Interview: Bob Harris

Bob Harris interview
by Earl Green

All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.

Fort Wayne, Indiana may not strike a familiar chord within the video game industry, but in the late 1970s, it was an unlikely hotbed of activity supporting what was then considered the most serious competition faced by the Atari VCS. Fort Wayne was the home of the original game development group working on new titles for Magnavox’s Odyssey 2 console…or at least it was for a little over a year. The original development group was disbanded sometime in 1979, with the bulk of new software for the Odyssey 2 being generated by freelance programmer Ed Averett. Averett’s initial involvement with the Odyssey 2 was not as a game designer, but as a sales rep. Working for Intel, Averett worked Magnavox’s account, providing the manufacturer with the chips that drove the Odyssey 2; he later began to write games for Magnavox on a royalty basis, which was an unusual arrangement in the early 1980s.

Magnavox was bought by the electronics wing of North American Phillips, which itself was the American division of a Dutch-based Electronics company. N.A.P. quickly brought a version of the Odyssey 2 to the Netherlands as the Videopac console, and set up its own game design group there which was responsible for many of the European-only releases for the Videopac. But N.A.P. also resurrected the U.S. Odyssey 2 design group, basing them in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1981.

It was through this newly-reorganized group that Bob Harris, known to classic gaming fans by the nickname of “RoSHa,” continued his then-new career as a video game designer and programmer. “I wanted to do video games, and when I graduated from college in ’79, Atari replied to my persistent letters with ‘thanks, but we have all the people we need.’ I found a non-video-game job at Milton Bradley and, after about six months, convinced them to let me try my hand at them.”

Harris found that Milton Bradley understood the game market quite well…but they may have pinned their hopes on the wrong platform. In explaining the situation, Harris reveals that Milton Bradley played an important role in the genesis of the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer. “Milton Bradley had recently had a big hit with Simon, and decided to staff up their own electronic development group around early to mid 1978. They decided to produce a video game machine, and approached Texas Instruments with the design of a custom video chip for the machine. TI was working on a game machine of their own, and a joint venture was formed. Milton Bradley’s idea of the machine was a games-only machine with a price point of around $200. I think the Atari 2600 and Odyssey 2 were around $150 at this time, but I’m not positive. TI’s idea ended up being a home computer with a higher price point. By the time TI brought the thing to market, as the TI Home Computer, it was $900, plus another $500 for a monitor.”

Blasto Still, Harris says, Milton Bradley was committed to the TI 99/4A, and had already developed several titles, which were released to coincide with the debut of TI’s computer circa 1980. Harris worked on two licensed arcade game translations, Hustle and Blasto. “Hustle was a licensed game, presumably from the arcades, but I never saw an arcade version personally. I saw many similar programs on computer screens. I added a lot of variant versions that we all enjoyed at Milton Bradley, but the marketing folks nixed that to keep true to the license.” Harris does, on the other hand, remember seeing the Blasto coin-op. He also remembers that the home version of Blasto was the first game he programmed, having taken over that project from another staff programmer.

“Sales of the TI machine were very disappointing, and Milton Bradley backed off on further work for it,” Harris says, explaining why the name Milton Bradley doesn’t sit next to fellow toy giants Hasbro and Parker Brothers as a video game manufacturer in the minds of many gamers. “At that point, Milton Bradley looked at doing games for the Atari 2600. At the time, we had reverse engineered the 2600, and had a group working on games for it. I believe I saw some 2600 titles at the Milton Bradley booth at the ’82 CES, but I’m not certain if they ever took them to market. About the same time, they bought Vectrex (or bought a license to build them), and, though I don’t remember any specific games, I think they must have released games for it.” Ironically, both Milton Bradley and rival Parker Brothers were later bought out by Hasbro.

Milton Bradley did, however, take their games seriously. “Milton Bradley was pretty good if you liked games. We would always try out some new game at lunch – a board game or a video game. The corporate atmosphere was pretty stodgy, though. Certain building entrances were reserved for folks above a certain grade level, you had assigned parking spots, and the buildings all had a serious security staff. My first day at work I got a standard issue memo that said ‘the work day ends at 4:45; at 4:40 you will begin to clear your desk of everything except for your telephone and your comptometer.’ Before that, I didn’t even know what a comptometer was!”

Then a curious twist of fate took Bob Harris away from Milton Bradley’s young game development group. “One of the guys in the Milton Bradley group, Sam Overton, got hired away to go back to Magnavox/N.A.P. to restart their games group, and he brought me along.”

