Warren Robinett (Atari) – Interview

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We’ve already had Eugene Jarvis and David Crane here at Arcade Attack and I’m pleased to say that another of Atari’s founding fathers has agreed to chat to us – Adventure legend Warren Robinett! Adrian caught up with the man himself for one of the most revealing interviews we’ve ever had, enjoy.

 

Adventure on the Atari 2600 was the first ever adventure game ever made! How does it now feel that you helped create such an important gaming title and even a new genre?

I didn’t know I was inventing a new genre at the time of designing and programming Adventure.  Video games were very new and game designers were trying all sorts of things then. The thing I tried, to adapt the text-adventure game Colossal Cave to the video-game format, did turn out to work extremely well. What we now call genres were just experiments by some game designer a few decades ago. Experiments that worked.

But, yes, I’m proud of Adventure now. At the time, I was forbidden to work on it by my boss and I defied him and worked on it anyway. So he treated me like a bad, misbehaving employee so that political story coloured how I felt about designing the game. I thought it was pretty good, when I was working on it, and the internal Atari people who played the games under development gave me positive feedback. But it wasn’t until it was released and sold a million copies during the next few years that it was clear that it was significant.

 

 

You are widely regarded as the first man to ever create an ‘Easter Egg’ in a video game. At the time, did this inclusion feel like a real game changer?

Again, there is a political story. The new owners of Atari (Warner Communications) were keeping all the Atari 2600 game designers anonymous and the secret hidden in Adventure was what I called my “signature”.  The name “Easter Egg” was coined a year later when it was discovered and the public found out about it.  I wasn’t sure anybody would even find the secret in the game as it was well hidden. I wasn’t sure what would happen.

 

Can you remember Atari’s first reactions when they discovered you added in an Easter Egg in Adventure?

I had already quit Atari by then (they should have been happy! – Ed).

 

Do you think Atari’s refusal to credit their programmers in their early titles led to many staff leaving the company and was this the main reason you decided to leave them?

Yes, absolutely. Activision was founded by four Atari 2600 game programmers who left Atari for exactly that reason. It was not only getting credit, but also whether the game designers would get any share of the huge profits the Atari video games were generating.  Adventure sold a million copies at a $25 retail price but I was getting paid $22K per year (with no royalties). But I did just fine later on.

 

 

Why do you think Atari ultimately failed?

Usually there is not a simple answer to questions like this, but in this case the answer is pretty much that Atari could not prevent other companies from making games for the Atari 2600 game console. The games were where the profits were and the console was sold at very little profit.  Their former internal game designers became Atari’s biggest competitors, so the strategy of oppressing them backfired in a very big way.

 

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

Fun is not the word to use to describe designing a video game. It was hard, exhausting, challenging work to design Adventure. I enjoyed doing it. I would call it satisfying. I liked having an idea, and then bringing it to life.

 

What was the first ever game you worked on?

I was interested in computer graphics when I was an undergraduate at Rice, and a grad student at Berkeley. I had heard about this company that was making video games (Atari) and just went down to Sunnyvale, went in the front door and filled out a job application. I wrote a paragraph about how I was perfect for them. That’s how I got started there.

I had never designed a computer game before getting the job at Atari. I had played board games. I had played sports. I knew what games were. Computer games were very new in 1977 when I got this job.  My first game was Slot Racers for the Atari 2600 console which was released a year later for Christmas 1978.  It was not all that great, but not bad for a first game. The thing is, most of the 2600 programmers were new to Atari and we each had to have a first game.

 

 

You were one of the founders of The Learning Company. Was it a tough decision to leave Atari and start your own company?

I quit Atari because I was being treated as a bad employee. Ironically, this was while I was inventing a new video-game genre and also because I was being denied public recognition and a share of the huge profits (for shame Atari! – Ed).

Leaving Atari and starting the Learning Company were independent decisions, separated by more than a year in time.

 

Rocky’s Boots is rightly regarded as one of the top educational titles made in the 1980’s. How easy was it to create this game and is it true that this game was originally planned as the sequel to Adventure?

After conceiving, implementing, and releasing three game cartridges for the Atari 2600 system, I was a pretty experienced game designer. I was also a very experienced programmer at assembly-language programming on the 6502 processor. This processor was used in both the Atari 2600 game system and the Apple II computer, which was what Rocky’s Boots was first implemented on.  Even with a good skill set, it was not easy. I was pushing the envelope.

Yes, it was supposed to be a sequel to Adventure in which you built machines to defeat the monsters.  But the many constraints of being in a start-up company forced me to implement something less ambitious which actually turned out pretty well.

 

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I have spent the last two years writing a book about the implementation of Adventure.  It is called The Annotated Adventure, and I hope to release it soon.  There is more information about the book on my website, warrenrobinett.com.

I am thinking about finally now doing the sequel to Adventure, which I have never yet managed to do.

 

Sign us up Warren! Thanks so much for stopping by and we wish you all the best in your future endeavours and that long awaited sequel!

Adrian

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