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 ’EmStar Raiders, and an unreleased prototype of Tempest for the 2600 before moving on to greener pastures.

Warlords 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 [Chris Crawford on Game Design] 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?

CM: Text based! I spent way too many late nights/early mornings in the computer labs at school playing Adventure on Unix machines when I should have been doing Other Things.

I don’t remember what Warren was working on when I first got to Atari, 2600 Adventure came later. Someone was working on a cool maze game that never went anywhere (that happened a lot). That may have been Warren, but, now that I’m thinking about it, it was probably Rick Mauer.

I did Dodge ’Em first. I think it was listed as something like car crash maze game, the name came later from marketing. Trivia bit: Jim Heuther was the model for the box artwork, I think Heuther was working on Football and I think Stewart was doing Baseball. But there were a bunch of car games at that time, too. Fulop was doing Night Driver when I got there and Koble had just finished something Rally, Rally something, ugh, too long ago.

Atari 2600 Dodge ‘Em box art

Coin-op had just finished Asteroids. I spent way too much time downstairs in coin-op playing Asteroids, and then Missile Command, and then Battlezone, and then Centipede. After Dodge ’Em, I went straight to Warlords which was on the list as Kings in the Corner break-out game. I would like to set the record straight here—I did the 2600 game before the coin-op game even existed! I think that was the first time a coin-op game derived from the console game. Then I started Battlezone. But there were some weird things going on, my office was in a trailer in the parking lot, and I left to go somewhere else.

However, Atari contacted me about turning Dodge ’Em into a marketing tool for Mercedes garbage trucks. They had given it to someone still there to do, but they couldn’t figure out the code (I had discovered a way to cheat a cycle out of the machine which later drove Mike Albaugh nuts when he was assigned to convert all the existing games to a new processor). I think Mimi Doggett had already done the truck graphics. Anyway, I did it in my spare time for free (!!!) while I was still at the other place—it took a very short time—and while I was doing it, Atari essentially talked me into coming back and I did Star Raiders as the first thing. They had figured out how to do bank-switching to get 8K of memory. I think Star Raiders may have been the first to make use of it.

So I was back after 3 months and everything had changed—people had left to start Imagic, new management, new buildings, new game machine, bonuses. They made me a game group leader, which meant I did game design (read: now I got to put things on the list) and traveled a lot. I even got to meet the muppets!

WN: The muppets? Like, Kermit and Miss Piggy?

CM: Atari at that point was into franchises big time: RaidersETStar Wars. BUT, any game idea had to be approved by the owner of the franchise—so George Lucas came by one day. Game design meant brainstorming sessions with franchise owners about how characters/story lines fit into what we could make the games do. It also meant Atari was spending incredible amounts of fast money convincing franchise owners that games were the fastest growing entertainment segment and they were foolish not to hop on board. The new management had decided that kids’ games were going to be big money and started hiring more women to do the games. I, being of the female persuasion, was made the group leader. So I traveled to New York to meet with Kermit and Miss Piggy (really I met with Jim Henson and Chris Cerf) for brainstorming sessions and dinner at 21. I also met with the [Atari] creative brains from Grass Valley somewhere outside of Philly to investigate a new theme park, to see how we could stamp the Atari mark on rides and entertainment. Atari was owned by Warner Bros. so there were several attempts to try to turn various popular movies/characters into games. I remember several long weekends at fancy resorts devoted to such brainstorming.

I would come back with long lists of game ideas. Marketing and management would decide which ones they liked and would hand them off to developers. I have to admit, though, while I enjoyed the creative aspects of the job, I still wanted to create games that were strategically challenging for adults, as well as technically challenging for me. And I always had at the back of my mind that I wanted to do that computer animation thing. So, while I was supposed to be doing Other Things (I spend most of my life avoiding Other Things—like now I should be writing an essay on standardized contracts in international law), I started working on Tempest, mainly because people said it couldn’t be done on the 2600.

Atari 2600 Tempest prototype

You have to understand that this was a very different model for Atari game designers. Previously, we would noodle around with an idea, get some bare minimum thing up in the lab that could be moved about and people would come by and play it—and give feedback. We were a very close knit group. Games changed a lot over time or were abandoned. Eventually we would tell marketing we were done and they would set up a series of focus groups in Sunnyvale with 12- to 20-year-olds who would give more feedback. Only if that passed, would a game be released. Now, marketing was in from the beginning saying which games would be developed. The old-timers were very disgruntled and more people left.

Eventually, I too left to go join a start-up doing high-end computer graphics run by Martin Newell (of teapot fame) from the University of Utah, which was one of the places I had contacted 6 or so years before about my animation idea. This became a theme. I eventually ended up at Sun Microsystems doing high-end computer graphics firmware because of Louis Knapp, another person I had contacted way back when, who still remembered me. The Sun computers with firmware I had written were used by the various new animation companies that were starting up. The ironic thing was that I was denied a job at PDI—who was finally doing what I had envisioned only 10 years later—because they felt I had been tainted by my game experience. The new generation of computer animation companies only wanted academics who had published at Siggraph.

