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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
Kevin: Hi, this is Kevin Savetz and this is an interview with Chris Crawford, who was an Atari programmer, probably most notably known for Eastern Front 1941 and as one of the authors of the book De Re Atari. The interview was conducted on Monday, September 9, 2013 via Skype. This is the complete, unedited version of the interview that lasts about an hour. A shorter version of the interview will be an episode for Antic, the Atari 8 Bit podcast which you can find at AtariPodcast.com. If you want to contact me, you can find me at Savetz.com. Okay, here's the interview.
Kevin: So, when I went to add you in my Skype, it said you were in Oregon.
Kevin: What part? I'm in Portland.
Chris: Oh, I'm in Jacksonville, south end of the state.
Kevin: Okay. I know where Ashland is.
Chris: Yeah, close to Ashland.
Kevin: Okay. My wife and I go down there to see plays. How long have you been there?
Chris: Oh jeez, 15 or 16 years now. We were in Silicon Valley and, well, we kind of got tired of the whole thing. Silicon Valley had changed in some very bad ways. I think, when I went there, it was in '79. It was a place for engineers to make wonderful toys, and by the time we left, it was a place people went to to get rich and that was just unacceptable. So, we had found this place by a series of wild coincidences and fell in love with it. Actually, the single event that convinced us most of the desirability of coming here was, we came up here to visit, just have a look around and so forth. We went into a little greasy spoon breakfast restaurant. There were just four tables and all four were occupied. We turned to leave, and the waitress said no, no, no wait, wait, wait, we'll fix this, and went to one of the single occupants of one table and asked him if he'd mind sitting with a single occupant at another table, and he agreed, and they both agreed to this. So, she seated them and then introduced them to each other. Two perfect strangers agreed to eat with each other just so we could have a table and that's not something that people do in Silicon Valley. "My table, grr!" Then when we came out, just as we were stepping out of the restaurant, we heard this huge screeching of brakes, and we turned to see some horrific accident. Instead, it was this huge logging truck squealing to a stop to permit a little old lady to cross the street in front of him. He didn't have to stop at all, but. . .
Kevin: It's different, for sure.
Kevin: So, how long have you been there?
Chris: About 15 years.
Kevin: Awesome, cool. Sweet. So, I'm going to start with the question I usually end with. What are you most proud of in your career as a game designer?
Chris: C-boot. A game called Trust and Betrayal that I did for the Macintosh. It was way ahead of its time. It was weird. We published it in 1987 and you had conversations with other characters in this mental ESP kind of language and you had genuine interpersonal with these people. They could get mad, you could sweet talk them. I mean, they really did behave like characters. They were primitive, but they were way, way ahead of anything that has been done before or since. There's still nothing as sophisticated as that game. Balance of Power was probably my second big achievement, largely because of its big sales. It affected a lot of people, taught a lot of people about geopolitics and that was good. Then, third would be Eastern Front for the Atari.
Kevin: Why are you so interested in geopolitics and war games? Why is that your thing?
Chris: Well, I was a child of Vietnam. My whole generation faced that. Now, we were all very worried about that. Whereas most other people took the approach of 'fight the evil', I wanted to understand it. My feeling was, you know, as the quintessential rationalist thinking "Well, if only we can figure out what's really going on here, we can find a solution!" Well, that's naive, but I was a student. And so I set out trying to understand war. I spent a long time studying military history, if only because military history itself is very interesting, just the logic of it and the way things actually get done and how they fail. From there, I moved on to the question of how do you avoid getting into a war in the first place, and I did lots of reading about that. Those ideas gelled together for me with Balance of Power. But I was first experimenting with them with Eastern Front. I did a whole bunch of war games, in each of which I'm trying to focus on some element of war that is not immediately obvious. In effect, I was trying to teach what makes war tick.
Kevin: Can you give an example?
Chris: In Eastern Front, the two big ideas there that people don't appreciate are, first, the importance of surrounding an enemy unit, cutting them off, not just from supplies, but from their natural retreat, and that causes them to panic. That connected directly with the second point, which is that military organizations operate only when there's a strong sense of social cohesion, when everyone believes together, that this will work. There's always a point in combat where that breaks, and a military unit becomes a mob and that actually was most striking at the battle of Waterloo. This was so black and white.
