Hi everybody! I figured I'd start by posting my interview with ABBUC magazine. It will be published in German and I'm supposed to get an English translation. This is the unedited interview and it'll be interesting to see what parts make it into the final article.
Some good questions here. Not used to talking about myself because I lead a pretty boring life.
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> Nowadays it's hard to find programmers of the eighties. We've found you, the author of the game Gauntletak. Could you explain your game in a few words?
It's a 2D shooter where you control a spaceship that can fire in eight directions and accelerate in any direction. You face a number of enemy ship types and each one is different. They are smart, use different tactics, and even know how to team up against you. The terrain is completely destructable and changes during the course of the battle. Your goal is to fight through 50 screens of defenders and kill the final boss at the end.
At a time when most other games had your enemies marching in a line across the screen, this was a pretty innovative approach. The enemies don't follow any set patterns. They react to everything that you do and each encounter is unique.
> Was it your first game you created? What are the names of other games/programmes you have written?
Gauntlet was the first and only game I published. I had two more under development at the time I released Gauntlet, but since Gauntlet didn't sell well, I went on to other things. One game was a First Person speeder bike chase game from Start Wars and the other was kind of like what Worms turned out to be.
I did a lot of cross-platform translations at that time and wrote "How to Program in BASIC" for the Atari, PC, and Commodore 64. After that I got into the commercial market and developed a lot of embedded software. I worked on controllers for six different laser printers and a typesetter, did the weather map distribution service that all the TV weather stations used to use, and a bunch of other stuff.
The best, and most useful machine I designed was BorderGuard - a device that identifies fake passports. It is currently used in 11 countries including Hungary, Canada, Germany, Austraila, and the US. We caught over 30 terrorists with it during the initail trials. It even appeared in the movie "The Terminal". Heck, my machines are more famous than me.
As far as gaming goes, the only other thing that I published was a huge strategy guide called "The Grenadier's Bible" for the Laser Squad Nemesis under my player name Crank. It's almost a hunderd pages long. LSN is the best game I've ever played and at the time I was the top Marine player. I haven't played in four years but people still talk about how scary I was.
I'd love to get back into it, but I just don't have the time. But I still pop in there from time to time to discuss tactics.
I currently play DDO, Tabula Rasa, BF2, and COD4 online and a number of RPG games on my laptop tat I play when I travel.
> What was your inspiration to write such type of game?
I typed in a Lunar Lander program in BASIC from Antic magazine. After getting it working, I statred playing around with it to see what else I could make it do. I changed it so that you could take off again and land on another pad, and then I added a second lander so that two people could play together. A soon as I got the two landers on the screenI wanted to make them shoot at each other, but I had pushed the limits of the BASIC language. So I rewrote the lander program in assembly language and started adding features until I had something that looked like it could be fun. At that point I realized that it was possible to write a real game on the Atari and the APX would let you publish it, so I go serious into turning into a game that I would like to play. I've always like games where you had to fight smart enemies and think on yor feet, and that was the major focus. It took over two years to get the game to play the way I wanted it to.
> Did you use some special programming techniques and tricks?
Yes, there were a few things. This might get technical:
The first was throw to out all the Atari graphics and sound routines and write my own. The Atari graphics routines are unbelievably slow because they recalculate the screen resolution EVERY time that they draw a dot. I could draw 100 dots on the screen in the same time it took the Atari routines to draw one. I also read the keyboard and joystick dirretly. When the game is running, there's no "Atari" software running at all, my program is driving all the hardware directly.
The game uses a queue system to manage everything and a task controller to process the queues. There are five queues: Drawing, Movement, Font Cycling, Thinking, and Firing (New object creation). Each queue is processed 30 times a second, and they are processed in order. Processing stops when time runs out for that time slot. This makes the whole game self-throttling because if there are too many objects on the screen there won't be time left to Fire and create more objects until there were less objects are on the screen.
The player ship is always the highest priority and was handled seperately so that it is always responsive to the user and never appears to lag.
I used a special graphics mode with "flat" dots that gave the game a unique look.
Since I didn't use any of the Atari software, I grabbed all the RAM space that the Atari software needed and used it for my own program. Gauntlet uses all the available space and I got to the point where I couldn't add anything without ripping something else out to make room. I wrote a lot of data compaction routines to fit everything in. You know all the text at the start of the shareware version? That even gets overwritten and used as running memory as soon as the game starts. Space is that tight.
I made my own sound driver with eight sound channels that prioritized sounds by "importance" and then sent them along to the Atari four channel sound chip. That makes the player always has the critical audio feedback that he needs even when there's a lot happening on the screen. It's one of those features that nobody really notices but it makes a big difference in the gameplay.
Every time an object "moves" on the screen, it has to do a number of things. First you erase the old position. While you're doing that, you check all the dots to see if any of them are missing (indicating a hit). Now you draw the object in the new position, and while you doing that you have to check if any of the dots at the new position are filled in (indicating a collision). For the commercial version, I managed to rewrite all that logic without using any branch statements, just ANDs, ORs, XOR,s etc. The resulting code was more compact and almost 5 times faster, which allowed me to put a lot more and a lot bigger objects on the screen. The shareware version had problems with slowdown but this eliminated them.
