Digital Archaeology

I, Robot was released into production by Atari in June of 1984. Atari records show 750 units were manufactured at an original sales price of $1,995 USD. It was considered a major flop upon release. The video gaming public was unprepared for a 3D gaming experience, and the machines were notoriously unreliable due manufacturing issues and the failure rate of it's custom IC.

I, Robot was likely the last coin-op game released by the original "Atari, Inc.". On July 2nd 1984, having been battered by the great video game crash of 1983, the original Atari was split into pieces and sold off. The Consumer Division was sold to Jack Tramiel, leaving the coin-op division to continue independently under the new name "Atari Games Corporation". The sale of Atari is seen as the unofficial end of the great video game crash, and in many ways the release of I, Robot coincides with the end of an era. Once the fastest growing company in history, Atari never fully recovered from after the sale and had to sit by while Nintendo took over the marketplace. But looking back, I, Robot reminds us of just how formidable of a force Atari was in it's heyday. It serves as a fitting swan-song to the golden era of gaming, the end of a wild journey that began with the release of Pong, and shows us that right up until the end Atari was determined to go out pulling no punches..

So what is the story behind the development of this game? Well, for starters, even though the game was released in 1984 in-game screens show a copyright of 1983. This indicates that game was likely mostly complete and in field test sometime that year.

Atari collectors have unearthed a few prototype I, Robot game PCBs bearing the name Ice World. At the time games were often developed under a name that is different from production, and corporate records confirm that Ice World was the project name for I, Robot. Several sources online also claim the game was called Ice Castles at one point.

Poking around the internet, I found a few documents referring to the development of Ice World.

November 1981 reference to Ice World

August 1982 reference to Ice World

Note that the documents show Theurer and Sherman's involvement in Ice World -- so we know we're talking about the right game. Also note that the game is referred to as Ice World as early as November 1981. So for sure it had an ice related theme around that time.

Well, what else do we know?

Here's an excerpt from a message Dave Theurer wrote in 1989 talking about the development of the I, Robot.

It started out as a 3D driving game (like our new game Hard Drivin') where you drove down the road, stopped at shops alongside the road, and went in. Sometimes in the shops there'd be a video game which you could play. But this whole concept required too much time and storage, so we redesigned it as I, Robot. 

Wait... What? I, Robot started out as a driving game? The plot thickens. Owen Rubin, who happened to share a lab with Theurer at the time, confirms this was the case.

There was a car and a hilly terrain made out of the polygons. There were some problems making the car 'clip' over the hills, and of course, if your driving that car, you want to be able to see it at all times. Then of course, what game do you play? The hardware could NEVER do something like SF Rush or the like, so it would have to be simple.

So how did a 3D driving game end up as I, Robot? And what about the ice theme?

Note that the 1982 document also references a little known game called Heart Of Ice. Here's the original game proposal from April 1982.

Heart of Ice game proposal page 1

Heart of Ice game proposal page 2

Heart of Ice was to be a 3D game that was "basically a raster scan analog of X-Y". From the description the game sure sounds a lot like I, Robot, albeit with robots and pyramids replaced with a princess and icy castles. Did Atari really have two ice themed 3D games in simultaneous development, both with similar gameplay, and both involving castles? This seems unlikely.

The 1981 document referencing Ice World pre-dates the proposal for Heart of Ice by at least 5 months. So we know that the Ice World concept for sure existed first. And while the driving game Theurer described bears little resemblance to the game he delivered, the gameplay of Heart of Ice sounds remarkably similar to I, Robot. Check out the numerous similarities between the two games:

Heart of Ice proposal

      • "3D ... "Frogger", walking and hopping around in a fantasy world"
      • "a bound princess and her heart captured in a block of ice" (which it's safe to assume must be melted?)
      • "Travel along paths ... towards castle avoiding obstacles"
      • "Geographic locations such as mountains and water; animal and creature threats"
      • "Pot joystick ... and maybe a button"
      • "start buttons could become part of player's controls"
      • "it is basically a raster scan analog of X-Y"
      • Hand written notes mention 6809 and "(2)? 2901"
      • Game about a heart captured in a block of ice, and a castle

I Robot

      • 3D game, where walking / jumping are core game mechanic
      • Eye protected by shield which, must be destroyed
      • Travel along paths towards pyramid avoiding obstacles
      • First level has "mountain" like feature, a (animal) and other "creature" threats (soccer ball, ring, beach ball, saw)
      • Hall effect joystick and a fire button
      • Start buttons are used by player to control camera movement
      • Basically a raster scan of X-Y
      • Uses Motorola 6809 and 4 AMD 2901's
      • Prototype name was "Ice Castles"

It can't be a coincidence that these two games are so similar to each other.

