Based in Chicago, Illinois, Williams Manufacturing Company started producing pinball games in the late 1940s; their business flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, and the company’s colorful and innovative offerings became well respected and remained consistently profitable within the pin-game industry. In the 1970s, however, company executives witnessed the rise of a new medium—video games—and saw them as a new opportunity for growth. The company experimented with contracting video game production to other firms several times during that decade, but the resulting arcade cabinets enjoyed limited success. In 1979, the company— now Williams Electronics Inc.—tasked one of their pinball designers, Eugene Jarvis, with producing a video arcade game of their own. The game, Defender, was a side-scrolling alien-shooting thrill ride released in 1980 that would become an arcade phenomenon. While Jarvis was the first and is perhaps the best-known designer of Defender, he was not the only member of the team. Notably, he was joined about six months into the game’s development by pinball sound wizard Sam Dicker, and it was this team of two that brought the game to the cusp of its release. Eugene’s story is widely known; Sam’s is not.
Sam sitting in front of a Defender cabinet in Elmhurst, Illinois, around November 1981. (Photograph of original image taken by author courtesy of Sam Dicker)
A celebration of Defender’s success was planned at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago on November 1, 1981, with Dicker and Jarvis invited as guests of honor.1 By the end of 1981, the game had been voted by industry magazine Play Meter’s Annual Operator Survey as the top earner and biggest draw of any arcade machine available. This saw it beating out worldwide phenomenon Pac-Man (December 1980) and the previous year’s champion Asteroids (November 1979), allowing Williams president Mike Stroll to smile proudly on the magazine’s cover alongside Black Knight (November 1980), another Williams product and the top-voted pin game of 1980. Defender was hot, and this was due in no small part to Sam’s hard work and technical expertise. The interview transcript that follows is a small step toward recognizing his life and work.
Cover image from Play Meter magazine, December 1981. (Photograph of original image taken by author courtesy of Sam Dicker)
Sam was born in New York City in 1957 and lived on City Island until he was about six years old. His family moved several times after that, owing to his father’s civil engineering work, and they ended up in Elmhurst, Illinois, when Sam reached the age of ten. He was interested in math, science, and electronics from that young age, and he put a lot of effort into his hobbies: exploring a programmable calculator that his father brought home, tinkering with stereo components, and visualizing music on an oscilloscope gifted by a family friend.
These hobbies guided Sam to studying the same topics at the University of Illinois, but he found the introductory courses dull and left after about one year. He had significant technical skill, however, and took several jobs in the Chicago area, including at AT&T; Technitron, a company producing resistance welding controls; and a company that made uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units for banks and medical facilities. It was after this last job that Sam joined Williams as a pinball sound designer in 1979, having a childhood connection to Williams pinball designer Larry DeMar. Soon after that, he was asked to join the Defender team.
I met Sam in the summer of 2018, during a fellowship visit to The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Our first encounter was serendipitous; he and his wife were taking a road trip up the east coast of the United States and had brought with them a box of Sam’s old materials from his time working on Defender. Sam had been told that the Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play at the Strong were one of the best places to take such historical materials, and so he stopped by. I happened to be in the archives at the time, studying space-themed video games as part of my dissertation work. Introducing myself to Sam was a natural choice, and we began talking about his work soon afterward.
Since that meeting, I have conducted four interviews with Sam about his early life, his role as programmer and technologist at Williams and elsewhere, and the philosophy that has driven his career. The second and third interviews were conducted on February 15, 2019, and March 17, 2019, respectively. They cover some of Sam’s experiences at Williams while working on Defender and follow-up cult classic Sinistar (February 1983), providing a window into the games’ development from a novel perspective as well as a broader look at the American video game industry in the early 1980s through recent entrant Williams Electronics Inc. What follows is an amalgamation of these two interviews, edited for clarity and brevity.
Note: Sam and Eugene presented their journey in the development of Defender at arcade games show California Extreme in 2014, and it was this video that Sam first pointed me to when we began discussing his role in the game’s development. The first of the four-part recording is on YouTube and serves as a good foundation for readers unfamiliar with the game’s history.2
Alexander Mirowski: My first question, and some of these are going to be based on the “Story of Defender” video that you kindly shared with me, is asking about how the Defender project got started. You and Eugene [Jarvis] talked about the culture at Williams being that the pinball designers were like the hotshots, they were the “Hutts” I think was the line, and then here was your team coming in and doing something different. What was it like being that group that wasn’t doing what all of the hotshots were doing?
