Book Review: The Art Of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford

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(Note: How great is this book?  I wrote this 10 years ago, and all I had to do was change about 20 words, and this review is as relevant now as it was in 2007)

By all rights, Chris Crawford’s book The Art Of computer Game Design  should be a mere relic in the eyes of modern game designers. Sure, in 1984 it was the first serious book written by a computer game designer/programmer about the design of games, but at 33 years old it would seem to be too old to hold any really useful information about the design of modern games, right?

Wrong.

With “casual” games taking center-stage thanks to the efforts of mobile, web-based game programmers, the Nintendo 3DS & Wii U consoles, Steam plus the XBox Live Arcade and the  Playstation Store the lessons of early game designer/programmers like Crawford can be both handy, and at times, down-right golden. As well, designers of games for any level or platform could do well to digest some of the more universal topics in this book.

Crawford first chapter, “What Is A Game?” does a fine job of setting the tone for what lies ahead. Crawford jumps right-in with a serious discussion of why game are important to humans, about conflict, and the importance of interaction in video and computer games. This is not a book that is steeped in the details of implementation, or the exact features of any one game type, but instead it is designed to make the reader really think about games and exactly what they are trying to accomplish when designing/programming a game. The key take-away from this chapter are Crawford’s thoughts on “interaction”. Basically, without interaction you don’t have a game, and in Crawford’s world, quality of interaction is directly proportional to the quality of your game.

The second chapter in the book, “Why Do People Play Games?” takes a deep look at the motivations people have for playing games. Crawford, while admitting that many people play games for differing reasons (exploration, proving oneself, social, etc.), states that much of the desire of playing games comes from an innate human need to “learn”. Crawford writes

I claim that the fundamental motivation for all game-playing is to learn. This is the original motivation for game-playing, and surely retains much of its importance…I must qualify my claim that the fundamental motivation for all game-play is to learn. First, the educational motivation may not be conscious. Indeed, it may well take the form of a vague predilection to play games. The fact that this motivation may be unconscious does not lessen its import; indeed, the fact would lend credence to the assertion that learning is a truly fundamental motivation.

Crawford does not say that every game should be “educational”, but that the process of learning is part of why people play games. As game designers and programmers we can learn to create more addictive games by tapping into this need. Giving players the ability to learn patterns or discover the “hidden” rules beneath the game’s surface are just a couple ways of satisfying this need without hitting players over the head with “lessons”.

Crawford’s third chapter, “A Taxonomy Of Computer Games” is light on text, but surprisingly complete in scope, even though it was compiled in 1982. While it focuses on the prevalent type of game for the age (arcade style contests), this is not all that bad in particular for programmers/designers of web-based games because the lion’s share of on-line games still fall into this category. What is surprising from his list are how few game genres have been created since 1982. First-Person shooters fall under “Skill And Action”, “Real Time Strategy” in War games, the “Sims” style games in the “relationship” category. The only genre he does not specifically cover is MMORPGs, but he does state “So far, however, few games have been marketed that truly capture the spirit of D&D“, which in some sense, is the point of MMORPGs.

Chapter Four “Game Technologies” seems like it would veer the farthest from modern games, but again, Crawford talks in such universal terms that his lessons are still very useful today. His thoughts on game interfaces and information interaction between the game and the player, and how they effect the success of game are still extremely important , as are his feelings on keeping the game design “clean” and free of special-case elements that don’t support the main functions of the game. Crawford even takes the role of an prophet of sorts, pointing out that one of the most compelling thing about computer games is “ is their ability to utilize data transfer over telephone lines for game play. The use of telecommunications for game play makes possible game structures that are out of the reach of other technologies. It allows us to create games with huge numbers of players.

Chapter 5 “The Game Design Sequence” is a complete strategy for designing and developing a game. While it is very light on the actual programming implementation, Crawford’s main idea is that the research, planning and design of your game are much more important than the programming phase .Crawford writes “Seldom has a game failed solely because the programmer lacked the requisite programming skills. Games have failed to live up to their potential because the programmer did not expend enough effort, or rushed the job…” Crawford’s experience with games he “did not” finish are very important here. His thoughts on “aborting” a project before you have invested too much effort is something I plan to tape to my wall:

“The last and most crucial decision is the decision to abort the game or proceed. It should be made now, before you commit to programming the game. Do not hesitate to abort the game now; even if you abort now you will still have I earned a great deal and can say that the effort was worthwhile. A decision to give up at a later stage will entail a real loss, so give this option careful consideration now while you can still do it without major loss. Abort if the game no longer excites you. Abort if you have doubts about its likelihood of success. Abort if you are unsure that you can successfully implement it. I have in my files nearly a hundred game ideas; of these, I have explored at length some 30 to 40. Of these, all but eight were aborted in the design stage”

Chapter 6 “Design Techniques And Ideals” is a grab-bag of sorts containing content on a variety of topics that dig deeper into game design. These include game balancing, learning curves, and the relationships of game opponents. Not all of these will be useful to everyone, but then Crawford’s main thrust of this chapter is not necessarily the digestion of all these topics. Instead, Crawford encourages style and technique for creating games. It appears that Crawford is saying “this is how I do it, you might not do it this way, but find some way to do it, and stick with it.”

Chapter 7: “The Future Of Computer Games” is an extremely interesting read. especially for something written in 1982. Crawford plays the role of prophet again, but this time for an entire chapter. His thoughts on how personal computers will transform society are especially compelling:

“We therefore expect that personal computers will change the face of American society. We expect that networking will allow more Americans to participate in economic activities from the home, decreasing the load on transportation and accelerating the pace of economic life. The ease of manipulating information will give information an even more prominent role in our society. Our financial system will become less dependent on currency. Our lives will be changed by these machines.

Even more compelling are Crawford’s thoughts on what computer and video games would become as they moved to the mass market:

As computer games become a mass market item, they will fall prey to the homogenizing forces of the mass market. The emphasis will not be on originality or creativity, but rather on adhering to the time-honored formulas. Just as movies and television fell prey to the formulas of sex and violence, cops and robbers, sitcoms, and the other mechanical incantations of the mass media, so too will games fall victim to the tyranny of the mass market. (Are my biases showing?) We will see an emphasis on delivering the same game over and over in new clothing. My guess is that we are already caught in the grip of this force, for we are producing little more than variations on a single theme: “blast the monsters!”. This has sold well, so we stick with it.

Chapter 8 “The Development Of Excalibur” is an interesting “warts and all” view into Chris Crawford using some of the techniques he previously described in the design of a game. This chapter is fascinating, but to get the most out of it you need to really you enjoy the history of Atari, or have owned and played the Excalibur game on an Atari 800 computer. For Chris Crawford, Excalibur was the first battle in a life-long quest to create a game that modeled true human relationships.

Not everything in the book translates completely,  and some of the ideas in the book show their age. In Chapter 4 Crawford advises programmers “as you look over your program listing, you should inspect each byte and ask yourself, ‘Am I getting my money’s worth from this byte?’. These concepts may appear outdated in this day of ultra-fast machines, gigabytes of memory.  However, the basic concepts of these ideas still hold a lot of truth.  Efficient programming can make the performance of the game much better and maintainability of the code far easier than a sloppy design.  As well, HTML5, AR/VR/MR/XR game programmers in particular should be familiar with trying to compress every byte they can out of graphics, sounds, and even their own code to create a game with a reasonable download size and frame-rate. Also, some of the language in the book might make the actual content seem less than useful, which would be a mistake. For instance, Crawford’s use of the term “artificial smarts” instead of “artificial intelligence” in Chapter 6 might seem quaint, but the lesson of the chapter is still valuable.

In the mid-1990’s, long after this book was published, Chris Crawford became as pariah of sorts to the game industry because he continued to beat the drum on the topics he so eloquently states in “Chapter 7 The Future Of Computer Games”. After being kicked out of the Game Developers Conference, a gathering he himself created, he left the game industry completely. Actually, to be fair, the game industry left him. It’s really too bad, because people who can see 23 years into the future like Crawford did in 1984 should be leaders in the game industry, not shoved aside so the alpha-squad can make excuses for churning out the same games over and over. Crawford resurfaced a few years ago with another great book named “On Game Design” that further refined his game development techniques. He is currently finishing up the beta version of his interactive fiction system “Storytron“, an idea that saw it’s genesis in the final pages of The Art Of computer Game Design.

Note: The Art Of computer Game Design has been freely available online since 1997.

(Note: originally published July 17, 2007)

Updates since 2007:

Chris Crawford regularly updates his website here: http://www.erasmatazz.com/.  It a fascinating read.

He has been working on a game project that incorporates his theories named Siboot for several years now.  We hope he and his team finish soon so we can all enjoy the game.

