Rebecca Heineman

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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

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Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

Kevin: I'm Kevin Savetz and this is an interview episode of Antic the Atari 8-bit Podcast. It's July 17th, 2015 and I am at KansasFest which is a show for the Apple II and the keynote speaker is Rebecca Heineman and she is responsible for lots of "Appley" goodness including Bard's Tale III and Dragon Wars and Tass Times in Tone Town and Borrowed Time and Mind Shadow and Out of this World for the SNES and dozens of Macintosh and Apple II GS conversions and Crystal Quest on the Mac which I love, love, love and which she gave her keynote which you should listen to there will be a link in the show notes so you can watch her Kansas Fest keynote she gave all sorts of wonderful "Appley" stories but there was hints, hints of a Atari knowledge and goodness in there so I have invited her into this weird little chapel at Rockhurst University where it's quiet to do and interview and talk about Atari things. Hello Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hello there Kevin.

Kevin: So you started to tell a story tell a story about how you wanted an Atari 800 and you almost won one in a contest but then you didn't. Can you can we have a summary of that tale?

Rebecca: Well going back in time this was early 1980, I just bought an Apple II pretty much every penny I had and the only reason I was able to afford it was that somebody had bought it, had buyer's remorse and wanted to sell if for like half price. So had that not happened I would never have been able to afford and Apple, in this case it was just an Apple II, I had to get the other things to make into a plus, more memory, later.

Well I also had and Atari 2600 and I was using my Apple II to help me copy the cartridges so that I could save money but I saw all the blurbs and all the ads from Atari about this new line of computers that came out with the 400 and the 800. I did what the 400 because a chicklet keyboards was like, what? But the 800, it's like oh my god , two cartridge slots ,Basic, all the color graphics and stuff I read about it's like, I want what one, I so want one and a contest came up in which the prize for the nationals was at Atari 800 fully loaded, I mean you got two floppy disks, you got a printer, the computer, a bunch of Apple, sorry Atari game cartridges to go with it. I mean I was set if I got that thing. But of course at the time I didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell to win but entered the Atari National Space Invaders tournament for the Atari 2600 in July 1980 and I won the Los Angeles regionals and then a few months later I ended up in New York City and I was then competing, and to note the Atari 800 was second place. The first place prize was an Asteroids stand up arcade video game which is worth like three thousand dollars where the Atari 800 fully loaded system was somewhere retail around fifteen hundred, so..., but I was already thinking like, if I could just get that Atari. When we finally tabulated the score, after we played the game, the judges were tabulating the scores and they were announcing the winners and as they were calling out names that were not mine I was like oh my goodness there's only two names left, I'm going to get an Atari, I'm going to get an Atari, and then when they were calling up the second place winner and they announced the player from New York my reaction was ,damn!, oh no, and that's when it dawned on me. Does this mean I actually won the whole thing? And so endyth my adventure there with the Atari 2600 nationals which I won and I got my fifteen minutes of fame. But I didn't get an Atari 800.

Kevin: I'm sorry.

Rebecca: But I eventually got one. I mean about a year later I was able to finally scraped together enough money to buy it and I used it, the first thing I did was because at the time I knew the Atari the Apple II and I used a disassembler and so forth, I ported the code for the Apple II disassembler from an Apple II and I hand wrote all the hex bytes into an Atari, created a BIN file using a hex editor. Then I loaded it and it ran and I was able to disassemble code use the exact same commands an Apple II.

With that I then started learning how to play around with the registers, the POKEY, the Antic, many times I've watched my computer crashed because I would write something and have screen's un-legible and I have no way of restoring it. So that was, you know hit reset, loaded the thing back off disk cause I had an 810 floppy, I think I think was called 810, but loaded it up and then just made some demos and stuff like that on the Atari to learn how to program the system.

And this came in handy because a year later, after we founded Interplay, a contract came in, in which Electronic Arts wanted us to convert Racing Destruction set from the Commodore 64 to the Atari 800. I was the only person at the company who had Atari experience of any kind. So I then using an Apple II to write all the code and I made across assembler, because I was really comfortable using an Apple II to write 6502 code, but I then hooked it up to the, I made, I hook up an 810 drive to my Apple II, used it to create 810 disks then I would take the floppy put it into an Atari and B run it, or what was the command

Kevin: binary load, binary run...