Sam Dicker: Well, first of all there was a certain kind of pecking order within the pinball designers, and they had various people who would help make the play fields for the games, and there were people who would test things, and there were sales and marketing people. I mean there was a whole culture. But the top of the team is kind of the artist, almost the prima donnas, the pinball designers who were like the directors. They would be like the director of a movie, if the pinball machine was a movie. And the programmers, we were kind of like technicians. I mean they gave us a lot of respect because we were the ones that would make their magic come to life. At least a lot of it. And so, there was kind of this awkwardness in that we were now, with video games, the designers as well as the programmers. And so, in the case of Eugene, he really had no idea. I mean we were having a lot of fun working on this, but he really had no idea that we were going to be successful on this. And the story about him packing up his stuff, I don’t know, was that on the video?
AM: It was, yeah!
SD: It’s the truth! I mean we had gotten some negative comments … you know, from the marketing people. They would look at Pac-Man, with the one joystick, and then they look at our thing with all these buttons and, you know, “how is anyone going to figure out how to use it? It’s going to be a total flop.” And that was kind of his sense going into the AMOA [Amusement and Music Operators Association] show or whatever …
Picture of Defender ’s controls from a 1980 advertising flyer. (Photograph of original image taken by author courtesy of Sam Dicker)
AM: Yeah. And then obviously that didn’t happen.
SD: No, it did not happen. And in fact, it was what everyone was looking at. The operators were all looking for the next big video game because they had been making so much money from video games. And they loved … they liked them because there was so much less maintenance. They saw that as kind of the future. Many of them did.
AM: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s actually another question I wanted to ask. Defender was going to be coin-op, right, it was going to make money. And there’s a little bit of that in the video, but what sort of discussions occurred as you were making the game about the fact that it would need to be hard, or be something an operator could make money on? Was it mostly “you’re trying to make a video game and make it cool and fun,” or were there always thoughts of “okay, well, we need to make sure that it can eat quarters”?
SD: Well, I can’t speak for all game companies, but at Williams we had a test site called Mother’s Pinball, and I imagine we had other test sites, too. Mother’s was great because everyone in Chicago, all the Chicago companies, would bring their games. There were other companies, too. It was kind of like the playground for all the companies that bring their prototypes there, and Mother’s kept detailed statistics and they would track all kinds of things: how many coins the machines could take, how many plays they got. Somehow, they got playtime. I can’t remember whether that was done by Mother’s or whether that was done by our internal software, but they always wanted to make sure that playtime was short enough, average. Because one, it would be death for a machine to have one person be able to beat it and just play it all day—even though that’s what everyone wanted to do—and with Defender the playtimes were pretty short. We had testers who were playing the game all day and got good at it, but their playtimes were still not, you know, they couldn’t beat it. And, we actually jokingly thought before we did any testing on it that no one would ever get higher than twenty-five thousand or thirty thousand or something. So the way the game was set up it was the first some number of levels, maybe five or ten or fifteen or something, you would get more enemies and the difficulty would go up, and then we decided that’s enough and it wouldn’t get any harder after that. And hence, somehow people got good enough that they could play it indefinitely. But that was more the exception than the rule. And it turned out those players became legendary and inspired legions of new kids to try and get that good, and, you know, increased the popularity of the game.
AM: Right, which then feeds into more publicity and more quarters as well, so that’s pretty neat.
SD: Exactly, exactly. I mean, publicity is great, but really everyone was looking at the quarters, because if the game was a moneymaker, then operators will buy more of them and put more at their location and take out other ones and you have a hit.
AM: Yeah, simple enough I suppose. Not so simple getting there, I guess.
SD: It is a very different philosophy than a home game. A coin-op game, I mean, you really have to make it fun, but it’s kind of like how much fun can you have in as short an amount of time as possible to make people come back and play it again.
AM: Yeah, I think Eugene’s line from the video was like, “how can we make people want our game to kick their ass?”
