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Phil started work on the second installment of the game, "The Dungeon," but left the business before it was finished. His design and some of his code were picked-up and brought to completion by Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal, two employees of Datasoft. The rest of the planned "Alternate Reality" games were never written: "The Arena," "The Palace," "Wilderness," "Revelation," and "Destiny."
How did you first get interested in writing games?
I started writing games when I was seven years old. I enjoyed games, but I didn't have enough of them. I would create board and outdoor games and would get my sister to play them with me. At the same time, when I played with my friends I would create stories, and we would act them out as I created them. So I learned what made interesting games and interesting stories.
While a freshman in high school, I was taking a summer course called Model United Nations and across from the class was the career center. I had planned to become a physician, but I wandered into the center anyway during a class break. There was a student who, after typing on a keyboard a bit, was able to play tic-tac-toe. When he left, I sat down and typed the same sequence—not realizing I was typing in his account and password—and was able to play tic-tac-toe too. That was when I was first attracted to computers. My dad had shown me computers before, but they had seemed so boring.
I decided to enroll in computer classes for the fall. Normally, only juniors and seniors where allowed to take computer classes, but I managed to convince the department heads to let me take the courses. These were self-paced courses, and I quickly completed them: BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL. I started writing my first program—which of course was a game—and decided to call it "Star Wars" because I didn't want to call it "Star Trek." Unfortunately a movie came out later that year called Star Wars, and then when students around the school district played my multiplayer game they would tell me it wasn't anything like the movie.
I graduated from high school when I was sixteen and for one quarter went to the local junior college. Finally I went to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Did you write any games while you were there?
In the first month I wrote a multiplayer game for the Honeywell Multics system based on the tension of a cold war. I also fried the computer by finding a minor bug that caused parts of the operating system to write over itself after the staff had explicitly asked us students to find any bugs that we could.
The multiplayer game became very popular, but finally a student complained that around midnight the computer room would get noisy, and he couldn't get his assignments done. The computer department outlawed games on all accounts that they had authority over. They felt games didn't belong on computers, that computers were meant for more important tasks such as accounting. I moved my game to an account which I had been told by the dean was okay to have games on. I was going to completely remove it from the system as soon the school's tape drives started working again because I wanted my own personal hardcopy of my work. But the university went after me and claimed that the account was not okay, and that it was my fault because the dean I asked for permission didn't have the authority. How would I know that? Well, they prosecuted me.
The prosecutor later tried to kill the honor court charge after he discovered I had never seen a Honeywell Multics system before that month. He said, "At first I thought you were just a computer hacker. After talking with you I realize you're a computer genius." He couldn't kill it, and I got disciplinary probation for having written the game. They were looking at charging me in state criminal court for misuse of state funds for having written the game using a state funded university computer, but luckily he was able to stop that.
I joined the Navy out of boredom at school and disillusionment at what it could provide me. The Navy made me a Nuclear Reactor Operator, even though I wanted to stay in computer related fields. After I got out of the Navy, I moved to Hawaii and lived in my mom's and step-dad's home.
Within two months my step-dad said I had been there too long and that I must leave. I got a studio apartment and did a little work for the university programming educational programs. The professor told me not to make the learning programs too fun, because most of the faculty would consider anything fun uneducational. I always felt they were wrong. I believed that people could learn a lot if you entertained them while educating them. I tried to enroll at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in order to finish getting my degree, but being unemployed I didn't have enough money. When I applied for grants and loans they said I made too much!?! Without a degree the outlook of finding computer related work in the islands was bleak, and the financial outlook for me being able to go to school was even bleaker.
How did you get involved with the Atari computers?
I ran into a computer dealer who was selling Atari 400 and Atari 800 computers. I told him I could program, and he allowed me use of an Atari 400 computer with 32K, a cassette drive, and an assembler that loaded from cassette—no technical manuals. The dealer would call me and read magazine articles mentioning the capabilities of particular chips in the computer, but not what register did what. I would then reverse engineer the hardware, mapping features and behavior with registers. Eventually I ended up living in a shack owned by the computer dealer in the backwoods of Hawaii. There was no running water. Electricity to power the computer came from the jeep of the computer dealer. We would go to the beach and shower using the outdoor showers, a bar of soap, and swimming trunks.
How did you hook up with Gary?
