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 feature.

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 gunfights.

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 unique.

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!

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