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Kool Stuff: Fighting Machine: The Making of Pit-Fighter's Digitized Graphics
This post is part of Kool Stuff, a companion book to Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 (now on Kickstarter!) that contains interviews I was unable to do before hitting Long Live MK’s deadline. Subscribe to Episodic Content to keep up with news on Long Live MK, and to follow along with Kool Stuff as new chapters are published.
Two years before Mortal Kombat's gigantic, digitized fighters stomped through arcades and stole your quarters, Atari's Pit-Fighter became the second fighting game to wow arcade-goers with digitized graphics. The first was Reikai Dōshi: Chinese Exorcist, or Spiritual Guardian: Chinese Exorcist, an obscure game only released in Japan.
Pit-Fighter's digitization hasn't held up as well as Mortal Kombat's, but context is important. Atari's game released in arcades in 1990, over a year before Street Fighter II set the formula for one-on-one fighting games in stone. In fact, Pit-Fighter wasn't limited to one-on-one brawls. A third competitor could enter, making it feel as much as a beat-em-up as a fighting game as defined by Capcom in '91. Some characters were played by Atari's developers. Other people were pulled in from the street by Robert "Rob" Rowe, one of Atari's most important developers.
Rowe worked behind the scenes. A development team at Atari would come to the studio—called a lab—he ran, tell him what they needed, and Rowe would help them record and digitize actors performing in front of a camera. Today, Rowe heads up franchise development at Pixar, but he looks back on his 22-year career in the video game industry fondly. We talked about what it was like working at Atari from the 1980s through the early 2000s, stories from Pit-Fighter's development, and what he thought of Mortal Kombat.
David L. Craddock: How did you get started in the game industry?
Rob Rowe: I was always into electronics in high school. My plan was to go into medical electronics. Early in high school, I started working at Great American. I lied about my age to get in. They were only hiring 18 and up. I was 15 when I started there. My mom was driving, dropping me off. Because of my electronics training, I was helping do installations. I quickly moved over to their games group, doing maintenance. We sustained all the arcades, which was great, because Atari was testing there. We'd get all the new games. I remember when Indy 800 came in. We'd stay up all night, just playing.
Craddock: Is that how you got your foot in the door at Atari?
Rowe: My cousin, Don Osborne, was their VP of marketing. We ended up talking at a family event, and he says, "You should come work at Atari." I said, "Well, I've got this great opportunity. I'm still going to college. I really like working at the park." Then one of the technicians that I was working with at the park went to Atari. After a few months, he called me and said, "Rob, I'm making more money than ever. I'm traveling the world. You have to come over." I called my cousin back and said, "You know, maybe I'll take you up on this."
“One thing to note about Pit-Fighter is I think people would first look at it, and they would say, ‘Something's not right.’”
This was in 1980. He brought me around the company and brought me into each of the divisions: we went into consumer products, production. When we hit engineering, that's where I wanted to be: In design. October 10 was my start date. My employee number was 10590. I started at the bottom. I was a prototype technician. My first role was wire wrapping a Tempest board. [Author's note: Wire wrapping was devised as a safer alternative to soldering. The process is done by running lengths of insulated wire between terminals where electronic components are mounted on a circuit board.]
It was the first color vector board, which had around 87,000 wires. Dave Theurer programmed that game, and we got to be good friends. He was a designer, so I would give him feedback on the game. I got him to put in an advance button so we could scroll through to any level that we wanted, and I put in some of the patterns [used by enemies] as well. I was eventually rolled into a technician role at Atari and started working on Firefox. That was really fun because it got me into video production. We were working around the clock to get this big cockpit unit out to Chicago for one of our trade shows. Clint Eastwood was supposed to come, but the game didn't work quite the way it should have. But it was a still great technology.
Atari built a state-of-the-art video production lab, and I ended up learning everything from Moe Shore, who ran the lab. Moe was fantastic. He taught me how to edit special effects, lighting—you name it, and I learned it across the board. When things started going south [when the North American video game market crashed], they ended up selling the lab. I kept some of the equipment. I was still a technician but had been doing some of the video productions for sales and marketing.
Craddock: What was your first brush with digitized graphics?
Rowe: I think Blasteroids was when I started digitizing. There were no color capture cards, so I used the Commodore Amiga, which had a color filter. The Amiga also had a fixture design, so I could attach objects to it. Then I could do positional rotation. I would put rocks in there, coral, all these different objects that we were putting in Blackboard. I had to run a filter where they're putting everything on a motor. We would turn the filter, do three grabs, and combine them. That was some of the first digitization in video games.
“We would pose everything and then, if it was an action move, I would have them jump on a springboard or whatever we needed to do.”
Craddock: Over at Williams, Warren Spector was writing custom software to go with his Targa card for the Amiga. How did your equipment and process change as you and the Pit-Fighter team went into that project?
