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How did you get involved with the Odyssey 2?
Back in the beginning of time when "Pong" was state of the art and microprocessors were just being born, I worked at Intel developing markets for microprocessor applications. The year was 1975. It was clear that a programmable video game would be the natural evolution from ball and paddle games and would be a perfect application for the microprocessor. The Pentium Pro of that day was a 4-bit processor called the 4040. Its processing power was inadequate to handle the workload of pixel manipulation for video games, so the short story is we—Intel—developed the 8244, the first programmable sprite based game chip. It was a brilliant piece of technology developed by some of the best minds at Intel. Nick Nichols, Sam Schwartz, and Stan Mazor all played significant roles, with Ted Hoff giving his blessing.
The next decision was to whom does Intel sell this super video chip: Atari or Magnavox? The decision was Magnavox, which was part of the Philips organization and holder of all the key game patents. Six months after going into production, the game designers at Magnavox hit a design block and could not come up with any new game ideas. I volunteered my assistance and explained to Andy Grove that I could sell more silicon for Intel if I programmed games for the Odyssey 2 than if I stayed at Intel. The Odyssey 2 contained Intel ROM, RAM, the 8048 microprocessor, and the 8244—in other words a whole bucket of Intel silicon.
How did you develop the concepts for your games?
Developing game concepts is like getting wet in the rain, if you know the technology backwards and forwards, and know what market segment you are trying to amuse with the technology. Since I had been involved in the whole development of the hardware and had been explaining microprocessors to the world for several years, the only question was which market segment Magnavox wanted to address next. They would say "boys," and I would say lets blow something up and have it come after you if you miss; any playground would tell you the same thing. They would say "moms," and I would say lets do educational games. When they said "dads," the strategy board games were born on the back of a cocktail napkin.
The "they" was usually Mike Staup, vice-president in charge of games at Magnavox. For the record, Mike and his group really knew their stuff, but they had to contend with the Philips organization which was too slow in reacting to the fluid emerging video game market.
It was, however, the implementation of the concepts that really was fun and creative. I took the view that a game player was not playing the machine but was playing me. Depending on who I thought I was playing—the target market—I would come at you with different pieces of my technology arsenal. I would try and get into your head to challenge, tease, and test you. The objective was not to beat you but to take you for an emotional ride that would leave you totally wasted at the end, your mind and body spent. I have to laugh when I hear parents complaining that their kids play too many video games. They're not playing the machines, they're in a mind meld with the game designers. That is and was the rush for me. The technology, yes, the doing what no one has done before, but to be engaged mentally with millions of people all over the world is what kept me hard charging for four years.
What was the Odyssey 2 hardware like?
The CPU in the Odyssey 2 was an 8048, which was a 4-bit internal microprocessor with an 8-bit bus. The 8244 was the custom game chip and had the first sprite based architecture. That is, each sprite had an x/y component that, if changed, would move the sprite around the video screen. Four of the sprites pointed to RAM which could be changed on the fly, providing animation. There were another twelve sprites which pointed to objects that were stored in ROM and could not be changed, objects like letters and numbers. The chip also contained sound and a programmable grid. Each object could be one of eight colors, which also could be changed on the fly.
The game cartridges started out at 2K and represented my biggest challenge as a designer. I spent more time trying to cram the code into 2K then any other part of the game development. Eventually 4K ROMs were used but they also were filled quickly. I suppose it is worth mentioning that all the code was assembly language and all graphic characters were designed by hand in binary. Yuck.
Was it ever difficult to be writing games for the dark horse of gaming systems? The Atari 2600 seemed to get all the attention.
It wasn't difficult, but it was very interesting. It was a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The story goes like this:
When word reached N.V. Philips in Eindhoven that the engineers at Magnavox had hit designers' block and couldn't come up with more games, Philips sent word to sell off existing inventory and close down the video game business. For the first two years, I was designing games for them as they were trying to close down their whole video game business.This news did not make Intel, the video game people at Magnavox, or me very happy.
The problem was that everything I designed sold out, and the sales organization and dealers kept screaming for more, more, more. Mike Staup, of Magnavox, and I were convinced that once the demand was established and the profits came rolling in, Philips would reverse their decision. It was quite an incredible time. Philips had every advantage, but Nolan was cleaning up at Atari. The best known similar situation is IBMs personal computer effort. It was a real screamer. Every month the numbers would roll in from the dealers, every game would be sold out, and we would ask "Do you get it?", and the answer was "Not yet."
I was the only game designer for Odyssey 2 after the first few games were done by their engineering department. I have no idea how many game designers Atari had, but I was pretty busy keeping up with them. So even though Odyssey had only 10% of the market, most of that 10% was made up of games I designed. Since they were paying me a royalty on each game shipped that I designed, and everything I designed sold out for four years all over the world, I would feel bad about complaining too much.
How long, on average, did it take you to write a game?
The 2K ROM games all took about two months and the 4K ROM games took about four months to design. I was able to carry over about 60% of the code structure from one game to the next: things like scoring, collision detection, etc. Once I handed over the code to Magnavox, it took two to six months to reach the store shelves.
Did you foresee any of the legal hassles when you were working on "K.C. Munchkin"?
"Pac-Man" was the hit of the day and I was asked to design a game that would compete with the game concept of "Pac-Man" without violating copyright laws. But there were no copyright laws at that time concerning video games. A three-way design effort was begun by marketing, who wanted to come as close to "Pac-Man" as legally possible; the Magnavox legal department, who wanted something they could easily defend in court; and me, who wanted to design a game that would eat "Pac-Man"'s lunch from an interactive play point of view. Everyone was pleased with the results.
