Interview with Classic Games Programmer Robert C. McNally

by Alan Hewston, Retrogaming Times, April 2004

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This is the "director's cut" of an interview which appeared in the April 2004 issue of the Retrogaming Times webzine. Thanks to Alan Hewston for his patience with my busy schedule while we worked on this. You can find a complete list of my professional projects here. --Robert McNally

First off, I'd like to thank Peter McDuff from the TrekPulse Star Trek fan club for giving me feedback on one of my game reviews, the Many Faces of Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. Peter confirmed that there was indeed an Apple // version, and that its programmer has his own web site and can be contacted. This of course led me to Robert.

Despite having just completed an interview for that very same Star Trek fan club, Robert was still gracious enough to provide a different type interview - one for Rerogamers. Robert was confident that he'd have quite a lot to tell us, so much in fact that after I added a second round of questions, the size grew to that of a mini biography. We decided to keep the full content, i.e. the "Director's Cut" on his web site. We could still add more or edit it later, but a smaller condensed interview would be provided to the Retrogaming Times - with focus on the Apple //, Sega, Activision and his Apple // programming of Ghostbusters and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (SOS).

RT: Tell us about your earliest computer and video game experiences, where you grew up, what was the first computer that you used at home, school, work etc. Tell us as much as you'd like and then we'll focus on other areas.

I was born in Hollywood, CA in 1965 to Edward and Susan McNally. My family lived in Burbank, CA until I was about 8 and then moved to Granada Hills, in the San Fernando Valley (of Valley Girl fame.) I think my first contact with a computer came in 1976 when I was in 7th grade, the first year at Patrick Henry Junior High in Granada Hills. I was 11 years old, and I hated school. The school had a mysterious room with an old minicomputer in it (I don't remember the make or model, only that it was about the size of a refrigerator.) I never took the class, but managed to spend a little time in the room watching older kids load programs from paper tape and laboriously enter programs on the teletype. I was fascinated, but my interest there never took root, because as I said, I hated school, and math was my most-hated subject. Only older kids who were good at math got to study on that machine.

I actually had a fair history of hating school. (Or was it that school hated me? These days that seems like a stronger theory.) My parents knew I was withering on the vine even in late grade school, so they had placed me on a waiting list for one of the "magnet" schools in my area-- Valley Alternative School. VAS was supposed to offer a looser, more self-paced environment in which children who suffered under the structure of more traditional schools could flourish. They offered K-12, and my parents applied when I was in 5th grade. But time passed, and I was suffering at Patrick Henry when VAS finally had an opening. When VAS finally accepted me (late 7th or early 8th grade) I was overjoyed. Only a few blocks from Patrick Henry, VAS was located in a series of structures that used to be classy horse stables (which, amusingly, accounted for the fact that all of the classroom doors were unusually wide.) Funky and almost hippie-ish, it was where I met some people I still regard as close friends, including Kevin Poulsen, who later became a renowned "cracker" and did prison time -- Kevin is now a respected writer and the Editorial Director of VAS was woefully under funded, but had a dedicated teaching staff who believed in the school's mission. At that time VAS also happened to be located across a muddy lot from California State University Northridge (CSUN), where my mother earned degrees in Art and Psychology, and where years later my brother Michael would earn his Bachelors in Computer Science. VAS students got plenty of opportunities to hang out at CSUN (although most couldn't care less) and as long as we didn't cause trouble we were tolerated by the university students and faculty.

So although VAS could ill-afford a single computer, I often roamed the halls of the CSUN Engineering Building, peering into classrooms and labs at the marvelous toys. The students there still learned programming in FORTRAN by using keypunch machines and Hollerith cards-- video terminals were considered expensive luxuries. Programs on Hollerith decks were submitted and batch processed overnight-- students would receive printouts the next morning with the results. I occasionally had the opportunity to play with the keypunches (my first experience with "hanging chad"!) or flip through the voluminous RST/OS operating system manuals-- none of which I really understood.

But the most interesting thing I discovered was in a locked room adjoining one of the keypunch labs-- a room that even students had to have special permission to enter: the plotter lab. In this lab was a Calcomp 936 pen plotter, plainly visible through large windows that looked into the lab. Often I observed the plotter drawing meticulous circuit diagrams or topographical maps. But even more fascinating was an old woman named Professor Eudice Feder, who would spend hours in the lab running programs that caused the machine to generate large swaths of closely-spaced lines-- each line at a slightly different angle-- overlaid on each other to produce multi-colored gradients and eye-buzzing moiré patterns. After noticing me staring through the window a few times, she opened the door and invited me in. Up close, watching her plots run was amazing, because as the plotter's stepper motors changed speed, their simultaneous humming became a harmony, and the clicking of their direction changes became cadence and rhythm, and the whole thing became a song. I think it was my first "multimedia experience." I visited with her a number of times and watched her plots run. I would only learn much later that she was considered one of the pioneers in the field of computer art.

In those days I would also spend a lot of time at the CSUN Oviatt Library, the basement of which housed a film library and a number of projection rooms. VAS students could check out films to view, and I spent many hours watching experimental animation such as the original Powers of Ten film, and the works of CG pioneer John Whitney, Sr.

