Sunday, March 2, 2014

Q & A with Atari 2600 programmer Dan Oliver

For episode 50, I got in touch with Dan Oliver to ask him about himself and the games he did for the 2600. He was very gracious and answered my questions in great detail, and has allowed me to print them here. The questions I asked were kind of a companion to an Atari Age thread where he gave a lot of information on his games, so I urge you to check that thread out as well. Thanks again to Dan Oliver for his games and for answering my questions!

Ferg: You mentioned you painted and sold oil paintings previous to programming. Can you elaborate on that? Were you ever approached or did you offer to do the art for the games you programmed? Are you still painting?

Dan Oliver: In high school we had a cool art teacher, Mr Ogen, that would let people just kind of hang out in the art department. We could get passes to get out of study hall and go to the art department. So a few of us would be there for 1/4 of the day. Mr Ogen talked a guy into buying one of my paintings, a landscape, for a new Browning graphic fly rod. Mr Ogen and I also liked to fish. The fishing rod was better than I even knew was possible. At that time, the 1970s, there was no internet, and few shows on TV. I only knew about things we'd see ar Big N (Kmart like store). So this opened my eyes to a couple of things. I could do something I liked and make a living at it. And also the value of something done well, like this fly rod. I still have it.

When I was hired at Apollo I was hired partly because of my art experience and they had said maybe I could help out with that. It didn't appear to me that they knew what "that" meant. But when I showed I could program a game, doing art for boxes or whatever went out the window. Just as well because doing boxes and such takes experience as well as ability I think.

I haven't painted since taking up programming. I went into the Army in 1976 in order to get the GI bill which would help pay for college. When it was time to go to college I had to pick a major so I opened the newspaper and scanned the help ads and counted the number of openings looking for people with a degree. There were more ads related to computers so that was for me. I had little idea what a computer was. I went to sign up at SUNY at Brockport and saw a counselor who also didn't know much about computers. Many of the want ads had mentioned languages so I told the counselor that I was very poor at spelling and language (later found out I a bit dyslexic) and I wondered if majoring in computer science would be a mistake. The counselor didn't know for sure but didn't think computer languages was like English. So I signed up. But I only did one semester at Brockport taking non-computer classes because I'd been waiting to get a security clearance for a job and that came thru. So I was off to Shemya, Alaska to work for a year, though I only stayed 6 months because the money wasn't as good as they'd indicated.

When I came back I looked for colleges that didn't require a foreign language class for a degree. Almost all did. I ended up in Austin, TX at a community college because it was too late to get into UT. But I checked out the UT campus and it was way too serious for me. It looked like they expected results. I was just looking for a piece of paper, a degree. I didn't have a lot of faith in our education system. It's great and all, but so antiquated in its methods. So I kept looking for another school and found North Texas State and moved to Denton TX and got to take my first computer course, Basic 101. They had just setup a computer lab with a bunch of Apple II, TRS 80s and TI 99s.

First assignment was like 3 or 4 steps. This was on the Apple II and at one point you drop out of Apple Basic and are in machine language land and have to type 3DOG to return to Apple Basic. Pretty simple, the instructions are all written out. So I type in 3DOG and an error message appears, of course that was before I knew what an error message was. So I'm like, "How could I mess this up?" I keep trying. After about 30 minutes I'm sweating bullets. Clearly I have no business trying to learn about computers. I'll never get a job and will live under a bridge. Finally I ask the kid next to me if he's figured it out. He looks at me, has more sweat on him than I do, and says, "I grew up in Nigeria and have never seen a keyboard before." I'm so screwed I think, but not as screwed as this guy. I knew schools graded on a curve so I figure I should keep at it. After maybe another 30 minutes a light goes on. Up at the top of the keyboard are keys with numbers and the zero does look like the letter O so I try that. Bingo. Later I figured out what the deal was. 3D0 is the starting address of Apple Basic and G meant "Go" or execute. This was a life lesson. One, schools don't teach, they throw you into deeper and deeper water and then give you a few hints on how to get out. But basically you're on your own. Two, logic and thinking out of the box. From then on I looked at computers as a puzzle where the answer was always very simple and most obvious solutions are overly complex and not answers at all. Learning rules and how things are "supposed" to be done is severely limiting and counter productive.

