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My Interview With Scott Rhoades - Atari Manual Writer & Lynx Hand Model


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#1 nosweargamer

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Posted 20 August 2016 - 10:01 AM

This was included in Ep 30 of The Atari 7800 Game By Game Podcast
My sincerest thanks to Mr. Rhoades for answering my questions!
 
What was your main job at Atari? How did you get it?
I was hired as the Technical Editor in the Creative Services department, but very quickly took on a lot of writing assignments when they discovered I could.
 
Were you salaried or contracted? Did you get paid per manual? If so, how much?
Both. I was hired as a salaried employee. I left after about a year and a half, but continued to contract for them for a couple years. I was paid per manual as a contractor, but I really don't remember how much. It was not a lot. It's funny: when they hired me, I figured it was something I'd do for a while until I found a better writing job. I didn't want to be a tech writer. I'm still doing it 28 years later, so I suppose I might as well make a career out of it. This job's been good to me, and it started there.
 
Did you ever meet any of the Tramiels. If you did, what were they like? What was the atmosphere of working for Atari like in general?
Yes. I worked closely with Leonard a couple things, most notably DeskSet II, which was his pet project. I also edited/ghost wrote some executive statements in the 1988 and 1989 annual reports, which put me in contact with Sam, but i can't say I knew him very well. He probably wouldn't remember me. Leonard might. Jack was once at the urinal next to mine, which surprised me for some reason. That was my closest contact to him.
 
In general, the atmosphere was sometimes stressful and not always as much fun as you might imagine, unless you've heard stories. It was my first job out of college, so I didn't know better, but I put up with stuff I probably wouldn't put up with now, like shouting matches in offices, overt sexism, and other stuff. Their cheapness was also the stuff of legend. Like, one time I went to a photo shoot for the TT030 to help set up the computer. The ad had a back-to-school/homework theme. The kid in the ad wore clothes with the tags still on so they could be returned after the shoot. I don't want to give a negative impression--I enjoyed working there, mostly, and it led to a good career, but it was far from a dream job in those days shortly before the crash. And I worked with a number of odd characters, which actually made it more fun.
 
Why did you leave Atari & What are you doing now?
I left Atari because I was offered more money with about 1/4 of the commute. I was offered a raise and a promotion to stay, but I was ready for something new, and with two little kids and a newborn baby, I wanted the shorter commute. I'm currently a Senior Tech Writer for Adobe. In between, I worked for Everex and Novell, plus did a lot of freelance work for my own company. I stopped contracting when Novell transferred me to to Utah, or maybe a little bit before.
 
How did you approach writing manuals? Where you given a game to play with? Do you have any favorite manuals on the 7800 and on the Lynx?
We were usually given the game about the time it was finished and had to write pretty quickly. I'd play the game as much as I needed to get a feel for the game and the controls. If I really liked the game, I played it more. My favorite parts of the process were coming up with a story and, if needed, character bios (like for 7800 Basketbrawl, which was my favorite 7800 manual, and still gets me a little attention now and then, like this email) and mission descriptions. I tried to capture the feel of the game in the story line. Some examples: 
 
I was given the programmers' story line for Blue Lightning on the Lynx, which was your typical "You're the greatest pilot in the Force and you need to save the world" kind of thing. But when I played, it was hard. So I turned in a manual with a story saying you were chosen because you're a lousy pilot and you're expendable, basically that you have to learn to fly, because that's what playing the game felt like. I put a lot of humor in the story and the mission descriptions. I expected to be told to tone it down, but John Skruch loved it. My manager wasn't so crazy about it, but Skruch told him to leave it as it was. He didn't. When the manual came back, much of the humor was gone, although the basic story line survived. Skruch wasn't happy, and neither was I, and my manager heard about it.
 
The approach for the Lynx poster manuals was a little different. it was basically the same (play then write), but I also storyboarded the posters in a way. Not drawing--I couldn't do that--but I'd describe each panel the way I thought the artist should draw it. I'm pretty sure Bill & Ted was the first of the posters. I enjoyed that one. I was able to channel my inner Bill & Ted (I loved the movie, and so did my two young sons) and use their language, much like I added stereotypical California language to California Games.
 
I also came up with a somewhat ridiculous legend for Lynx Shanghai, to try to make it feel like more than another Mah Jong game. I look at that, and it's kind of funny now. Nothing in that legend is actually in the game. I had fun writing it, though. It was long, and I'm surprised I got away with it. After Blue Lightning, I pretty much had free reign.
 
If I didn't like the game (like Batman Returns, or whatever that Batman game for the Lynx was called), I tended to play a lot less, but I still had to play it enough to write a good manual. Not liking a game made it a bit of a chore sometimes. And sometimes, especially toward the end of my time with Atari, they would dump three or four games on me at once and give me a few days to write them all. This was after they switched to the little four-page manuals, which left no room for creativity.
 
