David Wightman, I was the founder of Creative Edge or Edgies as we were known in Scotland – not to be confused with the American Creative Edge(!).. We made a ton of titles in the good old days on various machines including the Atari Jaguar. Before I set the company up I had worked in the games industry for a decade or so on pretty much every machine under the sun.
How did you get into the games industry?
After messing with Apple2’s at school – which was a very rare beast on this side of the world, I was fortunate to receive a ZX81 for Christmas. Back in those days there were very few games to buy so if you wanted to play games we had to write them ourselves – so I did. At first in Basic then when I hit the limits I had to learn some assembly to get more out of the machines.
I went on to some freelance work for various publishers then I decided I had to setup a company as the games were bigger and needed a huge team, 5 people was thought of as big in those days!
I worked my way through all the 8bit home machines, then some early consoles then onto 16/32bit chips – which was the Amiga/ST/Jaguar era.
How did your relationship start with Atari?
I was in San Francisco and called up Atari out of the blue in the off chance that I’d be able to visit and see if we could work some ideas together for the Jaguar. I had just bought one of the first colour IBM laptops and for fun we moved some of our games over to it so I could work on them when I was travelling, I still programmed daily as well running the company.
I organized a meeting with Atari Dev support in Sunnyvale and as I was demo’ing the games, Sam Tramiel came over to see the colour Laptop as he’d never seen one before. He watched the games in full glorious dual-Scan colour (an old screen technology), asked a ton of questions then said ‘sign them up’ and walked off. That was the start of our companies’ relationship with Atari. We worked on quite a few tiles including some that never got released beyond Baldies.
Did you see any new Hardware whilst at Atari?
I was fortunate to have worked previously on the Lynx a few times and loved it, it was like a Commodore64 with a great sprite chip.
There was talk of a new Lynx constantly. The handheld sector was lucrative for Nintendo but the problem was the cost of the screens were high and heading higher as the sector, and demand for screens took off.
Coupled with the lack of development on silicon integration which is normally where you lower costs meant the price went up on new hardware – not down.
If you recall the Lynx V2 refresh saw the price rise partly because of this.
The other problem was the battery life – it was simply too early to solve this and was a curse of the handheld era. The GameGear, Nomad, PCengine handheld all had the same problem of getting more than 3 hours from $10 in batteries.
Various prototypes were always sitting around the HW dept. The Atari white-coats always made them in grey so that they were easy to distinguish what was a prototype and what was a finished item. Usually made with blue buttons from left over moulds.
If you look at the buttons on the Lynx and the buttons on the original Jag controller you’ll see they’re essentially spare lynx parts.
As we were outside contractors we had access to the higher ups at the same time as working with the body of the company.
I remember having lunch with Sam Tramiel as he was looking for thoughts on how to bring more developers onboard. I was trying to convince him to expand the base of the Jaguar hardware by developing it into a home machine which would have allowed home school developers access to the chipset and the thought of a Jaguar/Jag2 GPU coupled with a 68030 chip would be an easy win with programmers.
He agreed that it would fly off the shelves in Europe to tech-heads but such was Atari’s stature in the US at the time – plus the dilution of corporate message that would occur, it was never going to happen much to my disappointment.
What was the daily working routine like at Atari?
Edgies had an office in the back of the building where we finished off the titles in Development. We’d fly half the team over from Scotland to be closer to the launch team.
In the morning we’d drive to the Atari Sunnyvale office, avoiding Larry Pacey’s Nissan Z which was always parked over 2 spaces and an old car that someone left to rust in the car park for some reason. We’d walk past an always-smoking Jeff Minter in his Black and White Llama sweater – even though it was California Summer. Jeff would always mumble something about Llamas and pole dancing just to freak out people who had never met him. Into the side door and into our office. It always had an aroma of Rice-Krispie treats for some reason, all the rage with the test team at the time and a background noise of arcade machines.
We’d check the bug reports uber-test lead Harry Kinney made for us then get to work… playing Mortal Kombat3, Hydra or Star Wars until lunch at the “rail”.
