Leonard Tramiel (Atari/Commodore) – Interview

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Featured image from “8 Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars (2016)

 

Commodore and Atari legend Leonard Tramiel kindly gave up some of his free time to answer some questions from our Adrian. He discusses his time working at both companies, developing the Jaguar and Jaguar CD as well as the ST and the canned Panther. He also gives an insight to working with his father, the amazing Jack Tramiel. It’s a lovely read with a true gaming pioneer, enjoy.

 

What was your earliest memories of computers and do you remember the first ever video game you played?

My first encounter with computer that I could program was in 8th grade. I took a programming class in school. We learned a simplified assembly language and then BASIC.

I suspect the first video game I played was Asteroids, but I’m not sure about that.

 

Your father famously survived the holocaust. Do you feel this experience and bravery helped make your father the man he was and really leave his mark on the world?

My father was a complex man with many apparent contradictions. He was deeply affected by his experience in the Holocaust and that probably contributed to him being a very tough negotiator. On the other hand he was a very generous person and gave lots of money away to many causes. He had a 4th grade education and a deep distrust of higher education in general yet recognized that personal computing was highly educational and his drive to make computers affordable would greatly increase the number of computer literate students.

I didn’t really have a personal passion to work with my father but the opportunity was too good to pass up and I got the chance to be involved in some amazing things.

 

How did your father get the opportunity to enter the computer industry and is it true that your fathers microchips were used in a huge number of computers and consoles?

Commodore was an office machine company and as the market demand grew they sold electronic calculators. When TI (Texas Instruments) entered the calculator business the only way that Commodore could stay in the market was to have their own chips. So they bought MOS Technology. One of the principles there, Chuck Peddle, had a long term plan whose next step was producing personal computers. He told my father that he would do it for Commodore or quit and do it on his own. Dad asked me if he should have Commodore do it. I spoke to Chuck and said he should.

The 6502 wasn’t my “father’s microchips”, if they were any one person’s it was Chuck Peddle. And yes, they were in basically everything. All Apple, Atari, Commodore 8 bit computers used the 6502 core.

 

Your family’s name is synonymous with personal computers and helping shape the video game industry. Which computer or piece of technology are you most proud of working on and why?

That’s a hard question. I didn’t think of it that way. What I’m most proud of is the fact that we always tried to make our computers as inexpensive as we could while still be worth having. That is what left the biggest impact.

 

Did you ever feel any additional pressure with your surname when you worked in the technology industry and what does the Tramiel name mean to you?

The only time I’ve worked in tech was with my family. Working with family certainly has additional pressure.

 

I recently had the honour of interviewing Trip Hawkins and he mentioned that Apple were close to working with the Amiga, before Commodore swooped in. Do you know how accurate this claim is?

I have no information about Amiga working with Apple. As I understood it, the money that Amiga gave Atari to release their obligation to give Atari access to the chipset came from Commodore, not Apple. If Apple were “close” why didn’t they front the money?

I have no connection to Commodore Amiga.

 

 

What did the Atari name mean to your personally at the time?

Atari was the second best known trademark in the world.

 

What was your exact role at Commodore?

I had a few different jobs at Commodore. I started working in the warehouse, did repair on calculators, wrote the firmware for a few calculators, and was Process Engineer for a liquid crystal manufacturing facility. I also worked Commodore booths at trade shows demoing calculators for many years. I was part of the team that developed the Commodore PET. My primary contribution was the design of the graphics character set.

 

Is there any truth that Atari Corp were close to sealing a deal with SEGA to help market the Genesis (Mega Drive) in the US market, and if so, can you explain why this didn’t happen?

I don’t remember any such deal, and it doesn’t sound like something that was likely, but I wouldn’t have been involved.

 

The Atari ST was a huge success, how do you reflect back on this great PC and is it true that a console version was discussed?

I think the ST was an important machine in the history of home computing. It was the first machine that had enough resolution to do serious tasks like word processing and used a graphical user interface that had a price point that was within reach of many people. The combination was truly “Power without the price”.

A console version was discussed but the cost was too high.

 

Do you have any personal insight on the Atari Panther console development and do you remember the reasons why focus was soon shifted 100% to creating the Atari Jaguar?

I did a lot of work on the Panther. I wrote a graphical development environment that allowed you work on an ST to place objects on the screen and animate them. The system would produce commented code and download it to the Panther. The Panther was started before the Jaguar but ran into design problems that slowed down development. When the Jaguar was proposed it was seen as technically risky so the Panther kept going as a backup. When the first Panther chips came back and didn’t work right the project was dropped.

 

How exciting was it to start development on the worlds first 64-bit console and were you involved in the early discussions and planning stages of the Atari Jaguar?

My involvement with the Jaguar started after the early stages. Working on the machine was quite a thrill since it was so powerful.

 

What were the original objectives and targets when first launching this console?

The company’s objective was simple. Make money by producing high performance, low price hardware that people would want to have and could afford to buy.

 

 

Which Atari Jaguar title do you feel showcases the true power of the console and is this also your favourite game on it?

The machine had many features and I don’t think any single game showed all of them off. I think Iron Soldier was graphically very good. I really liked the dynamic lighting effects in some of Hover Strike’s levels but I’m biased since they were my idea. I was a bit disappointed in the sound/music in the games. There were many things that the DSP could do that weren’t taken advantage of.

 

Speaking of Hover Strike, how do you reflect back on this classy game?

I liked the game and I think we did a good job making a game that wasn’t a clone of a previous idea.

 

Did you work on any other Jaguar titles or offer advice or guidance on any games?

I helped out on many other titles but none in particular. I wrote that base code for the music synth that was used in many games and I wrote the BIOS for the Jag-CD.

 

What do you feel were the main reasons why the Jaguar failed to properly catch on with consumers?

I don’t think that the people at Atari, me included, really understood how to work with outside developers or their importance.

 

I am lucky enough to own a working Jaguar CD. What are your views on this add-on and do you feel the delay in releasing this extra peripheral impacted the sales?

I think the CD added a huge increase in the possibilities that were open to the Jaguar. There is no doubt that the delays in getting it to market hurt the sales.

 

The Jaguar has had a huge resurgence over the years through lots of new home-brew titles and there is a now a vibrant community really loving the console. How proud are you of the Jaguar and do you feel the console is often maligned unfairly?

I’m happy that there are people that continue to use and create new software for the machine. I think that image of the machine is actually pretty positive given how long ago the hardware was produced.

 

If you could go back in time, what would you have liked to do differently with some key decisions when launching the Jaguar?

I’ve never really thought about it that way and I don’t think it is worth spending too much time on. Obviously hindsight is 20-20 and there are things that I know now that I wish I knew then.

 

Do you still work within the technology industry?

I am retired.

 

What projects are you currently involved in?

I’m mostly involved with efforts to improve science literacy.

 

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

I never thought about that. Given that I don’t drink that’s not a surprise!

 

Adrian