This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.
Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
Kevin: It's Friday, July 11, 2014. I am Kevin Savetz. This is my interview with Fernando Herrera who was programmer of My First Alphabet, Space Chase and Astro Chase and was involved with First Star Software, which has made a lot of great programs for Atari computers and other platforms.
This interview was conducted over Skype. I was in my home in Portland, Oregon and he was in his in California. An edited version of this interview will appear in episode 13 of Antic, the Atari podcast, at AtariPodcast.com. This is the full, unedited version of the interview. Here we go.
Fernando: I'm doing great, what about you?
Kevin: I am fantastic. Thank you.
Fernando: Okay, bring it.
Kevin: Great. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I’m glad we were able to hunt you down. It's kind of exciting.
Fernando: That's right. I think the whole is exciting. I actually was reviewing myself. I went back and look at the stuff that I have from that time, it's been over 30 years or so.
Kevin: Yeah, it's been a while. So where are you located? Where do you live?
Fernando: I'm in California. We have the same Pacific Time.
Kevin: Oh, right. What part of California are you in?
Fernando: Near San Francisco.
Kevin: Okay, all right. Cool. I live in Portland Oregon. I used to live in California though before that.
Fernando: You used to live here before?
Kevin: I was. My whole life, until about 4 years ago, then I moved here.
Kevin: Okay, I have questions for you. And you're welcome to share anything you can think of. But let's start with how you got started with Atari.
Fernando: Wow, it's a long story because that was something I never really intended to do. I was not in computers. I was nothing technical. I think it was around 1979, Atari didn't exist yet at that time. I saw an ad on a Sunday newspaper that says, "Home Computer." Go back to that time, computer was not even a word that people were using at that time, less a home computer. I didn't know nothing about it. Do you know, the only computer that I knew about at that time was HAL. H-A-L.
Kevin: From the movie . . .
Fernando: From the movie . . .
Fernando: . . . in the 60s, I think it was.
Fernando: That was why I was surprised. That was my only concept about computers. When I see this ad in the paper, I got so curious about that I went to the store to find out. It was $8,000 Radio Shack with a black screen, green letters. And I wasn't really sure what the guy was telling me because he was talking more from the production point of view or something like that. But that was it. I was so curious and I was determined to find out more about computers.
And I started going to the library, then buy a book, and I read history and I'd learn a lot of stuff that I didn't need. And then I was about to buy . . . at that time, it was not really a computer like today. You could buy a kit and put it together to put a computer. I never did that. I was intending to do that so I was looking about how to do that. So I was learning and learning a little more, actually I was learning programming, I was learning BASIC. Until one day, I saw an ad for Atari. That was 1980, I think so. I saw an ad for Atari.
And the Atari wasn't in the market yet, but I looked at the specifications, and for me, it was like nothing else that was in the market about that time because it was only some kids, I think the Apple was there, I think the first Apple and it was a couple of other computers. At that time, there was no one computer that was comparable with another. So I got focused on Atari and I started investigating. It was not in the market, I did not know where to find it, but I started saving money. And finally one day in New York, it was a story in Long Island that was advertising an Atari computer. So I went right away over there and it was the Atari 400. I was asking for that and the guy said, "Well, it is there."
Normally, I'd pay attention to anything. So I start fooling around with the computer, when I start putting some music and something, everybody jumped up. At that time, computers didn't have sound. He came to see what I was doing. So I thought and I wanted the Atari 800, they didn't have it. Finally, a long time after that, I found a place, I think in Arizona or something like that, that they had an Atari computer. I ordered it. This is probably 1980, '80, '81.
Kevin: So you ordered through mail order catalog sort of thing?
Fernando: Yeah, through a catalog. And I ordered everything on it. It was like $2,500 of 1980. I think today, it's like $1 million.
Fernando: And then there's another story about getting the computer because it was delivered someplace else and I had to run after the truck to get my computer. Well, I got it and I opened it and the first thing I did was to type in one program that I wrote before I ever touched a computer in my life, and it was a little program to play chess. And I typed it in, in the Atari BASIC and voila! It was working.
Kevin: It worked right at that first time?
Fernando: First time.
Fernando: No error, no anything. My life at that time was getting into it. So at the end, I was focusing on programming. So that's how I got my Atari. And part of the success with Atari was my son. He was born almost blind. And actually three, four or five months old, he got an operation in one eye and later on in the other eye.
By the time I had the Atari, he was almost three. I wasn't sure how much he could see. I never was sure, the doctor probably knew less than me. The doctor just put him to read those things. He said, "Okay, he sees okay. Not perfect." I am sure that the doctor was putting the letter 'E' on the wall, and with the fingers was telling son, because he didn't talk at that time, with the fingers he was telling my son to put the fingers in the direction of letter E.
Kevin: So he's pointing left and your son is supposed to make his fingers point left?
Fernando: He was spinning the letter E, my son has to move the fingers in the direction of letter E.
Fernando: And the doctor was so happy. But this letter 'E' is about one foot high so I still wasn't sure about how much he saw. So when I got the Atari, and I remember what the doctor was doing, that was my obsession. I didn’t really know nothing and still I was learning how the Atari works and my BASIC was very simple BASIC. So I managed, with the Atari, to put a letter E, the regular size there . . . it was big, remember those letters were huge but I managed to get the letter E in the Atari and spin it, and I started putting my son closer, farther, things like that.
Kevin: So you were testing his eyes using your Atari?
Fernando: I was testing his eyes.
Fernando: Yeah, more thoroughly that the doctor was doing it. And I was surprised, he was looking very well because now this is now a little E, not the big E from the doctor. So I started out in to it, then I finally went to make a big E and do the same thing. And then I was showing him where the key for the letter E was in the keyboard. So he identified the E. Every time I put it there, he pressed it. When he pressed it, he got music. And I expanded that to a program called My First Alphabet. Actually, it was not a program, no name. I used it for my son but I expanded it with colors, with animals, with the whole alphabet, then with clouds, to teaching the numbers.
