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.
Let’s rewind a little. A pathetic pattern of unfinished projects and half-baked prototypes had been broken through discipline. I had set my sights low and dedicated myself, no matter the cost, to finishing one project, The Citadel (Joel Goodwin, 1993). Now I was vindicated. I really could walk the talk. I was a warlock of the 8-bit Atari home computer system. I knew of color clocks and processor interrupts, I knew of secret 6502 opcodes and I knew better than to rely on the operating system when writing a game. What next?
I took The Citadel code and spun a Sokoban clone out of it called Orson (Joel Goodwin, 1995) which became a bonus game for New Atari User disk subscribers. A few months later, New Atari User also published The Citadel as a disk bonus, since the game was no longer being sold. Orson was snappier than The Citadel but the latter was more interesting to play. Somewhere along the line I decided I would make a Citadel II.
But where did that decision occur? Having reviewed the documentation of Citadel II closely, I’ve discovered my memory might have been in error. It’s hard to see here, but on the GUI sketches, I’ve scribbled in “(c) 1994 Joel Goodwin”. Which means I was designing Citadel II in the year before Orson was published. Which means that my retelling of the past, long believed, that Orson led to Citadel II… might be in error.
My nasty little secret was that discipline had fallen out of fashion. Ambition was back in town! I kept scribbling out ideas which were too unwieldy, too dangerous. For example, I’d become obsessed with developing the storyline of Orson – sentient robot risks life in exchange for false promise of freedom and blunders into interstellar politics – into a six-part series which aped the mechanics of Flashback (Delphine Software, 1992). I daydreamed each plot twist, every emotional moment: betrayals, protests, war and – of course! – the inevitable destruction of civilisation. I had everything. Everything except actual game design.
It didn’t stop there. Rage, a side-scrolling shooter. A procedurally-generated space exploration game called DeepStar. A game-centric operating system replacement DAVE (“Damnfine Audio-Visual Engine”). My own take on the Alternate Reality series (DataSoft, 1985) called Nightspire. A fully three-dimensional racing game called Chronotide. A version of the classic pipes game called Ooze. Runemagic, a trilogy of games based on C64 game The Staff of Karnath (Ultimate Play The Game, 1985). An interactive fiction about domestic violence provisionally titled Suicide Dancing. I shouldn’t omit my Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) clone as well. I’m sure this kind of daydream paralysis is familiar to a lot of fresh-faced game developers.
Fortunately, discipline wasn’t entirely lost. I tried to make up for all those “lost” years where I hadn’t produced much of note through machine-gunning articles and games at New Atari User, which was now one of the last surviving Atari magazines. Although I was having no luck with the big projects, I was at least able to churn out magazine-worthy efforts which I was proud of. Before New Atari User went out of business in 1998, they published everything I sent them except for Ed, the only sprite editor I knew of which supported editing and animation of multi-coloured sprites.
Now you know where I was when I talked to Geoquest Dude. What I was really doing was fishing for compliments because that’s what you do if your head is packed with dreams and you lack the willpower to make something out of them. He let me down gently, explaining it would be best if I concentrated on my PhD research and, if I was going to work on anything, I should learn the C++ programming language. I took the C++ advice but tried to ignore the rest.
Eventually, though, it got through. This poison to my dreams. Wads of design notes and dot matrix printed documentation of my tools and macros lost their lustre and purpose. I was fighting to make my Atari education feel relevant but the truth was obvious to all those people around me. The Atari scene was kaput. Sure, there were still active enthusiasts on the comp.sys.atari.8bit newsgroup like Bill Kendrick and others building custom hardware like Nick Kennedy and Steven Tucker who bridged the gap between PCs and Atari computers. Something else happened though. My desire to make games died.
Within 8-bit culture, aside from a few works such as the bar-raising efforts of Lucasfilm Games, everything looked achievable to me. I was amongst peers. I could take apart every Atari game mentally and figure out how they were made. I saw no mysteries, only challenges. During the nineties, I was only dimly aware of a PC gaming scene so if I wanted to play new games, the action seemed to be in consoles. Between the luscious visual detail of Sonic the Hedgehog and Jesper Kyd’s pumping title theme of Red Zone (Zyrinx, 1994) I concluded that the dream of a hobbyist game programmer making it through solitude, grit and determination was anachronistic, just another relic of the Thatcher era. Games of the future would come from professional teams.
The straw that demolished the camel’s back was noticing my obsession with writing stories for games. Game design as an excuse for fleshing out a fictional world? Why didn’t I just write a bloody book instead of shoe-horning stories into crappy game clones that I wasn’t going to make anyway?
Fifteen years of learning was over. Fifteen years of honing my Atari programming spellcraft was over. Fifteen years ending with a final full stop. No ellipsis, no promise of another season, no hint of a plucky comeback.
