Andrew Burgess (Atari) – Interview

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S.T.U.N Runner and Atari supremo Andrew Burgess joined Adrian for a quick chat for what is a fascinating insight to the beloved (at times) company and its ill-fated Jaguar console…

 

Can you remember your earliest memory of gaming and what was your favourite computer / console while growing up?

My earliest memory of gaming was going to the local mall arcade watching people play the vector display versions of Pong, Asteroids, Battlezone (my favorite), and others. I was in high school by the time the Atari 2600 came out and my parents bought us one. About the same time, my high school got a TTY teleprinter that connected to a central computer somewhere in town where I discovered the text based games Adventure and StarTrek. I was only in school for one class per day (I’d finished most of my courses by my junior year and left the last one so I could graduate with my friends). I talked the Physics teacher into letting me use the TTY for 20 minutes between classes and before I headed off to work. I taught myself Basic and created a text based basketball game, using the stats for all NBA players that year to decide successful shots based on shot style options (i.e Player with ball: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, shot, Sky Hook). When I was done I found I was more intrigued with making it happen than playing the game.

 

How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?

My girlfriend, soon to become my wife, Natalie Ching Burgess, got hired by Atari Games Corporation right out of university. Natalie did an internship porting Karate Champ to a games console and was a perfect choice for Atari. Over the course of the next two years, I got to know many of the engineers and management and when a new team was formed, with a new manager, they offered me the opportunity to join. Natalie and I were married at the time and company policy required us to report to different managers.

 

Can you remember the first ever video game you worked on?

S.T.U.N. Runner. The project lead and game designer was Ed Rotberg. He took me under his wing and taught me most of what I know about game design and development. Ed challenged me with developing the user interface, creating a tool to easily build the tunnel systems, implement AI characteristics for each vehicle in the game, and I even got to do some of the art work. It was the funnest and best game development experience of my career.

 

What was it like working for Atari and why do you think the company is now a shadow of its former self?

First, I have worked at both Atari companies: Atari Games Corporation (video arcade) and Atari Corporation (consoles and computers).

Working at Atari Games Corporation was fantastic. I was working with some of the greatest game developers of the time, Rotberg, Theuer, Logg, Ralston, Salwitz and more. It was hard, challenging work with long days and nights, sometimes working 6 or 7 days a week, especially when getting close to introducing a new game. In those days, it took two years to complete a game from concept to production. But it never seemed to phase anyone. We were creating FUN with lots of gotchas and “easter eggs”. It was like being paid to be a kid most of the time; imagine it and see if you can make it happen. I stayed at Atari Games Corp for nearly five years before deciding to try something new.

Working for Atari Corp was no where near as enjoyable. It was run with an iron fist by the Tremel brothers. I’d been hired to develop video games for the new Jaguar 64-bit system but spent most of my time building the 3-D engine they wanted to be the core engineer in the Jaguar. Every time the Jaguar starts up, there is a rotating cube that demos the engine. Using the controller you can manipulate the cube showing the engine’s basic operations.

During my tenure at Atari Corp, I worked primarily with a really intelligent programmer named Robert Zydbel who taught me a lot about 3D mathematics and development for console games. He also introduced me to the Grateful Dead. I’d grown up listing to R&B and Soul. I played my music at work while I worked. Rob, knowing this, made me a deal, I could play my music any time, except when we were working together. At those times, he would get to pick the music. I agreed, little knowing that he would be working next to 8+ hours a day for a year. I did a little support work on a couple of the games being introduced with the Jaguar, including the sound engine for Trevor McFur. But after more than a year at Atari Corp, with no change to do more game development, I decided my skills could better be used elsewhere.

 

I feel the Atari Jaguar was underappreciated and never really got the attention it deserved. What do you think are the main reasons the console was not a success?

Too difficult to program for real time games. To get the most out of the Jaguar you had to do RISC coding, interweaving lines of code to increase processing speed. This was very difficult to debug and often required unweaving the code, running inline, correcting the errant code, and weaving it back together. More often than not the weaving created the problem.

And lest not forget that Nintendo was dominating the console market world-wide, forcing Atari Corp to narrow their focus to the European market.

 

I have quite a soft spot for Trevor McFur on the Jaguar and feel the game doesn’t get the credit it probably deserves. What was it like working with BJ West on this title and what is your opinion on the game?

Sadly (as previously mentioned) I only developed the sound engine for Trevor McFur. Personally, I wasn’t that impressed with the game. It was just another incantation of the many 2-D games out there. It was cute, the artwork mediocre, and it didn’t really stand out against anything else you could already find out there.

 

Is it true that there was a very short deadline for getting Trevor McFur completed and ready for the launch of the Jaguar?

Yes. The driving factor was getting the Jaguar, the first 64-bit system, out there before someone else created a better console. The game was built on an evolving platform that was hard to program, with early development features, and a highly inexperienced game development organization at the time.

 

Could you share with our readers a typical working day at Atari and how do you now reflect back at your time working there?

It was brainstorming, implementing, debugging, brainstorming, taking breaks to play games or do research, random outings to blow off steam or just take a break from the all the ideas going off in our heads. Every day was “let’s see what we can make happen today!”

 

How has the role of a programming evolved throughout your career and what advice would you give to anyone looking to enter this profession today?

In my opinion game development has turned into a cookie cutter world. Everything is using the same “game engines” or baseline code, spending more and more time on developing scripts and artwork to simply alter a “winning” series of games. Most of the work is porting something onto the latest game console or development platform. Original games are almost non-existent.

 

Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

S.T.U.N. Runner. It was my first and most successful game. It was of the new breed of 3D games, bringing fantasy that much closer to reality.

 

Have you ever worked on any games that were never released, and if so, which unreleased games do you feel would have been the most successful?

My career in the games industry was short compared to others. I worked on less than ten games over the course of my career. Everything I worked on was either released as a Coin-op video game, console game, or PC game.

 

What’s your top video game of all time and why?

Night Driver – I totally like driving games. It was a simple design and yet totally emmersive.

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I have been working at Sony, managing the SW R&D efforts for new sensors that folks might see 3-5 years from now. That’s all I’m allowed to say.

However, after a successful career in game development and many other fields (TV, DVD, Image processing), and raising two daughters on my own, I am retiring in 2 weeks from the high-tech industry and Silicon Valley, moving to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley to begin my next phase/adventure in life… 😉

 

We wish you all the best with your new life Andrew! One more before you go, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Personally I never got into the whole “being a character” side of gaming. I was a programmer intrigued with making fantasy a reality. I was more into the science of simulating the world through game programming. That being said, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing drinks, and rubbing elbows, with some to the best video games industry people in the world, including Nolan Bushnell, the father of video gaming.

 

Adrian

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