The 2600 Game

Copyright © 2002, David B. Lamkins

This article was originally published in 2600connection issue 73 (July/August 2002).

My name is David Lamkins. I worked for Parker Brothers in 1982, and was one of the Gang of Five to 'defect' to Activision. I've been out of touch with the games industry since the market cratered in 1984. Lately, as a result of my lovely young wife's public teasing about my involvement with Parker's port of Frogger, I've become aware that there are a lot of retro gamers who are interested in what things were like 'back in the day.' I keep trying to tell people that it's not as exciting as they may think, but still they persist... This then, is my story.

First, let me cut to the chase. You've never seen a 2600 game authored entirely by me. I adapted the arcade soundtracks for Parker's Frogger and Spiderman, and programmed some of the Spiderman sound effects. So why did I work at Parker Brothers, if not to create games?

I had been working for several years in a consulting firm that created microprocessor hardware and firmware (a.k.a. software in ROM) for customers that were known primarily to scientists and engineers. In other words, not a very broad market. I had been wanting for some time to find a job where my work would be appreciated by a larger audience. I had been scanning the help wanted ads for months, not really finding anything that wasn't at least as unfulfilling as my current job. The technology companies of the day were, for the most part, old-school spinoffs of the declining aerospace and mainframe computer industries.

Imagine, then, my joy and surprise when I saw Parker Brothers running an ad for software engineers for an exciting new (yet unannounced) product. At Parker's next employment open house, I met Jim McGinnis, the hiring manager. We did the whole initial interview thing on the spot. Jim struck me as being a bright, articulate guy and I (I later learned) struck Jim as being maybe a bit too laid back for their group. If I remember correctly, I had to ask repeatedly what was the nature of the project for which Jim was hiring. Eventually, he relented and - after swearing me to secrecy - took me behind a screen to see an almost-finished version of Rex Bradford's Star Wars game. (Other Parker Brothers people were also present at the open house, but in retrospect I'm not sure who I met that evening.) I had seen the 2600 in local department stores with the included Tank game (either the market was just on the verge of taking off, or I wasn't paying much attention to games at the time). The Star Wars game was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Especially the music. I loved the musical soundtrack to the game.

Over the next week I called Jim a couple times and told him I was really interested in working on 2600 games at Parker Brothers. Eventually Jim told me that he and the other people I talked to at the open house got the impression I wasn't very excited about what they were doing. I managed to convince Jim during that phone call that I was indeed excited about working on video games, and he offered me a job as a game developer.

Parker Brothers was my third full-time job. Jim was certainly not the last manager who noted that I'm reserved about things which excite everyone else. I can quickly grasp the possibilities of something new and exciting, but I tend to keep things to myself until I've thought through all the angles and know how to separate viable possibilities from pipe dreams and half-baked ideas. My employers have learned to spin that part of my personality in a positive light - I'm often cited by my managers as having a "calming influence upon the development process" thanks to my tendency to try to fully understand a problem before proposing a solution.

On the day I started working at Parker Brothers, the Star Wars game was nearly finished. I wish that I could remember exactly who was already working there, but thirty years has taken its toll. I know that Rex and Jim were already there, as was Mark Lesser. (Mark was still working on hand held games at that time.) I'm almost certain that The Eds (Ed English and Ed Temple) were already there. Beyond that, my memory fails me. Parker hired a lot of people in very short time, all at about the same time I started.

Jim showed me around the office on my first day. I learned that 2600 programming depended upon knowledge of trade secrets. There was no programmer's manual. Parker Brothers had retained the services of an MIT graduate, an electrical engineer named Glen Dash, to reverse engineer the 2600. Glen's team uncapped Atari's custom chip to expose the silicon and examined it under an electron microscope. They diagrammed every transistor on that chip to create a circuit diagram, then analyzed the diagram to learn how the chip responded to programming commands. This knowledge helped Parker's engineers to understand code that they disassembled from Atari and Activision games.

Seven years earlier, Glen Dash had hired me to work for Executive Games as a technician repairing circuit boards for the TV Tennis and TV Hockey games. The video game business was in its infancy. TV Tennis and TV Hockey competed with Atari's Pong and similar games from at least a half-dozen other companies. The first microprocessor-based game, Fairchild's Channel F, was just reaching the market during Exective Games' final Christmas selling season before losing all of their financial records and production machinery to the hands of vandals. Executive Games recognized that the microprocessor-based games would kill their product lines, but had nothing with which to compete. Shortly before the company shut down, I was 'encouraged' to participate in a telephone interview with a reporter from Women's Wear Daily. (Back then, there was no dedicated games press, and manufacturers had to get publicity wherever they could. Executive Games' owners also operated a company which made tote bags and umbrellas, so they had connections with the clothing industry.) During the interview I touted the benefits of Executive Games' own (fictional) microprocessor-based game. It was my first exposure to vaporware, long before the software industry popularized the term.

