Interview 2: Warren Robinett
What was your inspiration for Adventure and what were the
roles you played in Adventure's creation.
Well, I created Adventure for the Atari 2600 video game
console in 1978-79. I guess this was the first action-adventure video game. I
was directly inspired by the original text adventure game (also known as
"Adventure") which was created by Don Woods and Willie Crowther. I played it at
the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, where my friend Julius Smith was a
grad student, in 1978.
I had just finished my first Atari 2600 cartridge when I played Woods' text
adventure at the AI Lab. I thought I could do something similar as a video game,
but my boss at Atari did not agree. We had only 4K bytes of ROM available in the
video game, whereas the text adventure ran on a mainframe with hundred of Kbytes
available. But I was stubborn and fixated on the idea, so I ignored him and
created a prototype in a period of about a month, and then went on vacation for
a month. When I got back, I found out that people in marketing liked it. So I
continued working on it. It took about a year from start to finish, although I
did another Atari cartridge (Basic Programming) concurrently with Adventure. I
sort of got stuck in the design of Adventure, and went off and started Basic
Programming, then finished them both at the same time.
I was the sole designer, programmer, artist, sound designer, and tester for
Adventure. It may be hard to believe nowadays, but that's the way things were
back then. It didn't take all that long to write enough assembler code to fill
up 4K. The problem was jamming in enough functionality to do what you wanted to
do. And yes, I wasn't that great of an artist -- my dragons looked like ducks.
How did you develop the game Adventure, and Adventure's character design?
Well, it was an adaptation of the text adventure game to
video game format. The text game gave text descriptions of the room you were in
and was controlled with text commands the player typed in, like "GO SOUTH" or
"TAKE WAND". The Atari 2600 video game, on the other hand, could not display
text, but could display little movable sprites and a low-res background, and
could play sounds. It was controlled with a joystick with a single "Fire" button
So the initial problem was how to do an adventure game, with rooms and objects,
given those resources. My idea was to show one room on the screen at a time, use
sprites for the objects in the game, and use moving off the edge of the screen
to mean Go North, South, East or West. This required a cursor or figure of some
kind to indicate your position in the room -- I ended up using just a small
square because I saved the higher resolution sprites for the objects. I called
this "The Man" or sometimes, the cursor. There had to be a way to pick up and
drop objects, and for this I used collision (2D overlap) between the cursor and
an object to mean "Pick up". I used the button to mean "Drop the object".
There was an early version in which the player could pick up multiple objects
and therefore had an "Inventory" screen, analogous to how things worked in the
text adevnture. But I felt it was unsatisfactory and inconsistent to leave the
action of the game world to go into Inventory limbo, and relaized that if I
restricted the player to carrying one object at a time, it forced him or her to
make strategic choices -- do I carry the weapon or the treasure?
Then there needed to be someway that objects could interact, analogous using the
Cheerful Singing Bird to drive away the Dragon in Crowther and Woods's
Adventure. I again used video overlap to trigger actions -- in my game, touching
the sword to the dragon killed it.
Those were the main conceptual hurdles to resolve how one would do an adventure
game as a video game. Then of course I had to have a goal, and invent obstacles
and objects and creatures.
The game was supposed to be a quest, to retrieve the Holy Grail and bring it
back to the castle, but the Atari marketing department sanitized Hoily Grail
into Enchanted Chalice.
The dragons that chased you were an early idea that seemed to work pretty well,
but that by itself was not enough. It took me quite a while to work out how to
do effective mazes, since the Atari hardware forced the left and right halves of
the screen to use the same graphics. The dragon required an object which could
be used against it -- the sword. If the dragon ate you, the player, then there
had to be a way to restart -- hence the reincarnation. Reincarnating any dragons
you had killed at the same time as you were reincarnated was a good touch, I
thought. It was like being vulnerable in the game of bridge -- you had more to
lose battling the third dragon if two were already vanquished.
The bat was added as a confusion factor to spice things up fairly late in the
Please describe Adventure's testing process.
I started in the spring of 1978 and released it to
manufacturing in June 1979. I showed it to other game designers at Atari and
also play tested it at home, at parties, back home in Missouri on Christmas
vacation, and so forth. There were no forms to sign, no big secrecy at that
time. Things were pretty relaxed.
How did you choose the name Adventure?
I called it Adventure because I was adapting the text
adventure game to video game format. It turned out that the name "Adventure" was
public domain due to Don Woods intentionally putting his text adventure in the
public domain, so that was the name that got used.