Napoleon had been sending units to attack the British lines from various directions all day long and, finally, he realized he was out of options, he had just one shot left and that was the old guard. These were the elite of the French army. They were the old guys who were just unflappable, nothing stopped them, they were determined. He sent them marching straight across towards the British line and, by chance, as they went up a slope, they veered slightly to one side because it was a little shallower direction and, as they veered, they were approaching the British lines, and there was still a bit of a slope over which they couldn't see. Just on the other side of it was a big British unit that was lying down to avoid getting hit by the cannon fire.
The commander of that unit told his men, stand up and, all of the sudden, the old guard is just getting ready to approach an enemy unit when, off to the side, another unit appears out of nowhere! It caused the old guard to kind of hesitate, and then they sent a volley of musket fire into them and they sort of started backing up and turning, and, at that point, the shout went up throughout the French Army, "La garde recule!" The guard recoils, they're running. In one minute, the entire French army turned and ran. It was like the complete dissolution of the social contract that holds an army together and that was an important part of Eastern Front, where you had muster strength and combat strength. Muster strength is how many men you have, combat strength is how many men are willing to fight. As they get into combat, you're not just killing people, you're rattling them and they rattle a lot faster than they die. So, if you just keep hitting them, at a certain point, they'll break and run. And that was one of the main points of Eastern Front.
Kevin: Excellent. So, I just read, I was going to say recently, but it was 10 minutes ago, an article you wrote for creative computing way back in the day, about the narrative history of Eastern Front and how you went about creating the game. I was surprised to learn that it started off as a game for the Commodore PET.
Kevin: Called, I don't know how to say it... Ourrah Pobieda?
Chris: Ourrah Pobieda!
Kevin: You say it better than I could.
Chris: Hooray for the motherland! That was one of the Russian war cries. Fortunately, Dale Yocum at Atari had the good sense of talking me out of using an unpronounceable title and suggested I use something a little more obvious. I tend to do that, use these obscure things that nobody understands.
Kevin: Then, you said you had 317 versions of Eastern Front before it was done.
Chris: Yeah. Basically, any time I made a change or whatever, I'd save it as the next version and that's how many builds I went through.
Kevin: Wow. Then, I guess after it was published by APX and then it later became a real Atari cartridge, you made it even harder at that point?
Kevin: Tell me about the changes that happened there?
Chris: Well, the main thing is I felt that Eastern Front was too easy to beat, the first edition. In fact, I'd gotten letters from people saying, "Oh yeah, I wiped out the Russians!" So, I wanted to make sure that there was a level that nobody could beat. So, I put in that, but I also added some sophistication to the game, extra doodads and geegaws, I tightened up the artificial intelligence a little bit. It was no big change, it was just an improvement. Now, most games follow that path. They have their starting version, and then they go through versions three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and so forth. I have no patience for that. There are too many other games to do to waste time just souping up an old design.
Kevin: Sure, sure. But then, I mean now, if they want to push out changes to a game, they can just keep doing it live, forever. I mean, then you kind of have to commit.
Kevin: You know, back then it was out on disk and that was it.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, that's true, that's true. We did have a clearer end point. Certainly, if you're getting money on a subscription basis, then yeah, there's sort of an ethical obligation to improve it but, on a one-shot basis, if you're just selling it, I think it's appropriate to ship and forget.
Kevin: Yeah, okay. But, you didn't forget. I know it was APX's number one program for a long time and then you came out with ancillary stuff, risk source code, which I think was highly unusual.
Kevin: You released the scenario editor, which I kind of get the impression that it was just a tool that you used, maybe.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. It was something that I already had. Basically, Dale Yocum at APX was really eager for anything Eastern Front and so, I decided, well, let's release the source code. Now, it took me a lot of time. It wasn't just a matter of okay, here's the source code, publish it. I had to write up detailed explanations of everything, about how it worked. This was important because I wanted other people to be able to learn from it. So, I spent months just getting all of that ready to go and then the scenario editor was something that I had built for my own purposes and it just took a little tidying up to ship it.
Kevin: My assumption is that the number of people who bought the source code and the scenario editor were probably minuscule compared to the people who just wanted to go in and play the game?
Chris: Oh yeah. Actually, one of the surprising things was that Dale Yocum set the price for the source code. God, I think it was like $150. I was astounded that he wanted that much, but he said, that was his decision to make. He knows the ground better than I do, so.
Kevin: Then you released the source code again just recently on your website.
Kevin: I went to download it and I was very pleasantly surprised to see it's not just the source code. I mean, you threw in everything you could find. It's annotated, there's articles in there, you put in Western Front, which I guess is an unfinished follow up game?
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Kevin: Want to talk about that?
