Dennis Ritchie

Don Quixote de la Mancha quixote at
Thu Oct 13 20:31:01 UTC 2011

On Thu, Oct 13, 2011 at 1:10 PM, Mike Wright <mike.wright at> wrote:
>  The same issue talks about how
> different groups tried to minimalize object code sizes, and the
> differences they were scrabbling over were measured in bytes.

My friends Dave Johnson and Bob Polaro were two of Atari's first seven
video game coders.

 If I remember correctly the Atari 2600 had a 6502 eight-bit
microprocessor.  They didn't even bother with compilers; one couldn't
get anywhere with those games without using tightly hand-rolled

There was a single eight bit "frame buffer" in which the graphics were
rendered by rapidly varying the value in that byte in synchronization
with the electron beam sweeping across the TV screen.

The actual game processing would take place in many very small chunks
during the horizontal blanking intervals, during which the dimmed beam
would be swept back to the other side for the next line, or in fewer
longer chunks during the vertical blanking interval.

The coders had a choice of 1 KB ROM cartridges or 2 KB.  One could get
richer, more complex graphics and gameplay into 2 KB, but because the
ROMs were so expensive to manufacture, the per-unit royalty that the
coders earned was twice as much for the 1 KB cartridges!

Dave told me once that it happened all the time that a game would go
over 1024 bytes by just a few bytes, but that any changes that made
the code fit in the smaller cartridge would screw up the timing for
the graphics.

The result of that was that the coders would often go insane in the
middle of their coding projects.

I don't recall what game Dave wrote to make his fortune, but he
invested it first in Greene, Johnson Inc., then after buying out MIke
Greene, founded Working Software, where he gave me my first retail
coding job, writing Mac software.

CoreEdit, the word processing engine of our QuickLetter specialized
word processor, was also written in tightly hand-optimized assembly,
but for the 68000.  It was also the text engine for Apple's MacWrite.
The people who wrote CoreEdit must have done some really hard drugs,
but on the other hand I learned quite a lot about software
architecture by reading its source.

Bob made his fortune on Defender for the Atari, and is still in the
video game business.  He operates a mail order business on the side,
where you can buy games directly from him:

These days though his games aren't in assembly, but in Java, Javascript and C++.

I never knew his name, but Atari's wealthiest coder was the nineteen
year old kid who wrote Pac-Man.

I understand he blew his million dollar royalty check up his nose.

Ever Faithful,

Don Quixote

Don Quixote de la Mancha
Dulcinea Technologies Corporation
Software of Elegance and Beauty
quixote at

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