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Wacky Wednesday: Attention to Detail vs. Atari

Attention to Detail Ltd., born in Warwickshire, closed their doors in 2003 but not before leaving behind a fairly impressive legacy. Founded in 1988 by five university graduates keen to do something which could both entertain them and provide money for a sizable curry budget, their break came when Atari tapped them to do work on the Atari ST port of the arcade hit Super Sprint. After proving themselves to Atari’s satisfaction, LucasArts wanted a word with the bad boys of ATD, and so began the rise of this great development team. Of course every rising star has their stumbling block, but few of them dodge their way through the obstacle course as hilariously as ATD when it came to developing for Atari’s ill-fated Jaguar.

Night Shift

After programming the eclectic puzzler Night Shift for LucasArts, Attention to Detail was given the honor of creating Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Sort of.

There were actually two editions of this Indy title that hit store shelves. The classic point-and-click adventure title was developed in-house by LucasFilm Games, but the company thought they might alienate a segment of gamers more interested in whip-crackin’ Indiana Jones than puzzle-solvin’ Indiana Jones. Attention to Detail won responsibility for making Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis: The Action Game and, uh, let’s just say there are several good reasons why nobody reminisces about it fondly the way they do about its non-action-y brother.

Fate of Atlantis

Undeterred by this, ATD returned to working with Atari and I returned to the whole point of this article. One of the things ATD was interested in was 3D game creation, a genre still in diapers in the early 1990s. Atari was looking to rectify this with the release of the Jaguar, a system which was (at least on paper) exponentially more powerful than any 16-bit system on the market. Atari granted Attention to Detail’s wish and put them in charge of developing Cybermorph, a 3D shooter resembling Nintendo’s StarFox, but with bigger polygon counts, more stuff happening on-screen, spoken audio, and even some full-motion video sequences all squeezed on to a 2 megabyte ROM chip. It may look simple and outdated today, but when the console was unveiled in 1993, Cybermorph was impressive as hell. It was clear Atari’s machine blew away both Sega and Nintendo’s systems.

It was also clear to Atari that 2MB ROM carts were expensive. Cybermorph was the pack-in game for the system, and that meant manufacturing an awful lot of two-meg ROMs. With Atari’s success not guaranteed and the system not flooding homes the way they had hoped, Atari started looking for ways to cut costs and it didn’t take long for them to settle on Attention to Detail’s game. “You have a great game here,” Atari told ATD. “We just need you to make it a little bit smaller.”

“No problem,” Attention to Detail replied. “How much smaller?”

“Fifty percent,” said Atari.

100 times more powerful…50% less storage space.

With 1MB ROMs substantially less expensive to manufacture than their 2MB counterparts, they could replace the original version of Cybermorph with a cheaper edition which they could also bring out for retail sale, recouping some of the costs and putting another game on store shelves. “But it still needs to look, sound, and play the same as the 2MB original. And it has to be done, like, right now.”

“Right…” said ATD, no doubt wondering what they’d done to deserve this. “You’ll pay us, of course?”

“Of course,” Atari agreed. “How does $5,000 sound?”

To you and me, five grand might seem a princely sum to compress down a video game. To ATD, on the other hand, who had grown substantially larger than the five-man team they were when fresh out of college, this was akin to someone unexpectedly socking you in the crotch then sprinkling some loose change on your writhing form as compensation for allowing them to forcibly caress your genitals. Nevertheless, ATD agreed to Atari’s request, and delivered both the new code and the bill: $2,500 per hour for two hours’ worth of work. In less time than it takes most people to cook and eat dinner, Attention to Detail tore their game apart, stripped out some voice samples, removed a couple of minor FMV sequences from the opening and ending, lowered the graphical resolution in a few areas that wouldn’t be noticed, and recompiled a working piece of software. That’s the most ridiculously expensive video game billable hours report we’ve ever uncovered in our research, not to mention an epic way of giving your boss the finger.

What’s best about all this is that Atari either didn’t get the joke or didn’t care, because when they released the Jaguar CD add-on, they turned to Attention to Detail studios to provide Battlemorph, a sequel to Cybermorph that would entice people to upgrade. It didn’t work, the Jaguar still failed, but Attention to Detail went on to make software for the PC, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2 into the 21st century, and enjoyed working with licenses from the likes of Lego and the Olympics. But in my opinion, ATD should forever be remembered as the guys who kicked back when Atari pulled the rug out from under them and got paid for doing so. Not bad for a studio that, at its peak, employed 75 people and operated out of 12,000 square feet worth of barns in the UK countryside. It’s doubly amusing when you realize Atari kept running ads like this in the gaming mags of the day. But that’s just the way things go on these here Wacky Wednesdays.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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