Chris: I think I started working on Western Front after I was laid off from Atari. I thought, I need a little money, let me try this. So, I put it together. I was not pleased with the way it was coming out. So I set that aside, you know, maybe I'll come back to it someday. I then went on to work on another game that I think was much more interesting, called Last of the Incas and we'll be releasing that as soon as I can get that cleaned up. That was a much more interesting design. It involved what's called in physics, Galilean relativity. It's the idea that you don't know about something until the message from it reaches you. So, in this game, you're the Spanish and the Inca army is moving around up in the mountains, but in the mountains, news travels very slowly. So, you don't find out about where they've attacked until a messenger from that area can reach you. So, if you set out towards them, they may be long gone by the time you get there. I developed this concept. It turned out to be a very interesting idea, and I was rather pleased with it but, by that time, the market for Atari games had collapsed. There were no publishers interested.
Kevin: How does it make you feel that today, though, people are still interested in the source code to that and all of your other stuff really?
Chris: I'm surprised, mostly. I can understand the appeal of it, rather like working on an old Volkswagen. It's a simple, clean engine. You can really get in there and work at the fundamental level, whereas modern cars you don't dare touch. So, I can see the appeal of that but, for the kind of things I want to do, the Atari is way too lacking in resource. I mean, modern machines are, I do not exaggerate, billions of times more powerful and that's kind of hard to ignore.
Kevin: So, what do you want to do and what are you doing today? What do you do now?
Chris: I'm working on interactive storytelling. That's been my big project for 20 years now. Actually, it started back in Atari. When I went to work for Alan Kay, he was a real inspiration. He challenged me to think big. What's really important? I remember spending a lot of time just going on long walks, meditating. I finally decided that the fundamental challenge in game design could be summarized in the slogan: people, not things. The idea being that games should be about people. Movies are not about things, movies are about people, but in games, it's always things. You know, you're chasing things, shooting things, acquiring things, gobbling things, but there are never any real people.
So, I decided back at Atari research that I had to work on the problem of people. That's why I did Gossip and then Excalibur and I continued screwing around with that concept until about 20 years ago, when I decided okay, look, I've got to commit myself to this and it has turned out to be an immensely difficult problem. In 20 years, I have not yet solved it, but I can take some consolation in the fact that when I started, nobody else was interested in it. In fact, games, people were all saying, "Stories? Are you out of your head, Crawford? What we need is 3D graphics!" In the last 10 years or so, suddenly, storytelling has been growing more and more important in the eyes of the community. In fact, now there's lots of people working on it, and they are years behind me because I've had about a 10 year head start on them. In fact, I'm now working on something. I'm actually re-doing C-boot on a much grander scale and I went back to the basics. I re-designed this thing from the ground up. I'm very pleased. It'll take me at least another year, but I'm pleased with the progress I'm making.
Kevin: Excellent, and you think that'll eventually be released commercially, Kickstarter or something?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I intend to do some sort of commercial release. I'm not sure exactly how I will do that. I know that I have to get it pretty far along before anybody will believe in it enough to contribute, but I'm working on it. Like I say, it'll be at least a year, probably longer, but I'm going to get it done. This is my major project now.
Kevin: C-boot is the ESP communication game?
Chris: Yep, yep. Again, I've taken it much further. First, it's funny. A lot of game designers build from the outside in. They start out off saying all right, look. It's like a car, we're going to build a beautiful body, and we're going to give it this great paint scheme and it's going to have chrome on it, and it's going to be shaped so elegantly. Okay, now we've got that. Now, let's figure out what kind of engine we're going to put inside. I think that's backwards. You start with the engine, and you build the engine and the fundamental parts first and work out from there. So, I'm working on the deep down guts calculations and they're working pretty well already. I've got characters engaging in conversations where they gossip about each other. They can propose deals, negotiate details. I'm just now bringing up the feature where they can lie to each other.
Kevin: So, your characters in the game actually talk to each other and work autonomously?
Chris: Oh, yeah.
Kevin: So, they don't know what the other one's going to do ahead of time?
Chris: Oh yeah. Yeah, and they have real personalities. The three basic personalities that control the characters are good, honest and powerful and they represent how much you might like somebody, how much you might trust them, how much you might be intimidated by them. Those are deeply integrated into the game. They really affect people's behavior. They're people who have short tempers, people who are very mellow, very friendly people, very standoffish people. They have the whole range. Very dominating people, gullible, all of these traits are built into these characters and they operate, they function, they affect behavior. That's what's important.
Kevin: Sounds fascinating.