Never Let The Fire Die (podcast episode #2)

Jeff and I host the official podcast for the band The Alarm.   They had a bunch of alternative hits in the 80’s  (The Stand, 68 Guns, Strength, Spirit Of ’76. Rain The Summertime, Rescue Me, Sold Me Down The River).    They new 21st century version of the band is going strong with several albums and a few charting songs (45 RPM, Superchannel)

The new episode covering the recent USA Gathering and the new film featuring lead vocalist Mike Peters named “The Man In The Camo Jacket”  is embedded below (full disclosure: Steve appears in the movie The Man In The Camo Jacket)

S1:E1: The First USA Gathering: UCLA, April 22, 2017

 

 

 

Review: Why I Loved Raiders Of The Lost Ark for The 2600

Wired posted an article a while back about the worst movie tie-in games of all-time, and , Raiders Of The lost Ark for the Atari 2600 made the list. It feels like I’ve been trying to convince people since 1982 that this is simply not the case, and the quest appears never-ending.

You see, I loved Raiders Of The lost Ark for the 2600.

I played it over and over, found the ark multiple times, and loved the game. I usually agree with people about worst games lists. There are other games on the list I completely agree with (i,.e E.T.…except the 8-bit Atari version which was decent), but not Raiders. Raiders was a fine game. In fact, there are a number of absolutely terrible movie tie-ins for the VCS that were far worse than Howard Scott Warshaw’s Raiders game. For instance, Krull, Porkys, and Superman are at best, no better than Raiders , and probably many times worse (however I’m sure, in-turn, those games have their own fans who hate it when they show-up on worst lists too). Raiders Of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 was a fine game. I should know, I bought it right when it came out, and fell in love with it the next day. I never questioned my $24.95 I spent (a lot of money for a 12 year-old in 1982).

I still don’t question it today.

Back in December 1982, my brother Jeff and I were walking though the aisles of the Great Western Gun Show with our father. We frequented these shows because our dad was a Civil War nut, long before it was en vogue (and then “out-vogue” again) to be a student of American Civil War history. Anyway, not every thing at these shows was ammo boxes and 1865 Navy pistols, as many vendors sold whatever they could get people to buy. Usually this meant plastic storage boxes, knife sets, time shares, and the rare table of comics and trading cards. However, at one table, Jeff and I saw a guy selling Atari 2600 games. We picked through the table, and discovered Raiders Of The Lost Ark for the VCS for $24.95. We were both ecstatic at finding the game. We had no clue Atari was working on a Raiders game for the VCS. The photos on the back of the box made it look fairly good too, which was a surprise after the Pac-Man  debacle earlier that year.

We got home far too late to play Raiders the night of the gun Show, but as soon as we awoke the Sunday morning after, the package was ripped open, the game inserted into VCS, and  many hours were wasted as we enthralled ourselves into the uncommon adventure that was Raiders Of The Lost Ark for the Atari 2600.

First off, even though the Wired article complains about the graphics, in reality they were fine for the 2600, and in some cases quite good. Indy looked like a guy with a hat carrying a whip. Did you need more? Other items and locations ranged from serviceable to nicely done. Secondly, the game used two joysticks. One controlled Indy. You could move, pick-up objects and fight enemies with his whip and other weapons. Unlike previous Atari 2600 adventures games of this type (i.e Superman and Adventure) you could pick-up and hold multiple objects in your inventory. This in itself led to the feeling of a deep and interesting game with many choices. The inventory is where the second joystick came-in. as it was used to control your items. For Jeff and I this meant we could play cooperatively, with one guy manning Indy and one manning the inventory.

The game itself made a fairly good attempt to capture feel of the movie. You had to find the map room, locate the well of souls, discover treasure, negotiate for items in the market place, deal with raving lunatics, fight off tsetse flies and snakes, throw grenades, fire your pistol, and do tons of other cool stuff. Sure, some of it was only “inspired” by Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but the game was interesting and deep enough to hold my attention for a long time.

The only down-side to the game was the parachute which was used to find the ark in the well of souls and included jumping off a cliff. This made little sense and was immensely frustrating. I must have repeated that part of the game 500 times before I was successful. Still though, once I actually found the ark, the nice animated graphical reward was worth the effort.

So, anyway, I’m not saying that you should run-out and buy an Atari  2600 just to play Raiders Of The lost Ark, It’s not that good, but I am saying that it gets a bad rap in the annals of video game history. It was a fine game that had me addicted for at least a couple weeks, and I never regretted spending my money on it. There are dozens of other games I’ve purchased throughout the years that certainly can’t even claim that much value.

(Originally version  posted June 2, 2008)

Pac-Man, Electronic Games Magazine, And The Exact Moment Atari Lost The Video Game War

Note: As I discover the 120 or so games on my list of “lost” VCS games from the 80’s, I will spend some time discussing the ones that, in one way or another,  mean something significant to me.     This is one of those stories.


“It’s disappointingly difficult to find anything positive to say about this game. “

-Electronic Games Magazine

With those words, I believe,  Electronic Games magazine changed the course of video game journalism forever.

The United States Constitution  allows for a”  free an independent press” because the framers believed  this “4th estate” was necessary for a Democracy to grow and  flourish.   The role of a “free and independent press” should be “the search for truth”.    This has been readily apparent to anyone who has read or  watched news over the past couple years.   At the same time, it has also been said that Democracy also can’t flourish without capitalism.   In a free-market, capitalist system, the role of marketing is essential for companies to compete and make a profit for their shareholders.    Marketing, by design, is not necessarily truthful.  Marketing messages are designed to highlight the positive and downplay the negative of one’s own interests while doing the opposite for competitors.   However, what happens the day that said capitalist  industry runs smack dab into that free and independent press searching for the truth?   What if that industry has been able to  operate with impunity for years merely for lack of consumer information? Does an informed public then become their worst enemy?

Here is a good example:

On May 11th, 1982 Electronic Games Magazine published its 4th (June 1982) issue.    Inside that issue was the first terrible review Atari ever received for one of it’s video games.  That game was Pac-Man for the Atari  VCS (2600), and, at least in the public eye, and especially for kids like me, it changed Atari’s fortunes forever.

Part 1: The Video Game Coverage Before Pac-Man

To understand the impact of the  Electronic Games review of VCS Pac-Man, I decided to examine  video game coverage and reviews prior to May 11, 1982, the day the Pac-Man review was published.  My theory was that there was a distinct difference between the way games were covered before Pac-Man (B.P.), and the way games were covered after Pac-Man. (A.P.)

In the B.P. period of video game journalism video games were treated more like “enthusiast toys” than a new entertainment medium.   Electronic Games magazine had only published three issues by that time.   A previous column by Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel (the editors of Electronic Games) in Video Magazine named “Arcade Alley”  had been running for a couple years prior to that, and by examining those columns I found a very interesting pattern:   Most “reviews” in those publications were more “gee-whiz video games sure are cool” than critical.  They focused more on the positive aspects of  each game, and how they compared to other games or, when appropriate, how they compared to their coin-operated arcade counterparts.  Of course they did, this was the first regular column about video games in a national magazine.    Not only were the games for the Atari VCS breaking new ground, but the writers of Arcade Alley were pulling double duty: trying to inform the readers about great new games and make an argument for the existence of video games as medium in the first place.   Plus, Atari’s early games might look poor with 20/20 hindsight, but at the time of their release, they were ground-breaking.

Here are some examples of how Arcade Alley reported on Atari VCS games, and the positive spin they took on almost all games:

 

Part 2: Electronic Games Magazine Before the Pac-Man Review

Along with Arcade Alley, in early issues of Electronic Games Magazine Atari’s games received fairly good reviews.

The Winter 1981 issue of Electronic Games said  “Missile Command” for the Atari 2600 “represents the most successful conversion of a commercial arcade supergame to the more limited confines of a home programmable system” .  They called Air-Sea Battle for the 2600 “an instant classic”.  they said the “Breakthrough” variation of  Breakout for the 2600 “could easily become an addiction”

In the March 1982 issue of Electronic Games the reviewers called Asteroids for the 2600 “an astonishing success”,  and while they were lukewarm   “Video Pinball” they ended by saying it would “probably interest most videogamers”

There were no reviews for first party Atari games  in the May 1982  issue of Electronic Games, which leads us up to the June issue (published May 12th, 1982), and the all important review of Pac-Man.   Alongside the Pac-Man review, EG said of Super Breakout for the 2600 “shines far brighter than any of it’s predecessors”.

