The Off Topic

Wrote my first commercial game on the Spectrum, sold a whopping 300 copies.
Went from there to an Amstrad CPC64, which never really took off.
Worked on the Amiga, ST, then pretty much every console from Genesis/SNES to PS4.

I was a bit late for the more money than sense part of the games industry, but I know people who did work on the 2600 and were involved in the Activision/Atari thing and later the NES debacle.
Games then cost next to nothing to make, sold in big numbers, and developers got royalties.

There is still an active C64 demo scene in Europe

He was always a great speaker, the primary reason to go to GDC, till they kicked him off the board.

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You’re bringing back memories. Yes, De Re Atari. Don’t have that, but I actually have a Complete set of manuals (all 3 sections, sold separately) for A/UX. I’d been on the phone to Apple support and as they were downsizing the group, one of the folks there sent me the hard to find internal sections. And yes, I was involved in a startup that ran on A/UX. And like most startups, ran out of money before becoming profitable or being bought.

It was an online bookstore/CD media store, a couple of years before Amazon. We talked to Borders management, and they declined to buy us for a song, or use our services, telling us “Nobody will ever want to buy books on the internet.”

Software um … copying. Yes, we did that, knowing that I had Happy drives sort of makes it inevitable. And I did have an 800XL and a 1200XL at one time also. There was this warehouse auction locally when a distribution center was shut down. They didn’t know what they were selling. A few thousand carts, including a few that were stored there but not ever on the market. Lots of hardware. I bought a couple of the Atari letter printers for $25, to supplement the Okidata or Epson dot matrix ones I had. Later had a LaserWriter NT.

When I first got the 800, I did have a cassette and recall using it to run SCRAM.

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Congrats on releasing an actual game, commercially, regardless of number of copies sold!

So … about 60,000 people actually had a copy, then … and twice that probably played it …

Nice!

Commercial games-wise, my work started with the 2600, was mostly focused on Atari 8-bit stuff (though I did C64, Apple II and Spectrum work to some extent), and ended very early in the Amiga/ST era. By the time PC games were a real factor (VGA or better graphics, sound cards and CD-ROM drives, I’d been done for a while).

I also did a reasonable amount of work in discrete, self-contained, electronic games (the sort with pre-formed/overlayed LCDs, LEDs or VFDs that ran on AA or C cells …).

However …

While it was still very much in the era where individual developers could write massive hits, solo, (e.g. Matthew Smith and Manic Miner, for just one example), my games development work was typically not on original titles.

Later in my early-career … I had three particular areas of focus/ability … a) making hardware do things it wasn’t really supposed to, b) arcane and aggressive levels of optimization (performance, space and resource) and c) copy protection.

I’ll come back to these in another post …

But there was a period before that which was INSANE …

Starting when I was 11 (yes, really), I began working with a small contract group, of probably 25 people total, usually in teams of 2 to 4. We got hired out to “big name” (relatively speaking) companies to do RAPID implementations of existing games.

They weren’t “ports” … we had no existing code to go on.

Often as not they weren’t even licensed …

I supposed you could call them “conversions” … since they were basically us writing our own version of some existing game for a specific platform(s), in VERY short time frames.

How short?

We’d start on a Friday (I’d play the wag from school) and be done late Monday/early Tuesday. 60 hours of coding in a 72 hour span. Usually using cross-assembly systems (set up on the boxes they shipped in), in some random rented office (nearly always in Liverpool or Manchester … which will give you some idea who was hiring us), with maybe a couple of target machines for actual testing.

Can three guys do an (absolutely terrible, given what would have been possible with a proper schedule) “conversion” of Donkey Kong in three days?

Oh yes …

First to market, with these unlicensed clones, was the key. And for that, we got paid, well, silly-money. $300-$500/hr, in 1981. Company would spend $100K on us to do the coding, another $10-20K on advertising and manufacturing (was almost all on cassette at this point, often literally packaged as the raw cassette box in shrink wrap with a printed insert), and ship the bastard.

Of course, as games got more complex, and required significant teams to create, this model died out fairly quickly … but not before I made my first fortune.

Was a crazy, fun, time …

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Now … a bit more specific …

Copy protection was one of the more interesting areas I worked in. Partly because it was so futile, partly because it was so creative, and partly for the “obvious” …

At the time, copy protection was mostly on disk-based games.

Typical schemes involved writing bad sectors to the disk during production and having the game’s loader try and read those sectors. If it didn’t get an error, it wouldn’t load, as standard copiers/drives cannot write bad sectors.

Another scheme was to write two sectors on the same track with the same sector number. Say, you write two sector nines. Each of those sector nines contains DIFFERENT data. Your loader reads sector nine, twice, back-to-back … if it doesn’t get different data, it’s a copy … because standard drives/copiers won’t try, much less be able, to write two sectors with the same number.

Very smart versions put actual game code in both duplicate sector numbers, which made it harder to simply bypass in the loader if you were close to the memory limits of the machine.

Usually, you had to play with the sector skew for this to work, as drives of the time couldn’t discriminate data fast enough to read sectors any closer than opposite sides of the track in a single rotation.

Archiver and Happy*, despite some other uses, made this sort of copy protection trivial to bypass. They replaced the drive’s normal firmware, and could make it write sectors with mismatched CRCs, write multiple duplicate sector numbers, and other tricks.

And then came people like me …

Devious types, with lots of EE and physics knowledge, a penchant for experimentation, and lots of time on our hands.

Now, I was not the only person to come up with this …

But my favorite scheme was probably the “phantom bad sector” approach. And that absolutely defeated Archiver, Happy, and various other products of that nature.