You contributed the idea and implementation of secret hidden items and
rooms within games. The process has proven invaluable to modern game designers.
What was your motivation for the initial secrecy, which later evolved into a gameplay mechanic?
I'm glad you think it was invaluable. You could also call it
devious, insubordinate, and self-promoting. The hardest thing for me was keeping
the secret to myself for a whole year.
The background was that at that time, Atari had a monopoly, and did not choose
to give the game designers credit on the published games. Each game cart was
designed entirely by one person at that time, but we were anonymous. We also got
no royalties, just a salary -- mine was $22,000 per year. So creating the secret
room with my signature in it was a way for me to sign my work, and hey if I was
going to do it, why not fill the screen with my name in flashing colors? It also
fit in with the adventure game theme of rooms and objects. You don't really know
what's out there until you go exploring, and some places can be really hard to
My model in creating the secret room was the secret messages hidden in Beatle
records ("I buried Paul") in the late Sixties, where you had to play the record
backwards to hear the message.
So I released the code for Adventure in June 1979. It contained the Gray Dot,
which let you get into the secret room, which contained my signature. Needless
to say, I didn't document that part of the code too well. Asembler code is not
that easy to casually read, anyway. Atari manufactured several hundred thousand
Adventure cartridges, sent them to stores all over the world, and sure enough,
some kids here and there did discover the secret room.
Many Atari programmers left Atari and formed third-parties, such as
Activision. Many, such as yourself, chose to stay loyal to Atari. Please tell us
about this particular 'troup.'
In 1979, there were about a dozen programmers designing
games for the Atari 2600 video game console. Four of them left to start
Activision, and another three or four started Imagic, both of which sold $50
million worth of video games their first year in business. All those guys were
multi-millionaires, and what did that say about those of us who were left? We
were out drinking one night, and after about six pitchers of beer, we decided to
form the Dumb Shits Club. The requirements for membership were you had to have
designed games for Atari and never made any money from it. The idea was
conceived by Tom Reuterdahl and myself, with Doug Neubauer (not drinking)
observing the spectacle. We later elected Jim Huether, my office mate at Atari,
president of the Dumb Shits Club because he stayed there the longest of the
At the time of release, what was so innovative about Adventure?
It was great time, because the programmers were free to try
all kinds of ideas for games. The game hardware, the controllers, the game ideas
were all evolving fast. Some innovations in Adventure were:
A. Multi-screen game world. It may be hard to believe now, but most early Atari
2600 video games (Combat, Basketball, Breakout, Video Olympics) took place on a
single screen as the game world. In Adventure, I came up with a way to stitch
together many screens to make a much larger game world.
B. Picking up and dropping objects. The idea of rooms and objects came from the
text adventure game, but objects as visual icons that could be moved around
spatially was rather different from the text version. Making objects do things
when they touched other objects was kind of obvious, given the collision
detection hardware of the Atari 2600, but it worked well and opened up many
C. Autonomous creatures. There were four creatures in Adventure: three dragons
and a bat. They were implemented as objects that moved around on their own
initiating actions. Each creature had a subroutine associated with it that
executed each time through the program's main loop, causing the creature to
"decide" which direction to move, testing the nearby game world environment for
other objects the creature responded to, and invoking actions, such as the bat
stealing an object from the player's cursor, or the dragon eating the cursor.
Using animations to show the state of each creature also worked extremely well.
The dragon, for example, had four states (Chasing, Biting, Swallowed Cursor, and
Dead). Each state corresponded to a different bitmap image of the dragon.
The creatures were implemented with pure "Behaviorism" (Stimulus-Response)
governing their movements. There were only two things a creature could do: go
toward an object (chase) or go away from an object (flee). Each creature had a
priority list of objects (or other creatures) it responded to, and whether to
chase it or flee from it. Each creature responded to the highest priority
creature that was in the same room with it (and ignored lower priority objects).
This meant you could see creatures "change their mind" as new objects entered a
For an object that was chased, something had to happen when it was caught. This
was controlled by a collision-detection test on the part of the chaser. In the
case of the dragon, if it caught the player's cursor, a collision caused the
dragon to go into the Biting state, and if there was still a collision occuring
a few frames later, then the player was trapped in the dragon's stomach (and had
to reincarnate). If the player had moved away during that short interval, then
the dragon went back into Chase mode. Thus a long series of Chase-Bite actions
could occur as the player and dragon moved around, ultimately culminating either
in the player getting away (the dragon couldn't sense the player across room
boundaries, but kept going towards the last sighting in the same room -- so it
was possible to get away), in the dragon eating the player, or in the player
killing the dragon if the sword was available.
