Of Dragons and Easter Eggs: A Chat With Warren Robinett

When I was about 10-years-old (which dates me back to 1980), I acquired a game for my Atari 2600 Video Computer System that completely blew me away.  The name of that game was Adventure, and in the early days of the 2600, there was nothing else quite like it.  While other 2600 titles challenged you to achieve the highest score possible with quick reflexes and good hand/eye coordination, Adventure shunned the typical gameplay design of the day and offered something a little more ambitious: A game which challenged the mind (albeit modestly).

Adventure’s influence on the video game industry can not be understated.  Not only was it the first graphical adventure game, but it was also the first game to feature an “Easter Egg” (a purposely hidden secret within a game that can be discovered by players).

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Warren Robinett (the sole man behind Adventure), about the game itself, his days at Atari, Easter Eggs, and more.

Fatsquatch: I understand that in your post-Adventure years you achieved such impressive feats as working with NASA and co-founding The Learning Company.  That seems like quite an evolution from the world of console gaming.

Warren Robinett:  No, not really.  It’s all interactive computer graphics, which is what I do.  Console video games, educational computer games, virtual reality, and scientific visualization (the main things I’ve done in my career) are all applications of interactive graphics.  The goals are different, of course.

F:  How in the world did you get into designing video games for Atari in the late 70s?

WR:  I had heard about Atari.  I had no contacts there.  I had a newly minted MS in Computer Science from Berkeley (making me the best trained of all the early 2600 game designers, I later realized).  Anyway, I just showed up at the front office of Atari and filled out a job application.  They interviewed me, and hired me in spite of the plaid used-car salesman suit that I wore to the interview.

F:  Was game design something that you were aiming for after Berkeley, or did it just look like a good way to make some dough?

WR:  Uh, it’s hard, I guess, for you to imagine, but there was no such occupation as game design when I was in grad school (1975-76).  There was this one company, Atari, which I had not even heard of yet.  It wasn’t a good way to make dough, that would have been the job offer I had from Hewlett-Packard — but designing software for data terminals… I can’t imagine a less sexy job.  I chose the job at Atari because it was interesting, because it was cool, because it had possibilities.

As an undergraduate at Rice and as a grad student, I was interested in computer graphics.  Writing software for video games was an interesting way to pursue that.

Warren Robinett, Creator of Adventure for the Atari 2600
Left to Right: Warren Robinett; a dragon from Adventure; Adventure box shot

F:  In hindsight, Adventure was a game that was clearly far ahead of its time.  How did it come about?

WR:  I played the original text adventure game created by Don Woods and Willie Crowther in 1978 at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, where my friend Julius Smith worked.  I was just finishing my first Atari 2600 game, Slot Racers, and I needed to decide on the next game I would do.  I decided that the idea of a network of rooms, and objects you could carry from place to place, and that did things, could work as a video game.  And it did.  Of course there were a lot of details to work out and problems to solve.  Plus my boss told me it was impossible and not to do it.  But I ignored him and did it anyway.

F:  Aside from being the first graphical action-adventure game, Adventure was also the first game to feature an “Easter Egg”.  What motivated you to include such a thing, which at that time was unheard of?

WR:  Atari would not give public credit to game designers.  This was right after Atari had been acquired by Warner Communications.  It was a power play to keep the game designers from getting recognition and therefore more bargaining power.  So I created a secret room that was really hard to find, and hid my signature in it.  I didn’t tell anybody (this was a hard secret to keep to myself) and let Atari manufacture a few hundred thousand cartridges and ship them around the world.

F:  Hehe, that’s great.  How long had Adventure been released when Atari found out about the Easter Egg?

WR:  I don’t know exactly.  About a year, maybe less.  I handed over my finished code (with the Easter Egg in it) in June 1979, and quit.  The game was released for the Christmas season in 1979.  I went back to my hometown in Missouri for a while, then traveled around in Europe for a while.  When I returned to California in the spring of 1980, I think it was known by then.  At least by summer 1980, it was known.  I went out with some of the Atari game designers one night for pizza and beer and told them about how I did it.  I saw a gleam in Rob Fulop‘s eye, like he was already planning his own Easter Egg.

F:  Since you left Atari before the game was released, they couldn’t do anything about the “egg”, right?

WR:  Nope, they couldn’t punish me.  Well, they could garnish my royalties…oops, no royalties.  Well, they could remove my name from the box…well, no, it was never on the box.  Well, they could at least remove the offending code from future cartridges.  That would have cost $10,000 to make a new ROM.

This was when the “Easter Egg” got its name.  The manager of the 2600 game designers at that moment was named Steve Wright, I believe, and he said hey, it’s kind of cool to have little hidden surprises in video games.  It’s kinda like waking up on Easter morning and hunting for Easter Eggs.

The infamous easter egg in Adventure for the Atari 2600
The infamous Adventure "easter egg".

