It seems, according to a previous interview that, in 1978, Warner was changing things at Atari after buying it? What kind of things?
It was a classic clash of cultures. Atari had been a creative culture, where the games programmers could work any time, day or night, wear whatever they were comfortable in, and were answerable to no one day to day. It was a playful place where we were expected to play each other’s games (we were all beta testers for each other) as well as other computer games. When I first joined them I was told to take a few days to play text adventure games like Zork.
Warner, of course, was a corporate culture. They wanted people to work 9 to 5, to punch time cards, and to « dress appropriately. » Warner management didn’t understand that what drove the games programmers was creativity, not money or security or any of the motivators their corporate culture understood. Any of the programmers could easily have moved to a higher paying, more regimented and less creative job – this was Silicon Valley after all.
According to you, how did it impact the production of game at Atari ?
Well, the best people left, either to start their own game company like the Activision group, or to do other things. And Atari went into decline.
Could you explain how you went to create the Superman game? Why did you accept the offer from Warner/Atari? Were you interested by the comics, by the character or the possibilities that it offers as a videogame?
Well, I was a fan since childhood of Superman, comics and TV shows. But the big attraction for me was the chance to greatly expand the graphics. Up to that time all VCS games were built with 2K ROM, although the VCS itself was capable of addressing 4K chips. I wanted to see what I could do, graphically, with an extra 2K to spend mostly on graphics. So I made that a condition of my doing the game, and it was accepted.
Would you say that Warner wanted to produce a kind of companion game for their movie? It seems that historically speaking it was the first time ever for a movie, or for a comic book character! Were you aware of that fact during the development? Or was it just a job to be done, as your previous games?
I knew it was a tie-in for the movie. That’s how I could get approval for the 4K chips, which most everyone wanted to use, but up to that time couldn’t because they cost considerably more than the 2K chips.
Did you have access to the movie assets (photos, casting) or scenario? How did movie adaptation worked at this time? Was it just you and your idea of what a Superman game should be? Or did you have to show prototypes to Atari/Warner to get their approval?
No, I never talked to anyone from Warner about the movie, or anything else for that matter. My impression was that someone from Warner got the idea to do a tie-in with the game company they had just acquired, passed the word down to Atari, and then thought no more about it. I was told by my boss that the movie would be released in December (1978), and they wanted to release the game as closely as possible to the movie. That was the sum total of my « instructions » from management.
What was your original plan about this game? Did it changed during the course of the production?
It didn’t change from the time I started programming – with 6502 assembly there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. But I did the original layout on my home computer, a Z80 CP/M home brew machine with a Cromemco Dazzler graphics board. I had been developing a graphics and animation program and I used this to create the Superman character animation icons and the backgrounds. This was before mouse and even before input tablet, all input with keyboard. But it was interactive enough to get the prototyping done (and later it impressed Cromemco enough for them to hire me to write the SlideMaster graphics program for the SuperDazzler).
Do you remember why you decided to have all these mechanics in the game? Was it obvious Superman had to transform into Clark Kent, to get bad guys into prison? Or was it obvious to have this kind of open world Metropolis with subways?
Superman at that time was an iconic figure, not just a member of an action comic panopoly as he now seems to be, and there were indeed a list of charasterics that obviously should be part of any Superman story: Flying and X-ray vision, of course. Along with changing to Clark Kent in a phone booth, and his relationship with Lois Lane and association with the Daily Planet. And of course Kryptonite.
Plus, I wanted the game to be more of an interactive puzzle-story than a shooter. So rather than killing bad guys, I wanted him to do something constructive. Having him catch the bad guys and throw them in jail, and then finding the bridge pieces and using them to rebuild it more or less fell out of that. As I was prototyping the character graphics, the story, simple as it was, pretty much wrote itself.
Could you talk about how you worked with Warren Robinett, how you share your codes, etc.? Did some of your ideas for Superman derived from some of his Adventure (like the idea of having an open world)?
Warren had been working on a kernel for his Adventure game, which also needed 4K, and so had not yet been approved. Superman broke the ice, and Adventure was release a few months later. While we all shared code (Atari/Warner owned it, so there were no proprietary issues), Warren not only gave his blessing on my using it, he was very generous with his time helping me understand how it worked and how I could use it as the backbone of my Superman game. My own background was in art, not computer science; Warren not only had a CS background, he was something of a young genius as well. So his help was essential to me being able to create the game in just a few months. While I certainly used Warren’s Adventure kernel, I don’t know that he used anything from Superman. He basically used the extra ROM memory to create a very complex, multiple level, and extremely playable game; while I used the memory to create graphics and left the game itself pretty simple.
Do you have some thoughts about the comic book videogames that we can play right now (Batman Arkham, etc.)?
I did buy Batman Arkham, and played it about halfway through; and I also buy and enjoy playing games like Half Life, Bioshock, and Fallout – as well as some of the AAA MMORPGS. But I am very disappointed that the mainstream gaming developers stayed with the shoot, slash and burn themes rather than moving toward a more educational theme based direction. I know there are some, Second Life being the most notable, but they never get the budget and dev man-months that the shooters get. After all this time, I thought we’d be doing better in this respect. I also thought we’d have a colony on the moon.