In the case of the bat, when the bat caught the object it was chasing, it
grabbed it (even if the player had been carrying it), and flew away with it,
dumping the object it had been carrying.
D. No timer. This is not exactly an innovation, but more of a design choice. I
wanted to emphasize exploration as opposed to a frantic race against the clock.
I also hoped that this choice would make the game more appealing to girls.
E. Game simulation independent of what the player sees. The simulation code
governing the dragons, bat, and other objects proceeded each frame independent
of which room the player was viewing. This is in contrast to many games, then
and now, that randomly generate objects near the player. In Adventure, there
were always three dragons and one bat, and they were always somewhere in the
game world -- no objects blinked in and out of existence when you weren't
looking. This gave the creatures more complex and interesting behavior -- for
example, the bat could get stuck in an isolated part of the game world ferrying
two objects back and forth between two rooms. If you hadn't seen the bat for a
long time, you might go searching and discover this pattern.
F. Random placement of objects at the start of the game. I did this only in
level 3, the final level. The first level was intended to be easy, so people
could get started. Level 2 was hard, but it had the same object placement every
time you played it. I used the random object placement in level 3 for variety. I
didn't want it to be like a puzzle, where once you've solved it, it's not very
interesting to do it again, and I wanted to avoid that. The bat was also added
as a confusion factor, to move objects around a bit, so that the game wasn't too
predictable. (I did make a mistake in my random object placement code, and there
is a 1 in 18 chance that the yellow key will start out in the yellow castle,
making the game unwinnable. This only happens in level 3.)
As you may gather from the above, I think that randomness in a game is very
strong medicine, and must be very carefully controlled.
How does one get to the secret room in Adventure, and how did the secret get
termed 'Easter Egg?'
To get into the secret room, there was a 1-pixel object (the
smallest possible little insignificant looking dot) that was the small color
(gray) as the background. The Gray Dot was hidden in a little chamber that was
surrounded by walls, and could only gotten to by using the Bridge object to
cross the walls. Since it was the same color as the background, you couldn't see
it until you ran into it and then saw it against the walls of the maze. If you
took this object around throughout the game world, you might eventually discover
that it let you get through one of the side walls near the Yellow Castle and
into the secret room which contained my signature.
By the time the existence of the secret room became known to Atari, I no longer
worked there. I figured they would expunge the secret room when they found out
about it, but the manager of the Atari game designers at that time, Steve Wright
I think it was, said that he thought it was kind of cool to have little hidden
surprises in video games, like searching for Easter Eggs on Easter Sunday. So it
was not expunged, possibly influenced by the fact it would have cost $10,000 to
make a new mask for the ROM chip used in the Adventure cartridge. They did
assign a programmer to track down where in the code the signature was -- he
later told me that if he had been asked remove it, he would have replaced
"Created by Warren Robinett" with "Fixed by Brad Stewart."
Describe the layout creation process for Adventure. Did technical limitations
of the time dictate design?
The game world layout just evolved, based on figuring out
how to make an adventure game work on the Atari 2600 hardware, and then figuring
out interesting objects and creatures. As I remember, I first had the player's
cursor and room-to-room motion working and a dragon that chased you. But with no
walls, the network of rooms was sort of pointless, or vacuous. I guess I made a
castle fairly early, and had the open rooms below the castle. One problem was
that, with the hardware requiring the left and right halves of the screen to use
the same graphics, that meant if you could get in from the left you could keep
going off the right sid e, and then the same would happen in the next room, and
the next, etc. Then I figured out I could use the two one-pixel-wide "Missile"
sprites for narrow walls on the left and right sides of the screen. This made it
possible to make reasonable regions in the game world that were made up of
several screens, but had boundaries. (It also provided a clue for what the Gray
Dot was for, because these walls changed color to match the objects brought into
It took me quite a while to figure out that I could make globally asymmetrical
mazes from rooms which were all symmetrical. Once this became clear, then I made
the four different mazes pretty quickly. The bridge object (for crossing maze
walls) was a logical construct once the mazes existed. Once the bridge existed,
then making mazes consisting of disjoint regions became a cool idea. You came in
the front door of a maze, and if it had some disconnected regions, you could
only get into them by using the bridge. So the Blue Maze was your garden-variety
introductory maze. The Red Maze in the White Castle, which had two disjoint
regions, needed the bridge to get to all of it.
