How I became a geek
Recently I’ve been reading some of Jeff “Yak” Minter’s nostalgic look back at how he got into writing computer games in the 1980s, and it’s got me thinking about those days, and how it’s shaped my life — or at least, my professional working life. It’s something I have written about briefly before, but I thought I might re-visit it in epic format. (Yes, I fully realise this might bore some people to tears.)
In the early 1980s, personal computers started to come onto the home market. Not the multibox PCs you see nowadays of course, and certainly not limited to the big 3 formats (Windows, Linux, Mac) that you see now. No, there were dozens of different types of computers, usually a single keyboard box, often using cassettes for storage and generally plugged into a TV. (Nowadays they’re trying to get computers off desks and into the livingroom, as a centrepiece of home entertainment, plugged into a TV again.)
I was vaguely interested in technology in primary school, but there were no computers there. I was intrigued by a passing reference to a homemade computer in one of the Mad Scientist Club books, and a diet of television scifi also sparked the imagination.
It was my friend Merlin who first got a computer. He and his dad had been into electronics for some time, and when Dick Smith started marketing a computer called the Wizzard (most appropriate, har har) they bought one. It was a video game console with a bunch of clones of well-known games on it (Donkey Kong became Police Jump), and also had a module you could plug-in to do some BASIC programming.
1983… the Vic
By year 7/1983, we started had learning about computers at high school. While we were running around at lunchtime playing our Nintendo Game & Watches (game of Parachute, anybody?), the school had got a couple of Apple IIs. There were a couple of simple games we could play (I recall one involving being a pirate and searching for treasure and buying and selling coconuts or something; and the inevitable Lemonade stall simulator, a plot device which still shows up in kids’ TV from America to this day, but which never made sense in a non-American context) and they taught us how to drive a turtle around the screen drawing things by programming them in Logo.
They also let those of us who were interested (eg the geeks) loose on AppleSoft BASIC, something which came in handy for doing some very appalling film credits to be used on one of the year 8 student’s equally appalling short films. (Shot on real film, too.)
The movie WarGames came out, further spurring on my interest in computers, and somehow I managed to persuade my dad to buy us one of our very own: a $299 Commodore Vic-20. My sister and I plugged it into the TV, sat down with the manual, and tried it out. In the back of the book was a program you could type in to play a simple game, and I did so. Several times in fact – at first we had no tape player for it, so everything was forgotten the moment we turned it off.
We also had a joystick and a solitary game cartridge: Gorf. I’d never played Gorf in the arcades (I don’t know if it even made it to Australia, I certainly don’t remember seeing it in the arcades). The first level was like Space Invaders. Levels 2 and 3 involved shooting different types of spaceships in different formations, and in level 4 if you either penetrated the shield of the Flag Ship, or timed it right so you could get a shot through the highly vulnerable tiny gap in the hull, the whole thing blew up in a multi-coloured blaze of glory, and you started again at level 1, but everything was a bit faster.
Over time we acquired bits and pieces for the Vic-20: the special curvy Commodore cassette deck to store programs on; a memory expansion board with a mighty mighty 8 kilobytes on it; game paddles — a pair of turning wheels and a fire button each — and the game cartridge for Omega Race, which was a terrifically frantic game, where your spaceship(s) bounced around a play area shooting inexplicably pulsating black and white aliens.
My sister gradually lost interest, and I got a couple of cassette-based games, one of which was a ripoff of the first level of Donkey Kong, which was an absolute pig: the bastard would take a couple of tries just to load off the tape, every time I wanted to play it. Very annoying, and for a thirteen year-old, I’m surprised I had the patience. The other was called Locomotion, and involved switching tracks to prevent trains crashing (another portent?).
Tony in the downstairs flat had a Vic-20 too, so we’d swap hints and tips and play games together. I started amassing computer magazines, and I’d type in listings from them and from Usborne Books, building up my programming knowledge. In the back of my mind I often wondered if I might one day earn a living programming games, earning the big bucks. It did happen to a few — at the time a big part of computer gaming was a cottage industry, and there were examples in the magazines of teenagers who’d somehow coded up something brilliant and managed to market it themselves or sell it to one of the games companies.