At that time, there was no "personal computer industry" or "computer game industry." Then one day I had made a slight detour on my usual route home from school, and discovered that White Oak Avenue in Granada Hills was now home to one of the San Fernando Valley's (in fact, Los Angeles') first computer stores, Rainbow Computing. Entrepreneurs Gene Sprouse and Glenn Dollar had started a little business that turned out to be on the avant-garde of the personal computer revolution.

The front of the tiny store featured a rack of computer magazines (Creative Computing, ROM Magazine) and books (Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines) and a business-oriented machine called the Jupter III, notable for being the first computer to run the Sargon chess-playing program on its monochrome monitor.

On a table at the back of the store sat a stylish plastic case with an integrated keyboard hooked up to a color television and a cassette player-- The Apple ][. The Apple ][ displayed color! (A whopping 16 colors in 40x40 low-res mode, 4 in the 320x200 hi-res mode, later hacked to 7 including two virtually identical shades of white) And sound! (A single bit could be flipped in assembly language causing the tiny speaker cone to pop in or out.) And it played games! Rocket Pilot, by the legendary Bob Bishop, and the equally legendary Star Trek, later renamed Apple Trek for reasons that are painfully obvious these days. And, it had its own built-in Basic interpreter.

After that day in 1977, Rainbow Computing became my after school hangout, and I basically became a tolerated daily nuisance to Gene and Glenn. My parents, who couldn't afford to purchase a computer at that time, stopped expecting me home before the store closed. I made myself useful in the store by copying the cassette tapes on which Apple ][ programs were distributed, and Gene and Glenn paid me in computer magazines that I took home and absorbed. Eventually my parents scraped together enough money to buy an Apple //+ (which had an amazing 48K of RAM instead of the original 4K, and by that time floppy drives were even available!) And the rest, as they say, is history.

Best other computer I played with at Rainbow Computing: The Cosmac Elf.

Apple peripheral that most influenced me: The Alf Music Card

Other notable characters I met during my years at Rainbow Computing include:

Gary J. Shannon, who is the brother of Sargon author Kathe Spracklen, and who became something of a mentor to me. Through little programs he wrote that did amazingly cool things in assembly language, Gary showed me why I should be interested in going deeper into the machine. If I remember correctly he also did Sargon for the Apple, and several generations of Othello-playing software. The first computer game I actually published was in fact an exercise in Gary teaching me how to program in AppleSoft Basic-- it was the puzzle game originally published by Parker Brothers known as Black Box. I confess Gary really did most of the programming on the game-- I just tagged along. I did name it however-- my first colossal mistake in publishing. Someone told me that the Latin phrase for Black Box was Camera Obscura, and that it was the origin of the word "camera," (my father was a photographer, by the way.) So that became the name, and to this day it probably was the most "obscure" game ever published. I defy anyone to send me a screen shot! Gary later went to San Diego to work for arcade game manufacturer Gremlin, which was later bought by Sega. He was my introduction to Sega where I was hired as a programmer. He eventually retired to Grants Pass, OR, where he runs a hobby shop. I have long since lost contact with him.

David Gordon, who started the first-ever consumer software publishing company, Programma International. Programma's early claim to fame was the Apple PIE text editor-- a forerunner of the modern word processor. It was through Programma that I published Camera Obscura. David died sometime in the mid-80s.

Gary Koffler, who became my introduction to a later David Gordon publishing company, Datamost, for which I did several game contracts. Gary also provided personal introductions to the aforementioned legends Bob Bishop and John Whitney, Sr.

Stan Levine, who teaches music and humanities at a local community college, and who in his extensive home studio taught me the fundamentals of electronic music creation including how to patch Moog synthesizers, and who introduced me to the pioneering electronic music of Morton Subotnic, Walter Carlos, Isao Tomita, and Larry Fast.

Other Formational School-Age Experiences:

Tic-Tac-Dough (1978), TV game show

The New Tic-Tac-Dough held particular fascination for me, because it was the first game show I had ever seen that actually used computer screens for each square in their oversized Tic-Tac-Toe board. When players would choose the wrong square, an enraged animated dragon head would burst forth. I was certain they were using Apple ][s, as I recognized the Apple's lo-res color palette and aspect ratio. My father, who worked as a commercial photographer, often did product photography for game shows, and through his studio connections arranged a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tic-Tac-Dough set for me. Indeed, the show was using nine Apple ][s all mounted into a large wheeled cart. (It even had the large words, "Apple Cart" lettered on its sides.) I remember quizzing the show's technicians on how their setup worked.

Teaching computers at VAS (circa 1979)

My first experience teaching in a classroom came while I was still at VAS. Their unusual structure offered students the opportunity to design and teach their own classes. Having fallen in love with computers, even though my family still could not afford one, I decided that I wanted to teach what I was learning to my fellow students. The school administration agreed, although buying a computer for the school was still out of the question. Many of my friends at VAS signed up for the weekly class that ran for a month or two, and I remember the acute frustration of simultaneously trying to teach computer fundamentals from a chalkboard with no computer, and also trying to deal with my unruly "students," who also happened to be friends and peers and thus missed no chance to slack off and/or give me a hard time. With the help of some of the faculty and parents, we did arrange a field trip to Rainbow Computing, and in all I think everyone (not the least of whom was myself) learned a few good lessons.

