The Dark Ages of Computer Game Design
Feature by Don L. Daglow
Computer Gaming World Number 28 (May 1986

The pealing of the electronic bell in the distance signaled 2:00 in the morning, the distorted sounds echoing faintly down the massive corridors of the deserted concrete-and-steel building. Deserted, except for the windowless basement where one person still worked intently.

His features rendered stark and pale by the bright work light, the young man scanned the computer printout, yard after yard of number-covered paper flowing through his hands like so much water through a pipe. He swore at the pile of tangled output on the floor, kicked it in frustration, then returned to typing a few cautious letters on the terminal. The clattering of the printer that echoed those letters obscured the sound of footsteps that would have alerted him to danger.

This was his only time of safety, the only unwatched moments for his work. The system operator had left at midnight, not to return until 6:00. If the machine were to do his bidding and divulge its secrets, it would have to be tonight.

The footsteps came closer, drawn by the rattling of the printer, curious now, but cautious. The programmer continued at his work.

The door swung open silently; the guard stood in the opening, his muscular frame filling it as completely as any iron bars. Still, the programmer typed intently on the machine.

"What the hell you think you're doin'?" The guard's gravelly voice split the room's cold air like an axe through rotten wood. The young man jumped, looked up, confused.

"I'm... I'm just working on my program," he stammered.

The guard stepped forward, his eyebrows sinking downwards under the weight of his suspicions."And just what kind of program you workin' on this time of night?"

The programmer glanced down at his screen, then back at the guard. "I'm working on a... a game."

With an apology for a little dramatic license, the above is a true story of what happened to me one night in the winter of 1972, early in my career as a game designer. (By the way, the guard ended up kicking me out of the building since it was supposed to be closed.) And it illustrates the problems faced by many programmers of that era who sought to create games; the people who owned the computers you were programming on didn't want you to design them. I'm sure there were campuses where students were encouraged to hone their programming skills by writing games, but the Claremont Colleges wasn't one of them.

The heart of computer gaming, from its roots in the mid-sixties to the dawning of the Micro Age in the mid-seventies, was the college computer system. There students were to be prepared for this Brave New World of Computing, and the mass issuance of student accounts, passwords and training to anyone interested was to be the drafting of future armies of American youth ready to master new technology. PDP-IO's, IBM 360's and other mainframes were fondled, cursed and ultimately programmed and operated by students. Such well-known games as Zork and Adventure began their lives on such systems during this time.

But of course there was another side to academic computing. Like the professors who regarded the machine as their private tool, taking priority over student work and at times almost monopolizing the computer. Or the battles between the affiliated campuses at Claremont. There one college supported batch processing (running programs keypunches on computer cards, one program at a time) on an IBM 360/40. Five other campuses in town shared a PDP-IO running time-sharing, with terminals linked by phone lines to a machine which tried to run all their programs at once by "swapping" them in and out of "core" memory. Each regarded the other as driving a Model T.

In reality, both computers were slow. On the IBM, you could hope to try your program once a day, twice at best. You'd type up your cards, submit your "job" and return the next morning to see that a typo in the first subroutine had sent you off to never-never land. Fix it, replace the card in the deck and come back tomorrow. A baseball simulation I wrote once printed 1000 pages of text narrating a Giants-Dodgers grudge match before the operator noticed that it was a game and furthermore that in the 800th inning the Giants led by 72 runs. That was my last batch-processing game.

On the PDP-I0, the administrators' desires to maximize income from terminal and machine-time leasing fees had over thirty people all trying to run gigantic number-crunching programs at once. Many afternoons a simple sort program that my Apple can complete in five seconds struggled for "core" for a minute before returning, bloodied but determined, with its results.

Which leads us to the utterly logical reason why gaming became a forbidden activity on our campus; it was the lowest priority on an already-overburdened system. The best interactive games, which swallowed up all of the available 36K in the room-sized computer, slowed the machine almost as much as the dreaded SPSS, a statistical analysis program that psych majors in particular learned to hate.

