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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
KS: This is an interview episode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. I'm Kevin Savetz. Bob Polin was the programmer of Blue Max and Blue Max 2001, both published by Synapse Software, and co-creator of Puzzle Panic with Ken Uston. He also wrote the game Maxter Mind which was published by Antic magazine. This interview took place on February 15, 2016. In it, we discuss Ihor Wolosenko, whom I previously interviewed.
KS: After we did this interview, Bob sent me the floppy disks containing the source code for Blue Max, which I was able to recover. There's a link to the source code in the show notes at ataripodcast.com.
KS: Tell me how you got interested in computers, and how you got into the Atari and kind of set me up with prehistory.
BP: This was '81, no 1982, I was playing blackjack [as a] card counter for a few years. I was in Las Vegas at that point, and a college friend of mine who bugged me like crazy to pick up one of those home computers. "Check 'em out, check 'em out." I absolutely wasn't interested in it, never been interested in computers, and basically to shut him up I bought one and totally fell in love with it. My blackjack career was getting more difficult, because, as you might know, they catch you counting cards, they'll throw you out, so I was running out of places to play and then totally fell in love with computers, and decided I wanted to be a video game programmer after playing with them for a bit.
KS: Nice, so you and Ken Uston were doing the blackjack thing?
BP: Ken Uston, I wasn't with him. I met him through blackjack and if you know a little bit more the second game I actually did with him, Puzzle Panic with Ken Uston. First game was Blue Max, second game was Puzzle Panic, and we got together to design that game. But in blackjack, no, I wasn't involved with him back then. I was involved with him slightly in blackjack as an investor in 1985 when he went back to blackjack temporarily too. So not involved with him with him when I was playing blackjack full time.
KS: So blackjack was fading away, and the you found the computers, and that was your next thing?
BP: Yeah, I fell totally in love with them to my surprise. I wasn't expecting it.
KS: Was the Atari the first computer that you really bit into, or did you explore other ones first.
BP: That was the one I really got into, but the first one I bought was... I think it was a Commodore VIC-20, and then a Texas Instruments, a TI one, I forgot exactly what it was. And then I picked up the Atari 800, and that was the one I really got into. This was all a matter of just a few months, late 1982. I spent all day all night just studying, grinding at it and learned it and picked up Your Atari Assembler [by Inman and Inman], learned it, learned assembly language, [and] decided I wanted to program video games so I went back to the Bay area and looked around for jobs and ran into an met Ihor [Wolosenko], at Synapse Software. You've heard of Ihor, right?
KS: Yes, I've interviewed Ihor.
BP: Really, where is he now, do you know?
KS: He's still in the Bay area, and still doing business-y stuff. That's all I can recall off the top of my head, but he's still around.
BP: I would love to get a hold of him, because the last time I saw him was '88 when I went over to Hawaii, he had sold Synapse, moved to Hawaii, a while back said he was moving back to Medford, Oregon, and then we just totally lost touch.
KS: I will find his information and get it to you,
KS: You wrote a game in Antic magazine called Maxter Mind, and it says in your bio there (this is from October 1983) "[you're] a recent Atari programmer who never learned BASIC. [You] started off in assembly language." That's very unusual.
BP: Well BASIC, I never got good with it. I played with a few examples in the beginner's books, 'how to use your computer' books. Didn't really write anything, played with it. Never got really good with BASIC, and then at one point I must have learned that in order to program games, you need something fast as possible like assembly language, so that's when I immediately jumped into it.
KP: So how did you get hooked up with Ihor? Were you an employee of Synapse, or a contractor? How did that work?
BP: I went back to the Bay area, I was still living in Vegas, this was probably December, very late in 1982, drove back to the Bay area, stayed with some friends. I'm pretty sure I saw a newspaper article, back then we looked for jobs and apartments and things in the newspaper, there's no internet, and saw Synapse was advertising for programmers, and so they were in the East Bay, I was on the peninsula side, and drove over there, must have set up an appointment, drove over there, applied for a job. No risk on their part except a little bit of their time to give a so-called job to a total unknown stranger beginner. They're not paying salary, I'm just getting royalties. So it's my risk, my time, and they said, come on, do a game. So that's what I did.