Half the time we were chasing hardware bugs as the Jag CD was still heavily in development. Leonard Tramiel who was writing the JagCD Bios would give us a new Eprom Bios for our Jag-CD dev kits and this would always break the build.
For some reason he’d routinely flip the error codes then deny it. One day a CD-Read error would return ‘1’ then another day it would be ‘0’ – hugely frustrating. His coding memory lives in infamy as we still use the term ‘doing a Leonard’ when reversing a decision then denying it.
The Edgies team work away coding from 2pm all through to the early hours of the morning. We’d always drop into the test bunker to play some of the in-dev games before finally heading out around 4am.
What was nice was we got to work with the hardware and software guys directly which was unique in the console era. We’d debug the Jag CD or the Jag-Link networking stack then we’d work with the Hardware guys through the day to develop a mouse or write some test routines to hammer in-development chipsets for un-announced chipsets as a favour to the HW people. I cant imagine too many developers get to do that at Sony or Nintendo.
Did you mention a Jaguar mouse?
Atari were actually going to ship a mouse with Baldies. In the end we never shipped the mouse but the code is still somewhere in the game – it had a pretty big hit on performance as we’d need to poll the mouse interrupt ourselves to see if it was moving or not as the chipset was never designed for a mouse counter/interrupt. I still have the Jag mouse here in it’s various forms.
That’s why the control is slightly sluggish in Baldies as it was designed for a mouse.
What was your development environment?
I personally used OS/2 as it was rock solid for multi-tasking. I used the once-excellent ‘Brief’ text editor in a DOS box for writing code and a separate DOS session to compile code up in the background. We’d have a pre-burnt CD with files on it – held in place spinning on the open CD-kit by a mountain-dew cap with a magnet in it.
Then we’d simply squirt some code down to the Alpine card by hand and run it directly.
Atari had another official method for CD development via Atari Falcon machines and CD emulation software but we worked out Leonard wrote this part of the development manual so it was best ignored.
How was Baldies written?
The bulk off the code was actually ported over from the unreleased Amiga version of Baldies then finished off.
I wrote 90% of the game in 68k assembly and re-wrote the screen routines to work on the Jag’s chipset. I had the game up and running within a week.
We also wrote the odd piece of optimized I/O code that ran on the GPU – but the chip itself was so limited that we avoided it for the most part. The GPU was supposed to ship with access to more than 4k but we were told a bug late in the day reduced it from 64k to 4k – that would have made a massive difference to performance and programmers would actually have used it. Whether this is fact or a shade of grey I’m unsure but the 4k limit was illogical to say the least.
Any secret codes in Baldies?
Yes, there’s a ton of shortcuts in the game if you type in codes on the keypad – I’d need to dig out the code to find them though.
What do you remember of the Hardware?
My favourite machine to work on of all time. Europeans loved it as it was possible to write in Assembly code all the way. Americans not so much as they were ‘C’ junkies and the compiler/libraries were far from optimal. That’s one reason of many why E.A. and the big publisher guns never got on board. In those days it made a big difference which language base you used and E.A. games would simply not port as they were all in ‘C/C++’.
European publishers such as Ubisoft or Infogrammes could handle the machine easily enough as most of their games were Amiga/ST based – a distinction that could have changed the history of the machine.
The 68k chip was so versatile that most people used it even though it was under-clocked and designed as a secondary payload preparation chip.
Coupled with a really nice chipset to throw 2D objects around the screen and it was potent for certain types of games.
If Atari had focused on classic styled games (Sonic/Mario style). I’m absolutely convinced that it ‘could‘ have survived with some quality titles. Marketing decided that the PSX was the big threat so they needed to compete head to head on 3D and that was never going to happen due to the 4k limit for 3D code.
This would have given corporate some breathing space to complete the Jaguar2 chipset which was genuinely very powerful for it’s day. They had the Jag2 chipset running on the testbench drawing polygons all day long quite early into the Jaguar1’s sales cycle, I got the feeling they’d have liked to have started over again with a fresh sheet of paper but they had to play the hardware on the market through to it’s conclusion.