But I digress...

During my first-day tour of Parker brothers I also learned that Rex and the others would write game code on a small timeshared computer and download it to an emulator plugged into the cartridge slot of a modified 2600 console. The emulators were once commercial products, but the company had since gone out of business. With a bunch of new game developers coming into the company, Parker Brothers was facing a problem obtaining enough development systems. For a variety of really boring technical reasons, other commercial emulators wouldn't work well for 2600 game development. As we were walking around, Jim described an idea he had for building emulators in-house. It was really similar to things I had been doing in my prior job, and was a simple and quick project, so I volunteered to lead it. I drew block diagrams and schematics for the emulator and handed them off to a couple of the hardware engineers who normally worked on the handheld games. While they put together the hardware, I wrote the software. The whole project only lasted about a month, but it sort of set the tone for my doing things other than writing games at Parker Brothers.

As the emulator project finished, Jim had expressed interest in getting out of management and taking a more hands-on role in game development. With agreement from his boss, Jim and I literally swapped roles and offices, netting me a promotion, a raise, and the occasional headaches of acting as the liason between Parker's marketing department and the game developers.

I have to say that Parker had a really good handle on what it took to get reliable software into production. Their projects were well-defined (for the most part the definition was, "copy an arcade game as best you can within the limitations of the 2600") and the programmer was (largely thanks to my running interference) rarely second-guessed by marketing. Development cycles were short, and once a game was finished the code was frozen for 30 days while everyone beat the heck out it trying to find problems. If anything bad turned up, we'd fix it and enter another 30 day freeze before we'd send the code off to be burned into ROMs for the games. Parker's code freezes were absolute. We couldn't change so much as a typo in a comment for fear that something unrelated would inadvertently get screwed up. Thirty years and five employers later, I have yet to work for another software development organization with that degree of commitment to quality.

The only time we had a real disconnect with the marketing department at Parker Brothers was during the development of Rex's second Star Wars game - the one with the light sabre battle. This was kind of an abstract game involving repulsive forces (a concept which would shortly resurface in Charlie Heath's port of Reactor). Rex was having problems getting a good controller feel for the game. At the same time, the marketing department was feeling the pressure of advertising a lot of games all at once, and they scheduled the commercial shoot to happen before Rex decided whether to use the paddle or joystick controllers. We tried to dissuade them from shooting the commercial based upon the unfinished game, and even suggested that they fake some shots with the alternate controller. But they went ahead and shot and edited the commercial showing the wrong controller, with no alternate plan. Once Rex finished the game, we took a lot of flak for having used the wrong controller. We even got some pressure to change the game to match the commercial. But we stood our ground (aided largely by the threat of another 30 day code freeze) and marketing ended up adding a textual disclaimer to the commercial.

As game developers at Parker Brothers, we always envied our counterparts at other companies for their ability to create original games. Parker had a corporate policy of creating licensed products; the policy relieved them of the burden of defending their intellectual property against knock-off artists. At the same time, we saw other developers reaping the financial benefits of royalties and profit sharing while we worked for a fixed (although relatively generous) salary. These two pressures led to some intense lobbying to rectify both situations. The issues first came to a head when Ed Temple and Ed English left to become independent contractors working for Coleco. Parker put a profit-sharing plan in place the same week The Eds left. I'm not sure whether the plan was a poorly-timed effort to try to retain The Eds, or whether it was intended to dissuade other developers from leaving. Regardless, it was a pretty generous plan. If I had stayed at Parker Brothers for another year or so, I would have collected from the plan an amount double my salary. I remember this after thirty years because my (ex)wife never let me live down the 'folly' of following my creative desires instead of taking the 'easy' money.

Anyhow, after The Eds left Parker Brothers, we continued (unsuccessfully) to lobby for the ability to create original games. During this time, I managed the development of the games (easy, considering the skill of the engineers), translated marketing-speak to engineering-speak and vice versa, played a minor role in the programming of a few games, helped to hire more engineers, and worked with our computer systems managers Rob Orlov and Jon Hueras to make sure that we had the best development tools we could find.

One day, Jim called me and invited me to dinner. This was the beginning of what became the Gang of Five: Jim, Rex, Charlie, Mike Brodie and me. I suspect that I was the last one invited, since the idea seemed pretty well fleshed out by the time we sat down to dinner. It was a pretty simple premise: take five developers with a proven track record and a desire to create original games, and offer their services (as a group) to companies we respected for their track record in publishing good original games.

Jim made the initial contacts with Atari, Activision and Imagic. Atari was pretty obviously tearing itself apart from the inside, so we didn't pursue them further. We arranged an interview trip to meet with Activision and Imagic in California. Each company knew of the other's involvement, and they shared the expenses of the trip. I don't know whether there was an intent to engage the companies in a bidding war. If there was, it didn't work. We received offers from both companies; the salaries were identical.