So the stage was set.  From the eye of the critical press, Atari had not disappointed yet.  They had revolutionized the commercialization of video games and were, at the time, the fastest growing company in the history of the the United States.    They were the Nintendo of their day. All they had to do was deliver a decent version of VCS Pac-Man, and their fortunes would be solidified for years to come.

Part 3: The Development And Release of Pac-Man

To say Atari “hyped” the release of Pac-Man does not do the hype justice.  Never before had a video game had such high expectations.  The game was released on April 3, 1982, on a day that Atari called “Pac-Man Day”, although many retailers, like Sears, began selling it weeks before.  On Pac-Man day, Atari held events in 25 cities to announce the release.  It was the biggest event home video games had ever seen.   It was also one of the first times a video game had an actual release-date.   However, not everything seemed right.  The initial Atari TV commercials for the game did not even dare show what it actually looked-like.

Pac-Man News From March 1982 Electronic Games Magazine

 

According to Atari: Business Is Fun by Marty Goldberg and Kurt Vendel,   The game was designed by Tod Frye  as his first game project for Atari. Development was not rushed, and Frye worked hard to get the VCS to re-produce a decent version of a Pac-Man like game.

The problem was, the limitations of the VCS, combined with the overall engineering talent left at Atari in 1981, meant that the pool of innovative engineering ideas was shallower than it had been just a couple years before.  Many of the best programmers had left or were planning to leave to form Activision and Imagic, among other 3rd party developers.   Maybe VCS Pac-Man was a victim of of Atari brain-drain.   Maybe if David Crane (Pitfall!) or Rob Fulop (Missile CommandDemon Attack) or Rick Mauer (Space Invaders) had been around to bounce ideas off of, the game would have turned out better.  Maybe if the game was designed using bank-switching, or Frye was not given the requirement to create a 2-player game, he would have had more resources to produce a more faithful version?   VCS Pac-Man in an of itself is not a bad maze game.  However,  under the circumstances,  as a version of the coin-op Pac-Man, released in 1982 at the same time Buckner and Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” was hitting the charts, among an unprecedented flurry of events, TV commercials and marketing hype,  arriving on Atari’s flagship platform,  it was a terrible game.  Atari’s “Pac-Man day” was day that would live in infamy.

Part 4: The Press Savaging Of Atari VCS Pac-Man 

pacman_review_jun82

E.G. June 1982 Review of Atari VCS Pac-Man The whole review is posted to the right.  Read it, if you can stomach it..

June 1982 Review of VCS Pac-Man from Video Magazine

“Considering the anticipation and considerable time the Atari designers had to work on it, it’s astonishing to see a home version of a classic arcade contest so devoid of what gave the original its’ charm” 

-Electronic Games Magazine

The review of VCS Pac-Man in the pages of electronic Games magazine was nothing short of shocking.   Never before had I read such a scathing indictment of a game.   I was so used to reading reviews that told me how game played, and what to expect, but had very little in the way if criticism.

Yet here was a totally different type of review.  The review in Electronic Games showed disdain. It showed hurt.  It showed disappointment.  It was like Atari had let the whole of the video game industry down by not following through.

The last line of the review said it all:

“Those arcaders who demand that home versions match their coin-op cousins will be seriously disappointed” 

-Electronic Games Magazine

Elsewhere, the press was just as critical. It was not until the June 1982 issue of Video magazine and the review of, course, Pac-Man, that any Atari VCS game received an unfavorable review in that magazine :

“Unfortunately those who cannot evaluate Pac-Man through lover’s eyes are likely to be disappointed”. and “…is not quite what electronic game fan expect from Atari”.  

-Video Magazine

The review is actually one of the nicer opinions.  Other publications did not pull any punches. In the premiere, August 1982 issue of Video Games Magazine, they described VCS Pac-Man this way:

“Anyone who buys Pac-Man because they love the arcade game with the same name may wind-up  disappointed. Other than retaining the basic concept, it bears few similarities to the ‘real’ Pac-Man.” 

-Video Games Magazine

The premiere issue of Video Game Player from Fall 1982 called VCS Pac-Man:

” just awful.”

-Video Game Player

The point here is not just that VCS Pac-Man was  bad game, or that it got a bad review, but that it represented a sea change in the way Atari VCS games were reviewed by the burgeoning video game press.  No longer were enthusiasts and reviewers trying to argue for the inner life of their hobby. They were now looking at games critically and calling out the failures above the successes.  It didn’t help that Atari’s Pac-Man game was such an utter dog.

The press had spoken, and Atari’s free ride was over.

 Part 5: Reviews Of Atari VCS Games After Pac-Man

After the release of Pac-Man for the VCS, the coverage of Atari 2600 games took a turn for, if not the worse than at least the more critical than the fan-boy slavering they had received pre -VCS Pac-Man. While some games did receive good reviews (i.e. Haunted House, Super Breakout, Star Raiders) , Atari no longer got a free-pass when it came to reviews.

E.G. Yar’s Revenge review, October 1982

For example, Yar’s Revenge is considered a classic now, but in the wake of the Pac-Man review, no Atari VCS game got a free pass.   In the October 1982 issue of Electronic Games,  it was called “Far too Static”, even though it was a play on the arcade game Star Castle, and was arguably, a deeper and more challenging experience than that game.

E.G. November 1982 Review of Defender for VCS

Even when games received favorable reviews, often-times they were still compared to the missteps Atari made in the past.    Game reviewers had been as shocked by the terrible quality of Pac-Man as the game players.    In the review for Defender in the November ’82 issue, Electronic Games called back to both Pac-Man and Yar’s Revenge to compare and contrast the relative success of their Defender cartridge. While praising Defender, Electronic Games made sure to remind people that VCS Pac-Man was “tremendously disappointing”.  They also added insult to injury by  reminding readers that Yar’s Revenge was “mediocre” which again,  in hindsight, feels like Yar’s Revenge got stuck in the negative coattails of VCS Pac-Man instead of being judged on its’ own merits.

Even six months after the review of Pac-Man, in their mostly positive review of VCS Berzerk from the January 1983 issue of Electronic Games, the magazine spent nearly 1/3 of the text trashing VCS Pac-Man and discussing how it made them nervous about maze games from Atari:

“When Atari announced plans to produce a home edition of the well-known Stern maze shoot-out, Berzerk, skepti-cism ran rampant through- out the electronic ling world. The basic situation — an on-screen hero shoots at computer-directed robots as the arcader moves from room to room — sounded like it might be hard to reproduce, given the limitations of the VCS hardware. Besides, Atari hadn’t done such a masterful job on Pac-Man, its previous attempt to translate a prominent maze game for home-screen play. Those disappointed by Pac-Man (VCS) adopted an under- standably cautious, wait-and-see atti- tude toward Berzerk.”

It seems that Pac-Man was such a monumental failure, that even when Atari made a decent game, they could not shake their first great failure as a video game company.

This even extended to 3rd parties, whose success only highlighted Atari’s failures. In the review for Parker Brother’s version of Frogger from January 1983, another game that garnered a positive review, the author could not help but allude to the VCS version of Pac-Man by writing about how difficult it has been to translate arcade games to the Atari VCS:

“Translating popular coin-op videogames into the home medium, particularly the VCS format, has proven one of the most formidable challenges of this decade. While some games have proven “naturals” for home translation, many have simply defied the programmers’ best efforts to bring them to the 2600 screen.”

Furthermore, while the press was still reeling from the shocking problems with VCS Pac-Man, reviews for games from Activision and Imagic  for the VCS consistently gained high praise.   Electronic Games called Activsion’s Grand Prix “Spectactular…visual triumph” (June 1992), Chopper Commandone of the most exciting cartridges you’ll ever plug into the slot of your Atari VCS” (September 1982), Star Master “type of video game that really has staying power”  (October 1982), MegamaniaActivision at its’ whimsical best…not to be missed“, Pitfall!Incredibly Innovative…unquestionably recommended” (December 1982), and River Raid “one of the best blood and thunder blst-em-ups ever inserted into a VCS slot” (April 1983).    The also declared that  Imagic’s Demon Attack  “should be one of the best selling video games of 1982” (August 1982), and Atlantis as  “a Magnificent Video Game” (February 1983).

EG March 1983 Review of Colectovison Zaxxon

EG March 1983 review of Advanced Dungeons And Dragons for Intellivision

At the same time, rival systems from Coleco and Mattel were scoring some of the best reviews ever seen in the pages of a video game magazine.   In the March 1983 issue Electronic Games called Colecovision’s Zaxxonthe best home video game in the land“.  they followed up that review in the same issue with a review of Mattel Intellivision’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons calling it “one of the finest action adventure cartridges“.   The next month’s issue (April 1983), the Colecovsion dominated the review cycle with two more games. Turbo was as having “ The most peeper popping graphics ever seen on a home video game“, and of Mouse Trap they said  “Chalk up another winner for Coleco“.

