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INTERVIEW
Ron Lloyd

Ron Lloyd, known as the 'Coffee Man'
(or as Café Garçon to our French speaking friends) REALLY likes coffee.
More importantly, he is the leading modern-day developer for the Atari 5200!

MT> Please tell us about the game play of Koffi: Yellow Kopter.
RL> I was aiming for the feel of classic 80's games, the one-screen action games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Bubbles, or Q*Bert. The premise is that Koffi is a little kopter and isn't allowed to go on fire-fighting missions like the bigger and older kopters. When he finds out Pyro the Stormcloud plans to burn down the forests, Koffi takes action. So, you control Koffi, you fly around catching raindrops to fill up your water tank, and then press the action button overtop the burning trees to douse. While you keep the fire at bay, you must bump into Pyro enough times to defeat him. The 'hook' here is that Pyro is moving around and shooting deadly and fast lightning, so you have to be careful with your timing to get close enough to hit Pyro yet avoid the lightning. You also have animals at the bottom to rescue. Every 4th stage is a boss battle with Pyro's Mom and a creature chasing you around the screen. Again, Koffi must bump into her without getting zapped. Just like with many 80's games, Koffi earns 1-ups every 10,000 points, and the enemies and timing get faster and more deadly as you go.

MT> You have expressed some regret about the name you chose for your game. What is the meaning behind the name, and what did you learn about the name after it was too late?
RL> Heh, I think you misunderstood me, Mike. You are referring to our conversation at October 2002's CinciClassic show. No, I have no regrets over the name. I was looking at my Starbucks coffee cup at work one day, trying to figure out a good name for the helicopter. I tried "Kohi" which is the Japanese word for coffee. Didn't like it. But "Koffi" looked perfect and I kept it! Yellow was chosen because I was thinking of the Crazy Taxi cabs in that game, they are yellow, and for some reason I just liked the odd name "Koffi: Yellow Kopter". I mean, it makes you think "what, are there blue and green kopters too?" Kaffi: Purple Kopter is a good sequel name. ;)

Curiously, later on I found out that "Koffi" is actually a proper name in some languages & countries. Just like "Joe" and "Mike" are proper names in English. I didn't know that when I coined Koffi's name. I found this out by doing Yahoo searches on the word "Koffi" - I found like a million hits, got all excited until I realized it was hitting on all these documents referring to people of that name.

MT> Silly me - all mixed up, and all... Anyway, why did you choose to create a game for the 5200? Was it because you really like those non-centering, quirky and often faulty 5200 controllers, a childhood console favorite, or the 20th anniversary of the Atari 5200?
RL>I never had problems with the 5200's often-maligned sticks; in fact I prefer 5200 sticks over Colecovision or Intellivision controllers. The 5200 was my favorite system - I played so, so much 2-player Joust and Mario Brothers with my friends. I loved to play Q*Bert, Vanguard, Space Dungeon, Star Raiders, Berzerk, Jungle Hunt, and Pac-Man. The 5200 was an exciting system to me back in the early 80's!

Anyway, there is a longer story to this. In the year 2000, my father passed away and I found myself around family that I hadn't seen for years. My cousins told me that they still had my "Atari stuff" - well, I had forgotten completely that I gave them my 5200 a decade earlier. So I got it back, spent the rest of the year playing my beloved old system, reminiscing. It was good medicine. So in spring of 2001 I found out about Digital Press and Atari Age and the 2600's homebrew scene, and I noticed few to none were making 5200 games. I decided that I'd try to support the Supersystem and learn how to program 5200 games. I was happy to learn that Dan Boris had already laid the groundwork, and that the 5200 was nearly the same as the Atari 8bit computers. The 5200's 20th anniversary in 2002 also had a bit to do with my desire to support this system and to contribute something to its legacy.

