Star Raiders – An Interview With Doug Neubauer

Interview by Lee Pappas

(Appeared in the October 1986 issue of Analog Computing Magazine)

Doug Neubauer was with Atari for several years, having previously worked in National Semiconductor’s video game/home computer division. His background was eventually in hardware, and at Atari, he had charge of the VLSI design for the POKEY chip, before the days of automated design software.

• While with Atari, in early 1979, he began designing Star Raiders. He believes the lunch-hour playtesting done by fellow Atari employees contributed greatly to the game’s quality.

• Soon after completion of Star Raiders, Doug went on to Hewlett-Packard. He’s also done some contract work with the 20th Century Fox video games. Today, he designs hardware at Imagen, a maker of image processors for laser printers.

• Just finished is a new game for the 2600, Solaris, with both similarities and contrasts to Star Raiders. It has sixteen charts and different types of “Zylons.” He’s interested to see if a new game for the 2600 can still sell. We hope so.

LP: Can you give us a quick history of how the POKEY chip first came to be?

 DN: The Atari 800’s architecture evolved as an upgrade of the 2600. Conceived primarily by Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir and Jay Miner before I arrived at Atari, the original plan for the POKEY chip called for keyboard interface, audio and paddle controllers.

DN: The Atari 800’s architecture evolved as an upgrade of the 2600. Conceived primarily by Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir and Jay Miner before I arrived at Atari, the original plan for the POKEY chip called for keyboard interface, audio and paddle controllers.

After I did an initial estimate of the size of the chip, we found that it would be possible to add a serial port for communication with a tape cassette recorder. Also, I added some enhancements to the audio, which was originally planned to have the same audio as is on the 2600.

LP: Were there any features you would have liked to include in the POKEY chip that were never implemented? If so, what were they, and why didn’t they get in?

DN: The main problem, I think, with the Atari 800 is that all I/O is serial. Originally, the POKEY’s serial port was intended to talk only to the cassette recorder. Communication to floppies and printers was to be through a parallel port and extension box. Unfortunately, the parallel port was abandoned (there was a fear of RFI and the difficulty of getting FCC approval) and all I/O was fed through the serial port.

This is why it takes so long to load a program from floppy disks; it’s all running through a 48K-baud serial port. With hindsight, we should have at least added a couple more serial ports and broken up some of the I/O functions.

LP: Were there any custom chip (or other) features ever planned for the 400/800 that never made it to production?

DN: Well, besides the parallel port and expansion box, there was the GTIA (George’s TIA). The GTIA chip was made, but wasn’t originally put into production…I don’t have one. I think that later they started using the GTIA, but I’m not sure.

LP: Can you describe the environment, the spirit of Atari during those early days when the 8-bits were first born?

DN: I wasn’t with the company back in the early Nolan Bushnell days. I started right after Atari was bought by Warner Communications. However, the atmosphere was still pretty laid back, compared to most companies in the valley.

Even though we were working pretty hard to get the 800 out, there was still time to try out the latest video games. I think this spirit was lost somewhat in later years, as Atari grew larger and the programming department became more isolated from the rest of the company.

LP: What was the inspiration for Star Raiders?

DN: Star Raiders was to be a 3-D version of the Star Trek game played on the mainframe computers of that time. The Star Trek game was all text and not played in real time, but it had the idea of ship damage and sector scanners and charts.

It also used names like “commander” or “super commander,” which gave me the idea of a rating rather than a score. While at National, I did up some demo screens of star backgrounds, and the whole thing seemed feasible–but I didn’t get to implement it until a couple of years later.

LP: There were no games for the 400 and 800 written at the time you started on Star Raiders. In a sense, it was the first Atari computer game ever done, and is still regarded as the premier piece of entertainment for the 8-bits. What are your thoughts on this? (Many of our readers bought theirr 8-bits solely because of SR.)

Image courtesy

DN: It’s pretty amazing, the way the game caught on. I think it was the first game to combine action with a strategy screen, and luckily, the concept worked out pretty well.I guess the part I liked best was the explosion; I never was really satisfied with the hyperwarp display. But compared to today’s technology, Star Raiders looks pretty primitive.I just finished a game for the 2600 (!) which has better visuals than Star Raiders (except for the explosion). I think, with 64K of memory, it would be possible to do a pretty impressive job on the 800.