The other two mazes were the kind I called "Catacombs." You could only see the
walls of the maze in a little square around the cursor. This was my attempt to
transliterate the Lamp from the text adventure game to the video game medium.
You had to pick up and light the lamp in the text game or you couldn't see
anything. I really wanted a circle of radiance thrown out by the lamp, but
circles were hard to do with the blocky 2600 graphics, so I settled for a
"square of radiance." Also, it was confusing to have to always bring a lamp
object to those mazes (and remember, I had restricted the player to carrying
only one object), so I made the lamp automatic in those mazes. So it wasn't
really an object. I implemented the square of radiance with a video priority
trick with the 2600 hardware by making the walls and background both gray, and
putting a quad-size square orange sprite in between. This put the radiance
behind, rather than on top, of the maze walls and gave me the effect I wanted.
So the maze inside the Black Castle was both a catacomb and had two disjoint
parts. Since you could only see a piece of the maze at any one time, it wasn't
obvious that there were places you couldn't get to. I made a very small chamber
as the part that was hard to get to, and this is where I hid the Gray Dot.
I invented the Magnet as a solution to the problem that stuff you needed could
get stuck in the walls if you dropped an object in the wrong place. No problem,
just go get the magnet and suck that puppy out of the wall. (The bat could also
retrieve objects stuck in the wall.)
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment concerning Adventure?
The whole thing, really. Doing it within the limits of 4096
bytes of ROM for the game program (including graphics and sound) and 128 bytes
of RAM for the machine stack, program variables, and game state -- this was very
Do you have a particular memory concerning Adventure?
Riding my bicycle home 13 miles from Sunnyvale to Menlo Park
at midnight, after hacking on Adventure for 12 hours, my mind going faster than
my legs, trying to figure out how to solve the next problem in implementing the
The dragons in Adventure have names, but the bat does not. Why is this?
I named the Red, Green, and Yellow Dragons "Rhindle", "Grindle",
and "Yorgle". The guy who wrote the manual, Steve Harding, liked those names and
used them. I named the bat "Knubberrub," a name suggested by a German friend,
Walburg Kicia, but I guess he thought that name was too weird, so the bat had no
In addition to Adventure, what other projects have you contributed in making?
I did the Slot Racers and Basic Programming cartridges also
for the Atari 2600 console.
Then I got involved with some educators and we started the Learning Company in
1980, where I did Rocky's Boots, which was an educational game.
Rocky's Boots inherited quite a few ideas from Adventure, like room-to-room
motion, and objects that could be picked up by the cursor.
Atari sold over 1,000,000 Adventure game cartridges. Did you ever think that
you would be the creator of an item desired by so many people?
I was pretty excited about what I was doing when I created
Adventure. I was aware that getting it published and distributed nationwide (or
worldwide) was pretty cool, since my first game, Slot Racers, was already in the
stores when I was working on Adventure. I didn't think about the sales numbers,
specifically. Atari management did not ever tell the designers sales numbers
when I was there.
Adventure is still played by countless numbers over two decades after it's
production run had long ended? Is there anything that you'd to say to those
faithful and appreciative of your hard work of so many years ago?
Is it really still played very much? Until I started hearing
from people via the Internet a few years ago, I didn't think many people even
remembered it, much less played it. I do have a 2600 emulator and a ROM image of
Adventure on my PC nowadays, so I do know about that way of playing it.
Is there anything that you'd to say to those faithful and appreciative of
your hard work of so many years ago?
Well, now that you mention it, yeah.
1. Thanks for the strokes. Any creative person likes to hear that his or her
work was appreciated.
2. Would you like a sequel? I always wanted to do another one, but various
things intervened. I'm not sure it makes much sense now, since the game business
has changed so much. (I feel a bit like Homer, dressed in a toga, walking into a
New York publishing house, asking if they'd like a follow-on to the Iliad and
Odyssey. "Well Mr. Homer, there's not much of a market for oral ballads in
Greek, nowadays. Do you do screenplays?")
3. My boss at Atari told me not to do it, but I started on Adventure anyway.
That seems to have been a good decision. Maybe *your* boss is a numbskull, too.
One thing that you might be interested in is that I wrote a book about the
design of Adventure and Rocky's Boots in 1983-84, but my publisher went out of
business as part of the collapse of the video game industry. So I still have
this manuscript from that era laying around. It was called Imaginary Worlds,
but nowadays I would probably retitle it "Inventing the Adventure Game."