Rebeccaa: yeah binary run, and it would load in the game. I would test it and sample it and run it that way. It was a Little tedious but I got the job done. Later on I did a game called Mind Shadow and ported it from the Apple II, actually I start with the C64 version and ported that to the Atari 800. Actually working both 400 and the 800 and that was tricky because there was, it used a mode in the Apple II and C64 were I had the four lines of text and the rest of the screen was graphics but if you hit return it made the whole screen just text, cause this is something you can easily do in the Apple II it's actually supported hardware. I wrote a custom command list , I think it was that TIA, there was a command list you could do

Kevin: with the display list..

Rebecca: yeah the display list, I created to two display lists one for the text only mode and the other one for the graphics and text and I just switch between the two depending which mode it was. And I even emulated the Apple II memory map using it to help facilitate that port.

Kevin: just to make the port as easy as

Rebecca: just to make the port as easy as possible. But I still remember now how when I was loading up Mind Shadow I heard the "beebeebeebeep" when the Atari disk drive was reading sectors and I also remembered the fact the Atari sectors are 128 bytes was the only machine that had that, I was like, OK, I had to compensate for that.

Kevin: Was that more or less than..?

Rebecca: It was the smallest sector size I have ever worked with. Every other floppy disk of the time was either 256 bytes, that was the Commodore and the Apple. The PC was using 512. But yeah the Atari used 128 I think is part of the reasons why the discs had so little data on them I think wasn't the floppy like 90K? So which I thought was a little, darn. It made things challenging to get the game running on a floppy disk on the Atari because it's small size of the disk.

Kevin: Was there any talk of doing it on a cartridge, or just for ease...?

Rebecca: Oh, no. It was, at the time the game was being done it was like 1984, 85, floppies started becoming more normal and it was far cheaper to duplicate a floppy then it was to make a cartridge.

Kevin: So Racing Destruction Set, tell me little about that, you mentioned something last night about the pixel width 8-bit car looks dumb.

Rebecca: Well what happened was that the when I was doing the port for the from the C64 the Atari 800, C64 version the game used text based graphics font which is something the Atari supports. So that went across one to one, I lost no fidelity whatsoever, but the hang up was that the Commodore 64 uses very large sprites compared to what we had the Atari 800. One of the problems also is that the Commodore had three color sprites. You know there's a fourth color but that's invisible. So you have three colors, an invisible color, so the cars had detail to them. Well my problem was that on the Atari the sprites only had one color, and it was just eight bits wide, it's one color. So I ended up in order to get the cars to look good I had two sprites, one was color A the other sprite was color B, overlay on top and then because the cars were originally drawn about twelve pixel wide, I would have to cut off four pixels. You know that's about 50% of the cars width, I'm sorry 33% of the cars width I had to hack off make the cars look stupid and so I came with a hack in which I used the what they call the missiles on the Atari which are just one bit sprites and I use that and there was two of them and I put those one on each side of the car and that is where I got the details for like the edges of the car so when the car is turning and the bumpers are sticking out. I would have the pixels there on the left or the right but it gave the illusion that these cars were ten pixels wide and it allowed me to render these cars as sprites so I can retain most of the C64 code as is, but was able to get the initial fidelity I needed.

Kevin: How important was it to use a reuse code, I mean was that just like the ultimate goal in porting? Because in some games, not yours, you can tell they reuse all the code and, wow, this looks like crap on the Atari it looks like an Apple game. How much trade off was there.

Rebecca: Well the trade off is that the game logic should just run because it makes no assumptions of what it's running on it could be running on an Apple II, C64, Atari 800. Code that reads the joystick or something like that that are actually processes the joystick inputs not reads the actual joystick but, OK, you press left, what do I do? Oh you turn the tires or you do this, whatever, that doesn't change. But what does change is like I wrote this is what gave birth to the idea of me doing [????] which is a set of libraries where I say call the function to read the joystick. Well I substitute the Atari version, the Commodore version, the Apple II version to read the joystick but the data it returns the same data so that therefore if I read a Commodore joystick I read this bit pattern and I give it back, if the Atari I take that and move it around so it returns the exact same pattern. The Apple II I read the analog joystick turn it into bits like an Atari, return that. So the main code all that knows is, oh, you took your joystick press left. How it pressed left or what type of joystick you have, I didn't care, and this is what allowed me to take as much of the code as possible from the host game and have confidence that all do is assemble it, put it on the Atari and that codes going to run. The only thing I need to make sure works is the display code, the custom code that actually talks to the Atari hardware.

