Peter Engelbrite was a programming force at Epyx. He wrote several games for
the 2600 including Summer Games, Winter Games
, and California Games
is also responsible for writing one of the most popular Lynx games, Slime World
For the 2001 Year End Issue, Peter was gracious enough to write this interview.
Tell us something of your background. How did you get started programming games?
I guess the first computer game I ever wrote was a Lunar Lander game on an HP-25 programmable pocket calculator.It had no graphics, so you had to look at position and altitude values to determine your location.Back then (around 1973-74) it was exciting to be able to program anything.It was kind of like having your own rocket pack, or genetic engineering lab.I worked at the "Retail Computer Store" in Seattle who sold systems like the
Altair, Imsai, SWTP, and the SOL Terminal Computer.Back then, we poked the bits into strips of paper and the leftover bits would make a mess on the floor.I saw the first floppy drives (if you picked them up by the corners they would go out of alignment).But we were thankful for it, by
Peter Engelbrite's list of games!
- HP-25 - Lunar Lander *, Pluto Lander *
- Exidy (CP/M) - Mouse Hockey *, Asteroid Miner *
- Atari 400/800 - Dolphin *, Mail Truck
- C-64 - Grape Vines *, Uneven Parallel Bars (The Games, Summer Edition), Managed The Games, Summer Edition
- VAX - Reversi *, Chess *
- Atari 2600 - Winter Games - Bobsled,
Luge, Ski Jump, Hotdog Ski, Summer Games - Pommel Horse, California Games -
Hackysack, Surfing, BMX
- Lynx - Gates of Zendocon, Slime World, Barbarian Bodyguard **
- Apple II - Managed The Games, Summer Edition
- DOS - Getaway - Stuffin' the Briefcase, Getaway - Cascade, Bible Builder, Captain Bible, Managed The Games, Summer Edition
- Sega Genesis - Cascade Genesis *
- Windows - Rev-Up for Reading, Rev-Up for Writing, Rev-Up for Arithmetic, Color Phonics, Vocabulocity (SOS)
- Windows / Direct X - Scripture Solitaire - Klondike, FreeCell, Checkerboard, God's Favor, His Yoke is Easy, New Jerusalem, Noah's Ark, Godspeed 3D
* unpublished ** unfinished
How did you find your way into Epyx? Did you ever work for Atari directly?
I never worked for Atari. I worked for Epyx, the people who designed the Lynx, which was then sold to Atari. We did write games for Atari. When Craig Nelson at Epyx interviewed me, he game me a test: "what's the fastest was to fill 256 bytes of memory with 0's?"I guess I passed the test, because I was hired.
Is there any one Atari system that stands out as being your favorite?
In a lot of ways, I think my favorite was the 2600. I was always impressed that you could actually create a game with almost nothing.
What was the easiest and hardest system to program for?
In a way, no system is harder or easier to program, because when you have a more powerful system, people expect more of you. The 2600 was the hardest thing to program but if you got anything to work, everyone was amazed. Nowadays, if the smallest thing is off, you can get nasty reviews.
Of the games you worked on, which one are you most proud of, and why?
Of the Atari games, I would say definitely
Slime World.It was a fun game with a unique concept.It also won an award. It was sort of the "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game" of the day: 8 players were pretty massive back then.Come to think of it, it's pretty massive for a game system today. People have commented that the music in
Slime World is weak.What people don't know is that the music is being composed on the fly by the program.I didn't have room in the cart for the company music engine and data, so I wrote a system that used presets to compose based on a system of harmony, permutations, and rhythm. Does everyone know about the "extra" rooms at the end of the arcade level?
Are there any unreleased games you wish actually made it?
Well, all of them. However, in Barbarian Bodyguard, I was working with a new game concept: an asymmetrical two-player game.The game was about a princess who was being escorted by a barbarian bodyguard. He had brute strength abilities; she had magical ones. In the game, they would come upon two-sided power-ups. The type of power-up it was depended on who took it. It also had a hierarchical animation system and a 3D look and feel.
Are there any screenshots of
Barbarian Bodyguard was terminated about 1/3 of the
way through development, along with all of the other Lynx titles. No screen
shots were ever taken, and the source code is probably lost by now.
The barbarian was a fairly typical Conan type with a sword, the princess was
slender rather than buxom. There were Greek columns, and a pig warrior
(sort of like the pig guards in Star Wars).