1984… the C64
Year 8/1984. More friends were getting home computers too. Raoul got a Vic-20, and like the rest of us who liked Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, had a go at programming it to be The Guide. Conrad had a BBC Micro, because his dad worked for the local distributor. Josh got a Commodore 64, and Merlin dumped the Wizzard (maybe the jokes were getting to be too much) and upgraded to one too. For a while we had a kind of informal computer club going, and I may still even have a newsletter from it around somewhere.
A critical mass of local Commodore 64 users opened up a world of software — in the shops, but mostly pirated. Everyone was swapping tapes, and I was convinced (and in turn convinced my dad) to ditch the Vic-20 and move up to a Commodore 64.
Merlin and Josh welcomed me into the world of the C64 by giving me 5 games on a 60 minute cassette. BC’s Quest For Tires, Impossible Mission and Hard Hat Mack were three of them; I don’t remember the others. Until the advent a year or two later of a miracle called Turbo Tape (I don’t know who invented it, but whoever it was was a genius of the first rank), you would start a game loading, go away for half an hour, and when you came back it would be ready to play.
In Year 9/1985, I moved from Ardoch High on to Melbourne High, and picked up a new set of friends, though I kept in touch with the old ones. Konrad and Matthew both had C64s, and all three of us lived in Elwood. We’d go over to each others’ houses after school and muck around on the computers, playing Paradroid, Archon, MULE and Elite, and swap tapes of games.
The game manufacturers were inventing new ways of preventing copying, of course. Special code that loaded up the tapes in weird and theoretically uncopyable ways; unlock codes hidden deep in manuals of many pages; discs that weren’t completely formatted, so a copier would choke on them. But invariably someone would crack each one.
Arcade video games were also everywhere. They got into milk bars, into laundromats, Luna Park, and swallowed many a twenty cent coin. I was the highest scorer on the local milk bar’s Donkey Kong Junior machine, geekily signing my name “COMMODORE” in homage to my home computer.
I got a part-time job in Elsternwick and saved up my money until one winter’s morning I went to buy a $300 disc drive for my C64, a clone model called the “Skai-64″ from their shop in Barkly Street, St Kilda (they’re still around). I somehow then convinced my mum that I should stay home (“cough, cough, splutter, I’m sick mum”), and play with it all day. I must have mentioned it to Konrad the day before, because he rang after school, rightly suspicious. Like the “official” 1541 disc drive, it took 5 1/4 inch discs, with a mighty 170Kb of storage (per side, but flipping them meant theoretically dust would not congregate in an unused corner of the jacket, but spread around the disc). It was the slowest disc system in history, pumped through a serial port of all things, at not much more speed than Turbo Tape, though later on the FastLoad disc cartridge from Epyx made a big difference.
The magazine and Usborne book pile was getting bigger. I rarely bothered to type in game listings anymore — copying commercial stuff was easier and the games were usually much better — but still bought the mags to feed my interest in programming. A rash of Commodore-related magazines had hit the market, most of them imported, plus the local mostly non-specific magazines, such as PCGames and Australian Personal Computer. Most Saturday afternoons after work I would catch the 246 bus down to St Kilda, play Elevator Action on the machine at Luna Park, perhaps a game or two of Moon Patrol in the laundromat, maybe buy a computer magazine or an LP, then head home.
One magazine, it might have been Commodore User, held a big prize game programming contest, published a bunch of finalists, one of which was a blatant ripoff (code and all) of a game previously published in the US Compute!’s Gazette several years earlier. If nobody noticed before publication, it seemed as though somebody must have afterwards — the contest vanished without another mention.
1987… the Beeb
By 1987/year 11 I was growing tired of the C64, and though all 8-bit computers were reaching obsolesence, was more interested in the BBCs we had at school. Not so good on the game play, but more interesting programming-wise. After dabbling with a Commodore Plus 4 I got cheap from some guy in Watsonia (what a trek on the train that was), I sold the Commodores and with more funding from my dad (which I’m not sure I’ve ever paid back) I bought a BBC Micro with a green monochrome screen (something of a step backwards after the colour TV I’d had for the C64), disk drive and a bunch of other add-ons, from a student in South Yarra — who turned out to go to the same school in fact.
There were some severe geeks in the year 11 computer science class. One group assignment came up to write a Snakes And Ladders game, with the requirement merely being that text tell you how the game was progressing. My group (and one other) instead went the whole hog and drew the board, the ladders, the snakes, and the player tokens, complete with a beeping crescendo as you shot up the ladder, and an appropriate downwards sound for the snakes.
