- Source: This page is a written transcript of the original podcast on the website “ANTIC – The Atari 8-bit Podcast” where Kevin Savetz interviewed Alan Watson. Thanks Kevin and Alan for such an excellent contribution to the M.U.L.E. legacy!
- original source last checked working in May 2020
On February 19th 2015, Keven Savetz from the ANTIC website interviewed Alan Watson, one of the founding members of Ozark Softscape. The podcast was published March 16th on the ANTIC website.
This podcast transcript gives the M.U.L.E. community the opportunity to read the interview instead of listen to the over-an-hour-long podcast itself. Kevin and Alan do talk a great deal about M.U.L.E., but other Ozark works are covered too in more detail: Seven Cities of Gold and Robot Rascals.
In this transcript, I have highlighted some of Alan’s memorable quotes. Also I have extracted interesting information about M.U.L.E. to my ever-growing “Executive Summary” of M.U.L.E. insights from the original development team
The transcript was made by me, Goethe. I am not a native English speaker. Some parts which I could not understand I have marked with “[inaudible]”. Some parts I may just have gotten wrong, and I apologize in advance. In case you Kevin or Alan want to correct parts of the transcript, please let me know: Contact
Kevin Savetz: [K]
Alan Watson [A]
[K] I’m Kevin Savetz and this is an interview episode of ANTIC, the Atari 8-bit podcast. Alan Watson was one of the four founding owners of Ozark Softscape, the company that created M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold for the Atari. Both games were published by Electronic Arts. Ozark also created Cytron Masters which was published by SSI. Ozark created more games for other platforms including Heart of Africa, Modem Wars and Robot Rascals. Alan Watson specialized in interface and graphics code and he contributed to both M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities. I conducted this interview on February 19 2015.
[K] Hi Alan how are you today?
[A] I am doing well thank you, how about you?
[K] I’m all right thank you.
[A] Where are you?
[K] I’m in Portland Oregon. And you’re in Arkansas?
[K] So and you’ve been in Arkansas since back in the day of Ozark?
[A] Oh yes 1964 is when my family moved to Arkansas. I’ve lived in L.A. for a while and I’ve lived in Denver for a while but it was very short period so I’d say 90% six months in each of those towns. Rest is all the Little Rock area. I’m kind of flattered that we want to talk about something that we did 30 years ago. This is amazing to me.
[K] There’s a nice little community of Atari people and yes so they will be thrilled to hear about your memories of working at Ozark.
[A] That’s great, that was a really fun time. It’s kind of the heyday or the beginning. I guess the beginning. I don’t know anything about a machine and you just had to figure it out based on what you could find out from bulletin boards and magazines pretty much.
[K] Right, Atari wasn’t exactly a loose with the technical details in those early years.
[A] Not until [inaudible]. Then there were a few listings in Compute that would give enough insight to get going. But it was pretty tough… That was my „using“ back then, Compute… I don’t know if you were around back there or not but…
[K] Oh yeah I subscribed. So were you one of the founders of Ozark Soft? I know you were one of the first four. Explain to me how you got started there and if you were a founder and kind of how it got started.
[A] Okay, Dan Bunten wrote a column in “Computer Gaming World” and had done a couple – I don’t really know the number – but had done a few games for “Strategic Simulations” I believe is the name of the company, and he had done a game „Cartel and Cutthroats“, and he wanted… I think that was a game anyway that he needed somebody that knew how to convert his Apple stuff to Atari and I knew a lot about Atari but didn’t really have any reason to know it. So we met through the Apple Club and an Atari Club, we found each other, and I helped him to convert one of the Strategic Simulations games to the Atari 800/400 family. Somewhere around then Trip Hawkins from EA contacted Dan and I understand if he would do one of the launch products for Electronic Arts and somehow other we all gotten together: Daniel, a fellow named Jim Rushing, and Dan’s brother Bill Bunten was involved in all of and some game designs, as far as a [inaudible], play tester, suggester, that kind of thing… Anyway so the four of us all knew each other and Dan told Trip that he would only do it if Trip would sign the whole group of us. So we started Ozark Softscape and we’re four equal owners. And then we set out to do M.U.L.E.
“Dan told Trip that he would only do it if Trip would sign the whole group of us. So we started Ozark Softscape and we’re four equal owners. And then we set out to do M.U.L.E.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the founding of Ozark Softscape
[K] You were in in Little Rock at that point right?
[K] So all four of you were already out there?
[A] Oh yeah. Dan actually, I don’t know if he went to the [inaudible] or UALR. I graduated from Jonesboro, and I think Jim graduated “Products” from UALR. I’m just guessing because I think he was at home during the early part to this. Bill worked for “Parks and Recreation” I think. The city’s little aqua parks and recreation so he had stuff to do at the zoo. And Dan worked for some city department that actually did – I think they did trash simulations. What’s the most efficient best way to do, it was either city bus or trash collection. What you ought to use the least amount of gas and you get the most amount of work done, that kind of thing right, in the quickest time. And so they both grew up in this area and Jim’s family lived in this area and my dad had retired here at 1964 so I lived here essentially good and we got together I guess around 1981 someplace in there. So yeah we all were fond of this area and had always been from this area but as soon as I found out about Apples and Ataris and the Radio Shack Color Computer and so on, I didn’t want like my computer so I passed on the like the PET and the TRS-80 and the [inaudible] thing. I actually bought the Atari without knowing too much. I had studied 6502 assembly and agreed until I couldn’t understand I go back and start the book over again and [inaudible] books. Back then they do a lot of books and especially on 6502, I guess it’s because of Apple as much as anything, because this was before the Commodore 64 actually came to market. So that was a toss up between an Apple and an Atari. I loved the Atari because of the graphics chip and the sound chip.
