Owen Rubin
Interview by Brian Deuel

Owen Rubin worked for Atari during the "golden age" of arcade gaming, and worked on such hits as Space Duel and Battlezone. He is probably best known for the games he created that WEREN'T produced, and for his cult classic, Major Havoc. Read on!

 

What raster games did you work on before stepping into the world of vector games?

LOTS! Many never saw the light of day however. I think in all my years designing I probably did 20 or more. I don't remember them all.

BEFORE vector, I did (all coin-op, some made it to the Atari 2600) Cannonball, Skydiver, Triple Hunt (all 3 produced), I worked on Pool Shark, did a game called PT Commander (2 boats fighting each other). I did a game called Orbit which was a rip off of SpaceWars vector game. There was the ever returning Tunnel Hunt (that game that would not die.) There were others but I do not recall them all right now.

What was the hardware like with those early rasters?

The hardware was rather simple. You have a number of "motion objects" which could be placed anywhere on the screen. Early version simply took graphics from a PROM and the programmer simply set a value in a register to select which picture. There were missile graphics, 2x2 or 1x1 objects to use as bullets. The playfield was a "stamp" based graphics made up of 8x8 or 16x16 graphic stamps that were also pulled from a PROM. The programmer stored a value to a memory map and each memory address displayed one stamp.

How did the concept of Tunnel Hunt evolve?

Tunnel Hunt was actually my first vector game, although it did not end up as a vector game. I really liked the opening sequence of the movie Alien (the part where they landed) and thought it might be fun. Using the vector system from Asteroids and some software from Night Driver, I created a early version where you could fly down tunnels. But because the system did not do hidden line removal, the tunnels could not move much, It just did not work. A hardware engineer at Atari came up with an expensive hardware that drew ellipses. I re-wrote the game to use that. It looked great. Multiple tunnels with splits and rotates. But it was too expensive. Then the hardware was changed to circles, but still too expensive. Then it was changed to rectangles. That was what finally shipped. But marketing felt just flying was not fun enough, so we added Star Wars like objects that flew down the tube at you and you had to shoot them. It was a good game, but they kept wanting changes. It did a solid #2 and #3 for 12 weeks in tests, but Atari could not decide to ship it.

I personally thought Tunnel Hunt was a great game. What led them to pawn it off on Exidy; who turned it down, then later, Centuri; who released it?

As above, it would just not earn a #1 spot. I loved the game as well. So they decided to sell it to Exidy. They tested it, and again #2! I guess they only wanted a game that was #1. It later was sold to Centuri, but by then, it was way too old (at least 3 years out of date). Why they sold it at all is beyond me.

Jed Margolin recently mentioned a game you worked on called Sebring on Usenet. What is your recollection of that game? Why wasn't it released?

Ah politics. Sebring, I forgot that game. There was a company that had just come out with a Mechanical game called F-1. This was a driving game where they projected a circular track and your car at the bottom. You had to drive the track and not hit the sides. Other cars would come around the corner and you had to avoid them as well. OK, we did this as a video game. We had a 25" monitor in a VERY large cabinet. The monitor was actually ABOVE the player and reflected in a mirror that added a 3D like feel. It was great. We put it out on test and it did great as a 50 cents game. New for that age. But Steve Calfee, my boss, was also working on driving game and Atari marketing only wanted one driving game. It was kind of like SuperBug, and overhead view driving game. His was cheaper but never earned above 3rd place in the arcades. But guess who got to choose? (NOTE: Visit the Sebring page to view Jed's description of the game.)

After Battlezone, you worked on Space Duel, then Major Havoc; with Mark Cerny (Marble Madness). What kind of input did he have? How did you two split up the work?

I was already a year into Major Havoc when Mark joined the game. He had (I guess still does have) a HUGE ego. Even though he was very new at Atari at the time, he said he would not work on the game unless he got an even say. I really did not care so I agreed. He worked on one of the space waves (the flying fish) and the last 4 base ship mazes. He also added some objects to the mazes (Like the gun and floating boots) and helped clean up old items that never got shipped. We actually worked quite well together. It was a lot of fun working with him, he really IS that good!

Did you work on any more games at Atari after Major Havoc?

Actually I quit before Havoc shipped and they asked me to come back and finish it. I agreed. I then moved to Rick Moncrief's group (now an officer at LBE) and worked on a golf simulator. That was cool because you really hit a real ball into a net and we projected the ball flying on the screen. We had lessons (it had a laser disk) and swing analyzers as well. I quit in the middle of the project when Warner laid off a bunch of people. I asked to leave.

When and why did you leave Atari?

See above. They offered me almost a year's pay to leave in 1984. I did on a Friday and joined Sente on the following Monday!

What games did you work on at Sente? How did the environment there differ from Atari?

Well, I worked with ex-Atari people. Although smaller, it was VERY similar. I worked on Goalie Ghost (a 1st person Pong), a dating game, Name That Tune, and Shrike Avenger, a real motion simulator game. I also helped on several other games and was also their Systems Manager for the Vax development system.

What eventually led you out of the games business, and where did you go?

Bally decided to shut down Sente, so I got laid off, I had replaced the large Vax with PCs for each developer, so I was not needed for that. And they only wanted 2 game designers and the two they kept were better at it than me. I left and went to Interactive Productions, a Rob Fulop start-up to do video/graphics projects (multimedia BEFORE it was called multimedia!) I designed a game system for Quantum Computing (now AOL!) that lets games play on multiple machines. Rabbit Jack's Casino was built on this platform. But that lasted only 6 months and Apple made me an offer and I was there!

How did it feel to be working on arcade games during the "golden age" of gaming?

This could take a whole page to say. The simple answer: it was fun and VERY hard work. In those days we were the game designer, the software engineer, the sound designer, the graphic artists, the tester, etc. Later games added some of these people, but usually the projects were only 1 or 2 people, 3 to 4 at the end.

Do you retain any rights to the games you worked on?

I wish!

Do you play any of your old games? Do you have any cabinets in your possession?

I play some on the Mame emulator on the Mac, and I have a Major Havoc and a Space Duel at home still. I play them both.

Last question: What's the best drug to be on when playing Tunnel Hunt (this wasn't my idea, I swear! Heh :)?

I use to get that question a lot. In fact, I was often asked what drug I was on when I made it. No drugs necessary actually. If you stare straight at the middle for too long a time, it will make you quite dizzy! Maybe that is why it was called Vertigo when Exidy had it!