Bits From my Personal Collection – Crossfire, Jay Sullivan & Dick Sunderland

Jay Sullivan had met Ken Williams in the late ’70s, at Informatics, at the time the largest mainframe software company in the world. Dick Sunderland, a former Fortran programmer now in charge of Informatics’ new products team wanted to assemble the best programmers, striving for a joint team output that would surpass what a single programmer was capable of. While Sunderland already had one wizard on his team, Sullivan, a brilliant software engineer, he was still looking to recruit more top programmers. From one of his recruiters, Ken Williams’ name gets mentioned, and is invited in for an interview. To observe how Williams would fare against Sunderland’s top dog, Sullivan joins the interview, which quickly turns into a clash between the established Sullivan, in his forties, and Williams, the young hacker and college dropout in t-shirt and jeans. Eventually, the differences between the two turned into a finely orchestrated synergy with the two throwing ideas after one another, composing them into more refined concepts. This was exactly what Sunderland was after, the sum of Sullivan and Williams was larger than their individual parts.

Williams was hired and put under Sullivan’s supervision alongside some of the best programmers and consultants in the business. For Williams, this became a valuable learning experience, working with the latest in computer technology and more importantly with wizards like Sullivan.
Over time Williams grew somewhat irritated with Sunderland’s management style. Sunderland was a firm believer in managerial bureaucracy as a noble goal, a belief well-fitting for the corporate mainframe development world but not for a young and ambitious hacker like Williams who wanted to lead his own programming team, something that was flatly denied by Sunderland who told him he had no management potential.
While tucking along, Williams, under the On-Line Systems name, starts to bring in more and more jobs outside of Informatics. Working as an independent software consultant doing work for companies like General Motors, Shell, and Warner Brother, to satisfy his desire of being his own boss and earn enough to live the lifestyle he always had dreamt of, far away from smoggy Los Angeles.

At the time Williams didn’t have any particular interest in personal computers, all his work was performed on large batch-processed mainframes but when his younger brother Larry acquired an Apple II computer, he realized the potential of the small and relatively powerful computer. He noticed Microsoft had put the BASIC programming language onto the less capable TRS-80 computer and started tinkering with the idea of putting other programming languages onto personal computers.
In 1979 Williams left Informatics behind but both Sullivan and ironically also Sunderland would eventually come work for him.

For Christmas in 1979, Williams got an Apple II as a present from his wife Roberta. Williams sat out to build a Fortran compiler but quickly got sidetracked when Roberta talked him into programming her first game, Mystery House, becoming the first graphical adventure game when released in the summer of 1980. Mystery House and its successor Wizard and the Princess become instant hits and the idea of building compilers was mostly dropped. Sullivan, who Williams had enlisted to help quickly shifted gears and with help from Williams created Hi-Res Football in 1980 and Hi-Res Soccer in 1981. The same year Williams and Sullivan co-founded Calsoft, one of the earliest mail-order software stores to carry a full selection of micro-computer software from various publishers, including titles from On-Line Systems and its competitors.
While the mail-order business was primarily run by Sullivan he did find time to write Crossfire (or Cross Fire as it was initially marketed), a multidirectional shooter inspired by the video arcade coin-ops Targ and Space Invaders.

Sullivan wrote Crossfire in machine language and utilized the Apple II Hi-Res graphics mode, resulting in detailed graphics, smooth animations, sound, and fast-paced gameplay.
The premise, to defend your city streets, laid out in a grid, from invading aliens, attacking from every direction. Controls were either joystick, which only allowed for shooting in the direction of travel, or by using the keys IJKL to move and ESDF to shoot left, right, up, and down, in the style of Williams 1982 coin-up Robotron 2084.

Jay Sullivan’s Crossfire was released for the Apple II in 1981.
The awesome cover artwork was done by artist Chris Dellorco, who in the early eighties did titles, logos, and cover art for a number of various titles

Crossfire was written in machine language and took advantage of the Apple II’s Hi-Res graphics mode, allowing for great visual and fast-paced gameplay.
The game while quite challenging was very enjoyable.
The fighter was controlled by two sets of keys, one set for moving and another set for shooting in different directions. The control scheme required some getting used to but with practice, you eventually could play a single game for 20 or even 30 minutes

Crossfire was ported to the Atari 8-bit by Chris Iden, who converted many of On-Line Systems’ early Apple II games to the Atari computer.
The Atari version was released on floppy or cassette in 1981

The Atari played nearly identical to the Apple II version but graphics and especially the sound effects were better.
With aliens attacking from all sides, Crossfire was indeed challenging but awarding at the same time, the recipe for a great game.
With limited ammunition every shot had to count, resupplies could be picked up, usually at the top part of the screen, the most challenging place to be flying

After Ken and a hesitant Roberta had sold off 20 percent of On-Line Systems to venture capitalist Jackie Morby, partner at TA Associates in 1982, Williams became increasingly aware that he needed someone that could manage and turn the otherwise rowdy crowd of programmers and college drop-outs that were management into actual employees of a serious and structured business. For the company to be able to grow and compete in the rapidly expanding consumer market transformative actions needed to take place.
While Sunderland at the time was completing an MBA hoping to put him in line for a top position at Informatics he was aware of the booming microcomputer market that very likely could put him and Informatics out of business. Williams reached out to Sunderland and managed to persuade his former boss to leave the high-end corporate world and join Williams as president of his young company, hopefully turning the rock’n’roll party camp into a sober and serious business. Sunderland working under Williams surely was somewhat of an appealing thought given the incident years earlier but the fundamental differences and beliefs of how a company should be managed led to the two continuously clashing.

As part of the reconstruction, the company, now Sierra On-Line, conceived the short-lived SierraVision brand for its action and arcade titles. Crossfire was re-released in 1983 under the SierraVision label. While a couple of years old, the game still fared extremely well. In March of 1983, the Atari 8-bit version received a Certificate of Merit in the category, Best Arcade/Action Computer Games at the 4th Electronic Games Arcade Awards.
The same year Commodore users also got the opportunity to try their hands at Crossfire when it was released for the Commodore 64 and Commodore VIC-20.

No matter what peripherals you had to your Atari 8-bit there was no excuse for not owning Crossfire as it was re-released on floppy, cartridge, and cassette under the SierraVision label in 1983.
Commodore 64 and VIC-20 versions were released the same year. The Commodore 64 was converted by Chuck Benton who two years earlier had huge success with his Softporn Adventure after it was picked up and re-released by On-Line Systems

What should have been a profitable venture into the lucrative arcade market, soon turned to disaster when the video game market crashed in late 1983, nearly wiping out Sierra On-Line.
Sunderland was ousted and Williams regained control.

Crossfire was ported to IBM’s ill-fated PCJr in 1983 and released by both Sierra On-Line and by IBM in its Entertainment series, as a launch title when the PCJr hit the market in 1984

The IBM PC and PCJr port played extremely well and were a must-have for any looking for a challenging arcade experience

Sources: Hackers by Steven Levy, Not Every Fairytale have Happy Endings by Ken Williams, Wikipedia, InfoWorld, Softtalk

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