This is the final part of the Learning Curve trilogy. In the first part, Learning to Walk, I learnt to program and make games on the Atari 8-bit home computer. In the second part, Learning to Run, I wrote a game in machine-language which was sold commercially.
I think it was 1995.
It was the difficult second year of my PhD at Reading University, where far too many of my water wave simulations exploded into colourful infinity and I wanted to shoot my research in the head five times. We had a series of presentations from industry types looking to charm the latest batch of Dr. Mathematicians being squeezed out of the academic womb. I was impressed by one guy from a company called Geoquest that made oil field mapping software, and followed up on email. I asked Geoquest Dude how I might make myself more valuable after my research was complete. I told him about my grand game-making plans, hoping this would sell me as an unstoppable code hero who could work machine language like Jimi Hendrix worked the guitar.
His response? He told me to stop.
This is the second part of the Learning Curve trilogy. The first part, Learning to Walk, explored how I became a game programmer in the 1980s.
It is 1992.
Beyond small projects, I couldn't finish a damn thing. I had folders crammed full of design sketches for games and numerous disks littered with crude prototypes. I was apt to spend my time on title screens and structure, leaving the actual game bit to be "filled in later", always chasing the high of creation without actually creating something. I believed I was a genius of unearthly codemagick power yet had nothing to show for it except for the work I did with my father: Blitz, Runaround, Escape and also Runaround II (published in New Atari User #53, Dec/Jan 1991). I needed to prove that I had the discipline to see one of my own ideas through.
But that wasn't all I needed to prove. If you wanted to get decent performance out of an 8-bit computer you had to do the business in assembly language. I’d written plenty of machine language snippets and done my share of hacking commercial games to make them easier so I believed I could write one of those grandiose machine language games if I wanted to. But development in assembly language is like having to marshal individual grains of sand into a sandcastle. The scale of the task was enough to subdue any hubris. I needed to prove I could write a game in machine language.
I threw one more goal onto this project of projects. This game I was going to make? I was going to sell it like a proper developer. If I pulled this off, I would never doubt my Atari skills again.
This is the first part of the Learning Curve trilogy.
As the years progress, the human brain archives ancient experiences it decides aren’t so relevant any more. It shoves the past into a blender face first, making it difficult, if not impossible, to identify events let alone organise them into a sensible chronological sequence. Cause and effect are corrupted.
But there remain flashes of important moments and here are some from my videogame childhood: running home in tears when a café owner switched off a Check Man (Zilec-Zenitone, 1982) arcade cabinet seconds after I’d inserted my one coin for the evening; walking back to the bus stop from Porthcawl beach where there was one last videogame arcade to visit, a place in which we discovered Tutankham (Konami, 1982) and Jungle Hunt (Taito, 1982); losing a whole morning to an obsession with my first virtual world, Adventure (Atari, 1979) on the Atari VCS.
I know that we bought an Atari VCS during a stay in London because I recall seeing its box, complete with screenshots and Ingersoll Electronics logo, bundled onto a National Express bus bound for Wales. I know the most anticipated Christmas presents at that time were Atari cartridges. I could usually tell which presents were the cartridges but never opened them all in one go, as I wanted to savour the annual tradition of the Christmas unboxing.
Childhood seems longer than it is. Although I am left with an impression that the VCS dwelt in our house for many, many years, this cannot be true. I have a receipt here that says we bought it in a store called "GEM Electronics" on 23 August 1980, and I have another receipt saying we purchased an Atari 800 on 8 October 1982. I can rescue cause and effect from these receipts. They imply we sold most of our VCS games in 1982, just two years after we bought the console.
The reason my parents sold the console was practical. Primary school wasn’t stretching me enough and I was the kind of child who engorged his brain on Open University television programmes. A primary school teacher even told my parents off for teaching me at home, pushing me ahead of the class, but they confessed it was because I watched adult literacy programmes like On the Move. My parents decided to buy a computer to prevent me from getting bored, to channel my energies. We didn’t have much money, so the VCS was sold to raise funds for a 32K Atari 800 Home Computer with an Atari 410 Program Recorder.
It was hard to say goodbye to those black, chunky cartridges and their colourful boxes, but we didn’t say goodbye to every game. My little sister had told prospective buyers that we didn’t like Basketball (Atari, 1978) so they took her sage advice and did not buy it. I still have this box today.
But I'm not here to tell you about the Atari VCS. I'm here to tell you about my years as a game developer.
Mrs. HM and I are explorers. In our pre-parent years, we'd embark on walks without any goal, just to see what we might find, and often blasted straight through lunch hour into the threat of imminent death from starvation at 4pm.
