Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How I got here – Part 2

OK, OK, finally getting back to the story line I started back on March 4 about how I got into the software and gaming biz. When we last left our hero, he had been learning about the valiant little Sinclair ZX-80.

ts1000_manual The first computer I ever bought for myself was a Timex-Sinclair TS-1000. This was touted as the “first computer under $100”. I bought mine for about $97 at KMart in 1982. This was a slightly re-badged version of the Sinclair ZX-81, successor to my ZX-80. The key difference though was that where the old fashioned ZX-80 had a trifling 1k of RAM the TS-1000 had DOUBLE that! Yes! 2k of RAM.

Through a combination of saving my own money and begging my mom, I soon added the 16k RAM pack for another $49. I also bought my first computer flight simulator – Psion Flight Simulator. Man, I crashed that plane on approach about a thousand times at least. Oh, and we’ll see that Psion name pop up again in a later episode.

The Timex had some amazing features – like the string arrays that were missing from the ZX-80. It could also do crude graphics of an almost bitmap variety. The pixels were just really big – the display resolution was 64x44 pixels.

Tape me away
Like many early computers, a cassette tape recorder was the way you cassette stored programs. This was just a regular old cassette recorder with a cable that connected the earphone and microphone jacks to the computer. To save, you’d press the record buttons on the recorder and the computer would send hellish screeching over the cable to the tape. To load, you’d press play and the computer would listen (sometimes) to the hellish screeching coming to it over the cable. This was not very reliable, so a common practice was to record things multiple times – in case one copy wouldn’t work. If you look at the little number in the circle on the tape picture, that was the number of copies of that program I saved there.
As you look through these tapes, you can see sort of the evolution of the program and my approach to source control and backups as I worked on the game. That’s kind of fun.

I remember there were some contests that Timex had that I entered. One was for the most interesting use of the database program. (I made an English/German flash card database.) Another was for the most interesting use of the spreadsheet program. (I made some kind of club budget tracking sheet.)
And I submitted a couple lame games to Timex magazines for publishing that were rejected.

early_rejection After I honed my skills a bit, there was a whiff of a possibility of making money writing software. I began working on a kind of economic simulation game that started life as “Colony” on the tape above. Ultimately, it was renamed “Astro-Miner” – complete with a glitzy splash screen on start up. I submitted this to a game publisher and received my first rejection letter.
If you want to try out the glory that is the TS-1000, check out this emulator. Someone wrote the whole computer in Java.
I still have the TS1000 and last I checked it still works – although the RAM pack doesn’t. I used to keep it in my desk at work. And I still have a shoebox full of cassette software for it – including Psion Flight Simulator.

The one and only C-64
In 1983, Commodore came out with the amazing Commodore 64. It c64 was a pricey $595. Not long afterward though, they had a trade-in promotion (I tried to find the ad on the web but couldn’t) – trade in any other computer or video game, working or not, and they’d send you a $100 rebate. Somehow, I convinced my mom and dad to pony up.
Oh man. I still remember the smell of the ozone when I plugged that thing in for the first time.
The C-64 was way ahead of anything else I’d worked with. Sprites, bitmap graphics, gobs of memory, stereo sound.

Sometime in here, when I was a 9th grader, my dad had a heart attack. He recovered, but that took time and being self-employed that meant there wasn’t much money coming in. Somehow, they still bought me a disk drive for the C-64.
Now, Commodore drives were “intelligent” drives. They basically had another computer inside them that was almost as powerful as the C-64 itself. This made them pretty neat, but also very expensive…several hundred dollars. This was a sacrifice for my family. I kind of knew that at the time, but when I think of it now it is huge. I’m guessing that drive was about the same as a house payment.

I worked on some games for the C-64, but I never really completed any that felt the way I had envisioned them. Although I still remember when my mind fully wrapped around what it means to animate a sprite. And I remember the first time I did a “walk cycle” that was synchronized with sound.
My mad skilz were just not up to delivering really good game experiences. HOWEVER, I did stumble on an economic niche and made my first “serious” money programming.
You might remember that in the mid 80’s there were little mom and pop video rental stores all over. This was pre-Blockbuster and pre-Red Box. A lot of times, you had to pay to join these stores and since a lot of people didn’t even own VCRs, they rented those too.
I started doing some consulting work for one local store and ended up writing some software to replace their index card-based paper system.
Then I sold the same software to a couple other stores.
Hey, this idea of writing something once and selling it multiple times…that’s pretty cool! Like printing money.
Here’s the surviving master copy with a prototype of the function key overlay that went with the software.


