Fred Thorlin: The Big Boss at Atari Program Exchange

Interviewed by Kevin Savetz, April 2000

Fred Thorlin was Director of APX -- the Atari Program Exchange -- from 1982 through 1984.

Was running APX an office job within Atari? Full-time or something you did on the side?

It was a full time job. When I joined Atari my first task was to set up a contract with Bill Gates to do a Microsoft BASIC for the Atari. I had dealt with him previously when I was at Texas Instruments. Software product acquisition and development was always my task.

At APX, my focus shifted from mainline products developed under contract, to user developed programs developed out of zeal. People would do fantastic things just out of artistic drive, e.g. Dandy, the Koons and Prag titles, and Caverns of Mars. It grew from just Dale Yocam pursuing development tools to a staff of 50-plus providing over 100 titles to retailers and end users. If you only worked full-time you didn't fit in at APX. It was exciting.

What was your favorite APX program?

I had a lot of favorites. So many of them I have not seen anything as good on the PC or Mac. The spectrum of titles was so wide it is hard to say there was one favorite. Did I favor AlgiCalc over Getaway!? They had nothing in common and were each great. It is also a bit like picking my favorite child.

Dog Daze was probably the most fun, although I probably spent more time playing Getaway! and Caverns of Mars/Phobos. And more time staring at HexaBug. I was awed by all of the Koons and Prag titles. There was a bowling game that I was hooked on for a while. It involved organizing numbers and operators to come up with a particular value.

I hold a special affection for Eastern Front and De Re Atari, both by Chris Crawford. They paid the bills, i.e. were our biggest sellers.

There are several APX titles which I have been disappointed never were migrated to the PC. The quality of some of APX's titles were, and remain, superior and remarkable. For example, I would like to see a PC version of Dog Daze and Getaway! someday.

Do you have any stories about particularly weird or bad program submissions?

If they were bad I would rarely get to see them. There were up to six people working in APX who I thought had the best jobs in the world. Their task was to open the submissions and decide who to publish, who to trash and who to encourage. Every day was Christmas. Rarely would a dog slip past them. And those that did were quickly put out of their misery when we invited outsiders in to judge our quarterly contests.

Dandy was interesting. The author, Jack Palevich, worked on it while he was at MIT. The program quickly passed review as it was well done and fun to play. By the way, it later appeared as an Atari arcade game, I forget its name. I got to playing it one evening and thought there was something strange about the shape of the walls on one level. It turned out they spelled a popular undergraduate acronym that might not be appropriate in a family setting. I pointed this out to Jack and he changed the walls.

Galahad and the Holy Grail, written by Doug Crockford, contained some rather risque scenes when it was initially submitted. Palevich and Crockford both eventually worked for Atari.

Caverns of Mars came in as an APX submission. A smart mocking-bird could see this was an industrial strength game. It was received by APX in the morning mail. I saw it at 10:30. We showed it to the president of the company just after lunch. It was not a tough decision for him. Legal got in touch with Greg Christensen in short order. The young man, I think he was a community college freshman, suddenly had a bunch of money inflicted upon him. I was never certain whether he benefited from that in the long run or not.

How many submissions would you estimate APX received each week? What percentage made it into the catalog?

At first almost every submission was accepted. As the number of submissions grew, the acceptance rate dropped to well under 10%, as I recall. Dogs, old and new, got culled on the basis of sales and better products coming along.

How much hand-holding did APX give the contributors? If a program was marginal but had potential, would staffers help the programmer through the process of bug-fixes, adding features, and so on?

We never touched code. It was always a temptation, but forbidden. And a good rule for many reasons.

Did you program the 8-bit yourself?

I did BASIC and assembler mostly. Some Forth just to become familiar with the language. I had one truly techie title in the catalogue [Microsoft BASIC Cross-Reference Utility] It had something to do with optimizing BASIC programs -- I actually collected some royalties on it. Enough to buy a pizza.

What do you do for a living these days?

I now work as a software consultant in Houston, Texas and run the local Visual Basic professional programmers organization.

Do you still use an Atari?

I abandoned mine when the disk drive failed. I miss some of those programs still.

How long did you work at Atari?

Three years. When I left I tried to buy APX.

What were the circumstances of your trying to buy APX? Why did Atari close it down?

They had a $2+ billion dollar problem. Even though I raised an appropriate amount of money to buy it, I couldn't get their attention. Later on the Tramiels offered it to me at a huge price in gross disarray.

You said that you negotiated with Bill Gates. Did you deal with him directly?

Yes. We are still on a first-name basis as I occasionally deal with him on other bases.

So, you must have a Bill Gates story. Everyone who has, does.

At one point I got him to commit to speak at a user group in Houston I organized meetings for. It was the Tuesday after the OS/2 announcement. He almost felt he was wasting his time. I brought him into the building through the back. After an amazing interview with a non-tech reporter I took him for a peek at the audience. I had 2600 people there! He suddenly took it seriously, worked up an outline of his remarks, and gave a great presentation while standing on one foot.

Another time in Alberqueue I showed him a simple game which you could play in well under a minute. I beat him about 35 out of 37 efforts. I came back a month later, he won or tied every game. He had studied the game until he solved it. That is a competitor.

Is there anything else about your days at Atari or APX that the world needs to know? Any more stories?

APX had monthly meetings which included catered lunches when times were booming. There were rebellions, from which I still have memorabilia. My story in the book "Hackers" [by Steven Levy] was not atypical.

Sorting out the good guys from the bad was very hard to do as the rules of the business were just being formulated. One summer Steve Ross's son (Steve Ross was president of Warner Communications, which owned Atari) worked at APX. That made for an interesting afternoon when he visited one day.

There is no end to the stories. I have seen several books on the Atari experience. Only the more bizarre stories are true. It was a surreal experience.

Update on 19 March 2021:

21 years after the initial interview, after a few people had asked about the game Fred played with Bill Gates, I emailed Fred to ask exactly what the game was. Here's his reply.

The game is known to me as "The Little Game."

You play it on a 4x5 grid.

Each player, X and Y, gets four markers; we used coins, e.g., nickles versus dimes.

Following is the initial position:


Turns alternate. Each player makes one move on his turn.

He must move one of his markers one space horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally.

The object is to get three of your markers lined up horizontally or vertically, or diagonally.

The games are pretty brief.

A friend of mine had proven what the first move had to be.

On our first meeting, Bill won a very small percentage of the time.

I beat him frequently.

I returned a month later.

Bill had done some homework in the interim.

He had figured out the second move.

There were very few wins.

He is a competitor.

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