[K] So did you buy it sight unseen just based on what you knew about it on paper?
[A] Yes. I really don’t remember who I bought it from, but it wasn’t, I don’t think it was a computer store.
[K] So tell me about the first time you saw an Atari.
[A] Well it’s pretty amazing. I think they played Star Raiders the cartridge game and it had that like 3D effect. Of course it’s cheating but look like you’re flying into the star field you know and you learn how to take out the bad guys and it was awesome. I mean I’m not a game player I mean I like board games, my family. That’s nothing, but at least Bill and Dan’s family and my family grew up with board games we played countless board games because that was Saturday night’s entertainment we didn’t have a color TV, didn’t even have a TV in my family until I was in third or fourth grade fifth grade. So we just came from board games. I didn’t really play the cartridge game so much. And Star Raiders was just… I just wanted to make a place for people to play… I didn’t really have a game exactly in mind. I just was tickled because I have an interest in art and I’m a HAM radio operator. So I don’t know, I just kind of combined a whole bunch of things I was interested in. I was selling high-end high fly at the time, Mac and clips and that kind of stuff, [inaudible], other fancy products here at little aqua. Pretty much the only store that sold the expensive stuff and I just got seduced by computers. I love the look. I’d taken programming, I took Fortran in college and it was awful. You need to have these cards and you’d stack them and you take them to the computer department and put them in a basket and come back in three days and pick up your programming to be reams and reams of that green bar paper and your little [inaudible] program was somewhere in there. And if you missed a column, it was all column-oriented, missed it, you’ve had anything wrong, missing comma in the date or the cards out or whatever… The program didn’t run but took you three days to find that out. I thought this was just the worst thing I’d ever heard of. But I needed it because my man took night degrees in there you can network read back the maths course with the time. But when you could do a personal computer I mean you had an instant and just try something and see it, try something and see it! Looks pretty cool to get that immediately feedback and be able to just play. This was fun If you like puzzles and games, computers is a good place to have an outlet for those kind of things if you don’t have anybody, if you don’t have any opponent. [inaudible] on the computer…
[K] So you already use 6502 and so it sounds like you got the Atari 800?
[A] Yes that’s correct.
[K] So it sounds like you had taught yourself quite a bit about it by the time 1981 came and Ozark Softscape launched.
[A] We were all pretty good 6502 programmers but I will say Dan was an awesome mentor. I mean he really had great ideas about how to improve code and optimize code and stuff. So I was really lucky to work with him because it made all of us better to be able to go back in source and discuss it. He’s the kind of guy to just say „well you know we need to the Apple kernel in the Atari [inaudible] so that we could debug everything“. Because Dan was really used to Apple and the Apple drives had more capacity and they were faster. You get an 80 column card for an Apple. All the development was done on Apples and he would just say something like we need a way to get that reading assembly code and we need a way to jump to the executable into an Atari and can you go do that? So I wrote a parallel program that using the parallel ports to get the code jump into the Atari where we could run it. But then we did that again for the Commodore also. Wait this was amazing because we had RAM drives back then. Actual Dan‘s computer had two RAM drives and two Apple drives. That still took 20 minutes to do a compile for. But as we got to the end of the projects it was lengthy to get all the linking in the modules and stuff. That was one thing that was irritating up front and the Atari was cassette-based so it might take you 10 or 20 minutes to load up over there and make a change and save it out and then run it because you wanted to save it for your RAM in a case of analysis.
“We were all pretty good 6502 programmers but I will say Dan was an awesome mentor. He really had great ideas about how to improve code.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on Dan Bunten’s 6502 coding skills
[K] So you do the development on an Apple too. You see the compiling there and then move the object code to the Atari to test it.
[A] Yes. The only thing we did native on the Ataris if I had some kind of a little change, like a change one character into a different character. You can just change a man into a ball let’s say, or do bunch of little code to do XOR, and you can change the percentage, and so the man fuzzes into the ball. That might work because that’s only like a 20 or 30 lines of code and you can do it real quick. You might do something like that on the Atari rather than go through the hoops on the Apple and download it and see what’s going on. But for the most part you know everything was done on Atari. Because what we did was, in the later days it was just Dan and I, and we had a program called „Relay Gold“ (?) and I believe we spent $600 for a 1200 baud modem and Relay Gold would merge our files for us and find any conflicts or whatever they would actually mark the lines so every night it would just do it automatically in the night and then the next morning we’d get on the side and decide who was going to take care of what. We stayed synchronized because we didn’t actually, after Heart of Africa, we didn’t work in the same location. We worked at home, so the most part. But in the days of M.U.L.E. we rented a three-bedroom house in an expensive part of town and each of us took a bedroom, Jim and Dan and I. We get our work together. Twice a week we’d have anywhere from 8 to 20 people playtesting after we got to beta, or a playable version. So it was tested really really hard before for you got to the beta version.
“Twice a week we’d have anywhere from 8 to 20 people playtesting. It [M.U.L.E.] was tested really really hard.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the testing process of M.U.L.E.
[K] Ozark Softscape sounded like an interesting sort of company because it was developing software but not publishing it and you guys would farm out to be a or I think later some other companies to actually do the publishing. So can you talk to me about the relationship? The relationship with those other companies?
