Once Upon Atari: Book Sample

Chapter 0  

“You can ignore reality, but you
cannot ignore the consequences
of ignoring reality.”

– Ayn Rand

Chapter 1   Lightning Strikes

The Storm Before the Calm


Airborne grains of sand and flying bits of old trash are pelting me without mercy. Honestly, I never imagined I’d find myself here…

I’m standing in the middle of a garbage dump in the New Mexico desert. It’s hot. It’s LOUD. A huge sandstorm rages all around us. I’m surrounded by hundreds of people from all over the country. We huddle like penguins for protection against the onslaught. There are news people, construction people, food people, film people and even some local politicians, but the vast majority are fans. Classic Video Game fans. People who smile at the mere mention of the word “Atari.”

We’re all here, braving the heat and the storm, watching huge noisy yellow machines reaching deep into the ground, literally digging up my past right before my eyes. A big yellow arm disappears into a hole, bringing up another claw-bucket of ancient garbage and detritus. The arm swings around and dumps its load before returning for the next scoop, leaving behind a dusty pile of old refuse. The ground between the machines and a thin plastic retaining fence is dotted with such piles. Each one holds the promise of a “nugget.” Bodies press against the fence, straining to get a closer look at the latest droppings. “Is it there?” “Can you see one?” Or is this just more ammunition for the relentless gusting winds?

What are we doing here? We’re searching for evidence. Specifically, we’re hoping to unearth the murder weapon with which I allegedly killed a multibillion-dollar industry back in the early ‘80s. And as good suspects do, I’m denying its existence. For decades I’ve said the very idea is ridiculous, but today I really hope I’m wrong. I’ve explained many times over why this whole operation makes absolutely no sense. But I’d forgotten the cardinal rule:

When you expect things to make sense, you’re losing touch with Atari.

This is another remarkable day in my life. I’ve had many, but this one is special. Saturday, April 26th, 2014 is the longest day of my life, because it started on July 27th, 1982.

The Phone Call

On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 27th, 1982 I’m sitting in my office at 275 Gibraltar Drive, on Atari’s main campus in Sunnyvale, California. I’m hanging out with Jerome Domurat after putting the final touches on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the longest development of all my games. Jerome is my graphics/animation designer and my good friend. We’re having fun in our usual way, taking turns reading aloud from National Lampoon magazine’s letters to the editor, when a call comes in: “Will you please hold for Ray Kassar?”

Will I hold for Ray Kassar? The Chief Executive Officer of Atari? My boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss? The guy who signs my paychecks? “Yes, I’ll hold for him.”

A phone call from Ray Kassar is a very unusual thing in my experience. However, this is not my first time chatting enjoyably with our CEO. The first time was at a press event. I was demo-playing my first game, Yars’ Revenge, on one of the first ever Big-Screen TVs (a hulking rear-projection monstrosity). Ray emerged from the slew of media people crawling around the room. He approached me and said, “Hello Howard, I heard about what you did with Yars.”

“Yeah? What did you think about that, Ray?”

He half-smiled, “Just keep making games, Howard.” Then he turned and melted back into the traffic. That was my first encounter with Ray Kassar. The last time we met, however, was a bit more memorable…

Roughly two months before answering this phone call, I was nearing the final stages of development on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first ever video game based on a movie. It was a dog-and-pony day, which means key execs are cruising engineering for demos (somewhat akin to visiting the zoo) and we show the current state of our games to anyone being escorted by our bosses. I take game demos pretty seriously, but this time was special. The man himself, Ray Kassar, was coming down from on high to take the tour. He had his entourage in tow, including extras from marketing, legal and the odd vice president or two. You knew when Ray was coming because his distinctive cologne always preceded him. He came wafting in and took the guest chair while the others stood around him like a halo of nodding assent. I had the game ready to go and Tchaikovsky’s “Overture of 1812” (the one with the cannons) cued up on the office stereo. It lends an impressive ambiance to the demonstration, well beyond the capabilities of my development station.

[NOTE to the Non-Nerd:  A Development Station (or Dev Station) is a specialized piece of hi/low-tech computer hardware (frequently tucked into a black metal box) where game programmers can test-run and debug their software in a reliable environment. It is designed to prevent programmers from having anything other than themselves to blame for their product issues. Of course, this design goal is not always realized.]

