Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the Atari Brand, by founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney.
Rather than write some opus piece about the company’s history, much of which is already well-documented (and I’ll bet you can find hundreds of those littered across the web in the coming days anyway), I thought I’d showcase something that in its own way highlights just why this company was so special and successful during its heyday.
A while back, I wrote about the development of Atari’s Star Wars arcade cabinet – check that out here. Since writing that piece, I’ve had the good fortune to interview Mike Halley and had further discussions with Jed Margolin about the development of the game. Of all the things we discussed, it was one small thing that I found most interesting, and that was information about a relatively unknown (I think!) Easter Egg in the game.
The reasons why it hasn’t been referenced before now is twofold:
- It shouldn’t have been placed there in the first place and was against company policy
- It was so well hidden, it would be 99% impossible to spot anyway
So before I get to that, how did all this start? A collector friend over here in the UK was asking about some names they found when working on an Atari AR3 sound board. They were asking who these people might be. Here’s a picture they shared:
When I saw this, I guessed that Jed was likely to be Jed Margolin, former Atari coin op engineer. I’ve spoken to Jed many times over the years (he’s been invaluable for much info regarding articles on this blog over the years), so I thought I’d reach out and ask him. Sure enough Jed confirmed that JED was indeed himself. JANE would have been Jane Rodgers and JOE was Joseph Dieu. Jane and Joe both worked as PCB designers for Atari.
Jed went onto explain that taking one’s own name and literally stamping it onto a PCB at Atari, was a fairly uncommon thing for employees to do, as it could lead to trouble with management. The company line was they didn’t want other companies stealing their talent and people. I guess you could also argue that Jed, Joe and Jane where there to do a job, and not to personalise their work! And indeed Jed tells me that he (and them) landed themselves in some hot water for this stunt. But there was clearly a sense that the employees wanted some recognition for their efforts in helping Atari be a success, and without any viable way of doing so, well, why not stamp your work in some way with your initials or name on the back of a Printed Circuit Board that very few people would see anyway? Your graffiti might never get spotted, but at least you knew it was there, right?
The other common practice amongst programmers was to use their initials in the high score tables on the games – I wrote about that here.
So clearly such practices went on. I get a sense it was almost a challenge to see how this could be done in such a way that it would slip past any testing or Quality Assurance carried out by Atari.
Anyway, to get to the point of this post: this led Jed to share with me how the design team of Atari’s Star Wars, managed to sketch their names actually into the game itself without anyone noticing. Or so they thought.
According to Jed, this was the first time that a team did what you are about to read. For context, what made the team that worked on the Star Wars game different to everyone else writing other games, was they were a self-contained unit of people who worked very closely together on one project at a time.
For Star Wars, Rick Moncrief’s group (my group) became a self-contained group. We had hardware engineers, programmers, our sound programmer (Earl Vickers), and our own PCB designer (Denny Simard). We were all in the same office area and labs and all reported to RickJed Margolin
This was different to other “teams” at Atari, where the programmers would share engineers, for example, with their colleagues. This meant that no team working on a game had their own full-time engineer. The engineers worked on several different projects at a time. Which was fine, but the team spirit was lacking somewhat, and also meant that games were worked on at various places within the building rather than in a single area. Given the importance of the Star Wars franchise game being developed, things had to be different. And Rick was able to go to the source and know pretty quickly what the status of the various components of the project were.
This presumably allowed the close knit team plenty of time to figure out how to drop their own personal Easter egg into the game. So what is it? Jed explains:
We put our surnames on the Death Star!Jed Margolin
So if you’re not familiar with Star Wars the game, the death star appears in the game at the end of every “wave”. The names actually appear on the structure every other time the player reaches the star. There’s also already one Easter egg at the same point that I think might be known to some players (maybe? maybe not?), and that’s the appearance (just for a split second) of the words: MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU as you swoop into the death star.
Well luckily for you, I’ve done the hard work here and can share below in these videos how these Easter eggs would appear.
So first up, here’s the death star approach sequence during normal play. The brightness on the screen is dialled in normally. This ostensibly is what you see as a player:
Quick isn’t it? But what if you keep an eye on those dots on the death star, and slow the footage down?
Let’s start with the all odd numbered waves. You can see that to the naked eye the series of dots are visible, but not much else is between them other than black screen. It all happens so quickly at full speed as we showed above, there’s no discernible message or words visible. But look closely…. if we slow that footage down, you can just about make out those hallowed words MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU:
And here is the same sequence for all even numbered waves. Again, just a few dots would normally appear, but slow the footage down and you can just make out some words which are the surnames of the designers of the game:
For completeness, the same patterns appear when the death star is destroyed, and the camera pans out. As shown here:
So in fact, odd number levels show ‘May The Force Be With You’ and even number levels show the 6 designers names. There’s one small problem. They aren’t really visible to the player, by necessity, as this was something that shouldn’t have been done, it had to be hidden. So well hidden that it wouldn’t be visible.
But visible they are! However as everything happens so quickly, it was a safe bet they wouldn’t be spotted unless you knew what to look for.
Even if you managed to notice “something”, in each case, the vectors between the dots are drawn by the game so faintly, that they can’t be read under normal playing conditions.
Unless! You had a pause button (which you wouldn’t back in 1983 of course), and the brightness on the vector monitor is turned way up to show the scan lines between the vectors.
Now, anyone who owns any vector game will tell you that’s its not a good idea to run a game like Star Wars with the brightness turned up anything above where it should be. Especially during a sequence like the death star blowing up, where the vectors are going crazy. You run the risk of shagging your 40 year old, rare, colour vector monitor!
But in the interests of science we turned up the brightness on a Star Wars game, risking a small fire and expensive repair bill, in order to capture pretty clearly, the names concerned:
Please don’t try that at home. I don’t want lawsuits or a pile of vector hardware to repair from all over the world thanks very much.
So for the record, from the top, the names included in the game are:
Norm AVELLAR– Programmer
Earl VICKERS – Audio Engineer
Erik DURFEY – Technician
Mike HALLY– Designer
Greg RIVERA– programmer
Jed MARGOLIN– Engineer/Programmer
All worked tirelessly to make Atari’s Star Wars the great video game it turned out to be.
So whilst the brightness had to be turned way up on the monitor to have any chance of even spotting what had been added to the death star’s vector detail, potentially visible for just a brief split second as the graphics rush by, it was of course spotted by someone at Atari at some point, and the team got some serious heat for their hi-jinx!
For many games after Star Wars it actually became fairly common practice for the programming teams to add their names to arcade video games. Some went as far as having a full credits screen – like at the end of the movies. Hard Drivin’ for example lists everyone and everything but the kitchen sink!
But Star Wars holds the accolade as the first Atari arcade title where this was successfully pulled off, ostensibly, right under the noses of the powers that be.
Massive thanks to fellow enthusiast Les Potts for filming this footage for me (and in the process risking the health of his Star Wars upright game!) and allowing me to share it here – thanks Les, you’re a gent sir. (I am pleased to report that the brightness pot is turned back down and all is well in the Les Potts home arcade).
And not for the first time (and I’m sure not the last) hats off to Jed Margolin for his endless assistance and deep insights into game creation at Atari back in the day. Thank you Jed for sharing all this mad detail with the world after all these years.
Anyway, happy birthday to the Atari brand. Maybe some more on that in the coming weeks. I’m signing off to have a few rounds of Tempest and Gravitar I think.
Hope you enjoyed this fun look at the lengths some designers went to ensure their names lived for eternity within their video game creations.
See you next time.