Have you been involved with the Supercharger (or programmed games for the 2600?) What was your role with
California Games displays a bunch of colors on the 2600! Written in just 6 weeks! (The same amount of time it took E.T. to be written!)
I came in after the Supercharger days.I always thought it was a cool concept, though.I worked on three 2600 games
(Summer Games, Winter Games, California
Games) that were quite successful.There was a time after the "glory days" of the 2600 when the cost of the system had dropped to about $50 and there was a real demand for games.
Tell us what it was like at Atari during the early days of the Lynx. How
was the Gameboy perceived and what did Atari think of their chances
I remember an advertisement for the Gameboy that had a color illustration in the display window.We thought that was just a little pathetic.I think that in the long run, the Lynx was a great system, but missed the market because it was too large, too expensive and went through batteries too quickly.These are things that Atari could have fixed if they had continued to develop it.Even so, I'd rather play a Lynx game than a Gameboy game any day.
Give us a little insight on Atari's management job. Was their demise a result of bad management, or something more obvious (like the lack of advertisement)?
I think it was neither. I think Atari's problem was an inability to treat others right. Eventually their business partners refused to work with them.This included developers, retailers, and distributors.Epyx was creating games for the Atari to publish, but Atari refused to pay the royalties they owed, so Epyx eventually cancelled all Lynx projects (I was working on
Barbarian Bodyguard at the time). Epyx had developed the Lynx for themselves, but then didn't have the cash to bring it to market. They shopped it around to all of the other companies but no one was interested.Atari was the last on their list.At one point in the negotiations with Atari, they were talking about taking over
Epyx, but the entire development staff said that they would walk out in the case of an Atari takeover.The takeover never happened. Atari's overall attitude is a good object lesson in win/win business management.If you have the attitude that others must lose in order for you to win (win/lose), you may win the battle but you will lose the war. It's what I call "stupid greed". It's killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
What were the Tramiels like?
Keep in mind that I never actually spoke with the Tramiels, so my opinion is based on my understanding of how they dealt with Epyx and other companies. They got a reputation for stabbing you in the back at the earliest possible opportunity. I do know that they were paranoid about security at their plant, requiring authorization from one of the Tramiels personally for anything to be taken from the facility. I understand that people had to smuggle things in and out just to get their job done.
Do they deserve all the demonization that Atari fans have given them over the years?
What advice would you give budding game programmers today?
Do something new! Don't "get inspired" by a popular game and try to clone it.There are plenty of companies out there pouring millions of dollars into making the same-old/same-old, but bigger/better/faster. You won't be able to compete with them!The game industry tends to get into a rut.I have an extremely old (1978) book called "Basic Computer Games" by David H.
Ahl.In it, you can find a very primitive version of nearly every game on the market.When
Tetris came on the scene years ago, it shook people up.Here was an extremely simple game that was a major hit, and some guy in Russia created it!It ignored the ruts that we were in and did something new.As a "newbie", you have only one advantage: you are not stuck in a rut yet!
Game concept comes before graphics and technology.A good exercise is to mentally remove all the graphics, sounds, plots, and animations and ask: "Is the underlying game play fun?"
Name your game first.
This seems like the wrong way around, but most games are bought off the shelf without being played or researched.A good name and good packaging are both vital to establishing a "hook" for your customers.You have to 1) get the publisher / distributor to buy into the concept, 2) get the retailer to carry it, 3) get the customer to 4) see it on the shelf, 5) pick it up, 6) be interested enough to turn it over and check out the details, 7) decide to buy it, 8) not return it to the store or tell others that it stinks.Sometimes you have to convince both the parent and the child who will actually play it.Note that only step number 8 has anything to do with your code.Get an appealing concept down, and then support it with production.
Define your market.Understand the person you are writing the game for.Remember that you are a person who creates games: by definition, you are not "normal." What may appeal to you might not appeal to the people who will buy your game.Try to get into their heads.
Games are about how you make people feel.In the ideal game, the player should feel like a hero.It's better to make easy goals look difficult than to make difficult goals look easy.The player should say: "Wow!I got through that?I must be good!" Never insult your player, no matter how badly he fails.Remember that the customer is your friend, who paid his hard-earned money for your game.
As you design your game elements, think about how these elements will interact with each other and the player.It's the difference between 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 40 and 10 * 10 * 10 * 10 = 10,000!
Create truly unique elements.
Don't make enemies that look different, but act basically the same.Require the player to treat them differently, to use different strategies.
Start small, be patient.
