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.
I was 9 years old. In the months before the computer arrived, a London-based friend of the family had sent a VHS tape of what games on his Atari 800 were like. We watched the tape again and again, studying Star Raiders (Atari, 1979), Star Warrior (Automated Simulations, 1980) and Scramble clone Airstrike (English Software, 1982) frame by frame. It was Let’s Play, 1982 edition. The predetermined final death in Airstrike, at the end of the tape, was always so frustrating. We’d will the ship to survive but it exploded right on cue, every time. As well as the video, I studied pamphlets and magazine articles about the Atari 400/800 machines. This slow drip of information built into incredible anticipation.
Then, finally: I came home from school one lunchtime and, just as I went to knock on the window to be let in, my father pulled up the net curtains to reveal an Atari 800 computer. My head TOTALLY ASPLODED.
I can't recall any time I was allowed to skip school except for that crazy afternoon, the afternoon my father brought the machine to life. We got BASIC up and running and tested out some of the free bundled programs that the distributor Silica Shop provided with the computer. But our first mission was to type in the game Wild Strawberries from Computer & Video Games magazine (Oct 1982). Wild Strawberries was a version of Space Panic (Universal, 1980), one of our favourite arcade games, a nerve-shredding platformer with great sound work (although it doesn't sound quite right on MAME or YouTube, as it has lost the raw reverb of a real cabinet). We spent the better part of a day typing it in as none of us had experience with a keyboard. The results were predictable. The game didn’t work.
There were many typos but the main one I remember caused the enemy strawberries to travel straight off the top of the screen, probably leading to ERROR 141. It took hours to pour through the badly printed listing to pin down every mistake (except for one which we didn't discover for years but left in because it made the game better). We finally had the game working in the evening, after dark. This was kind of a big deal. We had typed in a program from a magazine and were able to play an awesome game. This meant we didn't have to buy expensive commercial games: you could just pick up a magazine for small pennies instead.
We didn't understand the code, of course, it was all gobbledegook. It wasn't Wild Strawberries that made me interested in programming, it was the books and magazine listings themselves. Hardcore programming books have always felt a little like spell books to me; even if you didn’t understand, their mysterious contents smelled of power and intelligence. I had the official Atari BASIC manual on hand and it was a true technical reference and what I mean by that is “virtually unreadable”. Nonetheless I went through it repeatedly, getting comfortable with strange terms like filespec and IOCB and learning the difference between a physical line and a logical line. I remember my father proudly pointing out to my grandfather how smart I was because at that very moment I was reading about the USR function, a command to call machine language subroutines from BASIC. I protested that despite my study I did not understand USR at all but he said I was trying to – and that was the important thing. In truth, I probably learnt more from the other chunky Atari BASIC book we had.
If program manuals were spell books then code was the language of magic. I was so fascinated by code that I drew my own game magazines full of fake listings for fictitious machines. Hours were spent studying real code of different computers, identifying commonalities, differences and eccentric features such as smuggling machine code into the REM statements of a ZX81 BASIC program. POKEs and PEEKs were even more intriguing; by addressing the right memory location, you could make anything happen. On the Atari, I could POKE 710 to change the colour of the text window or POKE 756 to use a custom character set. I could PEEK at 53279 to check if the START, SELECT or OPTION keys were depressed. Why were these particular numbers so special? I didn’t know because it was magic.
Mine is not a unique story. Schoolchildren of all ages across the United Kingdom were going through a similar process, levelling up from game player to game maker after getting access to a home computer. I started making my own little games which were more like Twine, such as Crusader which was the closest I could get to the epic arcade game Defender (Williams Electronics, 1980). I didn’t have any books on graphics or animation so had to figure out how to make something move across the screen myself. There was no internet and if you didn’t have a book you were on your own. What I was doing was discovering how to code through sheer force of will. I figured out I could keep printing a character at a different position and erase the previous one to look like movement. Every tiny victory was another inch up the mountain of code excellence.
I employed my new-found knowledge of animation in our first proper game, something called Spiral Chase in 1983 (well, Spirel Chase). My father directed the design and this would be the template going forward: son casting spells, Dad proposing ideas and critique. He would criticise when a game just didn’t feel right and I would be hurt because I was a child, still lacking an appreciation the importance of craft, of polish. These were tough lessons but vital ones. A game had to be fair not a braggart’s unplayable showcase of coding skills. It had to feel right. It had to look right.
