The ultimate laptop: retro modern ThinkPad

Lenovo started listening to years of ThinkPad fans griping yesterday.

Ars Technica picked up the story, and people are discussing it, really exited about the idea.

Yesterday I talked about what would make the perfect keyboard for my dream laptop.

Today I’ll talk about the features that I’d love to see on a new ThinkPad that harkens back to the best days of the product line.

Screen

  1. 15.4″ (but by all means, produce a full line of different sized ThinkPads with different screen sizes: 11″, 13″, 15″, 17″…)
  2. 16:10 aspect ratio — this is a MUST
  3. 10-bit IPS panel with at least up to 3K resolution
  4. glare-free matte surface, not glossy.
  5. not a touch screen (but I’m ok if it’s a configuration option at purchase)

Chassis

  1. Rugged, metal frame — aluminum, magnesium, or titanium
  2. Rubberized black paint finish
  3. Easy to work on. Repairing/replacing or upgrading the keyboard, RAM, and hard drive should be as easy as they were on the T61p.
  4. RAM slots sufficient to support at least 32GB of RAM
  5. Support ultrabay hard drive carrier
  6. Door/sliding cover for webcam for paranoid folks
  7. Sliding latch to securely hold lid closed
  8. Weight and thickness not primary concern, should not constrain design or compromise durability or features.
  9. Removable battery with sufficient capacity to run laptop for at least 12 hours of heavy, active use, on a charge — 18 hours would be even better. Yeah, a big bulky heavy battery. What good is the ultimate laptop if you can’t use it because it’s out of juice?

Ports

  1. Modern everything. HDMI-out or Display Port out instead of VGA. USB 3.0 slots (at least four of those).
  2. Gigabit ethernet (of course).
  3. Optional for SD card reader slot
  4. Full size slots, nothing proprietary or minimized for space

The Best Laptop Keyboard Yet Devised By Humankind

Laptop ergonomics are always a compromise. If you put in long hours on a laptop, you know how important comfort and usability are to productivity. So getting the best possible ergonomics given the constraints imposed by the design requirements is extremely important.

It seems many hardware design engineers have forgotten this. The quest for thinner, lighter, cheaper seems to have overshadowed comfort and usability, durability and ruggedness. With each passing hardware generation, we see the same refrain: “The new keyboard is not so bad, once you get used to it.” If we have to get used to a “not-so-bad” keyboard with every generation, doesn’t that suggest that they’re getting worse over time?

And yet, the keyboard is the one component of a laptop that you have the least configuration options for. There are no choices, no upgrades; the keyboard is the keyboard, and you get whatever the manufacturer designed. That means it’s all the more critical that manufacturers give their customers the best possible keyboard.

What if manufacturers gave us keyboards that didn’t take “getting used to”, but felt fantastically comfortable from the moment you used them?

Without a doubt, the best keyboard I have ever seen or used on a laptop has been the keyboard of my Lenovo ThinkPad T61p. It’s no secret, and everyone who’s used one knows how good they are and how far short any other laptop keyboard compares. This keyboard is so good that I’ve continued to use my T61p originally purchased in 2007. After my original T61p died this January, I shopped around looking at the new ThinkPads… and after looking at what was available, I went to eBay and bought myself another T61p.

I won’t be able to do that forever. Already, I feel a need for a machine that can support more than 8GB of RAM, and the new Core i7 CPUs are so much faster than my by-no-means inadequate 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo. And the battery life we see with the current generation of Ultrabooks in 2015 is impressive.

Will we ever see a return to the keyboards of yore? It wish that it was not in doubt. But I have hope. It appears that Lenovo has finally responded to customer feedback, when this Spring bringing back the old style trackpads with physical buttons that had disappeared with the 540 generation. And today, it appears that they are actively soliciting fans of the old ThinkPad brand to ask them what features made the old ThinkPad so legendary. And they updated the X1 Carbon with a more standard keyboard layout in response to complaints and criticism over a senseless radical departure from the norm. Perhaps we’ll glimpse perfection again someday.

To be sure, we will not if we fail to recognize the things that made the best keyboard so great.

Close to perfection

Behold, The T61p keyboard in all its beauty.

T61 keyboard - crop

Let’s take a look at what makes this keyboard so great.