Kevin: During the [???] talk yesterday you said something about how many you sold.

Rebecca: Well one of the biggest [????] why Mind Shadow as well Racing Destruction Set we're like one of the few games on the Atari was biggest problems was that while everybody was asking for and demanding Atari games no one was buying them . And the problem is that because the 810...

Kevin: They didn't want to buy them, they just wanted to play them.

Rebecca: Yeah, you want to play them. And the problems the only way we actually found copy protection worked was cartridges, because you know you manufacture cartridge the casual user can't copy a cartridge. I mean yes there were some hackers figured out ways of duplicating ROMs but those are likes, so, not enough of them were doing that that make it consequential, but the 810 floppy drive was almost impossible to copy protect and as a result it was merely child's play to take any game, put in this disk drive, make a copy of it and now you have a copy of Racing Destruction Set. I don't know whether or not that was the sole reason. I've also heard even back then that the numbers of Atari consoles that were being sold was grossly inflated. Like we would ask Atari how many they sold they would say, oh year we sold a couple million, but then we look at the stores an the stores would say yeah we sold like a couple but these Commodore 64s are flying off the shelves and of course our software sales reflected it. The Atari version of Racing Destruction Set, we sold maybe three thousand copies. M.U.L.E. didn't fare much better. It sold maybe four, five thousand copies and most where as on the Commodore it sold easily ten times this number, I'm talking about Racing Destruction Set, so on the Commodore they just prefer, who was, who was it Freefall, who was the actual group, Paul Reshee I think it was, that the group that did Racing Destruction Set made most of their royalties from the C64 version. We sold enough copies of the Atari version to just pay for the port, but there was no profits at all for the original developers, there was no royalties for me or Interplay, so as a result the enthusiasm for doing more ports, like after we get Mind Shadow for the Atari we sold a few thousand and that was it. Whereas again Apple II we sold something like about fifty thousand copies. So it made it so that putting all the money and effort and energy into developing a game it really didn't pay. Let's do some math here. We sold the game for like about thirty nine ninety five back then. Which means is that the developer might get fifteen dollars but if you only sell three thousand copies that's forty five thousand dollars. Sounds like a lot of money but really it costs about two hundred to three hundred thousand dollars to create a game, you just lost serious money on that so then why would someone want to make more games on your platform.

Now I know we didn't charge that money to do a port. I believe we charge like twenty thousand ten to twenty thousand dollars somewhere in that range to convert the C64 to the Atari. Something like that number. I mean don't quote me on that because I don't really know the exact amount but I know it wasn't that much money, but you know when let's say EA paid twenty thousand to us to do the conversion. Of course I got my money from just being an employee and shareholder of Interplay, which was not that much, and then only getting a few thousand copies being sold then EA was like well you know our future games we're just not going to bother porting to the Atari.

Kevin: I knew Racing Destruction Set, I don't, I didn't really remember Mind Shadow and I looked it up on Atarimania, and like I remember why now because the cover freaked me out there's a face on it it's like ghostly face and there's the hand something about a hand being like trapped inside

Rebecca: Yeah that's actually inside the box

Kevin: That's why I saw that I saw that , that looks freaky scary I'm not playing that.

Rebecca: Actually the game Mind Shadow is a, um, inspired by the Borne Identity.

Kevin: Really?

Rebecca: The game starts off you wash up on a beach with no idea of who you are or how you got there or anything . And as you, because it's a graphic text adventure you just enter commands kind of like an Infocom game with graphics, but as you solve puzzles and stuff you finally get off the deserted island you start remembering things and then you start realizing that somebody tried to kill you and then you realize why that person tried to kill you and they realize that the person is figuring out that you're alive and is coming to get you. All the while during the game you are slowly recovering your memories and of course at the end of the game you realize who you were and then confront the person who tried to kill you but that's the whole basis of the game is that you are someone who has complete amnesia hence Mind Shadow and we're getting but it's um. Back to the stuff about Atari is that there were several things that really went against it, one, there was no real good way to copy protect the games , B, piracy was rampant because of the fact there was no way to copy protect, and number three a cost issue because we either had a distribute our games on cartridge which is prohibitively expensive when you're comparing it to the cheapness of putting discs out on the Apple II and Commodore 64, but another problem was that because the Atari drives were so small, I mean it was like 90K

Kevin: I think it was 88K..