My development system had four disk drives and 128K of RAM (through a custom memory board) to compile the source code. I had a second Atari 800 as a test machine so that I could test the game on one computer while I was compiling the latest changes on the other. The game took an hour to compile from scratch, but I broke it up into smaller modules that would compile in about 20 minutes each.
I was a member of a local Atari Users group and each week I would bring my latest build to the meeting for everyone to try. They were a great group of people and *very* hard on the game. Their enthusiasum was also great and they helped keep me motivated. They are probably the biggest reason that Gauntlet turned out as well as it did.
> Do you have some hints to get higher scores?
The biggest thing is to learn how to lead enemy homing missles into the ground so that you don't have to shoot them out of the air. That allows you to shoot at the launching ship instead of wasting time on it's missiles.
There's a LOT more hints in the back of the games manual that I wrote back when I really knew how to play.
> Look at your product from today. Are you still proud of it? What do you like on your game most? What don't you like?
Yes, I am. Mostly I'm proud that I was actually able to finish it and that people seem to like it even after all this time.
The things I like most are the large variety of "smart" enemies that use different tactics to fight you. Each one fights differently and it keeps the game interesting. My goal was to cause you to think on you feet and I think the game accomplishes that.
I absolutely HATE the way the terrain looks! It was the best I could do at the time because of the Atari 800 limitations, but I never liked the looks of it. I also wanted the game to have a smooth scrolling screen, but it was impossible to do that.
The graphics in general always disappointed me because I was limited to the Atari display modes and I couldn't get more than four colors on the screen at once. The game could easily drive higher resolution graphics, but the Atari couldn't support them.
> How did you sell your product? Did you have some professional publisher or other professional help?
Originally the game was targeted for the Atari Program Exchange (APX), but the APX closed down a month before Gauntlet was ready. I submitted the game to a number of publishers, but at the time Atari was in financial trouble and nobody wanted to market an Atari-only game. So I distributed it as shareware with the option of buying a registered version and uploaded to a number of BBS's.
> Could you tell us the main differences between your shareware version (Gauntlet) and your commercial version (Gauntletak)?
The shareware version has one difficulty setting and every screen has the same enemies on it.
The commercial version has six difficulty settings and the enemies are randomly generated. There are a number of new ammo types and enemy ships. The enemies are smarter and different types of enemiy ships work together. The graphics are also faster and there can be twice as many objects on the screen at once.
> How many copies were sold of your game?
I sold about 50 of the registered version and an unknown number later on when a publisher of old 8-bit games picked it up.
> How could we, abbuc members, enjoy your program? Is it still available?
I thought the game was lost forever because all my master disks were destroyed when I stored them in an attic about ten years ago. Two months ago, my daughter found out that people were discussing the game on the Atariage forums and were looking for the commercial version. My daughter was born the year the game was made, so this was pretty strange.
The discussion was three years old, but I responded and gave them some information on how to identify the commercial version. Amazingly, someone from the forum had one of the original 50 registered disks and he made it available again. Thanks to him, everyone can now play the commercial version. I'm happy to say that the game is included on the magazine disk so that abbuc readers can enjoy it.
> Could I asked some personal Atari related things?
> Was the Atari your first computer? When did you buy it and why?
I was my first "home computer". I used to build single board computers as a hobby. I was a hardware engineer a the time and had just gotten a Sim-One single board computer. I wanted to buy a terminal for it, but I found out the the Atari 800 was actually cheaper than a terminal and it was a full computer with color graphics and everything. I bought one and decided to learn programming on it. Since I loved games, I decided that would be a good project to learn on. I've been writing software ever since.
> How old were you at this time?
24 years old. I was married with one kid.
> How have you learned to write programs and what languages did you prefer on the Atari?
I had written some assembly language programs at work and also wrote some test programs in BASIC. I was mostly self-taught after college and learned most of my programming and hardware design by doing small projects at home.
For the Atari, I used BASIC for a lot a small wargamming aids like dice rollers and stuff and I used assembly language for Gauntlet.
> Did you play on the Atari? What were your favourites?
I played almost everything on the Atari, but my particular favorites were:
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
Missile Command (I actually beat it!)
Asteroids (4 player co-op)
> Do you still use your Atari today?
No. About ten years ago I lent my development machine to someone who wanted to learn programming. It didn't run because one of the expanded memory switches was in the wrong position, so instead of asking me for help, the idiot took the whole thing apart and ripped out all the "unnecessary" wires. I was furious. The machine was totally customized and I didn't have any of the old wiring diagrams. He also managed to crack the motherboard trying to pry it out, so the machine was unrepairable. This happened just after I discovered that all my source code disks were unreadable, so I just got rid of everything. Oh well.
> Why not? Never thought of buying one for a few bucks on ebay and relive old emotions/feelings?
I got into PC gaming and never really looked back. I played with one of the emulators a few years ago and that brought back memories. Some of those old games are very unique and have great play value.
Now that Gauntletak is available, I'm currently setting up the emulator again on my PC. I already ordered one of the old joysticks. It's exciting because half of my kids didn't know I wrote a videogame and now they want to see it. They think I'm some kind of hero now.
I actually can't wait to play it again!