The Good

Full-size keys, spaced the correct distance apart. This makes typing for long periods of time less tiresome, especially for people with larger hands.

Scissor Switch technology allows for longer travel for a laptop keyboard, which is more comfortable than “chiclet” keys. It’s not a full height keyboard like you’d find on a desktop class machine, but it’s very close, giving it a good feel and making it more comfortable again for long typing sessions.

The layout of the non-standard keys is ideal.

It’s important to appreciate how critical the placement of these keys is. Let’s look at them in detail.

A full row of Function Keys, F1-F12. In many newer layouts, this row is eliminated and the F-keys are combined with other keys. This makes compound keystrokes impossible if the F-key needs to be pressed at the same time as the key it is combined with. That’s probably pretty rare, but it is still nice to have this row of keys to themselves. I think keyboard designers eliminated this row in order to make room for larger trackpads. I don’t like large trackpads for a few reasons, which we’ll get into in the Trackpad section.

A full row of real F-keys

The arrow key cluster. Most importantly, the arrow keys are arranged in a T. Many keyboards save a key by squishing the up and down arrow keys into the space of a single key, putting all four arrow keys in a line, but making up and down half sized makes controlling games that use the arrow keys way harder.

The other important thing about this cluster is the presence of the “Previous page” and “Next Page” buttons to either side of the up arrow. These are often replaced with “Pg Up and Pg Dn” buttons. I like “previous” and “next” here because it makes navigating web pages with this cluster very fast. I don’t have to move my fingers at all and I can scroll and hit the Back button or Forward button in a web browser. It’s very convenient, and I really miss it whenever I have to use a keyboard that doesn’t have this layout.Arrow Keys + Fwd-Bck buttons = awesome document & browser navigationThe Insert|Delete|Home|End|PgUp|PgDn cluster. I really like these where they are, too. Home and End and PgUp and PgDn go very naturally together. These are navigational shortcuts and are a great alternative to scrolling with the mouse wheel, and for moving the cursor when text editing. Insert and Delete change the cursor mode, Home and End can take you to the beginning or end of a line of text, while Ctrl+Home or Ctrl+End will take you to the beginning or end of the entire file. Pg Up and Pg Dn are better for scrolling than the mouse is, moving an entire window height up or down at a single keystroke. Clustering them in this arrangement makes for very intuitive and quick document navigation using the cursor, and enables me to be much more productive when working in text files or reading than if I have to move my hand to the trackpad or mouse.

Insert-Delete-Home-End-PgUp-PgDn = logical layout perfection

Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. These don’t get used a whole lot by most people. I use Print Screen all the time, but the other two hardly at all. Putting them up here out of the way works.

PrScnSysRq-ScrLkNumLock-PauseBreak

While we’re looking at this group, note the power button (the circular button at left.) While not part of the keyboard, proper, I will remark that I found the power button difficult to find by touch. If I’m fumbling around in the dark, it’s easier to find the ThinkVantage key, which feels more like I’d expect the power button to feel like. So, one thing I could recommend is change the power button, locating it closer to a corner of the keyboard, and give it a shape and feel more befitting a power button.

Keycaps shape and feel

All the keys are just shaped right. These keycaps are close to what old IBM Selectric typewriters and Model M keyboards felt like, and those were some of the best keyboards ever manufactured
The best type of keys for a laptop

The Enter key isn’t L-shaped, leaving room for the \| key directly above. The \| key doesn’t really have a reason to be larger, but it keeps symmetry with the Tab key on the left side, and helps a touch typist feel this edge of the keyboard. Esc isn’t double-sized, as it is on some later model Lenovo keyboards — I think making it the size of the Ctrl key, slightly larger than the standard key, would make it easier to find by touch. Ctrl is slightly wider than standard, but I like that, although it would be better if Ctrl were in the position occupied by Fn, where it belongs. Backspace is another good key to be larger than standard, as it is used frequently by most, and this makes it easier to find in the top right corner.

Nitpicks

Fn/Ctrl positions should be swapped

On most keyboards, the Fn key is nested between the Ctrl and Windows keys. On the T61p layout, this is reversed. There’s no reason for it, and it’s one of the most common complaints about the T61 layout. In fact, there are even third party firmware hacks to remap the keys into their preferred positions: Ctrl outside, Fn to the right. In the ideal keyboard layout, Ctrl should go first.

switch Ctrl-Fn positions

Controversial items

10-Key or not 10-Key?

