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Howard Scott Warshaw Interview - The Atari Times

Howard Scott Warshaw Interview

An interview of a life-time with one of Atari's most famous programmers
by Brendan Onfrichuk

April 5, 2006
I recently sat down with Howard Scott Warshaw for a phone interview and he really is a man that needs no introduction. He programmed Yars' Revenge, E.T. and my favorite 2600 title Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is also the creator of the popular documentary Once Upon Atari and was around Atari for a lot of the going ons there. This is an Atari Times exclusive interview with Howard Scott Warshaw.

Brendan Onfrichuk: Hello Howard thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to be interviewed. You worked at Atari for a couple of years and all of your games are famous amongst Atari fans. But how exactly did you come across your job as a programmer for Atari?

Howard Scott Warshaw: By begging. I had stared hearing about good things that go on down at Atari. I was originally working as an engineer for HP and I was a bit of a wild man myself and a friend of mine heard about the antics I would pull down at HP and she would tell me that's kind of what goes down at Atari. So I went for a series of interviews there and they thought I was to conservative or formal and almost didn't hire me. Which was kind of funny in retrospect, I was trying to be formal during the interviews and I begged to get in and took a big pay cut.

And what was the general atmosphere at Atari in the beginning? Was it a laid back environment for workers or did you constantly feel the pressure of work and deadlines?

It was great. It was amazing like a creativity farm. They would let you go off and said make us a good game.

Speaking of creativity farm, In your Once Upon Atari documentary you talked about the drug use over at Atari. Do you think that the drug use ever had an influence on the programmer's work? Because Centipede, to me looks like...

An acid trip? That's hard to say. There were a lot of cases when people were wasted and depending on the kind of drug that you are taking anything you think of seems to be a great idea at the time. And when you come back and look at it you think "what the hell were we thinking" but some real cool ideas did come out and I think... I don't think drugs helped the programming efficiency but that they helped the overall environment and contributed to the creative thinking of the people there.

How did you get the job for Yars' Revenge? Did Atari need a clone of Star Castle and you simply came up with a better game?

Yes, I was the next person on the list to get an assignment and Atari needed a Star Castle clone. I went back to them and said "I don't think this is going to work." But I analyzed the game and found what I thought was fun about it. I reconfigured it and made a few modifications in a way that would work on the 2600. And they were cool about it because there weren't to many arcade hits at the time and Star Castle wasn't all that.

I read that Yars' Revenge was the best selling original title for the 2600. Did you ever think Yars' would become as big as they have today or did you cross your fingers and hope for the best?

That's my understanding that it's the best seller. When I was making it I was exclusively concerned about making a game that I found fun. I wasn't concerned about sales at that point. And the game wasn't Yars' Revenge until the end, that's when it got a title, I had a working title of Time Freeze for a while and towards the end we made few changes and it was really good and people in coin-op were playing it which almost never happened. People were totally diggin' it. At that point I stared thinking about the sales and I wanted it to have a really cool name so I made the name and the back story. The idea of pausing, full screen explosions and I was doing a lot of firsts.

So the game was made before the back story. Was Yar always a fly or did he get changed to a fly after the story was made?

No, those were the original graphics for the game. I originally wanted an animated character and the fly ended up suggesting the back story. It wasn't necessarily a fly at first but a character with moving arms.

It has always been a small piece of trivia that Yar is Ray spelt backwards and Razak is Kazar or Kassar. What kind of guy was Ray and what led to this small piece of trivia?

Ray was a guy who was a very conventional, traditional, large company executive and he was a little stand offish in ways. He wasn't the leader to spend a lot of time in the trenches. So I wrapped Ray's name around the game because I knew that people in marketing would really be afraid of steeping on Ray. And I also knew that the people in marketing would be to intimidated to ask him about it.

During your run at Atari they tried to replace the 2600 with the 5200. Did the Hardware developers ever ask you or any other programmers what you wanted in a game console? What things about the 5200 did you think were done wrong and led to the console's unfortunate demise?

The 5200 wasn't the latest and greatest new gaming machine that they came out and claimed it was. It was simply the 800 repackaged. The thing is, why did they hold back the release of the 5200. The 400/800 computers had been around for years. If Atari introduced the 800 as a gaming machine years early they would have revolutionized the gaming industry much earlier but if they did they would have done what they were trying to avoid and that's cut out the 2600 which was making them a lot of money. It had a lot more power and was good as a gaming machine but the whole revolutionizing gaming didn't happen.

How do you think the 5200's controllers made it past quality control?

