David Warhol / Freelance,
Added on January 9th, 2020 (411 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
I'm David Warhol, a first-generation video games developer still active in the craft. In 1982, I joined Mattel Electronics as a games designer/developer for the Intellivision games console. After Mattel shut down its Intellivision division in 1984, I did music and sounds for a lot of first-generation computer games for a few years, before founding Realtime Associates, an independent games development studio. Realtime Associates has since developed over 100 consumer video games.
I also made a name for myself in the 1980s as a games composer and audio designer who also happened to be a programmer. I wrote my own audio drivers for first, second and third-generation platforms, sometimes using my own music, sometimes getting others to write music which I then arranged and produced.
I like to say I'm part of the "Big Bang" of video games development: the further you go back in time, the more likely you are to see me.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My high school had dial-up access to the school district's mainframe, and I learned programming that way. As a junior, I took classes in BASIC, and as a senior I did an independent study for writing games. I did accidentally once remotely crash the school district's mainframe for a day or two, and though that was all there was to it, some rumours went around a couple of years later about me changing grades and teachers' salaries!
I went to a liberal arts college that didn't have any computer programming courses, so my education in games development mostly involved skipping classes and going to arcades. That being said, as a trombone lower brass instrument player in junior high and high school who often did arrangements for small ensembles, I studied for and received a degree in music theory and composition at college, which gave me the music background which I later brought to my games development.
Part of my job at Mattel was keeping an eye on contemporary technologies, so it was then that I got my hands on the C64 and Atari 400/800 computers.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
A fellow alumnus of mine at Pomona College, Don Daglow, got a job at Mattel Electronics, and he reached out to our school to post job openings that Mattel had. I was working at the computer centre when the job posting came in, so I applied and got the job. This was very early on in games development, so there wasn't a lot of demo code to write.
Please tell us a little more about your days at Mattel. It's not C64-related, but it is the start of your career, and it would be fun to learn more about how you got started writing code and music, who you worked with, etc.
I worked in the Applications Software group, which at that time was the vague name for a games developer, because the technology industry had not yet acknowledged that games development was a valid engineering function. I was one of about 40 Intellivision developers, and there were another 40 or so developing for the Atari 2600 and a few other Mattel formats such as the Aquarius. Initially, games were developed by individuals, including their graphics and sounds. As the department grew, and people with specialist backgrounds came in (such as myself in audio, and others in graphic arts), people would contribute to each other's projects. It could take me just a few days to do music and sounds for on game that someone else was working on for four months or so, and it could take an artist just a month to contribute the graphics, but this was where we saw the first games development teams coming together.
The music tools we had at the time were general-purpose and very memory-intensive. Triggering and turning off a single note would take perhaps 10 bytes of ROM storage, which was very precious at the time.
My second project, Thunder Castle, afforded me the opportunity to write a custom music driver, such that a note could be played with only one byte of storage, allowing me to score much more music than ever before in a small format. That's when I realised having speciality audio skills could be brought to other games, ultimately on other formats.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
I came from working on the Intellivision, which only had 150 bytes of RAM, and all of the game code was committed to ROM, and games were only 8 kB to 16 kB, so the C64 was a wonderful platform to work on compared to that. It had lots of memory, a disk drive and a great sound chip, which is what I mostly focused on.
How did you generally go about writing music back in the day? Did the music come to you in your head, or did you play around a bit on the keyboard first?
As a classically trained composer, I took an intellectual approach to composing (even at my senior composition recital, my most revered college professor told my parents I was a talented arranger, he-he!). I would always write in the style called for in the game, so for example Pool of Radiance was written in the style of Wagner, the opening to Jetfighter was inspired by the opening to Top Gun before Danger Zone kicks in, and for Mike Wallace's Return To Atlantis, which was an "underwater James Bond", I analysed the famous spy theme down to its molecular core, then changed a few molecules here and there and built it back up to sound like, but not exactly the same as, that famous theme. My biggest challenge was scoring Dani Bunten's Robot Rascals, which was a throwback to the famous M.U.L.E. composition which always stood out in my mind as a perfect theme for that game. When my original song for Tass Times in Tonetown, written at the same time, sounded a lot like Robot Rascals, I started to turn to other composers whose music writing was fluid but who had no background in technology, like George Sanger and David Hayes, and would arrange and adapt their themes to the platform. I could get sounds and arrangements that others couldn't get on those platforms, so I didn't struggle with composition.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them (such as what it was like to work on each game, any sketches you did, what programs you used, fun anecdotes from creating the game, what the people were like to work with on the various games, the time frames, any problems or headaches, etc.)