Gemco Video Game Sales (circa 1980-1981)

For two consecutive years I worked in a local department store (Gemco) at their video game counter doing sales work during the Christmas season. Yes, I was under-age, but I had struck a deal with the store's Assistant Manager that I would work for several hours a day during my Christmas vacation and he would pay me "under the table" in Atari VCS cartridges. In this way I accumulated a large collection. I would later program the Atari 2600 at Sega (no published 2600 titles, though.)

Buck Rogers TV Show (circa 1980)

Another favorite TV show of mine was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray. Special effects fascinated me, and VAS offered a unique window of opportunity for me to learn more about them. VAS had a program called the "intensive period" where for two weeks at the end of each semester each student could elect to design and pursue their own curriculum. Together with a schoolmate of mine (Andre Sosa) we wrote to the show's producer (David J. O'Connell) and asked whether we could use this time to study first-hand how such a show is put together. To our delight Mr. O'Connell responded with an invitation to his office on the Universal Studios lot. After interviewing us, he granted our wildest dream: for two weeks we would have unrestricted (unescorted, in fact!) access to the Buck Rogers-related sections of the Universal back lot, including the sets, the crew, and the actors. He also granted us camera passes (we took many photos which I still have,) and made appointments for us to visit the model shops, the motion control facilities, and we sat for a day with the film editor. We also interviewed the pyrotechnics crew, and the stars themselves. We got to see the entire process from script, through rehearsals, pre-production, shooting, and post-production, to finally watching the finished product on our home televisions. Frankly, due to VAS's lax academic requirements I'm not sure Andre and I ever turned in much of a report on this experience, but this was a simply amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience that taught me so many things -- not the least of which is that you should always ask for your desires! Although I see Mr. O'Connell died in 1996, I will always be grateful to him for the opportunity.

Leaving VAS Early (circa 1981)

I left VAS after completing the 10th grade. I took the California High School Proficiency Examination (CHSPE) and left school with my parents' permission to pursue a full-time job as a programmer for the first-ever educational software publishing company (Edu-Ware Services.)

Early Magazine Articles

Personal Computing magazine article (1981)

In the September 1981 issue of Personal Computing magazine, the writer did an interview with my family. My archives contain a (rather decrepit) photocopy of the first page of the resulting article, which reads: [My comments in brackets.]

Leisure Computing

Computers in the Home Come of Age, by Ken McLamb

Once they get computers into their homes, people find out what else they can do with them.

Eleven-year-old Robert McNally used to skip to and from school past a computer shop in California's San Fernando Valley. He looked wistfully through the window once in a while, as any penniless kid would look into an ice cream parlor of pinball parlor. He was fascinated by science fiction, and he knew that computers made space games possible. One day in 1976 he worked up some schoolyard courage and went into the store to explore a glittering wonderland. [Actually I went in the first day I saw the place.]

Today all five of the McNallys are finding their lives richer in various ways because of Robert's wide-eyed exploration. The Mr. of the family, Edward McNally, is a commercial photographer who was persuaded two years ago to buy a computer to simplify his invoicing. He has since found so many more professional uses that he plans to market the programs he's developed. The Mrs. of the family, Susan McNally, is a school psychologist who used the new home computer's word processor ability to send individualized form letters to parents of the schoolchildren she advised.

Michael, who is 14, is designing his own adventure games-- having gotten bored with the ones from the store. Little Steven, not even born in 1976, is already a games player who knows you have to push certain buttons for enjoyable colors and actions, and certain other buttons to make the system work.

Robert is 16 now. He quit high school after passing the state's equivalency exam. He works full time for an educational software company and takes college computer courses at night. [Actually the college classes I took at that time had nothing to do with computers-- they were in art, math, drafting, writing, and poli sci.] His goal is to become a designer of video games.

The McNally's might prove to be the prototypical family of the 1980s and 1990s. With equipment that most American families can afford-- in this case an Apple II computer with a few of the most cost worthy extras-- they have brought the computer age into their home. The computer, an always-willing servant and playmate, is permanently welcome as an unobtrusive guest of the McNally family.

When the first of the personal computers was introduced in 1974, it was widely expected that millions of families like the McNallys would soon embrace the opportunity for a little computer to help them in their daily lives. Large public and private organizations had already found the vastly more expensive firms of automation to be indispensable. Big computers kept entire factories running smoothly and brought the great swirl of corporate and institutional paperwork under push-but... [End of page]

Youth Magazine article, 1989

The September 1989 magazine Youth, which had a national circulation but was actually published by the church in which I grew up (The Worldwide Church of God) published the following article: [My comments in brackets.]

Speaking of Careers

Playing Games for a Living, by Michael Warren

Like many teenagers, you've probably played a lot of computer games, either in a video arcade or on the home computer. Have you ever wondered how they work and how they're made? Michael and Robert McNally did. Now, just a few years later, they're in the business of creating computer games and educational software. Together they've written the Apple // versions of Ghostbusters and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator, as well as several educational programs. [Actually, I wrote these myself, they were not collaborations with Michael.] They are now designing a game based on the Jetsons television program. [That was indeed a major collaboration between Michael and myself.]

