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Doug Neubauer


Muddled and cliched hopes to balance the checkbook and organize recipes aside, the real reason people walked out of computer stores in 1980 with brand new Atari 800 computers was to play Doug Neubauer's masterpiece, "Star Raiders." It was a game ahead of its time, the first of the real-time, 3-D space combat genre. Packed into 8K of ROM, "Star Raiders" featured smoothly scaling sprites, particle explosions, a rotatable 3-D "sector scan" display, and a level of interactivity that is rarely attained by similar, modern games: you can destroy your own starbases; enemy ships move around while you are looking at a full-screen "Galactic Chart"; you can shoot an asteroid, accelerate quickly, switch to a rear view, and watch the debris recede into space.

Before "Star Raiders," Doug worked at National Semiconductor. After being hired at Atari, he designed the POKEY chip for the Atari 800, which was responsible for I/O and audio. (The overall original plan for the 800 was created by Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir, and Jay Miner.) Later, while the Atari 2600 was slowly dying, he created some of its most technically amazing games, including "Solaris"--a follow-up to "Star Raiders" that, even on more primitive hardware, out-did the original on almost all counts.

Did you write any games prior to "Star Raiders?"

Only some unreleased games while at National--an untitled space game, and a really boring game named "Turtle Derby." The name was its best feature. After the Atari 800 came out, I wrote a pong game which tried to use every feature in the 800. The technicians used it as a diagnostic.

Why were "Turtle Derby" and the space game not released?

National canceled their video game system. Actually, it was supposed to be a home computer, and it was designed around the Intel 8080 CPU. I guess they were ahead of their time.

What games were you impressed by when you started work on "Star Raiders" in 1979?

I'm not sure. There were not that many. I remember playing a number of the 2600 games that the programmers were developing. I liked Warren's "Adventure" game. Mattel's football game had nice graphics for the time. And Al Miller's 2600 chess game. The amazing thing was chess in 128 bytes of RAM! I was the resident chess "expert", so I got to have some input on the game play. As it turned out, the game had a pretty aggressive style, which was unusual for the chess games of that time.

What was the atmosphere like at Atari at the time?

It was very laid back. Quite a shock, after coming from a big semiconductor company like National. I was ruined for life.

Where did the vision for "Star Raiders" come from?

The movie  Star Wars had come out right around that time. So I wanted to combine  Star Wars with the text-based "Star Trek" Game.

What made you decide to do a true 3-D game? That was unheard of in 1979.

Well, I wanted to play a 3-D space game--something that looked like real life, not like cartoon graphics, something that looked like  Star Wars or  Star Trek. There was a coin-op game that had just came out--I forget the name--which had a 3-D-like look to it, so there was a precedent.

Were the 3-D routines difficult to write? How did you come up with them?

I had to invent them, not having read Newman-Sproull yet. The 3-D transformation k = k*x/z was simple enough, but deciding the coordinate system (i.e. where is 0,0,0) took a little thinking. Also, I had to figure out the cordic-rotation algorithms, there not being any yet. I remember having trouble with the explosions. I wanted an explosion that looked real, not an animated cartoon explosion like everyone else did. However, my signed divide algorithms were terrible, and that's why the game would slow down whenever there was an explosion.

One of the most impressive and unequaled aspects of "Star Raiders" is that the game is always "live"; everything works no matter what screen is being displayed. For example, you can fire at enemy ships while looking at the sector scan and go into hyperspace when the map screen is up. How did you achieve this?

Actually, it wasn't very difficult at all. I used a 3-D software collision detect--I think a first for an Atari game--and I just never turn off the collision detect code. Also everything is still moving-- i.e. the game is still live--no matter what screen you are looking at.

How long did the game take to write?

About six months or so.

If you had had more than 8K of ROM to work with, what features would you have added?

I'm not sure. I was really tired of the game by the time I was done. This was very surprising, as the reason I wrote it in the first place was to have a 3-D space game to play.

Why was "Star Raiders" your last Atari 800 game?

Again, I'm not sure. I guess it was because all the action at the time seemed to be on the 2600. At Atari, I seem to remember that they didn't want the 800 to be seen as just a game machine; they wanted to compete with the Apple II.

How did you get involved with the Atari 2600?

As I recall, it seemed like that was where the big bucks were at, and everyone was doing 2600 games--Activision, Imagic, et al. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In a way it was more interesting programming the 2600 than the 800. Using a 6502 to race an electron beam across the screen is a lot harder than having a full-screen bitmap to play with.

What made you decide to attempt a "Star Raiders" sequel on the 2600, a machine less powerful than the one the game was originally written for?

I was better at doing space games than other types of games, and I prefer doing space games. In terms of power, both machines used the 6502, the 800 had a much better playfield, but only two more sprites than the 2600. Also "Solaris" actually had more ROM than "Star Raiders," 16K versus 8K.

Are there any parts of the "Solaris" code that you were particularly pleased with?

I liked the Saturn and the craters on the planet. I originally had some crummy looking craters. My cousin, a graphics artist for Marvel comics, helped me fix them up so they look a lot nicer, and he helped with a number of other graphics as well.

You were programming the 2600 in the late eighties when it was long considered a dead system by most people. Was this ever a concern?

I wasn't doing this full time. I was doing systems hardware design at a company here in Silicon Valley and just doing games on the side. Atari headquarters was only a couple of miles away so it wasn't difficult to contract with them. But I'm not sure why Atari still wanted games for the 2600.

You did some contract work for 20th Century Fox, back when they were in the video game business. What did you write for them?

I did three games for them under a pen name. One was "M*A*S*H," and I forget the name of the other two. Fox was more interested in quanity rather than quality, so they wanted their games cranked out in a hurry. The games weren't all that good as I remember.

What's the story behind your unreleased 8-bit Nintendo game?

Well, it's another space game. The working title was "Solarian Patrol." The unique thing about it was the graphics were all scanned images of model space ships. I went to a hobby shop and bought a number of model kits of jets, space ships, World War II tanks, etc., tore them all apart, and re-shaped them into unique space ships. One I remember that was interesting was a Borg ship, which I made by essentially taking all the leftover scraps--these models use a lot of plastic sticks to hold the real model parts--and gluing them together to form a large box. It looked pretty much like the real thing. I hung the ships from the ceiling with black thread against a black background and used a photographic spot light, simulating the sun, to give them a real look. With a camera and a video capture board, I scanned them into the computer and used various image processing techniques to pack them into the Nintendo. I thought the effect looked quite nice, however by the time I finished I had missed the market. Oh, well.

Have you played any of the "Star Raiders" descendants of the 1990s, such as "Wing Commander?"

Nope.

Could you ever imagine writing a game for, say, Windows?

I played around with some stuff on Windows, but it was too slow. Maybe Windows 95.

What are you up to these days?

I'm a hardware systems architect for a company that does video compression chips for the multimedia and telecommunications areas. I'm basically working with the MPEG H320 and H324 compression standards.

What is it you enjoy about writing games?

In a way its probably like making a movie. You take nothing and create something; and, hopefully, when you're done, it's fun to play.

Snippets of code from Doug Neubauer