Q: How'd you get into this business?
A: I went to Tulane University in New Orleans where I started off as a major in economics and business. After about a year and a half I finished my economics major and I still had some time left.I already had a great deal of a math major so I finished my math major and then I graduated in three years with a bachelors in both math and economics, Phi Beta Kappa, blah, blah, blah. That was 1978.
I avoided computers like the plague all through high school. I didn't want anything to do with them. I was going to be a businessman. Then everybody kept telling me in economics, no matter what you do, you'd be much better off with computers. So I figured well, okay. I took one computer course and I got so into it I finished the first course in about a night.
Q: What was the first computer you put your hands on?
A: The first computer I ever touched was an IBM 70-44.
Q: What was it like?
A: It was a humongous machine. In its capability it was about equal to a machine the size of a pack of cigarettes [today].
Q: What did you do on it?
A: I wrote some really idiotic poetry. Some of your basic introductory smatterings. And I was fascinated -- really fascinated -- by the computer. I liked it so much I went back and did a one-year masters program in computer engineering at Tulane.
When I graduated with my masters, I went to Hewlett-Packard. I was doing data communications systems for them. It was kind of dry. I just didn't enjoy it that much. It wasn't the type of programming that really stimulated me. So when I heard that Atari did do that type of programming --.
I'd always been a gamesman. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was very into puzzles and games and I developed this realization. I looked at my father. It seems like you have your fun when you're a kid and then there's the point of resignation. Okay, that's it. The fun's over. Time to make a living. I used to think, gee, wouldn't it be neat to have a job where you could just have fund and games? Why shouldn't you enjoy your job?
And that's what happened to me at Hewlett-Packard. I was there for one year and one quarter. And I had had about enough. I was doing okay. I was getting raises. I was playing the game. They had me on real hot projects there. But I just felt guilty taking their money. I wanted to be into what I was doing. So I went to Atari. I went there for a cut in salary.
The people you find here -- there's no commonality of background but they're all not just intelligent but expressive people. By and large extroverted. It's the artistic --.
Q: I would have thought of the guy who could only sit there and interact with a computer. If a person ever walked into his life --.
A: Oh no, not at all. That's [Hewlett-Packard]. That's why I left HP. There are two kinds of people who get into programming. Some are people who are artistic, intelligent, creative, interactive, expressive. The computer is simply another vehicle of expression to them. These people would paint, they would write.
Then there are intelligent people who cannot interact with other people. The computer is something they can express themselves with in a way they haven't been able to interact with people.
By and large video games designers are the expressive kind. They're the interactive type. They're fun people. I like them.
Q: Can you look at a game and know who wrote it?Is there style?
A: Oh yeah. We've done blind tests. They won't tell me who wrote which game. And I'll always pick them. It's no problem. Everybody has a signature inherent in their work. You have manners of speech in computer programming just like you have manners of speech in talking.
Q: What's the first video game you played?
A: In New Orleans, when I was in school, I walked into Blimpie's to get a sandwich. I saw a Space Invaders. I walked up, I played one game. I said, this is going to be big. This is going to wipe pinball out! I mean, it was great. I had no idea I would ever have anything to do with it, but I just knew this was it.
Q: What's your high score on Pac-Man?
A: Very disappointing -- 32,000 or so. I'm not as good a game player as I am -- hopefully -- a game maker.
Q: How long did it take you to write Yars' Revenge?
A: I wrote Yars' Revenge in approximately four-and-a-half to five months. Yars was the first game we sold with a comic book. I wrote the story, in addition. The Yars are mutant house flies. The story is some flies got on the first interplanetary spaceship and they mutated over time and developed tremendous power balls and stuff like that. And they fly off and they inhabit the Razak solar system.
A: It should be spelled Rassak 'cause Yar backwards is Ray. Ray Kassar is the president of Atari.
Q: Your name is in there too?
A: Well, my inititals are in the game. I was in good company. Yars' Revenge went through more testing than any other cart. I tried to write a revolutionary cart.
A: Cart. When I say cart I mean cartridge.
Q: I don't care what language you use. You just translate that in English for my readers and then you can go back to your language.
A: No problem. Okay the story is the mutant house flies flew off and inhabit the Razak solar system -- Razak Three, Four and Five. There's this intergallactic monster, Qotile.Now Qotile vaporizes flies.
See, the game has a shielded monster on the right hand side of the screen and the monster veers up and down. Then in the center there's a very colorful band. A Qotile came along and blew away Razak Four. So the band in the center of the screen -- that used to be Razak Four.
