Jawbreaker, John Harris, welcome to On-Line Systems


This should be seen as the second article in my On-Line Systems Vs. Atari lawsuit, told by the very games that spawned it. Please find the first article here for a bit more history on the Pac-Man clone Gobbler and why Atari went after publishers like On-Line Systems at the time.

When Ken and Roberta Williams had completed the development of their first game, Mystery House, in the summer of 1980, Roberta took out a full-page ad in Micro 6502 magazine.
To offer more than just Mystery House, two other titles, Skeetshoot and Trapshoot, both developed by a third party, were also featured. While Skeetshoot and Trapshoot quickly faded away, the company’s portfolio rapidly expanded with a multitude of new titles added over the next couple of years, one of which being John Harris‘ excellent Pac-Man clone Jawbreaker. Within his first year at On-Line Systems Harris would create one of the best games for the Atari 8-bit, a game that unfortunately would catapult him into a lawsuit with one of the biggest entertainment entities in the world.
John Harris, welcome to On-Line Systems.

In 1980 Namco’s mellow yellow dot-eating Pac-Man arrived at arcades. Unlike the majority of games of the time, Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man wasn’t about violent space wars, invading aliens, or even sports thus appealing to an audience broader than the typical young male demography. While the video game market had surged in popularity with games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders it was soon flooded with similar titles from other manufacturers all attempting to cash in on the success. Pac-Man, with its cheerful and non-violent nature, quickly gained widespread critical and commercial success and became a favorite among video arcade players. By 1981 it had become the hottest video arcade game around and greatly inspired many of the early home computer game developers, resulting in a home market full of rip-offs and clones.

One of the early programmers that found inspiration in the popular video arcade games was John Harris.
Harris had been playing with mainframes in his high school years and had gotten especially interested in how even small code changes could alter a game’s output. Inspired, Harris had, on a friend’s Commodore PET, written a similar game in BASIC, and ended up really liking how he worked with and on the Commodore.
When he had saved enough money to buy his own computer, he headed straight to the computer store to buy his own Commodore PET, at the store he realized that Atari just had released its own 8-bit home computer. A computer that had all the best things work-wise from the Commodore PET and all the great capabilities, like producing colors from the Apple II. Harris, that day took home an Atari 800, a rather smart choice considering the Commodore PET was far behind other micro’s gaming-wise and was discontinued in 1982. 

In 1981 Harris went to the West Coast Computer Fair, the same show that only four years earlier had heralded the personal computer revolution when Steve Jobs and Chuck Peddle had debuted the Apple II and Commodore PET respectively. On-Line Systems had a booth at the show and a sign announcing they were hiring new developers. Harris stopped at the booth and had a talk with co-founder Ken Williams.
Williams, impressed by Harris and by some of the work he had brought along, told he had a few houses where his programmers lived and that he would get $1,500 a month to live on for two months, if he hadn’t finished a game in two months, he wouldn’t make it in the industry anyway.

In 1981, at only 19 of age, Harris decided to follow the modern gold rush and join On-Line Systems instead of going away to college. In the first month, Harris developed what was probably one of the best-written games for the Atari 8-bit at the time. Unfortunately, his Pac-Man clone looked remarkably like the game it copied, and with mighty Atari, who had paid millions for the right to home versions of Pac-Man, on the warpath against companies infringing on their copyrights, Ken needed for Harris to disguise his clone before it could hit the market… and Harris literally did that. He brought it back the next day with added mustaches and sunglasses to the ghost characters. Obviously, this wasn’t the way to go about it, but Harris, clearly irritated, didn’t find any rationale behind the ordeal. He started redesigning his game, creating unique characters, added a candy/dental theme, and titled it Jawbreaker.

While Harris was redesigning his Pac-Man clone, he had taken an iteration only including a few changes, to a local Fresno computer store to show it off and had left a copy behind. Not before long, his Pac-Man game was circulating in user groups across the U.S. and eventually ended up at Atari.
Atari started investigating, the company had issues with its own programmers and had a hard time luring new programmers in (which is a story in itself), and here was this perfect game from some unknown programmer.
Finally, Atari got in contact with On-Line Systems inquiring about the game, Ken immediately recognized it as Harris’ Jawbreaker. But Harris was for sure not about to hand over his hard work to Atari, they were the ones that had made him do all the redesign in the first place and for reasons he couldn’t even fathom. While Harris loved Atari the computer he despised Atari the company. Harris would only complete the redesign of his Pac-Man clone for Ken and On-Line Systems.
When Jawbreaker finally was complete Ken’s lawyer ensured him that with the only resemblance of Pac-Man being the gameplay it wouldn’t present any issue with Atari and it was released for the Atari 8-bit on cassette and floppy. It was an instant bestseller and was probably one of the most impressive games written for Atari’s home computer at the time. Everybody loved it, except Atari.

When Harris had altered his Pac-Man clone to where Ken Williams and his lawyer was confident it wouldn’t cause any copyright issues with Atari it was released as Jawbreaker for the Atari 8-bit in 1981. These are the two original versions, cassette and floppy. Both featuring the Pac-Man maze design in the game which was later changed

Jawbreaker was ported to the Apple II, still using the original Pac-Man maze design, by Olaf Lubeck who just months earlier had written his own Pac-Man clone Gobbler, which soon would be pulled from the market

Atari, holding the copyrights to the official home version, started pressuring On-Line Systems, essential blackmailing Ken with the options of either getting sued and put him out of business or letting Atari take over Jawbreaker and market it under the Atari name, with a laughable royalty… Ken while shaken was getting aggravated with Atari’s ruthless gun-blazing and arrogant approach.
In the fall of 1981 Atari managed to obtain a temporary restraining order in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Fresno prohibiting On-Line Systems from producing or selling Gobbler and Jawbreaker.
While Harris evidently had copied the Pac-Man maze and just rotated it 90 degrees on its side, it was ratified that the design of the maze wasn’t what was being protected by copyrights and On-Line Systems filed an antitrust suit, stating that Atari was trying to monopolize any game featuring a maze and dots. Atari countersued and Midway joined the fight.

