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The Burger Speaks: An Interview With An Archmage
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The Burger Speaks: An Interview With An Archmage

December 27, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 7 Next

How did you learn to program?

RH: I learned to program because in 1977 I got an AMES 65 kit computer. In high school I got interested in the TRS-80 and the teacher didn't know what to do with it, so I started playing with it. Then, later on, I met a friend with an Apple II. They were hot off the press. I had to have one. I kept going to his house, all the time, so I could play with his Apple II -- and he got annoyed with me showing up at his place because he wanted to use it.

I had a paper route and saved up my money. I bought a used Apple II from some guy around the LA airport. I started getting cassette tapes for games, but then later on I started getting curious about the mini-assembler. The manuals for the Apple II were all written for programmers, so you'd look at all this code and be like, "What the heck is this stuff?"

So I started reading it, studying it. Looked at the disassembler -- 800L was my friend for many years. But then I learned how to make hardware. It shouldn't be hard to make a memory card, wire it up, get parts from Radio Shack -- back when you could get parts like that from Radio Shack.

When I started playing with the Atari 2600, I went to a BBS and saw how to make a copy cart. Ah! I made a RAM cart because I was too cheap, but what if I used that same technique and wired it to a cartridge -- I molded it together into a dev kit. I could take a cartridge, plug it in, download it, save it to disk, upload it to ram, turn on my Atari, I could play the game!

But then I noticed that when you took the ROM cartridge and typed 800L, it made sense. It was 6502 assembly, just like the Apple II. From that, I started disassembling the code. I did a disassembly of Freeway by Activision, reverse engineering it from binary code all the way to what looks like the real source code. Every line is explained. That was me learning how to program the Atari 2600.

After that, Avalon Hill hired me, and was actually paying me to do this stuff that I'd been tinkering with all these years. I was like, "They're paying me to do this? Cool!" I kept striving to get better and better and better, and now here it is almost an eternity later, and I'm an expert in Power PC, ARM, Intel, AMD 64... The stuff I'm doing right now you'd require multiple college degrees to do -- proud or not, I never went to college. I learned all this just by cracking books and doing it.

How long was it before you met people with the same or superior level of skill?

RH: It took years before I found anybody. I remember meeting a friend who worked at Softdisk -- a guy named John Carmack. He and I started talking about code and so forth, and he was one of the few people talking at my level. Other than that, for many years -- even now -- I have to dumb down my conversations with people. It's frustrating, but now that now at least a dozen people who I can talk to without having to dumb down anything.

Is John Romero in that category?

RH: No. John Romero is a good programmer, but he's not an expert. He's not a great programmer. He doesn't do engines. Carmack did all the heavy lifting.

I know you're a big fan of Wizardry. It seems to come up again and again in my interviews with classic game designers. What is it about that game that makes it so special?

RH: Simplicity. Absolute simplicity. The ability to tell a story with so minimal graphics. If you remember, back then, the only kind of games were text adventures -- so your mind did everything. But it was really reading a book. But they took it a step further, and put the maze with the little Turtle graphics and static picture. It was the first game that introduced the grinding. In fact, if you play World of Warcraft, it's still Wizardry grinding! We had a joke during Bard's Tale -- what's the story of any RPG? Start weak, get strong, kill the evil fill in the blank. That's every RPG ever.

Wizardry introduced the concept of a party. The idea of start weak, get strong, kill the fill in the blank. As you were doing the grinding and leveling up the characters, you actually felt really bad when one of your characters died. It was like, "Crap!" I remember when one of my characters died, I was like, "Shit, damnit! I gotta go all the way back to the Temple of Cant."

But once you get one character killed, but if it's a critical character, and the rest of your party may not back it. The stress and suspense -- very few games today capture that kind of terror. And they did it with just line drawings and little postage stamp sized pieces of art.

You worked on some adventure games. Mindshadow, Borrowed Time, Tass Times in Tonetown. Is that your favorite, Tass?

RH: Yes, because basically it's a close as you can get to an acid trip without taking acid.

So, you've done a lot of acid in your day?

RH: Nope, I'm totally drug free from birth. But that doesn't mean I can't have psychedelic nightmares and try to make good games out of them.

It's a cult classic.

RH: Yeah, because it really innovated a lot of things. It really started the point-and-click adventure. Now the graphics look dated, but a lot of the concepts feel brand new. You were able to click on things -- I had hot zones on every piece of art, so if you clicked on the give button and went to a character and clicked on him, it'd automatically type in "give to that person's name." You could click on two things to interact with both of them.

I had all kinds of jokes and puns in there. Everything about it was so off the wall and twisted. The unit of money was guitar picks, the whole point of the game was that a crocodile was buying up the land and evicting everyone -- a slumlord. You had a crack newspaper reporter who was a fluffy little terrier named Ennio.

Everyone dresses up like punk rockers as envisioned in the '80s, and when you first show up, dressed in normal clothes, they all look at you as though you were dressed like they are as if you were here. So they say, "Man, you're weird looking! Get some real clothes!" It was just so different. The soundtrack was good, too. Tass Times was the first game to ship on the Apple IIgs, and it used all 31 voices on the Ensoniq chip. Very few people did that since.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 7 Next

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