There's an interesting interview with Atari alumni Michael Albaugh over at Atari Compendium where he briefly talks about Heart of Ice.

Q: I never heard of Mark Cerny's "Heart of Ice" game before.

Michael Albaugh: It barely existed. It was mostly a preliminary hardware design that (in retrospect) looks a bit like the software technique used in Doom. The game play was based on a fairytale that was not familiar to me, probably of Czech origin. I think he got busy with Marble Madness, at least to the extent of working on generating anti-aliased graphics and the "moving dots" to portray rolling marbles. Also, the hardware group was not too into others doing any hardware design.

Here's the timeline of events I suspect occurred. The Ice World hardware appeared to be coming along well, but the game play involving driving wasn't working and they needed to come up with a new 3D game concept. And around the same time Heart of Ice has the 3D gameplay elements figured out, but work on hardware was slow and Cerny was distracted by Marble Madness. Putting two and two together, it seems that somewhere along the way the Heart of Ice gameplay concepts were merged with the Ice World hardware.

OK, what about the Robot?

I'm fairly certain limited polygonal graphics weren't well suited for a prince/princess theme, so it's not hard to guess why the game setup and characters needed to be changed. The developers made some smart stylistic choices that worked within the limited capabilities of the hardware. It's not difficult to see why the game eventually ended up with an abstract "cubist" look - that style works well with angular polygonal graphics. The games unique visual style is clearly the result of the developers finding creative solutions to the problems they were encountering.

This reminds me of similar issues faced during production of the groundbreaking 1982 film Tron. There the animators had to create a digital world whose entire design aesthetic was in essence defined by the the abstract shapes and harsh angular features of the primitive CGI systems they were using. By working with those limitations, the team ended up creating a cohesive look and style for the film that is both striking and memorable. Many times the most interesting art comes from artists who find creative was to work around limitations forced up on them.

I, Robot was so far ahead of the curve that it's amazing the game saw the light of day at all. Breaking so much new ground both technically and gameplay wise, Atari could have easily ended up with a forgettable "least common denominator" arcade game. Consider the little known Simutrek 1983 arcade title Cube Quest . Rushed out the door in December 1983 and barely having a production run before Simutrek folded, Cube Quest is arguably in a neck-and-neck race with I, Robot to hold the title of first arcade game with 3D raster graphics.

Simutrek's Cube Quest: Pretty backgrounds, but why must the polygons be so far away?

The Cube Quest hardware was very impressive. In addition to a polygon engine it also used a LaserDisc to stream pre-rendered CGI video loops behind the gameplay. The gorgeous backgrounds were created by Robert Abel & Associates (one of the companies that performed CGI work in Tron) and represented the state of the art at the time.

Although the hardware is impressive, from a gaming standpoint Cube Quest it's just a mess. The low-res primary color foreground polygons stand in stark contrast against the gorgeous high-color backgrounds. The two styles don't work together at all. Worse, most of the game-play is focused at the center of the screen and the enemies are are mostly far way. With such small polygons ontop of a moving background it's hard to tell exactly what's going on half of the time. This looks and plays like a game that was unfinished and rushed to market.

In retrospect it's a bit surprising that the Simultrek team didn't do a bit more to showcase what their hardware was capable of. When the huge head of Big Brother flies up to the screen in attract mode, you can just picture Theurer sitting at his computer terminal grinning from ear to ear. And regardless of what you think about the, um... questionable inclusion of Doodle City mode, it's obvious the development team was just showing off to the competition. They were engineering superstars, and they knew it.

Honestly, what's wrong with a little bragging when you consistently deliver games this good? The difference in overall playability between these two games reminds us that at it's peak, Atari was simply a force of nature in the coin-op industry. For over a decade they released hit after hit, relentlessly taking risks and continually breaking new ground technically and gameplay wise. They made it all look so easy, when it was anything but.

Atari getting in your face

I, Robot serves as a fitting bookend to close the classic Atari era. Here we see Atari's at its zenith: bringing together its excellence in engineering design, mechanical design, smart risk taking, creative gameplay innovation, and overall execution of product. No one did it better.

Hopefully what's written here won't be the final final word on the matter. If anyone has anything to add to the story, let me know.