As part of the legal defense, Ken and his lawyer pointed to an earlier Japanese developed game by Astar International called Head On, which shared mechanics and to some extent gameplay with Pac-Man but was released prior to it. The idea was to show the court that a Maze and dots indeed wasn’t original to Pac-Man. Nonetheless, Atari kept trying their best to convince the court that Harris obviously had stolen pretty much everything from Pac-Man. Ken’s lawyer insisted that Harris simply had copied the idea of Pac-Man from Atari (Namco) and cited legal paragraphs stating that ideas were not copyrightable.
On-Line Systems wasn’t about to go down without a fight and since the 8-bit Atari home computer was radically different from the hard-wired video arcade machines all of Harris’ routines were written from the ground up and bore no resemblance to the original Pac-Man code.
Harris created a quick demo (not a fully working version) of Jawbreaker for the court where he changed it to be more of a hybrid between Head On and Pac-Man to show that inspiration, clearly could have come from other places than Pac-Man itself.
Accidently Harris trial hybrid mashup somehow ended being copied over the masters and sold to the public as an updated version of the game. This of course didn’t sit well with some customers since the game essentially was broken, nonetheless many saw it as a much better and interesting version than the original and Harris quickly completed the new version with an original maze design, This re-released version of Jawbreaker was considered the final version of the game.

Head On (Fender Bender), the Japanese developed game Ken and his lawyer used in their defense, it shared mechanics with Pac-Man but was released before Pac-Man. The game was released in the US in 1980 by California Pacific Computer Company (of Akalabeth and Ultima fame). initially, as Head On but was retitled to Fender Bender

Eventually, both the Atari and Midway infringement claims were tossed out of court, appealed, and then dismissed again. On-Line Systems could continue to market and sell Jawbreaker while pending a full trial. Ken being a businessman himself realized, over the course of the lawsuit, that he, like Atari, wanted to protect his intellectual properties. The parties settled out of court before going to full trial, and copyright law concerning computer games was established as protecting not the mere idea but the specific execution of that idea – in this case protecting the Pac-Man name, and its characters, but not its core gameplay and mechanics.

Harris’ Jawbreaker became a huge success and was praised for its fast-paced gameplay, graphics, music and sounds. It received critical acclaim and became Best Computer Action Game in 1982. In 1983, readers of Softline Magazine listed Jawbreaker second on its Top 30 list of popular Atari 8-bit programs, only behind Star Raiders.

John Harris original Jawbreaker published in 1981 playing on the Atari 8-bit. This version features the Pac-Man maze design that later was changed

The new revision for the Atari 8-bit after Harris had chosen a mashup between Head On and Pac-Man. The maze design resembles more the design of Head On and actually gives a different gameplay feel, all while looking nearly identical to the original

With the lawsuit and the settlement in the rearview mirror and with On-Line Systems becoming Sierra On-Line, the company was in 1982 approached by Illinois-based toy manufacture, Tiger Electronics (Tiger Toys) with a proposal to convert some of its best computer games into Atari 2600 versions. Harris and two other programmers were flown out to Chicago to learn about the Atari 2600 and how to program for it (Tiger Electronics had reversed engineered the console).
While Harris wasn’t particularly fond of the extremely limited console, he was intrigued by the fact that he now had the chance to outdo Atari’s own version of Pac-Man, which had been released earlier that year. Harris redesigned Jawbreaker to fit within the technical limitations and ended up with a game vastly different than the original. Nonetheless, it was still released as Jawbreaker through Tigervision, a subsidiary of Tiger Electronics in 1982.

Jawbreaker was released for the Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, and re-released for Atari 8-bit under Sierra On-Line’s dedicated arcade label, SierraVision. These were reinvented by other programmers (Doug Whittaker and Chuck Bueche “Chuckles”) based on Harris’ Atari 2600 version which played vastly different than the original.
With multiple original versions of Jawbreaker coupled with the Atari 2600 inspired versions all released under the Jawbreaker or Jawbreaker II name (and boxes) was confusing, to say the least

While the Atari 2600 version of Jawbreaker played extremely well (and way better than Atari’s own abysmal Pac-Man attempt), the versions for home computers it spawned weren’t exactly up to par. Ken Williams had tried describing Harris’ Atari 2600 version to his programmers, who had never seen the game, and major things like the number of horizontal pathways (5 instead of 9) seemed lost in translation. When Harris saw the home computer versions he was appalled.

The last Atari 8-bit version, created by Chuck Bueche, who would go on to co-found Origin Systems with the Garriot family.
This version was based on Harris Atari 2600 version and had little to nothing to do with the original Jawbreaker.
Yes the intro screen has the year wrong

Harris, while working for On-Line Systems (Sierra On-Line), went on to create Mouskattack and ported the official Frogger to the home computer before having a bad fallout with Ken Williams, something I’ll cover in upcoming articles.

Sources: Steven Levy: Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Wikipedia, InfoWorld, Douglas G. Carlston: Software People, Ken Williams: Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings, Antic Atari 8-bit Podcast, Halcyon Days

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