Reprinted with permission from the Atari 2600 Connection Newsletter:
Recently, I had the privilege to speak with Rob Fulop, an accomplished 2600 game designer with both Atari and Imagic, and now the Creative Director and co-partner of P.F. Magic. His work with the 2600 earned him several industry accolades, and the prestigious Game of the Year award in 1982 for his ground-breaking achievement with Demon Attack.
SS: Let's start with your educational background.
RF: I have an Electrical Engineering degree from the University of California in Berkley (in 1978). From there, I went right to work at Atari. I was hired by Nolan Bushnell and actually started working in the coin-op division doing sound effects for a pinball machine called Superman. After that, I moved to the home division when the 2600 was released. My first games were Night Driver and Missile Command.
SS: Those were the only two you did?
RF: No, I also did Space Invaders for the 400/800 computers. That was also around the same time when Atari's home computers were released.
SS: Your method of hiding your initials was very ingenious!
RF: My initials are in Missile Command, but I think it was later taken out in some versions of cartridges. That really upset me because I thought it was neat that when it was found, people could tell their friends. Atari was mad because I had left to go work at Imagic, so they went back into the code and took it out. As far as I'm concerned, that just made it a collector's item.
SS: Exactly, because not that many have them.
RF: Right. But then, of course, games like Super Mario Bros. came out. Those games are just filled with easter eggs.
SS: So after Atari, you went to Imagic.
RF: I had first worked on some stuff that was never released, and them I went to Imagic and did Demon Attack, Cosmic Ark, and Fathom. Right after Demon Attack, I did a game called Cubicolor. It's a two-player puzzle game based on Rubik's Cube (the handheld puzzle). This was when Rubik's Cube was very popular. It wasn't released because Imagic wanted an action game at the time. It got put aside, and after Imagic folded, I ended up with about 50 prototype carts. If there's a market for 2600 games, this will be a collector's item. People who have played it seemed to like it -- it's a fun game.
SS: Demon Attack was probably your biggest seller.
RF: Yes, that was the best one.
SS: What was it based on? What was your inspiration for it?
RF: Galaxian. That's pretty obvious! The idea was to have a game where there was a lot to see. The farther you got, the more there was. There are basically seven different monsters, and we colored them eight different ways. This led to 56 variations. Actually, there are 84 waves. It's a big game to see everything.
SS: The manual mentions that after 84 waves, the game stops.
RF: That's an interesting story. I thought no one would ever "wrap" the game. I actually programmed it so, at the end of the game, if you beat the demons, they would just turn off. Two days after the game was released, some kid wrapped it. After the initial run of carts, I went back and took the "bug" out. I changed one line of code. I made it so you can play the game forever, but it never gets harder past the 84th wave.
SS: Cosmic Ark was a pretty hard game.
RF: That was difficult?
SS: I thought so.
RF: You see, that's the problem with making a videogame. If it's more difficult than the designer can play, then how do you test it? I don't know if it's possible at the higher levels.
SS: I've gotten up to these "Pac-Man" type beasties, at which point it gets so fast, it's unbelievable.
RF: We actually had a promotion at Imagic to try to name all the creatures.
SS: Is there some kind of connection with Cosmic Ark and Dennis Koble's Atlantis?
RF: Oh, right. The little space ship. At the end of Cosmic Ark, this little space ship flew away, and we wound up putting it in Atlantis. We were going to put the ship in a bunch of games.
SS: I noticed on some versions of Cosmic Ark, the TV type switch flips the star background on and off. Were you aware of this?
RF: No. The star field was done because of a bug in the 2600 hardware. Later models don't have this, so there may be some differences there.
SS: Getting back to Demon Attack, what was the lawsuit with Atari all about?
RF: Atari sued us (Imagic) over the Demon Attack version for the Intellivision. It looked like a game that Atari did, but the suit was later dropped.
SS: Were there any games in your 2600 career that you never finished?
RF: I worked on an Egyptian-themed game at Atari before I left. It never quite worked out, and we didn't like it so it never got finished. Later on, it became Riddle of the Sphinx. About half the games that got started were never completed. Bob Polaro did a neat Road Runner game. Was that ever released?
SS: Yes, it actually came out about four years ago. I think it was done very well.
RF: He started that game about eight years before. I think the best cart of all time was Douglas Neubauer's game...
RF: Yes. That was the best thing when I left and he spent two years "in the dark" just doing that game. But there was no market for it when he was done.
SS: That's a fantastic game.