For the 7800 games I did (wish i could remember more of them, but anything from late 88 to 90 would have gone through my hands, either as writer or editor) I had an XEGS on my desk. I loved playing on that thing during my breaks.
 
Do you have any other stories or thoughts you'd like to share concerning working for Atari?
It's kind of fun to have somehow become a part of pop history by working there. If I had been more aware of that sort of thing, I would have hung on to the swag we got, the t-shirts and stuff. I can point to three things where I was thrust into history, although I didn't know it at the time.
 
1. I was sent to the Epyx headquarters in Foster City to pick up the Lynx prototype and take it back to Sunnyvale, with stern warnings about getting back safely--not me, the Handy, as it was called then. Don't stop. Don't get in an accident. Don't get out of the car to get something to eat or drink. With not-so-veiled threats about failing.
 
2. When people were having trouble removing Lynx carts, the artist asked me to be the hand model for the drawing on the label on the back. So that's a drawing of my hand on the label.
 
3. By working on the Portfolio, I became one of the first people to use a handheld computer.
 
Again, none of these were due to any special ability or activity on my part, but it's cool to have been in the right place at the right time.
 
I also remember seeing Mick Fleetwood and Debbie Gibson touring the offices. Fleetwood was intimidating.  
 
 
Do you have any favorite Atari games?
Adventure for the 2600. I still play that often. Any new device I get gets two things right away: Adventure and Zork. I no longer have any real Atari systems, but I have a Flashback and a plug-and-play, and play Atari games in emulators on computers and mobile devices. I also still enjoy an occasional game of Klax (Lynx, especially, although the 2600 version is still fun too) and Chip's Challenge, neither of which I wrote, although i did edit them and was often challenged to a game of Klax on the arcade machine upstairs by the woman who wrote that manual. There were so many great Atari games that have held up, though, despite the primitive technology, and I play them now with my five-year-old grandson, who often asks (demands) that we play Atari. 
 
Here we are a year ago:
 
I wish 7800 games would come out on some kind of retro device. There are a lot of those I'd love to rediscover. I never had a 7800, but I played them at the office.
 
I also have two original Lynx boxes full of old baseball cards but, alas, no Lynx.
 
I hope my long answers were at least somewhat interesting. I could tell a lot of stories (some of which I probably shouldn't tell). I'm probably best-suited for a Lynx podcast, but I had some involvement in late 7800 games. I don't really have any 7800 stories, though. It wasn't emphasized much when i was there. That was a good time, even if it wasn't a particularly easy place to work. It was fun to tell people to leave me alone so i could work, then sit in a comfy chair and play Lynx games.

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#2 The Professor

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Posted 20 August 2016 - 06:24 PM

Great interview No Swear! I always love to hear new stories about the golden days at Atari from the people who were there :)
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#3 RickR

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Posted 20 August 2016 - 06:40 PM

"Their cheapness was also the stuff of legend"

 

This is my favorite quote from this excellent interview. 


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#4 Lost Dragon

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Posted 20 August 2016 - 06:48 PM

Utterly bloody superb.

 

 

Yet AGAIN another fantastic look into Atari, featured on THIS wonderful site and FREE for all to view.

 

 

My favourite quote from the interview:

 

 

"The kid in the ad wore clothes with the tags still on so they could be returned after the shoot"...Now THAT is ATARI :)

 

 

I love it, i love the insights, the looking back and the examples of just how penny pinching Atari were and i cannot thank you enough for sharing this.


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#5 Video 61

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Posted 21 August 2016 - 02:15 PM

 

I was given the programmers' story line for Blue Lightning on the Lynx, which was your typical "You're the greatest pilot in the Force and you need to save the world" kind of thing. But when I played, it was hard. So I turned in a manual with a story saying you were chosen because you're a lousy pilot and you're expendable, basically that you have to learn to fly, because that's what playing the game felt like. I put a lot of humor in the story and the mission descriptions. I expected to be told to tone it down, but John Skruch loved it. My manager wasn't so crazy about it, but Skruch told him to leave it as it was. He didn't. When the manual came back, much of the humor was gone, although the basic story line survived. Skruch wasn't happy, and neither was I, and my manager heard about it.

 

 

 

skruch should have been given a free hand, he knew games. he was the one who told me about all of the games epyx had almost ready for the lnyx, he played them all, he told jack they would make a lot of money off of them. we know what happened then.


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#6 Video 61

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Posted 21 August 2016 - 02:23 PM

i was never told what the titles were. they may have been the infamous lynx games that epyx needed just 50 grand to finish up, and jack refused to give them the money up front, instead he said we have a contract.

