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Tunnel Runner - Interview with Programmer


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#1 Red 5 OFFLINE  

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    Tunnel Runner

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 12:37 PM

With all the 2600 games I have played and collected over the years, Fathom and Tunnel Runner have always been my favorites.

When I play tne 2600 today, IMHO Tunnel Runner holds up the best.

So even with the warning in an old thread not to contact Mr. Balaska, I threw caution to the wind and did it anyway. :cool:

While I don't think he would want thousands of people contacting him, I think he was pleasantly surprised to see the cult following
Tunnel Runner has.

Also, he joined AtariAge recently, so if you really feel the need to contact him, do it through AtariAge only to respect
his privacy.

I inundated the poor guy with a ton of questions.
He has responded to about half of them since I bugged him last week.
More answers may be coming, but I am just happy to have had the opportunity to thank him for making one of the favorite games of my youth.

Here is what I have so far, with more (possibly) to come.

Fun Fact:
Before the monsters in the game were called Zots, he called them Zits. Marketing changed it to Zots. :)

His favorite 2600 game was Kaboom!

Tunnel Runner commercial

Me: To make us all feel incredibly old, it is the 25th anniversary of Tunnel Runner. Happy Anniversary!

DB: Eech, so i've been a code monkey for about 28 years.

Me:The big question is what the heck is this!?The debate is between Easter Egg and Glitch. As you probably know all too well, programmers didn't get the nice credits screen like games show today. Many programmers hid their initials in the game (like in Yar's Revenge and Adventure).

tunnel_runner_1.JPG

DB: Ah yes; the Mayan Temple Easter Egg. That looks like a section of the map to me. I'll bet that looks a lot like the maze you are in.
My initials are on the title screen and on the "cb db" room. CB is Cindy, who no longer exists.

So one day shortly after the game's release, i get a phone call at work: "Hi, this Bobby from Nowhere Idaho. I'm trying to complete level 44 and it's all dark and broken."

At that point, my management realized they'd made a mistake. We had asked for kids to come and learn and play the game. What we got was a 60 year old guy who'd never seen a video game "The Grandfather image" focus grouping a bunch of 3-5 year olds for two hours.

I stood behind the one-way mirror and howled.

Beyond that, only me and a couple of VPs had played the game. And we sucked. So i never saw anyone go passed like level 8 or 9.

I would love to see video of these insane levels.

Me: A lot of people think the game is 'eerie', 'creepy', and even 'scary'. The music of the Zots is brilliant. Were you going for a scary sort of game
or did it just turn out that way?


DB: It just turned out that way.

Me: And speaking of the music, it is brilliant. Anyone who ever played that game can hum those 8 notes 25 years later. The use of volume was another incredibly original idea. Did you come up with the music as well?

DB: Stu Ross (Wings) did the 8 notes. He was big Doors fan. Andy Frank is credited with the music. He did the death scene song.

Me: Was it your idea to increase the volume as the zots got closer?

DB: Yes

Me: I always had a theory that the game was originally intended to be a 3-D pac-man that then morphed into Tunnel Runner. Am I even close on that one?

DB: Nah. The zits actually came later. I wanted to do up and down (3-D) to the motion as well as left, right front, back. But the VCS couldn't handle that.

Me: Do you remember how you came up with the idea for the game?

DB: I was sitting at a laundromat sketching between loads. I called it "Spelunker Today". The code is named "cave". I actually started coding it at the laundromat in a paper notebook and then typed it a week later.

Me: How long did it take to program?

DB: I think, a couple of years. I also had to design the Ram Plus chip.

Me: AtariAge has you listed you as only writing one game for Atari. Were you working on anything else before the crash?

DB: I was working on Robby the Robot for CBS Toys. It was way ahead of its time. (IR remote controlled, programmable robot).

Me: Have you worked on any other games for any other systems since then?

DB: http://www.xpilot.org/

Me: We know about the game Wings by CBS that was never completed. They even found a prototype! Were there any other games that you can remember that were on the drawing board at CBS electronics?