I press Play on the stereo, pick up my game controller and roll through the demo. Ray offers occasional comments, each of which is quickly and enthusiastically affirmed by the entourage.

Now it isn’t every day I get Ray Kassar in my office, so being the braying ass I’m given to be at times in my mid 20’s, I took the opportunity to share some thoughts and suggestions (read: criticisms & complaints) as to how the company might be better run. Mouthing off to the big man is not usually the smartest strategy, but it’s easier when your work represents a significant chunk of corporate profits, past and future.

After sitting politely through a more-than-reasonable bit of this, Ray cuts in and says, “Interesting ideas. Perhaps we should switch jobs for a day.”

Instantly I fire back, “I’m good with that, Ray. Here’s my dev station. Just give me your fragrance and let’s go.”

And the room froze.

Uh-oh, have I gone too far this time? (a question I ask myself all too frequently)

A deafening silence hung there, occasionally broken by stifled chortles. The entourage wants to laugh but they don’t want the guillotine. All the king’s men were desperately trying to hold their laughter until they got some inkling of Ray’s reaction. After what seemed like hours, Ray finally decided to find it amusing and thus unleashed the torrent. Laughter abounded as they shuffled off to the next office.

Since I wasn’t fired for that one, I lived to take this call today…

Ray comes on the phone and gets right to the point: “Howard, we need an E.T. game for September 1st. Can you do it?”

Without missing a beat, I say, “Absolutely I can! Provided we reach the right agreement.” I know what I mean. Ray knows too. Money.

“That’s fine,” Ray says, “be at San Jose Airport Thursday morning at 8am. There will be a Learjet waiting to take you to Spielberg’s office where you’ll present the design for the game.”

And there it is. I’m doing the E.T. game! My first thought is: Whoa, I’ve got 36 hours to do the entire design and prepare a presentation for the fastest video game development ever attempted. My second thought is: Better have a good dinner tonight, it might need to last me a while. And oh yeah, I’m still on the phone…

I assure Ray I’ll be fully prepared when I board the Spielberg-express first thing Thursday morning. We say our goodbyes and hang up. This will not be my first encounter with Steven Spielberg. We’ve met several times before, but this one will require more imagination, creativity and fancy footwork than any other.

I know what I’m actually promising. Games on this system usually take at least 6 months to develop. I’m committing to do one in 5 weeks. Am I confident? My hubris is. But right now, I’m already too busy to think about it. Just 36 hours to my first delivery milestone. In order to pull this off, a lot of headwork needs to happen in a very short time. Fortunately, my brain is hard-wired for fast. The tricky part is the balance, staying focused but not tunnel visioned…

Let the thinking begin!

So… where to go for dinner?

Chapter 2   King Learjet

Back to the Desert

And now we’re back in the New Mexico desert in 2014, because this isn’t just a chronicle, it’s also a time machine. And a good thing too, because it takes a time machine to understand how that one phone call decades ago began paving a road leading me to this place, this hour, this sandstorm in a dump in the desert.

I woke up this morning several hours earlier and nearly 5,000 feet higher in a mountaintop hideaway hotel, far from this chaos. After a hearty breakfast, we boarded the van of destiny and headed for the Alamogordo city dump. Snaking our way down mountain roads, I was feeling both curious and anxious; Curious about what they’d find under the ground and anxious about what that might mean. Upon arrival, I see something very odd indeed… there’s a line of people waiting. A long line. When’s the last time you saw hundreds of people standing in line to get into a garbage dump?

I should probably say a bit more about what’s going on here. Today, Lightbox & Fuel Entertainment (Hollywood production companies), Xbox Entertainment Studios (a small part of a huge corporate entity) and the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico are jointly hosting (and filming) a modern archeological event. This is an excavation (or “dig”) to literally uncover the truth behind an enduring urban myth. Specifically, that decades ago Atari trucked millions of unsold E.T. video game cartridges into the desert and buried them here in this dump. I’m here too of course, because I did it. I’m the one.

I made the worst video game of all time!

This is not my opinion. This is the conclusion held by many All-Time lists. Go ahead, Google “worst video games of all time” and see what you get. Countless fans and media people remind me of this “fact” regularly. In 1995, New Media magazine said my E.T. game was so bad it single-handedly caused the video game crash of the early ‘80s, collapsing an industry with revenues approaching four billion dollars.