So after a while, he was proficient with the keyboard, he know everything on the keyboard. He could recognize anything, even type his name, he was about three years old or something. That had no name, that program. At the same time, I was trying to making him ski with a joystick. So I just put a dot on the screen and I teach him how to move the joystick and chase the dot. And then the dot moves around the screen and he was chasing it, and that became Space Chase .
Kevin: Which was the other Atari exchange program that you published, right?
Fernando: No, this was probably not there. I put a couple of other things. This was early, very early, in my very beginning, so I still was fumbling, trying programming, I would say all by trial and error, experimentation. I never took a class or anything like that. The reason I'm mentioning this is because that program wasn't the one that . . . somebody published in the magazine a review of that program. And he was saying that it was an incredible program I've written in machine language. I didn't even know machine language. That was BASIC. But it came out so well, that's what they thought, the guy in the magazine that reviewed it.
Kevin: So how did you know? Had the magazine got ahold of your Space Chase program?
Fernando: No, I don't know. What happened is, how was this stuff, I'm trying to remember. Okay, yeah, I remember. Actually something very exciting happened. Atari Editor was horrible, you know, probably it was good for the times, but you couldn't even rename all the programs in lines, so you had to go and retype it again.
Kevin: Right, you could not renumber the lines.
Fernando: Renumber, right. Because the lines were 1,2,3,4,5, that was the BASIC at that time. And you have to insert something, that was BASIC. So I created a little utility to rename the files. And actually my knowledge for computer was whatever I found in the magazine. That was my university, the magazines at that time. So I saw ads there, so I put an ad for this renaming, a program.
Kevin: You mean, renumbering program?
Kevin: Okay, all right.
Fernando: Thank you for saying it right. For this renumber . . . I don't even know how I called it. But, 1495, a little, tiny, classified ad, and I started getting money. I just could not believe it. It was a brilliant stuff, so it was in the market. I did not know nothing about marketing. And so I started doing more stuff and somehow, the only little program, maybe I am, but I say no, I don't know what, and somebody gave me great review. This review was found by two guys, movie producers, Bill and Richard. So they contact me and they wanted to talk to me and they told me, "We saw this review about you in the magazine," blah, blah, blah, "we want to talk with you."
At that time, I was working. My background was in architecture so I was working with some architects. I was making about $20,000 a year. and I talked to they guys and they said they have a video store and they want to open a computer store. And they asked me that if I want to open the computer store, they put all the money, they do everything, they don't know nothing about computer and I was in charge of everything.
Kevin: So they wanted to be the money guys and you would be in charge of the operating the store, right?
Fernando: Yeah, the guys just put the money and I had to do everything, even finding the place and starting the store. I did not know nothing about that. I had no idea what kind of guys were these, that they’d trust me with all that stuff because one thing is that you know computer, the other one is that you can run a store. Well, I managed to run the store, it was doing good.
Kevin: You started the store was in what city?
Fernando: That was in Long Island in Lawrence, something like that. It's a town, very close to the airport in New York.
Kevin: Do you remember the name of the store?
Fernando: I don't remember.
Kevin: I was just curious.
Fernando: I have some pictures, maybe I can find it.
Kevin: It's probably one of the first computer stores, really, in the time.
Fernando: Yes, probably, yeah. We're talking 19- . . . I'm getting it closer now, maybe this was 1982. So what happened, I advertised, I can't find which one happened first. I think I advertised this little program that I did for my son and Atari knew about it and they called me. That's where the exchange program and all the stuff comes in.
Kevin: So Atari contacted you. They saw the Alphabet program and they reached out to you about it?
Fernando: Yeah. They said, "We learned from someone that you have a program, an educational something for your son." I said, "Oh, yeah. That's something I did." "We have this contest, the Atari,” I don't the name. I think the Atari Star?
Kevin: The Atari Star Award.
Fernando: Okay. So they had this contest, it was a contest, and they wanted me to submit the program. I said, "No." "Why?" "Because I'm not really a programmer. I don't have the skills or anything to compete." They insisted, and they insisted and finally I said, "Okay." I went back to the program and now I polished it, now I make it a nice style, make it a product. And I submitted it and I won. I won that for that particular month. That was . . . [audio skips].
Fernando: Yes, yes exactly. Okay. The contest was done in 1981 and I thought it was monthly, maybe it was quarterly. Maybe that's why they rushed me. So I had to go back and make it a program, I put a title, put my name and put all those kind of stuff like that. And by December, I was in contact with the guy, I forgot his name by now. And so by December, they called me and said that I'm invited to go to the final awards, and everything is paid to San Francisco, California. I said, "Oh, great. Fantastic."
The thing was in January, I believe, sometime in January, I remember. I got to the airport, people came in limousines, and the whole fairy tale started that day. They treated me like I was a king or I don't know what. They just received me there in limousine and they took care of my things, they take me to the hotel.
And a little after that, somebody knocked on the door. It was the guy that I was in contact with on the phone during the contest. And he came to me and he said, "Fernando, we have to tell you something because TV, radio, press, everybody is going to be there and we want you to be ready because you are the winner."
I dropped dead. I could not imagine. And actually I thought about my father at that time. He died a couple of years before. My father was my biggest fan since I was a kid. He always was telling me that I will be doing big, I will doing great. For me, it was too late. I couldn't show him, that I couldn't see his face here. From that point on, I don't even know what was going on. Everybody was taking me here, taking me there, interviews for TV, for newspaper, reporters. The whole thing changed completely.
And a little after that, they came back to New York and they asked me to . . . they want to get name of the program, I remember right now is My First Alphabet, that they want to buy it off. They wanted to give me royalties and they give me cash upfront and a bunch of stuff like that. So I went to my job and I said that I’m going to quit because I had the business on the store and . . . that was when . . . I have something mixed up here.
Well, bottom line, I went to my job, I was working with some architects. So I said to them, "I'm going to quit." And they knew that I was crazy for computers. And they said, "We have a department of computer here. Don't go. Stay with us." I was making $20,000 and they said, "You know what? We are going to give $30, 000, raise your salary." And to put it in perspective, that’s a $10,000 raise in 1981, it’s a lot of money.