Many wider-screened laptops now have 10-key keyboards these days, much like 104-key extended keyboards do on desktops. This forces the main keyboard off-center with respect to the screen. Thankfully, the trackpad is still centered under the space bar, keeping it directly between the hands on most laptops with extended keyboards that incorporate a 10-key pad. But typing on the QWERTY keyboard, with the hands offset relative to the screen is less comfortable. The extra keys of the 10-key pad add to the complexity and cost of the keyboard.

Most users don’t need a 10-key pad, and can live without. Unless you’re doing heavy numerical data entry, they don’t add a lot of value. You could always buy a USB 10-key pad as a peripheral and use that if you needed one. Before laptops started sporting 10-key pads on the right of the main keyboard, they used to use the Fn key to use the right half of the keyboard as a sort of slanted 10-key option. I’ve never bothered switching into this mode, and don’t miss a 10-key pad. So, my preference would be for a regular QWERTY keyboard, without a 10-key pad, and the QWERTY keyboard and trackpad centered in the laptop chassis.

Still, some people will want 10-key pads and others will not — and the number who do not is not inconsequential. The number of people who can’t live without a 10-key pad is smaller than the number of people who don’t need it. I would prefer not to have a 10-key pad in my ideal laptop. This would be a good item to make a configuration option at time of purchase. Modular, interchangeable keyboard FRUs that have or omit the 10-key pad would be a great solution.

Are backlight keyboards necessary?

Again, some people like them, and some don’t. Illuminated keys can be helpful when typing in low light conditions, but they drain battery and add cost to manufacturing, although probably significantly, since most laptop keyboards seem to use them these days. Most of them have an option to turn the backlight off and adjust the brightness level, and this seems to be the best choice. It enables everyone to be happy

Which type of switches is the best?

This is subjective and people can have their own opinions. These days, there are three main types of keyboard: chiclet, dome, and buckling spring. The T61p keyboard had scissor switches, a type of dome switch. These work and feel great.

I find “chiclet” keys to be fine, I can use a chiclet keyboard without issue, and type fast and with confidence with them, but I still prefer the feel of the scissor switch keys on my T61p. Some people prefer the lower travel of the chiclet key, and manufacturers favor them today because they enable thinner designs. But I really prefer the feel of the full travel key caps, and the scissor switches in the T61p keyboard give a closer approximation of the way full travel keyboards feel.

The biggest disadvantage of the scissor-switch keyboard is that it adds to the overall thickness of the machine, but I really think that thinness is highly overrated. With ultra-thin laptops approaching 0.5 inches, there’s not much room left to go thinner. And plenty of leeyway for making a laptop a little thicker to allow for a better keyboard. The T61p is 1.4 inches thick, and I’ve never once felt that it was an issue. I would much rather have a thicker, heavier laptop that is more rugged and will hold up to years of heavy use, an has more room for expansion or battery, than a ultra thin and light laptop.

Really, though, on the switch type, I could go either way. Chiclet keys feel nice, but for longer typing sessions I like more travel. This is an area where making it a configurable option would be nice. A modular, interchangeable FRU keyboard offering the user their choice of chiclet or scissor switch keys would make everyone happy.

Pointing devices

While we’re at it, let’s look at the pointing devices. First, we have the TrackPoint stick, the red nub. People who use them really love them, and they don’t get in the way of people who don’t. They’re a vital part of the ThinkPad brand and image, and should never be done away with.

Next, we have the touchpad. The touchpad is surrounded top and bottom with phyisical mouse buttons. these are well designed and robust. Positioning them top and bottom is important because it makes them reachable to both the thumb and fingers, regardless of where the hand is positioned on the keyboard or touchpad, which makes using the buttons quicker. We also see a middle mouse button, which is useful for Linux users.

As for the touchpad itself, it is only 2.25 x 1.5 inches — which is great. It is not so large that it becomes an easy target for accidental bumps by the palm of the hand. I never accidentally brush this trackpad with the heel or palm of my hand when typing, which means I never accidentally click the mouse cursor away from where I’m typing. I do have this problem on many newer model laptop keyboards, and it is a huge annoyance.