KS: So you were already pretty versed in assembly language when you got there and applied it sounds like?
BP: Yeah, lots of practice on my own, but never wrote anything as big and serious like game from beginning to end.
KS: So was Blue Max your idea or Ihor's?
BP: I don't remember, but the two of us discussed it every few days to a week. I lived on the peninsula side when I moved back to the Bay area in January of '83, and I guess we just got together once every few days to a week and looked at what I'd done and brainstormed about ideas, what we should do with it, add to it, change, or something like that. But I don't know who's idea it was in the original to do a game like that. Maybe it's a little bit of a Zaxxon ripoff too. At that point [it] was a famous arcade game with diagonal scrolling, and nothing yet existed for the Atari with diagonal scrolling that Blue Max had.
KS: How long did it take to program, do you remember?
BP: I think four or four and half months. I started in January and finished in May, I believe. And this was day and night and night and day, because I was totally addicted to it. I'm sure no more than five months, probably four to four and half.
BP: Can you remember any... You mentioned working with Ihor to discuss features and what to leave in and what to take out, can you remember any ideas that got left on the cutting room floor, or concepts in the game that could have happened but didn't.
BP: No, not at all. I don't remember any of that.
KS: When Blue Max came out, it ended up being a huge hit, didn't it.
BP: Yeah, it never made it to one, but it was number two on Billboard magazine for a while, I forgot how long. Very lucky, very happy that I got so lucky with my first endeavor.
KS: Did you write the ports for the Commodore and the other versions or did someone else handle that?
BP: Somebody translated it to the Commodore 64. I didn't like it I thought it was a very bad version, very badly done. I didn't want to do it, even though it was kind of similar, the two assembly languages are similar, there are still enough differences. You're stuffing different numbers into different memory locations in the two different machines. I didn't want to learn Commodore 64 immediately, I was kind of relaxing and celebrating, first game, big hit, and enjoy it. I wasn't hungry, to put it in a different way, I wasn't hungry so I decided not to do it. Not to learn the Commodore 64 and [let] somebody else [do it]. Peter Adams I think was his name, who did the Commodore 64 version and after the game with Ken Uston, Puzzle Panic, I went back to Synapse, did the Blue Max 2, and decided I should do both the Atari version first, and then learn the Commodore and did Commodore version.
KS: For Blue Max 2001?
BP: Yes, for Blue Max 2001.
KS: So with the success of the original Blue Max, was it just a foregone conclusion that there would be a sequel in the offing.
BP: I don't remember anything foregone, but I guess if you do anything, whether it's a movie or whatever, if it's a big hit the first time, then a lot of people just make sequels, it's automatic, good advertising. To me the two games are very similar. But Blue Max 2 wasn't anywhere near as big of a hit as the first Blue Max. It still did very well.
KS: What came next, Puzzle Panic?
BP: Yes, that was the second game, right after the Blue Max 1 was when... I forgot how I got back in touch with Ken Uston, maybe we had both burnt out of blackjack, he switched to video games too, and writing books on games, he wasn't a game programmer, he was great at promoting himself, and wrote some books and was involved in video games somehow, and I decided to work with him on Puzzle Panic. We discussed ideas, and then another former blackjack teamate of Ken's, who I've heard plenty about, Ron Carr, he turned to video game programming too, so he was programming the C=64 version while I was doing the Atari version, and we all met pretty often at Ken's apartment in the city, and brainstormed and ate and drank and partied and whatever. I had a good time while doing it. But that game was a miserable flop from what I can remember I think. So that was the second game and the third game was Blue Max 2001.
KS: Why was there no more after that?
BP: Burnt out probably I think. That was mid-'84, no longer new, no longer too interesting. I literally - when I do a game it's very, very intense where I day in and day out do it. I just burnt out, did nothing for a few years. Don't remember exactly if there's any other reasons. Burnt out no longer as fun any more.
KS: Right, just looking for a new challenge, maybe?
BP: Yeah, maybe. I was mostly doing nothing from '85 to '88 or so.
