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INTERVIEW
Joe Grand

An Engineer by trade, Joe has applied his knowledge to the
classic gaming community and recently released SCSIcide for the Atari 2600. He also operates Pixels Past a great classic gaming resource!

MT> The players objective in SCSIcide is to read bits of data in the correct color order before your latency buffer expires by controlling the hard drive head. Do you find it ironic that hard drives did not even exist when the VCS was released?
JG> Actually, hard drives were invented in the 1950's, they just weren't a mainstream commodity like they are now. :P


MT> Ouch, I stand corrected. Let us just move on now before I embarrass my self any further... Were there any game design elements that you wanted to include in SCSIcide but were dropped for one reason or another?
JG> I had a large list of "wants" that I had to make some tradeoff decisions due to the limitations of the 2600 platform and the fact that SCSIcide was my first programming effort for the console. My original game concept was based on a circular rotating disk. Because SCSIcide is a fast-twitch, intense game, quickly identifying the proper color bit to read is extremely
important. However, the game is very hard to play for color blind people - I wanted to have the next required bit to blink or be identifiable in a way other than color, but couldn't fit it into the kernel. I also wanted to have better sound (which I could definetely do now with Paul Slocum's Synthcart engine, which wasn't available at the time) Even with all the things I didn't put in the game, I prefer extremely simple and addicting games (Kaboom!, Pac Man) - if I had added everything I wanted, it actually might have taken away from the simplicity and fun of SCSIcide.

MT> SCSIcide was your first 2600 game. The VCS console is certainly not easy to program. Did you ever get frustrated and consider dropping the project?
JG> I definetely got frustrated, but never considered dropping the project. Being an engineer, I am very familiar with the highs and lows of product development. There are times when everything goes right and you can be on a roll for days at a time. Then, the next thing you know, you find bugs, you spend hours trying to fix them, etc. It is part of the process and is actually what makes it so exciting. If designing a videogame was too easy, then we'd probably have a lot more crappy homebrew games. :)

MT> Similar to how new hard drives are packaged, the SCSIcide game and instruction manual were also packaged in a static-free bag further playing off the theme of the game. What other packaging ideas did you consider?
JG> This was actually the first and only concept I had. I didn't consider using a cardboard box because of the manufacturing costs of getting good quality boxes and offset printing (I am too anal to use a cheap inkjet and thin cardboard). The anti-static bag was a low-cost option which really added some "flavor" to the already geeky game.. If I remember correctly, SCSIcide was the first homebrew game to be publicly released in something -other- than a cart-only or cardboard box. Tim Snider's limited edition Venture II came in a paper-mache treasure chest, but only 20 were made. Now, more often than not, unique packaging ideas are used instead of the cardboard box to help the game stand out. It adds another dimension of design to the project and makes it a lot of fun. Examples: Paul Slocum's Marble Crazy, Andrew Davie's QB, Billy Eno's Warring Worms.

MT> How did you learn to program for the Atari 2600? If others wanted to cite you as an example, and code a game themselves, where would you recommend that they start?
JG> Experiment, experiment, experiment (and be patient!) There are a huge number of resources available now that provide disassembled games, commented source code, development tools, emulators, and mailing/discussion lists. For example, on my website (http://www.pixelspast.com), I documented the entire development process of SCSIcide, from inception to completion. Source code and compiled binaries of various versions of the game are up on the site for people to learn from and they can modify the source code to see how the Atari will respond. Some good resources:

2600 101
The Stella Mailing List
The Dig

It might appear that game design is really easy, since there are so many homebrew game projects going on right now. With the correct background, this might be true, but take small steps and play around a lot. That is the best way to learn.

MT> Tick, Tick, Tick - How many hours of dedication did it require to program SCSIcide?
JG> It's hard to really say, since I worked a lot of nights and weekends sporadically for about 4 months. I worked between 0 and 20 hours a week (usually about 6 hours a week: 3 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday). This doesn't count creating the labels and circuit boards, or putting the games together (approximately 10-15 minutes each).

MT> Please explain the process of taking your programmed game SCSIcide, and manufacturing it into the final cartridge form.
JG> The first thing I did when I knew I'd be building my own games was to create a custom circuit board for use in the standard Atari cases. I didn't want to have to modify the existing circuitry in the old cartridges which many homebrew developers do. The 2600 boards I made currently support 2K and 4K games. The boards fit into the standard Atari cartridge cases and all components are easily obtainable at many electronics stores. This made the manufacturing process much easier and less frustrating. The boards are for sale exclusively at AtariAge, but more information on assembly instructions, parts ordering, and tips will be added shortly to http://www.pixelspast.com/homebrew.

Once I had the circuit boards designed and manufactured, it was simply a matter of soldering the components onto the custom boards, preparing the cartridges (stripping the labels off old Combat/Pac Man cartridge cases), removing the old guts of the cartridge, putting the new populated circuit boards in, testing, putting the cartridge together, testing again, and finally putting on the new label. Piece of cake!

MT> Which did you find more challenging, programming SCSIcide or manufacturing the game?
JG> The programming, without a doubt. The manufacturing process was extremely simple, though time consuming. Building cartridges is basically brainless work, and the programming really offers the creative/technical challenge.

MT> By now I am sure that many of our readers would like to actually play SCSIcide! How can they obtain a copy to pop into their Atari VCS?
JG> SCSIcide is available from AtariAge for $25. They come in the anti-static bag with a professional quality label and manual. The game was the first homebrew to use the Paddle Controllers, so make sure you have a set before trying to play :)

MT> What's next? Is this the end of SCSIcide?
JG> That's a good question. I've been working on getting the Pixels Past site up and running. Pixels Past was created to provide homebrew game developers with the necessary gear to easily build game cartridges for classic systems. It is operated solely by me. Most of the actual products will be exclusively distributed by AtariAge, who I've been working closely with for a number of months. This will allow AA to handle the orders and processing in their store, while I can focus on designing new homebrew/classic gaming products.. Currently, I have PCBs for Atari 2600 and Atari 5200 cartridges,
and I'm working on a cartridge housing for the Atari 2600/7800 which will allow homebrew developers to use these new plastic cases instead of having to strip old labels and deal with crusty/dirty cartridges. It just adds a nicer touch to the final product. A few other things are in the works, so stay tuned..

As for game design, I'm not really sure. I've played around with some names for a SCSIcide 2, but that probably won't happen. Maybe a game for the 5200 or Intellivision, or something for a more obscure system like RCA Studio II.. :) So many things to do, so little time...

Good Deal Games supports hobbyist programmers like Joe and their hard work
that further enhances our aging consoles.


E-Mail: Joe Grand
or visit his webpage

 

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