Ten Years Ago

Well, children, gather round ole Grampa Crawford and listen while he tells you about the good old days of computer games. Yep, it was back in the Seventies that I got my start, back when there were cowboys and injuns and BASIC. Yessiree, those were the days, when men were men and programs were in machine language and..well, I forget.

Now then, (ptooey) games were around right from the beginning. Of course, back in those days, games on computers were much simpler than they are today. They were really more like cute little demonstrations of what the computer could do, or programming exercises for the beginner. Maybe that’s one reason why games today are still treated like some kind of sleazy programming. Either way, they were pretty simple.

The first personal computers were of two types: the single-board computers and the S100 machines. They all had maybe a K of RAM yep, that’s right, one thousand and twenty-four bytes of RAM. Most of ’em had a few hundred bytes of bootstrap ROM to load up some simple operating system. I/O consisted of a keypad or bank of switches and some LED’s. It was rough, but it was good enough for starters. All this was around 1976 and 1977.

Now, you might wonder how we managed to do games on those machines. Well, it took some real imagination. Take the KIM-1, for example. (ptooey) That durn KIM-1 had only six seven-segment LEDs and a 21-key keypad. But people were still able to do games for it.

There was Lunar Lander, one of the simplest. You had to land your lunar module on the moon, and you were falling straight down, and you controlled the burn rate of your rocket. It was a first-order differential equation, nothing more, but it sure did impress people. You got a readout of your position (two digits), your velocity, (two digits) your fuel supply (one digit), and your burn rate (one digit). As Spock used to say, "Simple but effective."

We had other games, too: Hunt the Wumpus, BlackJack, Farmer Brown, Hangman, Shooting Stars, and so forth. Farmer Brown was what you might call a skill & action game, if you were charitably inclined. There were six little patterns representing an ant, a bird, a cow, a dog, an elephant, and a fox. The program would try to run one of these patterns across the LED display. You had to recognize which one it was and call out its name (by pressing the appropriate key from the keypad) to scare it away before it made it to the opposite side of the display. I spose it’s not as exciting as Their Finest Hour, but it shore beat shucking corn on a Saturday night.

I spose you younguns would think these games were pretty dumb, but we thought we were pretty smart cooking them up. I mean, just getting anything working at all was quite a challenge back in those days.

But things were changing fast. In 1977 we had three new computers that showed the future. They were the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and the Apple II. There were lots of other computers, but they never got anywhere. The TRS-80, the PET, and the Apple were the winners.

What was remarkable about these computers was that they were appliances. I mean, before them, you had to be pretty good with a soldering iron to own a computer. You had to build it from pieces. These guys were selling the complete package for under $1000! It was great! I mean, these babies were loaded. They had an operating system and ROMs with BASIC built in, their own CRT displays, a ton of RAM (well, at least 4K of it), and even a built in tape cassette for saving programs. Here was the whole shebang.

A lot of people don’t realize, though, that the Apple got off to a slow start. In the early days the horserace was between the PET and the TRS-80. The PET had a 6502 while the TRS-80 used a Z80. The Apple was nowhere to be seen; it was too gol-darn expensive to sell. In fact, it wasn’t until
Visicalc set in in ’80 and ’81 that the Apple really got going-- but that’s another story.

These appliance computers spawned the first commercial software. In the earliest days, software was something that you typed into your keypad, maybe from a listing in a magazine or newsletter. But the appliance computers made software a consumer item, and allova sudden people were writing programs and selling them in stores. Now, don’t get me wrong -- there were no software publishers or anything like that. If you wrote a program, you duplicated some cassettes, typed up and photocopied a manual, and stuffed the whole thing into a ziplock bag, and then sold it to whomever would take it.

Marketing in those days was a kind of seat-of-the-pants experience. When I did
TANKTICS, my advertisting campaign consisted of a full-page ad I placed in a user’s group newsletter; cost me mebbe $50. I went around to computer stores and wargame conventions, showing off my game and selling copies. Most sales, though, came from reviews. There wasn’t much software out there in those days, so anything new got a review. I sold 150 copies of TANKTICS that way.

There were other efforts like mine. Somebody in Canada did a neat little game called
Warlords. Jon Freeman and Jim Connelley started up a company based on their efforts to bring role-playing games to the computer; they called their company Automated Simulations. (It later became Epyx.) Their first game, though, was a tactical space combat game. There was a group in Massachusetts called Personal Software that did a game called MicroChess. (ptooey) They later did something called VisiCalc.

There were no publishers in those days, at least none like today. You had to self-publish your stuff because there wasn’t anybody else who would do it for you. There were no software retailers like Egghead or Babbage’s. Software was sold mostly by mail order directly from the programmer to the user. There were plenty of magazines and newsletters to get the word out, and mail order was the established way to sell.

There were some computer stores, of course, but they weren’t like the slick chains you see nowadays. They were more like hobby shops run by enthusiasts. They’d sell some hardware and whatever software they could find. The software was normally set up on pegboards, because almost everything was in a ziplock bag. There weren’t many software packages in boxes.

I had a job in 77-79, for the University, where I travelled all over Northern California. That job gave me an opportunity to visit a lot of computer stores. There was one in every big city, sometimes two. The small towns, though, they didn’t have much. Nope, they weren’t very common, and every one was the creation of its owner. Some of ’em liked Apples, and some liked PETs, and some liked S100 machines.

Games were a lot cheaper back then. I sold
TANKTICS for $15, and later on I sold LEGIONNAIRE for $10. All the games sold for less than $20. Everything was on cassette, and a lot of games were written in BASIC. Piracy wasn’t considered to be a problem because nobody expected to make much money off the software in the first place, and besides, copying a cassette tape with programs and data on it was a tricky operation, especially when they seldom worked in the first place. Hmph!

Graphics and sound weren’t much to write home about. They PET and the TRS-80 both had black and white text-only displays. The PET had 24 lines by 40 characters. The TRS-80 had 16 lines by 64 characters, I recall. You did graphics by writing characters to the screen, and each machine had, in addition to the regular ASCII character set, a set of special graphics characters.

The big graphics extravaganza in those days was a game for the TRS-80 called
Android Nim. It was just nim, but it sported rows of little animated robots. These guys actually moved around while you played the game! They’d move their heads back and forth and roll their eyes and open and close their mouths, all while they were waiting for you to make your move. It was pretty sensational stuff. I was pretty jealous that Android Nim got all the press attention, while my games, which were much deeper but not as flashy on the graphics, didn’t get as much coverage. Heh, heh, just goes to show, some things never change, do they?

That’s the way things stood as the 80s dawned upon us. Funny thing, I can’t recall many people who had actually published anything in the seventies who are still with us. Besides me, there’s Old Man Freeman and there’s Jim Connelley, too, but that’s about it. All these other young whippersnappers didn’t get into the act until the 80s. I spose there ain’t many geezers like me left. (ptooey)