[A] Okay. I probably don’t understand it as well as… You know, if you were talking to principals like Trip or Dan or one of the EA producers. But essentially it was like like a movie studio. I mean that sounds it’s probably elevated. But here’s the deal. Trip wanted to make a software distribution direct to the buyer and he wanted to recognize the people that made the games and treat them like rock stars or whatever. It was a little bit like this, this is like a grandiose kind of idea whatever. But Trip is really smart. He got like a some kind of a gaming degree from Harvard. I don’t know how he put together this of course… He went on to find video and chocolate and several other companies. I don’t know what he does now. Trip was a smart guy – business smarts. So he got this idea that he would start a software company and he hired a bunch of people from Apple and someone else out there I can’t remember who. They put together a [inaudible]. They had about 11 or 15 people when they actually took our code, you know they had artists, graphic artists to do the cover art manuals and they had um tech support people for if somebody ran into trouble they could get help from EA. Later on for example we had to use DOS machines and we needed somewhere to do hard breaks, and the Apples and Ataris or whatever we’re working on it and so they made a board for us that we plugged into the to the PC that would allow us to do debugging in single step traces and that kind of thing. Their company was well funded and everything but what he did was: He went out and said… You know he just actually [inaudible] Dan. But after that we would have to put together an idea through a storyboard, do a presentation just like if it was trying to sell a movie. And we take that to Trip and his gang and he had two or three producers. And the producer would actually take care of the whole thing. He did all the coordination and the facilitating. If we needed something he’d get it and that kind of thing. So it’s kind of that way. So we owned up the code for M.U.L.E., they never owned that, but they published the game. So they were kind of like a movie house in that way that they take the sign down to the projects, then they’d see it through or they’d kill it. If we got to like alpha and they said you know this is a crappy game, and that it will not be going. We didn’t have that experience, but EA published hundreds and hundreds of games and most don’t make it. I really don’t know exactly because I’ve been out of this since 1990 or whatever. But I suspect it’s getting that fanatic… To get a game, get the attention of anybody actually.
[K] You told me that you primarily wrote interface and graphics code.
[A] Right that would be anything had to do with like the joysticks and messaging back to the user. Dan didn’t really have an interest in graphics. Before M.U.L.E. very little of anything he did was graphical. Cyclon Masters, that’s the game that I helped him convert to Atari and it was real crude graphics on an Apple. And we pushed him and pushed him for better sound and use of color and he said „No we don’t need color“ and „That’s always about Ataris, it‘s to have color, otherwise they would‘ve bought an Apple“. So finally we talked him into doing color and it came out really pretty nice. So that was the beginning of the relation, it was Cyclon Masters.
[K] I don’t think I played that one, have to check it out.
[A] Strategic Simulations I believe is the publisher for that work. Yeah he had a whole different kind of thing. I don’t know now what did they do in-house or not, but all the first six products they launched were done by people just like us. There was some John Freeman and Anne Westfall that made „Free Fall [Associates]“, they did „Archon“, „Archon 2“, and „Murder on the Cindernaut“, it was a kind of cool game. They’re really cool people. I don’t know if they were married or whatever, but they were a couple. We even stayed with him a few times. Once or twice a year everybody got there and then they do an artist conference thing, where they’d be in part pack, in part back slapping and award ceremony and all those kind of things. „What’s our favorite game we did this year“ and that kind of stuff.
[K] So M.U.L.E. was your guys’s first game alright?
[A] Yes as Ozark. I had sold a game to a company called „Serious Software“. It was like „Shapes and Matters“ except it was before. I can’t think of any game but not too long after that there were other chutes and ladders. Before you try to avoid creatures on each level and you run and might fall through the hole if you don’t get it across there, and then you have to climb up ladders, and the idea was to go into the underground and recover coins and you take the coins up to the top were the bank was.
[K] It was for the Atari?
[A] Yeah. I don’t believe it was ever published, because „Serious Software“ [inaudible] went out of business not too long afterwards. They were the kind of company that people think dot-coms are, like in their offices they did nerf balls and play, stuff like that, and threw a big Christmas party. [inaudible] They did at least a dozen games, but they were all kind of lightweight like mine. [The] look would be like a pie barriers Atari 2600 game. [Inaudible] Just a single screen and the [inaudible] increase in difficulty. [Inaudible] Like „Space Invaders“, you know that kind of thing. I mean as far as its depth our imaginations is concerned.
[K] So you had this game that really sounds like no one has ever seen.
[A] Oh I don’t I don’t think so. Because I don’t think it ever sold. But it used all kinds of gee whiz stuff in the Atari and that’s why I managed to learn about the Atari. Like displaylist interrupts and how the sound chip works and all that stuff. Atari is a powerful machine. I’m sorry they didn’t do better but Atari kind of killed themselves.
[K] So did you guys know that M.U.L.E. was going to be a hit? I mean did you know how huge it was going to be?
[A] No idea. The important thing to us was that we wanted a game that kind of was like playing Monopoly where we could have four players play at the same time against each other. Dan was always coming out kind of with new ideas, or putting old ideas in new ways. He would push the boundaries. We did a game called „Robot Rascals“ and it actually got a deck of cards. You dealt out six cards to each person and then it was a scavenger hunt. You had to go find each of your six items and get back to your base before the other guys get. It was more complicated than that but that’s what it boils down to. There’s a scavenger hunt. Well who’d ever heard of that? Where you got a game and a deck of cards to go with! That’s pretty cool! It was so that parents could play with kids. You could set it up so that it was that the kid had four things he had to get, and the parent might have six or seven things. This could be configured so that somebody 8 [years old] could play somebody 30 [years old] and it would be okay. Everybody to have fun, pretty cool.