Anyways, a few days later the TA is teaching us about the Apple II and he's explaining pixels. How we control a couple of dots of colors and how we can mix the colors to create other colors. This I understood from painting. I thought this was tremendous, that I could create anything. And that it had to be cheaper than buying paint and I didn't have to inhale turpentine fumes. I went out and spent $2200 on an Apple II and a few days later $500 for a floppy disk drive, pretty much all the money I had. I was obsessed. The next semester I took some mainframe type classes, punch cards. Fortan, JCL and Assembly on an IBM 360 system the size of city bus. To me the Assembly was easy to understand. Fortan and JCL were higher languages and had all this human crap getting in the way. Spend all your time worrying about syntax. Syntax has nothing to do with computers and everything to do with people trying to get other people to think the same way they do. Assembly takes a lot of that away and you're left to communicate with the computer however you want and the computer is happier too.

Back at home I was learning 6502 assembly on the Apple II and it was a lot like IBM 360. I considered the Apple II to be more powerful than the 360. Certainly easier to program because the 360 was punch card and you had to submit a job and wait for a result. The Apple was thousands of time faster turn around. The 360 I assume had floating point, disk space, more RAM, but for me fast turn around was everything. And pixels on the screen to me was the only point to a computer. Didn't care if a computer could compute Pi to some long list of digits.

So that was pretty much it for painting although I keep thinking I want to get back to it someday. But here's the rub. Painting and programming demand every minute of every day. May be this is true of anything you want to do well. It just isn't possible for me do both at the same time. I've met a few painters and programmers who were really fast, but I wasn't that lucky. I'm not a great painter but I will spend a few weeks on a painting to make something decent where someone else will spend an afternoon. Same with programming. It's judged on a curve.

F: In looking through the AA thread, you said that Apollo hired you away from college. Where were you going and what were you studying, and did you finish college? If so, what degree(s) did you get there?

DO: I never got a degree. When I was learning mainframe and PC at the same time it seemed to me this was a no brainer. But I wasn't sure because everyone, college and business, at that time only considered mainframes to be real computers. To me the iron was impressive but once you removed the steel panels and these huge circuit boards that didn't have much on them they looked a lot like an Apple II mother board. The mainframes I saw were 8 bit, so was the Apple. Assembly language was basically the same, better registers.

So I decided to get a part time job to see what was actually happening in the world. College campuses were in a fantasy land they created for themselves that had little to do with accomplishing anything. Colleges put up hoops for people to jump thru with almost no thought beyond trying to figure out what your professor wants to hear. Many people think the world is like that too, but I don't. Jumping thru hoops is easy and many people enjoy that. But behind the curtain, away from CEOs, boards, business news, investing, are people dreaming up and inventing the future. That's the fun stuff.

So I looked thru the want ads again for a part time job to see what was really going on. One interview was at TI for a guy writing a book. I would write programs that would generate charts to put into the book. There were no apps in those days. That would be pretty cool. But boy I never cared for TI. There was just something pocket calculator about them. There mission seemed to be to suck the fun out of everything. I interviewed at Apollo and that was pretty much the first I'd heard about video games. Back in the Army a roommate had assembled a Heathkit computer, cassette tape, and he had managed to get a white dot going horizontally back and forth to make Pong. He never got paddles up and I'm not sure he had a joystick. I didn't think anything of it at the time. The cassette tape was so tedious, I didn't see how you could ever do anything.

