Atari Features GDC Paperboy tech

John Salwitz on the making of Atari’s Paperboy

Paperboy Arcade Cabinet

In his retrospective finally month’s Recreation Developers Conference, John Salwitz seemed again on the creation of coin-op basic, Paperboy, and dealing for Atari in the 1980s.

John Salwitz joined Atari in 1981 as a programmer, spending ten years with the corporate and working on games including 720º and Klax. A lot of this work was alongside artist and designer, Dave Ralston. It was, he says, probably the greatest jobs he ever had.

“We labored at one of the few centres of online game making on Earth. And the games have been all made within spitting distance of one another. You can, and would, repeatedly walk out of your lab and go to an adjacent lab to play any person else’s recreation,” recollects Salwitz.


“This was an incredibly artistic environment and you may study what it will take in your recreation to achieve success, and admittedly get just a little intimidated in the process. I beloved it.”

One of the first titles Salwitz and Ralston worked on collectively was an unreleased arcade recreation referred to as Akka Arrh. Following a poor area check – where the game was outshone by Eugene Jarvis’ Robotron, Salwitz thought his time at Atari may be up. Nevertheless, Atari government, Dan Van Elderen, as an alternative stated: “Nice attempt for a bunch of rookies. What are you going to do next?”

It was Ralston who first originated the thought for Paperboy, arising with the concept during one in every of Atari’s common brainstorming periods in 1983.

“Dave confirmed us this idea for a child driving down a road, delivering papers on a single transparency for an overhead projector,” Salwitz remembers.

On the finish of the presentation, Ralston was awarded three ‘attaboys’ from the Atari management. Reward certainly, and an unofficial nod to develop the idea additional.

Salwitz was initially reluctant to work on the sport – preferring the likes of Missile Command or Asteroids – however he came round to the thought and joined the event workforce.

“At Atari, to get a recreation started formally, you needed to survive what was referred to as an initiation meeting,” Salwitz says.

“You’d present a thin recreation description, some concept of your hardware, and perhaps a schedule.”

Based mostly on this more detailed presentation, Paperboy was shortly permitted, and improvement started virtually instantly.

Hardware and perspective

Paperboy’s hardware was designed another long-time collaborator, hardware engineer Doug Snyder. Linda Sinkovic joined the group as technician, and worked with Snyder to debug and improve the arcade hardware all through improvement.

“A technician again then was just as much a part of your workforce as a construct engineer now,” says Salwitz.

“Sadly, and to not the credit score of Atari, Linda was laid-off not as soon as, however twice through the improvement of Paperboy. She was, nevertheless, absolutely instrumental within the making of the game.”

On the heart of that hardware – which later turned often known as the Atari System II – was the DEC T-11 microprocessor. It was principally a PDP 11 on a chip, and after working with the 8-bit 6502 microprocessor, it was a big step up for Salwitz.

Considered one of Paperboy’s largest innovations was in its show know-how. At the time, typical raster-based arcade games have been displayed at a decision of 320×240 pixels. Doug Snyder developed a brand new ‘medium resolution’ monitor that would show 512×384 pixels.

“I suppose, compared to high-definition, and positively to 4K, that is downright quaint, however to us on the time it was awesome,” says Salwitz.

This innovation prolonged to the sport’s control scheme. Atari typically pressed its improvement groups to check out new ideas for its arcade games, and Paperboy was no exception with its distinctive bicycle handlebars.

The ancestry of the controller might be traced again to via 1983’s Star Wars, Atari’s Bradley Trainer army challenge, and Battlezone. The truth is, the Star Wars yoke controller – with a pair of pink handlebars glued on – was used for the preliminary hardware prototypes.

“Via this controller, we have been capable of show that you would management the motion of a child driving down the street,” Salwitz says.

“The most important iteration was the ever-shrinking width of the handlebars. This was because you might apply an unlimited amount of torque on the controller via the handlebars.”

There was also a problem with a few of the buttons not being visible to gamers of a shorter stature, akin to youngsters. This resulted in some individuals enjoying the sport without ever throwing a information paper. Not a really perfect state of affairs for a recreation referred to as Paperboy.

“This we fastened by putting the Begin buttons on the controller itself, so that at the least you had to discover the button to start out the sport,” says Salwitz


Paperboy’s distinctive isometric design was impressed by one other arcade recreation, Sega’s Zaxxon. Nevertheless, vital modifications had to be made for this format to work.

“Zaxxon introduced us with a bit of a problem as a result of it’s a 60-degree isometric perspective,” explains Salwitz.

“First, it made scrolling for us more difficult because we have been scrolling at an odd angle to the play area hardware. That meant drawing was much more difficult for us. Additionally, it meant that we might be displaying just as a lot of the edges of the houses as we have been of the entrance of the homes. The edges usually are not playable surfaces so it was a waste of display real-estate.

