Interview With Rex Battenberg

Special thanks to Rex Battenberg for his great games and for answering all of my questions!

This interview was made in August 2001.

Rex Battenberg 2001

Rex, how did your career as game programmer start?

Well, I started out as a game player. When in college at the University of Illinois in the 70’s, I found out about a new computer system called PLATO. It was a multi-user system set up as a teaching aid, where students could go in and take part of their classes. I did a chemistry lab on it. It was really my first experience with computers. But, being a multi-user system, multi-player games soon showed up where you could actually play against other people. Needless to say, I soon became addicted. But, after playing the games for a while, I thought to myself, why did the programmer do it “that” way, or, man I would have done it “this” way. So I decided to change my major to Computer Science so I could become a programmer and write some games of my own.

Once I graduated from college in 1976, I got a programming job at GTE Automatic Electric in Chicago, where they made automatic telephone exchanges. I was just a lowly grunt working on maintaining one small piece of the code. But, I did have a lot of free time and they did have an IBM 360 computer system there with TSO terminals. TSO, Time Sharing Option, was a rudimentary multi-user system. I found a Star Trek game there, and started to play it. Then, I found the source and started to modify it. Then, I created my own Dungeon crawl game. When the data processing people finally found my Dungeon game and decided to disable it, they found that over 100 different people at the facility had accounts in my game.

After four years at GTE, they decided that they were going to relocate to both Phoenix and Florida. My wife, being from England, did not want to move to either of those two hot places, so I looked for another job. I found out about the job at Taito and decided to work there so I could stay in the Chicago area.

Bob Harris told us that you wrote the arcade game “Space Dungeon” for Taito. Can you tell us something about the work at Taito?

Space Dungeon cabinet (Thanks to www.klov.com)Working at Taito was a blast, we had a “Defender” game there and we played it all the time. “Defender” is still my favorite arcade game.

Space Dungeon screenshot (Thanks to www.klov.com)At first at Taito we had free reign over what we wanted to do, so I decided to make a Dungeon themed arcade game. Back then, game development was essentially a one or two man process. I developed the entire game, except for the sound effects. We had one programmer that worked on the sounds for all of the games. After I developed “Space Dungeon”, things started to turn bleak at Taito. I was told I had to develop a game, “Clones”, which was the idea of a friend of the creative manager. Up front, I told them that the game idea was lame, but they said to do it anyway. Well, I did it, and everybody said that I did a great job, but the game turned out to be a real loser. Other things started to go bad at Taito as well, so again I decided to look for another job.

That was when I heard about Magnavox and Odyssey. They were located in Knoxville, TN, and my wife said, what the heck is a Knoxville. Well, we came down to Knoxville on a job search, house finding trip, and we both really liked the area, so we decided to move here.

In our interview Bob said that “Rex wrote some good games (at Magnavox), but none of them ever got released”. Can you tell us something about these games?

Sure, my first game at Magnavox was “Lord Of The Dungeon”, designed for the ColecoVision. Man, I know I spelled that wrong. Bob Harris had reverse engineered the Coleco, so we knew what all system calls do make to be able to write games for it. “Lord Of The Dungeon” was a first person dungeon crawl, based on my earlier work. The unique thing about this game was that a new cartridge was developed. It had a battery backed up RAM, thus allowing the player to save his game and to continue where he left off. Now, the game experience could last over more than one gaming session. This was the first game that allowed saving of the game. Man, we should have gotten a patent on that idea.

At the same time, Bob developed a game for the Coleco as well. I can not remember the name, but it was a sort of missile command game, where the United States Of America was under attack, from the USSR, I suppose, and you had to shoot down the incoming missiles that were targeted for various US cities. Bob got his game finished before mine, and I believe that his game got released. (Editor’s note: This game is “War Room” and was officially released for the ColecoVision.)

Was “Lord Of The Dungeon” fully developed? Fully playable?

Yes, it was all set to go, but I think we were having problems with the battery backed up RAM that was used to save the game, so production was delayed. Then Magnavox decided to get out of the Video game market.

Were there more games you wrote while at Magnavox, beside “Lord Of The Dungeon” for the Coleco and “FlashPoint” for the Odyssey3?

I don’t think so, but it has been a while. I think it was just “Lord of the Dungeon” and “FlashPoint”.

“FlashPoint” for the Odyssey3 is maybe the best-known of your games and is already a myth in the classic gaming scene. Can you tell us something about its story?

FlashPoint screenshot of action screen”FlashPoint” was inspired by the “Robotron” arcade game. I loved the way you used two joysticks at the same time, allowing you to move in one direction and fire it another direction. “Robotron” was such an intense gaming experience.

I decided that I would add a few features to “FlashPoint” to expand the game. The first was the idea of trying to protect the central area of the playing field. As the adversaries moved they would erase the central green area, if they walked on it. The bad guys homed in on you, so where you moved would influence where they moved. So, you had to maneuver your player in such a way that the bad guys would not run over the central green area. At the same time you had to try to kill them. The more of the central green area you had remaining, the better your score.

FlashPoint screenshot of strategic city mapThe second idea was to add another layer to the game. This layer was the strategic city map. I think the story was that aliens were invading the city. As they attacked areas of the city, those areas would flash, hence the name “FlashPoint”. Each area would flash faster, the longer it had been under attack. If you did not get to it in time, that area of the city would be destroyed. So at the strategic level, you had to try to decide which parts of the city you could save, and which parts you had to let die.

