Back to the Table of Contents
View entry in Giant List

Steve Hales


Before Electronic Arts came on the scene, Synapse was the company for the Atari 800 and C64. They had a long string of fantastic and original titles: "Shamus," "Necromancer," "Alley Cat," and "Rainbow Walker," to name a few notable names.

Steve Hales was at Synapse from the early days and wrote two of their hits: "Slime" and "Fort Apocalypse." He also wrote "Dimension X," a first-person game built around a highly-publicized graphics trick called "altered perspective scrolling" that was announced years before it was available. And he was there to see Synapse's demise after the crash of 1983-4.

How did you start programming?

My first programming experience was on a Nova 210 minicomputer from Data General that was donated to my high school. From there I worked on the TRS-80 Level 1 and 2, and in 1978 I bought an Apple II. That's where I learned the bulk of my 6502 programming experience, by hacking other programmers' software. I got my first real programming job in 1981 programming the Atari 2600 for Starpath. I learned all about software based video controls, timing, interrupts, all the really cool hardware bit pushing. In early 1982 I got an Atari 800 mainly because the hardware was designed by the same guy who built the Atari 2600, and I thought it was so cool. In fact, there are many similar features. The audio is almost the same, the video system has pieces of it.

Do you remember any cool 2600 programming tricks you used?

The coolest trick I used for "Suicide Mission" was to set up a player graphic to display its images in threes and then change the data of each extra copy to something new before the display hardware could display the copy. That's how we got a large bitmapped field for suicide mission.

How did you hook up with Synapse?

A high school friend of mine, Mike Potter, had hooked up with Synapse. When I left Starpath he introduced me to Synapse's founder, Ihor Wolosenko. Synapse at the time was in his apartment in Berkeley, California.

Where did the idea for "Slime" come from?

Ah "Slime," the green sludge from outer space. This was a project that was in trouble. Synapse had already had a programmer working on this project, and he kind of decided it was time to leave. Unfortunately for Synapse they had already created ads and made boxes. I was asked to take over and finish the product. Since it was not really even very close, I started over from scratch and worked with Ihor Wolosenko, the designer, and finished the game. To this day, I still think it's my best programming for a console game.

So to answer your question, where did it come from? Oh boy, my best guess is from one of Ihor's very creative sessions. My view was it's "Missile Command" meets alien acid rain.

What's the Synapse secret? How were they able to come out with so many stellar games?

The secret was Ihor Wolosenko. He is a very dynamic persona, very creative, and, at the time, very passionate about games. You could consider him a Steve Jobs equal, but for the games business. Every product that Synapse produced had Ihor's touch. I believe that because of Ihor our quality was better, the designs were more unique, and I was pushed beyond what I thought was possible.

How did Tim Boxell, the Synapse box artist, get involved with Synapse?

Tim was a friend of Ihor Wolosenko's. With all the art Tim did for Synapse, I never had the pleasure of meeting him. He did great original work and created the look for Synapse. Slightly on edge, always irreverent.

After writing Slime, what made you decide to do something as complex as "Fort Apocalypse"?

"Fort" was my idea, but working with Ihor it became ours. It originally came from a dream that I had about helicopters and such. Many people have compared it to Broderbund's "Choplifter" as a clone. The truth is I had developed an initial version before doing "Slime," and at least six months before "Choplifter" came to the market. The game was inspired by the movie  Blue Thunder and my own bent for creating games that were kind of off the wall. Complexity was never an issue for me. I was always trying to push the envelope. Sometimes I did and sometimes I did not.

How did you react upon first seeing "Choplifter," after your initial work on "Fort Apocalypse"?

My reaction was: "Why did I stop working on Fort?" I actually was working on it four months earlier, but stopped to work on "Slime." It was my first experience in which the same or similar idea was created at the same time from completely different sources. I think "Fort" is a much better game because of the very opposite reason "Choplifter" is cool. "Fort" was never meant to be a real simulation. If I wanted real, I'd go outside. I wanted to do something in a game that I'd never be able to do in real life. Flying machines underground would never happen, so it was interesting.

Was it difficult to write?

I spent maybe six months total on "Fort." It was my third commercial title, and it came very quickly. I liken it to writing a book. You get into a groove and it just flows. The hardest part was the AI for the enemy RoboChopers. It's not very good, but it works okay. The other hard part was tuning the game for play. The very first version we had shown at CES in 1983 was very hard to play. The first level was different, and we changed it after too many people complained.

Did the design for Fort Apocalypse change during the course of the project?

Somewhat. The original idea remained the same, but the tuning changed the game--made it much more fun and interesting. The only thing I wish that would have gotten into the design was more levels. Originally I had planned for fifty levels. But since we wanted to put it onto a cartridge instead of disk, I only had room for two. I spent almost two weeks working on compression methods, but could only get two levels. The ROM was only 16K, and I believe there were only a few bytes left.