Chris: It's big, it's huge. That's why it's taken me 20 years to get this far.
Kevin: Well, you said you've been working on it so long which gets to another question that I have. You wrote the Art of Computer Game Design a long time ago.
Kevin: There were a lot of game designers, game makers, for the Atari and before that. But it seems like you were one of the first people to really stop to think about computer game design as a category rather than just doing it, thinking about it.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. That's the physicist in me. The fundamental thing I learned in physics was, you always ask, "What is the essence of the problem?" So, I kept thinking in those terms. That definitely was unique at Atari. No one else thought in those terms. They were thinking about the programming problems and the technical issues and, in fact, that style of thinking has dominated game design even to the present day. Now, people are thinking more and more deeply about game design. That didn't really start until maybe 15 years ago, 20 years ago, early 90s, there was some thought along those lines. I published a journal of computer game design, where people would talk about it, but there weren't that many people writing material for the journal. I had to write most of the material.
Starting about 15 years ago, we started to get some people engaging in some real deep thought, and certainly in the last 10 years, we've had an enormous amount of progress there. I think there's still a problem that people aren't diving down to the very bottom of the problem and working their way up. There's still a lot of people trying to work down from the more skin deep levels and that's holding them back. Actually, the biggest influence are the indie game designers. They are really shaking up the world, because they're trying all sorts of weird, crazy stuff, most of which is crap, but that's the way real art works. You try out all sorts of crazy ideas. Every now and then, someone comes up with something brilliant. Jason Rohrer has done this several times now and this shakes up the way people think about games. So, I think we're seeing a real flowering of ideas now. I'm rather excited about it.
Kevin: Excellent. You were talking about games that are different and try new things and you said flowering. I was already thinking of a game called Flower for the Playstation. It's an indie game, and in it, you are the wind. You push seeds around. It doesn't tell you what you're doing, but you're the wind, and you move things around, and, basically, you're pollinating fields. You do it by tilting the controller gently, and it's just like it's a game, it's art. It's something like you've never played before. Anyway, you said flowering and it made me think of that, which gets into another question I was going to ask you about you mentioning indie game designers pushing the limits. You wrote something in Compute in January '93, which, I think, my feeling is, could've been written today. You said, "Formula driven spin offs of current games are what people are buying, meaning those games have greater chances of making it to stores. A majority of companies produce safer games. Producing categorically correct games puts the industry in a rut and the chain only breaks when someone, usually a freelancer, comes out with a game that defies the rules, one that doesn't match what's on the market." That was '93.
Chris: Yeah, that's pretty much the history of the games industry.
Kevin: It's the current, but it's also the current state, because, you know, Madden 2014 is about to be out, and who cares.
Chris: In their defense, I'll point out that the big companies are spending millions of dollars on these products. So, they don't want to spend $10 million on a wild blue yonder type of thing. Their mistake though is they still haven't learned from Hollywood. Hollywood does a lot of formula stuff, but Hollywood also knows you need the weird stuff. So, Hollywood has this huge system for encouraging weird stuff. They fund film schools, they fund things, they have the film festivals where they encourage indie filmmakers to come out with something and, if someone has something good, they publicize it, they give them a big award, hooray hurrah for you! They're helping these people along in all sorts of different ways.
The other thing they do that is immensely important is they rely heavily on getting outside ideas primarily from fiction writers. Hollywood is constantly scouring the world for interesting novels that can be converted into cinema. A friend of mine, Steven J. Gould, did a novel which was made into a movie called Jumper and it was a completely different movie. It was unlike anything. It was science fiction, but it was weird, and it made a good movie. There's all sorts of things like this, where novels get turned into movies, because Hollywood knows it needs to get outside ideas. The games industry hasn't learned that lesson. They have no organized system whereby they collect really good ideas. If they were any of them that had any sense at all, they would hire Jason Rohrer, set him up with a lab, throw money at him and say, "Go do interesting things!" They wouldn't give him 10s of millions of dollars, but a few 100,000 a year with a couple of people working for him, building great ideas. If they were to have 10 little operations like that, that's what they spend on one game. Out of those 10, they're guaranteed to get at least one really great game, but they're too dumb to do that.
Kevin: Do you think it's better the way things are done now, where it takes 100 people to make a game? Or was it better back in the day when Chris Crawford could sit down and write Eastern Front by himself?