Kevin: Yeah, a lot of money.
Fernando: And I said to the guys, "No." Shortly after that, once when these movie producers called me for the thing about the store. And then when I was running the store, they told me, "This is not what you want to do. You really want to be programming." I said, "Yes." They said, "Okay. Write a business plan." Business plan. I did not know nothing about nothing. Really, I had to improvise.
And the only thing that I really know was what I learned in the store. I had contact with these three stores, and I had the vendors and I learned a little bit so I had a little look into the distribution industry, but I really knew nothing. I was ignorant. And these people, they say, "Okay, write a business plan for a software company."
And we had an appointment to meet in Manhattan, 5th Avenue, where they had their offices. And I went to that appointment. That's when I met Richard, because I always talked to Bill before, and Richard Spitalny. They said, "Okay, is that all you have?" I got half a dozen or a dozen of index cards, that was my business plan, written by hand, index cards, describing what I thought it was a computer software company, and what it means and everything. And they didn't say anything, I didn't notice. In fact, that's the best I thought, that's the best I knew. So I thought, "Nothing is wrong with this"
So they listened to me very carefully. Actually, that's the day I learned that they were into movie producing. They were up producing some movies. And I had my plan with budget and everything, so at the end of the whole thing, "Okay, how much do you think that thing might cost?" And I figured out $400,000. And the guy said, "Okay, it's a deal. We’re going give you," so much money, I forgot it was like $40,000 a year, “and you're going to start working on whatever you have to do," because they didn't know what, “ and we're going to put the company together, we're going to raise the money."
That was about April 1982. The thing is, I never did anything planned. I never, in my life, sit down and said, "I'm going to write a computer program to do this." Everything came up. It was, testing something, it was looking for something. My First Alphabet, maybe you know a little more about that because that was the winner of the Atari Star, and that became almost a national program.
It was being distributed in the schools around the country, it became a big thing. That just started with a letter E to see . . . I never planned anything. And everything that I added was just because it occurred to me to put something in there. Even the Space Chase was teaching my kid how to use the joystick. I was happy, I was excited. No more store. Store is horrible. I have to be there the first day, I have to make sure I have the merchandise, make sure everything is safe, take care of the clients, all the problems and then we closed at 6:00 while at 10 o'clock, I'm still in the store.
Kevin: That's a lot of long days.
Fernando: I was happy because I was surrounded with computers. But this time, just a handshake to start the company.
Kevin: And this company ended up being First Star Software?
Fernando: Yeah, I was the one that gave the name and the logo, I created the logo, too.
Kevin: My assumption is you called it First Star, because of the first Atari Star Award.
Fernando: Exactly. First Star Software because we got the first star. So that's the way First Star Software was born, with handshake, no papers, no nothing. They said, "We're going to give you some money," and I started getting money right away. I think people have some money, big pockets, and I had none. I was a computer guy, that was it. By that time, I believe, may I was a programmer.
Winning the Star Award, I was surprised because I didn't even know about all the other programs, some of those stuff were amazing. They were written by real programmers. I, not even in my wildest dream, thought I was going to win the $25,000. And with the $25,000 came more and more after that. So it is May . . .
Fernando: . . . the end of May, when they called me. and I was worried because I had no idea what I had to do. I had some sketches in a piece of paper of concepts but I had no idea what to do. These people are giving me money, are they called me for an emergency meeting. I said, "Oh, my God, they are going to fire me."
So we go over there, they said, "Fernando, we have a problem. We failed you. We haven't got the $400,000 to start the company but we want to do it anyway." They were planning to go to the consumer electronic shop in Chicago in June, which is the opposite from the one in Las Vegas in January. And they said, "Fernando, we're sorry but we‘re going to continue with our own money. So it's up to you if you want to be with us, or if we fail, you can keep all the money we give you, it's okay." I said, "No, I'm going to stay with you." So we went to Las Vegas and I only have a couple of screenshots of a couple of ideas. That was it.
Kevin: For what? For Astro Chase or were these other ideas?
Fernando: I think I had the idea of Astro Chase , at least when you see some of those pictures, I think it was even there. And I have another one, that actually, we never made it, it was called, Dangerous Cargo.
Kevin: Dangerous Cargo?
Fernando: Yeah, it was a boat and the concept was that it’s all going through the sea and explosions or something like that. That game was never really done. And that's when I saw my partners really in action. We go to that show, and it was meeting, after meeting, after meeting with all the top guys in the industry at that time. And I was the business card, I went to every meeting, and the first thing is, "Is this is Fernando Herrera, winner of that . . . ?" And they sit down and talk business with those guys and I don't know even what they were talking.
Kevin: You were just there to be the face, "This is the winner. We’ve got this guy," right?
Fernando: Yeah, "We have this guy, we want to do business." Very skillful people, very skillful. Now that I understand what they’re doing, sharp guys, very sharp. And I was the face, that's it. So that was a Chicago Electronic Show meetings. It was a good opportunity that I met a bunch of guys that later on became big, like this guy, what's his name, this guy from Electronic Arts?
Kevin: Trip Hawkins?
Fernando: Yes. And a bunch of others from the Apex, from . . . I'm forgetting the name of these companies at that time. So it was good because I really now got connected with a lot of the big people or influential people in the industry, and that's the thing in Chicago. So I go back, we come back home. Now, I had to work for real. And time is passing by and I put the “Dangerous Cargo” aside and I focused on Astro Chase , and I'm not even sure it was called Astro Chase . I named it like that only just because I had this Space Chase , they said, okay, now it's Astro Chase . And it has a little resemblance to the Space Chase .
And then it’s July, then it's August, and I got nothing. I cannot put my ideas together because that was not the way that I was used to work on the plan. I was more like intuition and spontaneous. And so I had to put these ideas, and I got nothing. So I was worried. These guys, they're spending a lot of money, they're doing a lot of stuff and I'm just talking here.