I had a Commodore 128D which was also awesome, and a couple different Amigas – awesome again. But I still have that original C-64 and disk drive and they still work. I could no more get rid of those than chop off my own arm. Seems like it would be ungrateful. After all, old timers say, “you dance with them that brung ya.”

If you want to try some of these vintage Commodore machines, check out the WinVice emulator. I’ve tried a lot of them and this is one of the best.

Seeing other people machines
While I was in high school, I had a chance to work with Apples in the computer class. I remember being in there actually on the day the shuttle Challenger blew up. Of course, it was passé at that time for people to watch the launches at school. Our class was doing an animation assignment. I think I was doing a juggling clown. Our teacher came in and said, “People always say they remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot. You’ll always remember you were in my class when the space shuttle blew up.”
We thought he was joking and one of the kids switched his animation work to a rudimentary space shuttle blowing up.
Anyway, Apple II’s sucked – and not just because they made the shuttle blow up.

I also remember being asked by one of the school counselors to have a look at a Data General One portable he was thinking of buying in like 1984-ish.

One last story for this installment
I basically ran my consulting business from the office of a teacher at the Payson High. I’d actually cut other classes and come there to work on the program (which was really pretty big), or maybe do my books, or talk on the phone with customers. Sometimes, I’d even leave school for an hour or two to meet with clients.
Man, I’d be so mad if I found out my kids were doing that. :-)

Next time: PCs, and handhelds, and consoles – oh my.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A netbook is in the house

My 16 year old daughter bought a laptop yesterday.
My first instinct when she said she told me the plan on IM was to try to talk her out of it. But then I reconsidered.
She as a regular job and probably works more than she should. She has quite a lot of money saved. Basically, she is buying the laptop with hear earnings from working a lot of hours during "mid-winter break". (a week off in February - just a crazy Washington thing)

So she bought an Acer Aspire One - pink of course. She paid about $325 including tax at Fry's.
These pictures don't give a good idea of how small this thing is because the mouse that is plugged into it is also very tiny. (it has a touchpad, but also includes a mouse, which is nice) Here's a video if you want a better look at the size - although this is a slightly different model.

It's a netbook, so no DVD drive. It weighs about 2 pounds, has a battery that seems to run over three hours (in our limited testing so far), and has a very nice screen. This model has a hard drive - which some netbooks don't. 160 gigabytes, so plenty of room for music, games, Office, even ripped movies.

This is a very cool machine. Nice and speedy. Good, if small, keyboard, fantastic screen, all the right ports and plugs for networking, memory cards, USB, etc.

Just what every young girl needs.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What is Facebook?

This is pretty funny. Some of the stuff on the screen shots is, ahem, questionable. Just don't read too closely.

How I got here – Part 1

No, you don’t need to block this site from the kiddies.

As I think is clear from some of the other entries, I have the great privilege of working on Xbox 360 at Microsoft.
Now and then I just think about how I came to be where I am in life professionally. It’s been a bit of a twisting, but interesting, road.
I think I totaled up the money my parents spent on computers (not video games) and it was something like $5000 all together. Throw in another $50 in various change I didn’t return or swiped off the counter to buy floppy disks or magazines.
Hey, not a bad investment.
On the other hand, I remember saying something about video games to my Bishop when I was about 17 and he quoted me this verse from Paul:

1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

To be honest, I still struggle with that. Of course, who knew at the time that this was actually a way to make a living.
I had this conversation with a friend of mine the other day who is the head coach for a university golf team. He says his bishop told him the same thing once. <shrug>

But on with the show…

That first “console”
tv_scoreboardStagflation. A lame Democrat president. Bad music. Worse clothes.
Nope! I’m not talking about 2009, I’m talking about the late 70s!
Sometime around maybe 1978 or so, our family got our first video game. This was a big deal at our house because my dad, like everyone’s dad at the time, was concerned that these games would ruin the TV and ruin their kids eyes. (The concerns that video games would make you rob liquor stores or turn into a dork would have to wait for Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft to be invented.) It was a Radio Shack/Tandy TV Scoreboard. We had the extra fancy model with the cool black gun and two shooting games in addition to four flavors of pong.
The knob on the left could detach from the main unit and was attached with a cord a few feet long for player 2.