I’m not suggesting that Electronic Games Magazine was biased toward newer systems or 3rd party publishers at the expense of Atari.  The praise bestowed on Activision, Coleco, Imagic, Mattel, and many others was well deserved.  The home video game industry was moving forward, but Atari was stuck in 1983 with six-year old technology in their flagship platform (The newer, Atari 5200 was not the instant success they desired), and a seemingly prevalent idea that marketing and hype could overcome the technical deficiencies in their platform.     No where was this more evident that with their E.T. The Extraterrestrial cartridge, reviewed with unfortunate synchronicity, in the April 1983 issue of Electronic Games, right in the middle of positive reviews for the a selection ColecoVision games.

April 1983 review of E.T. From Electronic Games Magazine

Much has been said about E.T. The Extraterrestrial for the VCS.  Some people call it “The worst game ever made”,  others blame it for the eventual golden age video game crash.   I think that’s giving it too much credit.    If you were like me, a 13 year old following the video game industry in the pages of magazines as if it was the most important thing in the world, E.T. was simply “more of the same.”     It was not a good game for many reasons: overwhelming marketing hype, high cost of the license, short development time.  However that was just indicative, at least in my mind,  of Atari  at the time.  Electronic Games wrote the the figurative “Shit Sandwich” of VCS reviews for E.T. like this:

“Save your time and money. And if E.T. does call home, please don’t tell him about this”.  

-Electronic Games Magazine

The  E.T. game  book-ended nearly a year of bad news for the Atari VCS,  while rival platforms were faring much better.   Atari VCS games had gone from being “innovative” in the pages of Arcade Alley, to being the butt of funny jokes in the pages of the industry press.

This hit me really hard.  to me., my favorite video game company had become an embarrassment, and as an owner of an Atari VCS, to my video gaming friends, I had become an embarrassment by association.

By the Spring of 1983, the zeitgeist had moved away from Atari, and they would never get it back.  The message was overwhelming and clear: Atari had lost its way, and their rivals were beating them at their own game.

Part 6: A Community Of Video Gamers

Pac Man complaint Letter, Sep. ’82 Electronic Games

I have  to admit it.  I bought VCS Pac-Man  game even after reading the review in Electronic Games Magazine.

Why?
Because I wanted Electronic Game Magazine to be wrong.

I loved Atari.  I loved their arcade games.  I love the VCS and how it represented “freedom” to me to when I was a 70’s kid and and 80’s teen.    I wanted to work at Atari.  My dream was to become an Atari game programmer and make the games I had been designing in notes books since I was 9 years old.

I was 12 years old.  I’d wanted an Atari VCS since 1978, and finally got one Christmas 1981, and had it for a mere 5 months before VCS Pac Man was released. I loved Pac Man in the arcade, and I just knew Atari would do it justice.    How could Pac-Man go wrong?   I was a proto Atari fan-boy  and though the company would never let me down.

My brother and I bought the game for $35 at Target with money we saved up for months.

“They had to be wrong!” I thought as purchased the game, opened the package, put it in the VCS cartridge slot, and flicked the power-switch.

I recall booting up the game for the first time and thinking “That’s it?”.  I was distraught over Pac-Man for the VCS.

Electronic Games was not wrong at all.

It was devastating.  After playing magnificent versions of  the “big 3” (Asteroids, Space Invaders and Missile Command) on my recently acquired VCS (Christmas 1981), Pac-Man was a total shock.

But to me, Pac Man was truly awful.

I took the instruction booklet to school the next day, and poured over every word, trying to glean any insight or inspiration from the words within.  There was nothing.   Even the instruction booklet appeared to not understand the game Atari had tried to re-create.  I’d stood behind the teenagers at the Guild Drug store for too many hours, watching them play and gazing at the on-screen and on-cabinet illustrations and instructions to know the nuances of Pac-Man.  This game had none of them.  In fact, besides the most basic elements, it appeared to have a complete lack of understanding of the Pac-Man coin-op game. Atari VCS Pac-Man had “vitamin pills” instead of “fruit”, “video wafers” instead of dots, “power-pills” instead of “energizers”, and the ghosts were all the same color: transparent.

I thought it was the worst game I had ever played on the VCS.  In reality, I had no idea what the limitations were of the Atari VCS before I spent my hard earned money on Pac-Man.  But afterward, I was certain of them.

My loyalties shifted  that day.  I knew who was on my side.  It was was not Atari any longer, it was Electronic Games.   Katz, Kunkel and Worley, the editorial trifecta of the world’s first and best video game magazine had become the de-facto experts on “video games” to me.

They were on my side.

They were telling truth to power.

They were the free press we needed at the right time for us as  consumers, but maybe not the right time for Atari.

They made me rethink what I felt about Atari and the VCS.   When I re-read the Electronic Games review of Pac-Man, it validated my opinion.   All of a sudden, I trusted E.G. more than any other source.   I don’t think I was alone in that assessment.

Atari was suspect to me after that. For the first time, but not the last,   they had let me down.   They allowed their  new found focus on marketing overtake their original focus on design and engineering.  They thought they could sell me anything.  They were wrong. My relationship with the brand would never be the same again.

Atari VCS Pac-Man was unquestionably the best selling game for the Atari VCS with 7 million units sold.    E.T. was close, coming it at Number 4 with 1.5 million. units sold.    There is no question that these games moved units (although both left a ton of manufactured and unsold inventory with 5 million unsold Pac-Man games and untold millions more E.T. carts). However, this story is not about sales.  It’s about nuance, and zeitgeist and the nascent beginning  of video game fandom and how it affected me, as pre-teenage kid smack-dab in the middle of the golden age of video games.

I felt like I was finally part of something.

I was in the 6th grade when VCS Pac-Man was released.  The move from elementary school to junior high was harrowing at best.  Friends were falling away like dead flies, older kids on cusp of adulthood were menacing at every turn.   Simple and fun things like P.E., assemblies, and lunch became abject nightmares in junior high.     In P.E., if someone left a locker open “coach” would make us march around the playground like recruits in Basic Training.    Assemblies, no matter the subject, were overshadowed by who you sat with, or around.  Hardly anyone cared what was happening on-stage, as it was the social atmosphere of the audience that mattered most, and tended to wear us down.   At snack and recess, the only activities were a hardcore version of handball played against the prison-like retaining walls of our tri-level school grounds, volleyball, which was reserved for only-the-strong, and hiding from the long-haired, bearded, 8th grade “burnouts” who felt the need to lock 6th graders in their lockers between smoking bowls and paging through the latest issue of “High times”.

It felt like there was no-where to turn in 6th grade, except the pages of Electronic Games, and my older mentors : Katz, Kunkel and Worley.

In those pages I found my refuge.

I poured every page, every month I received an issue. A different sense of reality hit me than what was happening at school or what Atari was trying to sell through it’s ads and marketing campaigns.

My favorite sections of the magazine were the one with letters from kids (seemingly) just like me, who begged for a response from our editorial heroes.   The pages of Reader Response and The Game Doctor,  were my first touch point with a larger community of like-minded people.   I wrote the magazine at least a dozen letters, hoping to read response in the pages of the magazine.

Bill Kunkel described the the affect this way:

“I think it gave the readers a sense of community. It was the only way they could really interact with us and with one another. And Q&A was, at that point, the nexus for all fan information on the world of gaming.”

-Bill Kunkel, Executive Editor Of Electronic Games Magazine (8bitrocket.com Interview) 

October 1982 Electronic Games

The first solid indication that Electronic Games magazine “had my back” as part of this new community of “video gamers” was in a response to letter written to them about their VCS Pac-Man review in their Septemeber 1982 issue.

The writer complained that as magazine if they “could not say anything good about a game, don’t say anything at all”.  The editorial response to this letter set the tone of the magazine for years to come.

“The editors of this magazine take strong exception to your closing comment. We feel it is our duty to report both the positive and negative aspects of everything.  If our reviewers don’t state their opinions honestly, how can readers trust their judgement when then praise a new cartridge”?

I recall distinctly reading that exchange in the Reader Response section of the magazine and nodding my head in agreement.    The Electronic Game VCS Pac-Man review was the first time (I saw)  a publication being truly honest about a video game, and their opinion matched mine.   I knew it would not be the last time.

Soon after, bolstered by letters like the one from Jim Carem in the October 1982 issue that begged for “More Reviews Wanted” I became a sort of “junkie” for game reviews.   Any review I could find, I’d read and ingest.  This begat a life-long love-affair with games journalism only subsided in the past few years when good games writing has  been mostly replaced by Metacritic, Twitch, Youtube and Podcasts.