Rebecca: Yeah, 88K it meant that we would have to pack in three or four more discs if it was a larger game.

Kevin: So it was cheaper on disc but then four times so cheaper but not.

Rebecca: Yeah because it's cheaper but not, because one of the problems with floppies is that they sometimes are go bad so that therefore we would put a game with let's say it's just one disk, well there's only one disk that can go bad so the sales are pretty good, returns are limited. But if you have to put four discs in the package, now you have four chances to go bad, because it only takes one disk to go bad when some has to send the package back. And you know that's when, and also all these games were that we would you know use lots and lots of data and you know it really hurt the experience we keep swapping floppies back and forth. Because remember Mind Shadow shipped on two floppy disks was original Apple II version shipped on one. So those are a little problems we were having, and it's all compounded to it, like, high cost of goods, medium cost of developing the title because it was really not much different than developing on the Commodore but the lack of return on investment

Kevin: You think the rate of piracy on the Atari side was higher or the same as Commodore and Apple?

Rebecca: I think it was higher, I think was very hard, mostly because it was so easy for anybody to pirate it. On the Commodore 64 there were copy protections and so forth which made it difficult to copy some there was some games there that would thwart the pirates for a while and when it finally was released, a broken version, you had to go to the BBS's, the bulletin boards. The trouble is that the casual user, which is the people who really care about, you know the mom and dads the kids who don't really have access to BBS.'s because they're not interested in BBS's. They try to take the disk and say "hey can I get a copy" sure , aw it doesn't copy oh well and stops right there. Or as the Atari the odds are pretty darn good that they'll be able just to copy this without any trouble and then of course they would just give it to their friend, not even thinking that it was hurting the developer.

Kevin: Any other Atari stories?

Rebecca: Atari stories, lets see here. I do remember the fact that you know playing with the Atari and later on seeing the Atari 65XE in the 130XE and playing with them but at the time then it's like you know it's a little too little too late. I remember the resurgence of the Atari in the form of the Atari ST and it was a serious contender to the Amiga and I was actually looking into doing programming on that I mean I was working on some stuff for Bards Tale for the Atari ST, Tass Time in Tone Town for the ST. But even it was that they had this wacky development system and it was using that TOS Tramiel OS, which was a very crude implementation because at the time I was also using Apple II GS which was based on MAC OS. So it's all slick and professional looks pretty and the you look at the Amiga while it's hardware accelerated has some cute features even the graphics of the desktop really bite, the Tramiel operating system while it look prettier than the Amiga. It was still kind of clunky and just wasn't friendly to use and it crashed all the time at least in the model machine I had and I remember there was a time in which they tell me for my Atari ST that oh if your ST is broken which then just pick it up and drop it and it would push those chips back in and the Atari ST would work again and I'm like OK this is..

Kevin: I think maybe it's like some sort of lore , the Atari people hear that story about the Apple III. Maybe it was a common thing.

Rebecca: No it was a thing on a Atari ST I remember there was times which the ST I had to push the keyboards, and every now and then I didn't actually drop the thing I just simply pushed the keyboard down and whatever chips were being loose and their sockets whatever just been wiggling out

Kevin: It was a common complaint about the way the Traimiel's did computers is that they went as cheap as possible so things went wrong because they didn't care.

Rebecca: And then later on a Atari shot themselves in the foot again because they released the Jaguar, the video game console. But the fact that they required you to use a Atari ST Falcon to do all of your development on. They refused to convert their development tools to run on a PC or any other machine like a MAC or PC mostly people were asking for PC and developers are saying why do you want me to develop your on your console using the Atari ST using this really crappy operating system that's buggy as all hell that you keep pushing in the keyboards and peripherals like hard drives are very hard to come by. So it really turned off a lot of potential developers. I know that the companies I was working with really did not like using that Atari ST as a development system and so I had no idea why Atari itself made these decisions but they really were I don't know maybe they were hell bent on destroying their own company.