I worked on a LOT of them, so I don't think I could remember all of them.
My first gig as a sound designer was for Electronic Arts' Adventure Construction Set. I wrote a few pieces of music that could be excerpted as phrases to be triggered in different parts of the game, as well as a handful of sound effects. At that time, EA was giving out awards for artists and I won that year's Best Audio award for that game.
I also did a lot of work for Dani Bunten's product lines, including Robot Rascals and Heart of Africa. I would talk with the game's designer early on and play them sketches over the phone. This was in the days before MIDI, so I would code it up on the games system in its entirety and play it that way. It was great to get to know so many developers in the early days. Games designers did one game every year or maybe year and a half; I got to work with a new platform and project every month or two.
I was given a few RAM locations and then maybe 4kB or so of main memory. My code was very self-reliant. It had three entry points: one to call once per game frame (60 hertz); one to call to start a sound or piece of music; and one to pause and resume sounds. I think I usually only sent the compiled binary code to the games developer.
Did you ever hear any of the remixes which fans have made of your C64 music?
I'm always honoured when chip composers arrange or evolve songs I wrote in those days. When I met Seth Sternberger of 8 Bit Weapon, who said he was one of my biggest fans and used some of my compositions in his sets, I then also became his biggest fan, in a kind of Möbius strip of admiration.
When people interview musicians like yourself, they mostly talk about the music, but I'm also interested in the sound effects, because I think you've got to have a pretty good imagination when you're writing sound effects that are supposed to communicate car tyres screeching and stuff like that, so how did you go about writing sound effects and where did you find inspiration for them? Was is fun to do sound effects or more of a necessary evil?
While I would sometimes rely on others for music composition, I always did the sound effects myself. It takes a little imagination to come up with the right frequencies and timings for sound effects, and a more intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the sound chip. I remember spending a couple of hours working on a helicopter sound for Hover Force with my headphones on, and when I was done and unplugged the headphones, people around me were like: "Damn, you nailed a helicopter!". I had some fun with sound effects; in Modem Wars, the sound of the modem dialling out was the touch-tone phone sequence for The White House, and some keystroke blips in one game used the tri-tone, which in medieval times was thought to be the "interval of the devil".
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I was primarily a music and sound designer at that time, and I was always freelance. I did a lot of contract work for Electronic Arts and Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts), and I did most of Interplay's music and SFX for a couple of years whenever their lead programmer didn't do them.
A few years ago, while touring Electronic Arts' executive building in the Bay Area, I saw a picture of an EA Artist Symposium from the 1980s, and sure enough, I was there in the picture!
I was offered an in-house job at Lucasfilm Games, which would have been sweet for sure, but I lived in LA and my games producing business was starting to take off, so I opted to stay in LA; that's when they hired Michael Land.
In my first few years, I wasn't very astute at figuring out how much time it would take to do a music and sounds project, or how much to charge. If I'd had a little more pricing sophistication, I might have been able to make that a mainstay, but instead I got into producing games in their entirety, which turned out to be a bigger business for me anyway.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
I created my own schedule. I was usually in and out of a sound project within a month, two at the most, and usually came in towards the end of a games project.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I didn't create many tools for the C64, though I did a lot of my own tools for the NES and other early console systems. I used Merlin for coding directly on the C64, and an assembler called AD2600 for PC-based C64 development.
What about the music player on the C64? Did someone else program that?
My drivers were always of my own devising, and I would optimise them for the strengths of each platform. I believe that this is ultimately the reason why I received G.A.N.G.'s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
None that I recall. As a sound designer, the games were mostly done and committed to before I came on board.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
Of my C64 work, I liked the theme to AD&D Pool of Radiance, which was inspired by the opening of Wagner's opera Siegfried (a driven 9/8 time signature). I liked Robot Rascals, one of Dani Bunten's games, and was inspired by the music from M.U.L.E. for that one. I did the music and sound for Interplay's C64 Neuromancer, but the packaging said the music was done by Devo!