The touchpad is not multi-touch capable, and that would be a good improvement to add to this design. It does have scroll regions at the right and bottom edge, which are configurable. The touchpad driver is very good, with lots of configuration options to get it to work just how the user prefers.

T61-trackpad

What else?

It’d be great if keyboards were more interchangeable in laptops, across different models and manufacturers. It would take a great effort of the industry to standardize the top half of all laptop chassis to have the same shape and size space for a keyboard. But there’s no reason it couldn’t happen, if manufacturers decided to standardize, or if a manufacturer decided standardize within their own product lines. The computer industry has standardized on other things, so why not a standard to allow laptop keyboards to be more interchangeable between different models and makers? This could spur innovation in improving keyboards, since users would not longer be stuck with whatever the designers engineered — users would be free to upgrade and choose the style and layout that they prefer.

I doubt that it will happen on an industry-wide level, that we’ll be able to buy generic commodity keyboards from any maker and put it into any laptop, but it could happen if the industry decided it wanted to. Even if it didn’t want to, manufactures could standardize more within their own model lines, and offer a greater variety of keycap types and layouts to satisfy the preferences of different customers. I expect the main reasons they don’t have to do with cost,and to some extent integration and aesthetics issues. But these are not insurmountable issues.

For me, a better keyboard is still well worth paying some premium for. A keyboard that doesn’t feel cramped, has a familiar layout for ALL keys, and a satisfying feel, for me, would be something I’d easily pay another $50-100 for, if it were an option to purchase an upgraded keyboard that was just the way I like it.

Mouse Double Click extension for GameMaker Studio provides double-click detection

Mouse Double Click is an Extension that provides two new GML functions, mouse_doubleclick_init() and mouse_check_doubleclick() 

Written in pure GML, these new functions round out the built-in Mouse functions, allowing you to easily check for double-click events.

To use it, first call the mouse_doubleclick_init() function in the Create event for the object that will be handling click actions. This creates an instance variable used to perform timing checks for the double-click, like so:

//Create Event:
mouse_doubleclick_init();

In a Step or Mouse event, call mouse_check_doubleclick(), passing in parameters for the mouse button to test for, and the doubleclick delay in microseconds (1/1,000,000th of a second).

//Mouse Event
mouse_check_doubleclick(mb_left, 250000); //250000 microseconds = 1/4 of a second

mouse_check_doubleclick() will return true if there were two clicks within the duration specified by the second argument, and false if no double click is detected.

That’s all there is to it.

ISP Cox HSI to end unlimited internet service, introduce overflow billing

Today, subscribers to Cox High Speed Internet received the following communication from their ISP:

Dear [Cox Customer],

We spend more time online today than ever before, streaming movies and TV shows, downloading music, sharing photographs and staying connected to friends and family. As Internet and data consumption grows, Cox continues to improve our network to ensure a quality experience for all our customers.

To better support our customers’ expanding online activity, we recently increased the amount of data included in all of our Cox High Speed Internet packages. About 95% of customers are now on a data plan that is well-suited for their household. In the event you use more data than is included in your plan, beginning with bill cycles that start onJune 15th, we will automatically provide additional data for $10 per 50 Gigabyte (GB) block for that usage period. Based on your last 3 months of data usage and our increased data plans, it is unlikely you will need additional data blocks unless your usage increases.

What this means for you
To help our customers get accustomed to this change, we are providing a grace period for 3 consecutive billing cycles. During this period, customers will not pay for additional data blocks for data used above their data plan. Customers who exceed their data plan will see charges and a matching credit on their bill statement. Beginning with bills datedOctober 15th and later, grace period credits will no longer be applied, and customers will be charged for usage above their data plan.

Understanding and managing your data usage
You are currently subscribed to the Preferred package which includes a data plan of 350 GB (Gigabytes) per month. To help you stay informed about data usage, Cox will begin to notify you via email and browser alert if you use 85% of your monthly data plan and again if you use 100% of your monthly data plan. Additional blocks of data will only be provided if you exceed your data plan. This will not change your Internet package and there will be NO change to the speed or quality of your service for data usage above your plan. To better understand your household’s historical and current data usage, you will find your household’s data usage meter and other helpful tools and information here.