Chris: Well, actually, the easy answer: look to Hollywood. How many people does it take to write a novel? How many people does it take to make a movie? Where do movies get all their original ideas? So, yeah. Real creativity almost always comes from an individual. Even in cases like Avatar. That didn't come from a novel, but the guy had a very strong idea. There was one person behind that idea who drove it. Same thing with many of the great movies. There is an individual, Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron, who has this very clear idea, and he enlists all these other people to help him realize that idea. Nothing like that in the games industry. They're huge. If you want to imagine a game being worked on, imagine a monstrous hall filled with desks in a rectangular grid, with minions working away at computers. That may not be exactly how it's done, but that's certainly the style in which it's done.
Kevin: You started at Atari working on 2600 games, is that right?
Kevin: What games?
Chris: I did just one game. They had a rule. Everybody wanted to work on the home computer but the rule was, you had to do a game for the 2600 before you could do anything for the 800. So, I sat down and I learned the 2600 and I built a game for it. I think I set something of a world record for learning the 2600 and getting a game working on it. I joined Atari right after Labor Day in '79 and my game was basically ready by the first of January. The funny thing was, it was called Wizard, it's out there somewhere on the 'net. I sent somebody the roms years ago and they read them and put them into a file and you can play it now. It's a very, very simple game because the specification when I started was it had to be 4K. Well then, just as I finished it, we showed it to marketing, and marketing looked at it and said, "Well, you know, the 8K games now are taking over everything. We can't sell 4K games anymore. So can you re-do this for 8K?" I sort of threw up my hands and said, "Wait a minute. I designed this for 4K. That was a very tight design spec. I came up with something that works very well in 4K. If you want an 8K game, I will throw this way and start all over from scratch, but I'm not going to take this game and just sort of add bytes to it to make it an 8K game." They said, "Well, gee then, never mind." Then, the guy who was running the 800 software group said, "Okay Chris, you did your job. Now come work for me." So, I started working on software for 800.
Kevin: So, what was the first software you did on the 800?
Chris: Energy Czar.
Kevin: Energy Czar.
Chris: Actually, I did a bit of a trick there. When you join Atari, it was very standard, you had to sign a contract that saying any ideas you get while working for Atari belong to Atari but, as part of the contract, you can also specify any ideas you've already had. So, I wrote down a long list of games I had actually built for the Commodore PET and the first one was Energy Czar. It was called Energy Crisis at the time. So, I went to Dale Yocum who was running that group at that time and said, I've already got this game designed about the energy crisis. I could re-do it and have it up in four months for you, but you'll have to pay me $2,000, and they agreed. So, I did Energy Czar and then Scram was the same thing. Eastern Front I did on my own and was the same thing. There were a whole bunch of games, I had about half a dozen games I had set aside and then proceeded to do a number of them for Atari.
Kevin: I was going to ask why Eastern Front didn't win an Atari star award and the $25,000 prize but I'm guessing it's because you were an employee?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, that would be inappropriate. Caverns of Mars got it, and that was the appropriate thing. I think it would've been wrong to give me that award, so I had no objection at all.
Kevin: All right. So, you did Energy Czar, you did the Nuclear Reactor, Scram, right? And what came next?
Chris: Yeah. Well, I was actually pursuing two tracks. There was the Atari track and the at home track. At home, I did Tanktics and Legionnaire for Avalon Hill. Actually, I did Eastern Front at home and, let's see, for Atari, I did Energy Czar and Scram. Then, I was promoted to supervise the software development support group. I've always been a teacher at heart and there have been a lot of people, I knew a lot of people out in the industry, and a lot of them had been approaching me saying "Chris, could you give us some of the technical specs of the Atari so we can write software for it?" And I had said, "No, no, no, I can't. It's all secret," because the Atari executives had this idiotic notion that "We'll make all our money on the software, so we're not going to give out the specifications," which was truly idiotic. Somehow, somebody, I think it was Dale, convinced them that this is all wrong, that we want outsiders developing software, we want a big pile of software. So, they reversed that. That was early in 1980 sometime.
They reversed that decision and the day I got the memo, I started making photocopies of technical documents and mailing them off to people. I became more and more the contact point, lots of people were approaching me. In December of '80, I think it was, or earlier than that, they asked me to form a group to help people inside and outside program the Atari, to teach them how to do it. Most of the inside people knew how to do it, so I was the world's first software evangelist because I went around, all over the country with these seminars that were free, where, in two days, we'd teach you everything you'd need to know about the Atari. We gave you all sorts of software to help, demos and so forth and it was a huge success. It really helped bring forth a flood of software for the Atari and I did that until Alan Kay hired me to join research.