It was a heady time in the video game business. Pac-Man Fever was at its peak. The best-selling Atari VCS titles were Asteroids and Space Invaders, and that machine’s hold over the home video game console market was still new. Anything could still happen in this industry. By re-hiring Sam Overton, one of the members of the original Odyssey 2 development group from Fort Wayne, North American Phillips seemed to be taking the challenge of putting their console at the top of the heap seriously.

“Well, they tried,” says Bob Harris. “But they didn’t understand games. It was not their business. At least they set us up in a separate office 20 miles from the main building, and mostly left us alone. As to what it was like, boy, thinking back almost 20 years…it was a lot of work, a lot of hours. It’s not that management really pressured us to work a lot of hours, though. The schedules were generally designed for us to be successful – I think we a little more relaxed in this regard than Atari was.”

Working solo, the Odyssey 2 programmers could take anywhere from three to six months on average to complete a new title. As Harris remembers it, “What made for a lot of hours was being perfectionists; trying to get the thing to play just right, spending time playing each other’s games, being critical and offering suggestions. You always had plenty of suggestions, but it was still your project, so you had the final say-so.”

Many Changes In Fortune

The dictionary describes an Odyssey, whether it’s Homer’s or Magnavox’s, as “a long voyage marked by many changes in fortune.” It’s an apt description for the underdog in the console race of the early eighties. “The programming was difficult, mainly because the processor in the Odyssey 2 was a poor choice for a game system,” Harris recalls.

Odyssey2 To illustrate this point, one has to examine the innards of the machine. According to Harris, the Odyssey 2 was built around Intel’s 8048 chip and a custom video chip, which Intel created specifically for Magnavox’s machine. “Contrast this with the Atari 2600, which had a 6502,” Harris says. [The 6502 is the same chip which former Atari employees Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak used as the central processor of the Apple II computer.] “Compounding the problem was that our 8048 was only able to execute about 15 instructions during one video line, whereas the 6502 was executing about twice that many. Further, the 2600’s video chip was simpler and more controllable. This initial batch of 2600 games Atari sent out was pretty simple, mostly Pong-like with a few simple elements on a black background. The Activision people started doing a lot more with that machine by changing graphical elements during the video line – doing things that the chip designer never imagined.”

But couldn’t the Odyssey 2 compete graphically? After all, Atari’s games were plagued by a flicker caused by too many sprites (animated characters) on the screen at the same time. The Odyssey 2 rarely, if ever, displayed such problems with its graphics.

“The Odyssey 2 had a more complex graphics chip. The chip did more for you, but it could only do those things it was designed for, and nothing more,” Harris points out. The payoff for the chip’s power came in the form of the Odyssey’s infamous fixed characters set – alphanumeric characters, planets, and even men looked identical in the vast majority of the Odyssey’s games. “From memory, the chip had character patterns stored in ROM, for, must’ve been 48 or 64 8×8 character patterns. You had 26 uppercase, 10 digits, two patterns each of a man walking left and right; that would be forty. I forget the others. It also had 12 objects which would display any of those characters, positioned independently, and in any of 16 different colors,” Harris recalls, though he also admits that the machine may have been limited to 8 colors. “There were four 8×8 single color sprites, grid segments for making mazes, and a background color.”

Harris remembers that the Odyssey 2 design team began a quest almost immediately to find different ways to use these limited capabilities. And, taking a cue from Activision, they searched for solutions which no one had thought of. “You could try to reuse objects on different lines – use an object near the top of the screen, then change its position to the bottom, so it would appear twice. This was pretty hard to do successfully, for a number of reasons. First, the 8048 was pretty slow; second, the processor clock and video clock didn’t have an integral relationship, and only returned to the same phase relationship every four pictures.

“I also experimented with using, say, 6 objects to make 7, by choosing one not to display on each frame. I think you saw a lot of flickery things in other games where they’d use one object to make two on alternating frames. That didn’t look good, but an object missing only one out of every 6 frames didn’t look too bad. It almost looked like it had an energy pulse. In Killer Bees I was trying to use this to make more robots. But it ended up that I ran out of other resources first.”

