04 January 2001

CVG 101: What I Learned Over Summer Vacation (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introduction. This article was originally published in CGM #5 (fall 2000). This is the article as I submitted it and may not exactly match what was published.]

I learned many things and got to meet many people at Classic Gaming Expo (CGE) 2000. You probably don’t care much about who I met in person for the first time (although it included the illustrious duo of Chris Cavanaugh and Sarah Thomas), so I thought I’d share some of the things I learned while there. There was so much to see, do, and learn at CGE that I’m doubtless leaving out many interesting things, but Chris will only give me so much room. Most, but not all, of my new knowledge came from the discussion panels and keynote speeches. I primarily attended the Atari 2600 related ones, so this article is biased toward it. My apologies for that. By covering what was new to me, I’m sure there will be something new here for every reader, even if you're Leonard Herman (whom I also met).

Atari 2600 Panel

  • Steve Cartwright was Activision employee number 26.
  • A two-man salvage team named Seaquest sued Activision after seeing the Atari 2600 Seaquest game, thinking it had been named after their business.
  • Bob Polaro is currently writing games in Java. He feels this has a lot in common with the old days of video games where the games were one-man creations.
  • It took an entire day for Steve Woita to record the speech in Quadrun and get it under 700 bytes.
  • Approximately 10,000 Quadrun cartridges were manufactured for the Atari 2600.
  • Mike Albis’ (Atari Games employee for 24 years) corollary to Nolan Bushnell’s theorem that "a game should be easy to learn but difficult to master": You should be able to play the game with one hand in order to hold your beer or girlfriend in the other.
  • Brad Stewart played a game of coin-op Breakout against newly hired Ian Shepherd to decide who would program the Atari 2600 version. Stewart cleared the board with his first ball, thus winning the contest.
  • Someone in marketing at Atari actually asked Rob Fulop where he’d gotten the idea for the Atari 2600 game Night Driver. (It was an Atari coin-op first.)
Howard Scott Warshaw

  • Most of the information listed under here actually came from the Atari 2600 keynote, but he was the liveliest panel member and contributed enough information to warrant his own section.
  • Although Yars’ Revenge was planned to be a Star Castle port, at no time did the programmed game actually resemble Star Castle any more than the final game does. Warshaw immediately realized that the 2600 wasn't capable of reproducing the game well. (And besides, Atari ended up not getting the license for it.)
  • The original name for Yars’ Revenge was Time Freeze.
  • Steven Speilberg asked Warshaw if he couldn’t just do something like Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game. Warshaw said no, saying there was no point in rehashing someone else’s game. In retrospect, he quips, it may not have been a bad idea.
  • The comic book packaged with Yars’ Revenge is a simplified version of the story Warshaw created for the game. He was given a choice of taking credit for the game or the story, as credit for both was too much, he was told by Atari.
  • According to Warshaw, Yars’ Revenge was the first game Atari produced with official credit to the programmer and an officially approved Easter egg.
Joe Decuir

  • Decuir, one of the primary designers of the Atari 2600 hardware, didn't know there was an Atari 2600 light gun game released (Sentinel), but knew it was possible to create one.
  • Decuir wishes he had patented the color-cycling used in Atari 2600 games to prevent burn-in, but in his words, they didn't think you could patent software back then.
  • Decuir's mother was proud because color-cycling was the reason Consumer Reports gave the Atari 2600 the highest ranking when they reviewed home video game consoles.
  • Decuir's then 13-year-old brother "kicked his ass" at Combat, even though Decuir had created the game.
  • In retrospect, Decuir admits saving five cents per 2600 console by using a 24-pin instead of 30-pin chip was a mistake. Using a 30-pin chip would have allowed the creation of games larger than 4K without having to resort to bank-switching.
  • The Atari 2600 used chips with 15 micron circuits. The Microsoft X-Box, which Decuir is currently helping design, uses .015 micron chips. That’s 1000 times smaller!
  • The original Atari 2600 consoles were heavy on purpose. Atari felt consumers would feel gypped if they paid $200 for it and it weighed almost nothing.
  • Atari ultimately decided not to build speakers into the 2600 for two reasons. First was the extra cost. Second was that by using the television speaker, consumers had built-in volume control.
Ralph Baer

  • It was not until 1967 that Baer, who is called "the father of video games" for his invention of what eventually became the original Magnavox Odyssey (the world’s first home video game console), had the idea for a machine-controlled ball. Up till then, it was controlled manually by a person.
  • The original use of what would become the Magnavox Odyssey light gun was for quiz games. Each spot on the TV could be encoded somehow so that the machine new which answer the user selected (or at least if it was correct or not).
  • Ralph Baer said his idea for sending games via cable (TV) was 30 years too soon. (He was comparing it to playing games via the World Wide Web.)
  • Approximately 20,000 Odyssey light rifles were sold compared to 95,000-100,000 consoles.
  • In court, some companies claimed that because their "pongs" were digital, they were therefore completely different from the analog Odyssey. (This didn't hold up.)
  • According to Baer, Bushnell preferred to have Magnavox keep "the riffraff" out of the video game industry rather than fight their lawsuit.
  • Magnavox was still in litigation with other companies for video game patent violations (related to the Magnavox Odyssey) as recently as 1997. (Notably Taito and Data East.)
  • Baer is hesitant to donate the "Brown Box" Odyssey prototype to the Smithsonian because they have so many exhibits. However, there's an inventor's museum that he may donate it to. He believes it should be available to be played by visitors wherever it ends up.
  • It was two Scottish men who had the idea for "pong-on-a-chip" at General Instruments.
  • Sanders Associates, the company Baer worked for when he invented the home video game console, made about four arcade games that did well. They then made elaborate plans for the future that fell apart in the end.

  • Hasbro Interactive was approached by Columbia (or whoever owns it now) about including a copy of the Krull Atari 2600 game on the upcoming Krull DVD. I don’t know how they plan to use it (an emulator on a DVD player?) or what the results of this request were.
  • You may have noticed interesting happenings at Twin Galaxies, such as a redesigned web site and the advent of shooting their own video footage. It turns out that Twin Galaxies now has a billionaire investor. Before this individual came along, Twin Galaxies was on the verge of going under.

And there you have it. A concise list of the things I learned at CGE 2000, from the trivial to the slightly less trivial. I hope those of you that attended learned many things as well and that both those who did and didn't will benefit, in some bizarre way, from this article. Even you, Leonard.

Postscript (12 June 2013)

Leonard Herman is the author of Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, the first and possibly still most comprehensive history of video games and systems. I don't believe I ever thought to ask him if he learned anything from the article or not, assuming he read it. Sadly, CGE 2000 is the only one I've been able to attend, but I had a blast!