But Apollo was full time. One older guy at Apollo, a VP I think, was concerned about me dropping out. Inside my head I was like "Are you fucking kidding me? This video game stuff is so leading edge in computer science compared to the stone tools colleges were teaching it was jumping into the future." But I knew what he wanted to hear so I said "I can always go back to college" and kept "when monkeys fly out of my ass" to myself. Plus they were going to pay me as much as I expected to earn after I got out of college with a degree. And to me that was the only point to college, getting a degree to get a job. I was already well aware that they weren't teaching much in college that could actually be used. The few things that were useful you could learn much faster and cheaper on your own. I learned more about assembly language programming in a single weekend on the Apple II than an entire semester of IBM 360.

F: Do you remember any specific dates for your stint at Apollo? In the thread you said you were there for 2 months before moving on to Venturevision.

DO: I think I did try to recreate the timeline with help of Scott Stilphen but don't remember the final dates. I'm not sure if 2 months was right. I would have finished the semester so I assume I would have started in the spring of 1982. A week or two of screwing around, 4 weeks making Space Cavern and then some time screwing around after that. The Forbes or Fortune magazine article on video games came out just after I finished Space Cavern. I remember I went with Apollo to summer CES and left shortly after that. I think I was already talking to my VentureVision partners when I went to CES. So it could have been 3 or 4 months total, don't know.

F: You mentioned learning 6502 Assembly two weeks before starting Space Cavern. I am not a programmer of anything, so please forgive my ignorance, did you know other languages that made it easier for you to pick up Assembly?

I covered this above. I was taking some classes but to me I "learned" 6502 when I programmed a Gravitar knock off on the Apple II, but just a ship at bottom of screen that moved left and right and shot up, asteroids came down from the top. Nothing close to actual Gravitar. At least I think it was Gravitar inspired, could have been Asteroids. But my asteroids were wire framed, so I think Gravitar.

I knew some Apple Basic before 6502 and I was taking an IBM 360 assembly class which is basically the same as 6502 to me. But I wouldn't say anything made learning 6502 easier only because 6502 is so easy. I bought the book "Using 6502 Assembly Language: How Anyone Can Program the Apple II" and learned from that. I mean the syntax is easy. There can't be more than a a dozen or so instructions you use a lot and a few more you use sometimes and some you never use. There's just maybe 2 concepts people find tricky, the stack deal which is pretty easy and address indirection which is difficult to understand. But if you can hammer away until you get address indirection you're home free. Anyone can do it, just a question of how long you want to hammer away at it.

Learning the Apple II hardware takes more time. Then the real learning begins. Once you know a few details, how you put that altogether to create something useful takes forever. I'm still learning that.

Some people like crossword puzzles. They'll hammer away at trying to find a single word for hours, days. The furthest I've ever gotten in a crossword puzzle is reading the first clue. I don't get it. Meaning I don't understand the joy other people get from hammering away at solving that problem. I'm sure I, or anyone, could learn to do crossword puzzles and maybe even enjoy them. I think people who enjoy crossword puzzle saw the little tricks needed to solve clues fast. It's fun when you happen to see the trick right off. I don't know if it's luck or the way our brains are wired at a specific time when we see a problem. I saw the Healthkit computer and I didn't get it. When I learned about pixels I got it. Maybe I was just ready at that point. How I got to that point I have no clue.

F: As far as I can tell, all of your games are in stereo (There's a feature of the Stella emulator that allows you to play in mono or stereo. I am only assuming that the games are programmed in stereo because there have been some games that only have sounds coming out of one channel when stereo is chosen). Can you tell me anything about that? I was led to believe that only the first 9 games released for the 2600 were programmed in stereo, but it's been difficult finding a true mono game.

DO: I have no idea. Audio is not my favorite. Some of the sounds in Space Cavern I think just pointed to code and I sent that data to the audio hardware. I moved the pointer around until it sounded OK to me. Partly that saved space but mostly just because audio has never been very interesting to me. I like pixels. So if I programmed in stereo it would be only because there were 2 hardware registers available (I assume) and so I used them.