 

Part 7: The Debut of Ms. Pac-Man 

About a year after the Atari VCS Pac-Man review appeared in electronic Games Magazine, they printed the following in July 1983:  

“Ms. Pac-Man is great piece of work, with all the appeal gamers could want” .

-Electronic Games Magazine

Atari had finally done it.  They put their minds to-it, and created a game that was, at the very least, an acceptable version of an arcade game.With their Atari 5200 console failing to light the world on fire, and the stiff competition posed by ColecoVision and it’s near arcade quality game ports,  they had their back against the wall.   Why was the game so much better than VCS Pac-Man?   Ms. Pac-Man for the VCS included far more cartridge ROM (8K) than Pac-Man and used bank-switching, which allowed for greater visuals.

This meant the game cost Atari more than other cartridges, but it was worth the price.    According to AtariProtos.com, Atari VCS Ms. Pac-Man was programmed by Mike Horowitz & Josh Littlefield from GCC, the company that programmed the original Ms. Pac-Man arcade game (first as an illegal mod to Pac Man, and then as an official game for Midway). GCC would go on to design the Atari 7800 console, and program the first set of impressive games for that system.

If only Atari had made that decision a year earlier, then,  possibly,  they would not have seen their fortunes fall so quickly and so dramatically.

I recall buying Ms. Pac-Man only after reading this review in the magazine.   In just a single year, I had gone from blind consumer of Atari’s marketing messages, to consummate consumer who used the popular media as guide for my entertainment purchases.

I was very pleased with Ms. Pac-Man.   It remains as, one of my all-time favorite Atari VCS game purchases.   Playing Ms. Pac-Man on the VCS elicited satisfaction that my old fascination with Atari was not “wrong”, and that they could still make good games, if only they put in the effort.  It gave me hope that one-day I too could work for Atari and make video games.     Not too long after, I traded up to an Atari 800 computer and taught myself to program games in BASIC. Atari was still in my blood, and it never left.

Part 8: Too Little Too Too Late

Atari’s fortunes were not affected just because they released a crappy version of Pac-Man for the VCS, their fortunes were affected because they released  a crappy version of Pac-Man for the VCS and , thanks to a newly established critical video game press,  the new community of “video gamers”  had the chance know about it before they bought it, and converse about it afterward.  A seemingly small detail, but a significant change that led to a whole new way Atari was covered in the press. While some Atari VCS games  did receive positive notes after Pac-Man, the damage was done.   In the pages of video game magazines after the Electronic Games Pac-Man review was published, there was  a general feeling of disappointment and discouragement with Atari products that still exists today.   Even though Atari managed to gain   back some respectability with solid versions of games for the VCS like Ms. Pac-Man, the damage was done.   In less than a year, the Zeitgeist moved away from Atari and toward other platforms and other companies.    Ms Pac-Man, however good  was too little too late.

And that’s why  May 11th, 1982 will live as the day Atari lost the video game war.

 

S-Town And The Age Of The Binge Podcast

A lot has been written online in the past week about the new podcast “S-Town” from the producers of Serial and This American Life.   “S-Town” seemed to drop out of the blue last week as a bingable, 7-episode monster of humanistic insight and emotion.   The story is about producer Brian Reed and his path of discovery after being contacted in 2014 by a reclusive Alabamian who wants help solving a murder.    That reclusive figure turn out to be John B. McLemore, an horologist (watch maker/time scientist) with seemingly the brain of genius and the life that I can only describe as “liberal hillbilly monk” for lack of a better term. You will understand when you start listening.

Nothing is as it seems in S-Town (“Shit Town” as the area is  described by John to Brian) and less said about the events that unfold the better.   If you enjoy any of the Gimlet Media podcasts (“S-Town” unfolds like a multi-part episode of one of my favorite podcasts from Gimlet, Reply-All), This American Life, Serial, or the like, you are bound to find “S-Town” thrilling and enthralling.

I think the best decision the producers made for “S-Town” was to release it  “binge” style, with all the episodes appear at once.  The story is so intimate,  delicate, and shocking, that it probably would not have worked serialized weekly.  There is too much to remember in S-Town, too much to forget, and too much to ponder to let each serving of an episode digest for too long before mixing it with a new one.    Sure, this means it is over too fast, and it leaves the listener with more questions than answers, but that’s okay. In an age when the IV drip of the 24 hour news cycle has us clamoring to find out next tiny bit of information that might turn things to our favor,  taking seven hours out of your life to hear a single, maze-like like story is transcendental by comparison.

You can preview the show below:

 

8bitrocket Retro-Game And DIY Game Development News Update

New Book About Atari 8-Bit computers!

A new book, Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation by veteran tech writer Jamie Lendino was released last week by Ziff Davis.    The book looks mighty interesting, but so far there is no news about the actual contents.  We here at 8bitrocket.com have copies jetting our way right now.  We will have a full review very soon.   Here is what the marketing blurb says about the book:

Atari 8-bit computers are the first machines that truly bridged the divide between video game players and home computer enthusiasts. The Atari 400 and 800 signaled the start of a new era in computing. Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation is the first book to cover what made Atari’s groundbreaking computer line great: its excellent graphics and sound, flexible programming environment, and wide support from the burgeoning home computer community.

Newsbits

Garage/Indie Hombew Game Development

Show And Podcast Highlights

 

Links:

As always, here is our growing list of links we find interesting.

Fultonbot’s 1983 Atari VCS Quest: The Absent Minded Collector

The “pile of stuff” in the photo to the left is a collection of 36 years worth of “absent-minded” Atari 2600/7800 collecting.   I say “Absent Minded”  as I was never really serious about  collecting games.  My feelings for the VCS/2600 and 7800 were what I would call “uncomfortable nostalgia”.   I loved my Atari video games in their halcyon days, but after I discovered computers, and after the original Bushnell founded Atari Inc. morphed into the Frankenstein’s monster of the Tramiel led Atari Corp., I was less thrilled by the thought of Atari.  As pointless as this may seem, I became more of an “activist” for the memory of the first great video game company than just a fan of the games.

This was especially true in the late 80’s, when Nintendo dominated and it felt like the entire industry I knew as a kid had been totally forgotten.  The whole “Atari buried games at Alamorgodo”  rumor that floated in the ether unconfirmed for so many years, bouncing around the echo chamber of Atari fandom, only made this image of a metaphorical “burial” feel more like a real, actual thing (which it turns out, it kinda actually was.)

By 1984, the era of “my” games was dead, put in the ground, and would never been heard from again.

Buried forever.

I felt like my devotion to the memory of Atari was a bit silly.   I questioned if the strong feelings I had for the games in my youth were just a factor of my limited resources, limited world view, and limited experience, more than anything that was really special about the era.  But then I was never truly convinced either way.

Over the years I have dabbled with retro Atari video games mostly through emulation.  The “game collections” that appeared with the PSX and PC in the 90’s, all the way through the recent releases on Steam and PS4/Xbox  were my idea of an comfortable compromise.   With those collections,  I could get a bit of the nuance of those old games,  and maybe have a laugh at them too.   They were not really “good” were they?  Compared to the 33 years history of gaming after the fall of Atari Inc., they were embarrassing, right?   They were 78 RPM records, Beta-Max, 8-Track Tapes: curious links to the past, but with no real relevance in the modern world.   Their impact on culture long-since forgotten, by-passed, or paved-over by the advent of post-modernity.

So I was absent minded about my collecting.   It felt like my love for Atari was more lyrical than practical, More poetic than playful, but at the same time, more important than simple nostalgia.  I didn’t want to make a checklist of games I needed , I wanted to make a checklist of feelings and emotions tied to my life growing up playing those games.   I wanted to figure out why Atari meant so much now, not just explore it’s impact 30 years ago. I wanted to  take a look outside to see  what factors led to the “meaning” I felt in my head,  even though from the outside it  have must looked look so silly and inconsequential.

In 2017, I’m being far more concrete about my love for Atari.  I’ve decided that I want to replace all the games I “lost” in the 80’s by embarking on a quest is to replicate my collection as it was in 1983. I’ve made an actual checklist, and I want to find some actual games. However, I still feel like I need to catalog my feeling about said games as I find them.   I have come to the conclusion, as well, that I ultimately want to find what is known as CIB versions of the games (Complete In Box), as opposed to loose cartridges.  However, I will collect a loose cartridge if that is the only choice.