SD: Yeah. Yeah, and actually having a game be difficult makes it more attractive. I mean even if you could beat a game, if it was boring you would stop playing it. That’d be the worst.
AM: Yeah. I guess, maybe there’s some nuance there. In my work examining the original Computer Space, it was just so onerous for players to even wrap their hands around the controls, right. So, I guess when we’re talking about difficulty, you’re talking about designed-in difficulty as opposed to just players getting the hang of it in the first place.
SD: Right, right. You want the controls to be intuitive so that you feel like they’re kind of an extension of your body, and just like playing an instrument you want to be able to think it and have the game machine do the right thing. But you want to make the challenge hard enough and fast enough and exciting enough that even with that connection, you still can’t beat it. It still kicks your ass.
AM: But in a fun way.
SD: In a fun way, yeah. This is again a classic game design concept, but you want to have a whole progression of little rewards that happen frequently, and bigger rewards that happen infrequently. And one of the major concepts that we focused on was to make every game experience completely unique, so one of the most used functions of the program was the random number generator that would determine just about anything in the game that could be variable, grab a random number to decide what to do with it. You know, where the characters would appear, when they would fire their shots, when they would move and change direction. It was constantly either drawing random numbers or it was looking at the players’ ship and what it’s doing to key off that. And if you contrast that with a lot of other games at the time, like Pac-Man and Galaxian and other games, they were much more predictable in what they could do. And you could learn, you could memorize what would happen with the patterns, where things were going to go. And so, you would get better at it not by improving your reactions and your response to things, but you’d get better by memorizing what the opponents are going to do, and it’s a very different school of design.
AM: Mmhmm. But one that found purchase, right? It was really popular because it always threw something new at you.
SD: Well, yeah, and for me, I always enjoyed that much more. I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t like memorizing things. I mean, my worst subject in school was foreign languages because I had to memorize all these words. And I like things that were, that were either logical or exciting and kinda [flow-based]. You know, and Defender was very flow-based. It was kind of like surfing. You never know which way the wave was gonna go and you have to respond to it.
AM: And you can enjoy the fact that you did or did not succeed.
SD: Right, right, you wanna kind of ride the crest of the wave and go into it and make it as hard as you can but still be able to stay on it. One of the common strategies that people would use, or just have fun with it, is that they would shoot all the humans and then fly up to space … just to make it more crazy and intense. They would do all kinds of different things and experiment and see. And, of course, you know, nowadays that’s very common in games—that the worlds are random, and people like to explore them and stuff like that. But we’re talking the early eighties when we were just starting to put sprites on the screen. So, in some ways it was ahead of its time.
AM: In “The Story of Defender,” Eugene mentioned one of the first things you had to do was make the explosions and terrain and such.
SD: Yeah, yeah, and I don’t know if I mentioned this at the talk, but one of my favorite stories was he asked me to … he showed me the explosion effects in Galaxian—three-fireball sequence—and he asked me to do that, thought that was cool. And I am not the kind of person … I have an aversion to copying, to doing yet another of anything. I mean I still to this day, when given a project, the first thing I ask myself is how far do I take it, what can I get away with? And I was impressed by the microprocessor that they were using in the game compared to what I had used in the past, and there was one family of instructions that are actually in addressing mode in the instructions that inspired me to think “Gosh, this would be great for particle effects,” and so that kind of inspired me to go in that direction with explosions.
AM: Sure. And then you also did the sound work on it?
SD: I did, some of it.
SD: I was in charge of it, and I built a lot of the special sounds that you need for a space game. Like, the sound of the thrust and the explosions and many of the other kind of effects that would occur at certain times. But there was another program that Eugene wrote for pinball that we had that was called G-Wave that we made heavy use of, and was a parameterized synthesizer. You’d give it a bunch of parameters and it would synthesize cool sounds. So, a lot of the kind of cool trippy buzzy FM-like sounds were made with G-Wave. The “zizizizizizizizzoo!” You know, those kind of sounds like that, or like the sound when you put in a coin and it’s like “tzzzzz,” that kind of sound?
SD: I was actually playing around with just actual, algorithmic synthesis and I was synthesizing those sounds on that little tiny sound … the microprocessor on the soundboard was one of the cheapest 8-bit micros available at the time. And it didn’t have much memory, so I was quite constrained with the sounds. And the other thing is that we could … Defender’s soundboard could only really play one sound at a time.