It was serendipitous that I ran into Gary Gilbertson at the computer dealer's store. I was in the final stages of finishing "Beta Lyrae" and had written a musical language. I had put in, from memory, some music I had heard, but it was horrible. To run into a graduate from Juilliard who had the second most popular band in Hawaii in the early seventies was great fortune. We hit it off—professionally and as friends—and he was able to add music and perform anything else that was needed.
I never have been in love with money, and I felt that if we both put all of our effort into getting the game produced we should share equally. Actually, at one point I wanted a larger share. He agreed, but I later said fifty-fifty was fine. I wanted it to be an equal relationship, not one where either party felt they were less a partner in the venture.
What did you think of the games available in the early 1980s?
A lot of the arcade games appealed to me and certain late 70s and early 80s programs had certain aspects I enjoyed: "Temple of Aphsai," the first "Ultima" game, the Scott Adams' Adventure games, "Star Raiders." But most games were fairly crude and didn't properly exploit chaos and order.
How did "The Tail of Beta Lyrae" develop?
Since I only had 32K of memory and no floppy drive, the first game I wrote had to be an action game. I enjoyed side-scrolling arcade games the most, so I had decided to try creating one. Since I enjoy playing as well as writing, I used an infinite scrolling field and a probability engine to generate terrain and objects. I wanted the game to last; I hated playing a game where all I had to do was remember where all of the items were. I liked the future to be unpredictable, but with a degree of order. I also enjoyed surprises, so I made the game change after you had owned it for a while.
At first, Gary and I went to Los Angeles and sold the game door to door to dealers. A few wouldn't buy it when they found out that I had made it impossible to pirate the game using the current versions of pirate hardware; those stores rarely had more than one copy of any game. Eventually we went with a publisher called Datamost. We also added software protection and music to a number of their games. But their royalty statement didn't even add up correctly, so it seemed that they may have been less than up-front with us.
Where did the name come from?
I always had a special fondness for binary star systems and how the gravitational and other forms of energy interact, so I decided to place the asteroid system that the game was played in into a binary star system. I hated how so many science fiction television shows and movies would not get their terms correct, so I wanted to be as accurate to the degree it was relevant. I believe Gary found in a book of his a name of a binary star system called Beta Lyrae. The "tail" came from a play on telling a tale and the setting of a binary star system which only had fragments of rock orbiting it because of the tidal forces brought on by the two suns; these fragments are the tail of the system's creation.
Your games have been known for their well-integrated music. Was having a musical soundtrack important to you?
Yes. Even today most game companies I have visited vastly under estimate the value of music and sound. "Beta Lyrae" had only one song, but it didn't sound anything like what was out there, thanks to the combined strength of a great musician and a language that allowed him to express music in ways much more flexible than were currently available.
Almost all games out at that time used classical music and transcribed the music literally. They also used pure tones for the notes. I had added forms of vibrato, time and frequency shifts, random jumps, and greater frequency accuracy. Gary used these to enhance the effect of the music. He also used the increased resolution of the timing to express emotional context of his songs. Later, I added synchronization of video to audio; this was used in to "Alternate Reality" intro.
What made you decide to do a role-playing game after a shoot-em-up?
I always enjoyed creating complex realities. The direction and creation of stories with my friends as a child are examples of that. They also seemed to enjoy it. I enjoyed how a book could immerse you into a world with just words, and I felt a game should be able to do that through the media of sight and sound. I originally was going to do a science fiction role playing game—tentatively called "The Face of the Galaxy"—but I knew there was more flexibility in a fantasy setting.
Did the design of the game change after you started working on it?
The only change was that the city and dungeon were split. The first game was designed to be what later became two products. This was to provide the programmers who worked for Datasoft doing the conversions enough time to convert the first game in time for the Christmas season.
What was the most difficult part of writing "The City"?
I had no knowledge of 3-D. I was unaware of the techniques and terminology that existed in the academic world, so I had to reinvent many things. I used a vertical, single line z-buffer—though I didn't know it was called that at the time—and a number of techniques to cull the polygons. I used self-modifying code in the loops that did the incremental texture mapping. I did cycle-counting to allow hardware sprites to be in two places at once. It was a challenge to do 3-D fully textured mapped graphics—even with fixed ninety degree turns—on a computer that ran at less than 2MHz and had 48K of RAM. Keeping track of characters' blood alcohol level, disease incubation time, neural and blood poison was not too difficult. It was fun to have a character's reaction time decrease as they became intoxicated, as was the wobbling and finally the blackouts.