It was so bad that Atari needed to bury it deep in the desert just to get rid of the stench! At least that’s the legend. Snopes.com says it’s true. I’ve always denied it. I’ll tell you why…

When a company is hemorrhaging money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and they find themselves sitting on a mountain of worthless inventory, why would they spend even more money to transport, crush, cement over and bury it? That’s a very expensive thing to do. Why not recycle the materials to reduce the cost of making new product that might sell? At the very least, you could simply throw open the doors of the warehouse and let people come in and take it all. Why spend big money getting rid of something you believe is worthless? It doesn’t make any sense.

As I said before, when you expect things to make sense, you’re losing touch with Atari.

Atari was never about making sense. Atari was about making fun. It was about inventing things that never existed before in ways no one had ever imagined. It was not a sensible place; it was an outrageous place. It was an orgy of creativity and innovation, populated by the most engaging, accomplished and eccentric cast of characters I’ve ever known. Atari was the perfect place at the perfect time for me… but they didn’t see it at first.

After a round of interviews Atari rejected me… but I pushed back. I reasoned, argued, and pleaded with Dennis Koble (the hiring manager running my interview process) until he finally agreed to give me a chance (for a probationary period and a significantly smaller salary)(which I gladly accepted). I kept pushing, because on some deep intuitive level I knew Atari would be my home. It was everything I needed for sustenance and growth in my life. I had to be there.

When my time at Atari ended (which it had to, since nothing so imbalanced can remain standing indefinitely) I knew it would never be equaled.

I did finally exceed it, however. After some thirty years of searching, schooling and internships I finally became what I always wanted to be: a psychotherapist. And now, with my life once again supremely satisfying and rewarding, I find myself in the desert getting sandblasted at the end of a long and winding road which began decades ago with a phone call. I’m waiting to see if my past will rise once more. Is my notorious creation poised to jump out of this ever-deepening hole in the desert floor?

I hope it does. It’ll make for a much better movie that way. In fact, the prospect of being wrong has never been more appealing. Besides, I always want my games to be groundbreaking in some fashion. Will my third creation finally break ground in a new and most unexpected way? The irony would be delicious. Speaking of which, I’m getting kind of hungry…

Your Learjet Awaits

I hate getting up early in the morning. Aside from a brief stint in commercial real estate, I’ve always worked hard to maintain a life that never needs an alarm clock. It’s just no way to start the day. However, when a Learjet is waiting to take you to Steven Spielberg’s office, it eases the sting considerably.

I make it to the airport at the appointed hour and there, to my considerable delight, is an actual Learjet waiting just for me. I love airports and airplanes! Took my first flight at two weeks old and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. In this moment, I’m incredibly psyched. This promises to be another remarkable day in my life.

I board the jet and take the first of the six seats. The pilot is kind enough to leave the cabin door open (it is 1982, after all). I can see right through the cockpit windows without having to move from my incredibly comfy chair. I ease back and wait for the show to begin. The takeoff is smooth and soon we are soaring just above the clouds. It’s always amazing to see the sea of clouds, so soft, serene and endless. It seems such a beautiful place to stroll, but I decide to remain in my seat just the same. We’re flying to Burbank, then riding to Warner Studios where Spielberg and his sprawling office await. But it turns out we’re not going to Burbank, at least not yet. First, we’ll stop in Monterey to pick up some additional passengers.

As we near the Monterey area, a most unsettling sight appears through the pilot’s windshield. The usual soft white carpet of clouds is now punctuated with a cluster of mountain tops. As we descend through the bright white layer and the visibility shrinks to zero, I can’t help thinking that mountain tops usually have mountains underneath them. In this case, I’m really hoping I’m wrong.

Fortunately, the pilot missed every one of them and landed cleanly on the Monterey runway. He taxied a bit, then came to rest on a vacant section of tarmac. Nearly vacant that is, because just as the plane slowed to a stop a big black limo pulls up right off the left wing. The doors open and out pops Ray Kassar (CEO), Skip Paul (Chief Legal Counsel) and Lyle Rains (Coin-Op Game Engineer). Apparently, Lyle is doing the arcade version of E.T., and I’ll bet he’s getting more than 5 weeks, too! OK, I didn’t really think this last part. After all, this is only 40 hours into the project so I’m not bitter yet. As they file onto the plane, I hear Skip say to Ray, “What? They couldn’t get the Hawker?!” He sounds disappointed, but this is hard for me to imagine. They take their seats and away we go. The takeoff is carefree since mountains aren’t nearly so scary on this side of the clouds.