MT> Which came first -- the kopter or the cloud? Please describe the game design process and development of gameplay.
RL>I started off with the idea of a helicopter, burning trees, and a lightning cloud. I had NO real idea of how I was going to program this thing, at first it was just a demo that I called "firefighter". The game started to take shape in August of 2001, when I'd doodle little sketches free-hand and on graph paper, and the images of Koffi and Pyro were born. Then I drew the first stage's forest. The original idea was to have streams of slow lightning coming down, like Missile Command, toward the trees, but this ended up getting changed as the game progressed. I knew I wanted Koffi to have to continually move, and for him to be heroic and rescue animals. I also knew I wanted lightning and an ever-spreading fire.

Throughout the process of making the game, I tried to stay true to how games were in the 80's, yet also to make a unique concept. Think about it - most early 80's games were about either shooting things or collecting things while avoiding dangers. I didn't want Koffi to be a shooter. Instead, he collects raindrops, and the animals are the "bonus items" that yield big points. I always liked Joust, especially how your ostrich bounced around the clouds and buzzards, and you had to hit the buzzards just right or you'd die. Similarly, Koffi must physically touch Pyro to hurt him, yet he must use strategy to not get nailed by the lightning bursts. Also, it takes some hustle and bustle to keep water in your tank when playing on the Hard difficulty. I had some ideas which ended up not really working well, so I scrapped those; I just tried to keep it simple. Even so, many people didn't know what to do when I first showed them the game, and nobody could even beat one level of the early Koffi demo, it was just too hard.

Each of Koffi's three 'tree' stages has its own personality, yet you do the same things on each - douse and catch and bump while avoiding dangers. The winter stage has evergreen trees center -screen and more fireballs to avoid; the swampy stage has wind blowing as well as a swinging vine obstacle. Finally, the 4th stage is totally unlike the first three, it's a boss battle against Pyro's Mom who sits at the top of the screen. In case you can't tell, this stage is a bit of an homage to Vanguard's boss stage.

MT> Pyro the storm cloud is an unusual villain for a game. It is definitely a nice reminder of other 8-bit enemies of the past. Were there other considerations for Koffi's nemesis? What could have been?
RL>Nope, Pyro the grumpy stormcloud was always the villain. I toyed with having other clouds to battle, but decided to keep it a more personal one-on-one battle. Pyro is not very smart. He gets stronger and faster and learns new lightning patterns as the game progresses, but he never gets that smart. I toyed with a more intelligent Pyro but it really took the fun out of the game, in my opinion.

MT> What different animals appear in Koffi: Yellow Kopter?
RL>Most of the animals were designed by folks who frequent AtariAge.com. Atari Age and I had a Koffi Kontest where I described the three building blocks I used to create the animals sprites, and people drew up 2 frames of animation each. Originally I was only going to include 2 entries, but I received so many great ones that I ended up including many more into the game. All those people are listed in the game's credits, which you see after you lose your last Koffi turn each game. There's a fox, monkey, elephant, giraffe, cobra, calamari, bear, raccoon, and lots more -- I had to go back and optimize the animal draw routines to save ROM space! Rather than reveal how many are in there, I will simply ask "how many can you find?"

MT> How much do you think it will cost to reproduce all the cartridges with the correct spelling of the abbreviation of helicoptor? Will the originals join E.T. in the landfill?
RL> Ha! For the record, it is spelled "Koffi: Yellow Kopter". The Webster's Dictionary people are going to have to change their book, I'm not changing my labels.

MT> Cite some examples of advanced programming techniques you needed to learn and understand to program Koffi on the Atari 5200.
RL> First I had to get experienced with 6502 Assembly language, and also learn how the 5200's different chips functioned. I'm a mainframe programmer by trade but programming Koffi was completely new and different by comparison. So everything was a challenge - learning how to get the screen to display, how to draw and animate sprites and background visuals, how to code a collision routine, how to get sound and music. It all took quite a bit of research, time and effort, to be honest. There are so many limitations even with the "powerful" 5200 hardware (at least when compared to the weaker 2600 hardware) that must be overcome. For example, the "255" limitation of 8-bit bytes caused all kinds of consternation as I tried to code routines. In other words, if I wanted to read 300 pixels from a data table and put them to the screen, one simple loop can't do it - the loop's index flips from 255 to 0 unless you code around that. I found I had to get into an Atari mentality and think that certain way as I coded the game.

