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
Interviewer: Randy Kindig
Antic: This is Antic, The Atari 8-bit podcast and I am Randy Kindig (RK) This interview-only episode features someone that many current Atari vintage gaming and vintage computer enthusiasts are probably familiar with and the service that he provides to the community with the AtariAge website. Albert, or Al, Yarusso, is one of the founders and is the current owner of AtariAge. The Atari 8-bit forum on AtariAge is probably one of the largest and busiest such forum in existence today and forums for other Atari machines as well as other platforms are continually growing. Al was kind enough to sit down and give me an hour of his time to discuss himself. how AtariAge came about, his love for Atari computers, as well as various other topics.
Antic: So, Al, I have to apologize. I don't know a lot about you and I am little uncomfortable because I usually go into these things having done a lot of research. But, I know that you're involved with AtariAge, but I do not know a lot about you, personally, so I am going to be kind of ignorant as I am talking to you and I want you to keep that in mind.
AY: That's not a problem, I am glad to fill in any blanks.
Antic: Yeah, so maybe we can start out with what you do and where you live?
AY: I live in Austin, Texas and I moved here in 1997 having lived in Boston previously. I moved here to work for Looking Glass Technologies, a now defunct game developer, responsible for some of the Ultima games like Ultima Underworld, Flight Unlimited, System Shock, and a few others. So, moved in here in'97 after we finished up a project in Boston and I loved Austin, I came back, came down here to visit, loved the city, moved here a month later and, on July 1, a month and a half after I moved here, Looking Glass shut our offices down. So, that actually turned out to be pretty interesting. A core group of us stood together and we had a ready-to-go game development team and we ended up setting up an office in Austin for Ion Storm and developing Deus Ex. So that actually worked out pretty well. I have been here ever since.
Antic: Well, that sounds like a very interesting job.
AY: Yeah, it was ... it was pretty crazy. Especially when our office got shut down. But, in the end, it worked out pretty well. I have tried to move from Austin, twice. I went to, for instance, after we shut down Deus Ex, I went out to work for TiVo in California in 2000, 2001. But, the tech boom burst, right in that time frame, so that was a pretty bad time for me to have gone out there, so I came backhere in 2001. I did more game development after that and, rightaround that time, when I came back, is when we started AtariAgeas well. So, that has been almost fifteen years now.
Antic: Wow. So, I have to ask you, I mean, this is an Atari 8-bit podcast ... How did you or what's your background in the Atari 8-bit hardware?
AY: Let's see. That's a long story, but, the first time I saw an Atari 8-bit computer was an Atari 800. It was at a friend's house. I had to have been less than ten years old (or nine maybe) and I saw Star Raiders running on an 800 and I thought it was absolutely amazing and, I wanted to play the game, but they didn't want the kids near the computer at the time. So, I could watch for little bit and that's about it. And then I forgot about that, you know, for a couple of years. Then, in school, computers in like junior high school, Apple ][s were just starting to get in schools and I was really interested in that and I, but the Apple was way too expensive. I mean, I could not afford to buy one of those and neither could my parents. So, I started saving my money doing cutting lawns and shoveling snow--something we do not have to worry about in Texas--and saved up enough money to buy an Atari 800XL, a 1050 drive and a 1030 modem from Toys R Us back when they kept everything in a glass display case.
Antic: I remember that!
AY: Yeah, you had to pull tickets and then go pay for it and they would hand you the hardware at the Security Desk.
AY: So, that was my very first computer that I purchased and, you know, almost immediately, I started learning BASIC and, eventually, I would learn 6502 assembly. But, I did quite a bit in Atari BASIC. I typed in any program I could get my hands on from Antic, ANALOG magazines, Compute! and, you know, basically, learned programming on the Atari 8-bit. Then, over the years, I have become involved with, I was in Connecticut at the time, Connecticut Atari Systems Enthusiasts, or CASE. I started, at one point, I took over their BBS, and ran their Bulletin Board System, that eventually morphed into a larger system called Phantasmal Alchemy that I ran on, first, Carina, and then Carina II. I ended up doing work for Carina II Systems and released some mods just for that. A friend and I wrote a popular module called Global War II, which was a lot of fun. Eventually, you know, I just had an enormous amount of hardware attached to that system for the BBS. It was an 800XL modified to 256k, I had a SpartaDOS X cartridge, a RealTime-8 cartridge, and Atari Rev C cartridge since the BBS used BASIC modules and every time you re-loaded a BASIC module, you would lose a little bit of memory, so Rev C BASIC fixedthat, so I had a stack of cartridges coming out of the top of the800XL and if you bumped the cartridge stack, it would just crashthe entire computer!
AY: So, I had to be very careful with that, especially
with the Bulletin Board.
AY: I had a 1MB MIO board from ICD attached to the back of that. I had various modems over time. Like US Robotics modems. I had two monitors hooked up to the system. One with the regular output from the 800XL and an 80 column display hooked up to the XEP80 since the bulletin board supported both those at once. It was pretty cool, you could actually edit and look at the user information on one screen and see the output they were seeing on the modem on the other [screen] and since Atari STs and other 80 column machines were getting more popular, it was really handy seeing the 80-column display. I had a printer hooked up to it. I had two US Doubler 1050 drives, two Indus GT drives, an Adaptec hard drive controller card with two 20 MB hard drives (ST-225 hard drives) attached to it which, with 8-bits, is just infinite space.
