Interview with Tony Miller, by Allen Brunson (firstname.lastname@example.org) conducted via e-mail in June and July, 2001
INTRODUCTION BY ALLEN: I found Tony by doing a simple search on the web. I'm a fanatic about video games of the early eighties, Stern's Frenzy being my absolute favorite, so I'm always interested in finding out more about the history of video games in general and Frenzy in particular.
Tony's web site: http://home.pacbell.net/fmillera/
ALLEN: How and when did you come to work at Stern/URL? What was the relationship between the two companies?
TONY: I was employed at Dave Nutting Associates (DNA) for a couple of years prior to coming to URL. My last project there was to design the computer add-on for the Bally Professional Arcade, the home video game system. We took several prototypes to the winter 1978 CES show in Las Vegas where we showed them in Bally's booth. They were quite well received. When we got back we went on a road show to several Bally distributors on the west coast to show it off. After returning it became obvious that Bally was not going to produce the add-on, since sales of the game itself were quite poor, mainly due to manufacturing problems (primarily overheating).
One of the salesmen who called on us was aware of a chief engineer position open at URL. I interviewed, was offered the job, and accepted. URL was started by a couple of ex-Seeburg engineers (I worked there before DNA) to assemble PCBs for various companies. Eventually they did their own video game, B17 Flying Fortress. They eventually fell on hard times and were bought out by Stern Electronics. Stern was started by Gary Stern, with financial backing by his father Sam, who was at one time President of Williams Electronics (yes, *that* Williams). Stern bought out the financially ailing Chicago Coin pinball company and started building electro-mechanical pins. After buying URL they reverse engineered the Bally electronic pinball hardware system and started building electronic pins.
For the most part pin designers were ex-mechanical guys working at the Diversey Ave plant in Chicago (we were in Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago), except for Steve Kirk, a consultant who worked on Stars and Meteor. As far as I know he was the only one who got royalties besides Harry Williams and Al McNeil for Frenzy.
Al McNeil originally worked for DNA too. He did the Gunfight game for the Bally Arcade. I convinced him to come over to URL. His first project was Meteor software, followed by Berzerk. He left after that and became a consultant, working on Frenzy.
A company by the name of Ad Poster did all the artwork for our pins until later when we hired our own artist. Ad Poster would sell us all the backglasses and routed playfields, which is how they made their money.
We always had a few hardware guys working on video systems or playfield widgets. Once a hardware system was designed we'd use it with few or little variation for several games, so most of the development cost was for software and playfields.
Video games were designed by software guys working in my department. Sometimes they'd do a video, other times they'd work on software for a pin.
ALLEN: I guess those of us into gaming remember Nutting Associates best for Computer Space and its one-time association with Nolan Bushnell. Were you working there during that era?
TONY: No, I joined after that. They had already become a captive game supplier for Midway and had done Gunfight, Seawolf, and the home pin Fireball. They were purchased by Bally while I was there.
(NOTE FROM BRIAN: this is a small oversight. The Nutting that Tony worked for was NOT the Nutting & Associates that released Computer Space for Syzygy. Dave Nutting from DNA was a partner in NA with his brother Bill, but left due to a falling out with him.)
ALLEN: What type of work did you do at Stern/URL?
TONY: I was hired as Chief Engineer, later named Director of Engineering for URL. There were eventually three Directors of Engineering: Phil Burnstein for games, Al Woodman for Seeburg jukeboxes, and myself for electronics. My group supplied hardware designs and software for the other two groups plus engineering services -- bills-of-material, part numbers, production and test engineering, and so on. I also designed the MPU200 CPU board for the pinball machines, the new sound board for the Meteor pin, the MCU-3000 replacement CPU board for the Seeburg SMC2 jukebox, and the hardware system for the Seeburg VMC jukebox.
We had a development group which reviewed the games and contributed ideas to all of the game projects. This was chaired by my boss, Ed Polanek (president of URL), and attended by senior electronic and software staff and several game designers, most notable of which was the late Harry Williams (yes, *that* Williams).
ALLEN: Do you think Stern made money at their games, generally?
TONY: Most definitely.
ALLEN: Do you have a sense of roughly how many games would have to be sold to recoup the cost of development and turn a profit?
TONY: I'd guess around a thousand games.