WN: So is there an actual “Mercedes garbage truck” version of Dodge ’Em out there someplace?

CM: Yes. I have no idea how that came about and heard nothing more about it once I was done. Although… actually, I can guess, now that I think about it. Two things: Atari always bought in bulk to get that cost break—this was often a disaster and they were left with warehouses full of unused stuff. However, outwardly, Atari wanted to show how much money they were making. One way they did this was, every executive got a brand new Mercedes. When Atari crashed, they found a warehouse of unused Mercedes. I bet someone got a fleet discount and in return they got a Mercedes Dodge ’Em game.

To give you an idea, I’ve been watching the third season of Mad Men on DVD—even though that was supposed to be 20 years earlier, it so reminds me of Atari. There’s a scene with a John Deere tractor that could have taken place at Atari.

WN: You worked at Electronic Arts and Liberate Technologies… I’m familiar with EA, but what did Liberate Technologies do?

CM: Liberate made settop boxes for different cable systems that integrated a web browser with cable programming and TV.

WN: What inspired you to leave engineering and go into law?

CM: After managing a group of engineers to deliver a new 3D graphics library (XGL) for Sun, I started a computer contracting business. Microsoft had just gotten sued for not paying contractors benefits and the dynamics changed in the valley for contractors. So, instead of getting out of contracting like everyone else, I decided to incorporate my consulting business.

Other contractors came to work for me. Business was booming. I would do graphics projects that were outside a company’s main business, mostly hardware startups, like Kubota, 3Dfx, Cirrus Logic, primarily acting as a systems architect. Several times I would come in to a company and their code would be a mess, the people who wrote it had left and the remaining engineers were still trying to use it for the next generation thing. I would rewrite the code underneath them and add the faster, better graphics to support the new hardware. Sometimes I just worked directly with the hardware engineers who were designing new hardware. I went to EA to start up a 3D graphics lab for them. EA wanted to do 3D Road Rash. I also did a terrain system for a WWII game for them. On several occasions I tried to get funding or venture capital to do my own thing, but no one was interested without a finished product and I could only go so far myself—by that time games were big productions. I think the WWII game at EA had over 30 people working on it.

At EA I met Carolyn Wales, who was this totally brilliant person. Carolyn and I decided to join forces doing our own style of video games. Again, we tried for venture capital and were told that no one would fund “untried” women gamers without someone who knew something about business (the insinuation was we needed men to be legitimate). Insulted and disgusted, Carolyn knew someone who had been granted a launch title for the PS2 and was working with a publisher, who desperately needed game programmers. We agreed to contract with them so we could get PS2 experience. BIG MISTAKE. What a disaster. It turned out Carolyn’s friend had hired another programmer without telling us AND, as we soon discovered, that person had stolen code from another company which he was trying to use for this PS2 game. Carolyn and I weren’t too happy about it. We tried to get them to stop and when that failed, we had no alternative but to leave. Carolyn went to work for Liberate. My business was still thriving, so I took on another couple of jobs and eventually ended up contracting with Liberate.

But you asked how I came to be a lawyer. As owner of a consulting business with employees who were contractors, I negotiated a lot of contracts myself, fairly successfully. I suppose I should have had a lawyer doing this, but since I was so used to doing everything myself, it never occurred to me. But, that experience with the stolen code and negotiating the contract for our games startup, got me thinking, especially since that had not been the first time I had encountered the theft of code or of trade secrets in the valley and had to withdraw. About the same time, one of my ex-bosses got taken away in handcuffs for misappropriating code to start Avant! Then, soon after the PS2 disaster, I ended up suing my neighbor over some trees he cut down in my yard when I had been away for a week at Siggraph. I have to admit I kind of enjoyed the litigation process. I started thinking that getting a law degree could expand my business and maybe be the cred factor that the VC’s were looking for. So, while I was frantically trying to complete a complex Liberate contract, working 24-hour days because I was on a deadline, I took the LSAT, kind of on a whim and did well. Friends of mine who were lawyers tried talking me out of it, but I applied to law schools, more or less on a dare. Then I got in. I still wasn’t sure I was going back to school until the last minute. But I loved law school. For me, it was eye-opening. I only wished I had done it 10 years earlier.

WN: Will you be returning to the states after your year in London? Do you plan to continue to practice law full-time, or do intend to use your degree to pursue other VC opportunities? (Or both?)

CM: I actually enjoy practicing law. I caught the litigation bug in law school—I know this sounds sick, but, to some degree constructing a legal argument based on a set of facts is a lot like designing a video game—It’s all about finding the story behind the story. Maybe I just read a lot of detective stories as a kid. I get to be both logical and creative, and work with people to solve their problems. Before I came to London, I was representing financial institutions in various matters. The financial crisis exposed a huge amount of fraud by individuals that had been going on for years and this presented a whole new set of issues that I wanted to tackle. Which is why I’m here now.

After law school I had a (too brief) fellowship in Munich at the Max Planck Institute where I worked on legal protection for software rights. It made me wish I had taken a year abroad in college. So this is it. I came over here hoping to get a job in London or Europe when I got done, but given the economic climate, I will go where the jobs are.

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