But when this penny finally dropped it was covered in barbs. All those refined programming skills were useless, the boy ahead of his time became the man out of his time. I hadn’t paid attention to what people were actually doing with modern computers and missed all the changes in software development practices. I was self-taught and, although some discipline came along for the ride, I had adopted a hack-and-slash style of coding warfare. I didn’t know anything about version control, object-oriented programming or even humble C. I had attached myself to dead systems, a technology necromancer, whilst others had embraced a brave new world. The thought of getting a modern programming job seemed terrifying. The child programmer genius with the magic typing fingers… was unemployable.
It wasn’t all DOOM II and gloom. As my PhD came to an end, industry was crying out for programmers and companies were flush with training programmes to bring fresh young faces up to speed. In 1997, I joined a company that produced software for financial institutions, and learnt the ropes along with every other graduate. Just another statistic, another number on the office roster. I lived with the knowledge that I was just this guy, you know? The prodigy was dead. I was now average and adequate, on the same treadmill as everyone else.
Years passed. I let my creativity lapse.
But a strange thing happened on 29 February, 2004. I received the following email.
Dear Mr Goodwin. Me and my friend enjoyed your atari game so much that decided to release the PC remake of your great game. I will be happy to get feedback from you, the author of the original game, it is really important for us and I also hope you will find our version of the game interesting. It has low requirements (dx7, 2d video 32 mb).
Ten years after The Citadel’s release, ten years after just 26 copies were sold, someone had created a remake! The game was called The Return to Citadel (Byxon Games, 2004). I checked their website to discover, with a shock, that I was even credited on their web page (attribution since removed). The developer sent me a free copy of the game and I dabbled with it.
I had mixed emotions. I was definitely flattered. The mechanics of The Citadel were not unique; if someone copied my Frankenstein-blend of mechanics it didn’t matter. But Byxon had reproduced all of my levels, levels forged one summer in my girlfriend’s house. I felt cloned! But there was nothing to be done about it. I chose to be happy that someone had been so moved by a game I designed they remade it a decade later.
Still, I did not like the game. Everything was shiny and pulsating, alive and distracting, smothered with irritating, bland music. It lacked the abstract simplicity of the original design and bore the hallmark of a casual game, overdressed to appear expensive and polished. It was light years from the aborted Citadel II. To think this game was selling at $30 a copy and I… what if… what if…
My game development spidey-sense was tingling but I couldn’t convince myself to leap across the knowledge gap from where I was to being a new millennium PC game programmer. Learning to make a game with PC technology seemed like so much hard work. I didn’t have the time nor the inclination. It didn’t feel the same.
My generation was raised on the home computer and many of us learnt to program and make stuff. Much of our output was derivative but we were figuring out videogames for the first time. This was an era where Atari released a nuclear reactor simulation as part of its official home entertainment line up. We could do anything. We could make anything. We could send it to a magazine or just distribute it amongst our friends – a friend and I exchanged cassette tapes carrying messages coded up in BASIC. It was a democracy. But as the nineties dragged on, it seemed like this home computer revolution had been switched for a fascist corporate state. Games were expensive to make and needed time, money and people. Reports of programmers being used as grist for the game industrial mill began to leak out and I realised this was no life for me. When I made the video “Eulogy for an Atari Childhood” it wasn’t just a eulogy for a phase of gaming but of a phase of game development democracy: I buried more than just games in its final scene. Whither the joy of game development?
But fast forward with a big whooooshing noise to present day. New tools like Flixel, Stencyl, Unity, Twine and GameMaker have tamed game development and the internet has filled in where the home computer magazine and its type-in listings left off. Democracy is back in style.
Today’s fantastic explosion of hobbyist game development fascinates me because I find it so nostalgic. It might sound counter-intuitive, but this is precisely why game-making advocacy book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (Anna Anthropy, 2012) never struck a chord with me. The book fails to acknowledge that we’ve been through one cycle of discovery, the 80s home computer boom, during which one generation figured out its voice and direction through computing technology. These days are different; these days are the same. I don’t doubt that we are having to fight the difficult legacy of previous videogame decades but today’s cutting edge is built on the cutting edge of before, just as tomorrow’s will be built on today’s. The future is built on the past.
Those of us who grew up with this crude, silicon magic were changed by it. Fortunately, we’re not the last of our kind.
(There is a short addendum to this series.)
- Programming as magic is an old metaphor but is particularly apt in explaining how programming feels. Zinesters has a whole chapter called “The History of Magic” although Anthropy has a different take on the magic angle: assembly language is an arcane art which keeps out ordinary Joe.
