference room and talked openly about how they themselves design games.

Steve Cartwright went into detail. What follows is part of my interview with him.

ARCADE: How do you get the idea for a video game? What comes first? Let’s take Barnstorming as an example.

video-game-designers-april-1984-dynamite (2)Cartwright: Out of 1,000 ideas you have, maybe one can be done on the home system you’re programming for. Or maybe you can come up with a new technique to make one possible. A lot of people say “I can think of game ideas,” but that’s not the point. You have to come up with something that can be put in the form of a game on the home system, which is pretty limited in what it can do. So a lot of it has to do with coming up with ideas that are possible.

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ARCADE: But where did the idea for Barnstorming come from?

Cartwright: In the case of Barnstorming, I looked at a game that already existed [Crane’s Grand Prix]. That game had a proven playability. I then tried to use parts of that playability with different graphics. Barnstorming is similar to Grand Prix in that you’re going through a course that changes depending on how you play the game.

ARCADE: So you had the mechanics of the game worked out first?

Cartwright: Yes.

ARCADE: Now the idea is still up in your head. What do you do?

Cartwright: I learned the “Dave Crane method of Game Design,” which is to spend most of your time trying to come up with a pretty picture. I spent a month on the static display trying to come up with the right combination of colors, the right graphics.

ARCADE: Static display? That’s a non-moving picture?

Cartwright: That’s right.

ARCADE: You said that Barnstorming was a first in that no one had made an airplane like it before – that it wasn’t considered possible. Why did you pursue it?

Cartwright: Since I wasn’t familiar with the system [Atari’s VCS], I didn’t know what it could or couldn’t do. So I was not holding my ideas to just what I thought the system could do. Whereas somebody at Atari is trained that this is what it can do and this is what it can’t do. So they automatically don’t think beyond certain limitations.

ARCADE: Okay, the static display is ready. Now what?

Cartwright: I already had the idea of flying through a pattern of barns and windmills, so I put them up on the screen.

Steve explained further about how he got his game to be exactly what he wanted it to be. He told me that he fine-tuned the game by adding hazards such as geese. Then he tried different amounts of geese until he settled on a number that would make the game fun. But all the while he was talking, I wondered what kind of machinery made it possible to get all that fast action stuff up on the screen. I wished we could sit down where he actually worked, but that was not possible. Some things had to remain secret, and Steve had to get back to work. We said good-bye, and I headed for my next stop, Atari, with the hope that maybe I would see equipment there.

On tour at Atari

Everyone I met at Atari, Inc. was friendly, and I was provided with a very helpful tour guide. As it turned out, a tour guide is definitely a must there, because Atari owns 40 large buildings in the area!

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On my tour I saw how Atari develops its own custom silicon chips for use in their video games and home computers. I watched chips take an acid bath. I saw them snapped into place. I saw them tested. We looked in on the production line that was putting together VCSs. That’s where I was told that the nickname for the VCS machine, Stella, came from a secretary at Atari. Next, I was shown the room full of Atari coin-op games – the kind that are usually found in arcades. The one difference here was that the coin slots had been taken off so that visitors, like myself, could play the games for free. Guess what I did for the next few minutes!

I played the games and did see a lot of interesting things, but unfortunately I was not allowed to see the design lab here, either. For that I had to make one more stop – Imagic, Inc.

Imagic reveals the tricks

Dennis Koble, VP in charge of software development and a programmer himself (Trick Shot, Atlantic), took me right into the design lab at Imagic and talked at length about game design. There were Atari 800s and other computers hooked up to monitors. Sheets of computer code were everywhere, and half a dozen programmers were busy typing computer code into their terminals. Rob Fulop was playing his soon-to-be-released Cosmic Ark, checking for bugs in the program. But, as Koble explained, he doesn’t check it alone.

“Things sometimes happen so fast on screen that the human eye cannot detect exactly what happened. You’re kind of lost. Where do you go at that point? There are a couple of ways. You can go back and look at the code you wrote, and sometimes you find the problem. A lot of times it’s not that simple, in fact it’s so complicated that you have equipment costing thousands of dollars that helps you find out what you did wrong, and that’s what a development system is really. In its simplest sense, a development system is a device that allows you to translate your images and ideas into a reality the machine can understand.”

Dennis Koble’s explanations completed the game designers’ job picture for me. All that I had seen and heard made one thing very clear: It’s a pretty complex procedure from game concept to finished game product. But, as game fans will agree, all the work is worth it when the end result is fun and games.

– Phil Wiswell

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