“The important thing to us was that we wanted a game that kind of was like playing Monopoly where we could have four players play at the same time against each other.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the key inspiration for M.U.L.E.
[K] Also seems like just having the cards would make piracy difficult. The game is useless without them.
[A] Yes… Early on it was estimated that only one in 12 copies of M.U.L.E. were purchased. We really suffered in those days from piracy. It might’ve done my solo a lot better if it weren‘t for piracy. So probably only one in 12 were purchases. However well it did it was a fraction of what it could have been. But EA did all the piracy protection, the sector damage or whatever it was they did. The encryption on the disk. We would just use whatever they had. That was part of their tech support, copy protection. Back then it was like, if you figured out a [copy protection] scheme, it was six weeks to three months max before somebody figured out how to undo the scheme. Just a matter how good it was and didn’t matter for the [inaudible] or somebody else. It was going to get hacked.
“Early on it was estimated that only one in 12 copies of M.U.L.E. were purchased. We really suffered in those days from piracy.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the commercial success of M.U.L.E. being hindered by piracy
[K] Can you tell me – you’re doing the interface and graphics on M.U.LE.. Can you give me a story or something with an interesting challenge or problem you had doing that?
[A] Well here’s an idea. When we were playtesting, we’re all trying to say „We’re gonna go get a M.U.L.E.“, „We’re going to take it out to our property“ and „We’re going to install it“. Bill was frustrated because he thought that the harder you push the faster you should go. But here’s what we did: The longer you held it the faster it went, and that satisfied him. Because when you pushed hard you actually ended up holding longer and so it made it so that you got some acceleration [inaudible] you know turbo boost or anything. But take a lot of M.U.L.E. is really subtle, it’s just too cool. Dan’s idea was: We want the player‘s color and it’s M.U.L.E. when they come out of the store when they go over his property lines we need to have him be visible on his let’s say his production or whatever. So we’d actually shift the brightness or the level of blue so that the player would stand out from the property. That was Dan‘s doing in my implementation. But isn’t it cool – Dan had a thing for nuance that was beyond what I’ve ever seen before. It’s the way he felt him sane in games. [Inaudible] I‘ve never known anybody to notice that player changes because the properties of the player are distinguishable. [Inaudible] Like the colors like red or green or whatever and then when you‘re going on your property you could still see your guys.
“A lot of M.U.L.E. is really subtle, it’s just too cool. Dan had a thing for nuance that was beyond what I’ve ever seen before.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the level of sophistication of M.U.L.E.
[K] That‘s cool. I don’t think I noticed that explicitly but I played hundreds of games of M.U.L.E.
[A] [Inaudible] I never seen a port of M.U.L.E. that even came close to the Atari. Even though we did one, I guess we did the Commodore port [Inaudible]. The Nintendo thing was terrible. It wasn‘t even close. They missed the whole point of the game. Almost all of them missed it. All the stuff about the history production and proximity, if you have two factories right next to each other they’re going to produce more in the time that they’re installed, and the longer they‘re there, the more they produce. Some people even miss that, and that was actually the simple. [Inaudible] All those little things, like sometimes there were things about Crystite… [inaudible]. There were things that were predictable. Other stuff that you could expect to happen and sure enough most the time it did happen. If you played a lot of games, have you realized that the guy that’s losing gets the good luck and the guy that’s winning gets the bad luck? That’s another one of the game equalizers because we want it to be fun all the way to the end. Bill would figure out ways to beat the game. Bill actually figured out that you could you set yourself up and then go in and run all the M.U.L.E.s off! Now nobody can get any M.U.L.E.s! [Inaudible] The problem is, there’s a certain amount of cooperation because the colony dies if you don’t cooperate to a certain extent. Of course the goal was to get a high colony score, I think a hundred thousand or something. Gave you a better win rather take a seat everybody.
“I never seen a port of M.U.L.E. that even came close to the Atari. Even though we [Ozark] did one, we did the Commodore port. The Nintendo thing was terrible.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on the different versions of M.U.L.E.
[K] At a certain point it it said „You will all be living in palatial estates or something like that“. [Inaudible] We entered the combination of cooperation and also be a better man for myself.
[A] Exactly. That was not me doing it, that was another Dan thing. Families could play games together and get alone together and still compete and have a good time.
[K] I thought it was pretty cool!
[A] Another one of Bills schemes went [worked] on the Commodore. You had four players during the auction with keyboard. Then exploration phase, where you go and take your M.U.L.E. to the property. The clever [inaudible] Bill would hand you a joystick and unplug it at same time! So you lost time on your turn to plug in your joystick back in! He had all kinds of ways… He was very competitive. I think he may live in England now, his wife was from England.
[K] After M.U.L.E. was Seven Cities of Gold. Talk to me about your work on that!