By the way, the "K" and "C" were the initials of the president of Magnavox at the time and were chosen for the obvious reasons of trying to get upper management behind the program. That decision came back to haunt us later.
This is one of the landmark legal rulings in video games, and it was fun to be in the middle of it. The first ruling by the Federal court in Chicago was completely and strongly in support of the fact that "K.C." had not violated any copyright laws. The code was all original and there were significant creative differences between "K.C." and "Pac-Man." No one would ever buy "K.C." and think he was buying "Pac-Man".
Now "K.C" was kicking "Pac-Man"'s butt in the market, and Philips had finally gotten the message about video games. When Magnavox won the lower court decision, that was the crossing of the Rubicon for Philips. The big marketing and manufacturing guns of N.V. Philips were about to be trained on Atari and the whole video game business. There was dancing in the street for the little video game group at Magnavox. Unfortunately, the attorneys joined in the celebration, which lasted for three days.
We knew Atari was trying for an appeal but the Magnavox legal experts felt the lower court ruling was so strong and our case was so solid that they paid little heed to the appeal process. The rest, as they say, is history. The appellate court overturned the decision of the lower court. The big guns never fired, the president of Magnovox was not too thrilled to have his name on the landmark ruling, and Philips wanted to know what in the world was happening.
How did you go from "K.C. Munchkin" to the legally safe "K.C.'s Crazy Chase"?
"K.C.'s Crazy Chase" was designed soon after the "K.C. Munchkin" court exercise and did a good job of capturing the moment at Magnavox. There was something about the adversary biting the behind of little K.C. that appealed to everyone at the moment. I had another result planned when the bad guys bit K.C., but that is one time I did not get my way in the design or in the real world.
How did cartridge/board game combos like "Quest for the Rings" come about?
As I mentioned before, it all happened on the back of a cocktail napkin during a conversation with Mike Staup. Magnavox had been besieged by people writing how video games had given families an activity to do together. That was before the violence was so graphic and the games so complex. However, the Dads would request games that they could play where their six-year-olds could not ultimately beat them. They like the action but wanted some thinking skills thrown in that were not real-time interactive. Well, try and do that in a 2K ROM! So the obvious solution was to combine the strategy of a board game with the action of interactive video and there you have it.
Were you involved in the Odyssey 3 at all? Can you give any details about it?
Odyssey 3 started to evolve after the "K.C. Munchkin" fiasco. The attitude was one of "yeah, sure, right, whatever." Intel was intrigued by the volume of silicon but had become a little seasick with the surges of 10K one month and 200K the next month. I'm sure Andy Grove, who was in charge of manufacturing at the time, did not speak well of the video game market. So Intel said "thanks but no thanks" to the next design effort. At the same time, Philips had bought Signetics and felt very strongly that they should design the next generation graphic chip, so the chip design went from Intel to Signetics. A decent chip was breadboarded but never made it to silicon.
I was pushing for an open-architecture personal computer type of machine with a superior graphic capability, but this approach didn't have the enormous profit margins that a successful closed game system had and was rejected.
Were there any games you worked on that were never released?
No. If I wrote the code they were kind enough to ship it all over the world. I am proud of the fact that of the twenty-four games I designed, none were ever recalled or had bug fixes. Now that's what I call a fine run of luck for a right brain type of person!
What did you do when the game market crashed and the Odyssey 2 ceased production? What have you been up to since then?
The handwriting was all over the wall, foretelling the coming crash, so about six months before the splat I stepped off the ride. It is very easy for a designer to know when he has used up all the toys. The crash occurred because both Atari and Magnavox tried to hold onto their game platforms twelve to eighteen months too long, and they paid dearly for it.
While all this handwriting was going up on the wall, my own two children, ages four and six years, were starting to grow up. When you are in the "zone," designing is your life. You eat, sleep, and dream it; ask the people doing the best stuff today, and I'm sure they'll tell you that they are consumed by their work. This leaves little time for raising and playing with your own kids. I find it amusing that because I played with so many kids for four years, I was afforded the opportunity to play with my kids for most of their childhood and do all that mind-meld, tease, test stuff with them. While raising my own kids, I did low profile edutainment products for aquariums, schools, etc., concentrating on thinking skills and state-of-the-art graphics.
There is one more year of football, basketball, and soccer games to attend in the real world for me and then my youngest child will head to college. And then: Are the planets again aligning? Did Andy actually say "the Intel entertainment center with MMX"? Are there hundreds of millions of PCs in the home, and has Bill finally given designers 32-bit flat memory in Wintel machines? Do I know how to write assembly language and C++ optimized for Pentiums? Yup. Can I do high-level 3-D graphics instead of one-color figures? Yup. You ask what I have been doing—the answer is "getting ready."
What do you think of the games being released today?
Considering the obstacles that todays designers must live with—number of colors, CPU power, etc.—they do a very good job. I expect this is the last iteration of the dedicated game as a major factor in interactive entertainment for all the obvious reasons. Clearly "Doom" and "Myst" will be the classics of this era, but the really good stuff has not been done yet. The Internet solves the biggest roadblock to game designers, which is distribution.
With the general purpose PC getting enough power and stability, I really expect the quality of interactive games to improve even faster in the future. Look at the Odyssey 2 and Atari games of 1980 compared to today's games and imagine what the games will be like in another ten years. Wow, I'm too old to get this excited!