video games -- 11/10/23

Today's selection -- from Masters of Doom by David Kushner. John Romero, born 1967, is the legendary developer of early video games, including Doom (1993) and Quake (1996). He was an early and enthusiastic user of Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak’s Apple II:   

“Romero was growing up in the eighties as a fourth-generation game hacker: the first having been the students who worked on the minicomputers in the fifties and sixties at MIT; the second, the ones who picked up the ball in Silicon Valley and at Stanford University in the seventies; the third being the dawning game companies of the early eighties. To belong, Romero just had to learn the language of the priests, the game developers: a programming language called HP-BASIC. He was a swift and persistent student, cornering anyone who could answer his increasingly complex questions. 

“His parents were less than impressed by his new passion. At issue were Romero's grades, which had plummeted from A's and B's to C's and D's. He was bright but too easily distracted, they thought, too consumed by games and computers. Despite this being the golden age of video games--with arcade games bringing in $5 billion a year and even home systems earning $1 billion--his stepfather did not believe game development to be a proper vocation. ‘You'll never make any money making games,’ he often said. ‘You need to make something people really need, like business applications.’


“As the fights with his stepfather escalated, so did Romero's imagination. He began exorcising the backwash of emotional and physical violence through his illustrations. For years he had been raised on comics--the B-movie horror of E.C. Comics, the scatological satire of MAD, the heroic adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. By age eleven, he churned out his own. In one, a dog named Chewy was invited to play ball with his owner. With a strong throw, the owner hurled the ball into Chewy's eye, causing the dog's head to split open and spill out green brains. ‘The End,’ Romero scrawled at the bottom, adding the epitaph ‘Poor Ol' Chewy.’ 

“At school, Romero turned in a homemade comic book called Weird for an art class assignment. In one section he described and illustrated ‘10 Different Ways to Torture Someone,’ including ‘Poke a needle all over the victim's body and in a few days ... watch him turn into a giant scab’ and ‘Burn the victim's feet while victim is strapped in a chair.’ Another, titled ‘How to Drive the Babysitter Mad!,’ illustrated suggestions including ‘Get out a very sharp dagger and pretend that you stabbed yourself’ and ‘Stick electric cord into your ears and pretend that you are a radio.’ The teacher returned the assignment with a note that read, ‘This was awfully gross. I don't think it needs to be that way.’ Romero got a B+ for his artistic efforts. But he saved his hardest work for his code. 

“Within weeks of his first trip to Sierra College, he had programmed his first computer game: a text adventure. Because the mainframes couldn't save data, the programming had to be punched on waxy paper cards; each card represented a line of code--a typical game would take thousands. After every day at the school, Romero would wrap the stack of cards in bungee cord around the back of his bike and pedal home. When he'd return to the lab the next time, he'd have to feed the cards into the computer again to get the game to run. One day on the way home from the college, Romero's bike hit a bump in the road. Two hundred cards went flying into the air and scattered across the wet ground. Romero decided it was time to move on. 

“He soon found his next love: the Apple II computer. Apple had become the darling of the indie hacker set ever since the machine was introduced at a 1976 meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, a ragtag group of California techies. As the first accessible home computers, Apples were ideally suited for making and playing games. This was thanks in no small part to the roots of the company's cofounders, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak--or, as they became known, the Two Steves. 

“Jobs, a college dropout with a passion for Buddhism and philosophy, took his first job at a start-up video game company called Atari in the mid-seventies. Atari was legendary because its founder, Nolan Bushnell, had produced the 1972 arcade hit, Pong, a tennis-like game that challenged players to maneuver white strip paddles on either side of the screen while hitting a dot back and forth. Jobs would share the confidence and brashness of his boss, who had hacked Spacewar to create his first arcade game, Computer Space. But Jobs had larger plans to realize with his childhood friend Wozniak, a.k.a. Woz, a math whiz who could spend hours playing a video game. 

“Woz was equal parts programming genius and mischievous prankster, known around the San Francisco Bay Area for running his own dial-a-joke phone number. In computers, Woz found the perfect place to combine his humor and his math skills, creating a game that flashed the message ‘Oh Shit’ on the screen when the player lost a round. Jobs recruited Woz to design Breakout, a new game for Atari. This alchemy of Job’s entrepreneurial vision and Woz's programming ingenuity gave birth to their company, Apple. Created in 1976, the first Apple computer was essentially a prototype for the Homebrew crowd, priced devilishly at $666.66. But the Apple II, made the following year, was mass market, with a keyboard, BASIC compatibility, and, best of all, color graphics. There was no hard drive, but it came with two game paddles. It was made for games. 

“Romero had first seen the stylish beige Apple II computers up at Sierra College. While a mainframe's graphics were capable of, at best, spitting out white blocks and lines, the Apple II's monitor burst with color and high-resolution dots. Romero had spent the rest of the day running around the lab trying to find out all he could about this magical new box. Whenever he was at the school, Romero played the increasingly diverse lineup of Apple II games. 

“Many were rip-offs of arcade hits like Asteroids and Space Invaders. Others showed signs of true innovation. For instance, Ultima. Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British, the son of an astronaut in Texas, spoke in Middle English and created the massively successful graphical role-playing series of Ultima games. As in Dungeons and Dragons, players chose to be wizards or elves, fighting dragons and building characters. The graphics were crude, with landscapes represented by blocky colored squares; a green block, ostensibly, a tree; a brown one, a mountain. Players never saw their smudgy stick figure characters attacking monsters, they would just walk up to a dragon blip and wait for a text explanation of the results. But gamers overlooked the crudeness for what the games implied a novelistic and participatory experience, a world.”



David Kushner


Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture


Random House


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