Posts Tagged ‘fl0w’

Channel F and Minorities in the Industry

22 March 2009 1 comment

Fairchild Channel F

There’s a connection here, I promise you 🙂

Vintage Computing and Gaming interviewed recently Jerry Lawson, designer of the Fairchild Channel F console. I’m not overly familiar with the system. To my knowledge, none of my friends had one. The one thing that I did pick up in my numerous vintage gaming readings over the years was that it was originally called the Video Entertainment System, but changed it’s name to Channel F when the Atari VCS was released. The other thing that I knew about it was that there were issues with interference that the FCC did not take kindly to, and so Fairchild had to line the inside of the console with aluminum in order to comply with FCC requirements.

Lawson, who grew up here in Queens, NY, had some interesting anectdotes about his creation:

BE: Lets get back to your career at Fairchild. How did the whole video game thing at Fairchild get started?

JL: I did my home coin-op game first in my garage. Fairchild found out about it — in fact, it was a big controversy that I had done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for them. Then they told me that they had this contracted with this company called Alpex, and they wanted me to work with the Alpex people, because they had done a game which used the Intel 8080. They wanted to switch it over to the F8, so I had to go work with these two other engineering guys and switch the software to how the F8 worked. So, I had a secret assignment; even the boss that I worked for wasn’t to know what I was doing.

I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild, with a budget. I just got on an airplane when I wanted to go to Connecticut and talk to these people, and I wouldn’t have to report to my boss. And this went on, and finally, we decided, “Hey, the prototype looks like it’s going to be worth something. Let’s go do something.” I had to bring it from this proof of performance to reality — something that you could manufacture. Also, a division had to be made, so I was working with a marketing guy named Gene Landrum, and sat down and wrote a business plan for building video games.

I was the number one employee. My set task was to work on the prototype and hire a bunch of people to work with me, most of which came from Fairchild. In fact, the big man asked me, “Where did these people come from?” And I said, “They were working here all the time.” He said, “They were?” I said, “Mmm hmm. All they needed was a reason to do something.” I just went out and talked to them.

So, it was an interesting thing, because the memory we used — 4K RAMS, dynamic RAMs — I would use four of them per system. Now, in making the pricing up, I used to go to MOS (even though Fairchild also made these things), and they were throwing out the ones that weren’t passing their tests. And I would go up there — literally with a little red wagon and two cardboard boxes — and I would load them up with RAMs: they’re throw outs, they’re garbage. And I’d take them to an outside test lab, and I got 90% yield out of their garbage can.

So I was sitting there going, “Great, it’s for free!” [MOS] heard I was doing it for free, so they got in there and decided, “Uh uh, you’re going to pay for them!” I said, “You dirty rats.”


BE: How much total RAM did the Channel F have in it?

JL: 16K.

BE: Really? 16K? That was a lot at the time. I think the VCS had 128 bytes of RAM.

JL: See, our memory was used as a screen. The screen was memory. What you were doing when you played our game, you were actually putting symbology in a memory, and that memory was being displayed on screen. What you looked at when you were looking at the screen was an array of memory so-many-bits high by so-many-bits deep. In fact, when we had to move a character around, we had a thing we called “self-erasing characters.” Now what we would do is black out a square — say eight by eight — and around that eight by eight would be a border or background, and the symbology was put inside of it. So every time it moved, it would automatically erase the previous position. If we hadn’t done it that way — like we tried to fill it in — each time we moved it, we’d have to erase the last position it was in. If we did it that way, we ended up having objects that look like they’re jumping around and flashing.

A lot of little things we used to do were different. Our hand controllers were special. They were analog equivalent, but they were digital. And somebody asked how we did that. Well, we would drive the objects. In other words, when the [switch] closed in a direction, we would send the object in that direction. We’d send it fast, then we’d slow it down, so that it would have a kind of a hysteresis curve. We needed to do that for the human factors of using the hand controllers.

The hand controllers had a lot of — nobody has duplicated one yet. They’ve used them in other things. The hand controller had eight positions: up, down, left, right, forward and backward left and right. Eight positions.

16K!!! Wow!

What really attracted Vintage Computing to do the interview with Lawson is that he is an African American. Being a person of color working in the tech field was quite rare back in the 1970s, which makes Lawson quite the pioneer.

BE: Did you experience any difficulties in your career because of your race?

JL: Oh yeah. There’s two ways I used to experience it. First of all, I’m a big guy. So not too many people confronted me face to face. But I’ve had instances where I’ve walked into places where they didn’t know I was black.

I’ll give you an example. Not that the guy was a racist, but a guy named John Ellis, who was one of the Atari people. In about, oh, 1996 or 7, a law firm in Texas hired me as a consultant. And they were going to sue Nintendo. And they told me they want to bring John Ellis in too, ’cause he’s from Atari, and I go, “Oh, fine.” They said, “You know John Ellis?” I said, “I know John — very well.”

So the next day, John comes in the room, sees me, and says, “Hi Jerry.” And he looked kind of strange. I said, “What’s the matter with you, John?” He said, “I’ve always known you as Jerry Lawson. I didn’t know you were the same video game guy Jerry Lawson — I didn’t know you were black!” And I said, “Huh?” He said, “Al Alcorn, Nolan Bushnell, talked about you — all of them talked about you — Joe Keenan. But they never said you were black.” I said, “Well, I am.” He said, “I don’t know whether they did you a favor or not.” I said, “Well I don’t go around telling everybody I’m black.” I just do my job, you know?

With some people, it’s become an issue. I’ve had people look at me with total shock. Particularly if they hear my voice, because they think that all black people have a voice that sounds a certain way, and they know it. And I sit there and go, “Oh yeah? Well, sorry, I don’t.”

Granted, today there are more people of color in the industry, however, the new… pardon the pun… women are the new black. Women in games are still mostly relegated to marketing or marketing-related fields such as community. You do get the occassional support staffer who is female, but even today a game designer who is female is a rare find in most any company. The most notorious, of course, is Stevie Case, one of the lead designers of the horrific Daikatana. She later wound up taking her clothes off for Playboy.

Tracy Fullerton is a designer and highly regarded professor who’s students have been responsible for Cloud and flOw. Roberta Williams co-founded Sierra On-Line with her husband, helped bring Richard Garriott‘s Ultima series to the masses, posed naked in a hot tub for SOL’s Softporn Adventure title, and was a chief designer and programmer for the King’s Quest series. There are a few others, too: Mary Flanagan of Tiltfactor and Katie Salen of Parsons School of Design are designer/academics of reknown. My favorite happens to be Danielle Bunten Berry who created one of my favorite games of all time. She and Jessica Mulligan are even more in the minority: male-to-female transexuals.

These are just a handful of women who are paving the way for others with their talent, intelligence and brilliant work. Sadly, like Jerry Lawson, women are still being overshadowed by their more majority counterparts. Perhaps in the future the gaming industry will find itself better balanced in both race and gender. Until then, ladies, please keep your clothes on =P