Imagic's president tried to impress us with his Ivy league pedigree and a bunch of commercials. Their lead developer (the guy who wrote Demon Attack) extolled the virtues of the company's free stress-management seminars. I don't think either one realized that he was pushing the wrong buttons. In the end, the deciding factor was Imagic's insistence that we move to California. We didn't want to do that.

Activision was no stranger to setting up remote offices. They already had a remote development center in New Jersey, and offered to set one up in Boston for us. Then there was the whole bit about treating game developers like rock stars. Yes, I'm sure they knew they were pushing the right buttons. We accepted the offer, tendered our resignation, and were promptly escorted from the Parker Brothers facility. We were honestly surprised by the vehemence of Parkers' reaction. We had offered to stay on long enough to bring others up to speed on our ongoing projects.

A day or two later, we were served with legal documents alleging theft of trade secrets and (citing Jim specifically) fomenting dissent. Activision retained a legal firm in downtown Boston, where we all went twice so the lawyers could engage in discovery. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous; the trade secrets we were allegedly stealing were mostly reverse-engineered from Activision code. The lawyers did their thing, and we got on with our new jobs.

Activision set us up in some temporary office space in an office park while they leased a very nice office in Lexington, right at the junction of Route 2 and Route 128. They did everything for us: shipped out a computer system, got the offices furnished, hired a secretary, etc. All we had to do was show up and write games. There was quite a bit of wasted time at the beginning, because we really couldn't get much done at the temporary space. But once we settled in to the Lexington office (Activision called it the Boston office - that was close enough for them) we started writing games. Rex started work on his golf game which featured fractal terrain generation. Charlie was doing some kind of scrolling cave-exploration game. I don't remember what games Jim and Mike worked on - I do recall that Jim tended to fall back into his manager role and challenged the rest of us to come up with something that was really new and exciting, and Mike was working on some fancy display techniques.

I spent my time at Activision working on a 2600 game I called Bird. I've heard that Rex later described it as "a pterodactyl on a bombing run", which is pretty good as a brief description. My inspiration for Bird came from partly from the Heavy Metal movie (the scenes with the girl riding the bird into battle), partly from Demon Attack (the colorful winged demons), and partly from Activision's Battlezone clone (the point-of-view perspective of the playing field). The player piloted a bird which had a limited endurance that was affected partly by the intensity of the player's maneuvers and partly by damage incurred from missles fired by ground-based hostiles somewhat reminiscent of Dr. Who's Daleks.

There were something like twelve objects on screen at any time, all positioned in a perspective view of a three dimensional playing field. The point of view was that of a third person following the bird, as if in a chase plane. The viewpoint tracked the bird's maneuvers with a reaction lag. If the bird maneuvered hard to the right, the viewpoint would catch up with the bird and bring the bird's position back to the center of the screen while panning the playing field in the opposite direction to show the bird's relative motion. I thought it was a really cool camera effect, almost cinematic.

Positioning all those objects in three-space took a lot of computation. If you know anything about 2600 programming, you're aware that your program runs synchronously with the display and can either work on the display or on the gameplay. Every 2600 game did all of its gameplay computation during the time in betweeen frames while the TV blanked the electron beam to return from the bottom right back to the top left of the screen, plus maybe a few scan lines at the top and bottom of the screen. Bird had so much computation for its gameplay that I had to leave blank a bunch of scan lines at both the top and bottom of the screen, which gave the playing field more of a letterbox aspect ratio.

The Bird game was really based around subtlety and survival. The player had to be sparing in his moves in order to make it to the next round. It was a shooter game, but not so much an aggressive game. It had kind of a Zen quality to it - probably way too cerebral for the market.

Jim Charne was Activision's 'local' manager for our office. Jim lived in New Jersey, where he also managed that remote development center (home to the Kitchen brothers Dan and Gary). Jim spent one day a week with us in Boston. His typical schedule was to arrive in the morning, spend a lot of time on the phone talking to people in New Jersey and California, take us out to lunch, and leave in the early evening.

I never really hit it off with Jim. In retrospect, I'd have to say that some of that was my fault for taking too seriously my autonomy as a developer. I never really made an effort to 'sell' my game concept to Jim. On the other hand, Jim never seemed to care much about what I was trying to accomplish. He made a few attempts to play early copies of Bird, and gave me no feedback until he awarded bonuses to everyone else. When questioned, Jim made it quite clear that he didn't think much of my game and wouldn't recommend it for publication.

My not being able to connect on a professional level with Jim Charne had hurt my chances of ever getting Bird published, even if the office had stayed open through the industry's downturn in 1984.

I was recently contacted by Activision's Ken Love, who is in the process of putting together a definitive collection of Activision games, including all the unreleased and prototype games. Ken wanted to acquire a copy of Bird. If any such copy exists, it's either on a thirty year old hard drive in some Activision storage locker, or in a dusty prototype cartridge in someone's closet. That's kind of a shame. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it one more time...