Rob Fulop (Atari) – Interview

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He was responsible for bringing some of the biggest games ever to the Atari consoles. It’s a pleasure to introduce our Adrian’s chat with Atari legend Rob Fulop.

 

Rob, thanks for stopping by Arcade Attack! You’re responsible for some of our most favourite games, how did you enter the video game industry in the first place?

I’ve made games my whole life. I was making them when I was a kid. I would make up board games with checkers. My favourite game was a toy called Carom (I know it! – Ed). It was a board with four pockets with a big bunch of rings. The system was capable of playing a thousand games. You could play checkers or chess with it, play pool, you could play a million games with this thing. So basically I just made up games for years, basically for my whole childhood. I just kept inventing games. I made a little mini-golf course out of cardboard boxes and all the neighbour kids would line up to play on weekends – so I added backyard carnival games. Atari was a very natural place for me to go, a no brainer.  One spring day over my Junior Year, I walked into the campus job centre just when they were putting up a summer programming job at Atari – this was circa 1980 – right around when Breakout appeared among the pinball machines at the campus bowling centre. I called and talked my way into an interview with the Atari coin-op engineering division, who hired me. My summer job was to make a sound effects editor for their Pinball games. The following year, after graduating, my first call was to Atari. The coin op division had no openings at the time but they pointed my upstairs to the Consumer Products division where I was hired to make games for the newly released Atari 2600.

 

 

You created some of Atari’s biggest selling games with your ports of Missile Command, Demon Attack and Space Invaders. How does it feel that you were one of Atari’s most successful programmers and do you think you got the recognition you deserved?

It’s great to meet so many people whose childhoods were framed around the early 2600 games – I’ve literally met people all over the world whose faces light up with recognition when they ask what games I made. Yes, I certainly feel that I received, and am still receiving, recognition for things I made decades ago. The best thing about being an author is talking to people whose lives were touched.

 

The original programmer of Missile Command Dave Theurer famously stated that he suffered nightmares of nuclear wars after creating Missile Command. Can you remember having any dreams or nightmares when working on Missile Command or any other game for that matter?

With every good product I’ve made, there has always been a dream early on in the development where I see people playing the final product. So I just make what was in the dream. Whenever there was not a dream, the end product seems to flounder, often those are the products that get dumped along the way, or turn out poorly. The good ones are very “clean” visions. I think the best stuff is always like that. The good ones just “are” – they feel like they always have existed – the author didn’t “make” them – it’s more like the author found these things that have been floating around forever.

 

 

Your version of Missile Command describes a war between two planets; Zardon and Krytol. Was it your idea to add a story to the original game?

Nope.  I couldn’t tell you the story of Zardon and Krytol for all the tea in China. In my mind, there is absolutely no need for a backstory in a game that takes place on a single screen. Games like Space Invaders, Missile Command, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, don’t become better experiences with the addition of an after-the-fact backstory attached.

 

Is it true you added an Easter Egg in Missile Command?

Yeah, it was just what we did at the time, after Warren Robinett hid his initials in 2600’s Adventure.

 

Can you share details of anywhere else you have included an Easter Egg within a game?

I think I first did the “hiding initials” thing in the Atari 400/800 Space Invaders, then Missile Command, then Fathom.  At Imagic we had our names on the back of the box, so the need to hide our initials into the game themselves took a back seat – ROM space was just too valuable. When you were crunching down your code at the end Easter eggs were the first things to get cut. With Fathom, I had the luxury of 8K of memory, so I added an Easter egg. Demon Attack and Cosmic Ark were just too tightly packed to afford the memory space to do one.

 

 

You famously altered Demon Attack to never end after the initial batch of games was completed by a kid after two days (by defeating the 84 waves of enemies). How did you feel when you first heard that your notoriously difficult game was beatable and did you ever get to meet this kid?

I felt like a moron. (we take it you never met the kid – Ed)

 

How did you feel when your former employees at Atari sued Imagic for your work on Demon Attack and the perceived similarities to Phoenix?

That they were being a bunch of cry-babies. Like lawyers need to play their own games to entertain themselves, and that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. Like can you name even one author who doesn’t routinely lift features from earlier works when crafting something “new”? Everybody plagiarises each other like crazy.

 

Space Invaders is rightly regarded as being one of the most important video games ever created. How much pressure did you feel when given the responsibility to create this game for the Atari 8-bit Family?

I felt zero pressure (nice! – Ed).  I had just finished Atari 2600 Night Driver and was looking for something to do on the Atari 400/800. I started making a tennis game but it proved to be too difficult to control the characters. The game was either too easy (with a lot of auto-assist) or it was too hard to line up. So I abandoned it and decided to make a version of Space Invaders. There was nobody looking over my shoulder to tell me that I should copy the original Taito arcade version as closely as I could so I just made up my own, inferior, version. Nobody cared, nobody even looked at my version compared to the original, they just released it. Looking back, it seems incredible that the company was run so recklessly but it’s a testament to how seriously mismanaged Atari was at the time. Literally not one person in the company asked “hey, why not just make our Space Invaders look exactly like the coin operated version that we are licensing?” That’s how little they cared (ouch! – Ed).