The movie-like intro—with pan-shots, synchronized audio and video—was the most fun, though most of the conversions heavily edited the intro and didn't have all of the effects. The 8-bit Ataris were awesome in their day and the Apple II and C64 were hard for Datasoft's programmers to convert my game to, so they cut some corners.
Were the sequels planned out before the original was written or were they designed after the fact?
The sequels were planned from the start. I wanted an interwoven series of games that allowed multiple ways of solving the problems and that had a plethora of plots and sub-plots. I planned to allow players to directly go back and forth between the sequels, with prior games being patchable and having versions. Sadly, in the conversions, Datasoft didn't follow my technique for laying out data on the disk, and therefore the conversions would not be able to bootstrap to other games in the series. But the Atari 800 version always was ready for it. I probably should have tried to control the conversion process more.
Is there a way to "win" the series as it stands? Is there some ultimate goal you can attain?
As it stands, no. My concept from the start was that "The City" and every sequel were to be patchable by later games in the series. One subtle patch to "The City," done in either "Wilderness," "Revelation," or "Destiny," would change the characteristics of Acrinimiril's gate. It would then become a gateway into an alternate universe; the one Acrinimiril came from. You could enter it with the proper knowledge. It would seem like you could always do this, but in technical terms it would only exist after the patch. Thus, you could win with only "The City," but only after the patch.
The series itself had many possible endings. I believe in free will and wanted people to chose their destinies, not have me cram it down their throats. A person in the final game in the series would have to make some heavy choices. Should I annihilate the planet we are orbiting that is populated with aliens who had kidnapped me? Should I just return to Earth? Should I take the alien megaship I am in with me to Earth? Should I destroy it? These were all final choices in the end, each with probabilities of certain consequences occurring from those choices.
What made you decide to leave the game business?
The contract we had with Datasoft allowed them to publish "The City" and "The Dungeon," with rights returning to me once they stopped publishing or in ten years—from 1984—whichever occurred first. In return they would give us a share of the profits after subtracting the cost of materials and their programmers who were converting the game. Eventually I could see that we would never see any royalties. Datasoft continued to pay me advances to keep me alive, but that was not what it all should have been about.
Datasoft's president said, "Is it the money? We could work something out if it is." Yes, it was the money. I was tired of having to live off less than $15,000 a year, though the game made millions. Even though it was the money that drove me out, it was my loss in faith that the game business would deal fairly with those who created the products. But I never lost my passion for games. For the last ten years I have been working as a princpal designer of the realtime data systems for the Air Force's Stealth Bomber, but the siren call of games could always be heard.
What prompted you to start thinking about returning to the game industry?
What caused me to take my first step back into the business was an email from a game programmer who had embedded in one of his games a musical system the he called "Advanced Music Processor." That was the name of my musical language so some people thought the game must have been written by me. He replied it was his own musical system but the name was in homage to one of the greatest 8-bit programmers who ever lived. He then said that me doing anything other than game programming is an utter waste of my talent. That, combined with the amazing number of people who still enjoy my games and wish I would get back into the business, have greatly influenced my decision to start my trek back.
When you write a game, what are you trying to achieve? What's your purpose behind game programming?
To me games have an extremely great and still unrealized potential to influence man. I want to bring joy and excitement to people's lives in my games, while at the same time communicate aspects of this journey of life we are all going through. Games have a larger potential for this than linear movies or any other form of media.
What are you up to these days?
Currently, I work for Creative Labs in the Silicon Valley. As a consulting engineer, I specialize in 3-D graphics and games. Someday I will be fully back in the business.
Do you still program in assembly language or have you switched to something like C?
I was a princpal voting member in the ANSI C++ committee, so I would have to say that I have switched to C++, except when absolute efficiency is required—then I use assembly.
Is it satisfying that people still enjoy your games?
Yes, very, very much. I would not even be trying to get back into the business if it was not for the support of people who found something special in my games. Life is very short and one must try to do what one can that best serves man. It's too short to just sit back content and watch the world go by. One is obligated to find ways to help one another. I received much less money creating games than when I worked on the B-2 Stealth bomber, but the joy I brought to so many people with the games is priceless, completely without measure. Never underestimate the power of joy.