Antic: I guess so!
AY: Then I had a 130XE set up for my own personal use outside of that and I am sure I am forgetting other pieces of hardware, it was fun! It was quite a bit of fun.
Antic: This sounds like a fully-loaded, state of the art system, at the time.
Antic: So, how did AtariAge get started? How did that site actually get started?
AY: AtariAge is interesting. It was a system called the "Atari 2600 Nexus" that was run by a guy named, Alex Bilstein, here in Austin, and his goal was to set up an Atari 2600 rarity guide. He was trying to dump as many binaries, as many cartridges as he could to preserve them. Because a big effort had never really been done up to that point. You know, there were really not a lot of binaries that you could download. Emulation was still kind of really a new thing for the Atari 2600. He was trying to get rarer games. You know, it's easy to get your hands on common cartridges, but rarer games getting them and dumping them was harder--and prototypes as well. At some point, he had been selling games on eBay and I had been winning some of the items he had sold on eBay, so I met with him instead of him shipping me the games, since we were both in Austin, and I met with him in person. We chatted for awhile and I offered to help him with his rarity guide, so we started working together on the 2600 Nexus and at some point in 2000, we decided, "Hey, it'd be really nice to actually support other Atari systems, set up a real forum--at the time that site was using a really simple Perl script for a forum; I wouldn't even call it a forum--and include additional information about the games, not just a list and a rarity. Screen shots, scans of boxes and manuals, information on the companies and the developers. Just a lot more information than that site contained. SO, we worked pretty heavily through the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001 and launched AtariAge in April of 2001. It just had the 2600, 5200, and 7800 information and, a couple years later, we added Jaguar and Lynx. Alex eventually got out of the hobby at some point as his interests changed and I have been running AtariAge myself for at least the last ten years.
Antic: So, really, it sounds like it was started really to support Atari products.
Antic: As some point, it really branched out and has become quite a resource for a lot of the vintage platforms. How did that metamorphosis take place? What made that happen?
AY: That's pretty interesting. It's mainly because of the forum. The main site itself does not have any official support for any of these other systems. But, by far, the most activity really is on the forums and, I think what happens, is a lot of people hang out and talk about the Atari systems and then there is a lot of interest from groups of people in other systems such as the ColecoVision and the Intellivision and, sometimes there are specific forums for those systems and other times there's not. Just, over time, specific forums for the ColecoVision and Intellivision or other systems get added to AtariAge and, because their forum gets a fair amount of traffic, you may end up with more activity on AtariAge for one of those systems than you may have for a forum specific for one of those consoles and just recently, I have actually added forums for the Commodore 8bit computers, like the Commodore 64, VIC-20, etc. and Commodore Amiga. As well as the Tandy computers. You know, the Tandy, TRS-80 I through IV, the Color Computer and stuff like that because people were asking for that. I don't want to get too crazy and add forums for systems that will get very little traffic at all, but even little systems the TI 99/4a is one of the busiest now on AtariAge. Which is not something I would have expected, but there are a lot of TI 99/4a users out there.
AY: So the forum itself has definitely become more of a generic classic and gaming computing forum. There are still a lot of Atari specific forums for the individual systems, but it is pretty remarkable to see how much traffic there is for some of these other forums as well.
Antic: Yeah, it really is the de facto site for finding out what is going on in the Atari world and everybody goes there to get their information. It is just amazing what that has grown into. So, you also sell homebrew software for many platforms as well, right?
AY: Yes, primarily, my focus is on the Atari systems; the Atari consoles. I only have so much time in the day to devote to that really. I mean I would love to be able to expand out to other systems, but the 260, 5200. 7800 are the systems that I focus on. I do have some games for the Atari 8-bit computer and, it would be nice to do more of that as well. But again, it is just that the bandwidth that I have between making games for the store, maintaining the forums, maintaining the general site, keeping the server online, you know, balancing that with a regular full-time job gets tough at times.
AY: Trust me, the 2600 homebrews alone keep me plenty busy, because it is something that has not slowed down at all in the ten plus years that I have been making Atari 2600 games. The quality of some of these homebrews is pretty remarkable! And that also goes for the 7800 next in line, some fantastic homebrews for that as well. That is really true for all the systems, the Intellivision and the ColecoVision, the Vectored, the Atari 8-bit computers, they all have an outstanding number of high quality homebrews coming out for them. I can't even keep track, there is just so much activity. I don't know when it will ever crest, if it will. The 2600, especially with the advance of emulators and things like Atari BASIC [for the 2600] and BASICs for the Intellivision and other systems as well that allowpeople to dip their toes into development and I don't see anysign of that slowing down.
Antic: Do you actually do any development yourself or do people sell their software through your site or how does that work?
AY: I would love to actually develop a homebrew. If I did, I would start with a Atari 2600 game. But I do not do any programming of the games myself, right now. I just do the publishing, so I help the authors come up with label, artwork, manuals, for some games, boxes. There are some great artists and designers in the homebrew community that have just done some terrific artwork and sometimes we [AtariAge] even have contests where people can submitdesigns for labels. Then I handle all of the physical production of the games. I have got so much hardware as far as circuit boards and chips and other cartridges and manuals. I do a lot printing myself. I have a high-end color laser printer that I can print manuals and labels. Boxes have to be done out of house. I assemble the games, sell them in the online store, ship them out. So, that's another aspect that takes a lot of time is all that. I would really love to program a 2600 game, though. At some point I will. It is a very challenging system to write games for and it is one of the few systems that you can write the game from scratch including the sound and graphics if you want. Then have it published or publish it yourself. As the systems get more complicated, you really need to get your hands on an artist and musicians or somebody that can do sounds. Neither one of those things I can do very well myself. On the 2600, you can certainly get by without that.