Your first game will not be the multimillion-dollar hit of the decade. It's better to succeed with a small game that offers real value than to do something big but badly.
Choose your partners wisely!
Don't just get your friends together and start a company.Find the right talent to work with, especially people who are trustworthy.You may be working with these people for decades.
Learn 3D programming.
This includes trigonometry, the use of 3D modeling tools, 2D art tools, C/C++ programming, and game design concepts.
Do it! Make a functional game. Whether you want to get hired or go it alone, having a game that actually works is your best resume.
There are several free / low cost tools to get started:
Game Engines / Application Programming Interfaces
Dark Basic - 3D capable BASIC language
DirectX 8 - Free from Microsoft
Genesis 3D - C++ based system
Open GL - C++ based system
3D Modeling Tools
TrueSpace - There is a freeware version floating around on the net
Inspire 3D - Jr. version of Lightwave
MilkShape 3D - Very good at placing textures where you want them.
3D Exploration - Good 3D format translation
Cool Edit - Sound editor (there is an annoyware version CoolEdit 96 on the net)
Paint Shop Pro (I use Photoshop)
Magpie - Lip synch
Most 3D engines require the use of 3D Studio or Max (~$3500 - ouch).
Make sure you read the fine print for licensing on any game engine you use.
Some game engines are free, some cost over $80,000!
DirectX 8 is used for both Windows and the Xbox.
Looking back at the old days, I'm sure you have a great deal of fond
memories. Ones that all Atari fans are envious of! What are some
positive things you took from your
I think I mostly miss the people at
Epyx. I think the most exciting moment was when
Gates of Zendocon
(Marketing came up with that name) first ran.
was started for the Lynx before there was any functional hardware, so I created a crude Lynx emulator on the Apple II. It set up the Lynx graphics data structures, but then displayed them on an Emulator screen as ASCII text.The bouncing eyeballs were "*", and the laser beams were "-----". Eventually, they got a version of the Lynx hardware that could display graphics (slowly), and I saw
- Atari was originally going to call the Lynx the "Atari Portable Entertainment System", but when I pointed out that this spelled "APES" they changed it.
- California Games - 2600 was created by two programmers and a musician in 1- months.
- The earthquake hit Epyx hard.Pipes were hanging down from the ceiling, the plaster had popped off the walls, and bookcases had toppled over crushing desks. I'm thankful that no one was hurt.I was out of the building and hanging on to a light post before the earthquake was finished.We ended up with mounds of techno-rubbish that we shoveled into a huge dumpster.
- After hours we played laser tag in the cubicle areas at Epyx.
- Kevin Furry (at Epyx) rigged up a remote control car with an attached video camera that he ran all over the building.
- A long time ago, I made a compiler/assembler (programming language) for the Atari 400/800 called BASM (there is an unrelated BASM for the 8086).The first version was written in the Atari interpretive basic.I then re-wrote it in the new language and used the old version to compile it, which took about 8 hours.I went on to use this to create games for the Atari / C64.
What are you doing these days?
I have my own little business (Just me and my wife, Eve): Inspired Idea
). I am specializing in Bible computer games, but am also retailing some home school software.I just taught myself 3D programming in DirectX 8.I am finishing up my latest game:
- Wild roller coaster-like race through virtual worlds!
- No violence but total adrenaline!
- When you come to an intersection, choose the lane where you hear the truth or run off the end of the road!
- Overcome road hazards like deception, confusion, and greed using faith, hope, love, etc.
- No reading or typing required: it uses spoken true/false (KJV) questions.
Cutting edge 3D graphics.
- The learning is truly part of the game so you'll find yourself remembering without really trying.
- Advanced users can even create their own lessons with a microphone.
Teaches Bible Literacy in 12 Categories:
Peter, I appreciate your taking time out to write this interview! (Oh, and by the way, thanks for
Slime World! It's one of my favorites!)
- Four Gospel Books
- John 3:16
- The Lord's Prayer
- Ten Commandments
- The Beatitudes
- Twelve Apostles
- Twelve Tribes Of Israel
- In the Bible Or Not
- New Testament Books
- Old Testament Books
- Ten Commandments In Order
- Creation Week
Wow, a compiler! I made a compiler & language for my TI-83+ similar to C++, but I am still working out the bugs. How do you program on the Atari in the first place? Isn't it a console system? I don't recall there being a command line. I am interested in the idea of dabbling with programming for old / limited systems (i.e. z80). Can you reply to my email? firstname.lastname@example.org