Harris recalls that the struggle to create characters other than the presets built into the video chip extended to shamelessly exploiting bugs. “There was a flaw in the video chip that allowed you to use any bottom segment of any of the characters. Thus, the Killer Bees robots used the legs from the walking figures, and half-8’s for the helmets. I made a little demo cartridge that allowed you to play around with those to see what the combinations would look like. The bug zapper in Killer Bees was done, if I remember correctly, by changing the background color part way down the screen, then changing it back 10 lines later. I think I placed some objects over the left and right ends to hide some glitches that went along with that.”

Harris’s Killer Bees also included a unique and colorful title screen, which was atypical compared to the bland “Select Game” screen that greeted the players of most of the Odyssey 2’s games. “The front screen of Killer Bees used the same kind of thing, changing the background color in a rainbow pattern. That was just an experiment to see if we could do anything useful like that. The answer was generally ‘no,’ but that effect was attractive enough to put in the cartridge.”

Harris drives the final nail in the coffin of the Odyssey’s under-powered processor: “Which reminds me, the 8048 only had something like 64 bytes of RAM, and that was it! And then ColecoVision came out with the Z80 and a nice video chip. What’s sad is that the same video chip had been in the TI Home Computer, introduced circa 1980. Other people could have made the Coleco system earlier – just no one did.”

Voice Enhanced Bees!

1982 saw the most significant – well, truthfully, the only – attempt to enhance the technology of the Odyssey 2. Promoted heavily on TV and in print advertisements, the Voice of Odyssey 2 promised to enhance Odyssey games with helpful, human-sounding synthesized speech. What would have been helpful to the programming group in Knoxville was some idea of how many of the shiny add-on modules had been sold.

“The problem with the voice thing was that you couldn’t use it as an integral part of play, since most people didn’t have one. And it was difficult to get an accurate reading of whether the thing was out there or not. So for the most part, I think we all considered it a nuisance,” Harris remembers. But ironically, one of the first games to which the Voice was essential landed in his lap – as Harris’s first assignment as a full-time member of the game design team.

Nimble Numbers NEDNimble Numbers NED was my first game for Odyssey, and they wanted an educational line for the Voice,” Harris says of the simple game, which supposedly helped to teach math skills. “I was never very pleased with this game. I wanted to title it ‘Math Potatoes,’ but marketing wanted to have NED and SID form an educational line. SID was SID the Spellbinder, by Sam Overton, which was a much better game than NED by far.”

Harris also pushed the envelope of the Odyssey 2’s processor once again by creating an innovation for Type & Tell, a cartridge which was included with every Voice module. Acting as something of a glorified Speak & Spell – in a robotic voice which one of the video game magazines of the time described as “Darth Vader on quaaludes” – Type & Tell presented users with a blank grid. Using the Odyssey’s keyboard, users could tell the Voice of Odyssey 2 what to say…and occasionally, the machine got it right, though phonetic spelling quickly became necessary for most applications. “I am a baby doggy,” for example, would be mangled into “I am a babby dodgey” unless it was misspelled in just the right way. But don’t blame Harris for Type & Tell‘s disjointed speech. “I only contributed some technical capabilities to this one. Prior to this cartridge, you generally didn’t see more than twenty or so characters on an Odyssey screen. I figured out how to get 96 characters up there.”

But the Voice managed to sound much better in other games, which raised the question of its split personality. “The robot-like voice was done completely with phoneme-based text-to-speech. The other voice was pre-canned words. There were also a couple of sound effects in there.”

In fact, it was an odd sound effect from the Voice that inspired Bob Harris to create his best game for the Odyssey 2, Killer Bees. “The idea for Killer Bees came from one of the sounds in the Voice module. It was supposed to sound like a boing, but sounded like buzzing bees. If you had a Voice module, you heard this sound at the start of an attack wave, as your swarm forms, I think.”

Killer Bees In Killer Bees, the player controls his own swarm of friendly Earth bees. Directing one’s bee swarm over invading Beebots will sting the intruders to death, leaving little gravestones that will block the advance of other Beebots. But alien bee swarms also emerge from “hives” at the sides and top of the screen; if these enemy bees come in contact with the player’s swarm, the player loses bees. Alien bees can only be eliminated by using the “RoSHa rays” (you guessed it, those are Harris’s initials) on either side of the screen. When the player loses all of his bees, the game is over. The game’s frantic speed makes it one of the most difficult Odyssey 2 titles to master.