Rowe: When Pit-Fighter came along, it was around the time that Targa cards were coming out for PCs. We convinced Atari that it made sense to put a studio in again. I ended up getting more equipment. I want to say that the studio was 40 by 50, maybe a little smaller. We painted the back wall blue and I got the Targa card. We mounted some lights in the ceiling, and the studio was basically set up.
Craddock: Pit-Fighter's design was interesting in that it kind of blended beat-em-ups like Double Dragon with the one-on-one formula, which was still a year out from being popularized by Street Fighter II. What really stood out to me about Pit-Fighter, of course, was its digitized fighters. Given that this was all pretty new to everyone, what was that process like compared to your early experiments on Blasteroids?
Rowe: We started doing tests, and it was all posed captures. Every single pose in Pit-Fighter is something that was posed. Gary Stark was a game designer. He's directing, and I was sitting in the back doing the captures, one by one, trying to organize all the different files. I was a big part of the acquisition of talent, as well. I found Glenn Fratticelli, who was our martial arts guy and was in Special Forces. Bill Chase was one of our core fighters. I think I met him at Marine World. I would see people on the street, wherever, and I would say, "Hey, you want to be in a video game?" Then I started working with an agency as well.
We bought treadmills so we could do the run cycles and built a huge portfolio [of animations]. But one of the things I think was key for Pit-Fighter was the graphic processing that we did. Dave Theurer had done one of our graphics systems. He knew I was working on Pit-Fighter and said, "Hey, are there some tools that we can use to help you out?" I think one of the first things was pulling out the background for me. I don't even remember what I was using before that. I always had early software: Photoshop and other programs that were out there. I was always getting early copies to evaluate. I started giving Dave a list of things that I needed. The first thing was the removal of the background. Second was anti-aliasing.
But one of the biggest things was color palette analysis and the merging of color palettes. He ended up writing scripts. I could take a character and create the best possible color palette for that character. I could also select all of those files and run them in a batch. It would do background removal, anti-aliasing, give me smooth edges, and then it would generate the best possible palette. That was amazing. It was a 26-color palette back then, so you're always managing memory. That was the key. We would group objects and determine the best color palettes. It was full optimization of the memory we had, and getting the right colors to match the right set of objects that we had in the game.
Initially, I was on the Amiga, and then I transferred over to the Mac. Dave was using the Mac, too. The tool he was writing was called DeBabelizer. It became the tool for graphics processing, and a lot of video games used it. That tool was developed for Pit-Fighter. I'd tell Dave, "I need this other thing. Can you add that?" He was writing this custom software for me, which was great. I had a Mac IIci and ended up buying a second one, put it in my house, and I was running these batch jobs at my house and at work around the clock. That was the amount of time it would take to run. That was pretty crazy.
Craddock: So it sounds like rather than being part of teams on specific games, like Pit-Fighter, you were in the video lab, and any team that needed things, you helped them with their video needs.
Rowe: Right. I think that was the first time that happened, where I became this resource for these teams. I was the technician on Blasteroids as I was developing all this, but I ended up helping multiple teams with reference. Also, when we were doing brainstorming sessions, and people were trying to do a mock-up, I had all the tools to put together the best presentation or simulation of a game.
Craddock: You referred to everything for Pit-Fighter as posed capture. That obviously has to do with setting things in certain poses, but I wondered if you could define it so I can understand the specifics of what it entailed.
Rowe: Pose capture was having a director pose a keyframe. For Pit-Fighter, characters had a ready pose, you know, arms up or whatever. Most of our animations were three to four steps. Gary, as the director, would watch them do the full move so he knew what it should look like. Then he would try to find those key points. We would capture them, and then we could play them back to see how they looked. So, you'd start [mimics pose] here, to here, to here, then full extension. We would pose everything and then, if it was an action move, I would have them jump on a springboard or whatever we needed to do. We put a harness in the lab as well to get people in the air, and that was beneficial. Things were posed or grabbed on the fly where they were doing movement, and that created motion blur, so that became part of one of the tools, trying to eliminate some of that motion blur so we could get clean images.
We'd run a script to extract certain frames. When I did that, we would do other frame or every third frame. One thing to note about Pit-Fighter is I think people would first look at it, and they would say, "Something's not right." It was because the image quality was so good and it looked so realistic, but your eye expects to see something different. Area 51 was so much smoother where everything was recorded.
Craddock: How did your work in graphics evolve moving forward from Pit-Fighter?
