Adrian loves FlipOut! on the Atari Jaguar so he leapt at the chance to quiz the game’s inventor and programmer Conrad Barski! A lot of you will know Conrad as the author of Land of Lisp that’s helped many many programmers code in the language. We also quiz him on Dante’s Inferno, the lost Atari Jaguar CD game of which he was a part of. As intriguing an interview as we’ve ever had, sit back and enjoy.
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
I was into computer programming since about ten years of age, since I had access to a TI-99/4A early on. Like many kids that era, I spent my childhood making a lot of BASIC (and later assembly) games. The reason I got a video game gig is because I went to college at USF in Tampa Florida, and a guy named Andy Rifkin happened to live near there (if you look him up, you’ll see he has fingerprints as a producer for lots of projects at Mattel and elsewhere.) There was a company nearby there (in Oldsmar, Florida) named Gorilla Systems, set up by the brothers Johnathan and Warren Browne. They were doing lots of low-level coding on various hardware systems and also had hired some art staff to build a small 3D animation studio.
The main thing to keep in mind is that this was in the mid 90s and this was Florida: Frankly, since this was essentially pre-internet and since I didn’t have a computer science degree (I went on a Biology path geared for Medical School instead) it was really hard to build real technical competency as a teenager in a backwater like Tampa, Florida. There was really no tech networking to speak of or any good mentors available- Nowadays this would matter so much, given how easy it is to get access to tech information.
That said, I’m pretty happy with FlipOut! and that we were able to release it, but in hindsight it was a bit limited because of our technical chops.
Did you ever work on any other games before you created FlipOut!?
That was my first (and only) commercial game- That said, the book “Land of Lisp” is filled with retro games and probably sold orders of magnitude more copies than FlipOut! ever did, given the failure of the Jaguar as a commercially viable game console.
How did you initially come up with idea for FlipOut! and what inspired you in the early stages?
I was always an avid juggler, the mechanics of the game are essentially those of juggling. The idea was basically that you “juggle” to properly order the field of tiles, while the alien spectators that rush onto the field add a chaotic element to the game play.
FlipOut! is a larger than life and fun puzzler. Are you a big fan of the puzzle genre, and if so, which other puzzle games do you love playing?
My childhood passion was definitely the Ultima series of games, especially Ultima 1-5. One thing I really liked in games is when they had (what I guess I would call) a “discrete position” dynamic: I.e. your gameplay character would be at location (x=4,y=5) and then if you moved your location would change to (x=5,y=5) or whatever. Most early games had this type of design to some degree due to hardware limitations. Eventually, games started to have more continuous movement, the first Super Mario game being an important milestone for this (with it’s implementation of jumping and momentum physics) but then this became pretty the standard mechanic with the transition to 3D graphics.
The thing I dislike about continuous movement is that it makes things like hit testing very hard to predict for the player, and I feel like newer games more frequently cause a player to die in a way where they feel like “it wasn’t their fault” which is a feeling I very much dislike.
So puzzle-like-games I particularly enjoy that come to mind are Boulderdash for the C64 and lots of different roguelike games, which all have this discrete motion mechanic.
What was your exact role for FlipOut! and can share with us a few details on how this game was produced?
Basically, Andy Rifkin and Johnathan Browne let me know that they were in talks with Atari to do a Jaguar game on a Friday, so I took the initiative and put together a game design for FlipOut! and showed up next Monday with a detailed proposal for the game. Andy and Johnathan were happy to have something to pass on to Atari so quickly and so the wheels started entering into motion.
My impression was that Atari didn’t have many relationships with game development houses at this point (since they had been out of the console market for a long time before the Jaguar) and were liberally handing out money to lots of dev shops without a ton of red tape to get the fire stoked on game development for their new system.
Me and Shawn Potts did the majority of the programming on the game, which as you likely know was pretty painful on the Jaguar, it had 4 different processors, all with their own machine language instruction set, and they all shared the same memory bus, so you’d often write code for one chip and then find that it would perform poorly once you finished code for the other chips. There were ways to avoid these problems but you needed a lot of programmer-fu to do this correctly. Folks like John Carmack, who also developed for the Jaguar, of course could get a lot more power out of the device than an inexperienced teenager and Biology major living in Tampa.
One noteworthy thing is that all of the graphics in the game were 3d modeled ahead of time (relatively novel at that time) and then compressed with a real-time custom compression algorithm I wrote to deal with the memory bus issues.
I really enjoy the quick and manic gameplay of FlipOut! How do you reflect back on this game?
I liked the basic game idea and think it was fun to play, but I also think the execution could have been better. There was a followup to FlipOut! released for the PC which had many more stages, more types of alien interactions, and was really well done (by another developer) I prefer that followup version, to be honest.
Is it true that you were involved in the programming of the mysterious Jag CD game Dante’s Inferno, and if so, please could you share the story of how this game first came into production?
This game came about because I was doing a series of graphics experiments with the Jaguar to see what kind of game engines might be possible. The Achilles’ heel of the Jaguar, as we all now know, is that the designers of the architecture wanted to build a general-purpose graphics pipeline that could handle a large variety of different graphics approaches, this was the exact opposite of what Sony took with the original PlayStation, which could only do one thing: Push a ton of texture-mapped triangles very quickly. That design was the winning solution to that generation of consoles, and the Jaguar just couldn’t compete with its slower, general-purpose graphics pipeline.
Anyway, so one idea I had for a Jaguar CD game was to pre-render a moving world full screen, then do some graphical analysis to calculate motion vectors of 8×8 pixel squares, sort of like an MPEG iframe, except that it could be done in both directions and have non-linear branching into different game areas, and could be done in multiple layers to allow for paralaxing. The “Blitter” chip in the jaguar could render these sorts of pixel squares very efficiently and this made for a nice tech demo on the Jaguar (the jaguar demo of this is probably long lost, you can see a very glitchy PC tech demo on YouTube that leaked from somewhere, not really worth seeking out though).
However, the engine I developed did have some issues with popup and image haloing that were inherent in the limitations of what I was able to get the “Blitter” chip to do, and which negatively impacted the gameplay experience. This is probably part of the reason the game never made it out of the tech demo stage and why Atari never greenlighted the project.
The game play and story concept for “Dante’s Inferno” I think came mainly from Jonathan Browne: since we could do cool-looking backgrounds, doing a game around Dante’s Inferno made sense. He came up with the satirical idea of a tourist (with the usual Hawaiian shirt and camera) that accidentally travels to hell and needs to escape. Gameplay likely would have been something like Crash Bandicoot but with pre-rendered backgrounds.
The Jaguar scene has quite a big resurgence via the homebrew scene. Would you ever be tempted to complete Dante’s Inferno or make the game files available online?
I don’t have any game files anymore, I’m afraid. Also, since I am now a Lisp/Clojure fanatic (a family of programming languages) I don’t have much patience for doing assembly or C programming anymore.
What are your personal three favourite video games of all time?
1. Robotron 2084
2. Ultima 3-5
2. Marble Madness
Two of those break my “discrete position” rule but so be it…
Why did you leave the video game industry and projects are you working on now?
After getting a medical degree and working on medical enterprise software for many years, I went down the “blockchain” rabbit hole and now am CEO of a small software company trying to apply blockchain tech to medical use cases. However, I still have a strong interest in computer animation and have been working in my free time on a special sort of animation engine (You can see some animation created with this engine at www.forwardblockchain.com) and may get that far enough along eventually to release it publicly.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
The skater from Atari’s 720, I would want to buy him a drink, as a small solace to the paranoid misery he must have endured, spending his whole life only a few short seconds away from being attacked by a swarm of bees (ha ha! – Ed).