ALLEN: That's interesting. Based on stories I've heard about other companies I would have guessed it was *much* higher. Do you think Stern spent less to develop a game than other companies?
TONY: They certainly did things on a shoe-string! So my guess is yes. Game development didn't cost an awful lot, generally just salaries and artwork.
ALLEN: There were two ROM revisions for Berzerk. The consensus on the 'net seems to be that the second was released because most players were finding the game too hard, so it was made easier. Is that the way you remember it?
TONY: I believe that was the case. Many people said it was too hard.
ALLEN: On the web I found an archived USENET post you made about the genesis of Berzerk, how you came to add color at the last minute and in a kludgy way.
TONY: The added board was named by me. I called it the "Bull Shit Color" board since it mapped 4 x 4 pixel squares into a four bit color when the underlying video was logical 1. The original system was only one bit per pixel. We had to clean up the name for publication purposes, hence "Buffer System Color."
ALLEN: I don't know how you feel about MAME, but personally I'd love it if it emulated Berzerk/Frenzy better. It doesn't get the sounds right and it drives me up a wall, I can't play for more than a few minutes without quitting in frustration.
TONY: Not terribly familiar with MAME. I haven't worked in games, coin-op or otherwise, for a whole bunch of years now.
ALLEN: Since MAME doesn't do Berzerk/Frenzy sounds very well, perhaps you could tell us what you remember about how they work, which might be of use to emulation authors.
TONY: The sound was done with a Motorola programmable timer chip, a noise generator, and programmable volume controls. I know all the software guys were unhappy with the sound systems we came up with, but we never actually assigned anyone to come up with something better. Probably should have, in 20-20 hindsight. Bill Pfutzenreuter, one of our pinball software guys and later of Joust fame, discovered that if you opened certain data bus wires between the MPU and the sound board it would make some very interesting sounds, so he duplicated that in software.
For voice we came up with a list of words we wanted to use along with phrases based on those words. We sent the list to an outfit in the Bay Area, who did all the sampling and digitizing. They had a guy whose voice was very monotonic do the phrases. They claimed it simplified the compression. It's my understanding that his voice is very similar to what you hear in Berzerk. They then provided us with PROMs and a list that correlated each phrase with a data byte. You wrote the byte to a voice board port address and it would say the word and give you an interrupt when it was done. They claimed that they were using Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) for the voice. As you can see, we had very little to do with it other than specifying the words and phrases they were to be used in.
ALLEN: It seems like the voices would sometimes be played back at different frequencies for, um, "comic effect," I guess. In particular I remember "the humanoid must not escape" being played high-pitched or low-pitched at different times. Was that done by simply feeding the samples to the DAC at different rates or something more sophisticated?
TONY: I think by changing the clock to the voice board.
Sorry to be a bit foggy on all the voice and sound stuff. When Berzerk was in development I was spending a lot of time working on the MCU3000 and trying to convince management that Berzerk had to be in color. They came back with "Midway is doing well with Gunfight, Seawolf, etc. and they're monochrome, so what do we need color for?"
We discovered that the first CPU we picked for Berzerk, the 6809E, could not be put into a wait state even if you stalled the clock. That was important for simultaneous CPU and screen refresh DRAM access. The CPU had to wait until the screen hardware was done, which was unacceptable to us. So we did a quick re-design using a processor we all knew: the Z80, which we used at DNA for the Arcade product.
ALLEN: So your DRAM was not dual-ported, I assume. That would make sense. At about the same time I was programming for the IBM CGA adapter which would get wicked snow all over it if you didn't wait until vertical retrace to draw.
TONY: We used a dual frame buffer to eliminate that problem in later designs. VRAM hadn't been invented yet.
But back to sound. I believe Williams was the pioneer with sound sampling for games. We never did any of that while I was there. Towards the end there was a definite reluctance on the part of management to spend any money on development hardware. This is understandable, sales were falling off on all three product lines. Then they started laying off and consolidating. They closed the Diversey Ave plant and started moving everything into our building. It was right about that time, in September 1982, that myself and two other engineers decided to start our own company.
ALLEN: And that company was? What did you guys do there?
