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The first programmer hired on at Sierra (then On-Line Systems), he was one of several employees whose stories were told in the book Hackers. He stayed with Sierra until 1993.
What was your life like before hooking up with Sierra On-Line?
I remember that time as being very blah, if not depressing. Out of high school I had landed a great job at the Parker Pen Company, and within three years had worked up to being a Machinist Apprentice, which was what I thought I would be doing with my life. As part of that job, I had become quite fond of operating two injection molding machines and looked forward to the day when I would be able to build the molds instead of only running the machines. I got so adept at running the machines that I could practically do it in my sleep—which was what It felt like sometimes. The weather conditions affected the performance of the machines, and when it was very humid or when the weather was changing, as it often did in Wisconsin, then it was quite challenging and required constant tinkering with the controls. But just as often I could get the machine running smoothly, and then it became boring.
To ease the boredom, I would write computer programs on paper between the thirty second cycles of the machine. Then at night I would enter the programs on the Apple II and see what I came up with.
My life changed overnight when Parker Pen closed my division, and I found myself out of work. Instead of searching for a new job in the Machinist field, I lived off the severance and unemployment pay as long as I could and set about writing a real computer program instead of the nightly kaleidoscope programs that I had been writing. As the money was running out, my mother died, and I ended up taking care of my older disabled brother. I was able to continue work on the Cribbage game I was writing from the money I got from the state for taking care of him.
Where did you get the ideas for your early games, such as those included in 1981's "Thrilogy"?
Thrilogy was three games. "Smash-up" was a rip-off of the arcade game "Head On," a very fun game that was a precursor to "Pac-Man." "Bustout" was of course a cleverly disguised Breakout game. "William Tell" was just an exercise in hi-res graphics and very crude 3-D. The three games were written in BASIC and assembler. They were exercises in graphics and assembler programming for me.
How well did titles like "Thrilogy" and "Hi-Res Cribbage" do in the marketplace?
Just as the floppy disk drive was coming out for the Apple II, I tried a half-hearted attempt at marketing those games on cassette. I sold a couple hundred total but missed the boat by not immediately getting a disk drive and marketing them on disk. Amazingly, a few copies found their way out to California where Ken Williams saw them. At the time, programming in hi-res graphics and assembler was like magic to people and very few knew how to do it. Ken was himself busy writing "The Wizard and the Princess" using full screen 21-color graphics which was unheard of. "Hi-Res Cribbage" sold about two thousand copies which wasn't awful but not a hit.
"Thrilogy" was haphazardly thrown together and marketed at a time that expected more than line drawn graphics. It sold a measly few hundred copies. Had it been marketed a year earlier when Ken launched "Mystery House" I'm sure it would have sold many thousands. But I'm not going to complain about only selling a few hundred copies. After all, the first two hundred copies that I sold on cassette launched my career in programming and game design and guided me to California where I met my wife and now have three children.
What other game programmers impressed you at the time?
Without a doubt, Bill Budge and Nasir Gebelli. Even though I started learning how to program on the Apple II back in 1977, it took me three years to get to the point where I could use hi-res graphics and program in assembler. There were no books to learn from back then and the magazine articles were few and far between. Bill Budge was always a step ahead of me both in graphics and assembly programming. Each time he put out something new everyone would say that they never thought the Apple could do that or do it as fast performance-wise as Bill did it.
Nasir Gebelli wasn't technically ahead of me by much but I found him so impressive by the sheer number of games that he produced one after the other. For about a year it seemed he put out a new game every two months and every time the game was better than the previous one. I was capable of putting together a game every three months or so but I wasn't driven to do that like he was.
How accurate is Steven Levy's portrayal of the early days of Sierra On-Line in his book Hackers?
Steven Levy had a story to tell, and he succeeded at telling a great story. On TV, you'll often see disclaimers such as "based on a TRUE STORY". Of course, they emphasize the "true story" part, when in reality the disclaimer should be "BASED on a true story." Steven Levy's book is no different. That said, the portion of the book that he wrote about me was accurate except in minor details that didn't change my story. In talking with John Harris though, he has stated to me that only about fifty percent of his story is acurate, and that much of it was exaggerated. The John Harris/Ken Williams part of the book was a major focus for Steven, and he played it up for all it was worth.
What made you decide to write "Threshold"? Were you consciously trying to outdo all the "outer space shooting games" of the time?
Ken Williams called me up one day and said he saw an arcade game called "Astro Blaster" at the Ahwahnee Tack and Feed store. We were looking for a project for me to start on, and this game appeared at the perfect time. Instead of trying to duplicate the game in every detail, I set out to just take the concept and run with it—after first playing "Astro Blaster" for hours on end though. No matter how hard we tried, we never could get to the end of that game. There were always more new creatures to discover and that kept us coming back. We set out to provide the same experience for "Threshold" players. The packaging said that there are more creatures out there than we think you'll ever see. It was not unusual for me to get nasty letters from people thanking me for impelling them to shell out $40 in order to be frustrated by never being able to get to the last level. We never told people how many different levels there were but told them that when they saw the last ones that they'd know it. I still play "Threshold" on occasion and can barely get past the sixteenth level, much less the final twenty-fourth level. Oops, I wasn't supposed to tell you.
