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Ed Averett

Ed Averett developed a whopping twenty-four games for Magnavox's Odyssey2 system. Responsible for roughly half the game library, Ed believed in the Odyssey2 and kept it humming long before Magnavox and parent company Philips saw the light.

His creation, KC Munchkin, pitted Magnavox against industry leader Atari in the courts over the fate of maze games resembling Pac-Man.

MT> You generally stay off the radar and rarely grant interviews. How did we get so lucky?

During the Odyssey years, staying off the radar was very intentional. First, there was just no time, I was locked down 24/7 designing games trying to show the potential of the Odyssey system and video games in general. Those were the days when there were many doubters of the future of video games and computer graphics. Just like today, it's hard to see how impacting both will be 30 or 40 years into the future.

Second it would not have served Odyssey's best interest if everyone knew there was only one person working on games for Odyssey² vs all the game designers at Atari.

I've always been a fan of listening to others unless I really have something worthwhile to say. So I've done a lot of listening and watching over the last 30+ years.

MT> Lets start at the beginning.
Do you ever feel that the Odyssey² lead engineer, Robert Lenarducci, got the short end of the stick?

EA> Roberto was to Odyssey² what the Woz was to Apple. Roberto was designing the Odyssey² at the same time the Apple 1 was coming out. Roberto saw the potential of the Odyssey² as a computer, thus the keyboard. He also designed the first speech hardware for general use. He was all of that and a great person to work with at Magnavox.  Roberto's hardware design gave Odyssey²  every chance to dominate and not be a footnote. So has he been overlooked?… Absolutely.

MT> Magnavox and Philips seemed prejudiced about the Odyssey² in the beginning. A ten percent share, even during the best of times, must have been discouraging when measured against the mighty Atari. What changed the sour outlook and gave the system a fighting chance in the marketplace?

Magnavox DNA was building commodity products like radios and TV consoles where the basic technology seldom changed and the value add was manufacturing efficiency and style changes. So, they saw the Odyssey series in that light. It was very hard for them to evolve that basic DNA to embrace a product that was so different. When they saw the profits that could be made from video gaming, they tried really hard to change but the change was too little and to late.

But neither Atari or Magnavox/Philips appreciated that with great profits comes the need to reinvest those profits in new, more advanced hardware to keep giving their customers exciting experiences. There is only so much that can be done with 7 colors and 8x8 graphic figures.

The fighting chance Magnavox always had was manufacturing, distribution and the 8244 chip from Intel.  

MT> Why did you believe in the system when it seemed that no one else did?

EA> I believed in the Odyssey² because at the time for the consumer, Odyssey² was the most advance graphics system in the world and could solve a universal desire… having fun and feeling good about overcoming challenges.

MT> The original game mechanics of K.C. Munchkin were more diverse before Magnavox asked you to make the game more “ Pac-Man -like”. Do you remember details about any early versions of the game? What did we miss out on?

EA> I was very happy with the changes that allowed me to give KC more of a personality, things like the bebops, the color, the smile and the grin, a bit of a personality. I had really wanted to add that same level of differentiation to the ghost/chase characters.

But remember the Magnavox legal mindset was that if I could reproduce the original Pac-Man exactly, that would have been fine as long as I did not copy the code itself. Based on their experience with Atari and Pong, that was not an unreasonable mindset. So in that context they did give me a lot of room to be creative.

MT> You were employed at Intel when they sold the 8244 chip, the first programmable sprite based game chip, to Magnavox. As it turned out, the chip design was flawed and delayed the release of the Odyssey² . Do you think the positioning of the Odyssey² against Atari in the marketplace would have been much different if the Odyssey² had reached store shelves a year earlier as originally anticipated?

Actually, the design of the 8244 was not the problem. There was a masking layout mistake. That was in the day when the all the masks was laid out by hand with no computer checking.

If the 8244 had arrived on schedule, I doubt if history would have changed that much. When the Odyssey² was launched, it was still the most advanced graphics system available and Magnavox had excellent manufacturing and distribution systems. The delay did however significantly impact Magnavox's confidence that they understood the speed of the market and complexity of video games business.

Also, the culture of Atari could not have been more different than that of Magnavox. If the Atari culture was needed to succeed in video games, they knew that was a business that was not suited to their DNA. 

MT> You worked your magic in your Tennessee home. Describe your work environment there?

Ha,ha it was total chaos! We foolishly decided to undertake a major remodel, 3 years, while living in the house and there were 2 small children to add to the distractions. The really good part is that it was a very dynamic and highly energetic world just like a video game.

A huge advantage was only a 2 hour drive to Magnavox in Knoxville as opposed to taking all day to get to Magnavox from Silicon Valley. Remember, there was no Skype in those days.