Antic: Do you actually engage developers to write the software or do they come to you when they are working on a project to say, "Hey, I would like to sell this," how does that actually work?
AY: It's been rare that I have actually contracted anyone to actually [say] "hey, I really want to see this type of game written" or "I have an idea for a game," It is usually come up with the games entirely on their own and they start developing the game and, at some point, I'll start paying attention to it--if not from the beginning depending on the type of project--and people will often approach me--if I do not approach them--saying "Hey, I have written this game. Can you take a look at it? Are you interested in publishing it in the AtariAge store?" and then we talk from there. So, it would be interesting to solicit people and say "Hey, nobody's written a game about this subject or this game or I have an idea for this." People are all developing games on their own and then ultimately want to get them published.
Antic: Is there any relationship between AtariAge, the site, and the original Atari Age magazine?
AY: No, none at all and we really didn't have the magazine name in mind when we created the site. We just thought, you know "AtariAge," age of Atari, really. You know it was a pretty pithy name for the site. Atari Age magazine used two words, we put it together as one word. But, I mean, certainly, it is an easy association to make. We have scans of those magazines on the site as well. But there is no official relationship between those two things.
Antic: We just talked about how busy the AtariAge site is and all that is going on there, I am just curious as to how much work is involved in keeping that going and how much of that do you do? I mean what are your actual duties in keeping AtariAge going?
AY: AtariAge runs on a dedicated server. SO, there's a lot of software involved in running a server like that, but some of that will automatically update itself. But, there's others I have to keep an eye on it and update various aspects of the software periodically. The forum itself is third party software that gets updated periodically. You need to spend some time upgrading that and they are about to push a major new version of that software out pretty soon which will probably require a solid week's of work to update that software. There an enormous amount of email in the form of actual email through the contact on the website or through the store or through the forums via private messenger. So, I try to answer those, I don't always a good job of doing that necessarily quickly, but I do try to get back to people when I can. I even get emails from people thinking that AtariAge is actually Atari and they send emails about asking questions about modern product, which is always pretty amusing. Then I have to direct them to Atari.com. [I tell them,] "I know nothing about that, you will have to try Atari.com and get an answer there." SO, there's a lot. The forums, aside form just maintaining the site, since the site gets so much traffic, there is a lot of moderation as far as people, maybe, report things. With hundreds of different threads that are touched every day by people. Now again, there is going to be a thread that heats up, not a flame war necessarily, but sometimes people will step out of line. Fortunately, AtariAge doesn't really require a lot of moderation, but spammers will get through periodically, so you have to keep an eye out for that and, just overall, making sure there are no issues you need to take care of is time-consuming in itself.
Antic: Sure, I imagine. Isanti: Sure, I imagine. So, is this just a labor of love or do you actually what with the sales of software and that sort of thing, does it actually pay for itself? Are you just doing this for the love of the community and of vintage gaming and vintage computers?
AY: I am a huge fan of vintage gaming and vintage computers. So, it is actually an interesting story of how I got back into the Atari 800. When I was working at Looking Glass Technologies, the project that I was working on was headed by someone named Rex Bradford and just happens to turn out that he worked at Parker Brothers and Activision back in the day writing games for the 2600. So, that piqued my interest quite a bit and I started talking to him about that. After that, ran out and I went to a flea market or somewhere and picked up an Atari 2600 and I was on a mad hunt to final all of the games I could never afford as a kid and I wanted to play them now. So, I just started collecting 2600 games and then that slowly grew to other systems like the 5200. So, I had an Atari 8-bit computer so I never had a 5200. Then I got a 7800 and it slowly grew and into a point that I have a pretty big collection for a lot of these different systems. . . . uh. . . Now, I forgot the original question!
Antic: I was just wondering if the site paid for itself or is it a labor of love.
AY: So they site came about as a labor of love between Alex and I and selling the games came about because we thought it would be nice if we did not have to put ads on the site in order to pay for the hosting because hosting is pretty expensive every month. Because AtariAge runs on a pretty beefy server and any given time there might be 5-600 people just on the forums and software costs. So, the store, we decided we could sell games and the proceeds from those to keep the site on >line as opposed to having ads because we were not a really big fan of advertisements. AtariAge has not had ads on it. There are a lot of costs in making the games and the games are not sold for a lot. They're sold from anywhere from 20 to 30 bucks--without a box (more with the box). And there are royalties for the authors as well. Between ? and ? costs and the royalties, there is not a lot left over. Especially when you consider the time that it takes to physically make the games. I have not calculated exactly how much I am making per hour, but it is not much! Certainly much less than minimum wage, but, again, it is a labor of love, I am have been really beginning to enjoy getting the games in physical form out there to people and try to maintain pretty high quality in terms of the cartridges, the labels and the manuals and the boxes and all that. You know, so it will be representative of what people would expect if they bought a game, back in the day. It does pay for the site, which is nice and allows me to invest in hardware or software development of new type of circuit board or buy a nice printer so I can print the manuals myself which allows me to do small runs of games for people. So, if someone wants to do 20 copies of a game, they can still be sold with a manual and still have it professionally printed manual, without it having to expensive and without them having to print it somewhere else. Where if you were to print 20 copies of a game manual in a print shop, it might be a lot more expensive for a small run like that.
