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Warren Robinett


Warren Robinett worked for Atari in the early days of the 2600, the sole designer and programmer of the cartridges "Slot Racers" and "BASIC Programming." But he is most remembered for hiding his name--the first easter egg--in 1979's 2600 classic, "Adventure." Secret messages aside, "Adventure" was a fine game, a true graphical role-playing game (not simply a role-playing game with graphics) that's still fun almost twenty years later.

After leaving Atari, Warren wrote the innovative and well-received "Rocky's Boots," an educational title for the Apple II. More recently, he has been involved in virtual reality.

Had you done any programming prior to "Slot Racers"?

Well, as a student at Rice and Berkeley I had done some programming. I had a major at Rice called "Computer Applications to Language and Art" and first got into computer graphics there. Then I had a job in Houston with Western Geophysical as a FORTRAN programmer dealing with navigation data. I got an MS in computer science in 1976 at Berkeley. However, I had never done any software products prior to "Slot Racers."

What were the feelings at Atari at the time?

It was a cool job to have. For me, it was like dying and going to heaven. They were paying me to design video games. And then publishing them, the significance of which I did not fully understand until later. My salary started at $18,000 per year and rose to $22,000. There were no royalties or any share of the sales at that time.

I believe that Atari in the early days succeeded because the games were labors of love by the programmers who worked on them. At least that was the case with my games for me. In those old far-off days, each game for the 2600 was done entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics--drawn first on graph paper and converted by hand to hexadecimal--and did the sounds.

Were the programmers happy with the way things were being run?

The programmers were pretty happy with game design as a job. But after it became apparent that our group of about twelve programmers--the whole 2600 game design team--were making hundreds of millions of dollars for Atari, it seemed unfair. In 1979, Atari seemed to be the only game in town, but within a couple of years, four members of that group spun off to form Activision, and the next year several more left to form Imagic.

Perhaps some names are in order here. The hardware design team for the Atari 2600 was led by Jay Miner, with Joe Decuir as his right-hand man and Doug Neubauer and another hardware guy. These guys all designed the circuitry on the circuit board and in the custom chips in the 2600. There were two more guys who did the chip layout--one was Steve Stone--because at that time chip layout was not automated, it was done by specialists who translated each circuit to little patterns of rectangles on a big master board. I think they used red cellophane.

Joe Decuir, a hardware engineer, did one of the early 2600 games, "Video Olympics," which showed off the things the 2600 was designed to do. Jay Miner once told me that the 2600 was designed to do "Pong," "Tank," and "maybe a few other games." The 2600 turned out to be extremely flexible and hundreds of other games were done, of course.

Larry Kaplan did the tank game, which was called "Combat." Larry was the manager of the 2600 games group when I was hired. I remember my first day at work. Larry said "Your job is to design games. Now go design one." That was it. No guidance about game concepts. He also told me the people in marketing were idiots.

Alan Miller was another programmer in the group of four 2600 programmers who was there when I started work in November 1977. I believe the original four were DeCuir, Kaplan, Miller, and Bob Whitehead. It's hard to remember all the games done by everybody, but a few stand out because they introduced something new. Al Miller did the "Basketball" cartridge that had a very active algorithmically- controlled opponent. One of the first AI's in video games. It was crude graphically, but very much a precursor of Electronic Arts' "One on One." Bob Whitehead did "Homerun" and "Chess."

At the time I came on board, four programmers were hired more or less simultaneously. The others were Jim Huether, who became my office mate, Dave Crane, and I forget the other; he didn't stay long. Huether did a game called "Hunt & Score." Crane did one with cactuses and covered wagons in it; he was from Arizona.

Did you see game programming as a creative endeavor or simply a job?

Yes, it was a sexy job. It was a cool new thing. As I would say now, a new medium. I worked really hard on my games. They were labors of love. I got to work about 11:00 and usually worked till seven or eight. Sometimes til 2:00 or 3:00am. I remember riding my bicycle home from Atari in Sunnyvale to Menlo Park, which was thirteen miles. After a really productive night of hacking with nobody else around, there would be few cars at 2:00am as I rode past Moffett Field and down Middlefield Avenue and my mind would be going a hundred miles an hour thinking about what I was going to add next to my program.

What made you decide to attempt something as ambitious as a BASIC interpreter for the 2600?

The higher-ups at Atari wanted a cartridge that would allow the user to learn simple programming, and I had been vocal in expressing my interest in doing a programming language before management came up with this. I was the only 2600 programmer who had studied computer science. Also they wanted cartridges that used the new keyboard peripheral, instead of the joystick.

The 2600 had only 128 bytes of RAM, 4K of ROM for the program, and a 1MHz 6502 processor. It was pretty challenging to do any game on it, much less a BASIC interpreter. However, by that time I was pretty experienced on the 2600. I used a twelve character-per-line alphanumeric display routine written by Dave Crane; this may not sound like much, but it was the outside of the envelope for the 2600. My goal was to interpret one token per frame so that the computation could be displayed on the screen as it progressed.

How did the concept for "Adventure" develop?

I played the original text adventure, written by Don Woods and Willy Crowther, at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1978. This was while I was working on "Slot Racers." Then it was time to do another game, and I thought that doing "Adventure" as a video game would be really cool.