[A] I did the stuff you see, the joystick stuff, and the villages. I never was very happy, none of us were really very happy with the native interactions. We couldn’t figure out what else to do, but essentially you make them mad if you run into them, and then you hit them with a hostile Indian tribe. But if you can get to the chase and offer him enough stuff… That was the other thing, it just was boring for me to keep giving them stuff, and you go back out and then you come back there and give this phone, and go back… There’s got to be a better way to do that. Anyway, eventually you converted the village to be peaceful. I guess that was a religious conversion, if we were trying to make it historically. They read a lot of books to get it accurate. Some of the cool stuff here was: The Commodore didn’t allow sprite display while disk access was going. Jim rewrote the kernel to allow us to animate not only half a sprite, but also to animate the sprite, so you could walk and load the world at the same time! Jim did most of that kind of „hard“ code. That‘s what I considered „really hard“ anyway. He wrote the world generator. Boy, Dan was really demanding there because he wanted to have like [inaudible], he wanted stuff to run north-south like it was in the real world. He had to create a believable world when you did the the mystery world of the unknown world. It was really pretty cool because that was part of the game, that idea of hidden information and discovery. You sail off into the west and you don’t know if you’re going to get land or not. If you played the historical version you know kind of which way you got to go to run into the continents right. So we came up with a deal that could have some land, so, I don’t even know how many land masses. Sometimes you sailed west and all it was was little islands and I’m not sure if you decide… I can’t remember the game well enough what to say whether you got to pick whether it was going to be a bunch of land masses or just the world, I really can’t remember. Anyway the deal is you say „Well see you there“ and then you uncover. The world is black and actually as you travel you uncover the land. I may have done that, but I’m not really sure who did that. But the whole point was it was agreement of the group that we wanted you to not know where you were going until you got there. And then you map, and that’s part of the game too. You can bring back good maps that you’ve uncovered a lot of stuff to the court, so they’re going to reward you a little better so you might take more men and more ships next time you go. Oh and there’s another Dan thing: However you treat one village, word spreads and so it will be easier or harder to deal with next village and the next village and so on. If you mess up it goes backward, villages that were friendly may become less friendly or hostile. If you kill all the people… You know, the king or whatever in the next village… There’s a whole lot of background communication between villages, but they’re only local. In other words, if you killed somebody in Massachusetts with guys in [inaudible] they don’t really care. But sorry, people in New England that would know about you, even your arrival [inaudible. That was just part of that nuance thing. It was really subtle. That was really some of Dan‘s many strengths, just a really masterful game designer. We used seeded random numbers, if you went back to the same place you saw exactly the same thing, as far as everything. The trees on the land, the coast, trust me everything would be identical for the whole game, which was really important because if you’re going to take all this mapping stuff back to wherever you came from and then return, it needed to be good you can‘t have a place where there was one tree and now there’s two. A thing we did in the Atari version was really cool. We have a season line. The trees actually turn color in the spring, in the fall, in the winter. They’re indicators because our movement cost at different times of year. I don’t know if you played it enough to get bogged down in the winter… It’s pretty cool and that’s another one of the subtle[ties]. The time of year indicator, I think I came up with it. The movement cost is a Dan thing. I think it‘s hard to say. Everybody had an input all the time. I mean, we also he worked in the house when trying something. [inaudible] But Dan was the chief or the boss or whatever.
[K] Nice problem with that game when I was a kid was I think you already mentioned it as you’re walking around the town and all the local villagers just kind of walk into you and then they die and then they get mad. And then they said „Guys just step back! Take it easy guys!“. Basically I never got that far into the game because I was I was too busy accidentally killing…
[A] Yeah you gotta be quick with the joystick. That’s probably the game element I don’t know… But the idea there was that you made him sick. I mean you didn’t necessarily go in there to whoop ass… But you got too close to him and you brought him diseases that they couldn’t overcome. But they died and you’re to blame for it. So that’s why they became [inaudible]. I wished we could have made the villagers different. I don’t have any good ideas. I don’t even have any bad ideas. I just know that was a tedious part. Especially when you’re wooing the king and she was just going to go in there and take the village. Well that one’s to hard to do. If you started with the little villages and then you got Indians or whatever to go with, natives, to go with you to the next village, presenting any money with him, you could pretty much do what you wanted. But it wasn’t fun and you didn’t make as much money. You really wanted to be a little [inaudible] put the joystick or whatever went on the villages. But I agree. Have you got any ideas for that? I’m just curious. It wasn’t our first time because [inaudible] the best of the bones I think.
[K] Oh I don’t know. That game, when I was a kid, I didn’t super [inaudible] me and explain why. But as an adult it just seems like the „Columbus taking over native lands“… I don’t know if the game would get made today, you know, just politically.
[A] Oh right yeah, might just leave a bad taste in mouth. But I do like a lot of the things that we did. The idea of an enormous world, I mean much much bigger than fit in memory. Looking at 48k machines, and our disk was, an Atari disc was like 76k or something like that. It wasn‘t very big. That was one of the reasons why I use Apple, I think it was a hundred and seventy something. So there was a much larger disk. But it was pretty cool because all of our games, they were bigger than the machine. What you get was the result of that over and over and over. We didn’t ever have to stretch, just put a bunch of junk in there, to make it fill up [inaudible]. We didn’t need it. It was always we had too much we wanted to try to do and we just didn’t have enough space and so try to cut it, everything that was superfluous out.
[K] Go to the bare minimum.
[A] Yeah because boy I can’t take long. Even in assembly it didn’t take all the thrill for 48K. I think my little game was 10K or something, and that made me change it to a cartridge. I don’t remember what the cartridge sizes were back there… [Inaudible] That’s what Serious [Games] said, it will buy it if you make it a cartridge game. So I did that.
[K] So looking at the list of Ozark’s Software it seems like, I‘ve seen M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold, Hearts of Africa, Robot Rascals, Modem Wars… It seems like M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities were the only two Atari games. My wrong?
[A] Well I don’t know. We normally would go for Atari first. But I don’t know. I know that „Command HQ“ which was done by Microplay, a subdivision of Microprose, that one we did first on a PC. I don’t think it was ported.