Antic: I understand you have written some books as well, is that true?
AY: [Laugh] Yeah, there was a hardware hacking book. At Game console hacking book that I was involved with a friend of mine, Joe Grand. So, yeah, that was fun. There are basic hardware hacking books and I did one chapter on the iPod, I did various chapters on console hacking. That was a lot of fun. Those are pretty interesting projects. But, that was awhile ago now. That's why I chuckled at that. But, you know those books got published in various flavors over the years and regurgitated. It would be interesting to do another book now you know on that same subject because there has been much more done with these consoles in that time. That book has got to be ten years old at this point and a lot has changed in the hobby. Especially in terms of the ability to create some pretty interesting hardware moods. That was not easy to do back then.
Antic: You mentioned huge rig that you had with your Atari stuff, back in the day. Do you still have of those or what computers or gaming consoles do you actually have today?
AY: You know, I really wish I still had all that hardware. It greatly saddens me when this comes up because I sold all that hardware before I went off to school and--at that point--I had migrated to the Atari ST, but--in hindsight--I wish I had kept it all. So, I have re-acquired big portions of that hardware and I would love to actually put an Atari BBS back online in some form connected to the internet. There is actually a thread on AtariAge about that. I started a thread recently saying, "Hey, what is actually required in order for me to put an Atari 8 BBS back online?" Because I have a good portion of than hardware. I don't have a 1MB MIO yet or even a 256k one. But, I do kind of want to get my hands on one of those. But that's not even necessary these days. That's just kind of nostalgic more than anything else. But, again, it would be fun. I have got enough hardware now, I could put a BBS back online or an 8-bit back online. I would just need the hardware to connect it to the Internet. So, the answer to your question, the short answer to the story is: No, I do not. Now, that answer to the other one as far as what consoles and computers do I have today, well, as far as the current generation, I have a PlayStation 4 and WiiU. They Playstation 4 gets more use, but the WiiU is also a quite of bit of fun. I am not really interested in an XBOX One. I have a PS3 and an XBOX 360, WiiU, and a lot of the previous generation of consoles. Quite a few consoles. I have a badass gaming PC that I can use to play PC games through Steam or otherwise. I started playing the Ultima games from scratch. I am a huge Ultima fan and wanted to play them all from beginning in order, starting from Ultima I. I posted pictures, I think, a year ago or a year and half ago. I was playing Ultima IV or one of the Ultima on a 30-inch computer monitor, which is really funny. The pixels, you know these games are not very high resolution, 320x200 and seeing them on a 30" monitor was pretty funny. But, I do not get to do as much gaming as I would like. Then, of course, all the old consoles as well. I have got an Atari 2600 hooked up to my flat screen TV using a Frameister XRGB, which is a device that will take the output from these old game systems and just make it look really sharp on a regular television, plus you can apply various effects, like set scan lines and things like that. Which you can't really do normally on a plain LCD television. An Atari 2600, you really have to use a system that has been modified with S-Video or composite, which is what I am doing. I have a lot of those that I use for game shows. I probably have 20 Atari 2600s that have been modified with s-video or composite output. So, yes, I do still game and it is a lot of fun.
Antic: Yes, I believe you attend a lot of vintage shows every year, right, is that correct?
AY: It depends. Some years more than others. Like last year, the only show I really went to was a show right here in Austin that was called Game????er Video games, which is a great local collection of stores and they have expanded outside of Austin. They have their big show, The Classic Game Fest, it was really in their stores, but this past year they really went into a convention center/big space. So, I'll go to that again this year. In years prior, I have been to Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Classic Gaming Expo (well, I haven't been there since 2010). There are other shows. For example, Philly Gaming Classic, is an old one. That has been around since 2003 and older. Other shows as well, Oklahoma Gaming Expo, MidWest Gaming Classic. I haven't done as many f those shows in recent years as I would like. It is just very time-consuming to prepare for an event like that because I set up--for the last several years, at least--the Atari booth has been pretty large, sometimes upwards of 30x30 feet! With over 20 systems set up with big displays that have a presentation running on them and I may bring some inventory of games to sell as well as introducing new games. But that is tough to do that when you are also doing full-time development work which is what pays the bills. The one her in Austin is easy to do. Ultimately, I need to find an easier way to get to the shows without having quite as an extensive display where I can fly in instead of driving. That takes a lot of time to fill up a cargo van and drive all the way up to Portland from Austin, it's going to be a minimum of a week to do that. Sometimes, I have gone up and on the way back I will stop at various places in the country to do some epic mountain biking and that makes the rip even more worthwhile because you can relax on the way back. You have got the show behind you and there is no more stress from that. I ca have a fun time taking my time on the way back and stop in, say Utah, in Moab and do some mountain biking or something like that. So, yeah, it's a balance going to the shows and not killing yourself and not having to take a ton of time off from work.
