Classic game post-mortems at GDC follow a certain pattern.
There is always a moment when the presenter will look back at the time when their particular classic game was made and say something along the lines of "crazy, crazy days."
We all know that, in the past, they do things differently. But there is one section of game-making history that is so outlandishly different from everything that came after that it takes on the quality of fantasy. The age of the Atari 2600 is a such foreign country to us, it makes later "golden eras" seem positively humdrum.
Howard Scott Warshaw's GDC look back at his 1982 hit Yars' Revenge offered a window into a lost world of gaming that glows for us, like a daguerreotype in moonlight.
This single-screen game of his is not some daffy adventure beloved of crusty collectors and nostalgists. Yars'Revenge, a side-ways Space Invaders-meets-Breakout with touches of Asteroids, was the most successful non-license game on the Atari 2600, a console that sold around 30 million units.
Prior to making this game, Warshaw had zero experience in game development. His main qualification was that he had "read the programming manual" for the 2600. He was motivated to work for Atari by a deep loathing of his job as a coding zombie at Hewlett-Packard.
But once he landed a job at Atari and began creating the game, he understood that a programmer could create a work of art, and enjoy the peculiar game developer thrill of watching other people enjoy that art. This was what he wanted.
Yars' Revenge was coded with 4K bytes of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM. By way of contrast, the sound alone in 1982 arcade hit Robotron used a similar amount of memory.
Warshaw had trained as an economist. Looking back, he said, this was more valuable to him than his knowledge of programming. In an economy of scarcity, he understood how to make everything count.
Here's an insight into just how daft those days were. Warshaw was given the task of converting arcade game Star Castle to the 2600. He thought the idea of converting that game to a console would suck, and he said so to his boss. They might just as well make a new game from scratch. Sure, the boss said, why not.
Now try to imagine that conversation going down in the meeting rooms of 2015.
It is literally made out of code
Yars' Revenge features an insectoid space ship (Yar) ranged against an enemy ship (Qotile), encased in a defensive barricade. Yar avoids nasty missiles while shooting at, or nibbling the shield. This nibbling powers up a super weapon that can be used to destroy the Qotile, which itself powers up and attacks Yar from time-to-time.
There is an ion strip down the center of the screen. It is literally made out of code.
In its time, the game did things that were new. There was no on-screen frame to encase the action. There was no on-screen running score. The game featured an Easter egg that was part of its marketing. It was based on an elaborate back-story which included a comic-book.
This is all very interesting, especially if you enjoy those Wild West aspects of the time. But firsts were very much in the air, back in the world of 1981 video game development. You could hardly move without bumping into one.
There are a couple of stories that Warshaw shared that manage to both speak of that time, and offer lessons for today.
Firstly, he admitted that his initial run at developing the game did not go well. "The control scheme sucked," he recalled. The problem was in trying to maneuver the ship while controlling the weapon. People who played the early builds found it irksome and difficult. But instead of trying to fix this particular problem, he changed the entire game. This was where the nibbling mechanic was born. You powered up the weapon by on-screen movement, instead of hitting a button on your controller.
The other story is more about managing hierarchies. Once an Atari game was completed, the usual form was to hand it over to the marketing team, who would weave their own particular web of magic, including giving the game a name. Then, as now, the magic of marketing wasn't very magical. "They would always end up calling the game Rock Fight or Car Drive or some two-word name like that," he said. "They all sounded stupid."
It is well known now that Yars' Revenge was named by Warshaw, that the name is an inverse of then-Atari chief Ray Kassar (Ray = Yar). Warshaw's fiction for the game includes a planet called Razak. "I always wanted to add a word to the language," said Warshaw. "I liked secret messages and hidden ideas."
I trusted that the marketing guy, when sworn to secrecy, would blab
Less well known is the story of how Warshaw managed to persuade Atari's marketing team to agree to use a name like Yars' Revenge. The truth is, he tricked them. The story illuminates the weirdness of the time, while offering inspiration to those creators at the mercy of marketing goons.
Warshaw told one of the marketing guys he wanted to pitch this name, 'Yars' Revenge.' The marketing dude was like, "OK sure, I'll talk to the team." Warshaw knew it wouldn't fly, so he said to the marketing dude, "It's based on Ray's name, but you must keep this a secret as I would not want to influence the decision." Warshaw did not mention that Ray Kassar had no notion of this game name. It was enough that the marketing guy thought Ray had sanctioned the idea.
"I trusted that the marketing guy, when sworn to secrecy, would blab," said Warshaw. Sure enough, the marketing team decided that "Yars' Revenge" would be a splendid name. Only later did Kassar find out.
After Yars' Revenge came out, and was a hit, Warshaw became Atari's feted developer. He worked on the important Raiders of the Lost Ark game, and did a good job. He met with Steven Spielberg. (All this is recounted in the excellent documentary Atari: Game Over.)
Warshaw then wanted to work on a sequel to Yars, but Atari had other ideas. They needed him to knock out a game for the holidays. That game was E.T.
During his presentation, Warshaw made a few jokes about E.T. but there was one moment when he asked the audience how many had actually played the game. A lot of hands went up. (Rare is the game developer who can count on a room full of people having played his or her game, 30-odd years after its release.)
He then asked the audience how many thought it was the worst game they had ever played. Not one hand was raised.
Warshaw's reputation as an important game developer has been somewhat resurrected by last year's E.T. dig and by Atari: Game Over. He now works as a successful psychotherapist in Silicon Valley. But I wondered how it had been for him, all these years, having made one of the most successful games ever, a model of innovation and creativity, and yet to be remembered for a game, rushed out by commercial folly? After the presentation, I asked him this question.
"The truth is, I never saw it as such a horrible game," he said. "But I never argued with people who did. They are entitled to their opinion. I will say this, though ... I always saw games as a broadcast medium. To me, the point of media is to generate social discourse in whatever direction. The idea that 30 years later we are still talking about it ... well, that feels like a great success to me. How many other 2600 games are still in the media spotlight?"
It is good that games like Yars' Revenge are being talked about, as well as games like E.T.