[K] That was released in 91 so it was a little late for Atari 8-bit at that point.
[A] I think it was only DOS based. I can’t remember though, it could have been either one. Modem Wars was my favorite to play because it was the first game that I’m aware of that was online, that is connected over either you dial up the modem or you connect two PCs. So “I see what I see” and “you see what you see” and my goal is to go find out what you got, and yours go take out your command center. Every little thing you can think of was taken into account. Things like trees. Each type of unit sees different, moves different, any kind of terrain. It was all background. I mean you didn’t feel that, it intuitively made sense. Anyway, so we set up each other. We’d set up and then I push go and he pushes go. [Inaudible] There’s no turns. The idea is to take out the other guys command center before he gets yours. And it is intensely a different rush! [Inaudible] So you’ve either been totally wiped out and annihilated or whatever. There was some cool things. I did a drone and that was amazing how difficult that was because at 300 baud we’re only sending like 4-5 BOTS bytes. We send the change of state not the whole game. So you’re only spending a few things at a time. The drone, you had to lead the other guy, because if you just shot to where he was, by the time all the commanding stood, or they were supposed to go, you would’ve blown up behind where you were shooting for. So that was really a kind of a challenge to make something that would take several say 5 or 10 seconds to find its destination. When you play them online nowadays it wouldn’t make any difference. Is was probably like “as fast as I see it, you do too”. But back there with the latency of a 300 baud modem. Oh yes it was really good.
[K] But Modem Wars and Robot Rascals and Heart of Africa… Modem Wars was Commodore 64, Robot Rascals was Apple 2 and C64. You guys moved away from the Atari after those first couple of games. Do you have a sense of why?
[A] EA pushed hard for Commodore, and Dan pushed hard for Apple as their losses rose, and Atari struggled back there. I’m not really sure when Atari stumbled and lost the whole. I think they brought out a machine after that, called them 1800 or 1500 or something, and they were already in trouble by that time. [Inaudible] It was too little too late for them.
[K] Right, Commodore is probably well on its way to selling its first million at this point and Atari, sorry, kind of not doing great.
[A] Exactly, and install base of Apple 2 – it was just silly not to write for them if you could. Even if we did have to compromise colors. I think we… Did it do six colors or eight, maybe, or six colors and black and white. Is it artifact color? Talking about hard to write for… It’s like the colors are seven bits and that other bit is like a switch between two palettes. This is all long time ago, right…
[K] I think it was four colors plus black. But sometimes depending on the mode you can only use two colors at a time.
[A] Yeah it was artifact, it weren’t true colors. [Inaudible] We took the scanline from the computer. So there’s like a half step ahead or a half step behind. Get the whole step and one side was one color and one side was the other color. I mean just to scroll something you had to drop that bit out of the scroll to get it over and then put the bit back because that get told it what the palette it was using for that particular column. It was a tough machine to do anything on. It didn’t have interrupts. That was where masterful programming shows. Dan took the Apple… [Inaudible] Apples didn’t have interrupts. At Commodores and Ataris we could run sounds and run the program at the same time. In an Apple he actually had to count cycles and figure out when to go toggle the sound, the little speaker in there. Dan actually went through the whole thing and made it so you could play on an Apple, and the music played without stuttering. That was the most remarkable thing I can remember of palettes and programming whatever. How do you do this, it‘s a huge game and you’re going through there and finding all the spots that could be or might be or whatever and making the sound… Well that‘s awesome. I mean cuz it’s a piece of cake with the Atari and Commodore. Let‘s just go and start it and go whatever else you’re doing on pleasure interrupt, [inaudible] there’s been kind of maintenance or changes or whatever main code would never know what’s going on. And in Apple it is all main code.
[K] Alright. So were you at Ozark until the end?
[A] Until what happens… When we did Robot Rascals… Sometime near the end of that, Dan and his new life moved to Mississippi, Jackson Mississippi. Because she was a doctor… PhD and something… Anyway she went back to school, for another PhD I believe, or maybe that was her… Anyway she went to school. And so we continued, but it was more stressful because we could only get together once every few months you know for an eyeball kind of thing. And so we finished Robot Rascals and then I agreed to do a port to the PC, which was scary because we had neither one written for PC. We don’t use that as our development machine. So I got a box that was maybe a foot cubic that had four Microsoft manuals and C, and a PC and six months to port that from Commodore to PC. So I had to learn C, and learn about PCs and all that. I was just cruising along and I finally got something together. It was probably slow it wouldn’t play. I was so disappointed. It was because the compiler optimization was terrible. For an index it might use memory instead of, there’s actually an index register on the chip and stuff… So I had to learn standing on that. It came out fine, it looked good, worked fine, I finished in my six months. I was so proud. That‘s actually how it was, I mean nobody knew anything anyway so you got a good as chance as anybody. Just go right in there and see what happens. And being naive really helped too, so, I couldn’t imagine there was anything you know. You just fix something to say „yeah we got to do that“ and then when you finally hit the wall we’d say „Ah I see, we can’t do it that way“. We had a lot of those, but for the most part it was better not to know the limits, sort of, your own limits or the machines limits, because you were a lot more open to trying. It was exciting too. „Nobody’s ever done this before“, „We’ll be the first ones to do anything like this“. You just get wired and everything and then and do it. What’s left was just cool. Then I finished and [inaudible] and just decided to part ways. [Inaudible] I had the Commodore to PC port. They just couldn’t work that way. And I guess Dan began to have some other issues with his marriage, because that was, I think, his third marriage, and his [inaudible] self and he [inaudible]. I guess he started thinking about becoming a woman man. So he kind of wandered off and didn’t really do much for the next couple of years except change, you know go through the gender change operations and I think you have to practice for a year before they’ll do the surgery just to make sure that you’re comfortable and that kind of thing and stuff. We just kind of lost touch and Dan then he started that, I don’t know if it was a M.U.L.E. thing or what… I mean, there is literature that believes that he was working on a internet version of M.U.L.E. when he died, or she died. Whether that’s true or not I can’t say, but he did have me do characters, and I think I did nine or ten characters for a game that they were working on. The little animated shapes. But I couldn’t tell you if it was M.U.L.E. or not. Whether it was M.U.L.E. and then added some more. Because that was part of the appeal of M.U.L.E., so really fun to make and figure out ways to make them roll, like the ball with his little arms come out…
“Nobody knew anything anyway so you got a good as chance as anybody. Just go right in there and see what happens. And being naive really helped too.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on game development in the 1980ies in general
[K] Someone actually did come up with a online version of M.U.L.E. a few years ago. It‘s still running. [comment WoM: Kevin is talking about Planet M.U.L.E.]
