Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Message to a Young, Newbie Game Developer – Thirty Years Ago Today

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 28, 2012

I’m not sure of the official “ship date” for the Commodore 64, but it was pretty close to thirty years ago today. We had ours on pre-order for months, and it finally arrived on our doorstep in early September – after school had started, much to my chagrin. I’d anticipated spending a summer learning to program the thing and making some totally world-class video games. You know, cheap clones of my favorites from the arcade. Instead, due to various delays, it shipped at the end of August, 1982.

My life was changed forever.

I don’t think I would really change much. But if I could – if I could enter the TARDIS and give my adolescent self some advice from the future about learning to use this wonderful machine, what would I say? I imagine it’d be variations on the same advice I don’t listen to today. But here’s what I’d like to tell me, anyway:

Hey, dude. This new machine you have been waiting for all summer is going to be every bit as awesome as you imagine. There are two things that are going to hold you back from making the most of it: Your lack of technical knowledge, and your lack of discipline.  Both can be fixed with time and effort.

The next few months are going to be fantastic, because there really aren’t that many games out for the machine yet. Yes, this is a good thing. Now is the time that you will learn the most to fill that void yourself. Finish learning BASIC – the new version on this machine is about ten times as powerful as what you’ve used before. But you’ll come up against the limits of that language pretty soon. Don’t stop there! You already know about “machine code” – let me tell you, Assembler is pretty much the same thing but a whole lot easier. Take the time and money to invest in learning assembly and a decent assembly-language compiler. Use the money you would otherwise spend on that useless BASIC compiler. Trust me, that thing will never work right, and won’t be worth it.

Get more comfortable with the math and technology involved. It’s not really that hard, but it does involve practice. Don’t be intimidated by what you need to learn. Most of the time these things just have impressive-sounding names that sound weird, but in the end the principles are pretty easy once you’ve made the minimal effort to tackle them.

But go ahead and write those awesome text adventure games you’ve got planned.  Please! And finish the “Escape from Xyluvion” game, because I don’t remember how it’s supposed to end, but I remember it was supposed to be cool. Forget the whole agent thing, too – just go ahead and submit your games to Aardvark and see if you can make any money from ’em. If nothing else, this will be a chance for you to learn about business. And for heaven’s sake, save your games on floppy, create a print-out of the code, and save both of them in a specially marked safe container so that you might still have them later on in life. ‘Cuz that would also be cool.

Write games and submit them to magazines. You can still do that, now. This requires FINISHING a few more games, which I admit is not much fun, but it’s well worth it in the end. Now is the time, dude! I don’t mean finish everything – the best way to learn is to tinker – but some of your better ideas deserve to be taken to conclusion. Yes, you are still learning, but so are the people for whom these magazines are written! Learn, and share what you’ve learned with others, even if it’s not much. That’s how life works.

You’ll want to keep playing games, especially as more become available for this machine in about six months. Believe me, in a couple of years, there’ll be more games available for this machine than your friends with their Atari 2600s and Intellivisions could possibly imagine. In fact, even those kids with their Apple IIs are going to be floored by everything that will one day be available. Playing games is good. Just don’t get so caught up in playing that you don’t have time to write your own games.You work best when you are hungry for new experiences – you make the games you want to play. Don’t settle. And don’t let your imagination be limited to what you’ve already played.

Oh, and make sure your characters are about four or five levels higher than you think they’ll need to be before you take on Exodus. And make sure you are clear on card order. It will save you some heartache later. You’ll know what I mean in  a year or two. It’ll be awesome. Here’s another hint: In Forbidden Forest, the joystick also adjusts your shoot angle up and down. You don’t need it until the final battle, so it’s easy to forget.

Otherwise – really, just do what you are gonna do anyway.

One last thing, on a completely NOT computer-related point: your first date. Please, don’t make such a big deal out of it, and whatever you do, do not act like such a self-conscious schmuck. Just have a good time, and let her have a good time, too.

Now go make games.

Minus a few of the specific details – and the whole first-date thing – I’d probably give similar advice to a young kid wanting to make games today. I’d NOT recommend Assembly, but I’d probably recommend C++ as a second language after something a little easier. Although nowadays you can do some amazing stuff in Python / Boo, C#, and even JavaScript – so a second language might not be necessary.

The most important things are to not be intimidated, to take the time to learn, to take the time to practice, and to actually build (some) games with the intent of releasing them to the public. Learning is a thousand times easier today, with the Internet, than it was back in 1982. We have resources today we could only dream of back then. But we have even more distractions. Managing time so that you have the time to make games can possibly be the biggest limiting factor to amateur game development out there.

We don’t really have the submission of game listings to magazines anymore. But we do have things like the Ludum Dare competitions or other “game jams” which are better in some ways. They are a great opportunity to practice making and releasing a game to the public. There’s an amazing learning and practice potential jammed into these little competitions, particularly with gaining a familiarity with the game-making process. There’s a lot more to it than first-timers realize, and while making a commercial game is very different from making a 48-hour project, much of it really is just a matter of scale.

But in the end: Have fun. Make games.

Filed Under: Geek Life, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • hexagonstar said,

    Yeah, ditto, except for that it was four years later where I got the C64 and the market was already full with games so it was even harder to care about programming, instead of playing (and collecting) games. But boy, it was the best computer era!

    “And for heaven’s sake, save your games on floppy, create a print-out of the code, and save both of them in a specially marked safe container so that you might still have them later on in life”

    Oh yes! I wish I had done that from the few things I’ve programmed back then (also on Amiga).

  • John said,

    >> save your games on floppy

    I did that, but also don’t forget to transfer them as time passes. I’ve still got the disks with lots of my early (game) programming work… but they’re 5 1/4 floppies and it’s almost impossible to find one of them drives!

  • Anon said,

    And they slowly rot to death on magnetic media (especially cassette or disk) even though some disks seem to have quite some longevity: I’ve read about perfectly readable disks from an Apple II that are older than 30 years.

    C64 software on disks is nearly that old, too, but the disk format has a higher capacity (170 instead of 144KB) and therefore probably a higher density which likely makes matters not better.

    The next question is how good a disk can be read on a different drive. A friend of mine had a C64 in the days and his 1541 drive became so bad he sometimes had to remove the top cover and gently press down the drive head while the disk was spinning (!) so that it could read the contents of the disk. Unbelievable today 😉

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yep, but if I’d had the original disks, I could have backed them up and moved them to different media multiple times by now. But – jussincase – the listings would have sufficed today.

    Alas, I have neither, and my memories are faded. So of course I imagine The Secret of Red Hill Pass and Dungeons of Doom (and the unfinished Escape from Xyluvion) to be far, far cooler than they really were…