This is not to say the games weren't available; our system at its height had two horse racing games, two Star Treks, Casino, Hangman, Eliza and Life. But the purpose of the games was very specific; lure non-users onto the system, so they'd get interested in computers and start using them for more important things. Once you'd had a password for a few weeks, it was bad form to get caught playing. The person waiting to use the terminal next would cough, pace around the room, sigh deeply and in general let you know that Western Civilization's maturation was being delayed by your intransigence.In 1971, when I started programming games as a Creative Writing Major hooked on computers in just such a manner, the system was new and still uncrowded. The operator kicked you off for playing games only in the mid-afternoon crunch, and the rest of the time you were free to use your half-hour time slot as you wished so long as no one was waiting.

By the following year, games were permitted only early in the morning and late at night; any other time running anything that was both fun and bigger than 20K yielded first a message from the operator to please stop and then the computational equivalent of a dial tone. Would-be game designers were relegated to wandering the moonlit campus in search of free terminals, then sleeping through classes the next day and trying to explain to their folks why their grades were dropping. I was luckier than most, having figured out the best way to keep from getting logged off by the System Operator I got a job... as a System Operator.

By the time I graduated in 1974, games were only available when the system load was below normal; that translated into almost never. All versions were cut to run in 32K as the "academic" machine--burdened at twice the usage for which it was designed to support cash-paying customers like a local hospital--ran slower and slower. As I worked my way through graduate school and then became an instructor (retaining my computer account for clandestine game design) the biggest permissible game size dropped and dropped and dropped, until Wumpus, a simple adventure game, became the hit of 1976 by running in about 16K. Mercifully, Apples appeared that same year. Compared to today's hits, these games were freeware at best. There was no capacity for anything but text, and the screen couldn't be stopped from scrolling upwards like a runaway word processor. That meant that in the MIT Star Trek (later revived as Apple Trek and endless clones thereof), every time you wanted to update your map of asterisks, dashes, etc. you had to print it out completely. Many of the terminals were old teletypes that printed at 15 characters a second; this made my first adventure game, which continually updated a 40x80 map to show what your party had seen, so excruciatingly slow as to be unplayable.

Games traveled across the country particularly well on PDP-I0's thanks to Digital Equipment's DECUS public domain software sharing service. A version of Star Trek that I created ended up bringing me letters from all over the country, some of praise, some of thoughtful criticism, and even one from a guy in Berkeley who actually thought gaming was a new art form. I wish I'd saved the letter so I could proclaim him a prophet; at the time I thought he was crazy. Many of these games ended up adapted for micros and published as listings in books and magazines. Twice I've even found my code published in games collections under other peoples' names!

Piracy existed back then, too; anxious students hoping for a look at any new game under development used PIP, a utility for moving files around the system, to break protection codes and copy programs. The safest defense was to name your game files things like "PSYCCHl.DAT" and other mundane titles.

One friend of mine, a true master hacker, got sick of having his files messed up and created a program called something like "SPCWAR.GAM". If you rummaged around in his directory and ran it, it asked you the question, "Do you want to access all system passwords?" If you answered "yes", it logged you off the system, deleted all your files, deallocated your storage tape and changed your password! There were an awful lot of surprised and angry people who called up the computer center asking what went wrong over that one!

Every so often I'll muse about those Good Old Days of the early 70's to a friend, commenting that, given the restrictions, we did some pretty nice designs in those Dark Ages. And they'll roll their eyes and say "Come op, gimme a break! That was a long time ago. THESE are the days when we're really giving birth to the art form of game design."

And I have to agree that they're right. Listening to designers like Dan Bunten, Chris Crawford, Jon Freeman, Richard Garriott and Stuart Smith (among many who deserve mention) talk about the CRAFT of this new medium, you realize that they are the ones who are proving that computer Game Design truly is an art form that can mirror life and show us more by the reflection. If designing games on mainframes in the 1970's represents the Dark Ages of Computer Game Design, the Microcomputer in the 1980's has proclaimed its Renaissance.

Don Daglow is a Producer with Electronic Arts.


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