And one of my decisions was that my idea could not be done in BASIC. And that was like a week or two, just thinking continue in BASIC or learn machine language. And machine language is a challenge at that time that you didn't have these programs. Today everything is so easy. I had to really create everything from zero, no libraries, no nothing, no functions, nothing. And on top of that, I didn't not know machine language. But I got to a conclusion and I said, "If I wanted to do what I wanted to do, it’s got to be machine language."
So back to zero because I just started working on the design of the program, I started trying to put one simple screen in machine language and it didn't work. Every time you press “Roll”, pow! The computer just . . . and until finally, I was able to put the whole thing together and I got a friend to help me working on that program. By November, the program was done. I didn't know, I do not if my partners knew, but I learned later on that November is wrong. That's not the time to come up with a program. You have to come up with a program about September, October the latest.
Kevin: Sure, if you're getting it out for the Christmas season, sure.
Fernando: I was done with the program in November and . . .
Kevin: So I just want to clarify here. You taught yourself machine language and programmed Astro Chase in a period of a couple of months from nothing.
Fernando: From learning machine language. So, okay, it was done. I don't remember the detail, but maybe the original master version was on cassette tape, maybe. Maybe at that time, we were using floppies, I don't know. And the thing, we started selling the floppies in December and we sold a lot of those floppies of Astro Chase . And we made the distribution, my partners. They knew what they were doing. And we released a lot of those on a floppy.
So then here comes the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, it was at last minute I thought about that, and we have a little five-foot desk with a closed thing behind. That was our place there in Las Vegas. But two things happened, maybe three if I give credit to myself. Two things happened. One, they have this good idea to put Astro Chase in a huge, big screens behind our desk. And the lucky one was we were in from of the main escalators of the entrance to the show.
Kevin: So a prime space right by the escalators?
Fernando: Yes, facing the escalators. So you could see the faces of the people coming down the escalators and looking at that screen. First place everybody went was to our place. And from that point, it was huge success. To give me credit, I don't even give me credit because I don't know how come I did that. If you ask me today to do something like that, I won't be able.
It was one of those things that when you're in the zone and you love what you do, and you're inspired, you do it, you figure out. I don't what happened. You get superpowers or . . . I don't know what. But especially for the time, that was very unique. One of the things that some people never realized when I tell them is that all the other shoot-them-up games at that time, the screen was fixed and the objects were moving around. And this one is my worse.
Kevin: But then in Astro Chase, you move around, and the playfield scrolls around.
Fernando: Yeah. The ship is static, in the center of the screen. It never moves from there. So I never had to move the ship, but I was moving them around.
Kevin: So you need to move up screen for the planets and things.
Fernando: Yeah, if the ground is the earth and the planets. So all I did was moving them around but the ship is staying at the center of the screen. And a lot of people, they think that they were moving the ship to the corner of the screens like that. and that was an innovation for that time. I think it was a good concept. And the way we used the joystick, we actually trademarked the single thrust propulsion because at that time, you either shoot or you move. We figured out how to move the ship and shooting at the same time in 8 directions, all over, and we called that single thrust propulsion. That was also another innovation.
But the most important one, the one that was lucky, the things you say, "Hey, let's throw this in here," was one of the things that most people were attracted to, which is the little intermediate screens between levels. A lot of people were talking about that.
Kevin: The screen that when the UFO comes down and the astronaut bings into it, is that the screen you're talking about?
Fernando: Yeah, picks the astronaut and then it goes into the ship and it goes off. And then also when he returns, there is a crowd that is celebrating, like a parade. Every three or four levels, we have one of those little scenes and I love it. People talk about that, they like it. It was unique also at that time. So okay, I give myself credit because technically or design-wise, it was really different, it was really unique. But I don't really give all that credit to me. I say, “I don’t know. It just came up.”
It wasn't something, "I’m a genius. I’m planning and I'm going to do this." I didn’t know what I was doing. Every step, I was planning what to do next. That's the way it was done. And my son was also part of the show because my partners, Richard and Bill, very skilled people at marketing and they know what they were doing, they created this image of my son, having that handicap and creating this program for him and now my son playing Astro Chase. And that was in a lot of ads, in a lot of press releases, “He is a genius.”
Even they made me bring my son . . . they did something, I think it was in Boston where it was, in a big store, they did this show over there. They made me to bring my son to be with me there. People came and they were asking questions about the game and other stuff. I went to this extent because I don't think Astro Chase was like any other program that any good, real programmer can do that they sit down, they're going to do this, they'll program it, and it's done, and it’s great and it is good.
Probably if my son was born with his eyes right, nothing like this would have happened, probably. Probably it would never have happened because I wouldn’t be getting a computer to check his eyes and then write that program, and I got known because of My First Alphabet and then the movie producers found me because they read this article in the magazine and they knew I won the Atari Star.
And the next few years after the Atari Star, still I was living in the clouds. Everything was happening and I didn't know even why. It was still years and people would call me, people that wanted to do interviews, to the point that they closed the doors to everybody to talk to me because I couldn’t work.
So they had this public relations girl, she was fantastic. Everybody who called has to pass through her. She tells me, or she says, "No, he's not available." Because it was really a lot, for the period of time, it was a lot of people from the magazines, from different things that they want to talk to us. One of the good things was, when we came back from Las Vegas, a week or two weeks after that, Parker Brothers showed up in our office.
Kevin: Parker Brothers, okay.
Fernando: And they licensed the right to sell the cartridge only. That was the only license we gave to them.
Kevin: They wanted the cartridge version of Astro Chase?
Fernando: Right. But we still could sell the cartridge version, too. They gave $250,000.
Fernando: In advance. So there was the money to start the company portfolio. So that was another special thing, that Parker Brothers paid attention to us. And after that, I keep designing . . . okay, there is something that I think is worth to mention here because it list maybe to my favorite game. We started interviewing programmers to start working for us and . . . no, that is not 100% related. Actually, one day a couple of kids, maybe 15 years old, 16, came to the office in Manhattan because I started working in the office in Manhattan . . . but I am the type of person that I focus intensely on what I'm doing so I cannot work with people around or noises and those other things so I decided that I will be working from my home, and I go to the office once or twice a week.