Antic: Right. I know. I try to get to as many shows as I can every year. I tend to try to attend the Vintage Computer Festivals. I don't know if you have ever been to one of those or not. [AY: No.] There is one in Atlanta coming up in May and, well, there's one before that in New Jersey.
AY: That would be fun, I would like to attend one of those. I see when they happen and the postings about them and if there was one in Austin, that would be fantastic, but I know they're all over the place, and I will attend one of those eventually. It would be great to attend a show as opposed to vending at a show. It is a much different experience. A lot of these shows that I go to, and this includes the Houston Gaming Expo, which has a big classic gaming section there, I am not selling games there, but I have to pay attention to make sure everything is still running, plus there is setup and tear down. That is still a lot of time. So, when you are vending at a show, you do not get to enjoy the show quite as much especially when I am at an AtariAge booth at Portland Retro Gaming expo or something like that. I barely can escape the booth at all for one of those shows. It would definitely be great just to go to a show some of those times. Just be there as an attendee and just visit all of the booths, buy stuff, and play all of the games. Just have a good time. Not that I don't have a good time vending at the shows, too, but they are really two different experiences.
Antic: Sure. Sure. Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
AY: As far as Atari stuff, we have covered quite a bit already. Software development is what I do professionally and that is a lot of fun. That all harks back to the days back on the Atari 8-bit when I learned Atari BASIC and then Assembly language. Then did a lot of programming on Mark Williams C on the Atari ST where a friend and I wrote a big bulletin board called a Digitally Mastered Software and we never published it, but we had it running! We could actually connect multiple STs via MIDI connections. SO, we could have multiple lines calling into boards, so that was fun. That was how I taught myself C programming. Which, of course, I went to school later and learned how to properly do a lot of that stuff. But, that is not to say you can't learn without going to school. But, when you are learning all of it ad hoc like that, you do a lot of things the wrong way. It's a lot of fun. But, yeah, there are other hobbies, too. For instance, mountain biking and trail-building here in Austin. We have a great community of trail builders and mountain bikers here in Austin. That's one of the things I love about Austin, I don't have to deal with snow in the winter time any more or very rarely. So, I can be outside every day of the year. It was 85 degrees here today which is pretty warm.
Antic: 85 degrees? We had 34 degrees, so . . . I don't think I had any other questions. IS there anything else, I should have asked about or that you'd like to kind of close with here?
AY: One thing. I had made a list of some of my favorite Atari 8-bit games that I remember playing back in the day. That's the other thing, one thing that got me really excited about the Atari 8-bit is shortly after I got my 800XL and I, somehow, learned about this Connecticut Atari Systems Enthusiasts User Group and I don't even rememberhow that happened because we didn't have the Internet back then. Probably, just by dialing into BBSs, I found out about that. But, a friend of mine--someone I had met through the BBSs--invited me over to his place because he wanted to show me some games. The very first game he showed me was the original Alternate Reality. I was just dumbfounded at how amazing that game was. I had never seen anything quite like that on a computer at all and I had to immediately go out and buy that game. I just got lost going through that game. Not lost like wandering around a map, but I sat down and played that game as much as I could, including mapping everything out on graph paper--which you really had to do on that game--and I had so much fun playing that. Then the second Alternate Reality, Tale of Beta Lyre some other games like Realm of Possibility, Rainbow Walker, of course, Star Raiders. I had to have Star Raiders and, eventually, Star Raiders II. Bounty Bob Strikes Back was a big blast. Pretty much everything LucasFilm (or was is LucasArts? I think it was LucasFilm) released.BallBlazer, Rescue on Fractulus, Eidolon, Koronis Rift . . .
Antic: Well, then you are going to like one of the interviews I have coming up, then, because I have David Fox, who worked at LucasArts.
AY: That would be awesome, that would be fantastic. The Electronic Arts games: M.U.L.E. and Archon. Boulderdash! Boulderdash is kind of interesting because a couple of theprogrammers, Thomas Yents and Andrew Davey, who wrote a version of Boulderdash for the Atari 2600, and we actually worked out an agreement with FirstStar Software to publish that on the Atari 2600. The version they did for the Atari 2600 is remarkably close to the Atari 8-bit version with the one exception being that the resolution of the tileset is much larger on the 2600 so it is kind of zoomed in versus the 8-but, which is definitely a challenge because you cannot see quite as much of the gameplay. But, other than that, it's astounding what they were able to pull off on the Atari 2600. We were only able to produce 250 copies of that game and it is unfortunate because people keep asking, "Hey, can I buy a copy of Boulderdash?" or "Can you make me a copy of Boulderdash?" and I have to tell them that unfortunately our agreement with FirstStar is to only produce 250 copies. being that was one of my favorite Atari 8-bit games, it was great to see those guys pull it off on the 2600 and then have a role in publishing it and making it available to people as well as working with FirstStar software to do that.
Antic: It is pretty amazing what people have been able to producethese days on the limited Atari 2600 hardware. It is just pretty crazy.