Kevin: So, was it in your evangelism role, is that where De Re Atari was born?
Kevin: Can you talk about that?
Chris: Yeah. After we'd done the seminar a few times, we realized we needed a universal document. We had this pile of bits and pieces, but they didn't tie together. Many of them were very technical, and they talked about what the hardware did, but they didn't talk about how you use it. So, I decided we needed one document, and so we worked very long on that. I wrote most of it, but Lane Winner wrote the sections on the operating system and we went through a lot of drafts. We were using the early draft versions in the seminars and getting good feedback based on that and we finally shipped the thing. I think I mentioned somewhere in it that De Re Atari, this was another one of my obscure references, was based on De Re Metallica written around 500-600 years ago by a guy named Agricola, which was all about how to mine and process ore to make metals. So, it was the bible of mining for several hundred years. This was going to be the bible for the Atari, even though it wouldn't last several hundred years.
Kevin: And it still is. If you want to program the Atari in any language, you need to reference De Re Atari.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, it's the definitive. That's what we set out to do.
Kevin: You succeeded. Years ago, I interviewed Fred Thorlin, who was the boss at APX and he said, "I hold a special affection for Eastern Front and De Re Atari both by Chris Crawford. They paid the bills, i.e. were our best sellers." Seems like you were just shipping stuff out the door, it was the Chris Crawford show for a while.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. I had some losers, too, but this was sort of, this is that whole thing about physics, what is the essence? I was trying to say, what are the real strengths of the Atari? So, I spent a lot of time thinking about its display system. I zeroed in on this concept of vertical screen architecture as the most important concept to understand in designing a display on the Atari. That's part of what made the Eastern Front screen so compelling. It used everything in the Atari. It was really the first game that fully utilized every feature inside that machine.
Kevin: Okay, what do you mean by vertical screen architecture? I mean, you say that's the single most compelling thing about the Atari. How so?
Chris: The screen is drawn from top to bottom. You have the opportunity to change the graphic parameters as the screen is going down. So, in good design, you organize it so that you can make dramatic changes in the display system as the beam is heading down the screen so that you can get something vertically that's really all sorts of things, different display modes, different context, all sorts of different color combinations. That was the way to get lots and lots of color because, at heart, the Atari really couldn't display that many colors but by changing color register contents being worked down the screen, you could get zillions of colors.
Kevin: Awesome. Tweaking things during the horizontal flank, I guess.
Chris: Yes, yes.
Kevin: So, De Re Atari, and then you had said Alan Kay stole you to work in research.
Kevin: What happened there?
Chris: Alan was hired by Ray Kassar. Basically, Ray could see that Atari was growing very rapidly and was going to get really big and he realized we needed a genuine research department. He asked around and basically said, "I'm going to hire myself the best goddamned computer science researcher in the world," and so he got Alan Kay, who was one of the top people and Alan demanded proper circumstances. He basically said, "You should not expect anything to come out of this department for at least five years, and probably more like 10 years. You will give me this much funding, you will never reduce this funding. You will not in any way intrude into the operations of this. This is going to have a lot of weird crazy people. We're going to do all sorts of crackpot things. That's what research does, and you're just going to have to live with that." And Kassar agreed to all those conditions and so Alan started setting up his division.
The first thing he did when he got to Atari was, he asked around, "Look, are there any real angry young hothead geniuses?" And everyone pointed him towards me. So, he asked me to come over to talk. I had no idea who he was. I was completely ignorant of computer science and one of my employees, when he found out, said, "You're going to see Alan Kay? Oh god, can I come along? I won't say anything, I'll just sit in the back, I just want to see Alan Kay." So I said, "Okay, yeah, sure, if you want." I had no idea. So, we went to see Alan. I actually was not impressed at first. I remember going into his office, and he sat down and he put his feet up on the desk, and he was wearing tennis shoes. I don't know, there was something about him, very odd, and so I didn't know what to think. We just talked about some things, and then we ended the talk. He just asked me to come over to talk, I didn't know why.
Then, a week later, I got a call from his assistant, offering me a job and I said, "Yeah, sure, sounds like fun." Well, this was around February or so. He was also lining up all his researchers who were in academic departments all over the country, but they were all on academic contracts that didn't expire until the summer. So, for the next four months or so, the research department at Atari consisted of Alan Kay, me and his assistant, Wanda Royce. Then, I hired a few people from my group. We were ensconced in the executive building. I was two doors down from Ray Kassar, because that was the only space they could give Alan, so they stuck me next to Alan. So, this was the executive suite, here, I and later on one of my employees, we'd be sitting in this room, working away at the computer, dressed like programmers. Meanwhile, the open door, there were all these executives dressed in expensive suits walking by and occasionally looking in like "What the hell is this?" To make matters worse, Alan would take us to the executive dining room, which was for executives only, but he could invite us in. So, we'd eat there and you could see the executives scowling at us like, "What are those peons doing in our lunch room?"