Computer Playgrounds

The Jetsons game and an earlier game, Ebonstar, [Another major collaboration.] are both multi-screen games. Each player has his or her own video screen and sees a different version of the playing field. [Actually nether The Jetsons nor Ebonstar were multi-screen. The Jetsons was a pure single-player adventure, and Ebonstar, while it supported up to four simultaneous players, they all played on the same screen. I think the writer's confusion came about because of the glowing terms in which we described the potential of multi-player games.]

"Video games aren't just a place for people to hide from other people," Robert said. "A computer really can't give you the challenge that a human being can. I believe, and many other people in the industry believe, that the future of video games is going to be people playing against people ... but using the computer as their playground."

Robert began his career by "hanging out in computer stores," as he puts it. "When I was in high school I was already in love with computers and decided that I wanted to get my foot in the door really young." He started working for a personal computer company and did free-lance work in his spare time. Since he was living with his parents at the time, it was relatively easy for him to get started. "I didn't really have to worry about rent or anything like that," he said. And the freedom of youth still has its advantages. "I'm young, so I can take chances. I don't have a wife and kids to support." [I do now, and I'm still taking chances!]

His brother Michael took a more academic route to his career, by earning his bachelor's degree in computer science. Together they've created a partnership called the Dreamers Guild. "The idea behind a guild is you have the established people who have founded it and then you bring in apprentices. ... We hope to develop talent in others," Robert said.

Tips for getting started.

Studying computers is only part of it, Michael said. "You should study games, not just computer games, but board games and the history of games. Art is very important, because games are very visual. Music is important. ... Almost anything I learn is going to apply in some project later on." "For people who go to college because they're interested in the safety of a big company, the computer game industry is not where it's at." Robert said. Their free-lance status can make finances a roller coaster.

Career outlook

The McNallys are specialized computer programmers, and not everyone who's interested in computers can expect to find similar work. But the job outlook for programmers as a whole is good. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (U.S. Department of Labor):

"Employment of programmers is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000 as computer usage expands. ... As the number and quality of applicants has increased, employers have become more selective. Competition has increased for entry level positions, affecting even applicants with a bachelor's degree. ... People who want to become programmers could enhance their chances by combining work experience with formal training."

The Fear of Math and SIGGRAPH

One of the reasons I hated school (besides just being a general misfit) was that I was an academic underachiever in math. While my brother Michael excelled at all things mathematical, I struggled with it over the years, at times in tears of frustration. Looking back on things now, I see that a large part of my trouble with math was due to a distinct lack of motivation to learn something that seemed to have no practical purpose. The inability of the school system to link math with my pre-existing interests essentially resulted in my being "left behind."

By contrast, my interest in computers and ability to learn about them seemed to have no limits. Computers, to my mind, were all about logic, not "math." And computers were innately exciting because, knowing little more than some basic algebra, you could use them to create working constructions that did beautiful or useful things. In the late 70s and early 80s, advanced algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus didn't seem to play a role, at least not to me.

The first crack in this mindset came about in the early 80s when I learned how the Pythagorean Theorem was essential to determining how close two objects (such as spaceships) on the computer screen were to colliding with each other, and how the math for this operation could be quickly approximated with table lookups on then-current hardware. This was an enlightening moment for me, as it demonstrated a practical application for something I had heard about and dismissed as boring. Never mind that the "practical application" in question was a video game! This demonstration permanently fused the concepts of algebra, geometry, and games in my mind. The other thing that contributed to my overcoming my fear of math was the realization that the people making the most beautiful pictures with computers, such as people publishing papers through ACM SIGGRAPH, were using a lot of math to do it! I would visit the CSUN library and read the SIGGRAPH proceedings, often becoming bewildered by the equations used to implement various graphics techniques. I realized that the beautiful imagery I was seeing was another practical application for math.

With the previous experiences under my belt, I finally realized that the logic I employed and enjoyed when programming was in fact just one branch of mathematics, and that the same sort of thinking was all that was required to understand and use the other branches. While I have also realized that I have a terrible time remembering raw numbers, I love working with numbers and mathematical concepts on the computer-- in fact, Mathematica, by Wolfram Research, is one of my favorite computing environments.

Incidentally, the SIGGRAPH conference itself has been a major inspiration to me over the years, as it truly exemplifies the confluence between math, technology, and art. I first attended SIGGRAPH in 1984 when as part of a game development contract for Datamost, Gary Koffler agreed to fly me out to Minneapolis to attend SIGGRAPH, all expenses paid.

The following year (1985), wanting to attend SIGGRAPH (San Francisco) again but not able to afford the several hundred dollar entry fee, through a network of contacts I managed to become the "Press Representative" for American Cinematographer magazine, which got me in free. I could only do this because in 1985 CG was beginning to come into its own, but still hadn't quite made it onto Hollywood's radar screen. It turned out that American Cinematographer wasn't even contemplating covering SIGGRAPH that year, so providing press credentials to an enterprising young man to attend an obscure computer graphics conference was an easy favor to grant. No, I didn't end up writing anything for the magazine, but I'm still grateful for the opportunity.