We fly for a while more; Ray and Skip are chatting a bit, but Lyle and I are silent. The time of the presentation is approaching, which means the tension and the focus is building. We land in Burbank airport and once again, just as the plane comes to a halt another limo pulls up alongside. “It’s just like in the movies,” I think to myself, which makes sense since we’re going to meet Steven Spielberg at Warner Studios. This is so cool. I can hardly believe it’s a workday… but it is, which makes it even cooler. I’m loving this.

We get in the limo, and it’s a remarkably well-appointed vehicle. In addition to the plush seating accommodations, there is a phone, a TV, a small fridge, even a sink. Skip reaches over and pushes the lever to watch the water stream out, but nothing happens. The amazing thing was the look on his face. He says, “Do you believe it, the water doesn’t even work.” OMG! He’s serious. This guy just got off a private jet into a waiting limo and he’s actually annoyed that the water isn’t running in the car’s sink. I realize we’re from different worlds, and much as I’d like to belong, I’m not really a part of his. I’m always interested to get a glimpse into other people’s perspectives. Not always relieved, but definitely interested.

The guard waves us through the gate at Warner and we proceed along the lot until we arrive at the office. We go in and pleasantries are exchanged all around. Now it’s presentation time and Lyle goes first, which gives me a little time to chill. My thoughts begin to drift. Spielberg’s office is small… for a luxury apartment. It’s nice to be back here again. A calm settles in… but not for long. “Wait a minute,” I think to myself, “why am I here?”

It occurs to me I don’t have an answer. I realize it’s because I said “yes” of course, but why did Ray call me directly? That’s never happened before. This has all been so exciting, I forgot how odd it was. Atari is big on secret culture and back channel communications, there is always something going on you don’t know about. Here’s what I didn’t know:

I was not the first one Ray called about doing the E.T. game. His first call was to George Kiss, my grandboss (or boss’s boss). George is the head of engineering for the Atari home game system, and he told Ray what any sane and knowledgeable person in that situation would: You cannot do a game in 5 weeks. It’s simply not enough time.

Most CEOs do not like “no” as an answer. It rarely contributes to shipping product and making money. So, after being told by the head of development it couldn’t happen, Ray still thought it was worthwhile to make one more call. I had apparently built enough of a reputation or made enough of an impression that he believed I might come through when others couldn’t. Or it might have to do with the time Ray saw my personal notebook and asked to peruse it. I lent it to him, and it came back through interoffice mail a few days later with a note attached. “Thank you, Howard. You are a Renaissance man.” This is the nicest thing anyone can say to me.

This was all very flattering and, as I think about it now, rather creepy. I told Ray it absolutely would happen, right after my grandboss told him it couldn’t. That’s what I didn’t know, and I’m glad I didn’t. Talk about undermining relationships.

Suddenly, the question, “Howard, what have you got for us?” pierces my reverie and brings me back to the moment. Now it’s my turn and I begin my presentation…

The last time I presented something to Spielberg was early June, about a month and a half ago. We met at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago and I had the tape. I was nearing completion on the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, my second project for Atari and my first for Spielberg. Atari needed a way to demonstrate the game for Spielberg in Chicago. I could have simply played it for him, but I thought it would be better to make a demo tape that could serve other promotional purposes as well. The execs agreed and sent me to a video recording studio to make the demo.

Have you ever done something absolutely perfectly? At exactly the right time? I did. Just once. At that studio.

They sat me down, put a mic on me, hooked up the console to a recorder and I played and narrated the entire game flawlessly. That had never happened in any of my demos, before or since. It was a magical moment. A one-take wonder. We added a few special effects, created a master and that was it. By the way, the total running time was 12 minutes and 27 seconds. If it takes you longer than this to play all the way through Raiders, you probably didn’t make the game.

From the time I left that studio in Sunnyvale until this meeting in Chicago, the tape never left my side. There was NO WAY I was going to miss seeing Spielberg’s reaction.