AM: Right, yeah, I think the video did mention that. So, you had to sort of prioritize them?
SD: Exactly. We had two priorities. We had one number priority for when the sound starts and then another one for later on once it started. So, what could happen is, and that was lower priority, so sounds could rip off other sounds. In other words, by having priorities, we could make more important sounds more likely to play. And really unimportant ones not interrupt important ones. But it was a monosynthesizer, a monophonic synthesizer, and you know nowadays of course sound engines can play dozens of sounds …
AM: Channel upon channel.
AM: Well, that’s still interesting. I guess this wasn’t in the video, and maybe this was passed on to other people. What about the cabinet art and that kind of thing? Did you guys have any say in what that would look like?
SD: We had artists who did that. Software engineers didn’t do the cabinet art … Williams had an art staff. You’d have to look and see on the credits who was the artist. I’m really not sure, and I don’t want to credit the wrong person. But if you want me to, need a name, feel free to ask me and I’ll research it.
AM: Yeah, thanks.
SD: I can certainly ask my buddies and get that, find that for you. I think it’s important, because that’s an important part of the legacy of the game, the cabinet design and the art.
Defender on the cover of RePlay Magazine , November 1980. (Photograph of original image taken by author courtesy of Sam Dicker)
AM: Right, well that’s the first thing players potentially see, right?
AM: Okay, so for the game itself, then, I guess I had a question about your relationship as a new team in Williams, with its pinball legacy. It sounds like there wasn’t a lot of push from whoever the relevant management was to kind of keep you guys on one track. It sounds like there was a lot of freedom, you were just told “make this video game.”
SD: Yeah, we were told to “make a game.” They didn’t tell us what kind of game to make, and they wanted a game and they wanted something fun that would make them money. That they could sell. And I think that they didn’t want to constrain us because they wanted to make sure we succeeded, that we made something. You know, the fear was … I’m guessing and this is pure speculation, I’m guessing that they were concerned that if they told us what kind of game to make them, that it would take us longer. They wanted us to make whatever we could produce the fastest, because the hardware team was making the hardware and they were tooling up a production line and all this stuff was happening well before we had a game.
AM: Right. So, you’ve got the story about Eugene clearing out his desk after, I think, just showing off the astronauts.
SD: Yeah, I don’t remember exactly when he did that, when he started packing. I remember the boxes, I remember him putting his books in the boxes, that’s all I can picture.
AM: Yeah, a stand-out moment. But it sounds like: inception of project, pretty much carte blanche, and then throughout the production cycle, managers would come in …
SD: Well, people would come in and they’d want to see what we were doing, and generally they were probably pretty disappointed, you know, given this didn’t look like anything. You could see characters on the screen, they were doing strange things, no sound, nothing. I didn’t know what they thought, but certainly to me, as we were working on it, it seemed like nothing was happening until all of a sudden everything was happening.
AM: Right, yeah. Any particular moments in development that were so problematic that maybe there was thought of, not throwing in the towel maybe, but having to push back the project significantly? I mean the video mentioned the lag issue, but you guys knew about that pretty much since the beginning and just managed it on a day-to-day basis.
SD: What do you mean the lag issue?
AM: Sorry, maybe lag isn’t the right word. Let me pull up my notes from it. [pause] The bog problem.
SD: Yeah, so there was a problem … I mean I was really having fun with the explosion effects, the particle effects—primitive particle effects. And we decided to do as many as ten of them at the same time, and the frame rate slowed way down when you do that, and we had a system for drawing the screen that avoided that. See, modern video games have something called a double-frame buffer. They’ll write the image to the back buffer, and when that is finished, they’ll flip that to the front. We didn’t have one of those. Memory was too expensive. We just had a single frame buffer and whatever happened to be in that buffer as the video beam came by, that’s what you saw. So just with that system alone, if we were to try to draw sprites … because we didn’t have any hardware for sprites you could often see a tearing. Say if a sprite moved horizontally and, as the beam came by, the top half would be over here and the bottom half would be over there. So, what Eugene did is very clever. We had … an interrupt or something … we had some way of knowing where the beam was, and we could read the vertical position. I can’t remember exactly now. But what he would do is when the video frame started, he would draw the bottom half of the screen, and then once the beam would be halfway down, he’d draw the top half. So, you’d never have your objects torn in half as the video was refreshing. However, the explosions just ran as fast as they can. And, like I say, if you ran ten of them the frame rate would slow way down. And that would make the whole game kinda chunk and bog like that. But I think we decided that it was so fun to see all that carnage, all that stuff flying around, that it was worth tolerating the slowdown.
