Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A video game from the past.

When I was in high school (circa 1975), I built a computer from a kit. I spent days and nights soldering together components and inserting chips. The final box was similar in size to present-day workstations (click here for a photo and specs). That is where the similarity ends.

In those archaic computers, programs were written in machine language, were entered in binary with toggle switches on the front pane and the results were displayed on a couple dozen light emitting diodes. I was excited just being able to write a program that made the row of light bulbs simulate motion.

My dream was to someday acquire a teletype terminal so that I could type in programs and be able to print them out rather than seeing one line of code at a time in glowing red dots. Worse yet, there was no external storage, so once the computer was turned off, the programs disappeared forever. I had well-organized hand-written sheets of papers in a binder with code so that I could quickly re-enter it with the toggle switches in the future.

A few years later, I was ecstatic that computers for the home were available for the low price of a thousand bucks. They still had no hard drive for storage (I would save up for that later), but they came with a built-in keyboard and a plug for a TV set that acted as the display device. I paid extra to upgrade my RAM from 16 to 48kB - today I have almost a million times that amount of memory. Click here for detailed specs of these computers.

When I first got my Atari 800, I was up for 2 days straight writing code under huge protests from my parents. I also had to plead with my frugal parents not to turn off the computer so that my programs would not disappear.

It took me about an hour to duplicate a simple version of that classic computer game called Pong, with an on-screen paddle that was controlled with a joystick and a ball that bounced around the screen making a sound each time it was deflected. I can still see me my mother playing the game, shouting out curses when she missed that little ball. The Atari 800 was great with sound and video, so it was ideal for video games.

After I got my floppy drive (I think it had a few hundred kilobytes of space - my drives now have a million times more) I decided to write a space-battle type video game, which I originally called Star Trap but later had to change to Stun Trap because of copyright issues (another company had already trademarked that name). Before writing the game, I got documentation on how to call special routines that would activate pixels on the screen for animation. I also got an assembly language compiler so that I could write my code in the ultrafast machine language of the MOS Technology 6502B chip.

I spent a bunch of time coding and eventually started a company named Affine Inc. to manufacture and market Stun Trap. After incorporating, I got family members and friends to invest real cash. With these funds, we produced the game, including artwork for the cover of the box(right) and our advertisements that appeared in computer magazines. At that time, we also opened a computer store and ran a mail-order computer business to generate more cash flow.

The final touch on the software end was my own invention for software protection. The game would only run if our disk was in the drive. We made a precise plastic fixture that would hold the disk in place so that we could puncture it in a specific place (we used a common push pin). The program would then write to the location of the hole and check for a write error. The error indicated it was an official version.

Back then, to get a good unit price on the packaging, we had to order several thousand boxes at once. These filled our tiny condo, as did our inventory until we moved into our computer store, with a backroom for inventory and a small sales desk for the mail order business.

Things moved quickly. After our add appeared, we were picked up by a couple big chains in New Your city who bought enough games to stock each store. The games sold for a retail price of about $25 to $30 and and it cost us about $12 to manufacture.

The big break came when K-Mart was considering buying 50,000 games. The downside was that they expected terms of net 30, which meant that they had 30 days from delivery to pay, so that we would need to borrow $600,000 to supply the product. And, they had the option to return the games if they didn't sell. Luckily, the Atari game market flopped before we decided how to deal with such a potentially large sale and its associated risks. Our game sales dried up to zero overnight, and in the end, I believe we sold less than a few hundred units.

The computer store and mail order business continued operations for quite some time, but I had had enough. My one-year hiatus from grad school was getting me itchy once again to do physics, which I did with a vengeance upon my return. The rest is history.

A few days ago, I chanced upon a website that had a screenshot of my game (shown here) as well as the code to run it on an Xbox (someone had taken the time to transcribe the code). Given the few number of units that were sold, I am curious where they found a copy.

It was fun writing the game and producing a product that lives on via the internet. Hopefully, my present activities will be more fruitful to the citizens that support my passions than this game, which was wonderful when viewed though my eyes, but in the end not a very popular product.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone if they are able to run the game on their Xbox. http://www.atarimania.de/detail_soft.php?MENU=8&VERSION_ID=5117

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