The Challenger Series from which Killer Bees sprang was notorious for basing its games upon familiar arcade staples, but making them different enough to avoid legal trouble (with the exception of Ed Averett’s K.C. Munchkin, which drew an Atari look-and-feel lawsuit). But was Killer Bees designed to be similar to a coin-op title? “Everything was trying to duplicate the feel of the arcade game Centipede. I definitely wanted something fast paced. A good player can polish off some of the early Killer Bees waves in a few seconds. One of the things I liked in Centipede was that a smart player could make use of the patterned behavior of the centipede to force it into a channel of mushrooms and pick it off easily. The corresponding concept in Killer Bees was the predictable behavior of the robots. A robot either always turned left, or he always turned right. You could take advantage of this by killing a robot or two in the right place, which forced another robot into a tight loop, making it easier to kill. Or at least that was my theory. I’m not sure if any players ever caught on to that. Similarly, I don’t know if War Room players caught on to the fact that they can produce laser fuel.”

But not everyone, it seems, “got” Killer Bees. “One experimental thing I did also was probably lost on players,” Harris admits. “At least I know that when a writer for Games Magazine called, he hadn’t noticed it. Most people think you only have one life in Killer Bees, that as soon as the bad swarm touches you, you’re dead, game over. That’s not true, though. You have twelve bees in your swarm, at the start of each wave, and you lose bees while you are contact with a bad swarm. So if you are only in contact briefly, you’ll lose a couple bees. If you sit there and let them swarm over you, I think you lose your whole swarm in about a half second. I think it’s actually possible to fly right through a bad swarm and not lose all your bees.”

And if you thought Nimble Numbers NED was the only educational game Harris programmed for the Odyssey 2, think again – Killer Bees nearly contained a couple of interesting lessons in math. “At the end of a round, you get a bonus for each bee you have left. And each time you make it through a wave without losing any bees, the bonus multiplier increases. This was something I borrowed from the classic pinball machines. Through most of the development, both the bonus level and the wave were displayed as two letters – wave 1 = letter A, wave 26 = letter Z. So if you had a perfect game up to level 26, you’d see ZZ, but if you had a few waves where you lost some bees, you might see something like ZT. The vice president over our group thought that was ‘teaching people base 26,’ and I was forced to change it. So the released version has two digits for the attack wave, and you have to figure out how you’re doing on the bonus.”

Killer Bees “By the way, that’s why there are only 26 waves in Killer Bees,” Harris reveals. “After wave 26, it goes back to wave 20. Another experiment was a good lesson in psychology. I have always hated games in which every scoring action yields multiples of thousands or millions. The last three digits were always zero, so it just seemed worthless to me. During much of the Killer Bees project, the score was listed as X.XXX. In other words, you scored in increments of thousandths of a point. While it makes no mathematical difference, there was something not at all satisfying about getting to the end of the game and saying ‘Yeah! I scored 3!’ So I took out the decimal point. It was a humbling realization.”

The traditional process of the Odyssey designers playing and offering suggestions on each other’s games yielded some valuable additions to Killer Bees as well. “The portals at the screen edge, where the bad swarms form, was Rex [Battenberg]’s idea, I think. Or maybe it was a result of a bad experience he had playing an early version. I think the swarms just appeared in the portal and immediately came out, and this nailed Rex’s swarm and he swore several times at the top of his lungs. His point was he didn’t have any chance to avoid them. My counterpoint was that you shouldn’t sit near those portals! But after a while, I realized it’d be better if the swarm sat in the portal for a while so you’d have a chance to see it. The bug zapper was Sam Overton’s idea, and I think it helped the game. When there are no other sound effects going on, there’s sort of a heartbeat. That was the VP’s idea. He insisted that the main reason Pac-Man was successful was the repetitive sound. He might be right, but the heartbeat in Killer Bees would have been more useful if I had more than one voice.”

The Probe 2000 Story

In mid-1983, North American Phillips began to preview a new console, the Odyssey 3. It would replace the Odyssey 2’s membrane keyboard with a PC Jr.-style “chiclet” keyboard, and offer new high-resolution graphics – some of which would enhance existing Odyssey 2 titles. The Odyssey 3 looked like a serious bid to compete in a market which was now ruled by such consoles as the ColecoVision and Atari 5200, to say nothing of such computers as the Commodore 64, Apple II, and Atari’s computers, all of which were popular with game enthusiasts.