AM: Sure. And, especially for the smart bomb, right? The game slowed down so much, but that was cool.
SD: Yeah, and you didn’t really care with the smart bomb, because the problem with it slowing down is the enemies could blow you up, or you collide into things and you’d be dead before you even … you didn’t see it because it was slowed down so much. I mean, you missed that frame. But the smart bomb wiped everything out, so even if it was slow, you didn’t feel ripped off by it because you were killed by something as everything was blowing up.
AM: Sure, sure. So, let’s go back for a moment to the sounds of the smart bomb or shots. You mentioned the specific system you used to generate that. Was there any kind of inspiration for those sounds? I mean I know they’re pretty simplistic little clips, but …
SD: Well, let me tell you a little bit about G-Wave, because G-Wave is pretty interesting. Eugene could tell you the whole story about this, this was written before I joined the company. My recollection about G-Wave is that he was attempting to make an FM-like synthesizer, which was very advanced, way ahead of its time. And he was trying to do something like that, but to make it interesting: to have all of the knobs, all of the controls for the parameters for synthesis changing. And when he first tried it, he fired it up and he let all the sounds go through all their range like that and it was pretty boring. But then there was a bug where they didn’t stop when they hit the end of their range and they just kept going. And I think what happened is maybe he walked away from it or something and he came back a few minutes later and it was making these incredible noises! And then he had to figure out, “Well, how did that happen?” And we never really figured it out completely. But what we’d make G-Wave do is when it would first start a sound, it would advance the parameters for a long time without playing anything, and then start playing the sound.
AM: Huh, that is cool.
SD: And so, you could fire up a sound and you’d let it go for a certain amount of time and then you’d stop it and say, “I want the real sound to start there.”
AM: That’s fascinating.
SD: And I forget what you call that. Pre-something. [pause] Yeah, I don’t know exactly. You probably have my code listings.
AM: Yeah. So that’s where a lot of the Defender sounds come from. It’s when you get to the interesting sounds.
SD: Well, yeah, you don’t hear all the crap at the beginning because it’s not synthesizing, it’s just advancing the parameters to that point and then it plays the cool sound. Those sounds were in some of the pinball games like Firepower and stuff. Some of those G-Wave sounds were originally for the pinball soundboard. The sounds that I made were mainly, well, I made a bunch of different sounds, but the ones that got the most use in Defender were sounds that would generate noise and then they would filter the noise in different ways. Like, for example, the thrust sound, that “fwowwoooooo,” and then when you hit the button, it would go “fshhhhhhhhhh,” it would open up the filter and it would go up in pitch. And then I found that if you take the filter and you sweep it down, starting real wide open and then quickly sweep it down and then slow it down at the end, you make a really nice explosion sound.
AM: Yeah, I could see that.
SD: The explosion was just “peooooowwww.” You’re left with the low frequency. You’re just sweeping a filter. And then, at the beginning during the level when the landers would appear, we ran the … I don’t know who thought of this, but we had this idea of having them materialize, to create the effect of a transporter ...
AM: Sure, from Star Trek ...
SD: Star Trek, yeah. And so, what we did was we ran the explosion—the particle effects—we ran ʼem backward. And we decided, “Well, if we’re going to do that, why don’t we play an explosion sound backward?” And so, they’d go “phwoeep, phwoeep”; then they would “shwup,” and it worked!
AM: Yeah, that’s really elegant. I like that.
SD: Yeah, so I’m saying that those sounds got a lot of use, those filtered noise sounds. And then, like the Mutant explosion, I took the filter and instead of just going “khh,” I would kind of fluctuate it so it would kind of go “fwowowowowowowow,” make this really dirty kind of explosion sound, and these were all really cheap to generate. You know, they were a few cycles, a few instructions to generate them. And, then I made some other sounds for special occasions. Like, while I was experimenting, I figured out how to make something that sounded like a pipe organ.