How long did it take to write?
Threshold took about four months to write start to finish. That includes the two weeks that Ken and I worked together at the start to write the animation engine. Even though Ken only worked two weeks on it, it was a crucial two weeks because with his help the animation was fast enough to produce a marketable product. I learned more in those two weeks about graphics on the Apple than the entire year prior. I guess I should add Ken Williams to the list of game programmers that impressed me at the time.
Was any consideration ever given to a sequel?
I could have had a sequel ready in about a month. We smartly kept the game engine seperate from the data that made up the creatures and their flight patterns and so all that I would have had to do was create twenty-four new sets of data and plug them in which would have been trivial. But there were new frontiers to discover, and Ken wanted Atari 800 and Atari 2600 versions of "Threshold" since it was his goal to make On-Line Systems more than just an Apple company. Looking back on it, it would have been far better monetarily for me if I had made a "Threshold II." "Threshold" sold about 25,000 copies which was highly successful by my standards.
How did your graphics routines evolve from your early games through your last published Apple II game, "Sammy Lightfoot"?
The earliest games were in lo-res: 40x24 pixels. Hi-res was a mystery that only Bill Budge seemed to understand. It was a giant effort to break that barrier, and I was also struggling to learn assembly language at the same time. Remember, there were no tutorials at this time, only what was known as the Big Red Book that came with the Apple itself and that was nothing more than a technical specification. I struggled for two years trying to learn those things, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I woke up at four a.m. one morning and all of a sudden I understood not only how to use hi-res graphics, but I understood assembly too. Never underestimate the subconscience mind.
I've already mentioned the "Threshold" graphics engine, but from there it seems that I learned all that Ken knew about Apple II graphics, and I was back to learning the rest on my own. One problem with the Apple II that bothered everyone was the flicker. Flicker wasn't a problem with "Threshold" because everything was constantly in motion, and you were frantically avoiding all of the missiles coming at you. With "Sammy Lightfoot," I discovered a way to do page flipping so that while viewing a static display on one of the pages, the other page was being modified, and then in an instant the pages were flipped so that the next screen was displayed without flicker. That is a technique that is still used today. I'm not saying that I invented it originally, but I discovered it on my own and used it in a product before almost anyone else.
"Sammy Lightfoot" also employed a crude priority scheme where objects passed behind other objects instead of in front, which would produced an undesirable x-ray type of effect. My knowledge of the Apple II and assembly language improved so much during this time that I could animate a hundred objects simultaneously without a noticeable slowdown, which probably surprised me as much as anyone. To put that into perspective, "Threshold" was said to be the "epitome of arcade gaming yet devised" just a few months earlier by Softalk magazine, and it only animated twenty-six objects simultaneously.
After "Sammy Lightfoot," someone told me that there was a way on the Apple to determine when video-blank occured [the brief period between frames that occurs roughly sixty times per second]. If that moment could be determined then other animation techniques that would be much faster could be employed. By combining the page flipping with the now discovered perfect timing, it was possible to display several more true colors on the Apple; up till then, the "twenty-one colors" bragged about by Ken Williams was accomplished through dithering. For example, display one color on one page and another on the other page and flip the pages at perfectly timed intervals and the two colors appear as a brand new color just as yellow and blue when combined produce green.
One more technique on the Apple was the ability to produce twice the horizontal resolution. Even though the Apple was 280x200 pixels, it was actually capable using advanced graphic routines in order to produce an effective 560x200 resolution. It was my goal to use all of these techniques in future games.
Were there any Apple II games you worked on that never made it to fruition? Any ideas for games you would have liked to have written?
There were three other games that were all written after "Sammy Lightfoot." None of them were ever finished but two of them came close.
I wrote "Sammy's Icehouse" which was to be "Sammy Lightfoot's sequel". It was a lot like the original "Mario Brothers" game. My focus was to have a hundred objects animating all at once without any noticable performance hit. It's a shame it never made it out. It would have probably sold just as a graphics demo earlier.
Another game that also ended up being nothing more than a graphics demo was a jet-pack game. This game was inspired by Atari's arcade game "Major Havoc," which is still my all-time favorite arcade game. The jet-pack game was a full scrolling game on the Apple that used the vertical blank technique in order to accomplish not only flicker-free graphics but also perfectly smooth animation with no jagged lines caused by the page-flip. The game was going to be an arcade shoot-em-up type game that incorporated many strategy elements. When I showed this game to Sierra they were quite impressed at what the Apple was capable of doing but turned me down. The marketplace had changed drastically and there was little room left for Apple games.