Where I really cut my teeth was on games conversions. I would take game listings from other computers – the Sinclair ZX81 or the Oric-1 – and rewrite them line by line in Atari BASIC. Blitz, where you bomb a city so you can land, was one such conversion and was published in Home Computing Weekly #51. We earned £15 for our efforts (this is £40 today).
I was in comprehensive school by this time and the headmaster was so impressed with this achievement he wanted to see the hands that had typed in the code. I thought he was joking because the hands hadn’t done any of the actual, er, thinking. He wasn’t. For his appreciation, I laid my hands out on his desk.
We later published another listing in Home Computing Weekly #83 for £35, named Runaround after an Asimov short story. This was a game built from scratch, based on a game my father saw while browsing other computers in a shop. A year later we wanted to republish both games in an up and coming UK Atari fanzine called Page 6, but the publishers of HCW declined. When we sold them the programs, we also sold them the copyright and world publication rights which they were loathe to return.
I began to acquire heroes like Tom Hudson and Brian Moriarty from seminal Atari magazine A.N.A.L.O.G. and also UK local Marc Freebury who wrote both games and technical articles in Home Computing Weekly, then later took over the helm at a tape-based magazine called Atari Computing.
We tried to get our Wumpus game called Escape published in A.N.A.L.O.G but Charles Bachand didn’t like it because it was totally random; every time you entered a room, the exits were different. We hadn’t intended to make a game that could be mapped and thought the randomness was just fun. I’m not here to justify the design choice, though.
In time, I asked for a copy of De Re Atari as a birthday present, which was the Necronomicon of Atari programming tomes. Chris Crawford wrote many of the chapters and it explained how the hardware worked and how you could use it. We ordered the book at our local computer store which probably wasn't a good idea as it treated Atari computer owners as eccentrics who didn’t have a real computer. Atari had a definite presence in the UK but the computers that came to represent the British videogame childhood were the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64.
It didn’t arrive for my birthday and the order was eventually cancelled. One day, after coming home from school, my father took me aside to explain he’d seen a weird error number in BASIC – one that I didn’t recognise – and told me to go look it up. Inside the folder where the Atari BASIC manual was supposed to be was a mint copy of De Re Atari. I don’t know where my parents got it from in the end.
Despite having the hots for the Atari Necronomicon, this book was way above my intellectual pay grade, full of dense technical language that was tough to understand. One of the appendices is a wonderful treatise by Chris Crawford on "Human Engineering" which was full of HCI recommendations years before such thinking became commonplace: "Some programs have nasty messages that bark at the errant user, warning against making certain entries. These are analogous to scowling monitors in the school halls, and are useful only for making an adult feel like a child. The ideal program is like a tunnel bored through solid rock. There is but one path, the path leading to success. The user has no options but to succeed."
In time, we got a disk drive and no longer had to endure the disgrace and danger of storing programs on tape. I also took on the challenge of machine language, becoming astonished at how much code you needed to accomplish, like, anything. I worked on small routines in machine language and made edits to games directly on disk to give them more lives or, even better, infinite lives.
My proudest hack was for Bill Williams’ Necromancer (Synapse Software, 1982). Normally you would use trial-and-error to look for a bit of code which set the number of lives or decremented those lives but, in Necromancer you had a "strength" number. To finish the first scene you had to lose all of your strength, but losing all your strength on the other two scenes would end the game. Disabling the "reduce strength" routine outright would prevent the player from progressing onto the second scene, so this was not an option. Bear in mind that adding code to a program saved to disk was difficult so I sought to edit what was already there. I hacked it so that holding the trigger on a second joystick enabled the strength reduction routine, which you would hold down on the first scene (maybe with your foot) and release for the remainder of the game. Every tiny victory was another inch up the mountain of code excellence.
In 1991, I headed off to university still devoted to the Atari. Although the Atari computer world was now shrinking, the scene retained many hardcore enthusiasts and we didn’t feel any urgency to move on. We’d spent a decade getting to know our machine; we weren’t about to chuck all the knowledge out the window because of “progress”. Pah.
But I was missing something. All of the games and articles published under my name were lies. My father, happy for me to take full credit, had always been part of those efforts. He'd directed development, honed the writing and put the packages together for submission. What was missing was self-confidence. I wanted to prove that I could create something alone, something I could say was truly mine.
A rite of passage was missing.
I decided to post a video showing a bunch of my early game works - the ugly and the not so ugly, the complete and the incomplete. Don't feel bad if you don't watch the whole thing, just skip through. All of the titles mentioned in this article appear and quite a few more. There is too much ambition (for example, Dungeon Construction Set) and I am very bad at finishing projects outside of my father's direction (Blitz, Runaround, Escape).