Rowe: I ended up expanding the lab, and I put in beta cam machines and recording everything at a higher resolution. I could run scripts. Area 51 was probably the next big, digitized game where we recorded all the actors. We continued to use DeBabelizer, and Area 51 was all film except for the aliens. We did stop-motion on those. Pete Kleinow came in. We had a rig set up, and we worked with Dan Platt, who worked on several films in Hollywood. Dan built the armatures, and this all continued the evolution of digitization. Then mocap came in and I was one of the first ones testing it out. I think the first motion-capture system I got it in was Flock of Birds. That was from Ascension Technologies. We expanded our lab even larger, so we had a blue screen, green screen, and 24 cameras for motion capture.
Motion capture is where you're putting the sensors on a subject, capturing that motion, and applying it to a 3D model. When I started Atari, they were using black-and-white vector technology. I was part of the first color vector generator board, and then the first raster system. Then we had the Atari System 1 graphics board, which could be upgraded, and into 3D graphics from there. I saw technology evolve in a very short time. You had Cyberball with a two-player [cabinet setup], Gauntlet for four players. In coin-op, you had to find something unique. That's why Atari was one of the leaders in the business, and it's one of the things I loved most: We were always trying to find the next cutting-edge thing and were always willing to take a risk.
Most of our hardware was developed specifically to do what we want it to do. We had some great engineers like Doug Snyder [Paperboy, Marble Madness, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back] was one of them. I was still there for the transition into consoles, so a lot of the stuff I did was ported over. And Atari then took on the name of Tengen. We started doing more console games, but I stayed on the coin-op side.
Craddock: What was your favorite project to work on?
Rowe: My favorite game at Atari was 720. I worked with a great team, the same team that did Paper Boy, John Salwitz and Dave Ralston. When we first started doing that, Don Traeger also joined us. He ended up moving over to EA. But the first thing we did on 720 was research. Every project we did involved research so we could learn as much as we could about it. Weekends at Atari started with a beer bash on Fridays. We had this big, white van, and we strapped the Beer Meister in there, hauled a table and all the video equipment, and we drove up to Lake Tahoe. There was this skiing event called Mile High, I think, and we just started filming skaters.
We took all that reference and brought it back to the animators. Rotoscoping was a very helpful process, although they wanted a hand-drawn model. We built a skateboard ran at Atari in the warehouse. We had skaters come from all over: Rob Roskopp, Christian Hosoi, and we were trying to get Tony Hawk; this was before Tony Hawk did his game. We got a lot of local skaters. That involved a of digitization, but more for reference. All the artists drew overtop the digitized files.
I left Atari in 2002, finishing up 22 years. It was quite a ride and a great place to work. We probably worked too much.
Craddock: In terms of digitization, what did you think of Mortal Kombat?
Rowe: Oh, I love Mortal Kombat. I met all the guys at Midway later, after Midway bought Atari. I believe that was around the time of Area 51, and we ended up doing a production line out there. I was going out to Midway once a month to go to the production line, do inspections, and talk to the folks to see how things were going. Then I would go to the engineering office and I got to meet those guys and talk with them about some of the stuff they were working on. I was at Atari; they were at Midway, but we were still partners even though sometimes we were on parallel tracks working on similar games.
The team that did Area 51 was an external team called Mesa Logic. We had people at Atari who worked on it, and they had programmers and artists out in Texas. We did Area 51, Maximum Force, and then Site 4. Then we were trying to figure out something new. We called this game Shooting World, and we were doing all these different shooting exercises. One of them was we had a guy in a 10-gallon hat, chaps on, and you would shoot his feet to get him to dance. I remember showing Ed Boon the game and he couldn't stop laughing. He just started busting up. I thought about him the other day because I saw he had received an award. Those guys were great. I love Mortal Kombat. What he and John Tobias did, it was just a great game.
Craddock: One thing about Mortal Kombat's digitization that stood out was the size of the character sprites. They were these larger-than-life figures and the most realistic use of digitized graphics to date. As someone who worked with digitization early on, what did you find impressive about their use of that tech?
Rowe: Their attention to detail was just so good. I loved their character designs. That was a key part of it, these very memorable outfits and looks.
Craddock: Looking back on Pit-Fighter over 30 years later, what memories stand out to you about that project?
Rowe: Pit-Fighter is one of my all-time favorite projects as well. What we did was so groundbreaking. We were one of the first digitized fighting games. If not for Mortal Kombat, I'd probably have a lot more money. [laughs] They came in and they did such a great job. But we had a solid team. I loved working with the artists and working with the director and the designer on it. We were doing something different and going through that trial of some things working and some things not working. I really loved refining the process because we could use it for so many other games. We built a good foundation.
This post is part of Kool Stuff, a companion book to Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 that contains interviews I was unable to do before hitting Long Live MK’s deadline. Subscribe to Episodic Content to keep up with news on Long Live MK’s Kickstarter (set for March 29) and to follow along with Kool Stuff as new chapters are published.