Kevin: It seems that way. Do want to talk about your current project?

Rebecca: Well currently my project at this moment is I'm working on a updated version of Bard's Tale. I wrote the original trilogy on the IIgs, Bards' Tales One, Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight, Bard's Tale III Thief of Fate. The two disk version was never shipped, but I did work on it and I did create it. But I was a the one who wrote the Apple II, C64 versions of the Bard's Tale III, in fact I wrote pretty much every version of it because I created the game but the, I got to a contract with InExile who's currently got the rights to do Bard's Tale IV and they did a successful Kickstarter and there were a lot of people who wanted me on the project so they said we want to play the trilogy so one thing led to another and now I have gotten a contract with the InExile in which I'm taking my original trilogy, converting them over to run on Windows native. So you get the all the IIgs graphics, all the IIgs sound, it's not emulated, I'm actually recompiling the code getting it and then changing the gs specific code to Windows code and MAC code, the MAC version and hopefully in about a month or two I should have that out.

Kevin: Nice, You talked earlier about you were, yesterday, about you did some cracking on the Apple side of things. Did you ever experiment in that area with the Atari side of things?

Rebecca: That's why I know it was so easy , there was nothing for me to crack. I mean it was like on the Apple II it was literally, it was really a challenge to crack stuff on the Apple II in some cases most of them were like no challenge I would be cracked in ten seconds you know I think the fastest crack I did it was actually about three minutes. But the, you know someone would take me a couple of days, but they never took me more than three days. Never. The Atari 800 was one where like OK take the disk, put it in there, use the Atari copy program copy onto another disk, ran it, runs fine. My job is done, not that I did anything but my job was done. So I kind of actually didn't have any interest in hacking I think because there was nothing for me to do, as I understand there were disks that had copy protection but there were other hackers that did that you know like I think these was a laser hole one where you actually burn a hole in one of the sectors so the 810 if you try to write that sector would always fail and then they would test for that.

Kevin: So I heard a story about that saying there was a company that did that as a turnkey solution they would do put lasers and to use a laser to make a hole in the disk. They actually use drill bits it's just a drill. They claimed one thing did another it worked sort of you know.

Rebecca: The problem of a lot of the places that were doing these copy protections were kind of fibbing mostly just so they could go and sell their wares to people. Like, I myself to this day get people contacting me saying, "hey we got this DRM solution you can install in your game and no one will be able to crack it" and the few times it actually come to my office to check it out I said "great show me this it's been locked". OK great. And I then put in my machine, pull up a debugger within twenty minutes tops this copy of the game. And so it's like you know if I could do this and there's some hacker Russia or China or some like that who's going to do this because they have nothing else better to do and it will end up on a bit torrent site which is in modern days it's trivial for you to distribute something, so therefore it's like what's the point just make sure we give people the honor system to say like Good Old Games does, just say if you like my game buy it. I mean in fact if any waste me locking up the game is just really just giving invitation to some hacker just to hack it just for the sake of you know telling me to go away or screw you.

Kevin: Last question, if you could send a message to the Atari computer users that still exist, and you can right now what would you tell them?

Rebecca: Make stuff, makes new demos make new stuff, I mean the Atari was a really under-rated computer. To be honest had the Atari 800 was released around the time little bit later then the Apple II. But had the Atari 800's chipset been designed around a bus like an Apple II so you had expandability and then add something like ProDOS, make it like a business computer but still kept the graphics and sound. Well we would be all sitting here at Kansas Fest celebrating the Atari GS while Atari's coming out with the new Falcon 7 or whatever it is you know Intel machine making billions of dollars because of the machines out there the Atari hardware was the funnest and best I had to work with. It really broke my heart and to find out that despite the ease of use of the hardware of the Atari, the colors, remember of the three the Atari the C64, the Apple II, the Atari had the best colors, the best graphics, the best most powerful ability with the display list to do stuff, but the cheapness of the hardware, the operating system that was a joke. They took what was the best hardware applied the worst software and threw the market away. Make a better operating system, make something really really cool, especially make an affordable hard drive. I think that's probably one already out there. But other then that it is a really wonderful little toy and I love playing with it.

Kevin: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me on your show.