RF: What do you think is the best 2600 game?
SS: Probably Solaris. It's definitely one of my favorites.
RF: I also have a Game Line unit from back then. It let you load carts over the phone...
SS: That's definitely a collector's item! I remember seeing the ads for it when they were trying to get people to sign up. Did you ever use it?
RF: No, it never worked.
SS: With your Imagic games, were there any little tricks that you put in? In Fathom, the company's address is shown at the end of the game...
RF: I never liked Fathom.
SS: Really? I thought it was a good game. The layout is quite big.
RF: It was an 8K game. That was the last game I did. I never knew what it was when I started. For all the other games, I had a vision for what they were going to be. Fathom started with a neat picture that Michael Becker drew of a dolphin jumping out of the water. He drew this graphic and we made a game out of it. There was never any vision of what the game was. It was this kind of "epic" where you're underwater, then you fly in the air. There's mermaids, too. It just never felt like a game. The best games are simple with a real vision of what it is -- like Pitfall (by Activision).
SS: That had a similar beginning as well. It started with a little demo of a running man. He (David Crane) just sat down and figured out the rest.
RF: Well, we can't do that anymore! Now, with CD games, it's like making a movie. You have 10 people working on a project, and you can't just sit down and make it up as you go along.
SS: After Imagic, what did you end up doing?
RF: I did some on-line games for Quantum, and then started making active video for Hasbro. I did a few games for them, one of which is for the Genesis CD called Night Trap. It's basically a movie. It's interesting -- if you look back at Night Driver, it had 2K of code. The last project we finished involved 650 megabytes of code. Even though 12 years have gone by, and we have 2000 times as many resources to use, the skills that make use of those resources to design a game are exactly the same.
SS: It's still the same process of approaching it?
RF: I think so. You're basically resource-constrained. It's funny -- I often call these CD players the "VCS" of video. The 2600 VCS was really a horrible machine to program on.
SS: Other programmers have mentioned the same thing -- it was really hard to get a good game out of it.
RF: It took a year.
SS: How long does it take you to do a CD game?
RF: A year, but now it's 20 people and the budgets are half of a million dollars. With games such as Night Driver, it was one guy sitting down for nine months -- like writing a book.
SS: So after Hasbro, you went to P.F. Magic?
RF: Yes. At P.F. Magic, we do about five or six large projects a year.
SS: Is this your own company?
RF: I have a partner. There's 18 people in the company.
SS: May I ask what "P.F." stands for?
RF: We don't ever tell anyone-it's our secret!
SS: I thought maybe there was something with the names -- Imagic and P.F. Magic.
RF: I just like "magic" in the title of a company. There's really no connection.
SS: What exactly are you working on?
RF: We're working on games for the Sega Genesis CD, the 3DO platform, CDI, and the Super Nintendo.
SS: People in the industry are predicting the 3DO to be...
RF: We don't know. At this point, I've worked on 15 platforms in my life. To me, they're all the same. It's the next "2600." Whatever comes out next -- they'll say it's wonderful and it won't have enough memory! The 3DO is definitely the next big thing to get excited about. But it's all the same -- none of them have enough memory or processing power to do what you want, and they all take a year to do products for. That's been the same for the last 12 years.
SS: What do you think about virtual reality?
RF: Well, there's definitely no rush. I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon -- not in the way it's being portrayed. It's just not that exciting. At the end of the day, I think Tetris is more fun! I think something cool can come of it, but it won't be for awhile.
SS: It will be interesting to see where they take it. Right now, it's sort of a gimmick, or a toy. Virtual Reality has been around for years.
RF: Battlezone was a "virtual" game.
SS: What are some of your favorite games?
RF: Tetris, Q*Bert, Pac-Man... I like puzzle-type games, and those that are abstract, rather than those that are more realistic or that try to imitate reality.
SS: Do you ever see any of your old fellow 2600 programmers?
RF: Oh yeah. I see Dennis Koble all the time, and David Crane. Many of them are still active in the industry. I think Warren Robinett went to work for the military, and Howard Scott Warshaw doesn't design games anymore...but most of them are still around today.
Rob Fulop's Softwareology
For Atari 2600:
Night Driver (Atari)
Missile Command (Atari)
Demon Attack (Imagic)
Cosmic Ark (Imagic)
Cubicolor (Imagic) *
For Atari 8-bit computers:
Space Invaders (Atari)
For America On-Line:
For Sega Genesis CD:
* never officially released by Imagic