Today's 'Playing Catch-Up', a regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to Dan Kramer, the former Atari engineer who brought the trackball home and, over twenty years later, wants to bring it back.
Kramer was hired into the Atari engineering department in 1980, for a position he described as “command center drone,” which primarily consisted of the exciting proposition of monitoring data output from the Atari 800 computer system disc drive. Later that year, he would have a hand in designing the little-known Atari 2700 which was, essentially, a redesigned Atari 2600 console with controllers that featured a standard joystick that also rotated 270 degrees to cross-function as a paddle, but was never put into production.
In 1982, while putting design work into the Japanese-exclusive Atari 2800 (another redesigned Atari 2600), an original Missle Command
arcade machine made its way downstairs to the engineering department, where Kramer spent most of his work day and, indeed, his off-time as well. Kramer found himself instantly captivated by the game’s trackball controller. Here, then, was a device that allowed instant and spontaneous reaction in any direction, combining the best features of both the joystick and the paddle. On top of his normal duties, purely as a hobby, Kramer began retooling the arcade trackball for use with Atari’s home consoles and computers.
“As long as we got our assigned chores done,” he recalls, “there was no one breathing down our necks. I just kept fiddling with it, and eventually everyone around me was going, ‘Gee, they’re a bunch of idiots for not doing anything with this!’” Later that year, the follow-up to the Atari 2600, the Atari 5200, was close to launch, but, though impressive in both hardware specifications and software lineup, didn’t have much in the way of accessories. And so it was that Kramer, whose self-made trackball prototypes were being passed around among engineers and game developers alike, found himself creating The Atari 5200 Pro-Line Trak-Ball Controller as Senior Design Engineer, a peripheral still regarded as one of the most responsive and well-built home videogame controllers ever sold. Though exact sales figures are unknown, Kramer recalls generally positive reports for its first production run. Unfortunately, due to the infamous video game crash of the early '80s, a second run was never initiated. Though Kramer survived Atari's massive layoffs, he found himself in an empty, foreign world. Almost all of his friends and colleagues were gone, taking with them the fun, creative atmosphere Kramer came to love. And so, though he still regards his time at Atari as the best job he’s ever had, Kramer resigned in 1984, and took a job at Harris Video Systems, aiding in the design of video equipment for five years before being laid off.
Following this was a brief stint at a medical supply company called Abaxis, where Kramer organized their entire hardware engineering department and designed medical equipment. In 1994, Kramer took a job at Media Visions, a major competitor to Creative Labs at the time. Sensing the company’s demise, and tired of seeing history repeat itself, Kramer secretly laid the groundwork for his escape from Silicon Valley for the final six months of his employment. He purchased a home in the Sierra Foothills and established his own corporate identity, DK Enterprises, and spent 1994 through 1998 privately repairing arcade and pinball machines.
Kramer was re-integrated into the videogame industry in 1998 when Jerry Jessop, a Hardware Licensing Supervisor for Sony and former co-worker of Kramer’s during the Atari days, hooked him up with Nyko and Nuby. Kramer worked as a design consultant for a while, most notably involved in the development of the Worm Light for the Game Boy Advance. “I got this phone call in February of 2003, from a guy who said he ran across my résumé on the internet, said Kramer. “He said, ‘My partner and I are looking for someone connected in the industry and with experience to design product I had in mind. We want to start a company and make you a partial manager.” And so Kramer co-founded White Fusion
, and began working on what’s called Reflex Control, a unique controller for the PlayStation 2 that replaces the right analogue stick with – you guessed it – a miniature trackball. The controller is designed specifically with first-person-shooters such as Half-Life
and Unreal Tournament
in mind. “There is no such thing as a universal controller,” Kramer insists.
“Our current model right now is to get controller support embedded in future software,” said Kramer. “The funds for White Fusion are coming straight from us,” says the very enthusiastic Kramer, who has resorted to a sales position at Radio Shack to feed his family. “We’d love to do it for the Xbox also, but we just don’t have that kind of funding or manpower yet.” Though no concrete deals have been struck yet, White Fusion are in talks with several developers, and hope to be able to launch their product soon.
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]