Will Nicholes

A conversation with Carla Meninsky

November 12, 2011

Thirty years ago this April, one of the most addicting games to be created for the Atari 2600 was released. Warlords took the “knock down some bricks” formula established by Breakout and expanded it to all four corners of the TV screen, with four-player free-for-all action.

The basic gameplay of Warlords — four (human or computer) players protecting their own corner full of bricks from the onslaught of a fireball — has held up well, with both official slick, 3-D updates from Atari, and unofficial homebrew homages like Medieval Mayhem being produced in recent years. (Atari also released a coin-op version of the game in 1980.)

Along with Larry Kaplan’s Kaboom!, Warlords is one of the few “must have” paddle games for the Atari 2600 platform. The mind behind the 2600 version of Warlords was engineer Carla Meninsky, who also coded Dodge ’Em, Star Raiders, and an unreleased prototype of Tempest for the 2600 before moving on to greener pastures.

Atari 2600 Warlords screen shotWarlords for the Atari 2600

Meninsky no longer codes games, having left the engineering world for a career in law, specializing in financial litigation. She’s currently focusing on the field of financial crime and regulation while studying at the London School of Economics.

Earlier this year I had a chance to speak with Meninsky about her early days with Atari and what she’s been up to since.

WN: I read in Chris Crawford’s book that you came to Atari through a headhunter... had you been to college at that point? Was that your first job as a programmer, or had you programmed before?

CM: Chris’ story is not quite correct. I actually came to Atari through Warren Robinett. Warren was a roommate of a group of ex-Stanford AI people I had formed a computer animation group with and we had been trying to figure out how to technically build an animation system. Warren basically said, come to Atari and do it, and got me the interview with George Simcock, Dennis Koble’s boss at the time.

I didn’t know anything about video games, other than being addicted to Adventure. I had seen Pong in a hotel room in Palo Alto, but had never played it. I certainly had never thought about programming them.

At the time, I had graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Psychology, which isn’t as it sounds. Stanford had gotten rid of what they had called “clinical” psychologists and had a neuroscience group (“Physiological Psychology”) that was working with the med school on modeling brains and behavior. I had started at Stanford as a math major and soon switched to psych as it was very sexy and exciting—new discoveries daily and I spent all my time in labs with monkeys and computers (statistical modeling).

I had learned very rudimentary Fortran in high school (my mother was a programmer before she retired) and took a PASCAL class and a PDP-11 class in college. But I was interested in vision and I was a bit of an artist, and somewhere along the way had gotten the idea that computers could be used for animation and artists, because in-betweening was so tedious. When I got out of college, I spent a lot of time calling and writing to people about my “vision” and wouldn’t they like me to build a computer animation system for them. Of course, everyone thought I was nuts; remember this was the late 1970’s—who would want that, maybe the military, but we don’t need color. Which is how I met up with the people at the Stanford AI lab and we started having animation meetings. To support myself, I did random contract work. It was also about this time that I met up with several sleazy headhunters, who would send me on these wild goose chases. A degree in psychology was not of much use to anyone in the valley.

However, Atari was very receptive. I gave them my grand idea about computer animation and they said, sure, you’re just what we need. So I came on board.

It was a bit of a strange time. The Activision folks had just left and people were in a bit of a daze. Some people had been hurt that they hadn’t been chosen to go along. Others like me were brand new. Dennis Koble comes to me and says, forget the animation thing, we need you to write games. He hands me a typed out list of game titles that they had come up with in a brainstorming session—no descriptions. Get started.

Of course there were no manuals or anything of how “Stella” worked. But, luckily, they put me in an office with Chris Crawford. Chris was amazing, odd, but amazing. He had run a roadshow for physics before coming to Atari, so the first thing he did for me was act out (literally) the 6502 processor.

WN: How does one act out the 6502? Did he literally JMP around the room?

CM: Yes!

WN: That must have been a sight! So that typed list of games, was Dodge ’Em on that list and you picked that as your first game, or did you work on another game first? You mention being addicted to Adventure, was that the Warren Robinett version, or the text-based predecessor?

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