It worked by creating sectors that, over say a dozen reads, would generate DIFFERENT errors. Sometimes it would be a bad CRC, sometimes it would be “sector not found”, sometimes the data returned would CHANGE vs. a prior read, even for the same PHYSICAL sector.

Techniques for achieving this varied and evolved.

But fundamentally, it involved ablatively damaging sectors/tracks. The first attempts used fine-grit sandpaper. Production techniques used RF or, my favorite, lasers. The goal was to destroy enough of the iron oxide layer to make the coercivity, at a bit level, sit right on the border of what was cleanly a 1 or 0 (simplifying) such that it might read differently each time it went under the drive head.

You could tell if your game was protected this way … as it would do its protection check by constantly reading sectors on a given track until it got two reads, for the same sector, with different issues. Sometimes that’d occur in one try, sometimes it took a minute or t wo (literally).

Of course, the pirate crowd had an easy way around all of this … once the quick solutions (Archiver/Happy etc.) stopped working, they just hacked the loaders/games to bypass the protection checks. Since code was not signed back then, this was TRIVIAL to do.

Sometimes only taking minutes.

Today, new drive technology (e.g. GMR heads) make it possible to do a flux-level copy, which results in the ability to write similarly dodgy magnetic alignments without having to physically damage the disc. And clever software can simulate such things in emulators, so even that’s not necessary.


*Archiver and Happy were, fundamentally, special software combined with new drive firmware. The drive firmware was on a ROM. Which could be replaced with a PROM or EPROM. So … those got pirated too.

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My late grandfather worked as a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the majority of his career. Fascinating stories of constantly pushing the envelope of computer science in those early days. Spending all day writing/debugging Fortran using punch cards, then setting the computer up to run the program overnight. When he was retired (and up up until his passing) he would use old punch cards as book marks. I recall him describing how revolutionary it was when computers starting breaking the 1 MHz barrier!

This site has some interesting first-hand perspectives of what it was like working on those computers in the early days at LLNL, particularly this intro. I found it interesting that despite the very serious nature of the projects (nuclear weapons design), most of the scientists working on these projects were simply working there for the love and excitement of developing new computer technology and having access to such “powerful” computers.

Computer hardware and software at LLNL


IBM 7030 Operator’s console - used for debugging programs

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I interviewed for a job at LLNL around 2000 on a related application.
Was told not to expect there to be fancy computers or toys, which was disappointing.
Was told about working in a lab with a concave roof which was designed to self-entomb in case anything went wrong, and how I could never talk to my family about what I did.

So instead I went to work on medical devices. Did have a fancy SEM there :slight_smile:

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Punch cards? Fortran?!

Fucking luxury!

:wink:

One of the first machines I put code on required that you set 8 switches to represent the on/off states for each bit in a byte, then hit an “enter” button to commit that value to memory.

You could step forward, or backward, one byte at a time in the program space and re-enter the values. Display was 8 LEDs for the byte-value (in binary), and two separate 8 LEDS groups for the high, and low bytes of the address.

The first “program” I wrote like that simply made the accumulator count up and down from 0 to 255 and back to 0, showing the value as the appropriate bit-pattern on the 8 LED “display”.

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And now you can just say, "Hey Siri… "

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And the marvel of technological progress never ceases as, today … you can just say …

“Siri”

It’s truly magical.

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I say “Siri” and nothing happens…

Could be an Android thing :person_shrugging:

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If you listen, really closely … you might just hear your device mumbling …

“Oh … FUCK off!”

“That fucking Siri whore …”

… as a response …

Google are a source of amusement for me today.

Today was “drop dead” day for the old “DropCams”, that Google bought as part of their NEST acquisition. Despite the hardware working just fine, right up until they went offline this morning, Google decided to discontinue supporting them, in favor of selling people a new, barely different, “upgrade”.

They did at least give us a year or so notice.

There was a “generous” trade-in policy against their latest camera. I say generous … with the trade-in it just brings them down to the same, every day price, as the entirely equivalent Ring camera … which I suppose is better than the otherwise 2x delta and prior 4x one.

I was, of course, extremely excited at the opportunity to purchase another Google product … that will no doubt be randomly killed for “reasons” at some inconvenient time in the probably-overly-near future.

Thus, it was before breakfast even, and with a barely controllable shake to my mousing-wrist, I took to Amazon to order said replacements for my DropCams!

Indeed, shiny new Ring cameras will be here tomorrow …

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On to April 17th.

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I wasn’t quite sure whether Arsenal knew, when the game has been released, which sport they were supposed to play: football or handball?

:rofl:

I hope that a better referee will be appointed for the second leg.

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This thread is bringing up some memories. Much appreciated.

Had to do this on my first real job, when I was a HS senior, so 1981. We had to manually input a bootstrapper that way for the flight computer of the Pershing II missile. Seemed like really old technology at the time.

Fast forward 20 years and I run into that same exact computer again. I was working on a target missile for theater-level interceptors, and it was Frankenstein-ed together from the P-II flight computer and IMU, Minuteman boosters, and few other added parts. (Somebody had created a cross-compiler/assembler for it by that time, so we could write in C.) Hard to imagine any computer today having a working lifespan of more than 30 years.

It’s great that now you can just say “Siri” and the computer goes and gets everything wrong all by itself.
:wink:

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Consider the full range of what is still in use by the Department of Defense despite its $800B annual budget. Software from 1958, chips from 1970, 8" floppies, Windows 3.1…if it ain’t broke…let’s move the upgrade money into pension plans instead…

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Sorry :smiling_face:

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Sure you are. Real sorry…

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Does not look good for British Teams in general this season

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