So these two kids, they go over there and they say that they are from this high school and that they wrote the newspaper for the school over there and that there's some people that write computers and they want to make an interview with Fernando. And at that time it was, we already had so many of that. Not anybody would pass to talk to me.
Kevin: You probably didn't need an interview in a high school newspaper at that point, right?
Fernando: Yeah. And they called me. I was curious, couple of kids. I was interviewing people PhDs in computers that we want to hire, and these are a couple of kids. So I gave an okay to Diana, that was her name. I said, "Okay, let them go."
And they came to my home, the two kids. And one of those, Robert Diaz, he said, "Fernando, let me first tell you the truth. We lied. We are not from any newspaper. We just want to talk to you. We just want to see why you do, how you do your stuff. We know a little bit of programming, but we see you in the magazine, we see your games, we see you in the scene, and we really want to talk to you in person." So his honesty was great. I said, "Okay, no problem." I say, "I have a couple of projects. That's what I can do for you guys. I can give you the test, I give you the specs, the things about the ideas that I have and you try it and you show me if you can do it."
So I gave one game to the other kid, and to Robert, I was trying to find out what to give to this guy. And he said, "What are you working on?" "I'm working on this." He said, "I don't want anything. I just want sit down next to you and see what you do." "Listen, you can make some money if you're really good. You can make some money." He said, "No, I just wasn't to see how you do things in here.” I agree.
And so the other kid got a project. Robert started coming to my home every afternoon. It took less than a week for the guy to start working on my pace in this project, which is probably one for me, the program that I liked to play, which is Bristles, you know, the painter. You know that one, right?
Fernando: I like that one. It has something to it, running through the rooms trying to paint the walls with the little girl that’s coming out with the buckets and all that stuff. I liked that guy. So I did that with Robert. Robert helped me a lot on that one. And we put him on salary and he was with me for almost a year. And then he went to school in Boston, to MIT, I think it was. He wants to be a doctor and he's 18 or something. No, 17.
Kevin: So you had a 15 or 16-year-old kid on salary for a while helping you program?
Kevin: Love it.
Fernando: And I probably he pick up . . . he's brilliant. He is really a genius. He picks up everything like that. I tell you this how he started it was a matter of two, three days, and the guy, I don't even know how to term it. I was working on my computer, he was working on, we put everything together. He really is a genius. And he goes to be a doctor. And a year later, he called me from Boston because he is the director of the department of IT or computers or whatever in MIT.
At that time, he’s maybe 18, or 19. He comes back from the school, and he got a couple of couple hundred thousand dollars contracts with a mobile learning company, that thing, to install a bunch of system. He's a real genius. And we became best friends until today, forever. The guy is running a huge program around the world, computer services and the bunch of other stuff that he does. He's fantastic. He's a genius. I learned from him a lot.
So what happened, we did a few other programs. Imagine, the first program only cost 3 or 4 months to do it myself so there was no extra money. And by 1986 or something like that, doing a game was the most risky thing you can do because of the way that the distribution is. I learned how distribution works, really, because when I did my first little things, I was going to the stores and selling them in person. I mean, day one, I was happy. So this time, actually we had to travel to, I think it was to Arizona, to Phoenix or somewhere to talk to some national distributors.
And the way the distribution was at that time, I think it is still the same thing is that these people control the entire market in the United States, all these stores. Thousands of the stores, the big stores sell some things like that, and all the little chains of computers stores, in the malls and everything like that.
And people submit thousands of programs to these people, and they have to pick, the 20, 50, 100 that they are really going to sell. And so if you want to sell a program using that distribution channel, you had to spend tons of money in designing the game and then submit it to them. If they say no, you won't be able to sell five pieces of that. You are on your own, so it will never pay off. So by 1986, '87, it cost almost a $1 million to make a game, and if you don't sell it, you're out of $1 million.
Kevin: So you could spend all that money to make a game and the the distributor says, “No, we don't like it. No, thank you," and then you're dead, that's it.
Kevin: And so what made the cost bloom up to that much? Programmers are just . . . I mean, I’m trying to . . .
Fernando: From the beginning, from the foremost one person, to having a whole team of programmers, and it was a year or two to make one game. Because the technology started advancing and you have to go with the competition, with the best so now you need a team of several programmers, and graphic artists, and the guy for the music and things like that. And the thing is going on for a year or two. We had one that, is was two years and still the programmers didn't finish that stuff. And we actually licensed that, unfinished to, I forgot, one of the top companies at that time. And we licensed it unfinished and they finished it. So by 1986, '87, something like that, a little game was a big challenge, it was a big challenge for me. We had to come out great ideas and . . .
Kevin: Were you still programming? Did you stay in a programming capacity?
Fernando: Yes, not the whole thing, not anymore.
Kevin: Sure. But looking at the list here and I was wondering, for instance, you mentioned you programmed Bristles, but you also published Boulder Dash and Spy vs Spy, and Omnicron Conspiracy, and I'm just wondering, did you have a programming hand in those things, or by then you were so big that . . . ?
Fernando: No, we had a lot of programmers later on. I moved up from programming to design or just to project manager. So I just keep creating my ideas and whatever idea came out to be good, we gave it to someone to some of the programmers. And Boulder Dash was a huge hit but there was some problem with the company we licensed it to, one of the company we licensed it to. And it went to court and everything, so for a while, we had to stop selling that program. That was probably one of the biggest hit. And it spawned sequels from then.
I did one, Construction Kit for Boulder Dash so people can make their own mazes. And also we put one called Rockford, which is the same thing but for the arcade machines. So I talked to my partners and I said, "We were working up to that point on cash flow. We have a big success and that money goes to the next program," and so on. And at some point, they said that it was too much risk, we could not do that. We could not continue doing that because one thing is, I was lucky. Every program, they take it just literally because of my name. But we still were at the risk of . . . we never became a large company.
So my partners, they said, "Okay." I asked them, "Let's get some money." We need $10 million or whatever so we can continue doing because we were very successful financially because we were designers and distributors. So they didn't want to get into debt. We had no debt in our company. They didn't want to get into debt. And they decided to go the other way – licensing the ideas. So I designed a couple of other things and we licensed it to other companies.
