My first officially published computer game was a coin-operated arcade game called Sinistar, released by Williams Electronics in 1983. I’ve subsequently worked on a lot of games, including million-unit-sellers like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Empire at War. But when someone finds out that I was the Project Leader and co-designer of Sinistar, that tends to elicit a stronger reaction than anything I’ve done since. (Maybe I peaked early!) In any case, here are some personal reminiscences that I hope will amuse and instruct—if only to provide some relief—that you don’t have to work back in the ancient world of stone knives, bearskins, and 1-megahertz 8-bit processors. (I should add that any errors in this history are purely my responsibility. Although I’ve recently worked on some Brain Age-style memory enhancing games, sadly they haven’t quite worked in my case!)
The Coin-Op Era
When I came to Williams Electronics in 1982, the videogame world looked quite different than it does today. For one thing, arcades were at their peak, and home game consoles like the Atari VCS were dominated by conversions of arcade titles. A big hit like PacMan could sell 100,000 copies into the arcades—seemingly small numbers by today’s standards; but considering that arcade games cost around $1,500 new in 1982 dollars, it was still a pretty impressive chunk of change (quite literally, since they earned their keep one quarter at a time). Good machines could earn back their initial price in 10 weeks or fewer, and it was pure profit for the arcade owners from then on. Although my first job in the industry was at Milton Bradley (now part of Hasbro), all of my projects there were cancelled by management before publication. So when I landed the job at Williams, I felt like I had arrived in the big leagues. Instead of programming Atari VCS games for a system with a 6502 processor, 2K of ROM, and 256 bytes of RAM, I was now working on systems with the more capable 6809 processor and much larger ROMs. Even so, the full game code and artwork fit into less memory than a single jpeg image in this article.
One of the first people I got to know at Williams was John Newcomer, who was the first full-time game designer I’d ever met. In fact, it wasn’t until I met John that I even realized that game designer was a possible occupation. The games I had worked on up to that time were designed by the people who programmed them—and we also served as artist, sound designer, and producer for the most part. Williams did things on a larger scale, and it was exciting. John showed me a portfolio of hand-drawn concepts he’d worked on, including Joust, the game he was currently helping to finish. My first job was playtesting Joust, and I believe I showed a talent for finding crash bugs. Meanwhile, John had another concept he called Juggernaut (a working title) which involved a giant skull in space being attacked by hordes of minions. Since that project had progressed for a while but stalled out, I was offered the chance to lead a fresh team to do what we would now call a reboot of the Juggernaut concept. I eagerly agreed.