We were taught the ins and outs of the productivity software available at the time: View (wordprocessing), ViewSheet (spreadsheet), ViewSpell (spell checker — Mr Harridge showed us how to create custom dictionaries, giving himself one with the amusing filename “mydic”. Later in the demonstration it ran out of space, giving the immortal error message “mydic is too large”).
Entering 1988/year 12, I took over responsibility for the school’s fledgling electronic information service, Ecofax, which was like Teletext but displayed on the BBC micros around the network. I got to play around with basic Teletext page design, but got into trouble at one stage when a friend decided to publish (with my implicit permission) a hidden page making fun of Mr Buckley. Someone must have told Mr Buckley how to find it, and I got hauled over the coals for it.
Even more shaky ground was the set of pirated games I kept in my account, access permitted only to my fellow year-12s. Some of us tormented the year 9s (Andrew Bulhak in particular), hacking into their accounts (ah, the joys of the fake logon screen), and on one memorable occasion leaving a program running in the background which would periodically insert <hiccup> into the keyboard input.
I picked up some code from the previous year’s departing year 12s, who had started writing a BBC Ultima clone. It was skeletal, but they’d done the display routines in 6502 assembly language. Konrad and I had been planning a role-playing computer game for some time (called “Quest”), so we eagerly took their code, did some optimisation and some work designing proper maps to go around it (the world and the individual villages and castles), characters to converse with, monsters to fight, and even a wanky title sequence (with a embarrassing dedication to the girl I had a crush on at the time).
The school joined in the International Computer Problem Solving Contest, and three of us formed the “Teddisoft” team and won our local arm of the competition, picking up $200 between us, and our names put up on a plaque in the computer room.
I already knew I wanted to get study computers at uni, and I knew by that point that I was aiming for the course at Chisholm Institute of Technology (Caulfield). I would need an Anderson score of 270 to get in, and thus didn’t work too hard in year 12. I lived up to these expectations (apart perhaps from crashing and burning out of Maths B midway through the year), ending up with 295, and off to uni I went.
Into the 90s… minis and PCs
First year uni/1989 was, of course, a world away from high school. Not just the whole environment, but in terms of the technology used. In first year ancient terminals connected to an equally ancient Prime minicomputer was what we had. We studied COBOL (which my mates Brian,
Stewart Stuart, Peter and I dubbed “Crappy Old Bloody ‘Orrible Language”) and JCL, edited files using line editors, and collected the results off a printer. It was as if the entire microcomputer revolution had passed us by.
By second year/1990, not only had they dragged away the old terminals, they’d replaced them all with shiny new 286 PCs. And we were hooking to the Vax and Unix machines, to do work and to try out the newly discovered Internet: specifically Usenet news and e-mail. Brian and I started writing, Brian a serial called Rocket Roger, and me a kind of serial-cum-newsletter called Toxic Custard (you may have heard of it), which I posted to rec.humor and sent to a few dozen people on e-mail.
In our spare time we’d hang about in Peter’s place across Dandenong Road, playing Sim City. I’d do my homework on the trusty Beeb, dialling into the uni network via the 300/1275 modem in 1200/75 mode, printing stuff off on the Epson 9 pin dot matrix printer.
While I had been certain I wanted to be studying computing, some people obviously weren’t sure, dropping out after six months or after first year, even after a year and a half in one case. Lack of attention (okay lack of attendance in lectures didn’t help either) in one subject stream in second year meant that I took an extra year to finish my degree.
In fourth year/1992, I took a subject on interface design, and working on some PCs installed with Microsoft Windows 3, learnt Windows event-driven programming in Visual Basic 1.0. I didn’t realise this at the time, but that would be how I would earn my living post-uni. Just as well I learnt something that stuck at uni, because I hated COBOL, couldn’t quite grasp C (damn pointers), and couldn’t see the point of Smalltalk or Eiffel.
By 1993, I was finally finished with uni, and looking around for a job. I had decided to go for the VB angle, because it seemed the most interesting. Per chance I happened to drop a CV in at an agency the day before one of their contacts went looking for newly graduated lowly VB people. Despite not really knowing all that much about VB, I picked up the job. An initial 3 month contract, it got extended in dribs and drabs to two years, and I learnt a heap more about VB, databases, networking, Windows 3.1, and life in the real world.
My transition from teenage geek to professional working geek was complete.