My parents often said that I was destined to be a video game developer when I grew up, mostly because that’s where my attention was as a kid — both in playing and making them. Our family’s first PC came with a gigantic instruction manual for BASIC/A, a simple programming language supported by DOS and accessible to weirdos like me who wanted to try their hand at making playable games.
Throughout my junior high and senior high years, I grew into a (in my mind) master of BASIC. I would whip up thousands of lines of code based on game design documents that I drew up in class, and even though the finished product was a tangled mess of spaghetti code (which drove my computer teacher nuts), it tended to work.
It’s one of my big life regrets that none of the games that I made survived. The 5 1/4″ floppies on which they resided were no doubt thrown out a long time ago, back before I had the means to back them up elsewhere. And no, unlike Richard Garriott, I did not print out my code so that I could type it in later. In any case, little of it was pure genius, but it was personally interesting.
My biggest series was “Starship Simulator,” which actually worked unlike certain Derek Smart products I could name*. I recall four in the series, with the first three giving you command over a starship to modify and then send out in battle. There wasn’t a lot of narrative here, just customization and battling. Starship Simulator 2 was the only game I remember that was actively played by friends and family members; I think I hit on a sweet spot of fun. Starship Simulator 4 put the player in the role of a captured captain who had to fight his way out of a starbase, room by room. It was incredibly difficult to make, with the program keeping track of a grid of 100 rooms and what was in each, but I liked it.
I was enraptured with the idea of taking all of the pen-and-paper RPG manuals I had lying around and turning them into computer games, so I made a lot of RPGs. Not great ones, again, but somewhat technically accomplished. I did a Terminator 2 RPG (you had to fight more difficult terminators until you beat the T-1000) and a couple generic fantasy RPGs probably based on my fascination with Zelda.
I also did more than a few adventure games, as I might have written about earlier. These were fun to make, since they involved a lot of writing and weren’t that hard to program. Keeping track of variables and puzzles was the trickiest part.
For my sports-oriented friends, I created Battle Golf, which mixed golf with land mines, volcanos, and other death traps.
Unfortunately, making graphics and bits that moved on screen was a little out of my league (and out of the capabilities of BASIC back then). I did as much as I could with simple line drawings and ASCII art, but the most I was able to accomplish were small shooters or racers where you would drive a car (an asterisk) between dots. I did as much as I could with colors, however, and used BASIC to make fun music tracks for my game (sometimes I would reverse-engineer a song, like the Star Trek theme, into BASIC notation).
BASIC was a bit of a pop culture fad in the 80s, too. There were one or two kids’ book series where you’d read a story and occasionally have to type in a program into your computer to advance the plot (so to speak). And I picked up more than one magazine that had several pages of code to copy onto your computer. Later on, I would spend a lot of time modifying someone else’s code and trying to improve on it or twist it to my own ideas.
In college I had a computer degree and took a couple of programming classes — C++ and FORTRAN and even assembly — but by then the magic of programming had vanished for me. I was more interested in writing and playing than trying to wrangle the increasingly complicated code to make games. Maybe in some other universe, alternate me stuck with it and became a game designer or (more likely) an IT guy.
*All of them