I was about 10 at the time and this unit was a great choice as far as I was concerned because when we weren’t playing with it on the TV, I could play with the gun and use the game with all its knobs and switches as part of an imaginary airplane cockpit or some sort of space paraphernalia. The unit could run on batteries (the AC brick was optional) and the sounds came out of the game itself, not the TV. This made it all the better as a toy because it would happily beep and boop if you turned it on.

Not sure what ever happened to this thing.

Enter Atari
Christmas 1981. Reagan was president and the whole world was looking up. :-)
I wanted two things more than air that Christmas – an Atari 2600 and the Missile Command game.
Remember, wanting an Atari 2600 in 1981 was like wanting an Xbox 360 or PS3 now. They weren’t cheap.

christmas81_smI got up super early that Christmas morning and saw that Santa had indeed coughed up the goods. In the darkness I tried to connect it to the main TV, which was color. No joy! Not to be defeated, I went and got our little black and white “portable” TV and hooked it up there and that worked. (We did get the color TV hookup sorted out later on Christmas day.)

The 2600 “cyclops” version of Missile Command with it’s one silo in the middle seemed amazing.
I was thinking the other day about the cost of those games. Eventually I had quite a lot of them. While most of mine were bought on discount (go K-Mart!), I remember a couple that I got for full price of about $30 or so. Again, not that far from what you pay today, especially considering inflation.

One of my friends who also had an Atari got this crazy cartridge called BASIC Programming. It came with these little keypads with overlays and let you do things like flash colors on the screen. It didn’t seem very fun to me. Perhaps that was just my innate sense that this kid pronounced “GOTO” as “GOT OH” rather than “GO TO”.

One red letter event around the Atari 2600 for me was that in June 1983, 20th Century Fox shipped a rather lame game called “M*A*S*H”, based on the popular TV show. You see kids, even back then games based on TV and movie licenses were AWFUL.
Although I was a big MASH fan, I never had this game, but Fox, sensing they had just shipped a massive turkey, also announced the “$25,000 M*A*S*H video game design contest”. As a future Microsoft Program Manager, I set about designing the most amazing game – without realizing that it was light years beyond the capabilities of the hardware. I had diagrams and screenshots. I had about three pages of text describing the plot of “Radar’s Litter Jeep Rescue”. I boiled this all down to 50 words and dropped it in the mail on the last possible day. And I actually won something, though not quite $25,000. I won a Turmoil game cartridge. My prize came in the mail with a little orange photocopied strip of paper telling me I’d won 2nd prize. I still have that little strip of paper. Dude, that game would have been awesome.
I actually work with a guy who used to write games for Atari. It was sometimes a hellish place to work, and it was just a job for him, but I have to try hard not to have my eyes twinkle like a star-struck schoolgirl when he tells his war stories. I know. I know. I’m ashamed.

2600Unlike the Radio Shack game, I know what happened to this one. When I was married and lived in Spain (1990) I sold it to a Spanish dude at a garage sale with a bunch games. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I sure hope he had a multi-system TV or it wouldn’t have worked at all.

Jon, meet programming. Programming, Jon
Commodore_4032 When I was in 6th grade, I was pulled into this “special class” of kids that was formed. We were going to have various enrichment experiences. The first one of these is that we went to Brigham Young University for several classes to learn about computers.
These weren’t just any computers, they were Commodore PETs. This was a mind-blowing acid trip of an experience for me and was clearly a formative experience.
I also remember my dad came to one of the classes because he was helping drive kids. My dad was a small businessman and he worked a lot. This wasn’t any kind of huggy kissy moment, but it stands out as one of the relatively few times he took time away from work to do something with me in the day.
Hey Payson Middle School your teachers all had big belt buckles, but good job on this program!!!!
In addition to, unknown to me at the time, defining my life’s work, it also set me up as definitely a “Commodore Man” for as long as that meant anything.
One of the things that made the Commodore’s cool is that they had game graphics right in their regular character set. This was good because this generation certainly didn’t have anything like bitmap graphics. But it was super easy to make a card game, a little spaceship or racecar going up or down the screen, etc.

