Bill Crooks

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview. Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast Source URL: Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

KS: Kevin Savetz

BC: Bill Crooks

KS: I’m Kevin Savetz, and this is an interview episode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. Bill Crooks worked in the coin-op division of Atari, where he facilitated the production of Atari games multi-million dollar production facility, and worked on the Firefox laser-disc arcade game. In this interview we talked briefly about Cassie Maas, whom I have previously interviewed. This interview took place on April 17, 2015.

BC: So what kind of audience are you guys podcasting to?

KS: You know Atari hobbyists. Typical episode gets listened to between 1,000 and 1,500 people.

BC: Cool. That’s actually about 10 times larger than employee body of Atari when I left. 15 times larger. There’s an interesting factoid for you. I was brought in, actually was… I came in as a consultant to begin with, what I was tasked with, was looking into the feasibility of creating video games using different technology than they had been using. In other words not just a game board with basically small iconic figures, little 8-bit figures jumping around, in a prebuilt world…

KS: You are involved with Firefox right?

BC: I was involved with Firefox. Prior to Firefox were looking into the feasibility… before we even decided to make Firefox itself… a game and come out called Dragon’s Lair, which used… basically ran off a laser disc. It had some branching capabilities but it was animated. This is long before animation engines or graphics processors were fast enough to do this thing on the fly. So… and at the time CDs were relatively new technology. Laser discs as you may or may not know are… I guess the best word for them would be “pseudo-digital.” They used a series of pits which were… represented the image of the pixel, but it was represented not just in a strict binary sense it was… They had a coding system that used these pits to represent the pixels, but it still spat out an analog signal, and they used it to recreate an analog signal. So is kind of a bastardized, pseudo-digital format. So my job originally, as a consultant, was to do a feasibility study. I think they were expecting like something less than what I gave… I gave them like a 30-page report with… kind of delved into the state-of-the-art of what’s going on out there now, with the hardware, and what it would take to actually be able to do some branching using live video, which would be the first application of using live video in a videogame. CDs at that point were limited to doing audio only, and some minor data storage, but they weren’t using them for gaming yet, at all… it was early on in the day. Philips had just cleared the licensing for CDs in general, and the marketing and quite figured out quite all that they could do with them, other than CD audio. So all that said, I started looking into it, gave them the report, and they offered me a job on the spot. What neither of us realized, I was working, it was actually my ex-father-in-law who was a vice president at Atari, of R&D in the coin-op division, and he was the one that hooked me with the thing. I had a business… I had been in the recording industry, in the music industry, and still am actually, I’m currently on tour with Elton John and Earth, Wind and Fire, and Kid Rock this year, is going to be my year but… Directing video, and I’ve been doing… I’ve been a musician touring my entire life as well. So I had a school that taught audio engineering, production, and music industry. We had 1,400 students and 27 college accredited courses, and I was teaching that, and we were delving in video ‘cause video was relatively new in the music industry at that point, it was like MTV was just getting started, and it had never really been used in a concert-setting yet. So we were teaching that, and a lot of big industry, huge industry people, were on my team, and then I left there and started my own school, and I just had a baby. My ex-father-in-law was looking out for us, as a father-in-law would do, said “hey, would you like to do feasibility study and pick up some extra scratch?”, so I did, and he was out of town on a business trip, and I went and submitted this directly to his boss, which was a guy named Dan Van Eldrin, and Dan Van Eldrin had taken a senior vice president position at Atari in charge of the coin-op division, he was basically the top dog in the coin-op division at the time. This was just after the company had split up into a couple of different entities. Warner Communications, at the time, before it was Time Warner, had bought the coin-op division, and they kept the home-gaming division, but they sold off the computer-division to Jack Tramiel and company, who was the guy that started Amiga… or Commodore excuse me. Jack Tramiel started Commodore. So, they sold that division off, and we tightened our belts, and made a commitment to doing the coolest coin-op games ever, which of course included this live-video thing. So back to when I presented my findings in this report to Dan Van Eldrin. He offered me a job on the spot; I didn’t have time to tell him, well you know, “I want you to be aware that the guy you’re telling me I would be working for is my father-in-law, and actually, we share a home together,” so I didn’t want there to be any nepotism, but on the other hand I really wanted the job, so I figured I’d run it by Roy when he got back from out of town, and we deal with it then. At that point nobody give a damn, you know, and so we moved forward on it. My responsibilities, that actually cause me to be hired as part of a three person team, were taking the experience that I had gained designing several dozens of high-end audio-recording facilities, with not only the acoustics, but the space-planning, and all the technology, installations and all that, and bringing that to bear on a production facility to actually produce, and do post-production on the video for these live video laser-disc-based videogames going forward. So three of us were hired; myself, a guy named Chris Crummit, who was in television engineer out of San Francisco, and a guy that had been floating around the halls of MIT as a consultant for years, named Moe Shore. Moe had done some editing, some off-line editing, for PBS through WGBH in Boston, and he came out and went on of course, after Atari finally went under, he went on to become one of the heads of Panavision, actually, and built a really fine career with them, and with Trimble and others. At any rate, the three of us build and designed… designed and built the multi-multi-million-dollar facility, so we were the guys that worked with the vendors that designed the television production facility for Atari games, which was the coin-op division. I think the facility clocked in at under 20 million, but not by much, dollars. It was state-of-the-art. It was literally on the cover of all of the production trade magazines, production studios, post-production. We had 24 track analog-audio capabilities. We had… everything was completely state-of-the-art. In fact we bought some of the first machines from Ampex that they called them VPR3 there, which was a revolutionary 1-inch helical videotape machine. They were about… I think $140,000 or $150,000 apiece. All the ones that they made, we got like four of the first ones available when they become available. All the rest were scheduled to go to the Olympics in ’84, and be part of the production facility for the broadcast center down there. We were just happy to be able to throw enough money at it to where they said we can have four of those that were scheduled for the Olympics to be part of our facility. That’s kind of how it rolled. So is a very important part….