Thank you for choosing Cox.

Sincerely,
Cox High Speed Internet Team

What this really means to Cox HSI customers

This is terrible news to users of what has been a reliable, relatively speedy service.

350 GB of data per month might sound like a lot, but if you look at what it is equivalent, it’s clear that Cox intends to screw its customers very badly.

I used Wolfram Alpha to tell me what 350 GB over 30 days amounts to. Here’s what it said:

350 GB/30 days is equivalent to:

  • 11.7 GB/day
  • 1.08 megabits per second

Comparisons:

  • ~0.7 * USB low speed (1536 kb/s)
  • 1.1 * StarLAN speed (1MB/s)
  • 0.8 to 1.8 x typical 3D data download rate

That’s right, for the $60/month preferred package, Cox will cap you to the equivalent of saturating a 3G cellular connection. My current speed with Cox Preferred is ~60 Mb/s, so when they introduce these caps, if I wanted to spread out the usage over my 30 day billing cycle, I’d have to restrict my usage to the equivalent of 1/60th of the speed I’m used to, assuming 24/7 usage.

 

“It is unlikely you will need additional data blocks unless your usage increases.”

News flash, Cox:

In the entire history of the internet, everyone’s data usage has always increased!

I’m a heavy internet user, and I expect that my data needs will only increase as time goes on, because they always have, like everybody’s. Better quality media streaming, more web services and web based applications, increasingly bloated web content, it all contributes. Web 2.0 would be unbearably slow in the 14.4 kbps world of 1993, and the 60 Mb/s that I have today limits and shapes what is conceivable to use that data connection for today. If I had a gigabit connection to my home, it would vastly change how I use the internet, the things that would become possible with such a connection would make 60 Mb/s look as slow as the 14.4 kbps we used during the dialup era seems today.

Today, I stream a lot of video, mostly YouTube, and I am on the internet pretty much all day long when I’m at home. I’m online most days from around 6pm until 1-2 am. Let’s assume 6 hours of internet use/day, which over 30 days amounts to 7.5 days of constant internet use. That would mean the 350 GB ration would afford me 46.7 GB/day, which is equivalent to 4.32 Mb/s, which Wolfram Alpha suggests is comparable to:

  • 0.9 x DVD speed (5 Mb/s)
  • 0.3 – 1.4 x typical 4G data download rate
  • 1.1 x token ring speed (4 Mb/s)

Token ring, for those who don’t know, is an network technology that more or less died in the 1990s. It’s 2015. It’s pathetic that broadband should be this limited.

Let’s say I wanted to actually use my 60 Mb/s connection for all that it’s worth, how much data use would that actually be?

Wolfram Alpha gives a figure of 60 Mb/s * 30 days = 19.44 Terabytes, which compares to:

  • 0.97 x text content of the Library of Congress.
  • ~5 x 4 TB hard drives

19.44 TB is a HUGE amount of data for most people, yet it would fill just one SOHO-class Network Attached Storage box populated with 4TB hard drives in a RAID5 configuration, which could cost around $1500-2000 today. So it’s a lot, but not a lot.

But what would that cost under Cox’s new billing?

The first 350 GB would be $60. The rest (19.09 TB) would be billed at $10 per 50 GB… 19.09 TB/50 GB = 381.8 * $10.00. So, my theoretical maximum monthly bill would amount to a grand total of: 382 * 10 + 60 = $3880.00

$3880.00 for 1 month of maximum internet use under the new billing structure.

But surely I’d never use that much data, you’re probably thinking. Well, what if you’re wifi isn’t as secure as you thought, and one of your neighbors is leaching? Or, what if you leave a computer up and running all day, and it gets infected with malware, and starts saturating your network connection with traffic without your knowledge or consent? And suppose the notifications Cox sends you don’t make it into your inbox due to improper spam filtering? Imagine the shock of opening your next bill and seeing charges for almost $4000!

The point is, Cox is trying to sell me internet service, but crippling it to an effective average speed of about 1/60th the speed at which I am currently able to use it — a speed which compares with the throughput of a USB 1.1 device or a 3G cellular data connection. This is not broadband service in any meaningful sense of the word.