Kevin: So the other companies would do the programming?
Fernando: No, they give us money to make it. They took the financial risk. So they give us money upfront. So with that money, we can have all the research and the programming and everything. So I wasn't happy because now the other company took control of the situation. We designed it with their money, and the other company took control of the distribution and that's what . . . some other things happened. So a little after that, I got out of First Star.
Kevin: When did you get out of First Star?
Fernando: 1988 I think so, '88, '89.
Kevin: And how come?
Fernando: I was burnt out. What happened is maybe one of the reasons is because I never had any, how do you say, regular education on computers.
Kevin: Yeah, you’re all self-taught.
Fernando: Yeah, I used to field out everything and create everything and I was lucky because I was at the leading edge of technology. So I spent almost 10 years, that I was 24 hours, if wasn't programming, I was trying to figure out what’s new, how to do it better, whatever. And really I was burnt out at that time, I was burnt out completely. It was like, "Ugh, I got to keep on." The technology is changing, plus the level of the gaming keeps on changing, and I got to a point where, ugh! So I stopped working. Actually I was still a partner with them, but now not an active partner. And I decide to go for productivity. I started with doctors, attorneys, accountants, and it was easy. Writing a little program for that is not as challenging as writing a video game.
Kevin: Right. So you're creating productivity applications on your own, outside of First Star?
Fernando: Yes, but it was not a mass marketing. It was just with clients. I got attorneys and doctors and I started building all kind of databases, mostly databases, and I started getting busy with that, but I was inactive with First Star. And I moved up, getting every time better contracts. And then it was banks, they started calling me, and then it got to a point that AT&T called me. I don't know where they got my name, but AT&T called me for a huge, major program. It was a marketing analysis to be run in about 40 places around the world. That was another turning point. I don't know if I'm off the topic, because this has nothing to do with Atari. But when I went to AT&T, I was surprised why these guys are calling me. And they showed me in one deal, what was that? DASH machine, I don’t know . . .
Kevin: The PC, yeah.
Fernando: Some programmers there was working that on a little DASH machine that was not even as good as mine. And all the programmers were in mainframes. And they showed me that stuff and they said that they were interested to see if I want to be on that program. They have another two or three companies that they already bid to do that system. And I look at it and they tell me that they have one company that would do it in three months. And I said, "You're kidding me." It will take me 3 months just to put together everything, just to analyze the program, to analyze what I had to do because it was a challenge.
How are you going to work megadatas in a DASH machine? And I said, "No, it will take me at least three months. And you're telling me that the programmer is going to do the whole thing . . . ? I just can't do it. I won't do it." They asked me, "So how long do you think it is going to take?" I said, "At least a year or more to put it with all the specifications that you want." They said, "Okay, we're going to call you." And you know what it means when they say, "We are going to call you."
Kevin: Means we're not going to call you.
Fernando: Yeah. So they called me. The thing is, by that time, I had ideas in my head. I was thinking about that project and now I had some Idea. That day, it was just hunching, guess. But when they called me a second time, I went to talk to them again, and they asked me more details of what I will do. And I said, "The first thing is that the database has to be designed in a totally different way in order to be able to run this program efficiently."
And they asked me to put something more concrete about that. So I showed it to them, how to design a relational database because the saving of space and better speed. Because hat they do in AT&T, those programs are for mainframes, you don't have to worry about memory or speed or things like that, is that they have these huge databases, gigantic.
They wasted a lot of space. Just to give you an idea, let's say you have a database of names. Names, phone, social security, address, blah, blah, blah. But let's say you have a million people without phones. So you're wasting too much space for people who doesn't have a phone. So I designed to them how to create an index table, individual tables. So let's say if a million people have a phone, and 5 million people have an address, you have a database of only a million items for the ones with the phone, and a million for the ones with an address.
And that data was very big, very complex of all kind of data. So I put it together and come back to them. I say, "This is what I can do. This is my idea, and it's the only way you can throw in that stuff in a PC." So they called me again for a meeting with some of the programmers there. So I come back, and by now, I have my idea more clear of what it is. And when I walk in that room, it was like a theater. We were like in a big tall thing above everybody else. And I don't know, maybe about a couple of hundred people there. I thought it was a meeting. And they asked me to describe my idea. And okay, I think I did a good job. And the same day, they started making papers and they hired me.
And I finished that project, it was done in a year. They gave me people. I had three or four people, assistants to work with me. By the way, that's the way AT&T works. AT&T works in teams of five, six, seven people. Anything it’s five, six, seven people. And now there are teams that are related to other teams. So they gave me these people to work with me. And I finished the program, it was done, like a beta, about a year. and then it took me maybe another six months or almost another year to finish completely. And here is where another change in my life came.
Up to that point, I was killing myself. To put all that thing together was a huge responsibility. And actually I had to travel to different places and all people from around the world, they were coming to me because they were running all those programs over there in other countries. So once I was done, I was doing nothing and still I was paid. AT&T was still paying me. They wanted to hire me as an employee, making $70,000.
I quit, but they said, "But you're going to have benefits, and you going to have vacation." I'd rather keep the money and have my vacations on my way. Yeah, it was ridiculous. And actually, there was a few other people working like me, I'd say contractors, how you call it, freelance contractors, and some of those actually became employees. And the reason I didn't embark to become an employee was because previous to AT&T, I have so many people looking for me that I never had one day.
It could be three months project or six months project, I was in the middle of one and already knew I will have another one later on. And very much, I got the money I wanted to ask. So when they wanted me to be an employee with AT&T, but I'd rather be free.
But the last year with AT&T, I was really doing nothing. Just answering the phone when somebody called from Hong Kong or from Ecuador. And sometimes I had to do a little fixing, a little patching of the program or something and that was it. So I became lazy and I was happy because I was really doing nothing, I had a break, or else I had another burnout.