F: I am having a hard time understanding one aspect of Space Cavern, the manual is a bit vague. When you shoot an Electrosauri, it turns into something else and descends to the surface, but you can't shoot it. It doesn't seem related to when the Marsupods enter the screen. Do you remember why that was?

DO: I don't actually remember what a Electrosauri or Marsupods is. I assume Electrosaur is the thing that comes in from the sides? There's a kind of strange relationship between a game designer and player. My involvement is almost 100% before the game is released, before terms like Electrosauri and Marsupods are invented. There isn't any need for names. I would spend hours imagining these creatures, hours tweaking them, testing, tweaking. There's no reason for a name. Later, when the game is done, these names are created to help convey them quickly to others. But while they exist only in my private world no names are needed.

So there wouldn't be a specific reason for most game elements other than after tweaking something a few hundred times it becomes what it is. So the answer is almost always because I thought it played better. That sure doesn't mean that it actually is the best way, just what I could come up with in the constraints at the time.

F: How long were you at Venturevision? Were you a partner or the programmer? Were there any other programmers besides you and Robert Weatherby working on games?

DO: I was a founder along with Bob Hesler and his friend, can't remember his name. Robert was our only hire. I was at VentureVision pretty much the entire time. I left before it was officially closed but it was dead. I would say the entire period would have been 6-8 months with some overlap with my time at Apollo.

F: How long did Rescue Terra 1 take to program? Did you do Inner Space right away, and had RT1 been released yet when Inner Space was finished? How long did Inner Space take to program?

DO: I would say 4 weeks to make Rescue Terra I. These things are a little hard to say at what point you begin and end. So I'd say 4 weeks at the keyboard. Could have been a bit longer. I was imagining Innerspace as I was working on RTI. That's the way it goes. I'll do the explosion in a game and then near release see a way to make a better explosion. But I can't stop, rip out the current explosion and add the new. You'd never ship anything and not have the money to do anything.

I would say Innerspace was 6 weeks at the keyboard. It was started the day after we sent the final RTI to ROM production which took about 4-8 weeks. So Innerspace would have been basically done by the time RTI was sold to the public. Innerspace wasn't sent to ROM, no box was made at VentureVision.

F: From your description, it seems like you really didn't work for Imagic, as they were shutting down operations. Do you recall when you brought them Inner Space and how much later it was released?

DO: When VentureVision ran out of money I needed to eat so I looked in a few game magazine for game companies and started plotting them on the map. Turned out there was a group in southern CA and a group around San Jose. I figured I'd go out and visit as many as I could to see if I could find a job. Although the game crash had just started there were still a lot of companies who thought it wasn't going to be bad and game developers were still in demand.

So I went out and showed Innerspace as part of my portfolio. My partners at VV waited to keep trying to sell the RTI games so to divide up the company's assets I got Innerspace and they got RTI. So I was free to show Innerspace, I wasn't exactly looking to sell Innerspace but the owner of one game company, a pretty big company doing floppy disk games for computers, showed the game to Imagic. My only interaction with Imagic was to sign papers and pick up the check. By that time I was at Atari. When I walked thru an Imagic building it was a ghost town, just a couple of people left.

After signing the contract they gave me the check and I got up to leave. The guy stopped me and said, "Don't you want to know about how future royalties will be handled?" I said, "Not really," and left. Partly because I trusted them to do the right thing. I mean I sure wasn't going to hire a legal team so trust is really your only option. But also because I didn't see anyway Imagic would be around in a month or two. By this time I'd been in the game industry for about one year and personally seen 2 companies start and fail and observed a few others start and fail. I kind of thought I knew the signs.

F: Your LinkedIn site says you started at Atari in April of 1983. You worked on Final Legacy first, was that specifically for the 800 and later ported to the 5200?

DO: Yes, 800 was the target.

F: When did you start working on Telepathy? Did you work on anything else while at Atari?

