Questions to a Game Programmer
by Alan Hewston

In a bit of a twist this month, instead of an interview with a programmer we have an interview with an Atari corporation hardware designer. Brian McKee was a high school friend of mine and using the Internet, I tracked him down. When I found out that he had once worked for Atari, I was very excited, and asked him to do this interview for Retro Times.

Question - Which Atari corporation did you work for?

Atari Games Corporation. The coin-op people. The company that started the video game revolution of 1972 by shipping "PONG." As many of you know, in 1984 Atari split in two for financial reasons. I'm sure the quote "you lost how much money?!!" still bounces around the Warner offices today. The first division, Atari Games (those revolutionary guys) changed hands a few times, and ultimately became a subsidiary of Midway Games Inc a couple of years ago. The other division, Atari Corp (Atari 800, VCS, 5200, 7800, ST, Jaguar, etc.) all but died a few years ago.

Question - What hardware did you work on and for which games?

The Atari hardware I put together, COJAG (stands for Coin-Op Jaguar) shipped in two games: "Area 51" and "Maximum Force". In "Area 51", I designed the gun interface (accurate within a 2 pixel by 2 pixel square) with Ed Logg. He told me ways to make the gun more accurate and I figured out ways to do it in hardware. The hard drive was the key to the game play's movie capability. We had originally thought to put a CD ROM on the system, but after the coin op 3do hardware had CD problems, and the price of hard drives started falling to the $200 level, the IDE controller became a hard drive interface, not a CD ROM interface. Robert Birmingham (the COJAG firmware programmer) and I figured out how to use the IDE interface, and Charlie Grisafi (master game hacker / programmer for "Area 51" & "Maximum Force") whipped up a compression algorithm and some game code and before we knew it, there were movies on the screen. If I remember correctly, there's about 23 minutes of movie on the "Area 51" hard drive and on the order of 50 minutes in "Maximum Force".

Question - What specifications and reasons for using a hard drive, over a CD ROM?

"Area 51" shipped with a one gigabyte hard drive, "Maximum Force" shipped with a two gigabyte drive (mostly Quantum, some IBM: they had the best quality). A CD ROM holds 650 Megabytes, but there are two main problems with a CD ROM: Reliability, and data throughput. A 2X CD ROM maxes out at 300 Kilobytes per second. Our 1 GIG Quantum drive did 4.5 Megabytes per second max (in our configuration). Keep in mind that at 4.5 Megs per second, COJAG couldn't do anything else (except put pixels on the screen). The only advantage to a CD ROM is cost, about half the cost of a hard drive.

Question - Tell us about growing up in the "classic", 8-bit video game era, and how that may have affected your interest in video games and ultimately lead to you working for Atari?

Like you, I grew up during the height of the video game industry. The late seventies/early eighties were magical times for a pre-teen/teen brat, like myself. My family purchased its first video game, an OEM Atari VCS (from Sears), for Christmas of 1980 or 1981. I can't remember exactly when because time eludes a thirteen-year-old. Tank and Adventure became my favorite games. My Step Father Merrill preferred Kaboom, but games which cause that much stress turn me off.

The name "Atari" became a magical term for me during those years, but soon the Atari VCS market crashed and I moved on to high school where I learned how to use Apple 2 machines. The first home computer I could afford was the TI-99 4/A, which taught me how to program BASIC, but didn't have much else going for it.

I think it was my senior year in high school I received a Commodore 64, I learned 6502 assembly and got a real sense of computer architecture by learning how to program the 64's graphics chip. I designed a sprite controller that ran on Vertical blank interrupt. I wonder how many times the re invention of that wheel became an educational tool for aspiring computer game programmers.

The only thing I knew for sure during that time is that I wanted to design computers, not program them. That's why I pursued an Electrical Engineering degree and not a Computer Science degree.

The college years were like all the rest of my time in school, boring ...boring ... boring. Few teachers and fewer classes could inspire my interest. I was the classic underachiever, but I wouldn't know that until I got my first job.

I got a job in research, through a contact made by my best friend, programming lasers to test the properties of plastics. I wrote code in Pascal. I realized then, that reality is much more interesting than school. I think that if I had a better attitude while attending school, it would have seemed more real and I would have done better. No point in thinking about that too much, it's not as if I can go back and change it.

I barely have a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. The degree helped train my mind, but didn't interest my heart in the slightest.

After graduating, my best friend, Sarvesh invited me to Silicon Valley where he had just started a job at Acuson. I looked for a job and was hired in the last minute by Sigma Designs. I flew home, packed up and drove back to California. At Sigma I realized just how fast I can learn if I apply myself. I began to grow from a child of 23 into a adolescent of 24. After working at Sigma for a year and a half, my boss, and then his boss and then the VP all got fired. I decided Sigma might be having some problems and began to scan the newspaper for other opportunities.

