Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Warren Robinett, developer of 1979 Atari title Adventure and co-founder of the Learning Company.
“There were no computer games when I was a kid,” Robinett begins. “There were comic books and science fiction. Kids actually went outdoors and played back then, quaint as it may seem. I have three boys, and I think this is actually a healthy way to spend part of your time.”
Nonetheless, Robinett’s own childhood eventually lead to an interest in computers, and in the early 1970s, he began studying for his Bachelor of Art degree in Computer Applications to Language and Art at Rice University in Texas. “I thought this was pretty cool,” he says of the subject matter. During this time, he performed his first work as a professional programmer, working for Western Geophysical in Houston as a FORTRAN programmer dealing with navigation data.
Starting Off At Atari
After completing his BA in 1976, Robinett moved to California, where he started his Master of Science degree in Computer Science, and a year later in November 1977, at the age of 26, he successfully applied for a job with Atari, which he admits was his “first real experience with video games”. The company had released the Atari VCS—later known as the 2600—just a month before, but only managed to sell 250,000 before the end of that year. It was a tense time for Warner Communications, who had bought the company for $28 million the year before, but the programmers were less worried.
“It was great; it was nutty; we were being used; we had complete freedom; we had arbitrary constraints imposed on us by clueless marketing types,” Robinett grins. “If this sounds kind of schizo, it was. It wasn't boring.”
Robinett’s first game for the system was Slot Racers, a simple racing title that he describes as “a learning exercise”. “It would have never gotten published in any normal situation,” he muses, “but Atari needed product and published everything the programmers produced in 1978.”
Just before the game’s completion and release, Robinett happened upon the mainframe text game Colossal Cave Adventure while visiting his friend Julius Smith, who was a grad student at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. Robinett was impressed by the game, which he thought was a “great concept”—a network of rooms, with movable objects and numerous creatures. Though the text adventure required vast amounts of processing power—by 1978 standards—and hundreds of kilobytes of memory, he decided to base his next Atari 2600 game on Colossal Cave Adventure.
“My boss told me not to work on it, because it was impossible to do on the Atari 2600 console, which had only 1/8 K of RAM and 4K of ROM,” he says. “But I worked on the idea anyway.”
The Making Of Adventure
There were a number of problems that Robinett faced in developing his own Adventure other than memory, like how to represent a room and objects graphically; how to pick up objects; how to move your character; and, of course, how to receive credit for the title, given Atari’s policy of designer anonymity.
“I just jumped in and started programming,” he chuckles. “It evolved by trying things and seeing what worked. I had the idea of rooms and objects from the text adventure I had played, so I got up an early version with room-to-room motion—a room being a single screen—and objects in the rooms which you could pick up and carry around, [which] were little graphic icons. One of the first things I implemented was a dragon that chased you around. But there were no mazes at that point, and no bat, no way to kill the dragon, so it wasn't a playable game at that point, just an experiment with some promising elements.”
Mid-way into the development in the last half of 1978, Robinett hit a spot of writers block, and decided to switch to another project for a time. Based on his interest in programming languages, he decided to attempt an interpreter of some kind on the console. “Given the resources available, I was happy with the visual look and the capabilities of the BASIC interpreter, which were very limited, but the 2600 was very limited,” he notes.
After making some progress on the interpreter, Robinett went back to Adventure, and quickly neared the end of the project, and resolved to continue thinking about the issue of getting credit for his work. Inspired by the supposed hidden “Paul is dead” messages in later Beatles albums, he settled on the idea of a hidden room containing his signature that could only be accessed by the player carrying an almost-invisible item through a particular wall—the first Easter Egg in a game. “I thought of it as a way to put my signature on the game,” he explains, “like painters do in the corner of the painting.”
In his foreword to Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron’s 2003 Video Game Theory Reader Robinett described the room as a “meta-level” for players: “the way to truly beat the game and get to the real conclusion”. For himself, he reveals that he now considers it a kind of “meta-game” with the company’s management, noting that while they “had the power” to stop his name appearing on the box, he “had the power to put it on the screen”.
Do It Yourself, On Atari 2600!
Robinett finished the game in June 1979, at around the same time he finished his BASIC Programming Cartridge, and also around the time that the console was finally picking up speed with sales. The BASIC Programming Cartridge didn’t quite manage to benefit from this, though, mostly due to what Robinett describes as a “bad job on the user interface”.
