Atari Football History

By Mike Albaugh, edited by us

Several folks at Atari had wanted to do a football game for a while, by the time I got there. I believe Steve Bristow and Lyle Rains were the main promoters of the idea, however the technology was not quite up to it. With the move toward microprocessor-controlled games, it started looking possible. The problem of lots of moving objects remained. Early games used a dedicated circuit per object (Indy 800 used a board per car), but soon various engineers came up with ways to share circuitry. An early success was Sprint, which shared the vertical positioning circuitry among four cars, and (historically interesting) shared a single RAM for the "playfield" and uProc RAM, using the 6502's synchronous memory access to "invisibly" access the RAM for video when the processor was not using it. This was later used to great advantage by the Apple ][, another story.

Anyway, the folks at Cyan Engineering (Grass Valley) had designed a game named Tank 8, that shared essentially all moving-object circuitry. It had a nasty quirk in the form of "shadows", but started Lyle thinking. He came up with a modification that Dave Stubben used as the basis of the design for what would become MOC-16 (Motion Object Control, 16 objects). Originally intended for Atari Football, this design and its descendants were the "workhorse" for Atari video games down through System I, and were widely copied and modified by many of the Japanese video-game companies.

At the time, Atari coin-op engineering was divided into four teams. Dave was "team leader" and senior electrical engineer for the team I was on. I was one of two programmers. Dennis Koble, and then Ed Logg, were the other programmers. Dave Sherman was the other engineer, and Joe Coddington and Steve Ehret were the technicians. Graphic and cabinet design were a "shared resource", and "graphics" meant physical stuff, not pixels. Teams did their own pixels, which we called "dots" at the time, none of us having taken a computer-graphics class. I did the playfield and "player" graphics for Football, the X's and O's themselves, and the Ball. I believe I also did the logo on the 50yard line. That is, I know I did _a_ logo, and believe mine went into the game, but Steve Ehret was better at the more complex stuff, so he may have done a better one. If you have a game, and the logo sucks, it was probably me. The alphanumerics were taken (possibly slightly modified) from Lyle's excellent "Sprint" character-set, which was at least as widely copied as MOC-16.

I was the project leader for what was initially called Monster Man Football. Later, Warner tried to strike a deal with the NFL so for a while it was "NFL Football" internally, but the deal didn't go though, so it became Atari Football. I suggested "AFL" as "Atari Football League", as the American Football League had been absorbed into the NFL as the AFC, but lawyer-types were a bit skittish about that. If you were to find documents or files from the time, you would also see PIGMOC (Pigskin game on MOC-16) or MM*.* (Monster Man..whatever).

Dave and Lyle, with various kibitzers, came up with the initial four plays. I did essentially all the coding, except that Ed Logg "tuned" the plays. That word doesn't give him proper credit. I had implemented a little interpreter to control the objects, and coded the original plays from Dave/Lyle. Ed spet a lot of time on those "scripts" and really made the game play.

When we brainstromed about controls, I wanted a trackball. They had existed for a while, but were fiendishly expensive. I harrassed Jerry Lichac, one of our ace mechanical engineers, with a number of hairbrained schemes. Meanwhile, Sega produced a soccer game with a trackball. It was not a great design, but served as an "existance proof" to quiet Atari management claims that a trackball was inherently too expensive. Jerry came through in style. His "three-point suspension" was the first I ever saw in such a context, and was widely adopted shortly thereafter in pretty much every (mechanical) mouse. Too bad he never patented it.

With a working trackball in hand (still in hand, sort-of. I have one of the four prototypes at home) we were ready to go, except that Nolan still thought it was too expensive/complex, and wanted to switch to joysticks (cue "foreshadowing music" for those familiar with Mable Man :-). This was the second of three occasions when I threatened to walk if I did not get my way.

The few folks who have seen my earlier "Boxing" game [ed note: Mike has the only prototype of this game at his house, and it was never released] may notice a family resemblance to the Football cabinet, although the latter dispenses with the "roof" and tilts the surface with the controls, both to make it easier to hide the selection LEDs and to make it a lot harder to perch a beer where it might spill into the works. A drain-hole under each wing and an internal levee also helped prevent beverage damage. I do not recall if the cabinet was designed by Regan Cheng or Mike Jang. Pete Takaichi was the supervisor of the cabinet group, and I believe all three had some input.

The first three hundred games had a green monitor overlay, of which I strenuously disapproved. I'd like to think it was my disapproval that caused it to be omitted later, but I think it was just cost. That first run also had the "marble" texture trackballs (actually duck-pin balls), while (most of?) the rest of the approximately 14000 production units had black balls.

-- Mike Albaugh,
who wrote to flame me about my browser compatibility issues,
(which proved to be non-issues)
then followed up with this story 2002.12.30
Visit Mike's webpage

links to like

KLOV
Killer List of Videogames.

Good Deal Games
Old console heaven. These people still release new games for ColecoVision, Vectrex, and other consoles.

Arcade Restoration Workshop
This site is about restoring arcade games to their former splendor. Run by Brien. Swell.

Twin Galaxies
The worldwide authority on player rankings, gaming statistics, and championship tournaments.

Universal Videogame List
I had an idea to database all games ever a while back, but just thinking about it made me tired. This lunatic is attempting it.

RetroBase
Oh look, another lunatic. This site seems to be a competitor to the UVL above, but has a different look.

Videotopia
An international traveling museum exhibit chronicling the history of mankind's first interactive media.