Color was another obstacle. I'm very happy with the amount of colors I got on-screen. With the 5200 you only get 4 one-color large sprites and 4 small "missile" sprites. So to make Koffi a 2-color character, and the animals are actually 3-color sprites, I had to group these sprites together and in fact reuse them at different places on the screen. With the background graphics, you only get 4 colors there too. So I used a powerful capability of the 5200 called a Display List Interrupt (DLI) to change color register values at certain scanlines as the image is drawn down the screen. This way I got lots more color than is available by default. On a final color-related note, none of the 5200 emulators are 100% correct in their hues (which is why the raindrops are green on emulators). To figure out which colors looked best, I made a color debug mode which ended up as an in-game feature called "Koloring Book", where you can pause the game and change the colors of almost anything on-screen, then resume gameplay with your chosen colors.

I was also very happy that I could get 4 raindrops to display onscreen at one time, but I'm only using 2 Blue missile sprites to get them. This took a well-placed DLI and tight, specific game logic to prevent flickering, raindrop dropout, or collision problems. There is no flickering at all in Koffi. I always hated flickering (props to those old Activision guys who also hated it) and I refused to allow it in my game.

MT> You are also working with Alan Davis and Keith Erickson on the sequel to the VCS favorite, Adventure. What is your role, as well as the others concerning Adventure II?
RL>Adventure II took a hit when Alan stepped down from being the chief programmer. He just didn't have the time, and I've been doing Koffi so neither did I. Alan and I both started Adventure II independently a while ago, and when we realized we both were interested in the same idea, we joined forces. Much of Adventure II's gameplay and overall design was sketched out by us two in early 2002, and it's just sat there until now. Alan came up with a compression routine which allows us to condense graphics quite a bit; we can get many, many unique screens with our 32K of ROM. So it looks like I'm the sole coder now, Keith (aka Raccoon Lad) is the artist, while Alan has already done his work for the project.

Most of the recent work has been Keith's. He has drawn and revised castles, tiles, and sprites. Keith and I continually have discussed how to get the most out of the 5200's color and sprite abilities, and we keep revising things as we go. Personally, now that Koffi is done I will take a brief rest, and then I want to play Warren's 2600 Adventure game for several days to refresh my memory of what made it special. I'm not sure how much of Adventure II I want to reveal yet. You can expect a Troll Bridge and a Hedge Maze in the game. The Troll can steal your items and hide them in the maze. I'm still struggling with the sprite managing - although I dislike single-color sprites, I loathe flickering even more! So things are still being ironed out there. I'd like to apply my Koffi experience to this project and take it even further, especially in area of sound & music. Adventure II is in a completely different graphics mode than Koffi, so there is once again some unfamiliar aspects that I'll need to resolve.

MT> From the recent poll, it looks like the sequels protagonist will remain the simplistic square originally brought to life by Warren Robinett. What is your personal feeling about the main character remaining so simple in the new more detailed setting of the 5200?
RL> I was SO surprised that classic gamers felt so attached to The Square as the main character! My personal feelings: an icon character carries with it a simple, eloquent charm. The Square will definitely be the main icon to use when you boot up the game - but there may be various icons to use; as little easter eggs perhaps.


MT> Have anything up your sleeve? What's next?
RL> Porting Koffi to the Atari 8bit computers is a side-project. It shouldn't take too much effort. I had lots of ideas for Koffi that I didn't use. Maybe in time I'll make a sequel, don't know that I'd manufacture them though, might just release the ROM when its done. Adventure II is my top priority now that Koffi is done. I have some ideas for other 5200 games, and I think I could make them a lot faster than I made Koffi. For example, I have ideas for a scrolling 2D shooter, for a superhero game, for another adventure type of game with dinosaurs. Time will tell.


Good Deal Games would like to thank Ron for expanding his programming skills
to the Atari 5200, and, of course, for this interview -- THANKS Ron!

Visit the Koffi: Yellow Koptor Website
Visit Ron's Atari 5200 Development Website
e-mail Ron

 

 

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