Kevin: What was the research work? What were you doing?
Chris: He basically said, "Research games." You know, "Think big." That was the main message, Alan, he kept pushing me hard. "Think bigger. Think not in terms of where we are and how to improve from that, but think of where we want to be 30 years from now and how to get there." One of his great quotes that I've never forgotten is, in fact I had asked him once, "Well, you know, we're going to have a lot of problems, we're going to have some problems." And he said, "Look, if you don't fail at least 90% of the time, you're not aiming high enough."
I had a lot of discussions with Alan. I once described it as the computer scientist equivalent of being marooned on an island with Marilyn Monroe. I had him all to myself. He is an absolute genius, and I had difficulty keeping up with him sometimes. The ideas just came so fast I was straining to keep up with the flow of thought, but he inspired me, and so I thought long and hard about fundamental issues, what's important about games? That's where I came up with the idea of people, that games should be about people. Then, I asked questions. How do we do something with people?
Gossip was the first experiment in that direction, and it was actually rather pleased with it. It was a good little project although, unfortunately, I basically threw together the basic concept and all the controlling algorithms, the engine of the game, in a matter of a few weeks. Then, the remaining task was to get some graphics up. So, I hired a summer intern to put the body around the game. He got the body up immediately. It took him a matter of weeks to get all the graphics and sound working, although I'll mention, one sound, one of my hires at research was a guy named Randy Smith who was also a genius, and he put together a sound effect for Gossip. When the phone rang, a character would pick up the phone put it to his ear and, this was absolutely state of the art, cutting edge sound technology. He would say "Herro?" That was a major step forward.
But the summer intern could not get Gossip working. I wasted months. I should have just fired his ass, but I was too soft and, eventually, we transferred him to another division and I ended up finishing up the thing, but we did Gossip. The major project was Excalibur. That was the big research effort and we broke all sorts of new ground with Excalibur. It had a lot of stuff in it that was just very different. It represented the only possible intersection between the extremely high ideals that Alan wanted and what was possible with the Atari and I'm proud of that. I think I did a good job with that and it was a good program.
Kevin: So, okay. You're in the executive building at Atari. I've gotta ask, I've heard snippets and stories. Were guys doing cocaine off hookers backs in the hot tub?
Chris: I never saw anything like that. I will say, later...
Kevin: Never saw it, he says.
Chris: No, no seriously. We were moved out of the executive suites and into our own building after a couple of months. Over there, we were isolated from the executive suites. I will say though that, towards the end, Atari did go crazy. It grew way too fast and Ray Kassar really didn't know how to grow the company wisely. For example, at one point, he hired a whole bunch of people that were referred to as the 60 bitters. They were executives and managers from CDC and they knew a whole bunch about how to build software for big computers and they were exactly the wrong people for the microcomputer business.
Kevin: People from Control Data, you're saying, right?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Their whole approach was just wrong, wrong, wrong! They wanted, before you even began doing a piece of software, you had to write down all these marketing specifications, engineering specifications, programming specifications, data specifications. We want paper work. It was just, oh god, it was bad. They really, really screwed things up, but Atari was making money hand over fist and so they were trying to expand and they were hiring all sorts of crazy people. Now, Alan Kay was hiring crazy people, but these were crazy people with real credentials that actually knew what they were talking about. Through the rest of Atari, they were just growing too fast, so they were hiring some real nitwits. This actually started before I went to research. I was being asked to grow my group so fast, I'd say that only about half the people I hired for the software development support group were any good. God, I hired some real turkeys but there just wasn't that much talent around.
So, it's understandable that Atari got so full of so many turkeys. There was so much childish executive territoriality. Everybody got really concerned about who's the boss and so forth. I sent out a memo to the programmers in the CoinOp group informing them that I would be holding a seminar about game design and that they were welcome to come. Well, some executive at CoinOp got pissed off at me because I was supposed to have sent it through him. That is, sent him a memo inviting his people and then he could select his people. So, he forbade all his people to come.