AM: Yeah, yeah that was in the video.
SD: And we used that. We played I think at the beginning Toccata and Fugue when you got a high score while you were entering your name. We wanted it to be dramatic, so I used my little pipe-organ effect. And these were sounds that were actually custom designed for the purpose, whereas most of the G-Wave sounds you would just try random things until you got some … and then you’d say “Oh,” and then you’d have a whole bunch of sounds. Then you’d try to decide which events you would want to use those sounds on. It was kind of like throwing dice and see what would come up. Whereas most of the sounds that I made were, you know, I had a vision for what I’d want to have happen, how I want it to sound, and then I would code it to make something I think would sound like that.
AM: Right, you want a really satisfying explosion or that low rumble of the thrust or whatever.
SD: Right, whatever it is, right. So, they were actually designed based on what we wanted rather than throwing the dice.
AM: Right, but I guess it was a mixture of the two in the end?
SD: Well, yeah, there were a few dozen sounds in the game, and there were actually some sounds in the soundboard that aren’t even used in the game, but I’m sure that somebody has the code for a soundboard built. It’s kind of fun playing. What we had was we had a little switch panel where you would use switches to select what number sound you want, then you would hit a button and it would play the sound. And that’s how we tried out different sounds on the soundboard.
AM: Nice, and I think you mentioned this, but just so I can confirm: G-Wave was brought in because it was just some tech that Williams already had—because Eugene was familiar with it—or you guys thought G-Wave would be the thing for Defender?
SD: Yeah, yeah, we loved it!
AM: Okay, so it just worked really well?
SD: Right, yeah, everyone loved G-Wave. The sounds were really interesting, and very space-like, whatever that means, considering that there’s no sound in space.
AM: Yeah, exactly.
SD: And so, we used those for I would say half the sounds, and the other half were these custom sounds that I made … there wasn’t really a good G-Wave sound for thrust or for explosions because that’s not the kinds of sounds that it makes.
AM: I see. Okay, changing gears. Defender goes out, Williams realizes that there is a lot of money in this group of people that they have put together, and …
SD: After Defender was done, I started working on the next game and that took a long time to come out. That was Sinistar—it took longer than we thought. There were a bunch of problems that came up during that time. Plus, the company was going through this huge transformation. They were a pinball company and pinball was their whole culture and we were just kinda these … this rogue group that was producing video games and all of a sudden they are seeing sales numbers that they’ve never seen in pinball.
Cover image from Joystik magazine, September 1983. (Photograph of original image taken by author courtesy of Sam Dicker)
AM: And decided they wanted more of that.
SD: They wanted more of that, yes. They had to, or they wouldn’t be able to compete. It was their future, they saw, being both a pinball and a video game company.
AM: Which is what happened I suppose.
SD: Exactly. After Defender, Williams wanted to make sure that we stayed with the company and didn’t go to work for our competitors because there were competitors in the Chicago area, as you know. And so, what they did is they tried to get us to sign contracts basically that we would get paid more money and we would sign a noncompete clause that said that for six months, or some amount of time, that we couldn’t work for any of the competitors in the Chicago area. The labor laws said you couldn’t at that time have a noncompete clause that was worldwide, basically that would lock you out of your field. And so, it was the most money … more money than I thought I would ever be able to make. I mean I was this young kid and so I went ahead and signed one of these contracts. And then shortly after that, one day I heard that Larry [DeMar] and Eugene had left Williams and started their own company, and they didn’t tell me about it. So, I was feeling really ...
AM: Left out.
SD: Exactly, and I was feeling abandoned by them, and I found out later on … I talked about it with them and other people that basically they felt that they didn’t want to sign these contracts and they knew I had so I couldn’t go to work for them.
SD: And their arrangement was that their little company, Vid Kids, had a contract with Williams that they would design games for Williams on Williams hardware. And the two of them started working on Stargate [released in October 1981]. And Stargate was a successor to Defender, and they developed it. And I visited them a couple times while they were working on it and saw what they were doing, but then they went on to do a bunch of other games after that. They did some great games like Robotron [Robotron: 2084, released in 1982], a couple others for Williams. So, I was not directly involved. I know they said that they basically rewrote all of the code that I wrote in Defender but a lot of it was very similar with what it did.