From my search through all of the Atari stuff I found in the garage in the pile above, this is what I found:


2600 Loose

Football (M-Network Korea),AstroBlast (M-Network),Armour Ambush (M-Network) *2, Chopper Command (blue cart),Adventure *2 ,Video Pinball,Space War,Breakout (yellow text label),Donkey Kong,Berzerk *2 (one gross one okay),Super Challenge Baseball (M-Network),Space Jockey (vid-tec, us games),Football Realsports Soccer (1988),Space Attack (M-Network),Demon Attack (one silver one  blue),Encoungter At L-5,Video Olympics,Asteroids (Tele games),E.T.,Ms. PacMan,Atlantis,Trick Shot,Outlaw (no top label),International Soccer (M-Network),Grand Prix (blue),Haunted House,Moon Patrol,Star Castle,Space Cavern (no top label),Warlords (tele games),Ice Hockey (gross),Space Invaders (1980),Kangaroo (1987),California Games,Raiders Of The Lost Ark,Combat (01),Realsports Vollyball x 2 (1982 and 1987),Megamania (gross),Cosmic Ark,River Raid (Blue),Super Breakout,Bugs,SSsnake,Vanguard (1987),Boxing (Acitivsion blue),Riddle Of The Sphinx,Night Driver,Fire Fighter,Empire Strikes Back,Realsports Tennis (1988),Yars Revenge,Midnight Magic (red)

2600 Boxed

Commando,Realsports Football (1988),Battlezone (1983),Space Invaders (red 1988),Pac-Man (1988),Phoenix (1988),Dig Dug (1988),Ms. Pac-Man (1988),Galaxian (1983),Jungle Hunt (1988),Enduro (poor),Kangaroo (1988),Defender II (red 1988),Gravitar (red, 1988),Super Football (red, 1988)

 


So from the above, it looks like I have found about 1/2 dozen of my old games in boxes.   But if you looks closer, some of those games are not from the correct era.  Many of the games that have the date 1988  attached, and are  Atari Corp. (not Atari Inc.)  re-releases that have different packaging than the ones I had from 1981-1984.  If I want to be a true stickler about this, true my roots and true to the nuances of the classic games and packaging, I probably can’t accept those games as true representations of my quest.   If I could not buy it back in the correct era, it’s not a real replacement, is it?  The jury is still out and I reserve the right to change my mind because I’m making up the rules here.

After all of that, here is the current status of Fultonbot’s Atari VCS quest:

Current Quest Status (As Of 3/18/2017)

Color Coding Key:

X = No copy of any kind   
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era

Fantastic Voyage (20th Century Fox)

X

Fast Eddie (20th Century Fox)

 X

Turmoil (20th Century Fox

 X

3D-Tic-Tac-Toe (Atari)

 X

Adventure  (Atari) Loose

X

Air-Sea Battle  (Atari)

 X

Asteroids (Atari)    Loose, telegames, sticker

X

Basketball (Atari)

 X

Battlezone (Atari)   CIB  1983

X

Berzerk  (Atari)    Loose

X

Bowling (Atari)

 X

Breakout (Atari)    Loose

X

Canyon Bomber (Atari)

 X

Circus Atari (Atari)

 X

Codebreaker (Atari)

 X

Combat (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Defender (Atari)

 X

Dodge ‘Em (Atari)

 X

E.T.  (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Flag Capture  (Atari)

 X

Football  (Atari)

 X

Galaxian (Atari)   CIB  1983

X

Golf  (Atari)

 X

Hangman  (Atari)

 X

Haunted House  (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Home Run  (Atari)

 X

Human Cannonball  (Atari)

 X

Indy 500  (Atari)

 X

Jungle Hunt  (Atari)    CIB, 1988

X

Kangaroo  (Atari)    CIB, 1988

X

Maze Craze  (Atari)

 X

Midnight Magic (7800 Era)  (Atari)    Loose

X

Miniature Golf  (Atari)

 X

Missile Command  (Atari)

 X

Ms. Pac-Man  (Atari)   CIB, 1988

X

Night Driver  (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Othello  (Atari)

 X

Outlaw  (Atari)    Loose

X

Pac-Man  (Atari)   CIB, 1988

X

Pele’s Soccer  (Atari)

 X

Phoenix (Atari)   CIB,  1988

X

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Realsports Baseball (Atari)

 X

Realsports Football (Atari)   CIB,  1988

X

 

Realsports Soccer (Atari)

 X

Realsports Tennis (Atari)    Loose

X

Realsports Volleyball (Atari)    Loose

X

Sky Diver (Atari)

 X

Slot Racers (Atari)

 X

Solaris (7800 Era) (Atari)

 X

Space Invaders (Atari)    CIB, 1988 red box

X

Space War (Atari)

 X

Street Racer (Atari)

 X

Super Breakout (Atari)    Loose

X

Superman (Atari)

 X

Surround (Atari)

 X

Vanguard (Atari)    Loose, damaged

X

Video Olympics (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Video Pinball (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Warlords (Atari)    Loose, TeleGames

X

Yar’s Revenge (Atari)    Loose, sticker

X

Barnstorming (Activision)

 X

Boxing (Activision)    Loose, Blue Label

X

Chopper Command (Activision)  

X

Dragster (Activision)

 X

Enduro (Activision)    CIB, Poor

X

Freeway (Activision)

 X

Grand Prix (Activision)    Loose, Blue label

X

Ice Hockey (Activision)    Loose, dirty label

X

 

Kaboom! (Activision)

 X

Keystone Kapers (Activision)

 X

Laser Blast (Activision)

 X

Megamania (Activision)    Loose, dirty label

X

Pitfall (Activision)

 X

Plaque Attack (Activision)

 X

River Raid (Activision)    Loose, blue label
Not working

X

Robot Tank (Activision)

 X

Sea Quest (Activision)

 X

Skiing (Activision)

 X

Sky Jinks (Activision)

 X

Space Shuttle (Activision)

 X

Stampede (Activision)

 X

Star Master (Activision)

 X

Tennis (Activision)

 X

Journey Escape (Data Age)

 X

Lost Luggage (Games By Apollo)

X

Space Cavern (Games By Apollo)    Loose, sticker

X

Tunnel Runner (CBS Electronics)

 X

Donkey Kong (Coleco)    Loose

 X

Venture (Coleco)

 X

Atlantis (Imagic)    Loose, sticker

X

Cosmic Ark (Imagic)    Loose, sticker

X

Demon Attack (Imagic)    Loose, sticker

X

Dragonfire (Imagic)

 X

Firefighter (Imagic)    Loose, sticker

X

Moonsweeper (Imagic)

 X

Riddle Of The Sphinx (Imagic)    Loose, sticker

X

Star Voyager (Imagic)

 X

Armour Ambush (M-Network)

 X

Astroblast (M-Network)    Loose

X

Frogs And Flies (M-Network)

 X

Lock N’Chase (M-Network)

 X

Super Challenge Baseball (M-Network)    Loose

X

Frogger (Parker Brothers)

 X

Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (Parker Brothers)    Loose

X

Reactor (Parker Brothers)

 X

Gangster Alley (Spectravision)

 X

Planet Patrol (Spectravision)

 X

Communist Mutants From Space (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Dragon Stomper (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Escape From The Mindmaster (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Fireball (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Frogger (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Killer Satellites (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Phaser Patrol (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Suicide Mission (Starpath Supercharger)

 X

Fast Food (Telesys)

 X

Jawbreaker (Tigervision)

 X

Marauder  (Tigervision)

 X

Polaris  (Tigervision)

 X

Space Jockey (US Games)    Loose

X

So yeah, there is still a LONG way to go  in this quest.  Interestingly, I’ve just received a lead on a few more CIB (Complete In Box) carts that could put a significant dent in the missing games on the list.
I’ll have another update soon.

problem_solving_sheet

De-Motivational Engineering Problem Solving Worksheet from 1989 applies now more than ever

(warning, some adult language is in this post)

By Jeff Fulton (8bitjeff)

Problem Solving Flow Chart

Problem Solving Flow Chart

When my dad left his job at Hughes Aircraft in 1989, he gave my brother, Steve, and I a lot of advice and a whole bunch of de-motivational type stuff that had been hanging around his office.  We share the same sense of humor, so if you know me, then you know that I used to have some of the same style of stuff around my office at various jobs to keep the troupes laughing through the hard times. My favorite used to be the one with all of the hands laying on top of one another that said “Meetings, none of us is as dumb as all of us”.

One that Steve and I had hanging over our Atari computer at home said,
“To Error is Human, it Takes a Computer to Really Fuck Things Up”.

This one I found yesterday in a box of stuff in the garage.  I had actually preserved it pretty well in a binder, along with things like “Itchy and Scratchy Comic #1”, and my hilarious certificate from Mira Costa High School for achievement in Computer Class (a 1980’s computer class in high school was Romper Room compared to today).

