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8.0) Programmer Interviews:

The two following interviews were conducted over Internet with a couple of ex-Mattel Electronics employees by Sean Kelly.

8.1 - Daniel Bass

:Q: What was your line of work before you became an Intellivision programmer?

DB: I joined TRW right out of grad school, I was working there as a software engineer. I had started in Feb. 1981, just as the Reagan Administration came into office. The job I was supposed to work on was frozen, and there was an enormous delay in getting any kind of security clearance, so that limited what projects were available to me. As a result, I spent my first year there not accomplishing very much on a variety of small projects.

:Q: How/Why did you come to work at Mattel?

DB: In the spring of 1982, I heard on the radio of an Open House / Job Fair at Mattel Electronics, and I thought it would be a fun way to spend the afternoon - playing with their latest games and gadgets. I was not very happy about my job at TRW, but I wasn't looking to go anywhere. When I got there, I started talking to one of the managers about Dungeons & Dragons, a personal passion of mine. He was looking for some people to develop a D & D style game for the Intellivision Keyboard, the big keyboard. One thing led to another, and in a few weeks I was on board at Mattel Electronics.

:Q: Exactly which games did you personally program?

DB: Loco-Motion was the only game I programmed start to finish. I also programmed Tower of Doom but I only had the game about 80% done when Mattel Electronics went out of business. I had concentrated on the special effects and mechanics, but I hadn't put in the game play and strategy that I had had in mind. A few years later, one of the guys was contracting out with whoever it was that had bought up all the Intellivision property (was that INTV?) to finish a bunch of the games that were in development when M.E. went under. Tower of Doom was one of those games. I had since moved from California to Massachusetts, and so had not the equipment, nor time to do the completion. He got one of the other programmers to finish it up, but he didn't add any gameplay either, he just tidied up the loose ends so that the game had an ending and wouldn't crash.

:Q: Were you involved in programming any other games?

DB: Most games were developed by a single Game Designer, with the help of certain "specialists." There were a few graphic artists who designed most of the graphics for most of the games, a few sound people who developed most of the sound effects. However, the total game development and integration was done by a single engineer.

There was a lot of testing, feedback, and reviews amongst the game designers. A significant portion of our work week was assigned to playing other people's games to find bugs, cite improvements and offer suggestions. To this end I worked on several games, but that wouldn't qualify as programming.

I also worked on several projects that just didn't go anywhere, and were dropped. The whole big keyboard project (for which I had been hired) was dropped not long after I started working there. It was deemed to be to expensive to produce, so that it would be unsaleable. Subsequently it was redesigned, and code-named "LUCKI" [pronounced 'lucky'] for Low User-Cost Keyboard Interface. I started developing a Stock Market game for the LUCKI, when, one day, the arcade version of Loco-Motion turned up next to my cubicle. I watched and played several games, and I was hooked. Literally overnight I had developed an Intellivision prototype of the arcade game, and the rest, as they say, is history.

:Q: What was it like working for Mattel?

DB: It was an absolute blast! The people there were all a bunch of overgrown kids, and management encouraged us to work on having fun as hard as getting product out. The result was an atmosphere of great teamwork and camaraderie. Some examples:

  • The annual office party would be held by renting out a local video arcade and providing Pizza / Deli / Beer / Sodas and unlimited video games to all the staff and their families.
  • The arrival of a new piece of equipment would often lead to the impromptu creation of a new game, using the packing materials in the hall. Several of the managers in particular were particularly creative in constructing these games.
  • Numerous arcade machines lined the walls of the work areas, and people were encouraged to take breaks to study the games and improve our hand-eye coordination.
  • All of Mattel Electronics and families were invited to Disney Studios for a private pre-release screening of "Tron."

:Q: Can you fill us in on any 'unfinished' projects that may have been in the works when Mattel Electronics went out of business?

DB: I'm afraid that I can't be much help here. So I'll answer a different question.