An ad with the Atari Fuji caught my eye. Atari was seeking a Hardware Engineer with five years experience. I didn't have the prerequisite experience, but I sent them a resume anyway. They ultimately called me because they had scaled back the budget and were looking for someone with less experience, i.e. someone who cost less money. They hired me after two interviews and it seemed like a dream come true, like somehow my life had come full circle and I find it amazing that I grew up with Atari, and matured at Atari Games.

The Atari legend is bigger inside the company than outside. The stories and myth that are told by the legends who work there make the place seem larger than life. In a very real sense the people who work there and the creative genius that flows from there _is_ larger than life. I have never met a more creative and talented group of individuals.

Question - Was the "Area 51" hardware your first design at Atari, and what else have you worked on?

The "Area 51" hardware was my first successful project at Atari. I created two other hardware designs that were based on the hardware work initiated by Pat McCarthy ("Gauntlet") and John Moore ("RBI Baseball" & "Batman"). Unfortunately, this hardware never shipped.

The titles of the Atari Game Corporation games that never shipped probably out number or at least equal the games that do ship, during a good year. The game industry is a lot like the movie industry in that you can't tell whether a game is a hit until you put it on the street, and you can't put it on the street until its mostly done. Which means a company spends millions of dollars to find out the game is too different, not attractive enough, too hard to play or in the words of some game testers: "just plain sucks."

The games I worked on that never shipped are: "Arcade Classics" (a remake of "Missile Command" and "Millipede"), "Cyberstorm" (a robot fighting game that just couldn't make the grade: good concept, but the technology over limited the ideas to the point where it wasn't any good), "Freeze the Cat" (a COJAG) puzzle game that is pretty good, but puzzle games just don't fly in the US these days unless they're Japanese and cost a hundred bucks), "Primal Rage II" (a fighting game sequel that was good, but not good enough. This game was designed for a Coin Op Sony Playstation, I just added a hard drive controller). The last game I can think of is: "Vicious Circle" a COJAG based fighting game that could not get enough bandwidth from the hardware to be fun enough.

If you ask the game programmers and designers of those games what their biggest limitation is, they'll tell you its hardware. And that always seems to be the case. If they could just get 10 or 20 percent more from the hardware they could make the game really fun. It most cases they're right, the hardware did limit them. But for some reason, the game programmers that make hits are the ones that get what they can from the hardware and make their ideas fun anyway. There's a fine line between not enough hardware to make a fun game and not enough creativity, uniqueness and inspired lunacy (don't laugh, its true) to make the hardware cough up fun pixels.

As far as games that were shipped are concerned, I did the serial link for "Space Lords" by Ed Logg and Bob Flanagan along with a plethora of other talented individuals. "Area 51" and "Maximum Force", were made by Charlie Grisafi, Rob Rowe, Robert Weatherby, and yet another huge cast of talented graphic artists and game designers. My gun logic still lives on in "Area 51: Site 4" (shipping now).

The firmware engineers I've worked with (whose code holds the game code together) are: Robert Birmingham, Mike Albaugh, Dave Shepperd, Forrest Miller.

Question - Where are you working now and would you like to get back in the VG industry again sometime?

I am now working for Diamond Multimedia. I'm designing with the NVidia Riva-TNT Video ASIC. I think that Iíll eventually get back to the video game industry but it will likely be an online interactive game company. I don't think consoles (as they are today), PCs and Coin Op games are going to last forever. I get the feeling that within ten years there will be a new platform with a whole new way of doing things. These machines will be small portable and on the internet all the time. Just think about the bizarre games we could think up when the hardware is on the person, not on top of their TV.

Question - I hear that you still enjoy playing the older games. What do you think about MAME, and what are your favorites?

MAME, in my opinion, is the coolest hack since Tesla first switch on his 100 foot lighting generator, just to see what it would do. I know that Atari Games, Midway, Sega, Capcom and all the rest don't like MAME because it promotes infringement of ROM copyrights, but man what a cool idea! Because of these pioneers we will be able to play these games in their original form for all eternity. Even if the hardware disintegrates, and the companies all die, the code will live on and entertain people. I salute those crazy emulator-writing fools.

I like a bunch of MAME games, but Star Wars, and Marble Madness were great games and thanks to MAME, they still are!

On a more personal note: congrats to the people who broke Slapstick (the hardware protection for many of Atari Games games. Pat McCarthy couldn't believe it. The fact is you were the first to truly reverse engineer the thing.

Name: Brian McKee

Began in the industry - 1992 for Atari Games Corporation

Hardware projects that shipped:Coin Ops: Area 51, Maximum Force, and Space Lords

Hardware that didnít make it.Arcade Classics, Cyberstorm, Freeze the Cat, Primal Rage II, and Vicious Circle.


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