RT: So when did you first want to be a computer programmer, or video game designer?

Pretty much from the time I played my first computer game.

RT: Were you mostly self-taught, or via magazines and books, and did you learn much from classes?

Mostly self-taught. Most of my early experience was acquired by reading programming guides, studying others' code, and tons of experimentation. As time has gone on I've read many more academic books on the subject. The primary skill that got me started was 6502 assembly programming on the Apple ][.

RT: After becoming proficient at using an Apple ][, what other computers did you use?

The 8-bit computers and game systems that I have programmed primarily include the Apple // and its descendants, the Atari 400/800, the Atari 2600, and the Commodore 64.

RT: What age were you when you first wrote/published a computer/video game for any income and for whom?

I was around 14 when Camera Obscura, was published by Programma International. They were the original "cassette in a bag" software publishing company. But I don't recall whether I actually made any money on it.

RT: Gary Shannon helped get you a programming job at Sega. What was your first task?

I was hired for my ability to program 6502 assembly. Mostly I studied techniques for programming the 2600, and I started designing a stunt-car game. But I was moved to the Apple // before that game was very far along.

RT: Tell us about getting the opportunity to program the Apple // version of Star Trek: SOS and did anyone else contribute?

The move actually came as a relief to me, as I found the Atari 2600 environment terribly restrictive when compared to the relatively roomy Apple //. I did all the programming. One of Sega's artists did the shapes that appear in the lower viewer. I especially like how he drew the star base so it appears to be rotating as it comes closer -- in the coin-op the angle is static. I did all the other art and sound, including the front page Star Trek logo.

Apple ][ Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator

RT: Are you a Star Trek fan, and did you play the arcade game Star Trek: SOS while making the Apple // version?

Moderately. I enjoyed watching Star Trek as a kid, played the Star Fleet Battles board game of years ago, and watched the first few seasons of ST:TNG. I've seen most of the Star Trek movies. I played the arcade version tons. I essentially didn't "convert" the game code so much as I "replicated" the coin-op play as much as possible on the Apple //.

RT: Tell us about the Star Trek: SOS arcade programmer?

When I was hired at Sega/Gremlin, the youngest engineer working there was Sam Palahnuk, who had designed and co-developed the original coin-op Star Trek: SOS in his early 20s. Sam was the youngest programmer Sega had hired to date until I was hired at age 17. I received quite a bit of good-natured ribbing for it. Sam and I subsequently became long-time friends.

RT: I tested your memory about Nomad. What can you tell us about this enemy in Star Trek: SOS?

Nomad has what appears at first to be a very evasive behavior, but actually it simply flies the same direction as the Enterprise but at twice the speed. But the wrap-around nature of the board means that it's always on the board somewhere. The trick is to fly directly away from Nomad, and it will fly right up to you. Stop before it touches you (or it will drain your shields,) and turn around and shoot it. Its behavior is actually quite stupid.

RT: Thanks. Now I'm sure to improve my score a little bit. Do you have any of the original materials from the game, any prototype versions, earlier versions, potentially better versions? The final production box, artwork, manual, or floppy disk?

I have the front panel of a box, which I cut out and had displayed in a picture frame for a number of years. I have a manual, which is a single sheet that measures 19" wide by 10" high unfolded, printed on both sides in two colors (red and dark blue.) Alas, I currently have no scans of these materials, and do not have a scanner readily available. [I will put scans up on this page when I finally get some.]

RT: What can you tell us about the Apple ][ version and the speech from the arcade game?

As I recall the coin-op version had a voice that introduced each level with "Entering Sector 3" or some sort, and also warned of low resources. But it didn't add much to the gameplay and there was no expectation that the Apple // version would talk, so I didn't try to add that in.

RT: How long did it take to write the code and what machine(s) did you use at SEGA?

It took seven or eight months, I believe. I wrote Star Trek on an Apple // (I think it was a //e) that Sega provided in their offices.

RT: OK, as I'm typing - it is Easter weekend, so tell us about your easter egg?

Sega was owned by Paramount Pictures at that time, and there was a big push to do games based on Paramount properties, including Star Trek. Near the completion of SOS I felt rightfully proud of how it had turned out. While not as attractive as the arcade version, it faithfully reproduced the gameplay and I was pretty happy with it overall. To celebrate, I decided to put in an easter egg that would provide me with credit (which was against Sega policy.) I programmed it such that if, during gameplay, the user blindly typed "Who programmed this game?" It would display "ROBERT MCNALLY" at the bottom of the screen for 30 seconds. Sadly, I made the mistake of showing the easter egg to a couple of colleagues who I thought I could trust, and one of them reported my escapade to my supervisor, who made me disable the code. The release version does NOT have this code, and contains no other easter eggs.

RT: Did you feel cheated by Management's action? How do you feel now that giving full credit is standard practice?

Well, I understood that not giving credit was company policy, so I suppose I didn't feel cheated. If anything, I was trying to cheat them by flouting their policy and putting in an easter egg. At the same time, I felt that they had good reasons to give programmers credit, and were not doing so to their own detriment. I felt vindicated that giving credit became the norm.

RT: Did you get to go to Paramount, or have any other Paramount, Star Trek, or Sega related stories?