Fight back

I urge Cox customers to fight back against this. And for internet users who are not customers of Cox, get ready. Other ISPs may be planning to do the same thing to you. We need to stand together and demand that our internet use

  1. Contact Cox Customer Service and complain!

  2. File a Consumer Complaint with the Federal Communications Commission!

  3. Write to your Congressman!

  4. Write to your Senator!

  5. Find another ISP!

scrollsnap extension for GameMaker: Studio

My latest GameMaker extension, scrollsnap, is published!

Asset listing at the YoYoGames Marketplace

Documentation

Demo video:

What’s scrollsnap?

Scrollsnap is a way of setting up a View in your room so that it “snaps” to the next screen’s worth of space when the followed instance moves outside the view. Simply put, it’s a view that stays put, but if you walk off the edge of the view, the view updates, giving the appearance that you walked off the edge of one screen and on to another.

Old-school video games such as Adventure, Pitfall!, and Berzerk used this approach to provide a larger game world to explore and play in, before programmers figured out how to make the hardware support scrolling.

Mods for sale

Valve recently announced and then swiftly retracted that they would be allowing developers of mods for Skyrim to charge for their wares on Steam.

I don’t know a lot about the details of this story — I don’t play Skyrim, and I’m not familiar with the online gaming and modding communities that surround it, but apparently Valve went about it the wrong way and made a lot of people upset. I’d like to know more detail about this before I have an opinion on it, but I can say a few things about the idea of modding in general, and modding for commercial gain. Update: based on this Forbes article, it does seem that there were a few things that I would agree were objectionable about the particulars of the way Valve and Bethesda went about, in particular the cut they wanted to take from the revenue generated by sales of mods, as well as concerns over modders who appropriated resources in other free mods and repackage them for sale, and so forth.

I’m pretty familiar with the concept and history of modding, and have done some modding of some games, going back to the 1990s, when I dabbled in making maps and physics models for Marathon (Bungie), and modded ships and weapons for Escape Velocity (Ambrosia). I never distributed my mods beyond sharing them with people I knew personally, but I got into the hobby because the tools were free and there was a sense of openness. There were no barriers to entry, and people authored good docs that explained how to use the tools and create good mods. Generally, the spirit of the modding movement has been that it’s something you do out of love and enthusiasm for a game. Licensing and copyright issues that might otherwise be more of a big deal are glossed over because the work is intended as amateur/homage, and not motivated by profit.

Of course, modding is an art and the quality of some of it is astoundingly good. Modding has been the “gateway drug” for many people who wanted to get into game development, and many talented people learned their craft through modding and went on to work in the industry, and even some modding projects have been turned into commercial products, like Team Fortress 2 and Counterstrike. All of this has been realized by the “remix culture” that embraces sharing and openness while eschewing things like ownership, commercialism, and profit. Everyone has benefitted from this: the original game benefits from added interest and lifespan, the players benefit from having lots of mods to play, the modders benefit by learning how to make mods and getting some recognition for their work if it’s good enough, and by having the freedom to mod, and they pay it forward by distributing the mods for free so that they can get free playtesting, etc.

That said, I don’t have any problem with a commercial market for mods, if certain problems can be avoided. I think that if a modder wants to release a mod for a game and charge money for it, that should be their right and their decision to make. In part, it should also be controlled by the original game’s license, but generally speaking I am in favor of permissive licenses that promote freedom and openness. And yes, that includes the freedom (to try) to make money. Game developers are some of the lowest-paid software developers, working in the most crowded and competitive of markets. Considering the amount of work that must go into a mod in order to make it good enough to be worth charging for, I don’t see it as unreasonable — at all — for creator/developers to try to make some money for their work. If some people don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it. Despite there being some pitfalls and areas prone to abuse, the dividing line between a mod and a full game can often be imaginary, but in any case the work that went into building them is real, and if a developer feels that they deserve some consideration for the time they put into crafting them, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to set up shop and attempt to get it.

Tempest in a Teapot: IP Creator vs. IP Owner

ArsTechnica posted an article today about the current intellectual property holders of Atari being in communication with game developer Llamasoft (aka Jeff Minter), who programmed Tempest 2000 for the Atari Jaguar in 1994, to suppress a game he recently released called TxK, which appears to be an update or sequel to Tempest 2000. (Tempest 2000 is itself a sequel of the Atari 1981 arcade smash hit Tempest, which was designed and programmed for Atari by Dave Theurer.)