 

Night Trap was one of the most controversial video games ever made. Looking back now, do you feel your game was harshly treated by the media regarding its mature content?

Night Trap was just a victim of silly politics that had nothing to do with the game’s content. Joe Lieberman (the senator who villainised the game), had never played it, nor seen it being played. He just found a “cause” that he could get behind to make him look like a hero. Nintendo tried desperately to get the game running on their system, but they couldn’t get it done – so instead they came out with the statement “Night Trap will never be released on our Platform” and the press never bothered asking “why?”. Given that Nintendo also released Mortal Kombat which featured characters who fought each other to the death, you do sort of wonder why the press never thought this through. Night Trap became the evil game and all the press just followed along.

 

 

After Night Trap you created a series of games that could not be more different! Dogz and Catz have proved to be hugely successful games. Why did you decide to go in such a different direction?

Dogz and Catz were born out of the embarrassment I felt that Night Trap was so villainised. I hated the Night Trap controversy and decided to make the world’s cutest game.

 

You have worked for so many legendary video game companies. Which company was the most fulfilling and fun to work for?

PF.Magic, the company that John Scull and I founded in the mid 1990s. We had a great staff of our own choosing and had a lot of fun.

 

Which game did you have the most fun working on and can you explain why?

They’ve all been fun. Well, the good ones anyway. For the most part, nobody has seen the bad ones that were abandoned along the way. Maybe 1/2 of my work has been tossed out along the way. The good ones just feel good from Day One. Probably the most fun to work on was a CD-I game called “Max Magic”, basically a big Zoltan-like fortune teller on screen who does magic tricks with the help of his “assistant”, the owner of the game. You and Max put on a magic show for your home audience – the ten tricks are really baffling. You shuffle a pack of real playing cards, somebody picks one out, and Max, on screen, will name the card. Stuff like that. Given that the Phillips CD-I never caught on, it’s sort of sad that nobody remembers the game, but it still was a blast to make. We worked with Max Maven, a well-known mentalist, who authored the tricks and did some of the voices.  It was a great project (we’re going to dig it out… – Ed).

 

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m pretty much semi-retired at this point. Will do the odd consulting gig when people look me up, usually casino related since that’s where I’ve done the most current work (early on, Rabbit Jacks’ casino which was the first online casino game (AOL) led to a lot of patent related stuff in the online gaming business of the late 2000’s).

 

If you could share a few drinks with any video game character who would you choose and why?

I mean, video game characters are across the board, pretty shallow, right? (erm… – Ed) We don’t know the first thing about most of them as they have been given so little characterization. Does anybody CARE about them? The main characters are basically empty vessels that we put ourselves into. There is no Mario character really, since the player becomes the character they are controlling.  So that leaves either the assorted “innocents” who are always in peril (typically an impossibly thin princess whose primary characterisation is calling out in distress) or one of the assorted bosses or villain characters – who are also presented as pretty much a one-gag persona (errrrrrrm – Ed). I’m guessing one of the villains could make a good cocktail buddy but none of them occur to me as particularly funny or engaging in any way. I’d certainly enjoy having a few beers with any of the Batman movie villains, most certainly Cat Woman. Now there’s a villain who would be fun to have some drinks with! But I can’t think of a video game woman who comes close to Cat Woman when it comes to who would be fun to prowl around with for a while?  So I’m gonna pass on the question, and hold out for Cat Woman.    Meeeeeeow.

 

We’re pretty sure Cat Woman appears in some of the Batman games so we’ll accept it… Thanks for a great chat Rob, I’m sure all our readers enjoyed it. All the best in your future endeavours!

Adrian

2 Comments on “Rob Fulop (Atari) – Interview”

  1. “There was nobody looking over my shoulder to tell me that I should copy the original Taito arcade version as closely as I could so I just made up my own, inferior, version. Nobody cared, nobody even looked at my version compared to the original, they just released it. Looking back, it seems incredible that the company was run so recklessly but it’s a testament to how seriously mismanaged Atari was at the time. Literally not one person in the company asked “hey, why not just make our Space Invaders look exactly like the coin operated version that we are licensing?” That’s how little they cared.”

    Wow. With all due respect, Marketing wasn’t programming the game, you were. So I suppose that’s how little you cared about staying true to the original. That same attitude gave the world lousy ports like VCS Pac-Man.

  2. “There was nobody looking over my shoulder to tell me that I should copy the original Taito arcade version as closely as I could so I just made up my own, inferior, version. Nobody cared, nobody even looked at my version compared to the original, they just released it. Looking back, it seems incredible that the company was run so recklessly but it’s a testament to how seriously mismanaged Atari was at the time. Literally not one person in the company asked “hey, why not just make our Space Invaders look exactly like the coin operated version that we are licensing?” That’s how little they cared.”

    Wow. With all due respect, Marketing wasn’t programming the game, you were. So I suppose that’s how little you cared about staying true to the original. Why didn’t YOU care? That same attitude gave the world lousy ports like VCS Pac-Man.

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