So I have a little group of people that I was actually advising and one thing that I was telling people, but I didn't do it myself . . . this is 1994, or '95, I don't remember. I was telling them, they are very good, sharp, young people. That's what the AT&T . . . they go to college, they bring the genius to them. And these guys are very sharp, they're doing very good stuff.
In one of my trainings to them, I was telling them, 1994, or '95 or something like that, "Listen, the future is in the Internet." The Internet at that time was almost non-existent. I was telling them in object-oriented programming, and in the Internet, and the whole thing is going to be moving in the Internet. That’s it. If you want a future, focus on that and do not hurry up forever." I never did it myself. Because at that time, I changed and went into working in finances, and I think almost in 1995 . . . Also, maybe it's my nature. Once I get satisfaction with something, I have a void, there's no challenge or something like that and I move on.
I have so many things in my life before Atari and after Atari. So I moved to finances, then I went into mortgage, then I went into real estate, now I 'm doing Internet marketing. And out of everything I have done since age 12 until today, the hardest one is Internet marketing. Oh, my God. I still haven't got it. So what happens? I'm working hard again.
Kevin: At least you're not bored, right?
Fernando: Why? What happens in Internet marketing is a moving target. It doesn't matter what you learn, the next day, it's not working. So it's been a challenge and I'm in the middle of that. I want to succeed in this thing that I am doing right now to the level of total financial freedom. Once I get to that point, that will be it. I just want to travel around the world for the rest of my life. The good thing is I only need a laptop and Internet connection to work in Africa, in South America or in Hawaii. That's all I need. If I create some instability, I won't be in a hurry and I will get that freedom that I’ve always been looking for.
Kevin: Excellent. I hope you get it.
Fernando: Don't say, "I hope you get it."
Kevin: Okay, I hope you don't get it.
Fernando: I will.
Kevin: Do you still have an Atari?
Fernando: No, I have a bunch of materials, I have some cartridges, I have the stuff from that time in a box somewhere. Maybe some of that material might be of interest for you.
Kevin: Yes, especially if you have any unpublished things, or source code, or things that weren't made publicly available.
Fernando: One thing about source code, that was probably one of my biggest challenge because I was a spontaneous type of programmer. Every time I started at neutral, and I would come and start again. I didn't have the discipline because I never have been schooled really to be more organized or more planning. I don't have any source code. You asked me for one little, tiny piece, no, it's long gone forever. 20 years ago, right?
Fernando: I do have so boxes, and some cartridges, some magazines, some publications, press releases, little things like that, memorabilia, you call it, that I kept it in a box. But that's it. But I do have, I don't know, I'm going to look around the stuff that I have and I will see if I can send you some stuff. I don't know, it might be useful for you or not.
Kevin: It could be fun. If there’s anything that you want to part with or just send in and I can scan and I can send things back depending on how you feel about it. That would be awesome. I would like to see it and I now the people who listen to this podcast would like to see it. If you could send a message to the Atari community, which you can right now, what would you tell them?
Fernando: You got me on that one. Being so long away . . . I don’t know. Because I went really far away from Atari, not in negative, just because I was just looking for others goals in my life, and maybe Atari was one of those. And I see it as a nice time in my life. I think Andy Warhol was right when he said that, "Everybody will have 15 minutes of glory." I look at it like that. That time, everything that happened because just when I don't give myself too much credit, most of the stuff that happened around me, I did not know what was happening. It all started like that program for my son and that's it. Atari was calling me, then I won the contest, and then people were looking for me. To my credit, I had to do what I had to do because people believed in me. That was it. And then I moved into other things.
So I look at that time as still like probably one of the, if I can highlight my life, probably the highest point of my life, if not one of the highest because it was like a dream. You know what's amazing Kevin? I have asked myself many times in my life, "What would happened if I just stayed there, stick with the technology, with the things>" I have a niece who is doing graphics, and is getting into video effects for movies and things like that, and I look at her and I say, "Maybe that was the thing that should have been my next step at that time."
Because even for my time, those graphics were the best you could get out of a little computer like that. When I look at the graphics today, it amazes. Because graphics has always been a thing in me, all my life. I was painting since I was a little kid and I would make some exhibitions when I was teenager and things like that. So graphics and painting, and I was an architect. That's related. Maybe that graphic thing was inside me when I was doing the Atari things and that's why it came up the way it came up.
You got me on that one. I don't know from what point I approached that. Really, it is meaningful for the community and inspiring for some people. Because I don't know exactly, besides the memorabilia and the history, what . . . you can tell me that, Kevin, what are things that you enjoy, what is the purpose, what will come next in that community? Because if I understand the community, probably I can address them.
Kevin: They are people still using those machines for various reasons, some it's nostalgia, some they still like to play the games that they used to like to play, some are hardware hackers and still coming up with new hardware projects just to extend the functionality of the machines. They’re people who like to program.
In fact, I was going to tell you that recently there was a programming contest out of an Atari user group in Germany. And this particular contest was to write 10-line BASIC programs. You can only use 10 lines to write the best game you can. And one of them, it was actually written by a friend of mine, it was called Mini-Dash and it was a 10-line adaptation of Boulder Dash, and it’s playable and fun. So various reasons, but basically, we are all mostly middle-aged guys who liked Ataris back then and we still do.
Fernando: And the other thing is now I live in the world of . . . what can I say? This is cyber world where you have a lot of friends that you’ve never met so it's totally a different type of approach. I meet a lot of these guys when we were to convention. Finally, I can put a face to that person in the Internet. And I have met great, fantastic people in the Internet industry, but it's different.
Because I imagine, if somehow I go back . . . let's say I'm part of that community because at this time, I cannot program. I put that long ago, everything. Actually somebody said, "Why don't you go back to programming?" I said, "I wouldn't want to start again because whatever I learned is of no use today. It's gone and there's new technology." And I know how hard it was." I said, "No, I will never start that again. I did it once, I left my mark and I don't want to do it twice."
But I wonder if I would be a gamer, another nerd, hacker fooling around with the games. I don't even play games these days. At that time, I played games because I liked the games, I really enjoyed it but mostly because it was part of my job. I had to see every game, and my own games, I had to play them multiple times to find the bugs and to see the challenges and things like that because that's the only part the game had. Now, it's just the technology and the screens and the topic.