DB: Scott Santulli was well on his way with the original Madden Football. (Atari 800) side-to-side scrolling X's and O's).
We were in bed with Coleco (a totally fscked up company) and were concentrating on Coleco games. Andy Frank had some cool fractal generated landscapes that you rode through for "Quixote".

Me: There were very few companies that seemed to maintain a high standard for video games. Atari, Activision, Imagic
and CBS, to name a few, seemed to be the only companies that really had serious quality control. What was it like working at CBS?


DB: We had money for everything (except salaries :) ) We had a beautiful facility overlooking the babes on Greenwich Ave. in Greenwich CT. We had all top notch gear. We all had offices with doors.

We had this U-channel running in the hall above the doors to everyone's office, because we didn't know what networking wires were needed. (No TCP/IP back then) During one of our midnight sit-in-the-hall meetings (obviously no management around then), someone said "Dick, you should run a train around on the cable channel". One girl printed up shares in the BK&O RR (Route of the Bucko), Stu Ross made a bridge out of IC tubes, Scott Robinson made a bridge out of erector set. When our VP was away "on business" in Europe i hot glued most of the HO track in place. Lou Abignaro returned from Europe and saw the train and threatened to fire me blah blah because i cut in to my 18 hour work day to waste time building the train. And i recruited other people to waste time, too! He was pissed.

A week later Lou calls me on the phone, "Dick, i'm bringing some people through, and i'd like you to turn on the train". The train was the highlight of "The Tour". The part of The Tour that i hated was when Lou would open my door; 4 or 5 strangers would poke their heads in, and Lou would say, "This is the office where Tunnel Runner was developed". Sometimes i would say, "And i'm Dick, the body that occupies the office that Tunnel Runner was developed in".

I regret that there are NO pictures of this train. I still have the two bridges.

Me: If there were any video games from the First Person Perspective back then, they were very few and far between. Now, they are everywhere.
Tunnel Runner was really a pioneer in this sense. Did you get the idea of a First Person Perspective yourself or from another game?


DB: Myself. I really never played video games. I used to say, "I design video games, but i play pinball". We used to have arcade games all over the office, but i couldn't talk them into a pinball machine.

That's it for now.
I love stories from the 'good old days' of video games, and I thought you all might enjoy hearing it too.

Keep checking back. If I get any other answers, I will post them as well.

And to DB, if you are reading this post, thanks again!

#2 Crazy Climber OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 12:54 PM

Cool info, thanks for sharing that :)

#3 Nathan Strum OFFLINE  

Nathan Strum

    Quadrunner

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 1:06 PM

Indeed - thank you! It's always great to hear more insider stories from back-in-the-day.

#4 iwan-iwanowitsch-goratschin OFFLINE  

iwan-iwanowitsch-goratschin

    Progressive Pornobär

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 2:17 PM

Yeah, those postpostpost classic videogame era interviews are very fascinating! :cool:

#5 PressureCooker2600 OFFLINE  

PressureCooker2600

    Nurgle, The Pestilent One

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 3:38 PM

I contacted Gary Kitchen a few years back....telling him how Pressure Cooker was my all-time favorite game and how I still play it all the time to this day.

He responded back which was awesome, for me.

I wish I could do an interview with him about the process of making Pressure Cooker and how it came into fruition.

#6 Shannon OFFLINE  

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    Born To Be Insane

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 5:01 PM

"And i'm Dick, the body that occupies the office that Tunnel Runner was developed in".


Classic. :lol: :rolling:

#7 PressureCooker2600 OFFLINE  

PressureCooker2600

    Nurgle, The Pestilent One

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Posted Mon Mar 3, 2008 6:44 PM

"And i'm Dick, the body that occupies the office that Tunnel Runner was developed in".


Classic. :lol: :rolling:


Geez......no respect for the programmers back then, either. I can't even imagine someone just ignoring the person who programmed the game and just saying, "This is where Tunnel Runner was made."

Sheesh.

That's why Activision ruled. It was, AFAIK, owned AND operated BY the programmers.

Edited by PressureCooker2600, Mon Mar 3, 2008 6:44 PM.





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