On the face of it, it would appear that “Atari” has a pretty solid case. Very likely, Minter doesn’t own Tempest, Atari did (and the current owner of the Atari brand now does). Minter/Llamasoft almost certainly would have created Tempest 2000 as a work for hire, and the rights to it almost certainly were and are the exclusive domain of Atari. I don’t know the facts, I’m not a lawyer, but I am familiar with a bit of intellectual property laws, and to me it seems likely that unless Minter has a contract stating that he or Llamasoft is a part owner of the IP rights to Tempest 2000, unfortunately he probably doesn’t have much of a case should it come to a legal action against him for creating a game that is essentially Tempest 2000 for modern machines.

The thing is — and this is why I put “Atari” in quotes — the real Atari went out of business years ago, and the current company who owns their intellectual property isn’t the same company or the same people who created . This doesn’t change their legal standing with regard to ownership, unfortunately, and creates an interesting situation of the actual guy who created the game not having the rights to his own creation, aka John Fogerty syndrome.

While the legalities are probably pretty clear cut, my sympathies are with Minter, who clearly is more of a creator of Tempest 2000 than the current holder of Atari’s intellectual properties could ever hope to be. And the game he has produced does look like a worthy update to a classic game that was loved well by the golden era gamers of the pre-crash arcade era. Being a Jaguar release, Tempest 2000 was not as widely played or appreciated as it should have been, and a modern update that can be enjoyed by more people ought to be welcomed by the market. But because of trademarks and copyright and “works for hire”, Atari’s ghost probably does have it within its legal rights to quash the game if that’s what it wants to do. Hopefully, they and Minter can come to a happier arrangement. It sucks that a company that is doing little or nothing with an old back catalog of games can prevent its original creators from coming out with new innovations that build on their own earlier works.

Personally, my feeling is that the actual-creators should always retain a right to produce new stuff. It should be literally impossible for a creator to sign away the right to produce new original or derivative works of any property they had a hand in creating, even if they’ve sold the rights to a previously-created work. If a publisher wants to commission a work and wholly own it, such that the creator is labor and is paid one time for the work, and has no future rights to the work itself, I still feel that the actual people who did the creative things ought to be able to say, “I’m the creator of [X] and although it’s not an officially recognized part of the canonical [Publisher]-owned [X], here, world, have a new [X]-thing that I made, because I had some more ideas and I wanted to make them, and share them with or sell them to the world.

But, in the legal real world, it doesn’t work that way. It all comes down to who the owner is, and ownership can be transferred. There’s no permanent right residing with an original creator, and it all comes down to the terms under which a work was authored and published.

This harkens all the way back to the early days of Atari, the famous Activision split, where several of Atari’s best developers went to Atari President and CEO Ray Kassar, asking for recognition of authorship and to have their names attached to the games they were producing. Kassar refused, famously insulting his best creators by telling them they had no more to do with Atari’s success than the people who assembled the games and put them in boxes. They left in revolt and formed Activision, the first third-party developer of console games, and credited themselves on their own creations and paid themselves royalties.

And more recently, Konami just had a falling out with Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima, and are in the process of removing his name from his creations. So in the future, if Hideo Kojima wants to create something new, it can’t be in the Metal Gear universe, which is owned by Konami. And Konami can do whatever they want with Kojima’s creations, legally, even if it sucks or is completely contrary to the spirit that Kojima put into his works.

There has always been this clash between business and creator, really any time a creative enterprise is something larger than one person can realize — any thing that requires teamwork necessarily entails contracts, and contracts are ugly things that can trip up someone who doesn’t have expert legal counsel on retainer, and that’s almost always something too expensive for creative types who often struggle financially to afford. This sort of thing happens all the time to creators with their works, and it’s terrible.

What it comes down to is this: Creators create properties. That’s where the value is. Owners tend to the the ones who monetize properties. But owners’ interest in monetizing properties shouldn’t inhibit creators from creating more properties. Because ultimately, it’s creations that are the thing we should value, and ought to encourage.

I hope that Minter and Atari are able to work something out that is mutually beneficial, and doesn’t result in the game being pulled from the market. Like Minter said, they should be hiring him.