KS: So would you do with all that equipment?

BC: We built this facility and I’ll get to that. Kind of go chronologically. So we bought this facility, and we learned all the gear, ‘cause this was all state-of-the-art brand-new stuff, no-one knew how to use ‘cause it was hot-off-the-presses. We had one of the first computer graphics workstations, by a company called Quantel, that was fantastic and did things that are now are commonplace with Photoshop and that kind of thing, but back then it required a stack of 12-inch platters, and removable 330 MB Fujitsu drives, you know like dual-drive packs, just to operate this thing, and it ran on a VAX computer. I mean these things were not… they weren’t inconsequential. I think that was a $200,000 graphics system. We had one of the first ever installed. So, we learned how everything worked ,and then we set up… on a mission of designing a video game, and through the connections with Warner Communications, we found a host for that that we could parlay, and kind of ride on the marketing coattails of the franchise, and that was Firefox. So there were several meetings. Clint Eastwood came down several times himself, and met with us, and you know… so that we could stay true to the storyline of the picture, and we got some footage that was actually shot from his private Lear 35 over… it was either Iceland, or Greenland, or some combination of the two, that was a basis for most of the running footage in the game. Then we set out on the task of figuring out how do we technically create branching options in this game. So there were several meetings, going back-and-forth between the Netherlands and a meeting with Phillips MV. We realized that we needed to be able to provide enough options to make the gameplay compelling, we realized that we estimated that we would need to be able to jump, 100 frames of video during the time of vertical interval, which is 63 and half microseconds. So excuse me, it’s 1.6 microseconds. So, at any rate, we needed to jump that far in order to be able to go to alternate paths in a common timeline. So basically there were 10 possible… actually 11 possible things that could happen as you’re flying the plane. You could turn right, you could turn left, you can go up, you can go down, and you can do those in varying degrees. So a sharp right turn would be one scenario, and that goes into another timeline that is now flying that way. It is seamed together so that only that transition is the frames, and then we would jump back to another timeline you’re just flying. So at any rate there are 11 possible concurrent timelines going on, and we had to figure out how to edit that. So for the player that they built for us, specially designed by Phillips MV and our engineers, we designed something that could jump 100 tracks, or 100 frames during the vertical interval. Now we had to figure out how do we use that in our game play, ‘cause it’s what we told them we needed, so how are we going to actually design the game. So we did basically… we did it like shuffling a deck of cards… we’d take each timeline at exactly… you know 3 minutes and 18 seconds, and four frames into the timeline, for instance, we had these 11 scenarios happen, so we’d do one frame of each of those scenarios, then go to the next frame of each of those scenarios, and as it branched off and then they’d re-converge with the main timeline. They all maintain that timeline. So it became kind of…

KS: So there were sort of four movies happening interleaved?

BC: There were 11 movies happening interleaved.

KS: Oh I’m sorry, 11 interleaved, scenarios.