Things started turning down for the entire video game market around the beginning of 1983. I finished Loco-Motion, and in the summer, started working on Tower of Doom. It was originally supposed to be a voice-optional game, and by the fall I was putting in many long hours focussed on getting that going. Around October, Mattel had its first round of layoffs. About 1/3 of the staff was gone overnight. The atmosphere had become quite depressed, and I coped by becoming ever more involved with working on Tower of Doom, and blocking out what was going on around me.

In November we had the second round of layoffs, and another third of the staff was gone. It seemed like there was no hope left for the few of us that remained, but I kept plugging away at T-O-D, hoping that I'd have enough time to finish the game. Unfortunately, in January 1984, Mattel Electronics went out of business, and that was that.

So, about all I remember from that time period was how depressing things got, and how desperate I was getting, hoping that I'd be able to finish T-O-D.

:Q: As game collectors, one of the biggest problems we have is finding out exactly what games are out there to be had. Do you know of any games that may be in existence that are not listed on the 'complete' listing I sent you?

DB: I doubt I can help you here. While I enjoyed playing the games, I was never a 'walking encyclopedia' on them.

:Q: Do you still own an Intellivision system?

DB: Yes, although I never use it. Now my son Aaron (9 years old) uses it.

:Q: What was/is your personal favorite Intellivision game?

DB: Now you're going to have me make enemies of all people whose games I don't mention! :-)

Well, leaving aside a personal bias for Loco-Motion and Tower of Doom, I really like Thunder Castle for its graphics and music. It is such a pleasure to look at and listen to, that you can forgive it its simple game play.

There was a Pinball game I liked, but I was always more into pinball machines than Arcade Video games.

Buzz Bombers and Thin Ice were both cute.

My favorite game when I was on mental overload was Shark! Shark! I found that the colors, sound, and pace of the game was generally restful and relaxing, unlike most video games which leave you all keyed up and strung out.

8.2 - Ray Kaestner

:Q: What was your line of work before you became an Intellivision programmer?

RK: I came to Mattel straight out of school. I was a EE major. Initially, I hired on at Mattel to do handheld games, such as electronic football, basketball, etc. then moved into the Intellivision group after a couple of years.

:Q: How/Why did you come to work at Mattel?

RK: After graduating from UCLA in 1978, I did a lot of interviewing. Most of the local companies in Southern California were defense oriented and I wasn't particularly interested in going down that path at that time. I also talked to a number of chip companies in Silicon Valley. By far, the most interesting job was the one at Mattel. I had my doubts about Mattel's long-term stability, since they had recently completed some litigation about how they were running the business and also since the toy industry in general tends to follow boom and bust cycles. However, in the final analysis, it came down to that sure sounds like it would be a lot of fun.

:Q: Exactly which games did you personally program? Were you involved in programming any other games?

RK: In Intellivision, my games for Mattel were BurgerTime and I also did about half the programming on Masters of the Universe. After Mattel got out of the business, I worked on Diner (a BurgerTime sequel) and Super Pro Hockey for INTV, who took over the Intellivision business from Mattel. I also worked on the concept development for Super Pro Football, though I didn't do any of the programming.

In handheld games, I wrote Computer Gin and World Championship Football. In addition, I also worked with a championship chess player on Computer Chess.

:Q: What was it like working for Mattel?

RK: It was a blast! The best part by far was the team that we had put together. There was lots of diversity the talents and interests of members of the group and that added a lot to the quality of the games. In fact, every year there is the annual layoff reunion party, where everyone gets together to reminisce and network and all those sorts of good things. Next year is the 10th anniversary, so there may be some special festivities planned.

:Q: Can you fill us in on any 'unfinished' projects that may have been in the works when Mattel Electronics went out of business?

RK: When things went under at Mattel, I was working on a sequel to Masters of the Universe with a lot of Escher-looking screens. After a few mutations and change in characters and story line, I was able to finish that game as Diner, a sequel to BurgerTime done by INTV. When INTV bought out the rights to Intellivision, they bought the right to all the work in progress at the time. Much of the work that was fairly far along was later published by INTV, so you can see what was happening at that point. After a while, we ran out of pre-existing work, and so we ended up doing some new work and other sequels to existing games, especially the sports titles.