Finally, the handlebar controllers sat at an unintuitive angle for gamers, which means that for those who pushed the controller forward, the 60-degree angle of the paperboy on-screen felt unnatural. The answer was to adjust the angle slightly.

“We crushed the X-axis and introduced down the horizontal, parallel to the bottom of the display, and in addition to the top of the display. This solved few problems for us,” Salwitz says.

This made the controller parallel to the entrance of the houses, and the child was now only 45 agrees off-angle. It felt higher, and it additionally made it easier to purpose newspapers.

Paperboy Arcade Flyer

Prototypes and patterns

The preliminary prototypes featured a much stranger forged of characters than these within the ultimate product. Road visitors included rolling pianos and boats. There have been ginormous snails within the yards of houses, and ducks in business suits on the sidewalks. The response from early focus teams to these designs was not constructive.

“It did not go nicely,” recollects Salwitz. “We’d constructed a recreation that didn’t resonate with the gamers because the truth we created was unreal. We have been, in fact, mortified.”

Things changed with the arrival of product advertising lead, Don Traeger, and new venture lead, Russell Dawe. Traeger made the staff concentrate on the few constructive comments from the main target group, and Dawe energised the workforce from a leadership perspective, says Salwitz.

“He instantly injected positiveness, organisation, brainstorming, and was principally the jolt of power our group needed.”

The forged of characters was changed to develop into heightened versions of people you may see in actual life, though Dying and the Wolfman have been among the more abstract characters to flee the cull.

The road play subject was additionally reworked because of the main target group.

“Up thus far we had constructed the street home by house, however this was not going to scale,” says Salwitz.

“Dave’s answer was to construct two five-foot long foam storyboards, and to transfer the road drawings of our inventory of homes to these storyboards. He then put a plastic sheet on prime of that so we might draw the characters, obstacles, the paper bundles, the paths of the objects, and triggers – something that you’d work together with on the road.”

The development workforce then spent a sunny Saturday afternoon outdoors in the atrium of Atari’s office, planning and creating the sport.

“Both Dave and I keep in mind this as being one of the nice artistic days in our careers,” Salwitz says.


The ultimate recreation features 60 distinct road addresses made up from 11 base house designs. This is achieved by altering and reusing numerous belongings akin to doorways and windows. For instance, the primary house you see on Straightforward Road is within the recreation six occasions with delicate modifications.


“As with all video games in these days, we had an issue. ROMs have been costly, and we have been operating out of area,“ says Salwitz. “The good news is that Paperboy is essentially a pattern-learning recreation, and giving players familiarity by seeing the identical house designs was really not a nasty factor.”

The sport was also revolutionary – notably for an arcade title – in the best way that it gave gamers a easy moral selection.

“A byproduct of these recreation techniques gave the player a selection between good and, nicely, evil. We never did really think of the boy as a hooligan, however you did have a selection,” explains Salwitz.

“You possibly can spend your recreation trashing each house on the street, and just save one, or you can concentrate on being the most effective paper-deliverer attainable.”

Production and ports

Crunch is a well known drawback with trendy recreation improvement, however in the mid-1980’s it was just as a lot part of the method. Salwitz says that he worked seven days every week for eight weeks straight to finish the game.

“In the long run, us putting this recreation collectively was a labour of love,“ he says.

In 1985, a area check offered sufficient reassurance of Paperboy’s earning resilience to convince Atari’s management to mass produce the sport. Around 3500 models have been produced at a price of $2500 every.

Seeing Paperboy in production gave Salwitz an unlimited sense of satisfaction, regardless of a couple of bugs that have been discovered just after the first batch of models have been distributed.

“I can’t inform you how ridiculously fantastic and singular expertise it’s as a recreation maker to see your recreation on a producing line,” Salwitz says.


Salwitz additionally touched on the Nintendo Leisure System version of Paperboy.

“In every affordable, unbiased, quantifiable, measure, the Atari System II crushes the NES,” he says. “It has more bits, it has more velocity, it has more pixels, it has more RAM, it has more ROM. Hell, we had a customized controller, a stupendous medium decision monitor, speakers and all the things. Each single metric except one.”

And that metric was sales. When Tengan and Mindscape ported Paperboy to the NES in 1988 it bought over two million copies. Its success was a concrete signal of how the nature of video games was rapidly altering.

“Obviously, we have been all very glad of this. We have been very excited, frankly, and fairly blown away. It took me personally, years and years after this, to ever realise that the days of the arcades have been numbered.”

Since then, the sport has been ported to a number of methods, together with, much to Salwitz’s amusement, a handheld version from Grandstand.

“Until your recreation has been ported as an LCD online game, you haven’t actually made it!”

Arcade cabinet picture: Video Amusement
Screenshots: Fatherjack by way of Moby Games