What happened with the controllers is that the developers were asked what they wanted but they wanted to cost-reduce it so much that it ended up being a piece of crap. And I think... I dunno it sure seemed to me that some people at Atari were only worried about their side of things. In engineering we were all about the experience of the play. All we tried to do was make something cool and Atari would get it out and everything would be great. At marketing you have people that are about making a buck and keeping costs down but they had no feel for the game. When you look at these controllers, they do execute the functions and execute the game but none of them can hold a controller and say this sucks but when we got the controller we used it and said "this sucks". And the whole thing didn't work because to make a controller that did all that we wanted it to do you need to spend a lot of money and they needed to make it cost effective.

How did you land the job of programming Raiders of the Lost Ark? Did it have anything to do with your success with Yars' Revenge?

Of course It had a lot to do with Yars'. Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to be the next big game and they came to me to do it. But what I wanted to do was a Yars' sequel because I like action games more. They said "do Raiders and you can choose whatever you want to do next" which turned out to be really ironic really. And I was ok with that and tried it.

What was it like to work with Steven Spielberg? Did he have any idea of what he wanted in the games you two worked on or did most of the concept design come from you?

Spielberg was a cool guy and it was a lot of fun working with him, well... not working with him, I got to meet him though and spend some time with him occasionally. He didn't have his hand in the game all that much though he just made a lot of money which was cool. I flew out from Atari to talk with him and showed him Yars' Revenge which he thought was cool and we talked about the concept for Raiders loosely but I did most of the work. Raiders was going to be an adventure game and the only other real adventure game that came out for the 2600 was Adventure which is an awesome game but I didn't think there was any point unless I made the gameplay better than Adventure and Adventure was a freakin' genre.

So that's where the two controller interface came in?

Exactly, with Adventure you can only carry one item at a time and that can be very limiting to the gameplay. I think Warren's game is awesome but I wasn't going to make an Adventure game unless I pushed the genre further. With games like Pitfall, everybody likes Pitfall. It has 250 screens I think, but I didn't think there was much point in having 250 screens that were all generally the same except for a few tweaks here and there. I wanted it to be a different screen every time and you go whoa... and every screen is a different experience. And the two controller interface was the best way to do it, it added a physical aspect to the game if that makes any sense. I could have done it with the console switches but I don't think that you should have to be next to the system to play, I didn't like the idea of that at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite 2600 game. It introduced a new concept of graphic adventure that would be popular through the rest of the 80s and early 90s. Do you think Raiders was a direct source of inspiration for the King's Quest series that it shares so much in common with?

Thank you, I find that flattering really. I do think that Adventure games that came out after Raiders did have similar mechanics. The idea of interacting with Items and talking to people was used a lot after raiders and I think that is what happened and I take it as a complement really.

How do you get past the raving lunatic in the black market without dying? That has always gotten me.

Well now you're testing my memory here, I think you're supposed to use the flute to get by him. Have you tried shooting him? Now you're testing my memory.

Yes I've Already tried that but I'll give the flute a shot. If you could go back and have 1 more week to work on E.T. what would you change if anything?

I think it would be the wells, I would make it so that there were less wells and if you got out of a well you couldn't fall into another as soon as you got out of one. But If I had one more week to work on E.T. that's like 20% more time to work on it and 20% more in schedule. I made up the concept for E.T. in 48 hours and talked to Spielberg and he said "why not make it a Pac-Man clone" and perhaps looking in hindsight... but you know what happened with all of the Pac-Man clones back then.

Saboteur finally saw release in 2004 and you signed copies for fans at a convention. What was the general response from fans about Saboteur?

They were diggin' it. Saboteur was bootlegged after I had left Atari and people were playing it and saying it was great. Saboteur was also released on the 2nd Atari classic system right after the Jakks. And It's funny that I'm still releasing games 20 years later.

The Atari Flashback 2 contains the sequel to Yars' Revenge called Yars' Return. What do you think about how Yars' Return shaped up in comparison to Yars' Revenge. Did you have anything to do with Yars' Return?

I heard about Yars' Return and I heard it was un-playable and the graphics didn't work quite right. I had nothing to do with Yars' Return I already have my own idea for a Yars' sequel. It doesn't have anything to do with the original, except the story but I think it would be good as a party game like Warlords. It would probably use the paddles so that you could have four players like Warlords.

Do you think you will ever return to making video games? Maybe self-publish that Yars' sequel that you're talking about.

I don't know. I got a lot going on right now but maybe when things die down. I have thought about it before but I don't know when I can get back into 2600 programming. But hopefully in the future.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Howard. You've been a real help and I hope to see your Once Upon Atari ( http://www.onceuponatari.com/ ) video as soon as possible. This interview has been really informative for me.

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