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Everybody signs their work.

The six-character kernel was a famous technique amongst 2600 programmers. It was invented by Carol Shaw and was a brilliant application of technical wizardry and cycle-shaving shenanigans. This was about taking two triple-copied PLAYER sprites and filling each copy with unique graphics so they actually form one 48-bit wide graphic (unheard of in VCS programming). A similar technique of using multiple copies was used by Rick Mauer to do Space Invaders, but those were spread out. The six-character kernel was one continuous graphic and a tour de force in clever coding. Creating these new techniques and sharing them with peers in an effort to both help and impress them was a mainstay of the top people on the VCS. To have a technique actually documented in the 2600 manual is a place of honor reserved for few indeed, and Carol Shaw’s six-character kernel stands right at the top of that list.

Everyone puts an indelible part of themselves in everything they do or create. It goes by many names; style, hand, flavor and even stench. No matter what you call it, it’s there for all to see, and anyone who truly knows a person can identify their work. I’ve known this for many years and yet, like so many other things, I’ll never forget my first time.

One evening in mid 1982 a clandestine meeting took place that no one has ever talked about. If any outsider found out about the events of this evening millions would have been spent in lawyers fees and people would have been fired and careers ruined. . . all in the pursuit of correcting a wrong that never even took place. It would all have been for naught. But that didn’t happen because no one ever told. Until now that is.

Many of you know about Imagic, the company that brought you Demon Attack and Riddle of the Sphinx. And you also know Imagic was started by people who left Atari, not unlike the way Activision was started except the people who left to form Imagic were my good friends. It’s a strange thing when people you know and like leave to become competitors. Sometimes people feel abandoned and embittered when this happens. That wasn’t the case here, we all remained friends. We were still partying together and hanging out together and rooting for each other, business as usual. Except for the business part. That which had been part and parcel of all our interactions was now illegal to mention. So that was different.

And it really bothered us. What used to be casual conversation was now industrial espionage. And to what end? Competition isn’t the same thing to creators that it is to merchants.

It was late summer and we were preparing our games for release to the Christmas market (some things never change). We were all proud of our work and had been slaving over the games for months and it was that time when ordinarily we would show off our stuff and review and play and criticize and exchange ideas and that was one of the best things about working in games back then. But we were legally barred from doing it. Now why was that?

There were many ways in which we did share techniques beyond casual mentions during the odd MRB (Marijuana Review Board). At one point, Matt Hubbard taught a 2600 class in which he shared his techniques and those of others. I used to write the occasional memo. I shared the tricks I’d used to animate the snake and tsetse flies in Raiders of the Lost Ark using only the one-pixel BALL sprite. So I wrote it up and titled it the “Balling Stella” memo (Stella was our internal name for the 2600). I suspect more people remembered the title more than the technique.

The dominant thinking is of course that if we show our work to our market place adversaries then trade secrets would be stolen and competitive advantages would be lost. We understood this line of thinking and generally it made a lot of sense except within this little circle we knew that no one was going to steal anything and we were all pretty clever and talented and we all had enough ego to really want to show our friends what we’d done.

So we did it.

We gathered one evening under the strictest of security, which means we didn’t tell anyone else and we all brought some of our own dope and an EPROM of the latest version of our current game. There were six of us and the only one I’ll name is me. The others may speak if they like but I won’t narc any of them out, not with the quality of drugs they shared with me. :)

We came together and showed each other our work. Violating every cannon of savvy business practice and invalidating millions of dollars of preexisting legal imbroglio. To enhance the fun we decided to keep private authorship to ourselves as we first showed the carts to each other. That was our game, guessing who did which game.

That’s when I learned how clearly everyone signs their work. As they plugged in each cart and hit reset I instantly saw not only a video game but a bold and unmistakable expression of personality. Everyone is unique, but I have to say the people I knew at Atari were even more so. And those nuances and qualities that make us such different characters shine through so brightly in our games that it’s impossible to miss. I was able to identify every author that evening. Some found that surprising but to me it was obvious. The same personality factors I liked and enjoyed in the people were visually present in their work and spoke loudly to me.

And that’s one of the nicest things about developing games. Like an artist with canvas and easel, game engineers take a play concept, apply their vision and express it uniquely in their own style. Just as no two paintings are exactly alike, no two games from the same spec would ever be the same. The difference is the personalities of the programmers. Those personalities made an incredibly vast array of games for a very limited hardware and they provided an incredibly vast array of fun in the best working environment I’ve ever experienced.

Incidentally, those same personality factors led to the fact that none of the legal fears were ever realized. We just had a fantastic evening with good friends. And that’s a part of the industry that hasn’t changed since back in the day I’m happy to say. :)

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