:Q: Do you still own an Intellivision system?

RK: Of course! Since the machines tended to breakdown every so often and since I suspected that it would become increasingly difficult to get them fixed, I made sure to store away 3 or 4 Intellivisions in the attic to make sure that my kids would be able to see what I had done at Mattel. So far, I have only lost one machine, so they were a lot more reliable than I thought they would be.

:Q: What was/is your personal favorite Intellivision game?

RK: Of the work that I did, I would probably rank Diner as my favorite, followed closely by BurgerTime. I would also rank Night Stalker pretty highly. I also played a lot of Sea Battle and would count that among my favorites.

:Q: What is your line of work now?

RK: After Mattel went under, since there was so little commercial work around the area and no video games work anywhere at the time, I went to TRW to work on defense systems. Fortunately, I was able to get involved with some pretty fun projects using early versions of Sun Workstations and so I was able to have some fun, learning lots about GUI and all those things that are still increasing in popularity. I even designed a paint program for a government project, probably one of the only paint programs ever done specifically for the government.

Since then, I've moved over to the PC business and am doing Windows work for first for Software Publishing Corporation on Harvard Graphics for Windows. I also worked on their InfoAlliance project, which was one of the first GUI database projects available. Unfortunately, though the market was ready for such a product, SPC was not and the product died an unfortunate death. Currently, I am at Borland working on future versions of Paradox for Windows.

:Q: Lastly, Dan said I had to ask you about your "Cheeseburger Birthday Cake." What gives??? 8-)

RK: Dan's wife was taking a cake decorating class and one day they surprised me and brought in a birthday cake shaped like a giant hamburger. Obviously the connection was BurgerTime.

8.3 - Patrick Jost, former Intellivision speech developer

:Q: How did you come about working with the Intellivision, and what role did you play in its software/hardware development?

PJ: In 1981, I'd been working for Pacific Telephone for about a year and a half. This was my first real job after leaving graduate school. I'd messed around with the music industry, done a little "international consulting," some of the typical things one does when one does not know what to do.

Anyway, Pacific Telephone was fun... I was working with electronic switching, international testing (I got to call Libya once), programming custom services, various things. They had lots of Unix machines to play with, so it was also a sort of immersion course in Unix computing...

I started to get bored. I'd gone to most of the schools, I'd worked on various interesting projects. I was spending a lot of time and money at Opamp Technical Books in Hollywood (still in business, still a great place), and I was beginning to want to do something more -- well -- interesting.

Mattel was running huge ads in the paper. At the time, my main concern was the commute. I lived about 10 minutes from the Pacific Telephone facility in Hollywood, Hawthorne seemed far away. After a while, I got over this concern, and went to one of Mattel's job fairs (back in those days, LOTS of companies were having them). I got along with the people right away. Intellivision was an established product, they wanted to do more with it. They wanted to add voice synthesis. They were looking for someone with a linguistics background (that's what I majored in!) and who understood computers (thank you, Pacific Telephone).

This was Saturday. They asked me to come back Monday. I talked with some more people, and filled out the application. They were talking good money, and it sure sounded interesting. By the time I got back to Hollywood, I had a message on my machine, they offered me the job that day.

I gave notice at Pacific Telephone, gave myself about a week off, and started to work.

My first day was Monday... and already things were getting interesting. I had to fly to New York the next day to help with the speech for the first game. This game grew up to be Space Spartans, but, at the time, all anyone knew was that it was a space game of some sort. It was supposed to be a short trip; it turned out to be several weeks. I recall that due to the short notice I got to fly first class, and sat right behind Count Basie and a member of his band...

I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me explain how speech was made for these games. Along with the game idea, a script was written. I transcribed the script (into phonetic transcription) and made sure there were no critical words that would be "transformed" too badly by the speech synthesis process.