The cartridge used the relatively unpopular Atari 2600 keypad controller, which he notes was “very hard to use”, but also only featured the ability to type in seven lines of code—or 11, if you knew a workaround. “In retrospect,” Robinett sighs, “I could have done much better with a joystick.”
Nonetheless, in spite of Robinett’s dismissal of the cartridge, it does have its admirers—today at least, amongst people with an understanding of exactly how far the interpreter pushed the limits of the console.
Adventure, on the other hand, capitalized on the console’s success enormously well. By the end of the decade, there were around 1.8 million Atari 2600 owners, and 1 million of them were playing Robinett’s game. However, despite the incredible sales—at $25 each, no less—its creator was still on a salary of $22,000 a year, and soon decided to leave the company.
“I was tired of working, and Atari management didn't value the 2600 designers,” he says. “Boy were they stupid, because the designers all quit and started competing companies.” Years later, he notes with some enthusiasm, the company “came crashing down, like a whale dropped from a 747 at 30,000 feet”.
Founding The Learning Company
After leaving Atari, Robinett met Ann McCormick Piestrup, a developer of educational material for the Apple II, and decided to form The Learning Company in 1980, a software publisher that would focus on instructive games, along with Leslie Grimm and Teri Perl. Robinett notes nonchalantly that it wasn’t something he “decided to do in advance”; rather, it was just that “one thing led to another”.
“Starting a company is very, very stressful, but I thought stress was all in your mind. I found out the hard way that it may be all in your mind, but it can still hammer you very hard,” he says. “One of my co-workers at Atari, Joe DeCuir, went sailing with another Atari guy, Dickie Derickson; Joe told Dickie how seasickness wouldn't bother him on the drive to the boat: that it was all in your mind. But two hours later he was laying in the bottom of the boat puking his guts out.”
“Twenty-five-year-olds can be know-it-alls, and sometimes reality teaches you a lesson,” he concludes sagely.
Robinett’s first and only title for the company was an Apple II game named Rocky’s Boots, which began as an Adventure-like game “where you build machines to defeat the monsters”. However, it didn’t stay that way for long.
“The machines—logic games, sensors, and actuators—took over and became an education simulation. It moved in that direction because the simulation was done and the adventure game wasn't and we would have gone bankrupt if we had not shipped product immediately.”
Fortunately, the game ended up a financial success, and the company continued to grow. “I got no cut at Atari, but as a founder, I shared in the Learning Company's financial success,” Robinett reflects.
Moving On To VR Research
Robinett began to drift away from the company after that. “I didn't plan to stop,” he says, “I just got involved in other things. I had read about the idea of virtual reality, as pioneered by Ivan Sutherland. I thought it was cool. I went to see a guy I knew, Scott Fisher, who was working on a crude VR system at NASA Ames Research Center, and that led to working there.”
While at NASA, Robinett and Fisher developed the Virtual Environment Workstation along with Michael McGreevy. The Workstation used the first dataglove: a peripheral that measured the movements of its user, and allowed them to interact with and move through the virtual world. By the end of the decade, Robinett was running a VR project at the University of North Carolina Computer Science Department.
In 1991, Robinett was talking with Stan Williams—a college and grad school friend who was, at the time, a chemistry professor at UCLA—in regards to a Scanning-Tunneling Microscope that had been developed by Williams and his grad students. Together, they decided that the idea of connecting the microscope to Robinett’s VR system would be “interesting”. The resulting invention was the Nanomanipulator, a VR interface that allows its user to “see, touch, and manipulate individual macromolecules”. The machine was implemented later on by Russ Taylor as a PhD thesis, who still runs the project.
Robinett describes his work in the field of virtual reality as “somewhat” successful, despite spending nine years in the ‘90s as Associate Editor for the journal Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, and spending another three as a member of the Committee on Virtual Reality Research and Development for the National Research Council. “I got tired of VR a few years ago,” he says mildly.
These days, Robinett is “very busy” working at Hewlett Packard Labs alongside Williams, focusing on nanoelectronics. “Specifically,” he says, “on defect-tolerant architectures for nano-scale computing circuits. I expect that to keep me busy for the next few years.”
Nonetheless, he admits that he still has a “long list of ideas in educational games and other areas” that he would like to work on. “In the fullness of time,” he muses, “I reckon I will get to work on a few of them, and never get to others.”
“So, we'll just have to wait and see,” Robinett grins.