Qotile generates a tremendous field of gravity. So you have these ions that are left over from the vaporized planet, orbiting the monster. That's why the band is there. But also it screws up your communications ability. You can't use your weapons systems when you're in that band. But you're also protected, because the Qotile monster has two offensive weapons as do you. The Qotile monster has a guided missile drone which constantly follows you around the screen.
Now the heart of the Qotile monster -- which you can see behind the shield -- pulses and occasionally turns into a swirl and fires. Yars have the ability to expectorate energy. [Atari] prefers to say it throws it. They didn't like the term expectorate. I'm sure you've been exposed to --.
Q: All bureaucracies.
A: I'm not very bureaucratic. You can use these power pulses to break down the shield. But the killer in the game is you eat the shield also.
Q: How do you get a point?
A: Well you get points by removing the shield. For every cell of the shield you remove you get some points. If you eat a piece of the shield you get bonus points. It's very easy.
But see, part of the story is that under construction on Razak Three is a heavy-duty weapon called the Zorlon cannon. The thing is that it's only partially constructed and the weapons system works now, except the guidance system does not. That's why the Yar is out there, okay? The Yar lines it up and it's like sighting.
Usually you use your fire button to shoot the little energy pulses. But once your Zorlon cannon appears on the screen, the next time you hit the fire button, the Zorlon cannon is going to take off. So you want to hold off for a second. You want to line it up.
Q: When you're writing this game, what are you writing?
A: Okay, let's say you're firing your Zorlon cannon. One thing I want to do is make it move across the screen.
Q: The guy pushes the button on his joy stick and a bullet shoots out. How do you do it?
A: Okay. First I say load from the register. That tells me whether or not he has fired. I check that information. I say compare to "Fired?"
Q: What's the register?
A: A register is just a location in computer memory that has a specific determined piece of information.
Q: Okay. So you say load from the register.
A: I say load from the register beginning at the fire button. Then I do a "compare," because "load" doesn't tell me anything. First I do a load to get the information, then I do a compare and I say, does this match the specified piece of information I'm looking for? Then I say yes and then I have what's called a branch or a segment in a program. Then I fall through into my procedure line --
Q: You're way ahead of me. How long does it take?
A: How long does it take the computer? It takes approximately 15 to 20 microseconds. Approximately a fifth of a thousandth of a second. Pretty fast. The computer works on cycles. There's a clock that keeps putting cycles on the computer. It says ke-chunk, ke-chunk, ke-chunk. Every ke-chunk the computer does its next thing. Different instructions take different numbers of cycles because they accomplish different things. One cycle is 1.19 microseconds. A microsecond is a millionth of a second.
Q: If you were going to look at a sheet of paper with the program on it would it be very long?
A: You could paper this room.
Q: How does the machine move the trace of the bullet across the machine?
A: The most basic thing I guess we ought to deal with is -- TV is a movie. And so is a video game. A movie, everyone understands, is a sequence of frames. But people rarely look at TV like that.
Q: Changing so rapidly the eye can't follow it?
A: Exactly. A video game -- and TV -- shows you 60 frames a second. When I'm writing a video game, I'm writing a computer program that generates an entire screen full of information every 60th of a second. If I just want to show you a picture, I have to keep drawing that same image 60 times a second.
If I want a missile to move across the screen, what I'm going to do is redraw this picture. Everything is going to be in the same place except for the missile. I'm going to draw it once with the missile in one place, then I'm going to draw it again with the missile moved over a little bit.
Sixty frames a second. Okay, well, it I want a really slow missile, what I'm gonna do is wait until every eight or nine frames and then I'll move it. If I want go faster I'll move every four frames, every two frames. If I want to go really fast, I'll move it every frame and maybe I'll move it two chunks at a time or three chunks at a time.
One thing you learn in computers is how slow people are. Humans are an extremely low resolution instrument. That's why they made computers.
Q: An author who sold 100,000 copies of a book at $29.95 or whatever would be a famous author.
A: I consider myself a widely published author.
Q: Do you get your name on your book?
A: Atari does not publish the name. It's never going to say "By Howard Scott Warshaw."
Q: Do you consider yourself an author? A programmer? An engineer?
A: It's funny. Artist. Creator.
Q: Can you design a game that will always hit the player?
A: Sure. I can do things below your level of reaction. I could do things that would kill you subliminally. That's not very fair.
Q: You mean -- bullet over there in a 60th of a second?
A: Yeah, I could make it absolutely instantaneous. If you want we'll just start off the game, I'll kill you three times and that will be it. But, I mean, I don't think it would be a good seller.