There were some tricky problems. Text adventure used verbal commands like "Go North" or "Take Wand" or "Wave Wand." How could I handle all those different commands with just a joystick with one button? My idea was to use the joystick for the North/South/East/West commands, the button for picking up and dropping objects, and touching graphical objects together on the screen for all the other miscellaneous actions. This worked pretty well.

Then instead of describing each room in text, I would show it on the screen, one room at a time. Driving off the edge of the screen was the analog of "Go North" or east or whatever. This allowed the game to have a much larger playing space than a single screen, which was a big change in the feel of a video game.

How did you decide on the particular objects found in the game?

There was always a cursor that represented the player from the earliest implementation. I called it "The Man." One of the first things I did was to create the dragons that chased you from screen to screen. They were pretty fun but it wasn't a complete game yet.

There had to be some means of countering the dragons, which tried to eat you, hence the sword which killed dragons--using 2-D overlap on the screen as the equivalent of the text comnmand "Kill Dragon."

The bat, which flew by and stole what you were carrying, was a good idea. It added a bit of unpredictability to the game. However, I used no random generation of monsters, because I wanted the feel of a real place, where all the creatures and objects had specific positions and behaviors all the time and were not just spit at you out of nothingness according to some random number algorithm.

The 2600 hardware constrained me to having the left and right halves of the screen be mirror copies, as far as the background of the screen went. These became the walls in "Adventure," through which you could not pass. I was not sure initially that I could create an assymetrical maze from symmetrical pieces, but I found that I could.

The bridge was created to allow occasional crossing of the walls in the mazes. The catacombs, where the walls and the background were the same color, were easy to implememt but difficult to mentally integrate into a coherent picture.

The magnet was created because of a bug. Sometimes the key to a castle would get dropped inside a wall and be unable to be picked up, so the magnet, which attracted other objects, was a solution to that problem.

Were there any features that you wanted to add, but never got around to?

Not really. I had a creature called a roadrunner for a while, a bird that ran around, but I could never figure out what it should do, and I decided to remove it rather than leave an object with no function in the game.

How long did it take to write?

I started in May 1978 and worked like a madman for a month. My boss, George Simcock, heard what I was working on and didn't think I could do it within the 2600 resources and told me not to do it. However I ignored him and had a prototype with screen to screen movement and dragons chasing you after a month of hacking. But I exhausted myself and went on vacation for a month. When I came back, I was told that Marketing liked the game, but that since Warner, Atari's parent company, owned the first  Superman movie which was about to come out, that I was to change "Adventure" into "Superman" so as to ride on the wave of hype. Every time this came up I said I would do it if I had to, but I didn't want to. After a few weeks, my co-worker John Dunn volunteered to take my code and do the "Superman" game, leaving me free to do the "Adventure" game. And that is what happened.

I had "Adventure" sort of done in the fall of 1978, but I wasn't satisfied. I sort of put it on the shelf for the next six months while I did the "BASIC Programming" cartridge, and finished them both simultaneously, in June 1979. Then I quit Atari. I guess I was burned out. Or maybe it was that I had $10,000 in my savings account for the first time in my life. I remember I told my friend Julius, "I have enough money to get drunk two-thousand times." Anyway, I went to Europe and traveled around with a backpack. I was 27 when I left Atari.

What made you decide to hide your name in "Adventure," and why did you choose the method that you did?

Each 2600 game was designed entirely by one person. But on the package it said basically "Adventure, by Atari." And we were only getting salaries, no cut of the huge profits. It was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting. But to make it happen, I had to hide my signature in the code, in a really obscure place, and not tell anybody. Keeping a secret like that is not easy. I decided that if I could not keep the secret myself--I was very tempted to tell my two main friends at Atari, Tom Reuterdahl and Jim Huether--how could I expect anyone else to keep the secret? So I didn't tell anyone, handed over the final version of the program, Atari manufactured and distributed several hundred thousand cartridges of "Adventure," and then it was too late for them to undo it.

Of course, an adventure game, with multiple rooms, is perfect for secret things, because it's easy to make extra rooms that are really hard to get into.

How was your name first discovered in the game?

I believe that the secret room was discovered independently quite a few times, since there was a pretty strong clue to the existence of the Gray Dot, which was needed to get into the secret room where my signature was. The first person I know of was a fifteen-year-old kid from Salt Lake City who wrote a letter to Atari explaining exactly how to get into the secret room, and asking for Atari's comments.

How did Atari react when they found out about it?

I expected that they would expunge it, since I was no longer an employee. But since it cost $10,000 to make a new ROM mask, they never took it out. The games group leader at the time referred to the hidden surprise as an "Easter Egg." He thought that having Easter Eggs added value to the games.

Have you ever given any thought to a sequel to "Adventure"?

Yes, a great deal of thought. "Rocky's Boots" was originally intended to be an adventure game where you built machines to defeat the monsters. But it evolved in a different direction.

What led you into virtual reality?

I had always thought it was a cool idea since I learned about what Ivan Sutherland did when I was an undergraduate. Then I got a chance to work on it at NASA.

Do you ever look at your old 2600 games?

Every once in a blue moon. To tell you the truth, I've been married for three years now, and my wife has never seen a 2600 game. I guess that's not very often. I have a 2600 and all my games in a box in the attic.