BC: Exactly. Exactly. Which made… I mean, we had to actually write some code that allowed us to pick our edit timelines for each one of those, and then shuffle them together for us, so we didn’t have to manually go, “okay now I’m going to take” … You know I think we were actually using three frames of each, then jumping ahead 33 frames, do three frames again, jump ahead 33 frames, do three, that kind of thing. So, we had to figure all that out, it was quite a chore, it was very fun and very rewarding, and of course it came down to the 11th hour. Because this was… You know Atari was … The market was changing. A lot of the capabilities of home computers, and there was a lot of excitement in, you know, affordable personal computing and people were taking different directions on satisfying their gaming Joneses back then. So all of a sudden, on the scene, you had console games pop onto the scene, and Atari we made one ourselves, we had the VCS, the video computer system, which was a gaming system, and then that led to the 2600 Atari which many of the listeners I’m sure would be familiar with. Meanwhile, there were offerings from Sega, and a number of other companies… Sony eventually got into the act… and so those were kind of nibbling away at her market share, and so as a result we had to be… The whole company’s existence relied on us being successful. So there was a lot of pressure from above. This is at a time, when just prior to the sale to Jack Tramiel in the splitting of the sheets with the company, the company was up to about 8,000 employees, nearly 8,000 employees. It went down to its low point, before I left, and I was one of the last to leave, and it was down to 90 employees. So that’s a big change. They were kind of betting the farm on these laser-disc videogames. So, it came time to show the working demo at a big trade show down in New Orleans. We worked for weeks on end to make this thing work, and it was right down to the 11th hour, and it still wasn’t working. They were having software and hardware issues… it was glitchy. All of a sudden, there is an “aha” moment, maybe… maybe 7 or 8 o’clock at night, before the show was opening. This was the focus of our booth and our presence at this tradeshow, was Firefox. It was the new face of video-gaming, and there was a lot resting on it, and everybody was losing their mind. We had Clint Eastwood’s Learjet standing by to get us there at the last minute, and we kept telling them “it will be ready for the show.” Meanwhile, were thinking “how will this ever be ready for the show?” This doesn’t even work in the shop. It’s all wire-wrapped together. It looks like… I don’t know what it looks like… It looks like honey-boo-boo did the mainboard, man it was bad. So, all-of-a-sudden, we had an “aha” moment at maybe 7 PM, they said “we got it working, oh my god we got it working!” I mean everybody’s working on no sleep. I mean, we’d been up for at least three-days straight. All of a sudden, everybody got woken up from the chairs they were napping in, or wherever, and were called in to start coding the target-points on the game. Well, we weren’t coders. But we learned real quick, how to do this. So you got basically… I think there’s about eight or nine of us, only two of which were actual software guys. There were hardware guys, and everybody was out of their normal realm, and they also were working on zero-sleep for that week. We coded the game; we called the pilot, who is on standby at San Jose airport. They have a curfew there, and after a certain time at night, and I think back then it was midnight. You can’t take off without a prearranged dispensation. So at three in the morning, or two in the morning, or something, we went over and piled into this, six of us, piled into the Learjet, plus the pilot and the first officer. Didn’t even call the tower- he just took off, no lights, nothing. Said “screw it were going.” It was that important. We flew down to New Orleans, and of course being the diligent company guys that we were, we went straight to Pat O’Brien’s and got our drunk on. So that said, we tied-it-on pretty well, and as the sun was coming up, one of our guys which will remain nameless now, was face-down in the gutter. Literally. We pounded two of their hurricanes; the big giant ones that are $130 each, plus $100 deposit just on the glass that they serve it in, and if you finish it in less than whatever their current time-limit for the month is, whoever… wherever they set it at like 20 minutes, and whoever beats that, they reset it, right? Nobody beat it for a while, so we beat it of course, and there was a price to pay, and meanwhile were conversing with these cute girls, that happened to be LSU cheerleaders, next to us. One of us, I think it was maybe me, went and woke the pilot up and said “we’re flying them to Jamaica for breakfast; we have these girls, let’s take the Learjet!”, you know. Meanwhile we said “no, that’s not gonna work very well, we’ll all get fired you know, we gotta be presenting this at a meeting at 8 AM.” So went to get some breakfast across the street and try to sober up, and this one particular marketing guy who was right in the head of the mix in a three-piece suit still, he was face down in the gutter, literally in the mud, probably having vomited on himself, and that was the image that showed up in the paper in New Orleans, saying “hey, the gaming people are in town,” and a picture of him in the gutter. But at any rate, we did sober up, we made it to the meeting. We kind of each went own, I was one of the first there, from that team that had just flown in, after no sleep for a week, and then thought it was a good idea to go drinking… that group. So we pulled into the meeting, and were welcomed by a number of very nervous people, including John Farren, who was the president of Atari back then. They were just wringing their hands… all of our jobs rely on this, and here’s these guys just smell like they came from a brewery tour in Kentucky, or a distillery… coming in with mud on them, and lipstick on their face and stuff. We said, “here it is.” We put it in and it worked. It didn’t initially work, of course, there a lot of drum rolls, and gasping going on. Next thing you know, it was up and running, by the grace of God, that had a tradeshow, and the game was a mild success, but unfortunately, I think it proved to be too-little, too-late. After that, the industry took a turn, and those gaming systems that were nipping at our heels, combined with the newfound interest in interleaved gaming of that sort, it parlayed into CDs, and it was kind of the death of that company for a while. They revive for a while, they got… Namco came in, and brought a little infusion of capital, and they kind of made a mark in the home gaming industry for a minute, and then of course, the rest is history. It ended up in a number of buried Star Wars games in the desert of Arizona somewhere. That is the world of Atari according to Bill Crooks, during those years. It was quite a ride, and that’s kind of the chronology of it. There were some other games that we were working on during that time. One of which was a dance game that proposed by Moe Shore, and his MIT-grad girlfriend who was also an Atari gal, and I can’t remember her name of the top of my head, but they proposed a dance game, branded as a Michael Jackson dance game. So we started down that rabbit-hole a little bit and Michael Jackson came up for a couple of visits to consult, it was all very exciting. It never actually got off the ground past the design stage, but I think at that point as I said, it was probably too little-bit, too-late.