A computer? At our house?
280px-ZX80 Sometime that summer, my dad combined with another kid’s dad who combined with some other people I don’t know and they bought a lot of Sinclair ZX-80 computers in some sort of auction. I guess I was about 12 at that time.
The Sinclair ZX-80 had 1k of RAM and no string arrays. Half of you are asleep now. Suffice it to say that it was tiny and it was crude. But it had BASIC and hooked up to a TV and tape recorder. This picture doesn’t show clearly how tiny it was. It was definitely smaller than this little Maxtor external hard drive I have sitting by my monitor right now.
I learned a ton on that machine, all in BASIC – including what it is like to run into the limits of memory or features like the no string arrays.
Wanting to impress my dad, I set about to create an inventory program for his business. This was my first stab at gathering and validating requirements, designing a solution for those requirements, cutting features, building demos, etc. Unfortunately, just based on the limits, I never got past the smoke-and-mirrors demo stage on that inventory program. (Again, setting me up for a career as a Program Manager - little joke there.)

Probably one of the strangest things I did with this computer was make music with it. How would you do that on a machine with no speaker and no audio output? Well, as it turned out, various instructions executing in the Sinclair changed the radio frequency interference it created. If you put a radio close enough to ZX-80, and then had a meaningless program just execute the right instructions in a fast series, you got some fuzzy, buzzy and yet FREAKIN’ AMAZING sound coming out of the radio. (Mind you I didn’t invent this. I read about it somewhere.)

Thanks Sir Clive!

We didn’t know it at the time, but, as we’ll see in part 2, this machine really paved the way for my future in an unexpected way.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It’s here!!! Halo Wars

Halo_Wars_-_Cover_Art_-_Final OK, OK, I confess. I'm not a Halo guy. I'm more of a Ghost Recon guy. Maybe I just like shooting people more than aliens.

I think we have a copy of Halo 2 (limited edition no less) kicking around, but I haven't played it much, for a couple reasons.
First, I'm no blushing Betty, but the language...let's just say that I can't play it when the kids are around and I'd rather have my kids around than play Halo. Since I never played the single player and didn't know what was going on, I never got into the multi-player.
Grunt Second, I just don't buy the premise of all these disparate alien races teaming up to kick our butt. I mean you've got these big “Brutes” and these goofy little “Grunts”. I think about ten minutes after they left home the big guys would have killed the little annoying ones just for bouncing around in front of the TV on the spaceship. (And yes, I did research all these names just to write this blog entry…my dedication knows no bounds.)

Anyway, I got an advance copy of Halo Wars last Friday (have I mentioned today that MY JOB IS AWESOME?!?!?!) and it is a total hoot. Luckily, I had time to play it because my “chore” for Saturday was mainly sitting around waiting for house painters to come and do estimates, and the rest of the fam was out doing other things.

Halo Wars is the real time strategy (or “RTS” as the 30 year olds who live in the basement say) game based on the Halo storyline. Ensemble (rest in peace), the masters of the RTS with Age Age_of_Empires_Coverartof Empires bring their magic to the Xbox 360.  Some reviewers have complained that the controls and the game overall are "dumbed down" to make it suitable for the console. I think they mean to say it has been "made FUN" for normal people who don't live in their mom's basement and buy special keyboards to play games on (Timber Wolf? Should be Lone Wolf – if you get me).

Hornets One of the coolest things is the attention to detail on the graphics. I upgraded my Hornet (little helicopter/airplane thing) to add two marines as additional gunners hanging off the sides. And there they were. You could zoom in and see their little legs dangling while they popped off enemies with their rifles. I know it seems lame to call out that the graphics are cool on an Xbox 360 game. It wouldn't have much of a chance if they weren't cool. But from the other RTS games I've played, I just wasn't quite expecting this level of "charm" in the little space marines dealing death from above.

Jackal2 The biggest problem I've had is, since I don't know what the heck all these characters are, when the computer voice warns me "The enemy is training Jackals." I just go, "Yikes! Sounds bad!"

I'm still just playing the skirmish levels on "Easy" and I'll probably never be any better at this than I am at Age of Empires, but I really don't care about that.

On another note entirely…

I saw this story about a proposal that went a bit awry. Of course, turns out it is an LDS couple. Just had to be.
But I don’t want to give it away.