AM: Sure, sure. So, they had a deal where whatever work they did wasn’t as restricted by the contract?
SD: No, no they were not employees of Williams and so I imagine they got paid even more because they produced a game and they sold it or licensed it to Williams. And what I learned, and this is true in other industries as well is that … the more of the responsibility of producing the game, the more valuable it is. Williams paid a lot of money for games that were designed by other companies, like Moon Patrol [released by Williams in August 1982]. That was done completely by another company. And they’d actually … I think they actually even tested the game at test sites before they sold it to Williams.
SD: I’m not sure of that … I’m not sure whether they actually tested it. But you know, people were at that time writing game design proposals and saying, “Yeah I’d like to sell you my game idea.” And that wasn’t worth very much.
AM: Right, but if it was complete …
SD: But if you completed it and got it running it was worth more.
AM: Of course, because you could immediately just sell it.
SD: And if you completed it, got it running and tested it in the field and saw that it was a moneymaker it was worth even more. So basically, the more of it you did yourself the more valuable it was.
AM: Yeah, so Williams was really just publishing games for a while after that.
SD: They were working on in-house games as well. And besides Sinistar they did Joust [released in July 1982], that was done in-house. And there were other teams working on games there, too. There was another one … what was the one with the bubbles. Scrubbing, a sink … there was a game with a sink…
AM: Oh yeah, I can picture the cover, but I don’t …
[This was Bubbles, released by Williams in 1982 to mixed reviews.]
SD: That was another game that was done in-house by another team. They actually started a game development group, and they had hired a manager—Paul Desalt—and he was the manager of the game development groups and stuff, so I reported to him. When I was working on Sinistar.
AM: So, you did then stay on, of course, having signed the contract.
SD: Yeah, I stayed on.
AM: What was it like working with those other groups?
SD: [pause] Well, I remember that there was a lot of pressure because they had this assembly line to crank out games and they needed to have games and after they had sold all the Defenders they could sell, they needed to have something else to manufacture. And so, they were working on Stargate and Sinistar and Joust all kinda around—well Joust was after. After Sinistar came out they did Joust. But there was a lot of pressure to try to release something.
AM: Get the next big hit.
SD: And it was actually a challenge. I mean, Eugene and Larry, one of the things that they liked about Vid Kids is they could—they insisted on having plenty of time to test and tune the games and they would not give the ROMs, they wouldn’t give the games to Williams until they were done. Whereas working in-house we didn’t have that kind of freedom. They would say “This is good enough,” and so one of the problems with Sinistar was that we felt we didn’t have time to tune it and make the progression of difficulty and all that the way we would have liked to. We had a vision of having even more of a story arc in it instead of just a wave of: try to survive, destroy the Sinistar, then it starts over again.
AM: Huh, that’s interesting. So, it sounds like a lot of what made developing Defender quite exciting sort of left almost immediately as far as the Williams management environment was concerned because it sounds like for Defender you just were told “go do something” and you got to experiment.
SD: Yeah, and there was tremendous … but again there was a lot of pressure there, too.
AM: There was still pressure?
SD: In that we had no idea whether people would even like this or not and until the game really came together it was not a lot of fun to play.
AM: So how long were you at Williams, then?
SD: So, I started at Williams in I think late seventy-nine and Defender—Defender came out in late eighty and I was there until I think the spring of eighty-three.
AM: Okay, producing more of these other games. And then what made you leave?
SD: Sinistar came—was done in I think it was eighty-two, and that was right when the industry was going through a big slump because pretty much every place where you could put a coin-op game already had one. I mean they were now in every convenience store; they were in every bar …
AM: Car washes ...
SD: Yeah, all over the place. And they were still expensive, but the operators of the machines were looking for cheap conversion kits [so] that they could turn it into another game without having to buy a whole new cabinet. And so, in the meantime all the game companies had ramped up their R&D departments for this huge boom; so the industry went through a huge contraction at that time, and at the same time the Atari 2600 had come out and people were—even though obviously the graphics were vastly inferior and the sound was vastly inferior. It was vastly inferior hardware …
AM: But it was still something at home.