KS: That was going to be another laser-disc sort of game?

BC: That was going to be another laser-disc application. I proposed a golf simulator… which you know, in retrospect, had it happened the way that I was envisioning it, with Hall effect transducers in the captive ball, and that whole sort of thing, that’s actually been done since then, very successfully. They also went on to create a set of some driving simulators, that did pretty well, and I think were sold to police departments and some military applications later, that brought some coin to the table, but that was after my time there.

KS: For the home computers, there was for a while some kiosks, in-store kiosks, that used laser-discs that interfaced with the Atari 8-bit machines. Did you touch that, did you know anything about that, have anything to do with that?

BC: As I said, not long after I came into the company, there was a divestiture, and the company split into two completely separate ownerships. That happened kind of as I was coming in. So I was there for a while as home computers were still part of Atari, but it at it’s very last days, so they are already kind of taking the inventory and splitting the sheets. I was aware that they had laser discs over there. We refer to ours is a “quick-jump” laser disc, that was specifically designed to do… to jump a lot of tracks of video instantaneously, without having any glitch, at all. Those weren’t required for the kiosk things, because it was, you know, basically like we think of the Internet, with a fairly mediocre connection, it took a second, it would go search for it, then it would show you the image that you requested. So typically the real… and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers by saying this… a lot of the “big horsepower” kinds of engineering minds, kind of team, was on the coin-op side. I’m not quite sure why that was. But the home-computer division I mean they weren’t… that’s not entirely true, there were some brilliant guys over there… maybe it’s just I didn’t have quite the relationship with them, as I did with some of the guys on our side. But we had some guys I mean guys that really came up with like… One guy, for instance, is a good friend of mine, Michael McKay, who was over in coin-op. We met back then, has gone on to do a huge career in video, and owns many of the patents for Sony broadcast for some of their 3-D stuff, and some of their high-definition stuff. I mean there was a lot of guys like that… That you know that a lot of us came to the party, you know, previously having a foot in the industry, and weren’t limited to… We were brought in because of that. I use the “royal we,” even though I was probably the lower, you know the lest-noted guy on that team, but you know some of engineers like, for instance the guy that was the MIT/Stanford audio guy, that was just one of many, was a guy that was the first to postulate doing 3-D audio, with just three sound sources. The guys that developed Fast Fourier Transforms and stuff, which I’m not mistaken, was developed at Stanford; that scientist worked on our team. I mean like, these were big hitters. I don’t think there was quite that populated with that caliber of hitters on the HCD side. I could very well be wrong, but we had some real visionaries on our side.

KS: How did you know Cassie?