AY: Yeah, it is a much different environment that it was back in the day. Like the programmers at Atari, every one was very secretive between the companies, especially Atari, they didn't want secrets leaking out as far as how to develop the games. of course, they were foiled when a group of people left and formed Activision. Of course, that's a whole story in and of itself. There was not sharing of information like there is on the Internet now. They didn't have emulators where they could instantly make a change, run it, and see how it affected the game. There was a much slower development process. The tools, as far as Stella, for instance, on the Atari 2600 with an integrated debugger makes it much easier. The discussion forums where people freely share their source code. You can ask experienced programmers how to do this or that. It's definitely a much better environment and, of course, there are 4k games. The original 2600 games are 2k, then later on they did 8k games. I think Asteroids was the first bank-switched game. Atari released games that were up to 32k in size for the 2600. Nowadays, we have much more advanced techniques. We can put a small ARM processor on a 2600 cartridge circuit board and that's what the Melody boards use. The Melody boards use a basically use aDPC+ mode similar to what Pitfall II used for the music so that you can do additional processing on the cartridge itself beyond what can be done on the 2600 so this has allowed some more advanced games by putting some processing to the cartridge which is cheating a little bit. So, that's how games like Space Rocks, for instance, us that. There are whole bunch of other games. Some games like Star Castle Starcade that is coming is a pretty remarkable port of Star Castle. That game does not use any advanced hardware. It uses a new circuit board that has some flash RAM so you can save the high scores. But, other than that, it is just running on 2600 hardware without any tricks.
Antic: You owned an ST for awhile, do you remember a game called MidiMaze?
AY: Oh my God! Yes! I am glad you brought that up! MidiMaze was absolutely fantastic. I do not know how many networked first-person shooters games that were back in the day, but it was certainly was one of the first. But, we set up--I went to school in Rochester Institute of Technology--and we had a user group there called Atari (ATARIT, I am not sure how exactly you pronounce that), but we set up big MidiMaze tournaments. I am not sure if we ever managed to get 16 Atari STs hooked up. It's kind of a fragile thing to get one of those MIDI networks setup and not crashing. But, certainly, I think we had at least 12 of those machines hooked up at any given time and we has SO much fun. That is some of the most fun I ever had playing ST games and I would do that again today.
Antic: I didn't know if you knew there was an 8-bit version of that.
AY: Yes, and I have never actually run it and I have never seen it running on an 8-bit--or a network of 8-bits. I don't even know how you would network multiple 8-bits together.
Antic: Well, I just did it today. There is a product called "Midi Mate" for the 8-bit that you can buy. You can still buy it from one of the Atari vendors, I forget which one. But, you can buy the software on cartridge because it is a very large game. So, you can hook up the Atari 8-bits through the MidiMate. I just did it today and it worked beautifully and you can even hook STs into it as well. So, you can have 8bits and STs all together?
AY: That's fantastic! That would be a lot of fun! I need to look into that, MidiMate, huh? It would be a lot easier to get a network of 8bits together than a network of ST computers together and I do have several STs and I do have MIDI cables somewhere. Do you remember how much that MidiMate was?
Antic: I think the MidiMate itself was $50.00 and thenthesoftware was $30 per cartridge and then, I had to buy Midi cables as well.
AY: Yeah, the cartridge is definitely the way to go, especially if you have a network of those because if you have to restart the network or reboot the machines for anything, it will obviously come about much faster than having to deal with loading it from disk. That's pretty cool! But, no, I have not seen that in person and I would love to see that in person.
Antic: Well, we, the Antic team is going to have a demonstration at VCF SouthEast in Atlanta in May and that is what we're going to show and that's why I have been testing it to make sure it all works. But, I was a huge fan of MidiMaze back when I had an ST and I was amazed to find that they had an 8bit version. That was pretty cool.
AY: Yeah, I had been aware of that 8bit version, but I have never actually seen it. I think it's great that you're going to have a demo set up at the VCF show. How many are you going to set up?
Antic: Well, I don't know, right now I only have two sets of everything. But Kevin and I talked about buying two more sets to have at least four 8bits involved and then maybe one or two STs if we can get somebody with an ST to hook their ST in as well.
AY: You'll need to remind me about this later because I could possibly go to Atlanta. It would be interesting to go to that show. If I did that, and I drove, I could bring up quite a bit of hardware up there with me. Because I have a ton of 8bit computers and several ST computers and MIDI cables. I don't have the MIDIMate and the cartridges, but those can be certainly be acquired. So, that would be fun. But, then I don't know how much space you have at the show. Of course, it would be fun just to go anyway.
Antic: Well, it's a pretty big show, there's lots of room in there and we would certainly like to have you come if you could.
AY: Definitely. I will need to look that up and as long as I don't have any conflicts as far as work goes, it would be fun. It's been a long time since I have been to Atlanta. Last time I went to Atlanta was for the E3 that they had there and that's many years ago at this point, early 2000s or even before that. I'll look that up when we're finished and take a look at that.
Antic: It's May 2nd & 3rd, so, it would be great if you could come, that would be fantastic. Let me know if you can.
AY: I definitely will [let you know]. If I can, I will definitely bringlots of hardware with me.
Antic: Kevin Savitz usually flies in. I don't know if you know Kevin.
AY: Yeah. I am hosting several of his websites. I am not sure exactly what they are called these days, but the Classic Computing magazine archive, that one is there and the book archive as well. Those are hosted on AtariAge.
Antic: I didn't realize that. Okay, I have to ask you: Do you listen to podcasts? The Antic? At all?