Odyssey3 prototype - courtesy Fred Hiss But with most of the Odyssey 3’s early titles being touted as “enhanced” versions of Odyssey 2 games, was N.A.P. shooting itself in the foot by trying to maintain backward compatibility? “Yes and no. All the Odyssey 3 was, was an Odyssey 2 with a character-grid video chip behind it. You could make some nice pictures with the chip, but you had to reuse character patterns to do it. In other words, you couldn’t just draw a picture freehand, and expect to have enough character patterns to be able to accomplish that picture on the chip,” Harris recalls. “The initial idea was to release cartridges that worked on both the Odyssey 2 and Odyssey 3. What this usually meant was that the Odyssey 3 portion of it wasn’t going to be part of the game play, just a snazzy background that had no impact on the game. This is what you would see in Killer Bees, for example. Instead of the playfield being black, it was a honeycomb. Except then we realized that the honeycomb background made it difficult to play the game, so the honeycomb was relegated to the areas outside the play region.”

“There was also a plan to do Odyssey 3-only games,” Harris confirms. “The first of these was called FlashPoint, by Rex Battenberg, which played something like Defender or Robotron. The Odyssey 3 was never released in the U.S., though, so that went by the wayside.”

Later in 1983, North American Phillips also embarked on a new project to spread their games across several platforms. The rumor mill was working overtime, with consumers and industry observers anticipating that the Odyssey 3’s capabilities would range from sharper arcade-style graphics to full computer capabilities complete with a modem. But N.A.P. had apparently decided not to hedge all of their bets on their own platform. Hence, Probe 2000 was born.

“We were planning a series of games for ColecoVision at the time,” Harris says. “Our main goals were to shed the Odyssey image and try to come up with games that had more strategic depth than the simple shoot-’em-ups. This was our attempt to compete in a marketplace where expensive licensed titles were becoming the norm.” Ironically, Harris cites Atari’s E.T. as an example of the licensing juggernaut here – while many observers credit that very game with the downfall of the home video game industry at the time.

War Room N.A.P.’s Probe 2000 line took a swipe at the same kind of brand name licensing, but Harris recalls that the company had little or no money to spend on such things – and even when they did spring for licensed characters and properties, it wasn’t always something straight out of Hollywood.

The schedule was originally for Power Lords, a licensed title in conjunction with some action figures and perhaps a cartoon series, to be first into production, with War Room following about two weeks later. Near the end of the schedule, the guy writing Power Lords quit in a huff. I hustled War Room up to get it into production.”

But even late in the game, so to speak, Harris says that there was talk of War Room being renamed after a movie that was particularly popular with gamers and fledgling computer hackers at the time. “When the game was near completion, we also had discussions with the outfit that produced the movie WarGames about the possibility of making some changes to the game and licensing the movie title. This fell through when Coleco promised the movie people they could get a version of the game to market in a ridiculously short time – which didn’t happen, of course.”

But Probe 2000 didn’t settle on the War Room name quickly either. “Somewhere around here, I still have a folder with design notes through the project. The original title was to have been Nuke, After Nuke, to denote the two phases of play: being attacked, and trying to build up production before the next phase. The powers that be were more interested in generic names, and suggested Satellite Defense, before settling on War Room.”

War Room Unfortunately, if the reviews had anything to say about it, some of the press understood War Room about as well as they understood Killer Bees. “We, of course, would clip and save all the reviews of our games,” Harris says of himself and the other designers. “Most of them were good. After all, the magazines doing the reviewing sold advertising space to the companies selling the games. But there was one War Room review that was just awful. It said something like, ‘This is just another blast ’em game, you blow up missiles approaching US cities, and that’s it; we don’t need another game promoting war; it’s bad taste to show U.S. cities going up in mushroom clouds; why didn’t they add any additional depth to the game? Whoever wrote this is one sick puppy.'”

Oops. This was not a review that was likely to boost sales. But Harris is quick to give credit where it is due: “Clearly they missed the additional depth, but they might be blameless for that. The PR department had a habit of sending games to magazines with no rules. And if you didn’t have the overlay for the joystick buttons, you probably would never realize that you could enter a city.”

Ironically, it was an Atari 2600 game – and a world-famous feline – that seemed to convince North American Phillips to get out of the video game business…but it wasn’t some exceptional game from another manufacturer. It was a game that N.A.P. was working on as part of the Probe 2000 line.

“The outfit in Indianapolis that we had hired – I don’t recall their name – to do the Pink Panther game for Atari reported a failure in the chips they had fabbed to do the cartridge,” Harris says. “The Atari cartridge required in-cartridge bank-switching if you wanted a very large ROM in it, and this outfit had fabbed a chip to do that, and the chip failed.”