TONY: Xtar Electronics Inc. The name is actually a play on Stern. At the time there were many companies starting up which had names that were a play on the name of their former employers, most notably Extel, started by a group of disgruntled Teletype engineers. We thought that was clever, but Xstern sounded too much like cistern, so we went for the German version. (Stern is the German word for "star.") We probably should have named it Xstar, since that's how most people spelled it.
The idea was to come up with the world's greatest video game, sell it, and live off the royalties. It never happened due to the video game crash of 1983-84. We did a lot of consulting and finally developed our own product line: real-time simulators for training. We sold a reasonable number. I am now doing ASIC design consulting.
ALLEN: So you didn't work in games anymore after that?
TONY: Started working on a hardware system as a consulting job for a company in Albuquerque. After a short period of time they stopped paying and we stopped designing.
ALLEN: It looks like a company called Hyperware recently licensed Berzerk/Frenzy and a bunch of other Stern games to run on their coin-op emulator. So they must know how to emulate the sound. I'm curious as to what kind of info they might have got? Would you happen to know what sort of documentation was still laying around at Stern after the game was finished?
TONY: I have no idea what, if anything, remained in terms of documentation when Stern went down the tubes. I was already gone by then. I'm sure the PROMs were available for disassembly but the voice would be easier to just sample. For that matter that's probably what should be done with the sounds.
ALLEN: I bet you have stories about the development of Berzerk.
TONY: I remember being caught in traffic on the Kennedy expressway in Chicago, going to a meeting at Stern. Al McNeil, Terry Coleman (who did the Berzerk hardware) and I were in Ed's car, a big 4/6/8 cylinder Cadillac which had a tendency to set the catalytic converter on fire. We started talking about a name. Al and I were avid science-fiction fanatics and he said "How about Berzerk?", a take-off on Fred Saberhagen's Berzerker series. It was an immediate hit with us and that's what we called it.
As has been documented elsewhere I named Evil Otto after Dave Otto, who was a part-time cop, technician, security guy, and 'nanny' for the boss' kids at DNA. (Not Dave Nutting, rather his partner Jeff Fredricksen.) We had already come up with the concept of the smiley face which would make you leave the room since once you nuked all the robots you could hang around there forever. But we needed a name, and I said "How about Evil Otto?" It was a natural since all of us working on the game came out of DNA -- Al, Terry, and the guy who did the PC design, Jum Hemmer. (Yes, I raided Nutting when I left, but Dave and Jeff and I have since made up.)
Anyway, we all had a hard time with Dave Otto, he was totally obsessed with security. One time both Daves and Jeff were out of town for several days and Otto told us not to move into our new office (we had outgrown the old) until he got back. Our new office was in the same complex as the old, just a few doors away. We took up a collection, hired a locksmith to get us into the new office, changed all the locks, and moved all our stuff in while Otto was gone just to piss him off. It worked.
I've seen Dave once or twice since the word got out that he is now a part of coin-op history and he thinks it's neat.
ALLEN: Do you remember any sales numbers for Berzerk and Frenzy?
TONY: I think Berzerk did 20,000 to 30,000 if I remember correctly, about two-thirds of what Defender did, which was out at the same time.
Frenzy started as a request by management to come up with something we could do to use up the remaining boards in inventory. We were already working on a new hardware system featuring our own custom chip. But we couldn't use the exact same boards to ensure that no knock-offs would happen. We made a change to one of the boards -- I think we used a PAL to change some address decodes or something like that -- to "ensure security." I think Frenzy only did a few thousand.
ALLEN: How does changing the board "ensure security?"
TONY: Some operators are notoriously lazy and larcenous. If it is easy for them to convert game A to game B by merely changing out the EPROMs and decals they will do that and not pay you, the manufacturer, despite your (perhaps substantial) investment spent on the development of game B.
ALLEN: Despite your changes it's still pretty easy to run Berzerk on Frenzy and vice versa, isn't it?
TONY: Yes, as I recall. But the daughter board should have contained a PAL or whatever to change addresses around. All you had to do back then was to make it a little difficult to knock off and most operators wouldn't do it. As I recall Williams had some problems with people in Europe doing knock-offs of Defender and they went after them big time.
ALLEN: I've heard about those funky joysticks used in Berzerk that look like the end of a billy club. Apparently they could withstand multiple whacks from a baseball bat but there was something about them internally that caused them to fail after awhile, right? I notice all the Frenzys I ever saw had the more traditional red ball joysticks.