It is the subjective part that get people hooked up to the game, that it has to be hard enough so they don't blame the game, they blame themselves so they give it another try. It cannot be that easy because most people might lose interest. And what was part of, when I was playing my games, I was not Fernando playing games, I was you playing games. I was trying to get into everybody's shoes and say, "How will people look at this?" And I paid a lot of attention to detail and maybe that's why I was able to reflect that so people could get the best from the games. Yeah, I'm going to do something. Let me try to put my thoughts together because I’m past middle-age so it's difficult, and I go back to you.
Kevin: You don't need to worry about it. It's a question I ask in interviews, you don't need to stress about it. Just some people like to . . .
Fernando: No, I’d like to get in your shoes and the community, what the meaning will be if I addressed them somehow. That probably it might be meaningful. I’m sure, if one of those programmers that I met 30 years ago, if the guy popped up today, I would be interested to talk to the guy, surely. But I really appreciate it, Kevin, you getting in contact with me and I appreciate that you appreciate the Atari world because it was my life, definitely. And you are in to that, I'm more than 100% with you.
I'm not into that right now because I had so many things after that, my mind is in something else, but it was a very important part of my life and anybody who is into that is somebody I would look in a special way, beginning with you. I'm very glad that this happened. I think it gave me a nice reflection on all my hectic life that I have now, just doing something else.
Kevin: Right. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. It was educational and certainly a lot of fun.
Fernando: Okay, probably we might get in contact.
Fernando: One example and probably I blame myself is after I left First Star, I had got in contact with Richard very few times because I moved . . . I was in New Jersey and Long Island in New York, California, I changed phones, then they lost me or I lost them. I blame myself that I should probably get more in contact with them. I will try to see if I get, Richard Spitalny.
Kevin: Oh, the guys who funded, started the company?
Fernando: Yeah. That was the main guy, Richard. And he's very good at what he does. I met some people in the movies through him, like Sylvester Stallone, once in a meeting. And the guy trusts me 100%. He was a great partner, he was a phenomenon al, fantastic partner to have. Probably he has to have more credit than me.
We know, business experience, probably I would go beyond maybe, you know, a little thing around the corner, probably never pursued the stuff that I did since I met him. And it was thanks to them that they really knew what they're doing. They're really good, sharp businesspeople, creative, handworker. Richard deserves more credit than me. I did a couple of nice programs but he did the whole thing. All that happened because of Richard.
And I see things around, once in a while, about First Star and I see one thing that they did at that time and I think they continued doing it is they have this ability to engage a lot of other companies around them. So they had license and they make deals with so many companies around the world, now they focus more on games or something like that. so in other words, they continue in the direction software should be going since . . . it's over 10 years and Richard is still working. And I have to get time, at this moment, I don't even have his phone number.
Kevin: So is he still involved with the company, as far as you know?
Fernando: I'm sorry?
Kevin: He's still involved with the company?
Fernando: Yeah. He is still the one that runs it.
Kevin: That's incredible. Good for him.
Fernando: Yeah. Because he knows what he's doing, he's a good businessman, a hard worker, and has the credibility to interconnect with people, and in this case, with different companies. And he should have most of the credit, really. I did the little programs for my son, okay, it came out, nice good program, but nothing ever would happen if it were not for joining with these guys on First Star.
Kevin: But you were the face, Fernando.
Fernando: I'm sorry?
Kevin: You were the face.
Fernando: I was the what?
Kevin: The face. You were the person that got to be shown off at the meetings. "Here's our winner. This is Fernando," the face.
Fernando: Yeah, exactly.
Kevin: The pretty face.
Fernando: I'm very grateful with life, that probably and being all that’s in my life like that, because so many good things happened around, and not necessarily because I do it, not necessarily because I create it, but because some people somehow they relate and trust. These people, they gave, blindly, commitment to me even when they didn't know nothing about computers and that's how the whole thing really started.
They are a good chapter in Atari. Without them, probably nothing. I'm sure we'll never go that far because those are some people skills that are not a part of my arsenal. Sp everything in life, there's no one thing that you can do alone. There is always somebody that contributes. We have to be interdependent in life. Everybody wants to be independent, that's easy. We have to learn to be interdependent, and that's where true strength comes from because nobody can do anything, zero, nothing by himself, nothing. It’s got to be always something else.
Many of the things that I had done is because I saw somebody or something and I said, "Wow, that's one looks like good, but it's horrible. I'm going to do it better." It's always a contribution of somebody else. And Richard, he deserves probably the number one, biggest contribution. And we just were nice partners, I just happened to be the face.
Kevin: Awesome. All right.
Fernando: Kevin, you bring in so many things. You're making me get out so many things from me and a lot of the things that I'm saying probably didn't cross my mind until today.
Kevin: I have that effect on people, when I ask them about things that happened 30 years ago.
Fernando: Yeah, that's why you do what you do.
Kevin: Great. Well, thank you so much, Fernando.
Fernando: Okay, Kevin.
Kevin: I appreciate your time.
Fernando: No, I really thank you for the attention you’ve given me, for helping to bring all those great, big, nice memories. And if I can contribute in any way, I'd be glad. All task, if there's anything I can do also to contribute. I think you're doing a great task and you also deserve to have some credit for the things that you do, and I feel like I had to contribute.
Kevin: Excellent. I'm glad you did.
Fernando: Okay, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks again.
Fernando: You made my day. Thank you very much.
Kevin: Thank you. Bye, Fernando.
Fernando: I'm going to look around and see if I'll put a few things together and hopefully it might be valuable for you, for all this stuff that you're doing, your research and everything. I don't even know what, I'm going to see what I can put together, and you decide if that might be valuable for you or not.
Kevin: Okay. I will look forward to your email.
Fernando: Okay. Very good.
Kevin: Okay. Thank you so much.
Fernando: Have a fantastic day, Kevin.
Kevin: You, too.
Fernando: Thank you.