But N.A.P. wasn’t about to spring for the refabrication of new Pink Panther ROM chips, and the 2600 version of the game was cancelled, leaving the other editions in the realm of vaporware. “And since that was to be the bellwether of the line, N.A.P. decided to shut down the program.”

Even as Probe 2000 crashed, however, there was some minor consolation for Harris. “War Room was already in production, and they had parts to build 80,000, so they built ’em. These sold out in a hurry. Regardless, N.A.P. wasn’t going to make any more of them. I pleaded with them to make more, or to sell the title to someone else, but it was to no avail.”

“And that was it for Probe 2000.”

A Resurgence Of Power

All that fallout? From just one game? When the Probe 2000 project was shut down, according to Harris, “the stated reason was the failure of the Atari 2600 Pink Panther chip fab. I got the news when my boss just happened to mention it in passing.”

But this didn’t mean that the entire group was unemployed. “No one was let go. For a while the group fiddled around with designing another game system,” Harris says. “Eventually they moved us to another building and put us to work on the VideoWriter – a self-contained word processor. You see that type of product in the office stores – a replacement for the typewriter.”

But the stable of game designers who had seen out the Odyssey 2, the stillborn Odyssey 3, and the Probe 2000 line didn’t stay there forever.

“After a couple years, I saw the writing on the wall for the VideoWriter project, though, and I left to work on optical recognition systems, and eventually moved into embedded programming for digital TV, which is what I do now,” Harris says. “For me, I made a conscious decision to get out of video games because I would have to move to California to stay with it, which I couldn’t afford, and I was scared by the negative view game work was given when I interviewed outside the game industry. After N.A.P. shut things down and I started looking for other jobs, I remember that the general attitude I seemed to run into was ‘so, you’ve been programming games, and now you want a real job.’ It came as a little slap in the face, because the real-time aspects of game programming were more challenging than most other programming jobs I’ve had since.”

The Odyssey 2/Probe 2000 team scattered to different jobs, though none of them remain in the video game industry. “We all still are programmers, for the most part,” Harris confesses. “Rex and I were probably the biggest game players. We were always trying different variants of board games.”

But Bob Harris hasn’t quite left the building. Remember the unfinished ColecoVision edition of Power Lords? It turned up at Classic Gaming Expo 2000 – a fact of which no one had made Harris aware until this interview. “That’s interesting. After the other guy left, I managed to get the ColecoVision Power Lords passably working. Unfortunately, right in the middle of a dog-and-pony show for some magazine folks in New York City, the screen went from an interplanetary scene to all letters. Pretty embarrassing. That game was pretty lousy. I guess the rarity would be the attraction.”

Another aborted Probe 2000 title for the ColecoVision, Lord Of The Dungeon (by fellow Odyssey alumnus Rex Battenberg), also resurfaced in prototype form at CGE 2000, revealing a first – a feature that would allow a player’s game to be saved on battery-powered RAM embedded into the cartridge itself. “Lord Of The Dungeon was a good game. The reason this didn’t get to market had to do with the battery backed-up RAM. Our hardware folks could never get it working reliably.”

All of these prototypes, to say nothing of the fact that one can download Harris’ classic games to play on various Odyssey 2 and ColecoVision emulators from the internet, begged the question of what he thought of the emulator scene. “I stumbled across the emulators last year. I think flattery is the first feeling that came to me – flattered that the games could still be interesting nearly 20 years later,” Harris says.

But what about the issue of intellectual property? The Interactive Digital Software Association and its members have expended much effort in the area of quashing emulator and ROM downloads. “There’s a little feeling of intellectual property theft. However, I quickly realized that I have no rights to the games; they belong to N.A.P. And as I found out back in the 80’s, N.A.P. can do whatever they want with them – such as sell them in Europe without paying me. And N.A.P. was not smart enough even in 1984 to realize, in the case of War Room, that they had a property that they could sell,” Harris says. “So I don’t have a real problem with it. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see N.A.P.’s lawyers swoop in. Perhaps there’s some time limit to the copyright on the box, though.”