Sega had bought a coin-op company in San Diego called Gremlin where Gary Shannon had worked. In turn, Sega had been bought by Paramount Pictures, and so had access to all the Paramount properties, including Star Trek. One corporate misadventure I recall quite clearly was that Sega executives had touted the Paramount properties to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) crowd quite heavily, even going so far as to print up realistic cartridge box mock-ups for such game-worthy titles as 48 Hours and Friday the 13th. At that time I couldn't imagine a game based on such properties, and in fact I come from the school of thought that says that games and movies are very different media, and that trying to shoehorn one into the other is usually asking for mediocrity.

Working for Sega was also my first time living away from my parents' home. I moved to where Sega was at that time in San Diego, CA and took an apartment. I found it ironic at that time that I was living on my own, paying my own rent, and yet because I wasn't yet 18 I was not allowed to use the apartment's exercise facilities. After Sega I moved back in with my parents, who graciously moved their stuff out of my old bedroom. :)

While I was still at Sega, I got to read the script for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock before it went into production. I thought that was pretty cool, but I wish it had been one of the even-numbered movies. :)

RT: I must admit that we (I) could not confirm the existence of an Apple // version of Star Trek: SOS. We knew there were the generic Trek games, but not the arcade game SOS until we heard about your site. Thanks for sharing with us.

I wonder if the low-key nature of the Apple retro gaming community is basically because although the Apple // was the first of its generation, it didn't turn out to be one of the better overall game machines. Lack of sprite hardware, limited color palette, lack of character-mapped graphics, lack of scrolling hardware, and lack of multi-voice audio hardware really hampered the Apple // play experience. I loved my Apple // days, but when I started working on the Atari 400/800, I realized how much better those machines were for playing games.

RT: Tell us about Activision and Ghostbusters, your next 8 bit programming task on the Apple ][?

I don't recall who my introduction to Activision was, but I worked under a producer named Brad Fregger. I did not work on anything else for Activision.

I vividly recall being asked by Brad to bid on the Ghostbusters project, and after agonizing about it for a couple days, calling him back. "So, how much do you want for the Ghostbusters project?" Brad asked.

Well, I've thought about it a lot and I'd like to ask for seven thousand," I said cautiously.

Immediately Brad shot back, "That's not enough."

"What?" I choked.

"I said that's not enough. I'll give you fifteen."

Of course I accepted. And while looking back on the exchange I realize that even back then $15K was probably at the low end of the price range for such work, I felt quite motivated to get the job done well and on time. Essentially we both ended up feeling like we got a good deal, so I have no regrets.

Apple ][ Ghostbusters

RT: Were you the only programmer for the Apple ][ version of Ghostbusters?

I was the only programmer, and I did the graphics and sound, including the speech.

RT: Did you play the original version much or look at the code?

CODE: I almost never looked at the original code. I re-wrote the program from scratch to function as much as possible like the original, and only queried the original programmer a couple times when I wasn't quite clear how it should act under certain circumstances. I found a two-voice music synthesis package for the Apple // and reverse-engineered it. My own version included some improvements, including the ability to sync the lyrics. The speech was not as good as I wanted it to be, but the algorithms to encode and decode it were my own. The voice in the game is my own.

GRAPHICS: I did all the art based on the C-64 version, drawing it on graph paper and then entering tables by mentally converting the dots on the paper into hex. The Apple // had a non-square aspect ratio, so re-doing the art was the only way to get things to look right, and also to line up on byte boundaries.

SOUND: I arranged the musical score myself and typed the music and lyrics in as hex tables.

RT: Why is there only speech at the opening credits in Ghostbusters, and what about the music?

There is no other speech as I didn't have the RAM to include that in the Apple // version, so I just had a "squish" sound instead of "He slimed me!" speech sequence the C-64 had. Because the C-64 version had independent voice synthesis and timed interrupts, it could play music during the entire gameplay. The Apple // just didn't have that capability.

RT: The Apple ][ version of Ghostbusters has disk access throughout the game. Was there any way to avoid this? Do you recall how close you were to not having repeated disk loads?

I don't recall exactly, but I do remember that having separate overlays for each scene made things a lot simpler. Frankly, I never worried about those factors. But I'm sure I would have avoided burning the disk if I felt I had a good approach to it. I believe minimum RAM requirements were just too constricting, but I also had a lot of time pressure to work under, so I don't recall having a lot of time to work out a better way.

RT: Did you meet the game designer for Ghostbusters, David Crane? Have you ever met or worked with him later or since?

I visited Activision when David was there, I think, but I don't recall meeting him, and although Ghostbusters bore his credit, I really don't recall him having anything to do directly with the Apple version. I have never met him since.

RT: What was your favorite system to program for between the Apple ][, Atari 400/800 & Commodore 64?

Well, you always have fond memories of your first. I recall my Apple // days as some of the best. But the Atari 400/800 was a very exciting platform, as its graphics and sound capabilities were far beyond the Apple's. The Commodore programming I did was mostly graphics utilities for in-house artists at Sega, and the platform never really grew on me.

RT: Tell us about your gaming interests - types of games that you like?

