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Tim Skelly


In the late 1970s and very early 1980s, Cinematronics was a major presence in arcades thanks to a series of pure action games using trademark black and white vector graphics. And Tim Skelly pretty much was Cinematronics, having a hand in almost every game released since their initial hit, "Space Wars." He single-handedly created "Starhawk," "Warrior," "Rip-Off," and "Armor Attack," designed "Star Castle," and acted as producer--and did the cabinet art--for "Tailgunner." That's a weighty list: "Rip-Off" was the first two-player cooperative game, "Warrior" the first fighting game, and "Tailgunner" had 3-D graphics before "Battlezone" and "Star Raiders." After leaving Cinematronics, he went independent and developed the esoteric "Reactor" for Gottlieb.

Since his coin-op days, Tim has been all over the place doing everything from screenwriting to working for the Sega Technical Institute. At the time of this interview he was with Microsoft Research, but he has left for parts unknown.

How did you get involved in the game industry?

After graduating from Northwestern in 1973 with a degree in Radio, Television and Film, I found it next to impossible to find work. So for the next three years I made sandwiches in a small restaurant/bar in Kansas City, Missouri. I was still pursuing career opportunities in cartooning and filmmaking, but really my job was making sandwiches. I had been interested in computers since high school, 1965-1969, and even took courses in logic and assembler language programming--punch cards--at the University of Akron. However, much to my chagrin, had I known about it, the microprocessor had still not become commonly available. Hence, three years of sandwiches.

One evening in 1977 a guy walked into a bar with an orange shoebox under his arm. No, this is not a joke! The orange shoebox was a Poly88 computer. The guy planned to open a store that offered play time on these early PCs, sort of like an arcade with chairs. Anyway, when he came into the bar I thought I'd hit him up for a gig painting the sign for his store. Eventually I did paint the sign, but I also spent a year writing computer games.

That was the beginning.

How did you come to work for Cinematronics?

I never intended to spent the rest of my life in Kansas City, much less making sandwiches. Programming games in BASIC on an 8080-based computer wasn't bad, but it wasn't good enough to make me want to stay. Through some friends who were game operators, I got a copy of  Replay magazine's directory issue. I thumbed through it and sent resumes to every game company, and there were zillions doing post-"Pong" knockoffs in 1978, located in sunny California. I only remember two who replied to my letter, although I think there were a couple of others.

The two I remember were Sega and Cinematronics. At that time, even though it was an American company, Sega in America was only a shipping and distribution center for the games it manufactured in Japan. As such, I have no idea why they wanted to talk to me, although I did end up working for them a few years later. Cinematronics, on the other hand, appeared to be desperate for talent. Here's why:

Cinematronics started as yet another "Pong" knockoff company. In 1977 Larry Rosenthal, a former MIT student, turned up on their doorstep with the hardware and software for a coin-operated version of "Space War." Larry had played the original version at MIT and loved it. To his credit, he licensed the game for arcade use and developed the first commercial vector display for arcade games. After taking "Space Wars" to several companies, all of whom took a pass, he came across Cinematronics, a company desperate for new product after the end of the "Pong" era. In one of the most remarkable deals in arcade game history, Larry and Cinematronics agreed to split profits fifty-fifty. Larry provided the hardware and software, Cinematronics supplied manufacturing and distribution.

When I turned up, "Space Wars" had been a top seller for almost a year. The owner of the company knew little about programming and after a brief interview he sent me to be interviewed by Larry. I was struck by the fact that Larry seemed to have little interest in my qualifications or anything else about me for that matter.

After I returned home I received a call saying that I had been hired and would I come out to El Cajon, CA--just east of San Diego--as soon as possible. It takes about four or five days to drive to San Diego from Kansas City, depending on how much time you want to spend driving each day. It's not a long time, but when I checked in at my new job it became apparent that it was more than enough time to turn everything upside down.

Larry Rosenthal was gone. So was one of the company's salesmen. More importantly, so were all traces of hardware and software development tools and documents. Larry had been looking for a replacement because as soon as he found one he was taking his profits, moving to the bay area, and starting his own company. Why did he hire me? I was the first warm body to walk in the door. SUCKER!

Larry's board had no microprocessor. It was instead something of a PDP-8 clone made entirely of TTL logic. This meant that there were no books or technical specs available to help us understand how the damn thing worked. We quickly hired a hardware guy and a programmer who knew how to write compilers. If we had to we were going to reverse engineer the thing, but time was getting short.

At that time there were only two game trade shows a year, and if you didn't have something to show, you didn't have orders. Very fortunately for us, Larry, who was normally quite secretive, once got caught in a time crunch and had to get a technician to help him out. We found the guy, he had the opcodes, we were in business. While programming tools were developed, I spent my first month writing "Starhawk" on legal pads in machine code.

I was 26 years old at the time, pretty old for that kind of thing. When I hired Scott Boden he was 17, and the next programmer I hired was too young to work without parental permission.

Oh, yeah, when I finished writing "Starhawk," it was the first program I had ever written in assembler code that worked.

What did you think of the games in arcades in 1978?

They were pretty good, considering the hardware. The one game I remember best was Atari's "Starship." Frankly, I was very glad to be working with the Cinematronic vector system. The graphics were so crude on all of the raster display games, I had quite an advantage.

What was writing games for the Cinematronics hardware like?

Once we got over that little hump of not knowing the opcodes for the hardware, it was pretty easy. The instruction set was extremely primitive and extremely fast, so my options were limited. It wasn't a question of what worked best, but rather, just what worked. Besides, it doesn't take much to fill 8K of memory, which was all we had. "Starhawk" and "Space Wars" were done in 4K.