MT> Whatever happened to the cocktail napkin that birthed the Master Strategy game series?
Those were all great – especially The Quest for Rings !

I believe Mike Staup, the VP in charge of video games, took that back to Magnavox. I credit Mike for pushing outside of the box in getting that idea to reality. It was not an easy sell for him.

MT> Your wife Linda also helped you develop some of the Odyssey² titles. Certainly it must have been that experience that set her up for success as a Vice President at Microsoft…

I think she will agree that she learned that there were other thinking styles that can be successful. Linda and I tend to approach solving problems and design from the polar opposite direction. Her natural approach is perfectly aligned with the needs at Microsoft. What we learned working together was very helpful to us both.

MT> You were asked to program a Pac-Man like game. As a result, K.C. Munchkin resulted in a landmark legal ruling (see Bill Kunkel's “My Three Trials: Experiences as an Expert Witness in the Electronic Games Industry: Atari v Magnavox”) which would intimidate most individuals. What legal considerations were contemplated by Magnavox, and what was your reaction?

EA> First, in my opinion, both the Federal Court's and the Appeals Court's rulings were correct. They were actually ruling on a totally different argument on copyright infringement...

The Federal Court was addressing copyright infringement from the point of view that both Magnavox and Atari presented at the time; that is, were their codes, algorithms or circuitry copied? There was no evidence or discussion on the issue of “look and feel” copyright infringement in the Federal Court. Therefore, Magnavox was confident in victory. That was reinforced by the judge's ruling, strongly in Magnavox's favor.

Having lost on that approach, Atari cleverly changed tactics to argue an infringement based on “look and feel” in the Appeals Court. Its ruling was based on the evidence presented in the lower court, as the Appeals Court does not accept new evidence, and only rules on the evidence presented in the lower court's ruling. Since none of the significant differences in “look and feel” could be considered in the Appeals Court ruling, there was no attempt by Magnavox to address the “look and feel” differences there. So, the Appeals Court ruling was logical given the evidence it had to consider. It would have been helpful if the Appeals Court had addressed Atari's change in position and referred it back to the lower court, but that's not what happened. There was a lot of frustration at the time; not because we lost, but by the way we lost.

Now a little background -

At that time, the understanding for what was legal in video games was set by Odyssey's original ball and paddle game and Atari's Pong - another ball and paddle game. It concluded that if what was on the screen was not a result of copied code or circuits then there was no infringement. This was determined by an out of court settlement between Magnavox and Atari and thus had no legal precedence, but certainly influenced the thinking at Magnavox and Atari. However, there could not have been more similar “look and feel” games than the original Odyssey's Tennis game and Pong.

In my case, I doubt anyone confused KC Munchkin with Pac-Man because of looks or personality. In addition, my thinking was to develop a different, better “Western”…more later on that. With a character more likable and a game that improved on the concept of Pac-Man, you actually had a different, happier feeling. The character and the challenges were different. The player was not controlling a robotic “chomper” but a character that interacted and made you smile. Remember the graphic limitations of home video games of that day, an 8x8 mono matrix. Since the “look and feel” issue was not addressed by either Magnavox or Atari in the Federal Court, I did not get a chance to elaborate on how KC Munchkin had achieved this.

I remember clearly reasoning for myself how TV westerns of the day had similar infringement issues. In all the TV westerns, the setting was the same. The characters moved around on horses, saved damsels in distress, and got the ‘bad guys'. But you knew if you were watching The Lone Ranger or watching a Roy Rogers western. There were observable differences. Similarly, it's my strong feeling that there were significant differences between KC Munchkin and Pac-Man such that no one would buy KC Munchkin and think they were getting Pac-Man. If I logically compared KC Munchkin's and Pac-Man's “look and feel” to TV westerns, KC Munchkin was not close to having infringement issues. But the Appeals Court could not consider these points since they were not presented in the lower court.

So, the frustration was that the “argument” of infringement changed from the Federal Court where Magnavox won strongly, to the Appeals Court where we lost. The evidence had to stay the same; that is, no code copying. And none of the “look and feel” differences could be introduced to the Appeals Court.

It was for Atari a big short term victory taken from the jaws of defeat. But as we all know, the long term fate of Atari and Magnavox video games were the same for similar reasons.

MT> Okay, here is a question that I've been asking myself for years. Why are there two versions of K.C. Munchkin? In some iterations, one of the ghosts is blue in color. In another, that same ghost is yellow?

EA> That was not by my design. So I can only conclude that it was a result of a ROM or chip problem. A collector's item? :)

MT> Your final game for the Odyssey² was Attack of the Timelord . How did you feel in your gut knowing that your time with the Magnavox's machine was coming to an end? Losing that mental connection with millions of players must have been tough…

That was indeed tough. I really, really enjoyed designing games for Odyssey², working with the people at Magnavox and Philips, and most of all the relationship I had with the players. Huge mail bags from all ages and all over the world were sent daily.