This is easier answered by listing the genres I don't particularly care for: Fighting games (other than Karate Champ, which was cool), Driving games (Unless they are really off-the-wall, like Spy Hunter or Stun Runner), Sports games (I have never been a fan of team sports. My grandfather was a golf fan, so for that reason I kind of enjoyed working on PGA Tour Golf.)

RT: What computer and video games did you like back in the 80's?

Like many, I spent endless hours at my local arcades playing the best games the 80s had to offer. The following listings are classic games I remember fondly (in alphabetical order.)

Arcade: Asteroids, Berzerk, Blasteroids, Canyon Bomber, Centipede, Cloak & Dagger, Crazy Climber, Defender, Discs of Tron, Domino Man, Donkey Kong, Dragon's Lair, Eliminator, Food Fight, Frogger, Galaga, Galaxian, Gauntlet, Gravitar, Gyruss, I Robot, Joust, Karate Champ, Kick (Midway), Major Havoc, Marble Madness, Mario Bros., Missile Command, Moon Cresta, Moon Patrol, Ms. Pac-Man, Night Driver, Pac-Man, Pengo, Q*bert, Qix, Quantum, Rally-X, Ripoff, Robotron 2084, Scramble, Sea Wolf, Sinistar, Smash TV, Space Ace, Space Invaders, Star Castle, Sundance, Super Cobra, Tapper, Tempest, Toobin', Top Secret, Warlords, Wizard of Wor, Xevious.

Apple //: Apple Trek, Aztec, Beneath Apple Manor, Castle Wolfenstein, Choplifter, Conan, Crisis Mountain, Crush Crumble & Chomp, Dragon Maze (Gary J. Shannon), Epoch, Hadron, Infocom adventures, Karetka, Ken & Roberta Williams Adventures, Lode Runner, Miner 2049er, Minotaur, Olympic Decathealon, Pinball Construction Set, Robotwar, Serpentine, Snake Byte, Star Wars (Bob Bishop), Swashbuckler, The Compleat Apventure, The Scott Adams Adventures, Ultima, Wayout, Wizardry.

Atari 400/800: Archon, Ballblazer, Boulder Dash, Eastern Front, Jawbreaker, Mousekattack, Star Raiders.

Amiga: Arctic Fox, Diamond Mine, Faery Tale Adventure, Lemmings, Populous, The Secret of Monkey Island.

Mac: Fool's Errand, Tetris, The Ancient Art of War, Three in 3.

RT: In the Retrogaming Times version of this interview we asked Robert to cut this down to only his top 10.

Tough, but here goes... (alphabetical order)

RT: No doubt you played games throughout this era as your resume suggests. Did it just become a job at some point, or did you make an effort to remain working in the games industry?

Oh, games are in my blood alright. It was never "just a job" for me, it has always been a labor of love. I've always loved being able to write computer programs that average people can understand and enjoy, and games are at the pinnacle of that concept.

RT: Did you teach on a regular basis, or just as-needed consulting?

Teaching has always been something I love to do, but also has been a sporadic thing for me. I think I'm happiest when I'm teaching in an environment where I'm also simultaneously learning and applying what I'm learning.

RT: Did you ever get around to earning that computer Science degree?

I suppose I've just never felt the need.

RT: Tell us about your family, wife, any children and your brothers.

I have been married to my wife Rebecca Essman for almost 10 years and have a 3-year old son, Bevan Essman. I am the oldest of three brothers, all of whom have been involved in the computer games industry. Steven McNally, the youngest, is a video and computer game designer with Treyarch and Michael McNally, who has worked for the past 3 years on developing artificial intelligence technology for games. He has just accepted an offer to work at Google!

RT: Do you hope to share your games, and those from your generation with your son?

Definitely. They're part of my history. In particular my friend and collaborator Joe Pearce has revived Inherit the Earth for Windows and Mac, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with my son when he's just a little older.

RT: Were you aware of the Retrogaming Scene and how much gamers are still enjoying these games and systems 20 years later?

Although I'm not into the scene much, I'm well aware of it, and am very happy to see the old systems and games being enjoyed.

RT: Do you currently have any emulators or old systems from back then?

I'm a MAME fan, and still visit some of my favorite coin-op ROMs from time to time. I used an Apple // emulator to get screen shots of some of my old projects for my resumé web site. Sadly, I no longer have any of my old hardware. It just never seemed like a priority to preserve it. I actually did preserve the case from my family's original Apple ][ for many years, intending to make an herb planter out of it. When I moved out of my last place I forgot to take it with me and the landlord threw it out thinking I had abandoned it. *sigh*

RT: After working on titles like, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Mr. Robot & His Robot Factory, Quintette, Ebonstar, The Jetsons, PGA Tour Golf and a few others, did you get pulled away from programming games, and wished you could have done more?

My interests have grown to include areas outside of games as such, but I would still like to create more games (or game-like projects) at some point.

RT: Your resume shows that you continued to work on some game projects, but not just games. Is it just the way the cards fell, or because you did not stay at one company long, or with one platform long?

I think that a big part of it is that my interests are all over the place, and that I grow restless when I feel like I'm doing the same thing over and over again. I never want to live the same day twice.

