Atari documents show the game was released in June of 1984 at a sales price of $1,995. A total of 750 units were produced between the US and Ireland. This is likely the very last "Atari, Inc" coin-op game released before they became "Atari Games".
The game took over 2 years to develop.
Atari management did not like the game, but decided to ship it anyways.
The game program was written by Dave Theurer, one of Atari's coin-op "superstars". Theurer was also the author of Missile Command and Tempest.
The hardware design was done by Dave Sherman, who's credits also include designing a triangle generator for Wolf Pack and various ellipse and circle generators for Tube Chase / Vertigo / Tunnel Hunt.
Atari developers referred to the prototype board as the "Mondo Condo". "Mondo" referred to the huge size of the board, and "Condo" referred to the stacks of RAM chips wired vertically!
I, Robot started out as a 3-D driving game, something Atari had been trying to do for years but never actually accomplished until Hard Drivin'. Early on a test program was written that had a car driving over a simple polygon landscape. The idea was dropped when it became apparent the hardware was not powerful enough to generate a truly immersive driving environment.
During development the game was called Ice World, and PCBs were produced with this name printed on them. Ice Castles is rumored to be another development name for the game, and Heart of Ice game concept appears tangentially related.
Doodle City mode was added late during development.
The I, Robot cabinet was originally designed for Major Havoc. The story is that Dave shared a lab with Major Havoc's programmer Owen Rubin, and Major Havoc was behind schedule. So when I, Robot needed a cabinet, there it was.
The large custom IC on the video board is a primitive 3D accelerator -- some PCBs exist that actually have the discrete TTL equivalent of this circuit.
Almost 100% of the I, Robot games failed within 1 to 2 years after they were created. Several of the masked ROMs and some RAMs had a high failure rate.
The message "you have hit a black hole" is the software's way of recovering from a general mathbox failure.
I, Robot flopped at the arcades. A number of factors contributed to this, including:
- the video game crash of '83 - '84
- the high failure rate of the hardware (operator's don't like buying unreliable games)
- Doodle City mode, which disappointed/confused potential players who paid 25¢ expecting to play a game
- the complex and intimidating 3-D environment (by early 80's standards - considering that the causal gamer was accustomed to simple games like Frogger and Donkey Kong)
Around 750 games were produced, but due to the above problems Atari only sold around 500 of them. There was a rumor that the remaining units were sent on a freighter to Japan with instructions to dump the games into the ocean. This rumor has been dispelled by Atari employee Rusty Dawe in an interview with Coinopspace.
Rusty, can you dispel the myth of 500 I,Robot(s) being dumped into the Pacific Ocean?
Breighton (Rusty) Dawe
Not true. Total myth. I would have LIKED to dump about 500 I Robot controls into the Pacific – they were a nightmare, but that didn’t happen either. We were using the Hall Effect.
We had an arcade in Seattle we were testing and it was playing itself sometimes! Turned out the arcade was next to a scrap yard with a monster crane magnet – was playing the game from 100 yards away! Turned out the control needed to be separately grounded (and shielded) to the PC board. All the production controls that used the hall-effect did that after that test.
Not sure which arcade, but we kept exchanging controls with them for months and never found the problem until they explained where they were located. Finally, the mechanical group just grounded the SH*T out of it and it started to work.