AY: Yes, I do. I do listen to podcasts. Podcasts are great, for instance, when I am soldering games, especially audio podcasts, because they don't require me to visually pay attention to the podcast and it's either that or audiobooks or something like that. The podcasts are fantastic to listen to and, yes, I have listened to many of the Antic podcasts. What was the other thing? Oh, you asked if I listened to podcasts and if I listened to the Antic podcasts.
Antic: Yeah, yeah.
AY: Yeah, podcasts are great when I am doing that because I don't need a lot of brainpower to do the soldering, but I have to look at what I am doing or I am going to burn myself. So, listening to books or podcasts is fantastic for that and you guys have been doing a great job with the Antic podcasts, so keep up the good work.
Antic: Well, thanks, I appreciate that. It's amazing now that they are three Atari 8bit podcasts out there and there is just a plethora of information if you're interested in Atari 8bits.
AY: Oh, yeah, that Atari 8bit forum on AtariAge is easily one of the busiest forums on the site. There's people all over the world using those machines and I never cease to be amazed at some of the games or hardware or other things that people have developed for the system. Especially compared to back in the day when it was relatively new, the stuff they're doing today--similar to the 2600--is stuff I never would have expected to see. It is still a very active user base and enthusiastic community, which is great to see because those Atari computers and consoles are really dearest to my heart because it was my first computer. I learned how to program on it, got me interested in game development and steered me quite a bit as to where I am today.
Antic: Yeah, I am always amazed at the size of the community. We get a thousand to fifteen hundred downloads for every episode. I mean, that just is incredible to me that thereis that many people and you know that's not everybody, but thatis a pretty good group.
AY: No, that is a significant number of people considering they actually want to listen to an hour-long podcast. I mean, that is dedication, right there to have that many people download is a pretty great number, it really is.
Antic: Do you have any idea how many subscribers you actually have on AtariAge, I always wondered about that.
AY: I haven't looked lately to see the number of unique visitors per day, the forums itself gets thousands of unique people every day and, there's a 1000+ posts in the forum alone. That's usually where I can gauge the traffic. If you look in the middle of the day, there will be over 500 people at any given time just in the forum alone, so it is a pretty significant amount of traffic.
Antic: Well, al, I don't think I had anything further. I don't want to keep you too long, I know you probably have other things you want to do. You want to get back to your taxes, right?
AY: Hah! Yeah, let's see, talk about Atari 8bit systems--DO MY TAXES.. let me just prioritize those!
Antic: You know, I have done nothing but Atari all day instead of doing my taxes! Probably should have worked on my taxes.
AY: Well, you still have a couple of weeks. you know, it's great, I appreciate you're wanting to talk to me and I am sorry I took so long for you to get me sitting down in front of the computer in order to do it. The last few months have been pretty crazy between work, AtariAge stuff, and just other things in general. Sitting down for an hour and talking shouldn't be that hard to do or schedule as maybe I made it out to be.
Antic: Well, I usually don't give up until somebody tells me, "Hey, look, I just don't have time for you."
AY: No, I wanted to do it, absolutely. I think you guys are doing a great job and you are interviewing all sorts of great people in the 8bit community and it definitely helps keep people's interest to hear about what people are doing--people that were involved in the systems a long time ago--like the interview you were talking about earlier as far as the LucasFilm games go. It's really a lot of fun to listen to these interviews.
Antic: It's actually a lot of fun to do them. I enjoy talking to people like you who are excited about what they are doing and enjoy the hobby because it is not like I have anyone around me where I am at who really is into the hobby that I can talk to about it. It's fun to talk to people who have the same passion.
AY: I agree entirely. That's the reason that we wanted to start AtariAge is to give people a central place to discuss the games and the systems. I never really expected the forums to be that popular. They're just growing and growing over the years. But, it's remarkable: These systems are 30 years old now--more than that--35! I am really making myself feel old here. The computers came out in the late 70s and the 2600, hell, in a couple of years, the 2600 is going to be 40 years old! That's a great note to leave on! [laugh] Seeing how much enthusiasm and activity there is in the classic gaming and classic computing scene after all this time it really is just paramount to how much they affected people's lives and how much people enjoy using them to this day. Also, the new hardware and software keeping things fresh.
Antic: It's amazing when you think about it. Why do we love these machines that--like you said are 35 years old--but they're still useful, they're still fun, there is still a lot that you can do with them.
AY: Oh, absolutely, a day does not go buy where I do not see something new that I haven't seen before whether it be on Atari systems or other non-Atari console or computer: "Wow, I had no idea that existed and that's pretty damn cool!" This goes from hardware to homebrew games, web pages people created. The Internet has just been a great facilitator for all this. There is no way, it just wouldn't happen with it. There would be no forum, no podcasts like you're doing. These systems would be dead for all practical purposes at this point. As well as sites like eBay that allow people to get their hands on hardware. eBay, even with its problems, it is a much easier way to get your hands on this stuff than trying to find something at a flea market or a goodwill or yard sales, because they have pretty much dried up.
Antic: It has! I have probably gotten 90% of the stuff I have off of eBay. Sometimes it is a little too easy to get it on eBay!
