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After writing a few Game Boy and Super Nintendo titles, David left the game business. These days he's writing fiction for young readers. He had a computer humor book published in 1995—It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature—and his first story collection is due in 1997 from Tor: Kidzilla and Other Tales.
What led up to the programming of your first game, "Bumper Blocks"?
In 1979, I sold a short story to Creative Computing magazine. At the time I knew nothing about computers. But the magazine fascinated me. I got hooked. I'd always been a game addict, and I saw the computer as a great potential opponent. I learned BASIC by reading game listings and trying to figure out how they worked. When I got my Apple, I was lucky enough to have a friend who knew assembly language, he had a Kim and an Elf, and he got me started. The first game, which ended up as part of a game pack from Creative Computing Software, was done in lo-res graphics. It grew out experiments with graphics routines using monitor calls.
How did you get into writing 2600 games?
When Larry Miller was setting up the 2600 group at Sirius, he called Mark Pelczarski at Penguin. Mark gave him my name. I was working at Creative Computing at the time.
What was your method of developing game concepts for the limited hardware of the 2600?
I liked to play around, just trying different things to see what the graphics looked like, and then build a game from there. For example, I was fooling around with background registers, trying to duplicate the background transition effect from Nasir Gebelli's "Space Eggs" when I came up with the basic effect that turned into "Nexar."
Do you have any insight into what caused the demise of Sirius, one of the biggest companies of the day?
Besides turning down "Choplifter," "Lode Runner," and other submissions? Well, I can only speculate, but the words that come to mind include greed, arrogance, mismanagement, and bad judgment. Don't get me started...
What's the story behind "River Raid II"? It was an unknown sequel to a very popular game...
Activision contracted Imagineering, a design house that had spun off from Activision, to do the game. They gave me the job as a freelancer.
Dan Kitchen at Imagineering came up with the basic concept: launch from a carrier then fly "River Raid" type missions. He and I talked about ways to get as much as possible in the game, and he gave me some good technical suggestions. It all happened a long time ago, so I don't remember exactly what I did. I just remember that I really pushed the capacity of the system, and I know I felt pretty smug when it was finished. I do remember that I used some neat color table animation on some of the objects, getting animation effects by changing colors rather than just shapes.
By the time it came out, the market for 2600 games was pretty dead.
Did it feel at all weird, writing 2600 games in the late 1980s?
I guess I was somewhat of a dinosaur, but there was a certain nostalgic feeling that I was keeping a flame alive. We've come a long way in graphics and sound, but some of those old games were extremely entertaining.
Which of your 2600 games is your favorite? Your least favorite?
I think "Fantastic Voyage" was my favorite. It had a fair amount of depth for a 2600 game, and a few bits of whimsy. As for least favorite, that would be "Sentinel," a nightmare project from start to finish. [Note that this "Sentinel" is different from the Spectrum game of the same name.]
"Sentinel" was supposed to be a four-month project, where I was contracted to do the game on the 2600 and the 7800. I was doing it for Imagineering, later known as Absolute Entertainment, who had been contracted by Atari. They had the basic design concept in mind at the start. The problem was that Atari kept changing their minds. Every time we had something working and playable, they decided they wanted to go in a different direction. To me, many of the choices and decisions seemed either arbitrary or just plain wrong. The project stretched out for well over a year; this is the sort of situation that kills freelance designers. Top the whole thing off with a development system running on an Atari ST, and you have a recipe for nightmares.
Which did you write in the shortest amount of time?
"Space Master X-7"—a wretched title, but it was the name of a Fox movie so they must have felt compelled to use it—took about two weeks. I don't think any of the 2600 games I did for Sirius took more than a month.
How did the design for "Pastfinder" develop?
I started out with a straight top view. Tom Lopez suggested I try more of a 45-degree back view. At first, I just played with the main character. The then I began adding background obstacles. The Atari 800 had a neat feature: it gave collision information based on each color in the palette. I was able to use this to make the 3-D collisions very accurate. I checked to see if the player was in collision with an object and if his shadow had collided with the shadow of that object. It worked very well and gave the game a nice feel. I wanted to call it "Shadow Walker," but they didn't...
"Pastfinder" was released at the same time as Crane's "Ghostbusters" for the C64, or maybe it was the one with the little computer people, so Activision put all their publicity efforts behind that title.
How did you manage to squeeze the Apple version of "Ultima IV" onto an Atari 800 disk? Atari disks were significantly smaller.
That was tough. For a while, I thought I'd taken on a job I couldn't do. Luckily, the text was stored as straight ASCII and since it was all upper case, I was able to use a subset with thirty-two characters. That let me put each letter into five bits. I think I also saved one value to use as a token flag, signaling that the next eight bits was an index into a table of words. Then I compressed the graphics.
Were there any games you started but never finished? Any ideas for games you never got around to writing?
Because I frequently developed games by playing around with graphics, I had a lot of false starts and unfinished ideas. I can't give a specific number, but I'm sure I abandoned several dozen games at various stages over the years. There were lots of ideas I never got to, or felt I couldn't execute. The one I really regret never finishing was a Game Boy idea. I'd developed a multi-plane scrolling technique. It looked great, but I never got to use it in a game.
What programmers did you look up to?
I admired Bill Budge, both because of his talent and his humble demeanor. I thought Larry Miller was pretty astounding technically. Rick Booth, who just wrote a book called Inner Loops, is the best programmer I've ever met. I'll freely admit he is far beyond me. He'd make suggestions on ways to speed up a routine, and my initial reaction would always be skeptical. Then I'd sit down to count cycles and realize he was right.
You've worked on lots of different systems. Which was your favorite?
I really liked the 2600. For a cycle-counter/hacker, there was no finer challenge. It was just 128 bytes of RAM, a couple of one-byte graphics registers, and a lot of efficient code. Atari made plenty of great hardware; their problems came from the human side. The Apple II was a lot of fun because you could drop right into the machine language monitor.
Somehow you've managed to avoid programming the PC. Intentional?
Yup. I always preferred to work on systems where everything was standard. I just didn't want to deal with all the variations in graphics, etc. This is more of a personal quirk than a logical and rational position. I know a lot of it is taken care of with drivers, etc., but if I can't get all the way down to the system level, I don't think I can make the best use of a machine.
Is there anything you wish you could fix about the game industry?
I've been out of it long enough that I don't think I'm qualified to provide any meaningful answer to that question in regards to the current state of the industry. As far as the industry in the past, I think most places I worked had far too many employees in management who didn't like games and weren't creative. There's nothing more galling than hearing an overpaid management toady saying, "You know, I never really play any video games." I've always felt that the game should spring from the programmer and the artist. If you don't love games, work somewhere else.