[A] Are you happy with it, or how do you feel about it? I think I’ve looked at it but I haven’t played it.
[K] Well I played it and it was fine. It’s different; it’s updated; the graphics are better and the sound is better… Well honestly, modern people play differently then how we used to play back then. [Inaudible]
[A] Did they say what the differences were?
[K] No I tried to nail it down, and they were just like „Yeah I don’t know“. [Inaudible]
[A] Yeah that’s just amazing. I wonder if that means that you are a better player? Or you’re overwhelmed by it? Or is it more than four people online?
[K] I think it’s still four at a time, not like craziness or anything. So yeah it was fine, but then again do I go back and play it all the time? No. [Inaudible]
[A] M.U.L.E. is kind of by itself, it’s really fun. It’s kind of hard to introduce people to because it’s not as easy as stuff is today, were we handle a rifle and you just go shoot everything. It’s quite a bit different. My kids play online games that have a lot of resource. My kids are in their 30s but they they play. I don’t really know what anyway, but they play online and it’s apparently they’re enormous. I mean they take teams of twenty or thirty people in to kill whatever it is or to take the mountain or the treasure or whatever. There’s a lot of cooperation and a lot of „I’m in charge and now next time you can be in charge“ and that kind of thing, because someone’s gonna call the shots, organize the gang or whatever it is, the guild…
“M.U.L.E. is kind of by itself, it’s really fun. It’s kind of hard to introduce people to because it’s not as easy as stuff is today.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on M.U.L.E. accessibility
[K] Do you have any discs, or code, or source code, or „that game that was never released“ or stuff like that?
[A] I don’t think I have any code. I’ve got some floppies in the garage but I don’t know how I would even read them. [Inaudible] But I have – I’m sure that I have – but I don’t know where it is: A copy of my original game that I mailed to myself when I mailed the one to Serious [Games] because I didn’t know exactly whether you should trust anybody or not. So I just mailed one to myself and never opened it just so I could have a proof of „I did this on this date“. And I know that box has never been open but I’m not sure where it is. [Inaudible]
[K] When you find that I would love to participate – let’s open it and archive it!
[A] That would be cool, yeah, because nobody’s gonna even take it from me now. But it’s too simple. The bank was German and then what fell into the ground had „M“ and that was called „Raiders of the Lost Mark“. They got really unhappy with that name. They said „We’re going to get in trouble with Lucas or whoever did the Raiders of the Lost Ark“. So they had me change it, you may call it „Gold Mine“, and now it’s just coin for dollars. But essentially there’s an earthquake and all the money falls out of the bank into the ground and you got to go find it take it back to the compound.
[K] Neat! Cool please find that!
[A] [Inaudible] The earthquake alone was pretty cool [inaudible]. If I remember right they just bounce out of the bank and roll down through the holes and stuff, or maybe I just go through the levels… I can’t remember.
[K] If you could send a message to the Atari 8-bit community that’s still like this – and you can right that now! – What would you…
[A] I am so flattered that they’re still playing games that were done thirty years ago. I just am tickled, I really am. And honored. It’s just amazing to me.
“I am so flattered that they’re still playing games that were done thirty years ago.”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, on M.U.L.E. longevity
[K] What do you do these days?