In 2005, we spent a few days on the island of Madeira. Madeira is riddled with irrigation channels called levadas which are also used by locals as footpaths. We spotted the start of one near our hotel and, on our final day, chose to follow it. It gently led us around the coast, snaking through villages and plantations and eventually headed inland along the edge of a rocky gorge. But we never completed the journey as, after half a day of hiking, we had to turn back to catch our plane home.
Exploring is our vice and it's an activity we look forward to resuming once the children get a bit older. But our joint obsession also thrives in virtual spaces.
Both of us spent countless hours wandering the neglected alleyways and meandering train routes of GTA III’s urban centres. I've scoured the junglescape of Far Cry 2 apparently hunting diamonds when in fact I had hijacked them as an excuse to explore. STALKER was another of my virtual world romances, whose anomaly-pocked hostility was fascinating to grapple with. And Mrs. HM basked in every shadow of Thief’s Haunted Cathedral, the imperative to search for loot under every abandoned desk and chair somehow more potent than the need to get the fuck out of there.
This is the eleventh article in the Where We Came From series.
At first there is nothing except the hot, orange glow of the toxic Fractalus atmosphere. A second later, ragged mountains and valleys fill the cockpit window and the player gasps.
Tomorrow, it appears, is already possible.
It Starts With George Lucas
While producing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas felt physical model-based special effects were limiting and established the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 to explore the application of computers to special effects work. State of the art hardware was not good enough for the challenges of the big screen so the division’s goal was to prepare for when technology had caught up with the ambition.
Then in 1982, Atari suggested Lucasfilm should diversify its business into video games. A partnership was forged in which Atari paid Lucasfilm $1M to fund the Computer Division's Games Group. In return, Lucasfilm would develop games for Atari’s platforms.
This is the tenth article in the Where We Came From series.
Last week: Attempting to learn more about the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, I study a complex simulation program that was released on the Atari 400/800 computer in 1981, SCRAM by Chris Crawford. I've read the manual and bought the T-shirt. Now it's time to show this reactor what I'm made of.
It's probably just me, but I like to visualise the process of nuclear fission as atomic sex. All it takes is just one neutron to penetrate the heart of an atom, to fertilise it. The fertilised atom divides into two and, in this orgasm of reproduction, fires more neutrons into the atomic void. These neutrons find other atoms to fertilise... and the reactor core becomes a vast, self-sustaining sex orgy.
But what happens if the orgy gets out of control? How do you stop nuclear reproduction? Obvious. Nuclear condoms.
This is the ninth article in the Where We Came From series.
On March 11, 2011, a wall of water made an incursion on the Pacific coast of Japan, travelling six miles inland to erase 15,000 people and the places they lived.
The tsunami also attacked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and took out its generators, leaving the reactor for dead. What followed was a desperate attempt to shut down the reactor's enraged metal heart in a battle that continues to this day. Fukushima is not Chernobyl but the environmental impact remains significant as radioactive material continues to leak from the site.
This is the eighth article in the Where We Came From series.
Yesterday, Electron Dance examined Boulder Dash, an important title in Atari 8-bit gaming genealogy which gave birth to a franchise that still survives to this day.
Today the author of Boulder Dash, Peter Liepa, talks to Electron Dance on mathematical visualization, career choices and why there are no more Peter Liepa games.
This is the seventh article in the Where We Came From series.
Toronto, 1982. Peter Liepa, having never written a computer game before, reached out to a local game publisher asking for what kind of ideas might be in vogue. The publisher put him in touch with another programmer, Chris Gray, who had built a game prototype in Atari Basic. It shared some similarities with the arcade game The Pit (Centuri, 1982), in which the player is sent to retrieve jewels from an underground cavern filled with dirt and rocks.
Liepa took on the job of converting it to machine language but felt the game was not compelling enough, so he began pushing the concept in directions he found more interesting. It soon became apparent Gray and Liepa were pursuing divergent design goals and their collaboration broke down to the point where lawyers were eventually needed to resolve ownership of the final product.
This is the third article in the Where We Came From series.
"When I was 12 years old, I picked up a medical encyclopaedia and it told me, in unequivocal terms, that people with CF die by 13. So I had my middle-age crisis real fast, and every year since about 15 or so feels like getting extra balls on a pinball machine."
1982. While the British belt out Come on Eileen like a football anthem, across the pond, the Atari Program Exchange releases a small game about a salmon swimming upriver. It's an unassuming début for someone who would one day be referred to as the "Stanley Kubrick of game design". But Bill Williams, who always feels like he is living on borrowed time, learns fast.