F:  What did the higher-ups at Atari say about the egg when they found out?

WR:  I don’t know.  They didn’t say anything to me.

F:  Why did you leave Atari after submitting the code for Adventure?  Were you tired of the game design experience or were you simply no longer interested in working for them?

WR:  Several reasons.  I was tired of working (there are some poor deluded souls that think you have to have a job your ENTIRE LIFE).  Also, I was kind of exhausted.  I had worked pretty hard on the three cartridges I did for the 2600.  But the primary reason was that I didn’t like the way Atari was treating me.  Nearly all the original 2600 designers quit around that time and several started competing companies like Activision and Imagic).

F:  Back in the day, it seemed like everyone I knew had a copy of Adventure, myself included.  How successful was the game for Atari and yourself?

WR:  Adventure sold 1 million units, I learned later.  I didn’t get any royalties or bonus.  My salary was around $20K per year, which was an average engineer’s salary at the time.

F:  Jeez…  At $25 per copy, that’s $25,000,000.  Atari really raked it in didn’t they?  Did you work on any other Atari 2600 titles?

WR:  I did two other 2600 carts: Slot Racers and Basic ProgrammingSlot Racers was a game of little cars driving around in a maze, shooting missiles at each other.  Basic Progamming wasn’t a game; I guess you’d call it educational.  It let you enter short programs into the system, see them on the screen, and watch them as they executed – seeing the stack grow and shrink, variable values change, and flow of control hopping around through the program.

F:  How come there was never a sequel to Adventure?  Did you ever consider it?

WR:  The educational game Rocky’s Boots (an educational game that let kids design simple digital logic circuits) was sort of a sequel to 2600 Adventure.

I guess I made a bit of a mistake not doing a sequel.  Yes, I’ve had some ideas.  But I’m afraid it’s too late now.  What do you think?  Would anybody be interested in a sequel to Adventure at this late date?  Feel free to demonstrate the existence of tens of thousands of insatiable fans demanding a sequel from me.  If you can do that, I will make one.

F:  Hehe, we’ll see what we can do.  What other video game titles did you work on after you left Atari?

WR:  At The Learning Company, I did some educational games.  The main one was Rocky’s Boots.

F:  Do you follow modern gaming at all?

WR:  I have three little boys, ages 8, 6 and 2.  And the answer is no, you cannot play your Game Boy all day long when it is a bright sunny April day outside.

F:  Well, you could take your Game Boy outdoors with you.

WR:  Any more smart mouth from you and we’re gonna play baseball with that Game Boy.

F:  Hehe, point taken…   What do you think of today’s gaming scene in comparison to the good ‘ol days of the early 80’s?

WR:  I’m pretty out-of-touch.  I liked the fertility of the Atari days, when people tried all sorts of crazy stuff.  Most of which was stupid, but a few of the ideas were great.

A dragon in Adventure for the Atari 2600
Adventure's hero, aka the mighty block warrior, gets pwned by a dragon.

F:  So what do you have in store for the future?  Are there any exciting projects lined up?

WR:  I can’t tell you right now.  Ask me again in a few months (if you care).

F:  Hmmmm, top secret stuff eh?  Sounds juicy…  Well, Warren, thanks for taking the time to chat with me.  I have always loved Adventure, and this has been a real treat for me.

WR:  No problem.  I’m glad that anyone even remembers it 25 years later.  I didn’t know I was creating a cultural icon at the time.

F:  Oh, one more thing… do you still have that groovy “plaid used-car salesman” suit?

WR:  First I’ll tell you how I got it in the first place.  When I graduated from college in 1974 my grandmother offered to buy me a suit.  Remember this was the hippy era — I had worn nothing but T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers for my entire college career, with a few flannel shirts thrown in.   My younger sister Holly, the Homecoming Queen, offered to help me pick it out.  She had always harassed me about having no taste (nerdly tendencies showing up early), so I was a bit sensitive there.  We went to the suit store and I was thumbing through the rack of suits, and I paused for half a second looking at this red, yellow, and blue plaid suit.  “Ooooh, that is really ugly,” she said instantly.  So there was only one thing I could do… I bought it.  (One of those sibling dynamics things.)

Later on, in California, after I had acquired a more conservative suit, there was a Halloween party.  I wore the used car salesman suit with an old fedora that had belonged to my father.   Perfect Sam Spade.  People kept asking me where I got the suit — “It fits so well, where did you find it?”  I eventually gave it to Goodwill.

F:  Well that’s enough for me.  I’m off to Goodwill!  Thanks again, Warren!

For more information on Warren Robinett, be sure to visit his official website at WarrenRobinett.com

To play an online version of Adventure that was created in Flash, CLICK HERE.

Fatsquatch Written by:

Professional nerd. Enemy of nonsense. Failed musician. Friend to the animals. Misanthrope. Jaded gamer.

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