RT: This seems to have made you very well rounded (programming skills in multiple languages, multiple systems and operating systems, controllers, graphics, production, edutainment, productivity etc.) Looks like you're a 'jack of all trades'. Has this helped you to continue to write your own ticket in terms of what companies, or what projects you'd like to work on?

Of course the flip-side to the "Jack of all trades..." saying is "...and a master of none." But I think in all the time and experience I've had, I have mastered one fundamental and fairly rare skill: communicating successfully with, and facilitating communication between, creative, technical, and business interests. I speak all three "languages" fluently, and enjoy being the bridge between parties that often must work together, but have intrinsically conflicting ideals and goals. The thing that keeps this skill lively and honed for me is that I don't set myself in a category apart from artists, programmers or business people -- I actually practice all three disciplines on an ongoing basis -- I am an artist, an engineer, and a businessperson. My work in games really got me moving in this direction, as game development is a quintessentially interdisciplinary process.

RT: Tell us about your game playing and work experience in the next generation of computers - the MAC, Amiga, Atari ST, PC and today?

Rainbow Computing was one of the first stores to offer the Apple Lisa, the forerunner of the Macintosh. Of course I played with it extensively (I still have a Lisa paperweight on my desk.) I admired its ground-breaking approach to user interface, but at $10K I would never buy one. When the Macintosh appeared in 1984 I knew this was the wave of the future, and bought my first Mac, the 512K model, in 1985. The only viable development language for the Mac at that time was 68000 assembly, so that was what I mastered first, and my first commercial Macintosh product was a port of the C-64 planetarium package Sky Travel. Later I moved to programming in C.

In retrospect I think that my progression through languages made a lot of sense-- Basic to get my feet wet, 6502 assembly to learn how to get performance out of a system, then 68000 assembly to understand the next-generation processor architecture, and then C as a sort of compact shorthand for assembly. Eventually of course I learned C++, Java, and a host of other languages as well.

The Macintosh became my "home" system. I use it for everything I can, and I also run Mac and Linux servers in my office. I have a PC laptop I use when I must. Even though the PC gaming world has always been much more robust than the Mac gaming world, I just can't stomach using Windows as my every day operating system. Elegance and aesthetics mean a lot to me, and the Mac has it all over Windows in those areas. The Mac took a homogenous approach to its media hardware (you pretty much used whatever Apple provided, and it "just worked" trouble free, and programmers had to change very little as the Mac hardware advanced) and the PC took a rather heterogeneous approach (you picked from the plethora of video and sound cards available and had endless compatibility issues, but when it worked, it worked well, especially for games.) The Amiga was a great games and multimedia machine in its day, but it's architecture was closely tied to its generation of hardware, and the state of the art just ended up passing it by.

RT: Do you continue to enjoy being involved in games of all types and/or edutainment?

Working on games where I'm not just a programmer, but also a collaborator on other levels, has always been fun.

RT: Let's take one final look back. Are there any other highlights, or milestones that you would like to share with us?

I would say that the great people I've had the privilege of working with and learning from has been the biggest highlight of my career. Chief among these in the games world have been my brother Michael McNally, David Joiner A.K.A. Talin, and Joe Pearce.

RT: What are you currently working on and where do you see your career going in the future?

For the past couple years my big project has not been a game, but a toy. PixelBlocks were invented by Jay Simmons over 15 years ago. I met Jay at another San Fernando Valley-based computer store, KJ Computers, just after he had come up with the idea. KJ specialized in the Amiga, and it became a frequent haunt for me during my Amiga days. I walked into the store one day and this gentleman was pointing to a large, pixelated printout of some Amiga graphic and was saying, "See that? I want to take that and make a stained glass window out of it. I want to be able to do that with any image." We got to talking, and it turned out he was a television engineer for the local Fox affiliate, KTTV. He was interested in molding colored, translucent plastic into a "physical pixel" that could be used to build permanent two-dimensional images from television or computer imagery. At that time he knew nothing about plastic molding, but I was taken with Jay's, "I can do anything I set my mind to, and I won't stop until it's done," attitude. We became friends, and I watched as over the years he put tens of thousands of dollars of his own salary into the idea as he developed, prototyped, and patented his invention. (He also worked his way up to chief transmitter engineer for the entire Fox network.) I also developed several generations of the software that would translate bitmapped images into patterns that could be built from PixelBlocks. In 2001, Jay offered me the opportunity to bring PixelBlocks to market. I accepted and brought together four other talented partners to start PixelBlocks LLC. I also developed the company web site. PixelBlocks launched in October 2003, and have received a wonderful response.

The best way to stay current on what I'm involved with is to check out my personal web site. I've had a web presence since 1995, and I always add links to ventures I'm closely involved with to the link bars featured on every page.

I'm very happy that retrogaming will always be there when I feel like walking down memory lane. It always startles me how much I remember when I browse web sites about, and play games from, that brief but golden age.

RT: Again, many thanks for your time.

Thanks for the opportunity to "unpack" a lot of my personal/professional history-- I've really enjoyed it.

Thanks also to the following sites for helping to jog my memory:

Robert C. McNally can be reached at: and Alan Hewston, staff Writer for the Retrogaming Times at

The Retrogaming Times are located at: and issue #80 with this interview can be found at:
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