Exclusive: Fans unearth pioneering developer who brought female representation to games

After a nearly 40-year absence from the games industry, Van Mai was found, the seminal woman who wrote the Atari 2600’s Wabbit and helped create the first console game starring a human girl.

As reported by the Video Game History Foundation, Polygon began searching for this developer named “Ban Tran” – a Vietnamese woman who worked at Apollo developing Wabbit before the company declared bankruptcy in 1982.

Tran left the company and worked on an unreleased Solar Fox conversion for the Atari 5200 at MicroGraphic Image, but then seemingly faded from the industry. There have been many who have tried to find her, but thanks to the help of staff at the Video Game History Foundation, she was not found until recently.

A Discord member named SoH, who is part of a channel dedicated to finding Ban Tran on the Video Game History Foundation Discord, suggested that someone should contact the National Archives in Texas to try and get the bankruptcy records to find for Apollo.

This proved to be a golden ticket as Tran was one of several Apollo employees who went to court to get their final royalties on the games they worked on. With this information in hand, the Video Game History Foundation was able to contact her and she agreed to speak to the company about her story.

Tran, now married to Van Mai, was born in Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee after the Vietnam War. She lived in Dallas with her family and dropped out of high school due to the language barrier. Before that, while she would eventually get a GED, she began taking programming courses.

After working for the Dallas Independent School District, Mai applied for a job at Apollo and got the job in part by pitching a game in her interview. Though Mai wasn’t the kind of “nerd” Apollo was used to being hired, she was quick to make an impression.

“It was an extremely intense concept and made Night Trap feel like a bedtime story for kids, but it was 20 years ahead of its time and far too intense for the VCS,” recalled Mai’s former colleague Dan Oliver. She explained it like it was a picnic on the beach, so the cliché started to fall off pretty quickly.”

Mai herself can’t quite remember what the game was, but she does remember starting a game for little girls that would eventually become Wabbit – a game with a girl named Billie Sue, her rabbit keep vegetables away.

“I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about it [the theme]’ said May. “It was all up to me, I designed it — all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.”

Wabbit’s Billie Sue Sprite – Photo credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

Wabbit’s Billie Sue Sprite – Photo credit: Apollo/Video Game History Foundation

Wabbit was developed in about 4-6 months but Mai doesn’t remember if the game was successful or not. However, she knows that her mother was proud of her and that one of her nieces tried to buy a copy at a local mall but it sold out.

As previously mentioned, Mai left Apollo after it filed for bankruptcy and worked at Micrographic for a while before leaving to pursue a degree in computer science. She worked as an Oracle developer for a French telecom company before settling into the banking industry, a field she is still active in today.

Over the years, Mai had considered returning to the Games but knows it would be difficult to get back in. Despite this, she has fond memories of her time in the industry.

“It was wonderful,” Mai said. “Writing games is the greatest – I don’t know, I can never find a job like that. You just go in and play games for a while to get ideas and then sit around and talk to your teammates, just exchange your opinions, it was fun.”

 

Source: ign

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