In any case, this flow chart can be applied  to  to any job, it is pretty hilarious, and shows that not much has changed in the last 30 years. It is especially applicable to coding and engineering jobs, but I bet you will see parallels to every type of work.

It has now become my favorite of all time.  Enjoy. Share. Give Credit.

Ballad Of Atari: 1982-1984

Ballad Of Atari: 1982

E.T. And Pac-Man
Not The Worst, Yet Not The Best
The Gamers Notice

 

 

 


Ballad Of Atari: 1983

800XL
Flag Ship. Work Horse.  All That Jazz.
Cliches Of Awesome

 

 

 


Ballad Of Atari: 1984

GCC designs
The 7800
Last ditch hope for games

Dead End Game Development: There Is No Such Thing As Free Beer

 

Note: “Game Development Dead end” is new blog series where we tell the stories behind games that were never finished or released (most of the time,  for good reasons.)    For every game a developer releases, usually there are 10 more sitting 1/2 finished on their hard drive.  This series aims to let some those ideas, no matter how terrible, get their chance to live.

In 2008 we moved out of our house and into a hotel for 4+ weeks, waiting for the occupants of our new to vacate so we could move-in.     In that time, I wrote a blog named “Dispatches From A Transient Programmer” as I attempted to make game named “Free beer”. Here, for the first time, is whole sordid tale of the game Free Beer, with brand-new Epilogue describing why it was never finished.

 

 


JULY 6TH, 2008: DISPATCHES FROM A TRANSIENT PROGRAMMER #1: THE MOVE

I believe that crime stories in the local newspaper are written in way to make the reader feel more comfortable about their surroundings, no matter how awful the story, so that people will stay put and continue to buy newspapers. A good example of this is the use of the word “transient”. Sometimes I will read story about, for example, someone being stabbed on the street. “Oh my Lord, how awful” I think, but as read further, I see that the the author of the story describes the victim as a “transient”, and I feel a sense of relief. “Oh, well, that’s not me, only transients get stabbed on the street.” You see Transients are bad news. They don’t live any where in particular, at least not in your town, or they are just passing through. There is almost a sense that they deserve what they got because the word transient just sounds so negative. I bring this up because I, and my family have become transients. We are the enemy of society.

Let me explain. We decided to buy a new house a couple months back. We were running out of space for our 3 girls, and out of patience with our neighbors. We found a new house about 1 mile away, put in an offer, and things started rolling. Soon, our house was on the market and we sold it much quicker than we anticipated. The sellers of the house we were buying needed a long escrow, and when everything was said and done, we ended up with a 25 days between when we had to be out of our house, and into a new one. We now have a gap in our living arrangements and the world is simply not set-up for these kinds of gaps. We are now living in a hotel, and are in effect, transients…for the month of July. On the good side, we have no wired phone, gas, electric, water, cable, internet, long distance, or home security bills. We get free breakfast daily, and a access to a pool daily. On the other hand, I’m so used the cushy life of having a “home” that adjusting is very difficult. For instance, where do I have mail sent? My Goozex habit on hold. The Wii will not connect through the hotel Wifi, so no WiiConnect24. As well, hotel internet access is slow and it’s not encrypted. I can’t really do any late-night programming work without waking anyone up. Also, the TV channel section in the room is terrible. With no Disney Channel or Food Network our family’s TV habit will be severely hampered. I did locate some of the Disney Channel shows on the Disney XD web site, but so far I have not found any way to watch the Food Network online. Who got kicked out on “The Next Food Network Star” last night? F*ck if I know.

Anyway, this is the first dispatch from the transient programmer. I’ll have more inside information from the outskirts of society as it becomes available.


July 9th, 2008:  DISPATCHES FROM A TRANSIENT PROGRAMMER #2: FREE BEER

As a transient programmer (with a family) we are living in a “suite” hotel.  I never realized the the true purpose of these establishments until a few weeks ago when I went looking for a place for us to stay during our “gap”. At a regular hotel, you get a room, a couple beds, a bathroom, and the distinct feeling that you are paying too much for too little. However, this suite hotel is designed for extended stays. While it costs just about the same as any other fairly decent hotel (that is, far too much), it offers all sorts of useful amenities. First, they allow pets, so my girls can have their cat around. They also have free breakfast, BBQs and tables, a sports court, nice new plasma TVs in every room. They also have FREE BEER. Yes, that is right. FREE BEER. Four nights a week they have “happy hour” in which you can get a free (although fairly slim) meal, and FREE BEER. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of another hotel that gives FREE BEER, but we found one with FREE BEER.

The FREE BEER though, does not mask the fact that the internet connection is slow and shared by everyone. This must be what all the nay sayers were talking about when they said cable modems would be useless because everyone in the neighborhood would share the same data pipe. That situation never materialized at my old home. The cable modem was always fast…when it was up. Time Warner however could not guarantee any sort of uptime and that is why I switched to FIOS the day it came available. We were basking the in the digital glow of 15mbps for months in our old house, but now we are in a room sharing a single connection with 100’s of other guests. The slowness of the connection makes any sort if online development impossible. Everything has to be built off-line and tested offline, and then uploaded at the last possible minute for a final test in production. If something goes wrong, rolling back can take 10 times longer than I’m used to. It sucks.

Another oddity about staying in one of these long-term hotels is the people you meet who are also staying for a long term. On Monday I noticed a VP from our department sitting at a table during happy hour enjoying the FREE BEER. It just so happens that he is very friendly and one of the best VPs we have. He came over to talk to to my family comment on the FREE BEER. The funny thing was that he and his family are kind of in the same “transient” position were are in, however the scale is to such a different degree that it is laughable. While my family is scrimping, saving and struggling to edge-up to a slightly larger house to support the growing needs of our children, he is living in the hotel because he is having a mansion built in the best part of town but had to move out of the house he was renting (also in the best part of town) because it was sold in a foreclosure sale. He told us straight out that the “novelty” of the suite hotel would wear off quickly. So, while I’m beating myself-up trying to design some kind of game as quickly as possible that might make me a few extra $$$ to offset the cost of our current albeit odd, but inadvertently and expensive lavish housing situation, he’s lamenting the fact that the place is not really up to his usual standards. Oh well, for now the playing field is level. We both get the same crappy internet connection, we both have an awkward time time trying to explain to everyone we know that we no longer have a permanent street address, and four times a week, we get to enjoy the crisp taste of FREE BEER on tap. Did I mention the FREE BEER?


JULY 14th, 2008:  DISPATCHES FROM THE TRANSIENT PROGRAMMER #3: DIGITAL DREAM HOME?

I’ve been working for the past few days on a game to salute one of the “amenities” at the hotel here, namely the “Free Beer”. The game is named “Free Beer” and in it, you simply make an attempt to drink as much “free beer” as possible before you get too drunk to control the game. I’m not kidding. I should have it finished in the next couple days and then I’ll see if anyone has the “cajones” to sponsor it. If not, I’ll put it up here with a Game Jacket. I don’t think Mochi will accept it because it has mature content (sort of).

However, today I don’t want to write just about “free beer” again, but about the idea of a “Dream House”. While my family is currently biding their time until we can move into our next “dream home” we visited Disneyland today which purports to now have on display the ultimate “Dream Home“. Woe be to us if their idea of a “Dream Home” comes true though. Apparently to Disneyland (and their partners HP and Microsoft), a “Dream Home” is simply a bunch of nicely decorated rooms that consist of dozens upon dozens of HP branded LCD screens of every shape and size imaginable running various forms of Windows Vista. As well as being used for such mundane tasks and computing, watching TV and blogging on the internet, these these “screens” also take the place of photos, paintings, holiday decorations, board games, audio systems, security systems, climate control systems and any other task you can imagine an LCD screen attached to a Windows operating system might be able to perform. To some extent, the “Dream Home” elicited a faint “neato” from my brain as we walked through it. Especially the “story telling” room, which transformed into a showplace for the most amazing telling of Peter Pan my kids have ever been enthralled with. However, most of the rest of this “Dream Home” was simply exhausting.

Look, I’m no luddite when it comes to technology. I welcome plasma TVs and LCD displays for computers and lap-tops. They have crisp visuals,, take-up little space, and look really cool. However, the effect of dozens and dozens LCD screens in the Disneyland “Dream Home” showing family photos, famous art work (most likely rife with DRM), videos, etc. did not make us want to stay very long, but instead had us running for the exists. Some of the ideas in-fact, simply did not work as well as their real-world physical counter-parts. For instance, they tried to show how a camera and projection screen could replace a standard mirror. However, the effect was muddy and hard to see. A regular mirror would have been far better. On top of that, many of the LCDs were blue-screened with media errors and OS problems. It was a constant reminder that a virus or worm of significant threat would have this “Dream Home” rebooting and scanning more often than it was helping and entertaining. I’m not sure what final product the designers of this “Dream Home” were trying to create, but I’m pretty sure that the “Windows Kernel Error meets digital Cold-War bunker” loaf they pinched out was not what they intended. There is just so much virtual reality I can take before I feel like my head will implode.