KS: So tell me a story, tell me a story about making Blue Max or about working at Synapse? I'd like to hear a story from you about that.
BP: Well at Synapse it was not much, basically meeting with Ihor, I didn't work there. The were some other programmers that were there actually doing the work. I don't think they were employees, I think they were independent contractors like me too. I never talked to any of them too much but knew who they were. Nothing too memorable or crazy or interesting or funny or good or bad that happened that I can remember off the top of my head. No, I don't have any stories.
KS: Do you have any thoughts on the piracy of Blue Max? I understand it sold a lot of copies and there probably were many more copies out there that were not purchased. Did that bother you at the time?
BP: No, not at all. I think we all knew it was a way of life, and we always tried to do better copy protection, and of course the pirates would break it, and then we'd try to do better and they'd break it again. And we'd try to do better, it's just back and forth. I never got mad or anything at having these people stealing my money, whatever. No, not at all.
KS: What do you do today to keep yourself busy?
BP: Good question, absolutely good question. I'm looking for something to do, I'm kind of retired, totally bored to death, getting ready to sell all this worthless real estate in Ohio and wondering if I can afford the Portland suburbs.
KS: Oh really.
BP: Exactly. You're area is where my wife and I met, in Tillamook. We're looking to sometime this spring. We have a few rental properties here. [We're] looking to get out of here.
KS: Well if you end up moving out here or just visiting, let me know and I'll buy you lunch.
BP: Thank you. I just might visit before we make our final move just to look at places and things. I've spent a few months of my life there, my wife spent a lot of her life there. So were familiar with the whole Portland area all the way out to the coast. [It's] very possible that we'll go there.
KS: That would be nice. What haven't I asked you about the Atari days that I should have?
BP: I still have my Atari. I did throw out all kinds of things a few months ago in preparation for moving. My Atari monitor which was a Commodore monitor that somebody rigged up a cable so it would work on the Atari, the monitor's busted, so I use RGB cables and plug into a TV and it works, the color is a little off, but it works so basically I'm very happy my Atari 800 still works.
KS: Do you have any source code or anything for any of your software?
BP: On the old floppy disks, but not printed out. The floppy disks, I still have one of those things you put the disks in, what do you call those, I forgot... If you stood the disks up on the edge maybe, six or eight inches thick of various games and source codes and things like that.
KS: I would ask that you consider... Let's get that source code moved onto modern computers. I have systems that can move source code from Atari disks onto PCs and Macs today. We should do that if nothing else, just get it off those old rotting disks. And maybe you'd consider releasing the source code so the Atari community can dig into it and see what you did.
BP: Yeah, there's a possibility of that after I move and get settled. I don't even know, my floppy disk drive died and about five or so years ago I bought another one on eBay, and that worked and it was still working when I last tested it a few months ago and like I said when gathering things and throwing it out. I had to throw my Commodore 64 out, it was busted. That was kind of depressing. But yeah, that code is useless to me now, I don't even know if I remember how to access it, I used to have things like RAM disks and things like that to copy everything on there first so I can quickly change, edit, save and load and save back and forth, instead of saving back and forth to the slow floppy drive.
KS: Just do it in RAM rather than push it over the SIO. I'm excited you have the source code and are willing to share it. I know you have a move coming up, so don't lose that in the move, that would be awesome.
BP: Oh, definitely not. This old useless stuff that I may never touch, I've carried it with me from place to place to place for many years now. I don't want to throw it away even though you might never touch it or use it again.
KS: If you could send a message to the Atari community users that still exist, what would you tell them?
BP: I'm very happy to hear that they're still playing Atari games, and I don't even know if they're playing it on an Atari or emulators and things like that that run under Windows. Yeah, I don't even know, but I'm very happy that there are still people out there like that.
KS: Yes there are. Some of us play on actual hardware and some of us use emulators. There's no wrong way to do it.
KS: I appreciate you answering my question on absolutely no notice. Thank you for your time.
BP: I guess it's nice to while I'm sitting here doing absolutely nothing and bored to death in the armpit of the country. It's nice to chat Atari a little bit and old better days. Alright, thank you.
KS: Thank you so much, Bob.
BP: You take care.