- There’s no mention of early high-level languages in Zinesters and it might appear that it was impossible to create games without being an ace programmer. Mastering assembly language was a badge of honour, but many, many awesome games were written in Atari BASIC. Performance problems associated with Atari BASIC could be mitigated by leveraging machine language subroutines that were widely available in magazines and public domain libraries for moving memory, drawing sprites and so on. These were provided for others in the same way as modern frameworks such as Flixel tried to open up game development. Strong enthusiast communities emerged through local user groups and… fanzines. New Atari User started out in 1982 as a fanzine called Page 6. With regards making money, games written in BASIC were harder to turn into commercial properties because of both language fascism and the limitations of the language – I recall Turboflex (Llamasoft, 1982) and Chris Crawford’s Scram (Atari, 1981) – but you could still make a little from magazines during the good years. Better language options such as Action! (OSS, 1983) and the incredible Turbo-Basic XL (Frank Ostrowski, 1985) became available later, but Atari BASIC was the de facto language for amateurs, a position Atari consolidated when they later decided to ship it with every computer by default. What is vitally different today is that performance and language are no longer concerns.
- Zinesters also references the 1970s to suggest game-making has been closed for decades: “But in 1975, there was no way to make a game on a computer without understanding a computer inside and out.” The home computer boom did not begin until the end of the 1970s and videogaming didn’t really take off until 1978 when Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) hit the scene. Pioneer games like Pong (Atari, 1972) and Tank (Kee Games, 1974) staked out early populist territory and Atari got its console out in 1977. Let’s not forget mainframe games like Empire (Peter Langston, 1972) and Colossal Cave (Crowther & Woods, 1977). Videogaming was being created so arguing that gaming was a closed field is technically true but puts a bit of spin on reality. Hardware was the problem: expensive and lacking standards, it was virtually impossible for anyone to play games. The personal computers of the mid-70s such as the Commodore Pet and TRS-80 were cranky, unfriendly things and aimed at people with large wallets. Once open platforms were created – home computers – events moved pretty fast after that. And, let me be absolute crystal clear here, it was gaming that drove the home computer boom.
- If there’s one problem with the history I’ve presented here, it’s that my claustrophobic marriage to Atari computing means I was ignorant of the PC programming world. Although I felt the 90s were corporate and game-making was out of the reach of amateur hobbyists, stuff was still happening and tools like Kilk & Play and ZZT emerged. I should probably spend some time trying to dig into the decade, to see if there was a vibrant amateur scene that resembled what we had in the 80s.
- Let’s take my historical guess and spin it into a prophecy. I believed consoles pushed out the need for computers, the device aimed at pure media consumption displacing more expensive multi-purpose devices. The average consumer didn’t need all that claptrap like Atari BASIC and a keyboard; a controller and a cartridge slot was all they needed. The home computer market collapsed and only business machines remained. PCs were not sexy and not cheap. You bought one because you had to. And then the internet arrived. And if you wanted to be on the internet, you needed a PC. So we had a new “multi-purpose device boom” and everyone had to have a computer again. Here’s the concerning prophecy I’m leading up to. The demand for PCs meant the cost of access to PC technology, access to game-making equipment, fell. We’ve been seeing attempts to steal consumers away from PCs, though. Tablets and smartphones satisfy humble internet needs, XBox One also wants to be your all-purpose media device too and, look, here comes SteamOS. If this urge to displace multi-purpose devices (tools of creation) with media consumption devices succeeds again, PCs and laptops will become more expensive as demand falls, becoming tools of “serious creators” and business only. So we might yet see a re-corporatization of the gaming space. (I don’t think tablets are an adequate tool of creation when it comes to game-making.)
- I began studying C++ and object-oriented programming (OOP) as requested and wrote a three-part series called Objet D’Art in New Atari User magazine to explain it, using assembly language macros to simulate OOP techniques. I was probably the only person who ever used these macros.
- The story of Orson grew into a monster. I became attached to a new title, Metal Century, but as threads of the story began to extend into millennia in both directions, I had to dump that too. The new title is Pangaea. It remains on a pile called “multi-novel epics I will write one day” and, purely from a writer’s perspective, frighteningly complex.
- Sure, I’d like to return to game making. I’m not the developer I used to be, either. These days I’m more likely to design a game about a threeway that destroys time. You might think I’m joking but I have a folder on my hard drive fleshing out its design.
- The Return To Citadel failed to reproduce Room 21 of the original properly; all of the destructible walls are replaced by blocks, which means the level can be finished in seconds.
- In 2006, I was bored with finance work and flirted with 3D graphics. I bought a ton of OpenGL books and even started an anonymous OpenGL blog – but I didn’t get very far.
- Learning Curve is based on an article I wrote in 2003 on another defunct website of mine, Electron Drift, which was meant to be the spiritual sister site of Electron Dance.