SD: It was something at home you didn’t have to go there and spend all your quarters on, and so I knew that the future was in these. Was not in coin-op, was in these home game systems. But at the same time, I didn’t like … I hated the hardware for the 2600, it was so …
SD: So limiting compared to what I was used to. I mean we had as much comput[ing] power on our sound card as they had in that system. At the same time, I wanted to do something really fun in games and something exciting, and what happened in eighty-three was I had just gotten married, and I decided when we go on our honeymoon we’d go to California and I kinda combined a honeymoon with job hunting. We started down in Southern California and just drove up the coast and I did a couple job interviews while I was in Southern California and in the Bay Area, and one of the companies that I interviewed with was Amiga.
AM: Oh! Really?
SD: Yeah, and Amiga at that time was this secret, very secretive company developing a computer that was going to be the Apple killer. That was our vision. And I thought this would be the ultimate game machine for the home.
AM: I see, because it was something at home and it was going to be powerful, unlike the Atari.
SD: Way more powerful than the Williams hardware, and it was something at home. And so, I took a job there as their head of entertainment software.
SD: And it wasn’t a really good fit for me.
SD: Well, I mean, because I like writing code. I didn’t want to manage projects.
AM: I see, right, they actually wanted you to step away from the computer.
SD: And they wanted me to work with third-party developers and get content, but also write libraries that could support games—graphics, sound, all that stuff—and so I focused on writing their sound manager, doing their sound stuff. They already had some graphics people, or a couple graphics people. But I wasn’t terribly interested in being on the phone all day trying to talk developers into why they should make games for this platform that doesn’t yet exist. And, though it’s really cool, they were like “can we afford to invest our time and resources in writing” because the hardware was so far advanced of everything else that was out there that they wouldn’t … it’s not like they could just write a game that would run on the Apple and on the Atari 400 and whatever and also the Amiga. We wanted them to write games that would exploit the capabilities of the Amiga.
AM: But it required them to essentially place a bet on it.
SD: Exactly, and it was really hard to do and unfortunately it ended up being the demise of the Amiga that we never got as much content. If we had gotten all the content developers to make a lot of Amiga stuff early on, Amiga would have been more successful.
AM: Right. Everyone buys it up because there’s content now and then you can really get to experiment with the platform.
SD: I mean we had a couple really cool advanced products that no one had ever seen, like our paint program was way ahead of what else was out there. And a lot of small developers and garage shops made cool games later on for the Amiga, but it never really caught on like we hoped it would. I actually didn’t stay after the Amiga came out. Commodore made some really bad decisions, including letting me go, I thought, so I was only there until eighty-six. Amiga came out in … the Amiga launched in eighty-five, year after the original Apple Mac came out; a year later the Amiga came out and then I left in eighty-six, and actually went to work for Apple.
AM: Oh. [laughter] Okay.
SD: But not to work on the Mac. I worked in their advanced technology group working on future stuff, which is a fun, really fun place to be.
AM: Well, it sounds like you always managed to be on the cusp of these things.
SD: Yeah, yeah.
AM: Which must have been quite exciting.
SD: And even am today, working at Magic Leap I think I’m on the cusp of, what do you call it … I’ve always tried to work on what’s interesting to me, which is usually the next big thing.
AM: We’re pretty much at the end of my list of questions this round. I don’t intend to keep you long.
SD: Okay, I love to share this, and I am committed to preserving the history, so you know, anything I can do to help.
The author would like to thank Sam Dicker for his time, energy, and willingness to help with the historical research process, from initial interviews to tracking down dates to examining the physical materials associated with his work on Defender and other games. His help and support have been invaluable and are much appreciated.
Thanks also to the staff at The Strong National Museum of Play, whose support helped these interviews come into being.
1. ^ Editorial Correction: In the original publication of this interview, the date was incorrectly identified as November 1, 1980 (Defender was not debuted until November 1980). Williams held an annual "A Night at the Ritz" event, which Sam Dicker attended in both 1980 and 1981. The correction was made September 9, 2022.
2. ^ While the presentation—“The Story of Defender”—was not officially recorded, YouTube user orion1052003 kindly took and shared a recording of the full panel. See orion1052003, “The Story of Defender Part 1,” July 15, 2014, video, 13:01, https://youtu.be/9HPjuW58aLU.