Mostly my problems came from twitches peculiar to the board, like having to place a "nop" after some instructions to give them time to execute. There were, however, two really bad things. One was that if a watchdog bit wasn't set within 1/60th of a second, the entire unit would reset. This was so that when the board was powered up and the program counter was in a random state, it would quickly time out and restart. That was good. It also meant that my games had a guaranteed frame rate of sixty frames per second, because if they didn't, hey, GAME OVER. That was bad.

The other bad thing was that there wasn't a separate display processor, much less a display list. Nor was there even a flag that would be set when a line had finished drawing. I had to come up with a rule of thumb algorithm, based on line length, that would guess when it was safe to draw another line. I was always refining that code because it was the one place the processor wasted the most time.

How did you come up with game concepts? Did you have a philosophy of game design?

At the time, I just winged it, which was something I loved about the business at that time. There were no fixed categories like fighting, driving, and shooting. In fact, a novel game concept was likely to get a lot of play.

Was/is originality in game design important to you?

Originality was and is extremely important to me. When genres began to solidify in the game business, that became more difficult, if not impossible. One more reason to bow out of game designing.

Did you work entirely by yourself?

Except for sound--originally done in hardware, later software--yes. I loved working that way, and it made it much easier to become well-known. That sounds odd, but arcade game manufacturers were always loath to disclose the identities of their designers. The last thing they wanted was a bidding war for talent.

How long did, say, "Rip-Off" or "Armor Attack" take to program?

About four months. I would know I was done when the pile of program listings next to my desk reached the level of the desktop.

Which of your vector games are you the happiest with?

"Rip-Off," of course. It was not only the most fun to play and the most successful, but I've always been proud of being the first to try two-player cooperative game play.

Where did the idea for cooperative play come from?

At the time I had just finished "Warrior" and was about to start on another two-player game. "Rip-Off," in its early form, seemed best suited to one player/trade-off play, but the company felt that one player/two player simultaneous games like "Space Wars" generated more income.

At the time, I was in a relationship with a disc jockey in Kansas City. The station she worked for was part of a large chain that periodically issued huge market research papers for the affiliates. Someone writing one of these papers had inexplicably determined that young people at that time were interested in "cooperation rather than competition." I always take market research with a ton of salt, but it did spark the idea of having the two players work towards the same goal.

Did you work on any games that never saw the light of day? Any ideas for vector games that never came to fruition?

Oh, yeah. One vector game that was released briefly was based on "War of the Worlds." It didn't fly because we just didn't have enough memory to do it justice. I did have a lot of fun animating the killer tripods, though.

Why did you leave Cinematronics?

It was one of those "You can't fire me! I quit!" situations. The main reason was that I had become a real pain in the ass once I discovered that my salary was a minuscule percentage of profits. I estimate that my games, added together, brought in about $53,000,000 net profit to the company. My earnings for that entire period were about $60,000.

Was poor treatment of game designers common in those days?

Yes, yes, yes. Besides being denied a fair or even moderately unfair percentage of the revenues brought in by their work, many game designers were forced to use false names in interviews so that, again, no competitor might try to lure them away. In 1981, when I became an independent contractor with a lawyer, I finally was able to put my name on the title screen of the game. I was the first to do so.

How do you think your life would have been different had Cinematronics been more reasonable?

I don't know; what would you do if you won the lottery? Larry Rosenthal had a more than fair deal and started his own company, Vectorbeam. Cinematronics later bought him out, factory, patents and all, because he didn't have enough good product to sell. Life is strange.

Where did the idea for "Reactor" come from?

The original name was "Ram-it." I thought it would be fun to be the projectile. Someday I think it will be if anyone ever develops a good force-feedback controller.

How were you affected by the video game crash of 1983?

Well, it wasn't pretty. When it became pretty clear I wasn't going to be getting any work for a while, I bought a VCR, watched every horror film ever made, and drank Margaritas for the better part of a year. However, this process did yield my screenplay, "Teenagers in Hell," which actually got optioned.

Is the post-1983 coin-op industry different than it was before the crash?

Yeah, mostly better because the gold-rush fever has dissipated. The guys left doing arcade work are mostly old hands with a strong business sense. The bad news is, and I don't blame them, no one seems willing to experiment with gameplay. It's either fighting, driving, or flying--surprisingly little shooting. I think mayhem is more popular when it's up close and personal.

What have you been up to since those days?

Because of the crash of 1983, I swore not to design any more games unless I had a clear understanding of what made them tick. During the six years I worked at Incredible Technologies, a company started by former arcade folk like myself, I did game art and art direction. During my idle moments I observed, studied, and hypothesized about the psychology of video games. Eventually this led to involvement with academic organizations and from that, my move to Microsoft as a researcher.

Re the psychology of video games. Did you make any conclusions?

I've developed an entire theory of happiness--how to induce it in others--and my current career is based on that work. That's my book. I'll send you a copy if and when I ever get around to writing it.

What are your feelings about the modern game industry?

Three unconnected statements:

One: Many people in the business today seem to be more interested in making movies than in making games.

Two: The economics of the business today do not favor the entrepreneur.

Three: I still design games in my head, and I'd love to see them built, but only if the economics are right.

Do you still have any of your old games out in the garage?

No, but I do have my development station from D. Gottlieb & Co./Mylstar, which is based on one of the very first IBM PCs. I can play a couple games on that. I sort of miss the others, but man, is that particle board heavy!