Full disclosure: I’m a huge film buff, and Steven Spielberg is a hero of mine. I love his work, from “Duel” on. I think Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterwork and I was honored to be a part of it in this way. But I’m not just meeting my hero, I’m working with/for him. It’s one thing to meet your idol, it’s another to have them evaluate your work. It’s another still when they evaluate your work which is a derivative of their work. This is huge for me… as long as he likes it.

For a serious creative person, a lot of self-image (and mental well-being) is on the line at a time like this. I was confident but very nervous. I’m one of the top video game creators of my time, but what I really want to be is a film director.

Finally, the moment came. There I was, up in the crow’s nest of the enormous Atari show booth with a TV and a tape deck and Steven Spielberg. I inserted the tape and hit PLAY. Spielberg watched it thoroughly and intently. He didn’t move at all for the entire 12 minutes and 27 seconds. I know because I watched him thoroughly and intently for the entire 12 minutes and 27 seconds. At the end he thought for a bit, soaking it in. Then he looked up at me and said, “That’s really great, Howard. It feels just like a movie!” My inner world exploded with joy. Steven Spielberg thinks the demo tape of my game for his movie feels like a movie. Yeah BABY!

That was one of the greatest moments of my life… but that was then and this is now. I finish laying out the design for the E.T. game and Spielberg thinks for a bit, soaking it in. Then he looks up at me and says, “Couldn’t you do something more like Pac-Man?”

My inner world collapses.

Something more like Pac-Man?!?! One of the most innovative film directors of all time wants me to make a knock off? My impulse is to say: “Gee Steven, couldn’t you do something more like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’?”

Fortunately, my brain kicks in microseconds before my mouth engages. Get a grip, Howard. This is Steven Spielberg, and he obviously likes Pac-Man. My father’s words came to me in this moment, he was fond of saying “Get your head out of your ass, wipe the shit from your eyes and focus!” Ah, the memories.

All this takes a fraction of a second in my head. Then I regroup and take another tack entirely. “Steven, E.T. is amazing and we need something special to go with it. This is an innovative game for an innovative movie.” I believe this is true, but I’m also aware of another fundamental truth: The game I’m proposing is one I might possibly finish in 5 weeks, which is a critical component of success in the overall delivery process.

That’s why I need to defend this design with everything I’ve got. I’d rather not fall back on this explanation because I’d rather not come off as desperate, but I will if I must. It harkens back to one of the great linguistic contributions of computer science: Doability (noun, the quality of being able to be done. From the modern English; Do + Ability). Ask any software engineer about the prospect for a task or design, and the answer will invariably revolve around the word “doable.” I’m confident this design has sufficient doability to be worth pursuing. This is distinct from another contribution: Bogosity (noun, the quality of being bogus, a mangle-ization of Bogus). Bogosity and doability are independent properties. In other words, creating a game in five weeks can have significant doability and still represent a high level of bogosity on the face of it. In other other words, the possibility of doing something doesn’t make it a good idea. I believe this paragraph stands as proof of that.

[NOTE to the Non-Nerd:  Many people do not consider nerds to be facile linguists or communicators. Be advised: New-Word construction and deployment is an essential part of the nerd repertoire. To be clear, I’m talking specifically about techie nerds or geeks. Word nerds and/or grammar police are beyond the scope of this text.]

After a few moments of breath-holding, Steven relents on the Pac-Man proffer and accepts my assertion that the design is appropriate to the task at hand (the punishment fits the crime). As he does, I realize my design is now approved. The first major milestone is achieved, my inner world is resurrected, and (though I’m not 100% sure about this) there seems to be a faint emanation coming from Steven’s chest, a sort of reddish glow. I have a theory about this…

But this is no time for theory. There are hard facts to face:

  • An accepted design only opens the door to begin continuous crunch mode. It is truly the gift that keeps on taking.
  • Tomorrow is day 4 of the 35.5 days allotted for the task, 10% of my schedule is already gone.
  • I still have to make it through a Learjet ride home before I’m anywhere near dinner! (OK, not all the facts are hard)

The design is now set and approved. It’s implementation time. There’s nothing to it but to do it!

And as the golden light of late afternoon kisses the flats and backlots of Warner studios, the Atari delegation boards the waiting limousine and sets off for the airport.

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