I absolutely loved the NES version of Maniac Mansion (oops, that's not C64 – but it was based on the C64 version!).
The challenges were always how to get the most music into the least amount of space. Again, this was before MIDI, but even MIDI has three bytes to represent a note-on and three more for a note-off. I super-optimised my music so that each note was typically a single byte, and frequently there were no note-off commands (the tone would decay to silence).
As for headaches, I remember the Merlin assembler I used on the C64 itself gave me one particularly frustrating debugging session where I named a variable "CH" and the program just would not work. I lost half a day trying to figure out why, until I discovered that the compiler was interpreting it not as the variable name CH but as the memory location 12 in hexadecimal. I must have been pretty pissed off to still remember that today! It's also why I always named assembly-language variables with a leading underscore after that.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I like the Atari arcade classics: Battle Zone, Tempest, Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, etc. In a much later version of Atari, right when Mafia Wars was popular, I pitched doing them as social network games, inspired by their original mechanics.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I play a lot of apps. Plants vs Zombies was a recent favourite, and I'm constantly looking at Top 20 Games lists for good leads. I really enjoyed PS3 Journey for its imaginative world, graphics and music. The gameplay is simple, but the game itself is anything but. I have a PS4 and enjoy No Man's Sky for its algorithmically generated universe. I'm not into shooters, so that leaves out about 90% of the games on the market.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
We always did as good a job as we could at the time, even if it wasn't great looking back. We got pretty bad marks on a Game Boy Colour Star Wars game. Warren Spector at Origin gave me the green light to do a music synch platform game in the 1990s, but we weren't able to get a prototype together.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
For music, Rob Hubbard was the technical and creative force I was trying to match. There was a lot of good stuff coming out of Japan, but I didn't know specifically who was behind it.
For general games development, Dani Bunten was an influence, as were the original Lucasfilm Games guys (Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Brian Moriarty, David Fox, Kalani Streicher, AJ Redmer..., sorry if I'm leaving anyone out!). And of course, the inventor of the side-scroller as we knew it (a good third of my games were side scrollers!), Shigeru Miyamoto.
Please share some memories from the old days!
I remember having margaritas with Brian Moriarty after work, while I was working with him on Loom. He discussed the idea of having a game which was "audio only". The concept fascinated me and stayed with me for decades, but no platform seemed suitable for it, until the iPod became popular. We mocked up a prototype and pitched it to Apple. This was in the days before the App Store. They didn't want to release it on the iPod, but told me to keep an eye on the iPhone. When they finally announced their developer program, they got me in right away and gave me great support. We released Soul Trapper, an audio-only game, a few months after the App Store was launched. Brian is definitely thanked in the credits!
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
Realtime released over 100 titles on games systems from the NES onwards, such as Game Boy, Game Gear, Super Famicom (Super NES), Genesis, PlayStation, Saturn..., pretty much everything except the Jaguar and the Lynx. We favoured "family-friendly" games, cartoon licences, etc. and never got into the action-heavy franchises that are core to games systems now.
Notable releases included: Battle Stations for the Saturn and PlayStation; Bug!, a launch title for the Saturn; Maniac Mansion for the NES; Beavis & Butt-Head for the SNES; we even did an Iron Man game back in the day.
Tell me about how Realtime started, who you started the company with, and what your role in the company is now.
I founded Realtime as I was starting to produce entire games instead of just developing music and sounds for them. It required larger teams to produce whole games, so I enrolled many of my Mattel Electronics cohorts as programmers and graphics artists. I took on much of the overall games design myself, and as soon as I brought in my first two producers, I taught them everything I was doing in games design. Interestingly enough, it was the Producer's job to be the games designer at Realtime, but this ultimately became too taxing as team size grew, so it became the Assistant Producer who took on the games designer role.
What are you up to these days?
I'm creating an augmented-reality theatre – a 360-degree 3D immersive interactive experience for about 15 people, which I call TheatriX. My favourite description for it has been "an escape room on crack". There's so many people in games development now that I've decided to create a whole new industry of my own. :)
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
Thanks for your interest!
back to the list of available interviews