For developing the game, I taped the two O3 game controllers to a piece of plywood, so you could use them both at the same time. One controlled the movement and the other controlled where you shot. Magnavox was going to develop a holder of some type, that the user could place the two controllers in for playing the game at home. I don’t remember if any prototype holders were ever developed.

Magnavox was developing a joystick holder? That’s interesting, because the Odyssey3 was going to have “integrated” joystick holders. (Please check also my Odyssey3 story at http://www.dieterkoenig.at/ccc/po/s_po_o3.htm). Anyway, Bob told us that “FlashPoint” was pretty much fully playable.

Yes, “FlashPoint” was fully developed and it was shown at one of the CES. A game review was even written about it in a gaming magazine, and I know I kept a copy of the review as they gave the game a really good review.

Would have been great if Philips had released FlashPoint in Europe for the G7400, because they produced Videopac games until January 1985. But I think the problem was that they had no joystick holder and the G7400 didn’t have “built-in” joystick holders. Were there any plans for a Europe release of FlashPoint??

Not that I was aware of.

So none of your games that you wrote at Magnavox ever got released?

Yeah, sort of sucks, but what can you do.

Did you have any contact with the European Philips Videopac team or the Brazilian Odyssey team? Were you informed about the European and Brazilian market?

Nope, I did not even know that those teams or markets existed.

Can you tell us something about working with the Odyssey3 prototypes?

Well, the Odyssey3 prototype was just another game system. They worked pretty well and I don’t remember having any problems with the hardware. We hooked them up to a development system, like I can remember what type it was, and did in-circuit emulation to develop the games. The development environment was pretty advanced, for the early 80s. The biggest problem back then was the lack of memory in the game cartridges. I think we were limited to like 48K of memory, in three 16K banks, a far cry from the 650 Meg of memory on today’s CD-Roms. I got real good a crunching code to make it fit into the memory chips.

Did you also work with the O3 voice module prototype?

I don’t really remember doing much with the voice modules. Other programmers did games that used voice, but I did not.

Do you know how many Odyssey3 consoles, voice modules and modems were produced by Magnavox?

Not a clue.

There are rumors about a computer extension module for the Odyssey3, that would turn the Odyssey3 into a home computer, probably like the C7420 Microsoft Basic extension for the Philips G7400. Do you know anything about it or about other planned extensions for the Odyssey3?

Nope, I mean we were working on games for ColecoVision, so we were branching out to other consoles. Seeing as we were doing that, I don’t think we were planning any extension for the Odyssey3.

I know that the Odyssey3 wasn’t even released. But where there any plans for an Odyssey4?

Not that I was aware of, for the same reason mentioned above.

What was your job at Magnavox after the pulled the plug on the O2/O3 project?

Philips VideoWriter (Thanks to www.silicium.org)Once Magnavox decided that the game industry was dead in the mid 80s, not a very smart decision was it, I worked on a project called the “VideoWriter”. It was a self-contained word processing unit. It had a monitor, floppy disk drive and a printer all in one unit with a detachable keyboard. I got two business trips to where it was produced, in a Philips plant in the south suburbs of Vienna, Austria. He he he …

Austria, the country where I live! I wouldn’t have expected that you have any relation to Austria! Yes, the plant still exists today. Can you tell us a bit more about the VideoWriter?

Sure, the VideoWriter was developed at a time before there were personal computers. It consisted of a monochrome monitor that could display up to 80 columns of text, a printer and a floppy disk drive all in one unit. It also had a keyboard, no mice back then, that stored in-between the unit and the stand that supported the unit.

The hardware was already developed when I started work on it after Magnavox got out of the game business. The funny thing was, a guy at Magnavox developed the hardware and then later it was like, OK what can we do with this hardware? What sort of software can we write for it.

Well, it was decided to make it a dedicated word processor. I had to come up with my own scheme for storing files to the disk, the format for the files for document storage and for just about everything else. If I remember correctly it was powered, and I use that term lightly, by a Z-80 micro. I can’t remember if we wrote the code in assembler or if we had a cross-complier.

It was produced in that Philips plant in Vienna and I got two business trips to Vienna out of the deal, so that was cool. I still have one or two VideoWriters sitting around in the house. I also have a photocopy of a check that was sent in to Magnavox for a VideoWriter that came from Richard M. Nixon, you know Trick-Dicky “I am not a Crook”, ex-president of the United States …

Would you give us a short review of your career after the VideoWriter project?

K, now where is that old resume of mine … j/k Well, after the VideoWriter I worked at Magnavox on control systems for TVs.

Then I developed a control system for the Channel-One satellite educational TV system. Boy, that is the wrong name for it, but I can’t remember the exact name. It was a system that was put into schools, where they put a TV into every classroom. Then at night a satellite would beam a 15 minute program to the school, where a VCR would record the show. Then when it was time to view the program, the system would feed the show to all of the classroom TVs for the kids to watch.

I also did some work with a tele-text system that was displayed on TVs.

I left Magnavox in 1991 and went to work for CSI. CSI develops software and hardware to monitor machinery in a plant environment. I have worked on various projects at CSI, but none of them have been as fun as working on games, man those were the days. I wish I could get back into the game industry, but there is not much of that going on here in Knoxville, so I guess I will just grow old here at CSI, bah …

You should really go back to O3/G7400 programming, Rex! It’s much easier today, and you don’t need special development systems – a simple PC will do it ;-)

Thank you very much for this interview, Rex.

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