We love an Atari insight, this is true, just look at our list of interviewees! This guy has worked on a lot of Adrian’s favourite games so it seemed only right that we ply Tal Funke-Bilu with lots of Ade’s questions. Tempest 2000, Defender 2000, Bubsy, Jag DOOM, this guy played a vital part in ensuring all of those games (less said about Bubsy) met quality standards via his stringent testing. So what was working on those games like? What was working with Jeff Minter like? We’ll let Tal tell all…
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and can you remember the first video game you ever worked on?
Long story … let’s rewind to ‘93/’94.
In fall of 1993 I started college at Harvey Mudd, in Claremont, CA. I lived on campus. Every dorm room had a T1 ethernet port. At the time this was used primarily for email, FTP, newsgroups, and local college-based LAN (i.e. Doom). I was an Atari fan and used my newfound net connectivity to start writing for Atari Explorer Online, an online Atari newsletter (shout out to Travis Guy!). Via AEO I reached out to Don Thomas at Atari. I coordinated a couple of trips up to Sunnyvale to conduct AEO interviews and play/review pre-release versions of various Jaguar games.
In spring of ’94, prior to the release of Tempest 2000, Atari had sweepstakes of sorts. They picked 10 people at random who were given the opportunity to purchase a copy of Tempest 2000 a couple of months ahead of the general public.** I was picked and received my copy of the game on the Friday before the start of spring break (great timing!).
During the week of spring break I completed Tempest 2000, both on normal mode and beasty mode. I wrote Jeff Minter an email letting him know how much I enjoyed the game and that I beat it in beasty mode. He wrote back congratulating me, and letting me know that no one in the test department at Atari had managed that feat (Hank Cappa had managed to unlock beasty mode, but didn’t complete it). I was happy just to get a response from Jeff, and was stoked to learn that I had apparently done something no one else had (yet).
Fast forward to the summer of ’94. I pre-sold around 500 VHS tapes of Atari pre-release footage from Summer CES in Chicago. I was at the show, going from Jag kiosk to Jag kiosk getting footage of upcoming games when I spotted Jeff Minter. We chatted for a bit and then he introduced me to Tom Gillen and John Skruch. Jeff told them how I beat T2K on beasty mode and closed with “If you guys ever have an opening in the test department, this is your guy.”
A few weeks later I was home and received a call from Don Thomas. I believe he was Director of Customer Service at the time. It was a Friday in August. He said there was an opening in customer service and was wondering if I was interested. I said yes (of course) and he asked if I could start Monday. I said yes without thinking about how I would get up to Sunnyvale or where I would live. And just like that I had dropped out of school and started working for Atari.
I spent somewhere between 30 and 60 days manning the phones and doing appearances with Don Thomas at Jag events in Atari Customer Service. One day John Skruch came down and talked to Don. They took me upstairs and introduced me (again) to Tom Gillen. Tom sat me down with Andrew Keim and asked if I wanted to join the Atari Test Department.
By the end of the day I was a salaried Atari employee. The next day was the first day I was ever paid to play video games. While not credited, I played Club Drive (it was in final certification) and wrote up my evaluation.
I was 18 years old and I’m pretty sure that was the best job I’ve ever had.
** T2K had just gone “gold” and it would take 2-3 months for the production carts to be burned and assembled. In order to get the winners their carts early, Atari assembled 10 ad-hoc copies of T2K that looked just like regular production copies (box/instructions/etc). The only difference is that the carts were on re-programmable EEPROMs.
You have tested a good number of Atari Jaguar games in your career. Which are your personal favourite games for the Jag and are there any games you never took a shine to?
I was a fan of Jeff Minter games before and after my time with Atari, so I have to say Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000. Followed closely by Iron Soldier (my first lead assignment) and AvP. On the other hand, AirCars was an absolute piece of shit. Unplayable alphas of BIWN are better than a finished copy of AirCars. Complete garbage. Imagine testing that 8 hours a day for days on end, have everyone on the test department argue that this game shouldn’t be allowed on the shelves, and then have legal say we can’t hold it back because it’s a 3rd party title and they passed certification. I’d rather give myself paper cuts. On my privates.
Can you recall a typical day as a game tester and what skills do you think are essential for the role?
QA was a lot different back then. At our level it was 100% manual. No testing automation like they have now. It was a mix between 3rd party game certification and 1st party testing. There would be a meeting in the morning. Then you would play your game and write up test reports. Rinse and repeat. Pretty basic stuff. Additional meetings if the developers of a specific game were in town (Atari routinely flew 1st party developers out to Sunnyvale for the final 1-2 months to finish up a game).
It wasn’t rocket science, and you don’t have to be amazing at video games to be a good tester. IMHO the number one quality of a good tester is attention to detail. Both in how you play/test a game, and how you write up your reports. I think creativity comes in second. As a tester you’re presented with a game that is essentially a bunch of rules. It’s your job to bend and attempt to break the rules. If you’re successful, you find bugs. If you’re not, bugs slip through. I feel a creative person is more apt to discover those quirks about the rules that the programmers didn’t intend to create.
As a game tester, I assume honesty is really important when discussing your views on different games. Have you ever been involved in any heated conversations between yourself and a programmer before?
Honesty is brutally important. If a game isn’t fun, it’s your job to critique it. Not all test reports were about finding/fixing bugs. There were plenty of write-ups that focused on general playability and overall “fun” of a game.
I’ve had plenty of heated conversations with other programmers after I left the video game industry. While I was at Atari, communication to programmers was mostly second hand via test reports and evaluations. Not a lot of direct QA to programmer communication.