Part of the problem was that Apple games were still basically games drawn on a black background. The few games that were selling were the the ones for other computers that were full-color. Well, I knew that I could do full-color on the Apple—and not just the still pictures, like the adventure games at the time, but complete arcade games. A game I loved at the time in the arcades was a motorcycle game where there was sideways scrolling and racing against three others while going over jumps and obstacles. I set about doing a similar full-color game with sideways scrolling but using skateboards as the premise. About a month into the product I realized that the Apple market had completely died and that my attempt to push the Apple II to its limits would go unfulfilled. The Apple II was an amazing machine, and I knew that there were more tricks to be learned even eight years later.
How did things at Sierra change after the video game crash of 1983-1984?
I remember a friend of mine telling me in 1982, right after "Threshold" was released, that I should be working night and day to put out several games a year. I wasn't motivated by accumulating wealth, I just wanted to make games and make a living off of it. Two games a year would be plenty, or even one really good game. My friend, who was not into the industry at all, apparently saw something that I didn't. I guess I was too close to see the big picture of what was happening in the industry.
Luckily I was still freelancing when the crash happened, and so I didn't feel the pain of losing a job like practically everyone else at Sierra. Sierra was about a dollar away from closing its doors. Maybe they even did call it quits; I don't know for sure. All I know is that no matter how good my new games were they turned me down. I was still focused on pushing the limit of the Apple II instead of writing the game that would bring back a market. Sierra was rightly focused on trying to run a business. Slowly, a few of the best people returned to Sierra, including Jeff Stephenson, to begin work on the product that saved the company: "King's Quest."
What did you do during the five or six following years?
The first year I lived off of my savings from "Threshold" and "Sammy Lightfoot," while trying to write my next hit game for the Apple. It was February 1985 when the money ran out, and I had just married and now had a pregnant wife to take care of. So I went to work. I did body and paint work for some friends of mine, and then a couple years later I helped another friend with masonry and concrete work. We often joked that doing body work was "computer motivation" for me. They were right.
One day in March of 1988 I saw Ken Williams at the post office, and he asked me to come to work for him again to work with a new proprietary language called SCI that they had just completed. "King's Quest" was a big hit for them, and they now had the resources to build and expand again. It was an easy decision. Seven years earlier I had moved two-thousand miles on a whim and a promise. This time I lived three miles away. The years from 1988 to 1993 were very good years, and I went on to do the "Hoyle" series and also "Jones in the Fast Lane" for Sierra.
What made you finally decide to leave Sierra? How did it feel to be the last survivor of the old days (excepting Ken and Roberta of course)?
Sierra had created The Sierra Network [TSN] which later came to be known as The ImagiNation Network [INN]. Before Sierra sold their interest in it, I had transfered to TSN because they made the kind of games that had become my specialty through the years: card and board games. It was a natural fit. The only reason I wasn't with TSN from the start was that I was in the middle of another project. "Jones in the Fast Lane" was Sierra's first multimedia product released on CD. I wanted to finish it for that reason, and the opportunity of being with The Sierra Network from the start got away from me.
I was the first programmer that Sierra ever hired in 1981, and Jeff Stephenson was one of the next. We both stayed with Sierra into the days of INN in 1993. No sooner than I transferred to INN that Jeff left Sierra for good. Jeff is a brilliant man and has contributed as much to the success of Sierra as anyone.
I'm still at the ImagiNation Network today and would probably still be with Sierra except for the fact that they sold it to INN completely. Of course, all of my friends still ask me how things are going with my work at Sierra. I'm a person that hates change. The noteriety that I got from being with Sierra so long is a result of that. It is ironic that moving two-thousand miles to make this whole thing happen for me came from a person that hates change.
What are your feelings on the games being released today? Loves? Hates?
I don't care all that much for 3-D games such as "Doom," etc. And I don't like the fighting/combat games. Give me a twitch game in the Nintendo style any day. Just as arcade games crashed in 1984, games that don't support network play will crash if they haven't already. Happily, I am in the right place at the right time, being with the ImagiNation Network.
Do you ever miss the years from 1980 through 1983? Ever feel like dragging out the Apple II and writing something?
I drag out the Apple II from time to time but only to play the games that I have on it. I still play and enjoy "Smash-up," "Threshold," and "Sammy Lightfoot," and also other games on the Apple have that have never been reproduced anywhere such as "Marauder" and "Crossfire." Those were great games!
There is way too much to do to spend time writing code for the Apple. Besides, I'd have to relearn it all. Those years were exciting and unique. You could base an entire game around a single graphics trick that no one has ever seen before, and you could make money at it. I miss the days where I could be a one-man show and take a product from concept to completion and hand it over it to someone to market. Nowdays, you have to have a team made up of producers, artists, programmers, musicians, systems people, marketing people, directors. It's still fun, but I don't get to be as creative as I used to be. My creativity now comes from finding programming solutions to problems instead of working on game design. What I'd like to do is be a Game Designer/Producer/Programmer and lead a development team but I'd have to find a small company or start my own in order to do that.
For now, I'm content being with the company that pioneered the network gaming industry just as Sierra created an industry fifteen years ago. Network gaming has barely begun, and already there is a certain noteriety that comes with being with INN from their early days. The cycle seems to be repeating.