Anyway, waiting to get into our own new “dream home” is excruciating. Even though it is certainly not on the scale of what Disney was trying to off-load, it is still a nice step-up from the veritable cave that had us crawling over each other just a couple weeks ago. The Disney Dream Home did teach me something though. We certainly don’t have to fill our new house with every gadget under the sun to be happy. If this experience has taught me one thing it’s that our family was “overly entertained” in our old house (something my wife has been trying to get through to me for many years). In the hotel we have one computer and about a dozen TV channels right now and everyone seems to be adjusting just fine. We certainly don’t need the “dream” of having an LCD screen of every imaginable configuration in every corner of our new house. While The Disneyland “Dream Home” did inspire me to buy a couple new digital picture frames, it will be long time before you’ll find an LCD screen in the backyard offering BBQ tips, or my family putting together a virtual jigsaw puzzle on on 50 x 50 LCD touch-screen. We’ll take the box of 500 pieces and try it on the floor, thank you very much.


JULY 21, 2008:  DISPATCHES FROM THE TRANSIENT PROGRAMMER #4: STUFF I TOOK FOR GRANTED: THEN AND NOW

Now that I have moved out of my single-family house, and I have been back visiting my parents often at their house where I grew-up, I realize that I will probably never be able to provide my kids with the same type of house that I grew-up in. Yes, I can get them a bigger house with more stuff, but I don’t think I can ever provide them the comforting nuances of in a 70’s/80’s suburban neighborhood. Given that, here is a list of “Things I took For Granted As a Kid Growing Up In A Single Family House In Middle-Class Neighborhood In The 70’s and 80’s”

  1. A Front Yard that could be played-in
  2. A Tree that could be climbed
  3. A long drive-way that could be used for multiple games and to park cars
  4. Visiting friends houses on the street and not having my parents worry about were I was going.
  5. A garage that balls could be kicked against, thrown against, etc.
  6. Room for a basketball hoop and game of one-on-one
  7. The freedom to ride my bike any where wanted
  8. My safe feeling of having my dad coming home from work
  9. Mom coming back from the supermarket with bags filled with food
  10. A street filled with single-family homes each with a front and back yard.
  11. A House with a regular address with only numbers (i.e. with no #A, 1/2. Unit 1, etc).
  12. Coming home when the street lights turned-on
  13. All kids sent outside to play instead of inside to play video games
  14. Available parking…on both sides of the street
  15. Walking places
  16. Marathon candy bars and Bubble-Up soda in a returnable bottle
  17. Big Wheels.
  18. Playing guns, ditch ’em, etc. at the local school and not having the SWAT Team called-in.
  19. > Zero Tolerance
  20. Paperboys with bad aim
  21. Playing Atari 2600 games and wishing I had one.

On the same note, now that I’ve been living in a hotel, I’ve realized that there are tons of things I simply took for granted when I owned my own place. Many of these are things that I never knew I wanted until I did not have them any longer. Now I can’t wait to get them back.

Things I Took for Granted When Living In a House And Not a Hotel

  1. My own parking space
  2. More than 13 TV channels
  3. Secure, encrypted Internet access
  4. A wired phone that did not charge 50 cents a minute.
  5. Light switches that turned on lights that they logically should turn on
  6. A temperature Control system that could be turned off
  7. My own artwork/photos on the walls.
  8. A place to have mail sent.
  9. My own garbage can.
  10. A place to wash clothes that did not cost $3.00 per load (including drying).
  11. A refrigerator that did not freeze everything.
  12. An oven
  13. A lock on my door I trusted
  14. A printer (I didn’t take mine)
  15. An answering machine
  16. A doorbell
  17. A modicum of privacy
  18. A junk drawer
  19. An array of readily available tools
  20. An unlimited supply of filtered drinking water
  21. Sunlight
  22. A bed that did not hurt my back
  23. Multi-ply toilet paper
  24. Removable coat hangers
  25. More than two chairs for 5 people
  26. The option to let the cat go outside
  27. The option to let the cat crap outside
  28. The sounds and smells of home
  29. Space to have people visit
  30. Being able to relax
  31. Fences and gates
  32. A sense of control

We still have 10 days on this Transient sojourn. It will be 10 days too many. I thought I would have a demo of the “Free Beer” game today, but that will have to wait until next time.


JULY 29, 2008:  THE TRANSIENT PROGRAMMER #5: THE LAST DAY, FREE BEER REVISITED

OK, so this happens to be the last day I will spend as a transient” programmer. By 7:30 tomorrow I will finally have another house to move-into. However, tonight has been pretty difficult. It’s 4:00 AM, and sleep is not coming easily. The hotel got old about 2 weeks ago. That is when my family started to notice little things that separate a hotel room from an actual home. First of all, no matter how they try to hide it, the hotel room is built on an unforgiving concrete slab. After a while you realize that, besides the decor and room separation, the actual building is one-step away from being a garage. Next is that aforementioned decor. I suppose if you are staying in a hotel for 1 or 2 nights, the decor is not really an issue. However, over 25 days it has time to sink-in. This room has the most offensive red and black striped carpet I have ever witnessed in any establishment. As well, the pictures on the walls, and furniture all match this color scheme with deadly accuracy. Honestly, it’s like a Freddie Krueger bachelor pad in here. As well, the low quality of the fixtures has become readily apparent with each passing day. The showers now dribble, the light sockets are falling our of the lamps, etc. It’s odd how we put up with these things though. If this was not a long-term stay, we would asked for another room weeks ago.

However, the one constant throughout the entire stay has been the FREE BEER. Nearly every night my wife and I have enjoyed a glass of FREE BEER. We have not gone over-board, and we have kept our consumption of the FREE BEER fairly low, but we still enjoy it. We may have stopped eating the food the hotel provides last week, but not the FREE BEER. The FREE BEER has never let us down. To that end, I have been developing a new game named FREE BEER to launch on the site. I’m not sure about the moral value of game where the main goal is to “capture” as much FREE BEER as you can before you run out of time, but while living in a hotel with fixtures that are falling apart, resting my feet on horror-movie carpet while trying to bide the time my 5th consecutive night of insomnia, it sure seems like a fun idea. My next transmission will be the Alpha version of the game.


March 24th, 2017: FREE BEER – EPILOGUE

Map Screen

There was never an “Alpha” version of Free Beer.   The game never saw the light of any day, and I’d pretty much forgotten about it for almost 10 years until last week when I decided I wanted to try-out this new column about Dead End Game Development.

When I searched this site for mention of the game, I was surprised to find that I created some pretty significant blog posts around the game.  If you made it through the above, you’ve read them all.

Free Beer was never finished for a multitude of reasons, but I think the most significant is that, when all is told, it was really only interesting to me when I was holed-up in that hotel, marveling at the free beer 4 nights a week.   Also, it was not a particularly good idea, and when you get down do it, was just a crass attempt to be “funny” but with no real humor.

Buy hey, this was smack dab in the middle of the “Flash Game Era”, when almost any idea, no matter how weird or crass, could become a hit game.

The game was pretty basic.  You use the arrow keys to move.  You try to “drink” (run over) as ,any beers as possible in the allotted time.    The more you drink the harder it is to control.   Each level adds new challenges to make it harder to finish. The “map” screen was placeholder.  I used an image-processed Google Map of my old neighborhood. The reasons for using my old neighborhood instead of new neighborhood are lost to time, but it leave me to speculate about my true mental state at the time: was I really happy about leaving?

I found another game on my hard drive related to this one.  It was named “Free Candy”, and it was dated in October 2008.  The only difference in the other version is that instead of disembodied head  you controlled a jack-o-lantern.

“Free Beer” was never meant to be.  It was one of my windmills tilted.  A flash of an idea born out of boredom and necessity to keep idle hands busy.  It falls into the category of  what I call a “vacation brainstorm”: the types of ideas that fill your head and seem plausible because you have removed yourself from your regular, daily schedule.   There was no audience for it.  No place where it worked.  Like most dead end game development projects, it lived a rich life inside my head and on my hard drive,   but no where else.    It’s story is really the story of transition.  Of being a a transient, and how that concept can play on a person’s mental state.  It’s less a game then, then a very personal view into my own mind in the summer of 2008.  A living journal of life in flux.

Click image below to play the Free Beer prototype:
(turn your volume down, as it starts loud and can’t be controlled in this version)

 

 

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