Interview by Lee Pappas
(Appeared in the October 1986 issue of "Analog Computing" Magazine)
LP: Can you give us a quick history of how the POKEY chip first came to be?
DN: The Atari 800's architecture evolved as an upgrade of the 2600. Conceived primarily by Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir and Jay Miner before I arrived at Atari, the original plan for the POKEY chip called for keyboard interface, audio and paddle controllers.
LP: Were there any features you would have liked to include in the POKEY chip that were never implemented? If so, what were they, and why didn't they get in?
DN: The main problem, I think, with the Atari 800 is that all I/O is serial. Originally, the POKEY's serial port was intended to talk only to the cassette recorder. Communication to floppies and printers was to be through a parallel port and extension box. Unfortunately, the parallel port was abandoned (there was a fear of RFI and the difficulty of getting FCC approval) and all I/O was fed through the serial port.
LP: Were there any custom chip (or other) features ever planned for the 400/800 that never made it to production?
DN: Well, besides the parallel port and expansion box, there was the GTIA (George's TIA). The GTIA chip was made, but wasn't originally put into production...I don't have one. I think that later they started using the GTIA, but I'm not sure.
LP: Can you describe the environment, the spirit of Atari during those early days when the 8-bits were first born?
DN: I wasn't with the company back in the early Nolan Bushnell days. I started right after Atari was bought by Warner Communications. However, the atmosphere was still pretty laid back, compared to most companies in the valley.
LP: What was the inspiration for Star Raiders?
DN: Star Raiders was to be a 3-D version of the Star Trek game played on the mainframe computers of that time. The Star Trek game was all text and not played in real time, but it had the idea of ship damage and sector scanners and charts.
LP: There were no games for the 400 and 800 written at the time you started on Star Raiders. In a sense, it was the first Atari computer game ever done, and is still regarded as the premier piece of entertainment for the 8-bits. What are your thoughts on this? (Many of our readers bought theirr 8-bits solely because of SR.)
DN: It's pretty amazing, the way the game caught on. I think it was the first game to combine action with a strategy screen, and luckily, the concept worked out pretty well.
LP: Can you explain some of the routines in Star Raiders--how they came to be and how they function? I'd like to give our readers some insight into how it works, graphically and logistically.
DN: The routines in Star Raiders are total hacks! It was the first game to use 3-D algorighms, and the ones I came up with were terrible. They worked, but were slow. That's why the game slows down when there's an explosion. The explosion consists of about sixty-four separate pieces, and moving them around in 3-D space took a lot of computation time.
LP: What features--if any--would you have liked to include in Star Raiders that couldn't be added because the program had to fit on an 8K cartridge?
DN: With more memory available, I could have added planet landings and a trench scene. However, at the time, all games had to fit in 8K of RAM memory, as well as in 8K of ROM. These restrictions limited a lot of options.
LP: Were there any secret codes or messages put into the game, which, for instance, can be accessed through a series of keystrokes?
DN: When I finished the first pass on the game, I was 900 bytes over the 8K limit. I didn't have room for any secret message. Text (messages) take up a lot of bytes and can't be packed very well. With a limited amount of memory (such as in ROM), I would rather add "game" features.
LP: What's the highest score you've ever achieved playing Star Raiders?
DN: When I was doing the final touch-up on Star Raiders, a lot of people at Atari were playing the game. This allowed me to fine tune the scoring algorithm. Every time someone got to be a Star Commander Class 1, I bumped up the scoring difficulty. Even a week before we made the ROMs, I was still increasing the difficulty. I think I was the second person to get Star Commander Class 1 on the final version.
LP: Did you get any financial benefit from the overwhelming success of the game?
DN: At the time, I was a chip design engineer and did Star Raiders more or less on the side. Unfortunately, that was back in the days when programmers weren't paid royalties for video games, so I didn't make any money from Star Raiders.
LP: Were you approached for a sequel to Star Raiders, and was one ever done?
DN: I don't believe I was asked to do a sequel, Atari is coming out with Star Raiders for the ST this year and, I think, Star Raiders II for the 8-bits, also for this year. Atari hasn't been in video games since 1984, and is just gearing back up, so we should expect so see some good new games shortly.
LP: Were you approached for Star Raiders for the ST? What do you think of that version, assuming that you've seen it?
DN: No, I wasn't asked to do Star Raiders for the ST, either. I saw the game briefly and thought that the visuals were really good, although I didn't like the photon graphic as well as my own. Maybe I'm the only one who likes the sparkling photon effect; I've never seen anyone else use it.
LP: If you were to write Star Raiders today with no constraints on memory, what would the game be like?
DN: Everything could be improved. More and better graphics would be added, not just showing the front view. I would like to add a planet and a trench scene. It seems that it should be possible to add effects closer to those in the Star Wars movies.