BC: It’s actually a pretty funny story, on or off-the-record. Cassie and I actually didn’t really know each other. She worked in the marketing department, I think prior to the sale. You know back in the day, there is a limited number of hot blondes running through the hallways, so let’s start there. She was also clever, which even is… makes someone even more attractive, so she always has good media sensibilities… as you probably got talking with her. She was clever. She worked for magazines. She’s done TV. She’s done a lot of stuff, and I’ll get to that. So we kind of peripherally knew each other at Atari, but didn’t really ever speak with her much, except for “Hi, how are you?”, you know… we’d have a Friday afternoon beer-bash every week, I’d see her there, and we’d share a beer once in a while, but that was about it. I was married at the time, and anyway and all that, so there wasn’t a lot of… We didn’t have a lot of camaraderie. Until years later, I was vice president of… let’s say most of the large production, television production houses in Northern California and some in Southern California. One of the shows we worked on, was a show called “The Computer Show.” It was one of the first of its kind, and it was on Financial News Network, which became MSNBC later. It was… She was a technology reporter on the show, and ran a segment. So as one of the directors on the show, I met her there, and we realized that we worked at Atari together, and known each other in a previous life. Then years go by… and we got a chuckle out of that… kind of became friends, and then lost touch. Then years go by, and I find myself heavily ensconced again, well still, in the music industry… and at this point, maybe in the mid-90s, I had a management company and record label, which I still have… and she was introduced to me by a mutual friend as someone who is managing an artist, and she needed some help. So we got together and I went “wait a minute… we know each other.” We started laughing, because we just kept running into each other every few years, whether we like it or not. Then I helped her manage that artist for a while. Then she got into real estate, but she was still doing… she sat on the board of a couple of companies… she’s kind of a mover-and-shaker. Sharp, and familiar with technology. We’re still dear friends. So that time it fully stuck, and we’ve been friends ever since.

KS: What haven’t I asked you that I should have?

BC: How connected do you feel your fan base is, or your listener base, to this whole… Let’s start with Arduino, and get into the “maker” movement as a bigger picture… and the Internet of things. To this day I’m a technologist. I consult with companies like Maxim. I started doing consulting as “grand marketing guy,” and it’s evolved more into actually consult with them on VLSI design and all kinds of different things. Which is not my business, per se, but those years all those years, starting back at Atari… actually long before that my dad developed the hard drive for IBM in the 50s and it’s in the Smithsonian.

KS: I saw that.

BC: Interestingly enough, I’ve been in technology virtually my entire life. That kind of led me to have some sort of knowledge base that has been useful in my consulting work with companies like Maxim, and several others. So to me as a technologist, the thing to really be watching right now, is tied up in a big way with, the fact that kids are learning to code, in like versions of C++, on like, these small microcontroller boards, and even Raspberry Pi’s, and that is kind of almost a direct-descendent, of what people were trying to have happened back in the day, with the 8-bit machines. They were trying to get that take root there was no… the development platforms weren’t really available to take into the classroom. So, this actually comes more under the question that I would ask your viewers, which is like… we all have a love for this, you know, the roots of this gaming, the roots of this technology. The 8-bit roots… to use an analogue… in recording, the guys that really still get all the Grammys, are the guys that understood the old-school methods. Because to understand the history, and how you have to really think, and be organized with your thoughts, when you’re coding an 8-bit process. You know, as opposed to say, to look at the code for Windows Vista, which is just a pile of crap. There’s code everywhere to fix the code that… because you get so many people contributing. You’ve got an architecture that 32-bits or whatever it is… even not then. 64-bit now and stuff. But there’s some overhead. You don’t have to be as smart about your code being clean. My question to your viewers, is how do they perceive, you know, what they know, and they love about 8-bit, moving forward, and how does that apply, to technology and specifically, to young technologists moving forward?

KS: I think many of the listeners, do see the Arduino movement and Raspberry Pi, as a sort of new generation rebirth of what was happening in the late 70s, early 80s, with Apples and Atari 8-bits and that sort of thing.

BC: Nice

KS: It’s a small machine that you can… a person can just sit down and learn to code. Or do hardware… futz with the hardware, or whatever.

BC: Or both, ostensibly. That was the thing that wasn’t available, back in the day, when everybody fell in love with 8-bit stuff it’s like you… there was no Internet where you could go get a YouTube video on how to write in Basic.

KS: No. It’s like you waited for the magazine to come once-a-month, and then you, you know, you typed up the thing, or you did the hardware project, or whatever was in the magazine… or maybe there was user group, if you were lucky.

BC: Right.

KS: Things certainly move faster because of the Internet

BC: Yeah. Kevin, I hope I answered your questions appropriately; I’m sorry if I threw you a curve by being a part of the coin-op division, those bastards. Well listen, I appreciate you taking the time, and hope it was helpful.

KS: It was great. Thank you so much.

BC: My pleasure man, bye-bye.