Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Game Dev’s Story – Part I: Discovering the Future

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 9, 2012

They say that a good dramatic story has the hero set out on his or her journey after “two nudges and a push.”  I don’t know that I’m all that heroic or dramatic, but I guess the beginnings of my story as a game developer also has two nudge and a push.

My first significant encounter with computer games that nudged me in this direction was one that I didn’t even play myself. In the fifth grade, I was shown the output on a ream of dot-matrix printer paper from a TRS-80 by my friend Craig.  It was the output from a game of Adventure (AKA “Colossal Cave Adventure.”) I’ve talked on Armchair Arcade’s podcast and here at TotRC about how this one, brief reading of excerpts from this simple adventure game forever changed my perception of entertainment and computers.  It made me see that worlds could exist within computers. It made me see the possibilities of interactive stories (which was reinforced that same year when I began devouring Choose Your Own Adventure books).

Nudge #2 was caused by my same friend, Craig, a couple of months later. He had a birthday party at a major arcade / entertainment center. His mother gave us each a big stack of tokens and set us loose. There were bumper cars in this place that I didn’t even look at. I was fascinated by the video games. My favorite was Star Fire, a sit-down cabinet with explosions that vibrated the entire compartment as you shot down what were obviously TIE fighters from Star Wars. This was total wish fulfillment in 1980.  Now, I’d played video games before, so this wasn’t new. But somehow this experience clicked with me. I had become a video game fan. A casual one. I was telling my brothers about this awesome game, and was anxious to play it – or some of the other games I’d tried – again. Video games were now on my radar.

(WHAT? No sound on the video? No thunderous explosions? No Earth-Shattering Kaboom? *Sigh*)

Then came the push. For this one, I may need to explain a little bit. I was adopted by my stepfather, so when I talk about my dad, that’s usually who I’m talking about. The guy who gave me my DNA I call my “father.” Weird difference, but that’s family relationships in the modern world, right?  The summer following the above experiences, I was on a road trip with my dad to a conference in New Mexico, followed by delivering a car to my brother at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, finally ending with me spending a month with my father in Adieville Illinois. If you ever heard of the place, then you are one of a very few.

Anyway, this road trip had some serious downsides, not the least of which being my mom and dad running into marital problems which he discovered over the phone while we were ensconced in a hotel room in New Mexico. They did end up resolving it – mostly – and stuck together for a few more years, but it was a pretty trying time for us both.

For about three or four hours a day during the three-day conference I was on my own at the hotel.  I had just discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and had my books with me for the trip, so I entertained myself designing dungeons and imagining adventures I could share with others. But then I found the Game Room at the hotel.

The Game Room was pathetic, really. It had three games – Asteroids, Star Hawk, and some crappy game I don’t remember and didn’t play much. But I spent a good deal of time (and money) playing the other two, and watching other people play, and analyzing the vector-graphics screens. I tried to understand the internal rules of the games. At first, Star Hawk was my favorite – probably because of the first-person 3D effect that I loved in Star Fire (and have enjoyed ever since…).  But I slowly gravitated towards the vastly more interesting (and complex) gameplay of Asteroids.  I watched a few experienced players play the game, and discovered how my simple strategy of staying near the center and only moving to avoid collision was inferior to the ones these players employed to rack up scores over 100,000. They were always moving, and always taking advantage of “wrap around” effect of the borders to shoot objects on the other side of the screen from comparative safety. And of course, they’d take care to avoid destroying the final asteroids so they could rack up the big points hunting down saucers with reasonably clear battlefields.

At this point, I was actively hunting down “electronic games.” Arcade machines, hand-held games (like the popular Football game everyone had at the time).  The games were not only an escape from boredom and some emotional trials, but they were simply fascinating in their own right. In Addieville, a little tavern & sandwich shop called Bobby’s Hi-Lo held an Asteroids machine and Pac-Man. Pretty much every quarter I had went into those machines, often to the strains of country music coming out of the juke box (Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” is forever paired with the thumping background sound, saucer warbling, and “pew pew pew” noises of firing guns from Asteroids in my psyche from that month.)

It was also during that month that I came across the realization that these games were made by somebody. My father had remarried (which proved to be very short-lived as well), and my step-sister had told me that her uncle made computer games. HOW, I asked her. How does somebody do that? How would one tell a computer what shape and size to make the space ship, or how lasers were supposed to fire, or how the game world rules were supposed to work? Or more specifically, how could *I* do that? She didn’t know. Neither did I. To me, computers were still room-sized machines with reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards, an impression left from seeing too many old, bad Sci-Fi shows.

My impression of computers was somewhat reinforced when my father took me on the job to repair a computer system that had been involved in the launching of Skylab (which had disintegrated in the atmosphere a year or so before). While he worked, I played with a punch-card system. Punch-cards were long obsolete, but this installation still had them (probably unused). I still didn’t understand exactly what a computer was, exactly, but I began to realize with this ancient technology that the punch-cards were used to create instructions for the computer.  And these instructions could be as much for playing a game as for calculating launch parameters for a space station.

And I’d had my first taste of how that could be done. Could I actually make these games I loved to play? I had visions of making my own version of Asteroids. Or Star Fire, but with 3D imperial cruisers from Star Wars that you could shoot chunks out of as you flew around. Or a game like Adventure, but with Dungeons & Dragons – style rules and combat!

It may have been that very afternoon that I had him drive me to the library (in a neighboring town, as Addieville had nothing other than a tavern), and I checked out a book on programming. I checked out another one upon returning home to the Washington DC area at the end of the summer. Both books were impenetrable, discussing opcodes for mini-computers like the PDP-11 or something.

I remained clueless. But I had received my “push” out the door, and was now on a quest. I wanted to be able to make these games myself, as that was the only thing that sounded more exciting than playing them. I started reading magazines (and software catalogs), trying to come to grips with the possibilities of these machines. Not that I actually had access to a computer. I could dream.

I guess my talk about video games and computers must have been loud and constant, as later that fall my dad came home from work one night with a ridiculously cheap home computer. It was “for the family,” in theory, but in reality… it was for me. I was about to learn!

… To Be Continued

Filed Under: A Game Dev's Story, Game Development, Retro - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • DirkDiggle said,

    Thanks for sharing that. It’s always interesting hearing about what games started the initial itch and how you start scratching it. Surprised you remember some of the details but it just goes to show how much impact the events had on you.