Posted on April 28, 2017
I believe that I was born to be a computer programmer. Somewhere, deep in my soul, there is a need to organize my thoughts in ways that are both new and interesting, but also foundational and reusable at the same time. I’ve always felt that there is something atypical about this kind of work, and about the people who have chosen to do it. Not that it is better or worse than any other profession mind you, but that it was very unique, and at the same time both interesting and powerful.
However over the years, I have learned that this is not exactly a commonly-held belief.
Years ago (it seems like another lifetime now), a manager of mine was adamant that we create a “software development factory”. This person worked in Information Technology, but was never a programmer. This person (hence forth referred to as “IT”) was in love with “process”. “IT” had worked up through the I.T. ranks as an analyst at first, but had been able to cultivate the right look and absorb the right words to be promoted through past similar personalities into a position of real power.
At this one historic moment, “IT” was in the driver-seat of a team of managers and developers. I was one of them. The problem was, “IT” had no had no idea what our jobs entailed. Since “IT” did not like to think there was a concept,”IT” did not understand, “IT” decided to “improve” the team. “IT” had the bright idea that we should take a team of developers and create a “factory” out of them. In this person’s mind, programming was a rote exercise that could be turned into a repeatable process. In the “I.T.” view, programming did not take any real thinking. You took inputs, processed them, and created outputs. “IT” believed this was the most menial work possible, only important enough to be treated in the most dismissive of ways.
Suffice to say, “IT” and I did not get along. However, instead of rolling over, I tried to fight back.
- I argued up and down, and down and up, left ways and right ways that my team of developers were not factory workers, and they did not create widgets.
- I explained over and over that each project was different and required a unique solution that could not be picked off a shelf and plugged-in automatically.
- I created 100 page documents that described in detail how software development worked and how it was more iterative and creative than simply straight-forward and rote.
- I created diagrams of every type imaginable showing the tools, the process, and the creative thinking that went into designing software.
- I pasted images of all our work on the walls and in the conference rooms.
- We adopted SCRUM and Extreme Programming methodologies to show that development was iterative and not simple a step-by-step process,
- I hung statements from notable software designers and developers in the hallways.
- I brought in great software developers to teach classes on design and creative software development
In the end, of course, it did not work.
I was demoted.
My team was cut in 1/2, then 1/2 again.
Work was outsourced.
When it stayed internal, it was done by generic contractors instead of the type of hand-picked software wizards I knew would make the best developers.
Quality slipped, and so did deadlines.
The super-effective and proud team that I once led was turned into a hallow carcass.
This proved to me that there is a common misconception about what software development really entails. I’m not talking about “software support”, but real, honest programming. Truthfully, I don’t think many people outside of core development circles understand how software is made, or what it means to the people that do it.
Worse, this misunderstanding is not just superficial. It colors decisions made by people in the highest places of power. It’s ill-informed, destructive, and in some cases, could even be dangerous.
A few years ago, I decided to try to find out what other people have written on this subject. I was on a quest to find a way to describe programming that would make someone in “IT”‘s position understand the reality of “programming”.
I started at he top. One of the masters of computer science, Donald E. Knuth, wrote about The Art Of Computer Programming in 1974 (he is also the author of the widely read multi-volume set of books by the same name) . Knuth chose to describe programming as art:
“My feeling is that when we prepare a program, it can be like composing poetry or music…Some programs are elegant, some are exquisite, some are sparkling. My claim is that it is possible to write grand programs, noble programs, truly magnificent ones!”
“…computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.”
While his ideas on the subject are a close approximation of my own, I needed to try to find some other perspectives as well. With a little more searching I found this great article about Art And computer Programming, by John Littler. It contains many quotes from developers on the subject, as well a very relevant quote from none-other than Albert Einstein.
“After a certain level of technological skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetic plasticity and form. The greater scientists are artists as well.”
While both of these sources were awesome, I was not sure that “art” was the only description I was looking for. Programming may well be an “art” but it is also a “science” too, so just calling it an “art” is not quite accurate. Furthermore, calling it an “art” certainly would not have changed the mind of “IT” . In fact, “IT”, being of simple mind (in my opinion anyway) , would have probably just found that idea “elitist”, and dismissed it immediately. Because of this, I wanted to find another word that did not seem quite as lofty. I found it a few lines down in Littler’s article.