How well did the game sell?

It sold well. Over 75,000 copies on the Atari 800 and I believe well over that on the Commodore 64. More people know the game from the C64.

So what's the Dimension X story? It was one of the first games to be delayed for years...

Yeah, and I've taken all kinds of flak for that too! We had a cool graphic display, but no game. Ihor and I tried to create a game, but it just wasn't fun. We ended up with a B+, or even a C game. One of the first lessons in game design I ever got. Fun is hard to create, and sometimes you get lucky.

What exactly is the secret to "Dimension X"'s "altered perspective scrolling"?

There was an area of the display that had an interrupt on every line. During that time a one pixel line that looked like a checkerboard was displayed. The checkerboard bitmap near the bottom was larger (XXXOOOXXXOOOXXX), and near the top was smaller (XOXOXOXOX). This created the illusion of depth. Left and right motion was created using hardware scroll registers. It was very Atari dependent and ultimately caused most of the problems in the design of the game. It was limited and cumbersome to support, but it was cool looking. The original idea for the display came from Stephen Landrum, one of the geniuses I worked with at Starpath.

Why did Synapse decide to get into the Interactive Fiction market?

Initially, William Mataga and I approached Ihor and convinced him the market had shifted towards that type of game and the current leader, Infocom, had old technology. We figured we could create games much more compelling and complex on as many platforms as we wanted in about twelve months. We were right and wrong. We built some great games in about twelve months, but the market crashed, and nobody was interested in Interactive Fiction when we shipped.

What were the reasons for the demise of Synapse?

In 1983 Synapse was doing pretty well. We were working on the Electronic Novels. The markets were changing quite a lot, and Synapse took a risk and started developing business software for the Atari: a spreadsheet application, a database application, and terminal software. The products were finished, and we entered in a collaboration with Atari, which was still owned by Warner. That year Atari posted a billion dollar loss, and they came down very fast. Almost overnight, and with no cash Jack Tramiel, who had been the owner of Commodore, bought Atari. I think Warner wanted out, and he made them an offer they could not refuse. Since Synapse had a contract with Atari, now the Tramiel family, we delivered on our promises and shipped about 40,000 copies of various applications to Atari. Tramiel has a history of not paying people and letting the issues be resolved in court and that's what happened.

Synapse had made a calculated business risk and the new Atari failed to pay us so we were thrown into a cash crisis. Once this spiral started, the only solution at the time was to sell out our remaining products that had not shipped, the Electronic Novels, to Broderbund. Synapse was owned by Broderbund for another year while we tried to sell the Electronic Novels, but the market had already changed too much to make any money, so Broderbund shut Synapse down.

What have you been up to since then?

Oh lots of things, but the most cool right now is I'm the co-author of a software-only synthesizer that sounds like a $200 sound card, but will work on any $20 sound card. Jim Nitchals and I started a company, Igor's Software Laboratories, in November of 1995 and licensed our engine to WebTV Networks, and Be, Inc. for the BeOS. It plays MIDI, AIFF, WAV files, and even MOD files. Our technology has also been in over fifty Macintosh games. Now we're going multi platform. Our hope is to level the playing field for audio. We just announced that we have merged with Headspace, Inc., a company founded by Thomas Dolby of "She blinded me with Science" fame. Together we are creating the ultimate music authoring system for the web and for personal computers.

What happened to Ihor?

Last year [1996] he worked on some cool technology for Maxis, and now he's living in Washington state doing many things other than technology.

Do you ever get together with other ex-Synapse people? What are they doing now?

Absolutely. Some of them have disappeared, but we occasionally talk on the phone. I've been talking about a reunion sometime. Most of them are still working and influencing the software business, but a few are doing completely other things.

Synapse was a defining experience for me. When I've moved on to other projects, I look back at that experience and say "Wow, that was good." I see it as what it must have been like to work at Apple during the building of the Macintosh or the Apple II.

Do you ever feel the urge to write another game?

Oh, yes. But the days of one or two programmers creating a game are over, and its just not the same to create a game with 20 people who don't really care that much. To do a commercially viable game today costs about million dollars. On the positive side, I have created about a dozen games on paper and have filed them. So perhaps one day I'll do something interesting with those designs.

Do you think the game industry is more exciting or less exciting than it was in 1982?

Well that depends upon where are you in a company. If you're the founder or a member of the founding team it's great, because the money flows, the ideas are there, there's extreme excitement to be able to build a company. If you're a programmer or artist working for a large game developer or publisher, it's probably hell because the pressure is on, there's no big reward anymore, and you don't get to contribute that much.

However, if you're a programmer or artist, I'd still recommend this industry in a flash. It's fun, intense, and if you stick with it long enough, more than five years, the opportunities happen.