DO: I started Telepathy after Final Legacy shipped. The exact time I don't know. I worked on a couple of tiny little game things. The next thing I worked on was the Atari ST but my stuff didn't make it into the OS. My next product was ST Writer. I did work as a contractor later to fix a few bugs in the final release of Desert Falcon for the 7800.

F: Did you put any easter eggs in your Atari games? There aren't any listed on the 2600 Easter Egg compendium, but maybe because they are well hidden? 

DO: Probably not. I was always under tight deadlines. For Space Cavern I burned an EPROM, tested it for 3 minutes and gave the code to production and they were making carts less than an hour later. The concept of taking time to add an Easter egg was not something I considered. Plus Easter eggs had already been done to death in my opinion. They were really cool when they weren't expected, but as they became expected to me they stopped being Easter eggs so their fun was gone.

F: You worked on a number of projects after Atari that contained video or video editing. I read that What's My Story was the first computer product that allowed video editing. Was video an interest of yours, and if so, how far back did that go?

DO: Yes, my computer interest is almost solely on pixels. To me it's the same as painting.

Digital Pictures was kickass in displaying video on computers. There's one feature I learned there that I still want to add to an app.

F: From looking at your website, it looks like you stopped doing games after What's My Story. Was this a conscious decision or did you just enjoy the video aspect more?

DO: Games were getting pretty large. It was changing from a single artist to larger teams. Shipping a game is a risky deal. Knocking out a 2600 game in a month wasn't a lot of risk. Spending 5 years on a game that may never see the light of was not as much fun. Non-entertainment apps are more straight forward. You can research whether there is a need for an app.

Also it was becoming clearer that starting a game company was getting harder. I was at AnyRiver Entertainment working on the worst possible games humanity could ever invent when I kind of saw this was not the industry I wanted to work in. It's pretty cool now to see small teams making a comeback.

F: Have you worked anywhere else besides the companies listed? Are you still working or are you retired now?

DO: Make Systems
AnyRiver Entertainment
The Right Software Company
Lumina Systems
Minerva Systems
Sonic Solutions
Active Recognition
Waterbug Design

For the past 12 years I've been mainly working on new programming methods. Ways to create better applications faster. What I learned was that the way we developed 2600 games was the best way to create applications. It's unfortunate it took 12 years but sometimes that's what it takes apparently.

F: What do you like to do for fun now?

DO: I still program 12-16 hours a day pretty much every day. I've always considered it to be fun as long as I can pick my projects.

I enjoy many things but tend to become obsessed. I spent 3-4 years doing nothing but building water gardens and designing pond equipment. It was fun and learning is learning.

F: Do you have any opinion on the video games industry today?

DO: Cool to see smaller projects coming back. I was never into the first person movie-like deals. I saw my first fighting game, a Mortal Kombat type, at Atari in a lab and didn't think anyone would ever like such a game. I played a boxing game with friends about 10 years ago on probably a Play Station. Great looking graphics. But I didn't feel like I had much control. Once I figured out the Muhammad Ali avatar's upper cut beat most other moves I just whaled away on that move. No timing. Never interested in memorizing complex button combos. Never appealed to me.

I like shooters.

It's really cool to see there are still people interested in new 2600 games. I'm hoping to do games for them again when I have a project opening. They say the market is small but that's relative. Rescue Terra I sold maybe 30 copies. I might be able to sell 100 or 200 copies into the current market. That's cool to me. Money is important, it is needed in order to have the time to do these things well. But I think the current 2600 market is big enough to at least break even on a project. Meaning enough to buy food, electric, underwear.

And the Melody system is unbelievably cool. I'd love to take a crack at that.

So my plan is to release a new 2600 game that is a sequel to Innerspace on the VentureVision label which I own today. Don't know when or how likely, but that's what's stuck in my head. I have a lot of elements designed and laid out.

Dan put this at the end of his email and it made me laugh out loud:
All references to "back in the day" have been deleted.  :D

Please be sure to check out Dan's website, Waterbug Design. Thanks again to Dan Oliver!

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