TONY: Our test criteria for the joystick was for it to survive multiple whacks from a baseball bat, and the billy club joystick did indeed survive. The problem was that it was an optical joystick using reflective emitter/photo transistor combinations that relied on a polished metal washer to reflect the beam back to the photo transistor when the joystick was moved. There was a sheet of rubber used as a fluid seal/centering device that would, over a fairly short period of time, get ground down due to repeated movement of the joystick. This deposited rubber crud on the washer, which would then stop reflecting, and the joystick would also end up being not centered as a result.
We all felt that this problem was one reason why we did not sell as many Berzerks as Williams sold Defenders. Management kept asking to re-engineer the joystick (it was designed by a different group within URL) before finally biting the bullet and doing what all the operators did, which was to replace it with a more reliable and cheaper Wico 8-way model.
ALLEN: According to news stories back in the early eighties, there was a guy who played a game of Berzerk, put his initials on the high score table, then keeled over dead from a heart attack. Were you guys at Stern aware of this at the time, and did it affect operations in any way?
TONY: I only heard of this story years later, so it had no effect on me. In fact, I'm not altogether sure it's true.
ALLEN: Do you know what happened to Alan McNeil? [Alan wrote the software for Berzerk and Frenzy.]
TONY: I haven't seen or heard from Al since sometime in 1984-1985. Last I heard he had a farm in Montana somewhere, but that is very old information.
ALLEN: Alan did no other games for Stern after Frenzy?
TONY: No, not while I was there.
ALLEN: Did you guys use artists for Berzerk/Frenzy? I know that they did for Joust, for instance. There must have been many different sprites for robots in various poses, Otto in different stages of squashed-ness, pictures of that computer that produces more robots, etc. Did a separate artist draw that stuff or was it all done by Alan McNeil?
TONY: They were not sprites according to the usually accepted definition of the word (i.e., there was no hardware specifically intended to move those images around the frame buffer). They were images stored in ROM which were written to the screen. There was no special hardware other than normal flipper/flopper/shifter/logic function stuff, which was basically a reverse-engineered version of the Bally Professional Arcade Magic circuitry (part of the custom data chip for the Arcade product).
We had no artists working on any game stuff until later, when we hired a couple of people mainly to do cabinet and control panel graphics, but they also helped out with character design and coloring. All that was done was to draw the various versions of the characters on graph paper and color them in. The game programmer then made a ROM image of them.
Alan McNeil did the whole thing on Berzerk/Frenzy as I recall. Certainly for Berzerk since we did not hire either of the artists until after Berzerk's production run had ended and we were into the new building. Al's wife Karen may have helped with the Frenzy characters but I don't know for sure one way or the other. He was already gone while working on Frenzy and we only saw him once every week or so.
ALLEN: I am a programmer so I'm interested in development systems of the era. What did your software guys use for Scramble, Berzerk, et al?
TONY: Scramble was licensed from Konami of Japan. I have no idea what they used as a development system. We talked the powers that be into buying a Hewlett Packard model 64000 software development system, which was a big disk (physically, not capacity-wise), and a printer. You could hook up to six terminals off it and we had emulation pods for Z80s and 6800s (for pinball).
ALLEN: Do you know of any easter eggs, interesting bugs, crash scenarios, etc., that might have made it into any Stern games? One popular theme seems to be the hidden credits screen since companies of that era were reluctant to give credit to their engineers.
TONY: Can't remember any. Since I was theoretically the boss there would have been good reason not to tell me about any easter eggs, although I was more "one of the guys" than the boss.
I do recall a bug in Galaxy (a pin) where if the spinner was spinning and you hit several other switches the game would crash. In order to duplicate the problem we ended up video taping several games. Finally figured out what it was, and video taping test sessions became common practice.
ALLEN: That's all the questions I can think of. I don't suppose you've got any pictures that would be relevant?
TONY: I wish I did. There was a photo taken of all of us who did the development taken at Stern in front of a Berzerk which had just come off of the production line. I lost my copy of it. Too bad, it would have been good to look at it now. See how we all used to look.
Thanx to Allen and Tony for this interview.