In my previous post, I proved that everything I know about computer games, I didn’t learn at Yale.
Having taken one computer science course in college in 1976, and having gotten the worst grade I ever received, I didn’t consider computers to have anything to do with my future.
1981: Four years after graduation, I began witnessing the explosive growth of electronic entertainment in the neighborhood taverns and 7-11s in Seattle. Every couple of weeks, another game machine magically appeared, expanding this new realm of motion and –– what was that new word –– interactivity?
Make no mistake about it: No one knew what these new audio/visual experiences were going to become. No one knew what they were supposed to be.
In 1937, Walt Disney created the first full-length story told in hand-drawn animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Before Disney, no one imagined that a cartoon could hold an audience’s attention for more than 6 or 7 minutes. No one imagined that an audience could care about such obviously artificial characters like the dwarfs, even to the point of weeping with them.
1981 saw the appearance of the Snow White of video games, Donkey Kong. Before Donkey Kong, you played, you celebrated, you cursed. With Donkey Kong, you cared. You were not only among the images, you were one of the images. You were that little nameless guy.
You had skin in the game, and that skin was made of pixels.
At that time, home computer games were hand-crafted and often distributed on audio cassette tapes stuffed in plastic sandwich bags with sparse photocopied instructions.
I was four years out of college and seeking creative employment. Reading ads for such games in the budding computer hobbyist magazines like Creative Computing, Byte, and Compute!, I wondered if any of these odd new machines could reproduce the thrills I experienced in the arcade corners of the local taverns and 7-11s (as I talked about in my previous post).
Could I play Donkey Kong at home? Could I write something like Donkey Kong at home, and get others to play it in their homes?
And, needing a job, I wondered – is anyone making money doing this?
Which of the machines described so breathlessly in the magazines were going to stick around? The Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80? The Commodore PET? The Texas Instruments TI-99/4a? The Atari 400? The Commodore VIC-20? The Timex Sinclair 1000? Or the Apple II? I couldn’t afford to buy any of them.
If the nearby Seattle Central Community College had stocked its computer lab with something other than Apple IIs, would I have written my first game, Crisis Mountain, for that type of computer? Yes, of course, I would have. But that lab had Apple II’s, and so that was the mountain I began to climb.
Signing up for a lab course that granted me access to those Apple IIs, I explored the nooks and crannies of that amazing machine, looking for the canvas on which I could try to re-create Donkey Kong.
The two text screen pages? No. The two lo-res graphics pages? No, too chunky. The two high-res graphics pages? Ah-ha! There were the tiniest dots!
I quickly wrote a game loop in AppleBASIC that mimicked the bones of Donkey Kong in High-Res graphics – it was a jerky little line running back and forth among rolling dots. The movement on the screen was clearly not fast enough to recreate the excitement of Donkey Kong. AppleBASIC didn’t go deep enough.
So I soaked up every book I could find in the computer lab and taught myself 6502 machine code. There weren’t many tools to make this process easier, but those that I found were precious. (Thank you, Roger Wagner! Thank you, Call A.P.P.L.E! Thank you, Gibson Light Pens!)
Computers are now so deeply woven into our culture, I strain to remember how they astonished me at the time.
But all this was new:
- Computer memory is brittle and fleeting. Without power, the work of an hour (or two) simply disappears. Gone! Saving one’s work is not intuitive, and there is no automation or safety net for the process. This is scary-new.
- When something goes wrong, you re-boot. The previous paradigm for fixing things was to give them a kick or to pound on them with your fist. That doesn’t work with computers. his is weirdly new.
- Of course you break the “rules” and write self-modifying code. You must, in order to fit a decent game into only 48K of memory. Such code is like a road-building machine that reaches ahead of itself to pave the path that it is about to travel. This is crazy-new.
- There’s no such thing as a random number. There’s such a thing as an effectively unpredictable number, but that’s not the same. This epiphany makes me feel like Dorothy discovering the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain. Yes, I am literally making everything up as I go along, and every layer of it is contrivance and artifice. This is divinely new.
Forgive the cliché – but it was a golden age – my golden age.
And for this creative introvert, it would last only a few years, ending far too quickly. Because each bit, each byte, each pixel, each click of the speaker, each check of the joystick was mine, and mine alone. To each of these features I had direct and exclusive access at a permanent address. Everything stayed where I put it. To this day, if you play the original Crisis Mountain, every byte in your computer is there in exactly the same place as it was on my computer.
How would a running figure on screen “know” where the solid ground was?
How would a rolling boulder “know” where and how it could alter its path?
There were no tools to automate the relationships between screen co-ordinates and the behavior of animated images.
The computer accepted only raw numbers, and every bit of every number was precious, so pencil and paper were essential to figuring all this out.
I completed Crisis Mountain and got my first advance on royalties from Synergistic Software. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I bought an Apple II+ for myself and took it home.
Now — how could I make my second game even better? What would I write next?