But the emulator authors, and the sites who offer the emulators and ROMs for free download, may not have to worry – there’s still no substitute for owning the console and the cartridge. “Killer Bees emulation still had a few glitches when I tried it,” Harris notes. “I don’t think the emulator quite accurately emulated collision detection. I actually didn’t find War Room, so I should look for that. It ought to work fine, because I wasn’t trying to push the limits of the hardware with that one.”

It has now been at least sixteen years since Bob Harris designed a video game. In response to questions of whether or not there’s a reason for the classic game revival, Harris is frank in his assessment. “To be honest, I have not kept up with video gaming that much. Two reasons: too many kickboxing games in the arcades, too many games on the shelves at Target, and I can’t tell whether a game is good or bad without buying it. So I’m not really aware of what’s popular at present. I was surprised when I found the emulators last year. But here’s an example of how things have certainly changed. One of the guys where I work is 25, and talks about wanting to design video games. What he talks about is, basically, a storyline. His story. The whole experience that he wants his player to have, he is mapping out. And that seems to match what I see in the games he plays at lunch. They are graphically impressive. Yet everything that is there for him to discover has been put there by the designers. Another difference might be the amount of time you have to invest to learn how to play the game. You can pick up Robotron pretty quickly. Takes more time to be good at it, but there’s not much to learn just to play. Of course, an arcade game had to have that characteristic.”

“Contrast this to many of the older games,” Harris continues, again citing Robotron. “The game has no story line. The designers put a bunch of different elements in the game; in this case, it was opponents with different capabilities. The elements are literally scattered randomly about the playfield; there’s no design here. As a player, you have a problem to solve. And the problem is not just simply one the designer made up. The solution to the problem – the strategy of playing the game – was not known to the designer until he or she got the game running and started playing it. Like chess, the strategies are not designed into the game, they are a result of the game. I’m sure the Pac-Man designers never expected people to memorize patterns to play the game. They probably didn’t even know the game had those patterns.”

Harris sums up his philosophy of what made the classic games classic: “In games like Robotron, Centipede, Q*bert, Qix, Pac-Man, Joust, Tetris, and others of that era, the whole was more than the sum of the parts.” At one point, Harris had a small home arcade (“Robotron was the one I played the most,” he says), though he has since sold off all but one of his machines. He more recently got a Playstation and has tried some of the emulation collections available on that console. “I found the controls on many of the games were quite difficult. For example, Centipede really needs a trackball, but I have no faith that if I found a trackball for my Playstation that Centipede would play like the arcade version – I guess my hopes have been dashed too often.”

Among those Playstation compilations are classics from the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision. Might the Odyssey 2 be the next console to be compressed onto a CD-ROM? Harris is skeptical. “I think someone at Philips would have to pursue that to make it happen. The European version of Odyssey 2 was pretty popular, so it’s surprising that a European collection hasn’t happened.”

And on the subject of a certain classic console for which he once designed new games, Harris has this to say about the Odyssey 2’s place in history. “Call it an evolutionary cul-de-sac, a term borrowed from an Arthur C. Clarke book. There were some innovations – the keyboard and the voice module. Yet these died out; you never saw them in other game systems. If you want to stretch things, you could say the keyboard made this a precursor to the home computer, but there were already commercial home computers before the Odyssey 2 came out. We had an experiment to merge board and video games – don’t see much of that around, though. I’m racking my brains, but I really can’t think of one thing special about the Odyssey 2.”

But there is a claim to immortality, one which Harris suddenly remembers: “Wait. No, there is one place for the Odyssey 2 in the history of games. The K.C. Munchkin case. I saw reference to that precedent in a recent issue of some magazine – Dr. Dobbs or Game Developer, one of those two. The case established some guidelines for how close something is allowed to be to an existing, copyrighted product.” In fact, according to Harris, it established an immediate precedent which had major ramifications for the next Odyssey game to follow it: “Pick Axe Pete was originally Hammerin’ Hank. After we lost the K.C. Munchkin case, there was concern that the game looked too much like Donkey Kong – which, after all, it was designed to be a copy of.”

The fact that Harris reads Game Developer is a little hint that the Odyssey programmer’s fascination with video games hasn’t worn off completely. “If I get back into game design, it will probably be more along the lines of a board game,” he says. “It might be on a computer screen, but it’d still be a board game.”

For the sake of classic gamers everywhere, here’s hoping that Bob Harris gets that chance.

This article ©2001
(This interview originally conducted for Classic Gamer Magazine and appeared in issues #5 and #6; special thanks to Chris Cavanaugh for permission to reprint the article.)
All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.