LP: Can you explain some of the routines in Star Raiders–how they came to be and how they function? I’d like to give our readers some insight into how it works, graphically and logistically.

DN: The routines in Star Raiders are total hacks! It was the first game to use 3-D algorighms, and the ones I came up with were terrible. They worked, but were slow. That’s why the game slows down when there’s an explosion. The explosion consists of about sixty-four separate pieces, and moving them around in 3-D space took a lot of computation time.

Today, of course, it’s trivial, but back then it was state of the art. The game code is built up of modules: movement, control, collision detection, audio, photon firing, Zylon brain and console monitor. Special modules for galactic charts (and enemy strategy on charts) were included, along with a module for the long-range scanner.

The audio module was pretty primitive. The sounds are generated by algorithm. Today, most sounds are generated out of tables. It’s more difficult and takes fewer bytes–and sounds better.

LP: What features–if any–would you have liked to include in Star Raiders that couldn’t be added because the program had to fit on an 8K cartridge?

DN: With more memory available, I could have added planet landings and a trench scene. However, at the time, all games had to fit in 8K of RAM memory, as well as in 8K of ROM. These restrictions limited a lot of options.I had also envisioned more charts, or subcharts you could call up. With a disk drive for storage, you have more flexibility.

LP: Were there any secret codes or messages put into the game, which, for instance, can be accessed through a series of keystrokes?

DN: When I finished the first pass on the game, I was 900 bytes over the 8K limit. I didn’t have room for any secret message. Text (messages) take up a lot of bytes and can’t be packed very well. With a limited amount of memory (such as in ROM), I would rather add “game” features.

LP: What’s the highest score you’ve ever achieved playing Star Raiders?

DN: When I was doing the final touch-up on Star Raiders, a lot of people at Atari were playing the game. This allowed me to fine tune the scoring algorithm. Every time someone got to be a Star Commander Class 1, I bumped up the scoring difficulty. Even a week before we made the ROMs, I was still increasing the difficulty. I think I was the second person to get Star Commander Class 1 on the final version.

LP: Did you get any financial benefit from the overwhelming success of the game?

DN: At the time, I was a chip design engineer and did Star Raiders more or less on the side. Unfortunately, that was back in the days when programmers weren’t paid royalties for video games, so I didn’t make any money from Star Raiders.

LP: Were you approached for a sequel to Star Raiders, and was one ever done?

DN: I don’t believe I was asked to do a sequel, Atari is coming out with Star Raiders for the ST this year and, I think, Star Raiders II for the 8-bits, also for this year. Atari hasn’t been in video games since 1984, and is just gearing back up, so we should expect so see some good new games shortly.

LP: Were you approached for Star Raiders for the ST? What do you think of that version, assuming that you’ve seen it?

DN: No, I wasn’t asked to do Star Raiders for the ST, either. I saw the game briefly and thought that the visuals were really good, although I didn’t like the photon graphic as well as my own. Maybe I’m the only one who likes the sparkling photon effect; I’ve never seen anyone else use it.

I didn’t actually play the game, so I can’t comment on its play. I’ve heard that’s pretty faithful to the original.

LP: If you were to write Star Raiders today with no constraints on memory, what would the game be like?

DN: Everything could be improved. More and better graphics would be added, not just showing the front view. I would like to add a planet and a trench scene. It seems that it should be possible to add effects closer to those in the Star Wars movies.

It would be interesting to try and get and planet landing sequence, where you start from space and approach the planet; as it gets bigger more detail appears, and finally, you’re on the surface.

Having finished Solaris for the 2600, Doug does not plan to do software for the 800 or the ST. He is, however, in negotiations with Atari Corp. for another game for the 2600. We’ll be waiting!

What is the POKEY chip?You may well ask…the POKEY chip is a 40-pin integrated circuit (IC) that’s used in place of dozens of individual ICs and other components. It generates all the wonderful sounds and sound effects you hear coming from your computer.

It also handles the generation of random numbers, the scanning of up to eight paddle controllers, as well as the keyboard. And it still has time left over to talk to such external devices as cassette recorders and disk drives.

Typed by Keita Iida

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