“To me, it relates strongly to creativity, which is very important for my line of work”
This , a quote from Guido van Rossum (the creator of the Python programming language), was getting closer to what I wanted to read. Being “creative” was certainly necessary for art, but it was also necessary for many other pursuits. “Creativity” could describe a beautiful painting, as well as an effective strategic battle plan, or even the solution to complex problem with no clear-cut answer. To me, software development involved at the very least, all three of these things. I decided to follow this line to see where it would take me.
Over at AnswerBag.com, I found that someone named “guitar man” had asked this question: “Is computer programming creative? or is it a just an analytical type process? ”
There was one answer, and it came from a guy with the very creative name: “Jeztyr – whispering in the ears of kings” :
“Programming is an art form that fights back. It requires creativity to solve the seemingly unsolvable, and analysis to make it better, faster, more efficient. A lot of programming is mundane, ritualistic stuff, but other times it’s rewardingly convoluted.”
This answer really hit home with me. I liked the use of the words “creativity” and “analytical” at the same time. However, the best word for me was “convoluted“. Some how that word seemed to describe the software development process in a way that I had never considered before. I decided to look-up the word “convoluted” on Dictionary.com. Here is what it said:
con-vo-lut-ed: Adjective: complicated; intricately involved: a convoluted way of describing a simple device.
“Hmm.” I thought. I then looked at the synonyms: “elaborate,
All of these words seemed to point to something that was underlying all of this, but not quite yet on the page. Yes, software development is “intricate” and “elaborate”, but the words “tangled” and “baffling” also stood out to me. Those words seemed to describe to me the state of “software development” when you know the problem you need to solve, but you don’t yet know how to solve it. It is also the same part of the process that can require a creative “spark” to surmount, and once a solution is in place, the process becomes more scientific. This limbo state of development always seemed to the most “unordered “to me the most…chaotic.
I then recalled something from our time dabbling in SCRUM (a software process that embraces change instead of pushing back on it). The phase was “controlled chaos“. While the SCRUM definition was not necessarily what I was looking for, the term seemed to be appropriate. Software Development was an ever-evolving process of taking chaos and creating order. Creating order from chaos is not an easy thing to do, but it is something that certain individuals (including many talented programmers) thrive upon.
I searched for some thoughts on this, and I found one that was so blunt and and final, even “IT” could have internalized it. Software Engineer Robert L. Glass described his role this way:
“Eat Chaos, Poop Order.”
In the most base way possible, Glass had crystallized my thoughts on software development. He continued to clarify his position.
“Chaos and order are the theme of my life. I consume one and produce the other.“
I could not agree more.
At this point, I seemed to have come to the end of my journey. All of these quotes I had found sort of swirled around in my head until I came to a realization of what it all meant to me, and it is the following:
“Programming is at once, both disciplined, and undisciplined . You must follow some rules, but also strive to break others if you want to make breakthroughs and discover new ways to make better software. It truly is art and science mixed, however the amount of each depends on the problem you are trying to solve. However, there is something else. Programming is like making sense of the senseless. It starts as chaos,and through sheer will of the mind, that chaos is organized into something amazing. It is also a stunningly enjoyable profession that feeds your mind and soul at the same time. In my nearly 30 years of programming experience, the initial surge of energy I feel when sitting down to start developing a new program has never dissipated nor has the sense of satisfaction when the last line of code is written and I hit the [Enter] key for the final time. If anything, the process has only grown greater and more important as the years slip by. In the final analysis, far from being a rote exercise, creating software just might be the the ultimate creative medium. With the proper knowledge, creativity, and computer power, you can build almost anything you can imagine. ”
It was long-winded, but I was satisfied with my answer. However, if I had been able to express these thoughts properly all those years ago, would I have been able to change the mind of someone like “IT”, and finally prove the reality of software development to someone in power?
Probably not, but at least I proved it to myself.
(originally posted June 9, 2009)
Posted on April 26, 2017
(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?
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.
Posted on April 23, 2017
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)
Posted on April 5, 2017
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.
-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.
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 Command, Demon 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
“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”.
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.
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.
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 Command “one 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), Megamania “Activision 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).
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 Zaxxon “the 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.
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
I have to admit it. I bought VCS Pac-Man game even after reading the review in Electronic Games Magazine.
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.
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)
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.
Posted on April 2, 2017
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:
Posted on March 20, 2017
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.
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:
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)
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
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.
Posted on March 19, 2017
(warning, some adult language is in this post)
By Jeff Fulton (8bitjeff)
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.