 

by then epyx was in trouble, and jack may have smelled blood. by then epyx knew what jack was, they were in trouble, so they just said screw you, junked the games, and went under. that was the period where atari went about six months with no lynx releases.

 

when they came out with a release, it was of the robo squash type of release. you could tell something had happened, and they were trying to fill a giant hole. the lynx never rebounded after that.

 

all skruch said was that he had reviewed the games for jack, and he was convinced atari coud make money off of them. and that if i remember correctly, there were 25 of them.

 

so for a mere 50 grand, that jack would have gotten back anyways, because it was it was just a up front payment, that would have been taken out of the payment for completion, we lost perhaps 25 unique lynx titles, and got crap like robo squash, and atari lost the hand held market to game boy.


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#7 RickR

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Posted 21 August 2016 - 02:27 PM

Oh man, to see that in writing.  It just hurts the brain.  Ruthless and cheap.  Computers for the asses, not the masses. 


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#8 Lost Dragon

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Posted 21 August 2016 - 06:12 PM

I remember asking Peter E.from Epyx about claims they were doing Cal.Games 2 etc for the Lynx, he told me at 'that point' things were so bad between Atari and Epyx, they'd just tell Atari any old crap :)

 

 

It really saddens me when i hear of companies like Atari, Sega etc treating developers like utter rubbish-it was such a short sighted view.Sega telling Camelot  and E.A they didn't need them, they were Sega...

 

 

If you haven't the key people making the key games your hardware needs, you've not a proverbial cat in hells chance of shifting the hardware.

 

 

These are games machines, it's THE GAMES that entice folks to buy them, keep hold of them etc etc.

 

 

If your platform hasn't got the games people want to play, votes will be cast with the wallet and they'll just go elsewhere.

 

By failing to invest in development support, Atari simply cut it's own throat.


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#9 scorho

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Posted 01 September 2016 - 11:02 PM

I'm glad you guys enjoyed this interview.

There was actually some very cool development while I was at Atari. Some, like the Lynx and Portfolio, was bought from other companies. Others, like the Stacy, were really cool and cutting edge, but suffered from the tech limitations of the time. The Stacy's downfall, as I remember it, was a combination of battery requirements, heat, and weight. Falcon, the TT030, and other hardware were excellent computers for the time. There was innovative software too. DeskSet II was powerful but was slowed down by the processing power of the time and came out as typesetting was fading. It didn't meet its potential, but was an innovative product.

I wasn't privy to business decisions and wasn't that aware of the business side of the company, but it seemed to me there was actually a lot of cool innovation and not enough cash to bring some of the products to market, to perfect the products or to support and market the things that did make it to market. It was tough to compete with new computers like the Macintosh and the rapid improvements of PCs, but we made some good stuff with the ST family and in the music.

Working at Atari, I was constantly wowed by the tech around me. Some pushed limits and failed to push them successfully. Some wasn't ready to go and couldn't quite be pulled off. But it was all fascinating and really whetted my curiosity and interest in the industry I've worked in since.

Overall, it was a great place to get started, despite all its weirdness and stress. I'm glad they took a chance on me.
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#10 RickR

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Posted 01 September 2016 - 11:10 PM

Welcome to the forums, scorho!  We'd love for you to share whatever stories about Atari you can remember. 


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#11 scorho

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Posted 01 September 2016 - 11:20 PM

If any of you have favorite Lynx games or manuals, I can talk about what I remember. It won't always be very much--we really churned stuff out much of the time--but I'll happily share any memories you can shake loose.
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#12 RickR

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Posted 01 September 2016 - 11:27 PM

How about "Kung Food"?  It's a pretty unique game.  Flawed, but very original in concept. 


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#13 scorho

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Posted 01 September 2016 - 11:45 PM

Kung Food was done pretty late in my time as a contractor. By then, they were really watching costs so I had to keep the story line short, although they weren't yet doing the really short, multilingual manuals that really weren't that much fun to do. It was a clever game, though, and I had fun with it.

 

By 1992, they were giving me several games at a time and I didn't have much time to write them, so I couldn't take a lot of time on any one game. As a result, I don't have really strong memories of most of those later games. I do remember this one, though. I wish I could have had time to write a better story line. I did have fun anyway, though, with lines like (thanks, AtariAge for preserving these things):

 

"If you win, the world will be safe again, although you may never be able to look at food in the same way again. On the other hand, if you fail, you will never need to eat again. The world will be overrun by savage spuds and pouncing peas."

 

I wish I could go back and edit that a bit, but I remember writing it. 


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#14 Lost Dragon

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Posted 02 September 2016 - 01:59 AM

Fantastic to have you with us Scorho :)






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