Another beautiful example. The marketing people, our seminars had been so successful that the marketing people asked me to do such a seminar in Hong Kong and I did that and it was a huge success. They paid for everything, it didn't come out of engineering at all. So, then they asked me to do it again in Kuwait, because apparently there was something big in Kuwait and, being a fairly responsible person or whatever, I turned that over, as a perk, to my sort of second-in-command, who had been coming along to all of these things with me and had been, his lovely assistant. He knew this stuff inside and out and I said, "You know, this is a real perk. You can do it." He was so excited about that, and we were setting everything up. He got his own passport, visa, everything and then the vice president of software engineering found about this trip and demanded to know why he wasn't consulted on it. We explained, this is marketing operation, they're paying for everything. He's just getting on the plane doing the work for them. He said, "You should've come through me. He may not go on this trip. I forbid it." This was the type of crap.
I'll tell you one more example, for the Hong Kong trip, in fact. I had to get some sign off from some VP somewhere and we had sent it to him weeks before and nothing had happened, and nothing had happened, and I was leaving on Sunday morning and it was Friday afternoon, and I didn't have his signature. I stalked over into his office, and I walked into his office, his secretary behind me saying, "Wait! You can't go in there!" He was on the phone, I slapped the thing down on his desk and said, "Sign this!" He was furious, but he signed it. That was the way things were. It was just idiotic, all these egos. They were trying to make up for their lack of competence with over-blown egos.
Kevin: It strikes me that you mentioned that Alan Kay was thinking 30 years into the future but it seems like, definitely the executives, their thinking didn't take them anywhere near 30 years in the future.
Chris: No, no, they couldn't think that far ahead.
Chris: The way they thought was, here's what we got now. Is there any way I can do this a little better? Can I tweak this dial or add this little increment there? They had no concept of planning. They had no appreciation of the technology. You've got to realize this was '82, '83. The idea of the personal computer was still very young. None of these people actually used them. None of them had a computer on his desk. They didn't play the games. They were just completely out of it and so they didn't know what the hell they were doing.
Kevin: So, were you in research until the end of your time at Atari?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. I was at research until the big collapse. The collapse came in, basically, it was Christmas of '83 when everything collapsed. So, they started the layoffs in January of '84, and they were just laying off thousands. We had 11,000 people in November of '83, and they were down to 2,000 in July of '84. I got my pink slip in March. I did pull one huge stunt. They had a new president, Ray Kassar had gone and they had a new guy named Roger Badisher, I think? No, I forget the name of the new guy. Anyway, when the lady came in and told me I was being laid off, I first asked, "Is there any way I can transfer to another outfit?" And she said, "No, no." I said, "Okay." But, then, I took a magazine cover, I'd been on the cover of some magazine with the thing: "Atari's secret weapon: Chris Crawford!" and I made a photocopy of that cover, and I put it in an envelope and I scribbled across the front "Are you sure you want to lay off this guy?" And sent the envelope off to the head honcho, whoever was CEO at the time. I really didn't expect anything to come of it, but I at least thought it would be funny.
Kevin: Nothing came of it, I take it?
Chris: No, no. I got laid off, under extremely generous terms, too. Not because of Atari, but because of Warner. Atari was a subsidiary of Warner. Time-Warner had a very generous policy, I mean, they were very good to me, I had no complaints.
Kevin: If you could send a message to the Atari community that still exists, and you can, right now, what would you tell them?
Chris: Have fun. The Atari is a neat machine. Again, the joy of working with it is the same as the joy as fixing up old Volkswagens. It's easy to do, it's fun. The 6502 assembler is such a clean, beautiful language. You really can get everything in your hand. It's just a delightful machine and so have fun with it. This is neat stuff. I realized I sort of have a responsibility now to get rid of all the old Atari stuff I have, because it's just sitting around in the attic and there are a lot of people who would appreciate this stuff a lot more than I do. So, I'm thinking about ways to get it out there. I'll probably put some of it on eBay, but right now, I'm working on the free stuff. The source code, getting it all cleaned up, we're doing it a batch at a time. There's a guy working on Excalibur right now. Basically, we're going to try to get everything out there, and once we've got all that out there, then I'll start digging through old T-shirts. I've got some T-shirts that nobody every had, some very rare items.
Kevin: I'm a short drive away, Chris. In fact, I could be there this afternoon.
Chris: So I'll pull them out, get them organized, put them up on eBay.
Kevin: Excellent. Thank you for your time.
Chris: Okay, very good. I hope everybody has lots of fun with the Atari.
Kevin: We do. Thank you so much, Chris.
Chris: Okay, bye-bye.