[A] Actually I’m playing with Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and it’s sort of like Atari days. Although a lot of lot more is known. I mean the information travels so much more quickly so that within sleeks of the Arduino being released there is so much information as you would have needed four years for the Atari. This is amazing. The upside of that is you can pretty much do anything. If you can think of something just do a search and then all you got to be able to do is in the very code. You don‘t have to write too much. I think Processing [WoM: A Python-based programming language] is awesome. Even if you leave out those little computers you can do so many nice artistic expressions or whatever with a computer using Processing. Apparently the language was made for visual arts or visual artists or whatever. [Inaudible] I’m new at Python, but it’s not very hard. I spent 30 years as a suite programmer for different uses, system C++. After Robot Rascals it’s been protocol converters and voice response systems and data conversion systems… And my last job for 15 years was aircraft cabin management. I was hired because I did know graphics and had done games, and they wanted to put touch screens in airplanes. This was before iPads and stuff, so our first prototype weighed maybe six pounds and was two inches deep. The company that I worked for made the monitors, the tablet kind of thing, all the interfaces, the video, also audio amplifiers and the body of distribution… So the touchscreen would be the principle of that is the owner of the airplane or whatever or his assigned person more likely it was would be able to use the touchscreen to turn off lights, and turn up and down the air, and switch what you’re gonna watch on the monitor or listen to on audio, you could switch inputs… In the galley we did stoves and coffee timers… But it was all done with touch screens. So that was my most recent job. It’s a little bit like a game. It’s doing toys for really, really, really rich people… I mean these are people that own… One of the guys we did it for, he has two 737s and one 777, and we did those three planes for one person! It’s just hard to imagine the amount of money these people have… It’s like this was a United [inaudible] or Saudi Arabian at home, and that was a Minister of Finance or something over there. I’m just saying. I mean you walk into a plane and they’ve got a silk rug that’s been woven just for that company. And you look below the woven into the rug and you’ve got to wear booties and everything. Or it’ll not have a backlit glass, like a stained glass thing, as the entry floor to the plane although let me walk down and the sides are leather, and then the parts that connect the panels, the little tram pieces, are gold-plated, laboratories gold… It is amazing. It’s just got more money than [inaudible] I think. But anyway… Lots and lots of play and lots and lots of travel. In fact the voice response was the favorite because I traveled all over the world. Because we had to record pieces of voice to make „your balance is four hundred dollars“ or whatever. We had to be able to say that in Russian or Hungarian or whatever Dutch, whatever country we were in. And then making it multilingual was a mixer for me. I figured out how to do that. So you could press one to do this language, press 2 to do that language, and however many languages you wanted, you could have up to the capacity of the drive… And I play with some robots, and [inaudible], and LEDs, doing different kind of designs, and fixing to do a piece that i might try to get installed somewhere an installation art playing that has to do with them. A physical display looks like an oscilloscope. You’re seeing it in ribbon dancers. Well I want to make it so that the dancer is computerized. [largely inaudible – something about Cirque de Soleil]. And I volunteer. We have a brand new, since last November, MakerSpace here. So I teach some electronics and programming and help kids. One thing that’s kind of neat but you may or might not be interested in: In March of 1984, Bike Magazine did a review of M.U.L.E.
[K] Did they like it?
[A] Yeah! I mean, everybody that ever reviewed it still really liked some aspect or all of it. The only criticism ever probably has been the quality of an Atari joystick. But the tough spots are made part of its beauty. I mean they’re just a piece of plastic with a little bit bowl, simple kind of thing that pushes a button right. So you can’t expect them to last one Bill Bunten pressing as hard as you can to go up!
“You can’t expect them to last one Bill Bunten pressing as hard as you can to go up!”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, introducing a new unit – “1 Bill Bunten” – to measure the durability of an Atari joystick
[K] So is there anything else I didn’t ask you about Ozark or M.U.L.E. or Seven Cities that you need to tell me?
[A] There’s little things, like Dan and his column in Computer Gaming World… I wrote a couple of articles for Compute, and did a thing in their books, seemingly had two books that had Atari stuff. [Inaudible] A Compute book of Atari and then a Compute second book of Atari.
[K] I didn’t realize you had a hand in that!
[A] No it’s just an article. In second book with Atari I’ve been in an article, and then to the Compute magazine. I was telling you about the frustration of using BASIC to do animation. I figured out a way in Atari to replace the character set with my animations and because of the display list in fact they can change graphical modes every line, you can change a whole lot of stuff every line. And because characters get to the screen so much faster than bitmaps – well then you can just print characters to the screen and you get animated stuff, gets the same resolution as if you were doing whatever that text resolution is for that screen. We actually use it in the Commodore versions. So the window is [inaudible] small because we couldn’t use bitmaps. That’s actually all characters. All the graphics on Seven Cities on Commodore was characters. We redefined characters on the fly.
[K] Sure that was a common way to get things done even on the Atari too.
[A] Yeah because you just have such a limited amount of memory and disk space and speed. You had to figure out other ways to do it . So I guess one of my articles is in Compute 81, September 81. [Inaudible] Once I got started I didn’t write any more stuff for magazines after Ozark. It was a matter of time actually not anything else. It wasn’t prohibited it‘s just we were pretty busy. Yeah so well keep on playing M.U.L.E. every chance you get! I still got an Atari 800, the disk drive, an 850 expansion, I’ve got an „MM deck“ – that what the monitor of those days was called? [Inaudible] Atari had luminance and chrominance out, so you could get a better picture using that. I think this just takes composite this monitor. It’s sitting here waiting for a repair. Somehow the the video [inaudible] is broken so if you wiggled a wire you lose picture. I mean it’s old. Can you imagine this? An Atari 800, disk drive, an interface and monitor over $2,000 back then…
“Keep on playing M.U.L.E. every chance you get!”Alan Watson, Feb 19th 2015, defining the eternal M.U.L.E. Community Imperative.
[K] Yeah – in 1980 dollars!
[A] And just think of what we can do for like two or three hundred with a little Android tablet, or for 500 with an iPhone or an iPad. Hey is this awesome or what!
[K] So do you still fire up your Atari from time to time?
[A] Very seldom, maybe twice in the last 15 years. But I just can’t hardly let it go and I’m getting old so I don’t need the money or anything. And it’s not taking up space so it stays in a closet on the top shelf. [Inaudible]
[K] Well thank you so much for your time today.
[A] It’s just been a delight to talk about old times and make a new friend, and again if you have anything else you need, if I can help I’m happy to do that!
[K] Very good, thanks, have a great afternoon!
[A] You too!