farbish.com/atari8bit.org Interview with Gray Chang,
1980s Atari computer game designer
Q: Was the Atari 800 your first computer?
Yes. It was 1981, and I really wanted to program games because I was
so impressed by an arcade game called Missile Command. Due to lack
of experience, I was not successful in getting a paying job as a
game programmer, so I decided to buy a computer and program games as
a hobby. I didnít expect to earn a living at it.
At that time, the Atari 800 was the computer with the most advanced
graphics and sound capabilities. It cost about $1,000, a real
extravagance for me in 1981. The Atari had a 1.7 MHz CPU, 16K (not
16 Megs) of RAM, no monitor, and no disk drive, not even a floppy.
Q: Dog Daze was your first game and was submitted to the Atari
Program Exchange (APX). What was the submission process like?
Most programmers mailed in their submissions, but I was close enough
to their offices in Sunnyvale, California to call on them
personally. I brought in my preliminary version of Dog Daze to
demonstrate, and a small crowd quickly formed around the computer.
Everyone could see that it was well-programmed, with smooth
animation and lively sounds, and that it was easy and fun to play.
The APX folks helped me a lot. They set up a meeting with Chris
Crawford, the respected Atari game designer, to help with a small
technical problem. Chris gave me a copy of De Re Atari, an extremely
useful Atari computer reference manual that I didnít know existed.
One early problem was that the screen would fill up with too many
claimed hydrants. I was trying to decide how to get rid of them,
when someone at APX suggested that a car could come by once in a
while and knock them out. As you know, that is exactly what I
implemented. The car turned out to be an exciting and well-liked
Q: Most of your games feature a dog theme. Have you owned many dogs?
No, the reason for the dogs has to do with the computer hardware.
Because Dog Daze is a two-player game, there was a shortage of
"players" (computer-generated shapes) available to build larger
shapes. So whatever kind of player shape I was going to draw, it had
to be no more than eight pixels wide, and all one solid color. I
tried making spaceships, but they were crude and boring. Then I
thought the player ought to be an animal, so I just tried to draw
what I could. The shape looked more like a dog than anything
else, a Terrier to be specific. That was what I used.
Q: You quit your regular job to write games full-time when Dog Daze
became a hit. How did you know it had become a hit?
Dog Daze went on the market in the middle of the computer game boom,
and almost immediately I was earning more in game royalties than I
was earning at my regular job. So it made sense to quit in order to
write more games.
Q: You wrote Claim Jumper under the Synapse label. Where did you get
the idea for it?
I showed an early version of Claim Jumper to another Synapse
programmer, William Mataga, of Shamus fame. He said immediately,
"Hey, this is just like Dog Daze!" And he was right. The two cowboys
running around are just like the two dogs, just with different
shapes. The two cowboys race for the bar of gold, just like the blue
hydrant in Dog Daze, and the snakes and tumbleweeds are basically
just claimed fire hydrants that move. There were lots of shooting
games in those days, so it was natural for the cowboys to have
Q: Did Synapse have you change the game much from its original form?
It was really a collaborative effort between myself and the driving
personality at Synapse, a guy named Ihor Wolosenko. I would meet
periodically with Ihor to show him what I had accomplished since our
previous meeting, and we would decide together what we would keep or
change, and what I should implement next.
Ihor gave a lot of creative freedom while ensuring that each feature
would do well in the marketplace. For example, I wanted to
de-emphasize the shooting aspect of the game by forcing the cowboys
to buy their bullets with the cash they earned. But Ihor correctly
insisted that by default, the cowboys should have unlimited bullets
so that new players could shoot all they want. The "buy bullets"
feature was made into an option.
Q: Dog Daze Deluxe was your next game, also published through APX.
What prompted you to write a sequel?
Mostly it was a lack of inspiration about writing something entirely
new. Dog Daze was very successful and I knew I could improve it in
many ways, most notably by adding a single-player mode (the computer
controls the other dog in a fairly human-like way). In hindsight, I
should have abandoned Dog Daze in favor of Bumpomovís Dogs or
something else new, as the game market was about to collapse.
Q: Bumpomovís Dogs was your last game. You mention on your site that
you feel itís your best game. Why?
Like Dog Daze and Claim Jumper, it is a fun game with true
two-player interaction. It has the variety and complexity of Claim
Jumper, but it is as simple to understand and play as Dog Daze.
Also, the scrolling-splitting-recombining screen is surprising and
Q: What was your best-selling game?
About 10,000 copies of Dog Daze were sold by APX, and almost as many
units of Claim Jumper were sold by Synapse. Claim Jumper earned more
royalties due to the more generous contract offered by Synapse. Dog
Daze Deluxe and Bumpomovís Dogs did not sell at all due to the
collapse of the computer game market. Later I offered Dog Daze
Deluxe as shareware and received ONE donation of $5.
Q: What was the hardest technical challenge you remember facing?
I used 6502 assembly language because Atari BASIC was much too slow
to do smooth animation and complex processing. Most Atari computer
owners felt that assembly language was too difficult and obscure to
master, but I found it straightforward. In fact, I enjoyed the
challenge of programming complex algorithms using the very limited
and simple instruction set of 6502 assembly language.
Q: What is your best memory from your Atari days?
Programming games for the Atari was the most exciting and rewarding
job that I ever had. It was tremendously satisfying to know that
thousands of people were enjoying my creative work. I especially
enjoyed the laughter of children playing Dog Daze. I would often go
to computer stores just to find my games on the shelf. I became a
minor celebrity among Atari computer owners.
Several years later, I mentioned to a co-worker that I once wrote a
computer game called Dog Daze, and a guy in the next cubicle popped
his head over the wall and exclaimed "YOU wrote Dog Daze?"
Q: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview and thanks for
all the happy memories your games have provided!
You're welcome. Please direct your readers to my web site to
download and play Bumpomovís Dogs or any of my other games for free!
The above article is copyrighted and may not be
distributed or reproduced without express permission of