The majority of developers I remember dealing with were great. Test was usually their last barrier to getting their game on the shelf. Even though finding a bunch of bugs could result in release delays, the alternative (releasing buggy games) was much worse.
You were credited as a world designer on the awesome Hover Strike. What exactly did this role entail and how do you reflect back on this particular title?
My memory is little fuzzy here, but I believe everyone was given a certain number of levels to design. We all had Atari TT and ST computers in our cubes that we wrote test reports and downloaded games to Alpine boards used for testing. They made some level editors for the Atari computers so that we could design a level and then immediately download the level to the Jag and play through it.
Hover Strike was a blast to work on. The guys programming it were just down the hall and were very receptive to our feedback. Aside from Baldies I believe it was the only other Jag title to be released both on cart and CD. At the time I was excited to be designing levels, but looking back it was quite the experience to be able to walk down the hall, make a few suggestions about tank handling, and have a new build ready to go 45 minutes later with your suggested changes.
Is it true that your voice is used in Defender 2000, and if so, how did this opportunity come about?
Yep, that’s me. My memory is a little fuzzy but I believe Jeff was talking to Ted Tahquechi about getting some vocal samples into the game. QA was pretty close to Ted’s office. That coupled with the fact that Lance Lewis and I had hung out after work with Jeff a few times resulted in us locking ourselves in Ted’s office for some audio samples. The two I remember doing the most were the screaming when the humanoids die, and “DUDE!”
Did you ever work on any infamous unreleased Jaguar games such as Conan or BIWN, and if so, can you share any your thoughts on which of these games looked the most impressive?
There were a bunch of titles that never saw the light of day for a number of reasons. My two favorite were Phear and Mortal Kombat III. Phear looked incredible (as impressive at the time as the N64 version that eventually came out), and MKIII was the best arcade conversion on the Jag (Primal Rage was a close second in my opinion). I can’t say definitively why either wasn’t released but back then rumor was that Nintendo paid H2O for Phear exclusivity and MKIII died due to contract issues.
When Atari shut down I was working as an Associate Producer on The Further Adventures of Major Havoc (with Beyond Games) and a spiritual Crystal Castles sequel with a company out of San Luis Obispo (I forget their name, it wasn’t the Oddworld guys).
We have had the pleasure of interviewing other Atari games testers such as Joe Sousa and Dan McNamee. Can you describe the atmosphere of the testing department and did you work really closely with other areas of Atari?
Until Atari shuttered their operations, the atmosphere was great. It was one of the few (only?) places I’ve worked where once the work day was over, everyone sort of looked at each other and said, “Well, what are we all gonna do now?” There were plenty of toys in everyone’s cubes, lots of decorations hanging from the ceiling, random beers and booze strewn about. Nerf wars. House parties. Good times.
You worked at Atari during an incredible time. How do you reflect back on your time working for this iconic company?
For me, working at Atari was a dream come true. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a job as thoroughly as I did when I was at Atari. I think I was also too young to truly appreciate what I was going through. Sure, I was over the moon to be working there, but I don’t think I had the big picture in mind. Looking back on it, if I could do it all again, I would make a point to cherish everything just a little bit more.
How did the earlier days while working at Atari compare to the final days before the company fell into financial trouble?
I was only there for just under two years, and that ended when they started laying people off left and right. At the time I was on a high. 18 years old at my dream job. Looking back on it now, I suspect the writing was on the walls.
Which games do you feel really pushed the Jaguar to its limits and do you feel the console was mismanaged?
Tempest 2000, DOOM, and Iron Soldier stood out in my mind as the most technically advanced Jag titles. It’s tough because the Jag came out just before texture mapping really took off. Plus, if I remember correctly the CPU cache was pretty limited making it hard to store substantial amounts of textures. Considering it was a pack-in Cybermorph shouldn’t be overlooked either, from a purely technical standpoint.
Mismanaged? From the point of view that it was a short lived console? Yeah. From the point of view that they didn’t spend enough to secure AAA titles? Yeah. However, there were so many forces at play, and my vantage point was pretty limited in scope, so it’s honestly hard to say if it was mismanaged. If anything I feel that the Tramiels underestimated the financial resources required to really launch a system and get people behind it. When Sony came along a year or so later, their treasure trove of cash alone left Atari in the dust.
Did you continue working in the video game industry after your great work at Atari?
The week after Atari shut down (or at least laid off all of the test department and product development) I moved to Utah to work with the guys at Beyond Games. I was there for about a year. I came back to the Bay Area right around the time websites were starting to take off. While I was interviewing for a video game position I took a temp job with GolfWeb to pay the bills. I had programmed in high school, and taken programming in college, so one weekend I went home and taught myself HTML. The following Monday they offered me a full time position and I’ve been in tech ever since.
Out of all the games you have worked, which one are you most proud of and why?
Defender 2000. As if working at Atari when you’re 18 wasn’t enough, working on a game with Jeff Minter was a dream come true. Iron Soldier is a close second. The developers at Eclipse were super smart and a joy to work with, especially on my first lead test assignment.
If you could be transported into any one of the video games you have worked on, and live there for day, which game would you choose and why?
Can I can drop acid before transporting? If so then definitely Defender 2000. Otherwise Super Burnout. I ride a motorcycle in real life and it would be fun to get in there and show everyone how to shift out of first gear in manual mode.
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
Hands down, Major Havoc. My all-time favorite video game. Way ahead of its time. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Owen Rubin is a great guy.
What projects are you both currently working on?
It’s been years since I’ve been in the video game industry. Right now I architect bank and credit union software for CUDirect out of Scotts Valley, CA.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Conker. Because a few drinks would probably just be the start of the evening. Seriously, is anyone else even an option?