After the script was written, auditions were held. I used my contacts in the music industry to find good agents and a good recording studio. We looked for good voices, good acting, and actors that could work with some of the odd requirements of speech synthesis -- not too many 'hissing' ess [s] sounds, no loud popping p's and so on. I finally developed a pretty good ear for which voices would synthesize well...

After the recording, the voices were sampled. We used a Hewlett-Packard 1000 series machine with the ILS signal processing package and a large amount of custom software.

The sampled speech was fed to the synthesis software for the IntelliVoice speech synthesizer, the General Instrument SP-256.

Synthesized speech could be generated quickly. The problem is that automatically generated speech took up a lot of space (that could be used for more speech or game code). This was a big problem! The other problem is that the automatic speech synthesis didn't always sound that good... some of it was actually pretty bad.

The solution to both problems was manual editing of the original waveform before the speech was synthesized. This was done with a good, but somewhat primitive editor. Segments to be used for synthesis could be marked, and speech could be deleted. The resulting files could be submitted for synthesis; the results were usually speech that took up less space that the automatic speech and that sounded good.

For the first six months or so, I did everything -- work on scripts, transcriptions, auditions, recording sessions, speech editing. I did almost all the speech that you hear on "Space Spartans" and "B-17 Bomber."

By the time "Bomb Squad" came along, Mattel wanted to be more organized. A formal speech group was set up -- I trained the editors, largely on what you hear in "Bomb Squad!" The last speech game was "Tron: Solar Sailer," I did not have much to do with that one.

I went on to work on some other things for Mattel: consumer musical productions, and advanced technologies for the games, specifically a rapid prototyping environment. For a while Mattel was also very interested in entering the European marketplace, so I worked on Spanish, German, French, and Italian versions of "Space Spartans." That ROM is out there somewhere...

:Q: I've heard that Mattel had a "laid back" environment: it was a fun place to work. Would you say the same?

PJ: Fun place to work? Sure, especially if you liked video games. I didn't, and still don't. But remember, this was during the time when it seemed like there was a Pac-Man machine everywhere.

Mattel had some very good people. Most of us were about the same age... late 20s, early 30s, I guess. Many common interests apart from the games. I played Geddy Lee style bass in an informal group called the Redi Spuds (named after a sign on a nearby building) that played sort of a new wave rock; yes, a total mismatch of styles, but fun... I shudder to think of what it would sound like now, with my more Percy Jones influenced style.

You could always find someone interesting to talk to, even though I don't think they planned it, there was quite a lot of synergy. In speech, we were doing things with audio on minicomputers that are commonplace now in this age of samplers... but we solved the problems years ago.

Laid back? Well, the games programmers didn't work on much of a fixed schedule. I was interested in seeing what could be done with natural language processing technology. I should also say that I'm probably NOT a very laid back type of person! I was never really all that happy in California, and my lack of laid back inclinations may explain why I'm one of the few people I know of who moved from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.

:Q: Would you know of any unfinished hardware or software that Mattel may have been working on (besides the previously mentioned foreign ROM)? Video game collectors just love this kind of thing. :-)

PJ: Unfinished games... there were probably lots and lots of them, things came crashing down pretty fast. ROMs? I don't know, probably not many of them had been made into ROMs yet.

There was a thing called "Decade" which was a 68000 based system that could have been Macintosh like, had they completed it. There were prototype wireless remote controls for Intellivision. There were plans for all sorts of interfaces... Apple II, IBM PC, and so on.

You may have seen the Synsonics drums, four touch pads and some buttons with some rudimentary programming/memory capability. There were also a Synsonics guitar, with "strum bars" for your right/picking hand and a neck full of switches for your left/fretting hand. I don't think this ever saw production, but I've seen things like it in the COMB and DAMARK catalogues.

:Q: Thanks for the interview, Patrick. I appreciated it.

PJ: No problem...

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