I also remember the VR headset – more of a marketing play that an actual possibility. Whilst it was ‘ok’, the Hardware cost $30,000 which was simply not scalable into a $250 consumer headset. I recall the legal dept were worried about people falling over and breaking a leg – the legal liabilities could have been horrendous for them. The games were ok but not a paradigm shift in quality.
Can you tell us more about the Jaguar 2?
The Jag 2 from recollection was basically a new piece of silicon running on a breadboard, I can’t remember the numbers now but it was extremely fast compared to the Jaguar1 from the little exposure I had to it.
By fixing the Hardware ‘feature’ that allowed programmers more than 4k, it opened the potential of the original chipset then moved it forward a couple of generations.
Keep in mind the original Jaguar chipset was a second generation Atari Panther which was firmly planted in a 2D world. The Jag2 chipset was a new generation of silicon born into a 3D world and reflected it’s potential. It was way ahead of the PSX that I remember.
What did you and Edgies work on that was unreleased?
Too many things. For Atari we had one title called ‘Battle Lords’ which was a hack and slash Gauntlet style title which we had signed up for the Jaguar and PC.
Another was “Chopper” for the Jaguar which was 3D choplifter - the physics were excellent for the day.
We also had a platformer on the Jaguar called “Green-Thang” which was immense fun that was designed to compete with Zool and a few others whose name is on the server archive somewhere.
The code for Green-Thang was 80% complete on the Jaguar and we were about to start on the artwork as we kept development artwork at 16 or 32 colours with the idea we’d put it out on the Lynx too then scale the art up. Hence the very primary colours that the Lynx required.
Were you around at the Fall of Atari?
Ted Hoff was running the show by then, a very capable individual turning things around after being given a tough hand.
Ted had just launched Atari Interactive and we had signed a few PC titles to them. The ship was turning from Hardware to Software - slowly.
There was talk about signing up some of our titles for Sega and Sony platforms through Atari Interactive so they were clearly very serious about the Software division.
At this point in time and despite the Jaguar being actively sold on the market – Atari the console company was dead. Atari Interactive was the future although to the public it was a dual strategy for the remaining months.
People at Atari knew something was coming for a couple of months beforehand as half of the test team were let go and HW projects were put on ice but nobody knew if it was just the new Division taking focus or something deeper.
I remember being in Atari at the end of the journey. Jack T had appeared from retirement – a fearsome man of stature. I actually quite liked him for his honesty whenever we spoke on brief occasion.
People would literally ‘do a Leonard’ when they saw Jack in the corridor and turn 180degrees to go back in their offices. He was in a particularly foul mood for a few days as he walked the office.
At the end of his week back at Atari HQ he announced they were shutting the doors. He obviously came in to clean his hands of the company and was just following through with the motions.
As a business decision Jack could walk away with $50m in value through a merger or he could gamble it on a new software strategy – something he knew nothing about as Jack was always a Hardware+Sales man. What would you do – take $50million or throw the dice again after a 5 year loosing streak?
You still have contacts with former employees at Atari and Edgies?
Most of the old team are still in touch. Some are running big companies, some are still testing, some are involved in the biggest games on the market today so it’s an era of blessed individuals that continued to excel outside of that period of history.
Are you still involved in games development today?
After 20+ years and after working on over 100 titles I and some of the team took a break to find new challenges outside of games – whilst still keeping a mentoring hand on some of the new companies coming through.
But.. who knows what’s round the corner. I quite like the thought of releasing some of the old titles on tablets and phones – it’s an interesting market that’s developing and I have my eye on where it’s going to go next.
Finally, what do you think of Atari today?
Atari Computers, the Jack era - was a pioneering company with immense soul. The fighting spirit remained inside the company but after failing with the Falcon (for obvious reasons), limited success with the Lynx (price), PC’s (me too product) Portfolio handhelds (lack of distribution) etc.. the leadership of the company lost faith in their own ability to make big decisions. They left it to the marketing dept that can only reflect on yesterdays data – that will never work in a company whose muscle memory is trained to lead from the front however tired the organization became.
All companies die eventually and Atari and those who rode on the ship can be proud of the journey they helped create.
Edited by rygar, Thu Jan 3, 2013 3:45 PM.