I remember quite clearly pushing back from my DECwriter when I finished Attack of the Timelords, taking a deep breath and knowing it was the end of a era. All that I could do had been done. 

MT> Why were you not involved with the failed Probe 2000 project, which aimed to release new games for competing consoles such as the Colecovision?

There were 3 reasons:

          1. Linda was able to convince me that attention needed to be focused on our family and not making any more $s.
               I credit her for the foresight as it was time wisely spent. People are important not just making money.

          2. Intel was not interested in pursuing the video game or graphic business after I left. They were the best of the best when it came
               to silicon chips but they had a difficult time seeing the importance of graphics in the future.

          3. Magnavox and by then, Philips, were most interested in driving down the cost of a game system secondarily to driving the graphic
               capability of the system - again the DNA of a large scale commodity product manufacturer. We can all now see clearly that new
               consoles need to be many times more powerful that the last version - not an incremental improvement.

It would have been a much harder decision to exit completely if Magnavox/Philips had pursued evolving the Odyssey² into a personal computer. There was a complete design to that end done by Roberto to compete with Apple II and Dell's PC machines.  That would have been a very interesting path for all.

MT> Do you miss assembly programming and working in binary?

When I was young, I loved my bike. It was simple and straight forward like assembly programming. I understood exactly how it worked and what was possible to do with it. But now if I want to fly across the country I really appreciate air travel with all its complexities. And I'm really looking forward to self-driving cars to free up more of my time.

So do I miss programming in assembly? Yes but am I really happy to have the power of C++? Absolutely.

MT> During our conversations, you have referred to video games as, “real time graphic problem solving.” Care to expand on that?

Video games at their core present problems to users graphically. When solving problems graphically in this way was first presented in the Odyssey² and Atari, almost everyone embraced the basic idea.

Of course, some games require quick reaction times and some require deep thought but they all are still about presenting a problem graphically.

Almost all of the problem solving in video games today are “make believe” problems. The future that excites me most is where video games present real life problems to be solved. KC Returns! attempts to show that technology has progressed to the point that we can now start “thinking” about solving problems related to DNA among other things. I'm quite sure when my grandchildren are my age and they get sick they will be able to see the issues in a video game format and be able to solve their cold, their flu, or their cancer themselves. Now how cool will that be! We are going down that path now at warp speed. Someday, folks will look back at our current games and think of them in the same light as the very first video games.

MT> Even the biggest KC fans may not be aware that a series of KC children's books are available on Amazon. What is the story behind these… stories?

KC children's books do the same thing that the addition of the board did for the Master Strategy game series in the Odyssey² . It expands the story line beyond what is currently possible in the video game.

The books specifically give a richer example of where we are going. The books are directed at young children because it will most likely be them that make the possibility that I see for video games, a reality - that is, solving real life problems that will all have.

MT> You still own the intellectual property to the K.C. Munchkin name and character, and recently unveiled your upcoming KC Returns project. Please tell us about this exciting new project!

KC and I have watched from the sideline as video gaming, real time problem solving,  has made giant progress over the last 34 years. I found very little I could add to what was being done by everyone in the industry. But now, I believe we are at another inflection point where technology (processing power, graphic power, memory available and the cloud) have advanced to the point where there are whole new possibilities for video games. That is, applying video gaming attributes to solving real world problem.

KC Returns! Attempts to show a glimpse of that future, a future where anyone can explore in rich graphic detail DNA on a $200 computer. The game part (everyone wants to have fun) of KC's Returns! embraces some of the best of KC's past with enhancements possible today. There is a learning option about DNA that allows for even more enhanced game play.

KC Returns! Is basically a Suite of 3 interconnected parts.

          1. Exploring

          2. Learning

          3. Playing (game)

My hope is that by playing or seeing KC Returns!, DNA will be a bit more demystified and understandable. And that some will see a future where working with DNA will be as easy and common as working with a word processor today, except a whole lot more fun.

Why DNA? It affects all that we are and all our health issues - from colds to cancer. If that was not enough, DNA will play a significant role in the future of computing and memory storage. It's really important to understand.

KC Returns! is free to all. It's my gift to my grandchildren that I'm sharing with everyone.

It's currently available in the Microsoft App Store and based on feedback from my friends, a new, significantly enhanced version will be available in the coming months.


Good Deal Games thanks Ed Averett for making the Odyssey2 sing!
In our minds, he'll always be the "Wizard of Odyssey."

Be sure to check out the KC RETURNS website!

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