AY: Oh, it is! I agree with you, especially when you start looking for rare, more expensive things you would never find locally. When I started hunting the 2600 games, back in the mid-1990s or late 1990s, you could still find 2600s and games out in the wild. But, it did not really take long, once eBay came onto the scene, people started using eBay, "Hey, these systems are actually worth something!" Over time, it didn't take a lot of time, people would hang onto the systems or buy them for the exclusive purpose of putting them on eBay. It's pretty exciting if you can find something now. Of course, I see posts all the time on AtariAge and Facebook saying, "Hey, Look what I found today!" I don't really actively look for the stuffanymore. It's really tough in a city like Austin, too, where you have a huge community of gamers and your odds of finding something before somebody else are pretty low in this town. But--when you do find something--it's pretty damn cool to see it. But, yeah, like you, eBay is pretty much where it's at. And the forums on AtariAge, people post a lot of stuff too, which is nice. Of course, sometimes they're just posting links to their eBay auction, but people will offer stuff for sale. Like new hardware and software doesn't always end up on eBay. The homebrews and things people are developing, so those you do need to pay attention to the various forums.
Antic: Oh, yeah, definitely, that is how I have gotten, well, like Pro(c) magazine, is another example where they let you know on the AtariAge forum when it's available and you just order it that way. If you didn't keep track of what's going on AtariAge, you wouldn't know!
AY: You know. it's interesting, eBay is so expensive to sell and it's not very structured either as far as releasing something like a magazine every month or two. The forums, not just AtariAge, but all sorts of forums like this--and for other hobbies too--really allow people to enjoy and talk with people all over the world where they never would have had that opportunity before to share common interests, so I do have to give mad props to the internet for that.
Antic: Yap, absolutely. Can you imagine what it would have been like if we would have had the Internet back when we had the Atari 8bits?
AY: Yeah, they're probably would have been more piracy! [Antic: Yeah, probably!] There was a lot back then, but I did buy everyone of those games that I mentioned, I did buy them, but there was still an enormous amount of piracy back then. I remember going to someone's house and he just had shelves and shelves of pirated software. People enjoyed cracking the games, that was a lot of fun back then as well for people. It was kind of a war--not that that has stopped now as far as the war goes--but the crazy stuff that they did on the 8bit as well as other computers to try and prevent software piracy it was just like it is now, tit-for-tat. They develop some new technology, the pirates are on it. If it was something I enjoyed playing, I would most definitely buy it because I wanted to see those developers succeed and continue to develop games and make their living doing that. Especially because that is something I wanted to do one day as well.
Antic: Well, I think a lot of that still goes on today. Now people have more discretionary income, I guess, and when new hardware and software comes out for the Atari 8bits and people just buy it to help support the people who are still developing things for that platform.
AY: Yeah, absolutely. I wish I could buy all the new software and hardware just for that reason alone. Especially, the better products where people obviously put a lot of time and heart into it. A lot of times they are not making a lot of money or just trying to break even on this stuff. It is great to show your support for them and encourage them to continue doing this because, 90% of time it is a labor of love. You want to see that continue. You want say, "Hey, this is awesome stuff you have created, please keep doing it!" and encourage others to do it as well.
Antic: That goes as well for you. I want to thank you for what you are doing with AtariAge. That's definitely a place where all Atari people want to hang out and where everything happens. I think everyone appreciates the fact that you spend as much time as you do keeping that going and making that a nice resource for the community.
AY: I definitely appreciate that kind of work. It's fun to see a place where a lot of people will go to congregate and talk about the systems. I am glad that a lot of people find it useful. It is not perfect by any means, but it's worked pretty well as a resource for people. Most especially for a lot of the software and hardware developers. Just in general it is a lot of fun to see people get a lot of use and enjoyment out of it.
Antic: Yeah, that's kind of the way I feel about the podcast. We get a lot of emails and tweets and so on and when someone says how much they enjoy it, it makes you feel good. I'm not making any money off of the podcasts, but I am glad people are enjoying it.
AY: Yeah, I can imagine it is a lot of time for you to track down people you want to talk to and nail them down and get them in front of a microphone. Even after you are done talking to them, you have a lot of editing to do.
Antic: Yeah, that usually takes twice as long as the interview did just to edit it.
AY: Oh, yeah, I imagine, tying multiple things together to form one episode and then you're done with that, upload it to the various places, you have got to publicize it and you're probably working on lining up people for multiple upcoming episodes at any given time. I definitely appreciate what you're doing. I think it's fantastic. I would love to have an AtariAge podcast and that7s come up every now and again, but there's only so much time in the day and I don't really want to do a half-assed job of it, so if I can't do it well, then I am not really too interested in doing it. But, I would love to have a podcast. [Antic: Yeah, that would be neat!] There's just so many interesting developments going on, you could just talk about homebrews for an hour every week or two weeks giventhe amount of work! [Antic: Sure] There are all sorts of software and various news and all sorts of other interesting things, like what happened to Jeff Mintner and the whole Jaguar scene, or Tempest TxK rather. That all exploded and you could talk about that for awhile too. It's funny that, for systems that are this old, there is so much to talk about.
Antic: Yeah, it's amazing. We have a news section on every show and it's always amazing: we end spending 45 minutes just talking about current news! [AY: (laugh)]. How can there be that much news about a system that is 35 years old? But there is!
AY: Yeah, it's great, just goes to show you how passionate people are about these systems, there is so much to talk about and hopefully that will continue.
Antic: Well, I will let you go. Like I said, I am sure you want to get back to your taxes, all right, this has been very fun and very enjoyable [AY: Awesome, Excellent!]. Thanks, Al!
AY: You, too, take care! Bye Bye.