For Those Still Compiling We Salute You : 10 Reasons Classic Game Programmers Matter

A while back, coworker and I were talking today about the recent interview with Steve Woita in Retro Gamer magazine.  We’ve both met Woita ( my co-worker in-person and myself virtually though this site), but my co-worker was blown-away that a few days prior, Woita had been “suggested” to him as a Linked-in connection.  We both know that developers like Woita are really just “people”.  They do their job and, hopefully, are still in a business doing something they love.  However, at the same time, there is something special about the people who developed games for classic 8-bit and 16-bit consoles (and beyond).  Here are towers, we name-drop many of our favorite classic game programmers: David Crane, Alan Miller, Chris Crawford, Ed Logg, and Jeff Minter to name just a few.  However, we’ve never really examined  this phenomenon in any depth.  Why do these people matter to us?  In many cases, we hold these guys up as heroes.  Why do we do this?

Here are 10 reasons why I think these guys had an indelible effect on game developers who are also retro game fans (like us).

1. They Did It All:  This might be just a perception, especially in later-era games, but the idea that these programmers designed a game, made the art, and then programmed it, is thrilling.  In an age of 200 person development teams, the concept of a single person seeing an idea from germination through to production is more than refreshing;  it’s almost life affirming.

2. Hardware Restrictions:  Since most 8-bit platforms had severe hardware restrictions, (compared to today anyway) it appears heroic to us that these classic developers were able to wring so much power out of so little hardware.  Honestly, the ability to create Pitfall! out of the limited resources on the Atari 2600 was not just impressive, it was a down right miracle.

3. Software Restrictions:  This is related to hardware restrictions, but it has to do with the size of the program code.  With so little space on classic consoles, packing a playable game into 2K or 4K or even 8K is very impressive.  The mental gymnastics, concentration and discipline required to limit your programming excesses and fit a game into such a small appears heroic in an age of 50 megabyte Photoshop images and gigabytes of voice-over introductions.

4. Expansion Of Game Design:  On 8-bit platforms, video game design expanded from  knocking a ball back and forth on a single screen to full-on Tolkien-esque adventures across time and space.  All this was done with relatively small advances in hardware and software. The improvement in the scale and scope of games when developers were given such minute advances in resources (4 colors to 16 colors, 2K to 48K) makes the relatively safe,  staid and lethargic design progression in some modern AAA titles appear lazy by comparison.

5. Small Advances Were of High Importance: Small advances in 8 and 16 bit games were highly valued in the golden era: The full parser of Zork , the fireworks show in Pele’s Soccer, the 2.5D isometric graphics of Zaxxon, the feeling of flight in Star Raiders, the voice in Berzerk, double ships in Galaga, the pseudo-3D of Activision Tennis, and the password save-game of Super Mario Brothers, just to name a few.  If you were there, following these small advances, watching games grow a little bit over successive years, those small details remain larger than life parts of an amazing continuum of game development.  While consuming these ideas you could not help but be impressed by the people who created them.

6. Finite Products:  Unlike today’s massive markets of 100,000’s of virtual, downloadable games, the products released for classic platforms were finite: both in the number of titles, and the numbers of production.   Obviously this makes them collectible, but there is also another nuance.  It’s like collecting all the singles by an 60’s band.  The act of seeking a particular product produced for a particular system can’t help but make that product seem larger than life .   By extension, the people who created those become larger than life.

7. Existed in the real world:  Related to the above, but not exactly the same.   The products they produced were physical objects that could be opened, handled, used, broken, traded, hidden, lost, found.   They had boxes and instructions that had that wonderful smell of new print and shrink-wrap when you opened them.  They could be lay in disorganized pile, or be stowed on a shelf, and simply by their mere existence in a place that could catch your eye, begged to be played.  Having physical products tied to your name is much more impressive than mere “virtual products”.  We had a hand in creating over 200 games at our last job (“The Monolith”), but none of them were physical products, which means their resonance is fleeting.

8. Theater Of The mind: The graphics on the box and in the advertisements for classic 8-bit games were usually much more impressive than anything in the actual game.   In fact, we can still imagine the box-art for games like Combat! and Air-Sea Battle , and that art makes us twinge to play those games right now, even though I know the actual gaming experience will probably not be fulfilling any longer.   This “theater of the mind”, that helps create connections in your brain between imagination and the real world is a very powerful force that cannot be ignored.  It’s no wonder that the people we associate with those connections are held in high esteem.

9. Adults Were Not Allowed To Play: In the 70’s and 80’s, there seemed to be  a stigma attached to adults making, talking about or playing games.   Your parents warned you about the adults hanging around at the arcade.   You never heard about the adults in game industry, and any job that appeared even remotely geared towards kid’s entertainment (see puppeteer or clown…yikes) had a stigma attached that was unavoidable.    Adult jobs were serious. Adults helped keep us ahead of Soviets by engineering mind-melting weapons that defended us from nuclear annihilation.   They did not make or play video games.  However, those same video games and the process of making them was all I cared about on a daily basis back then. So, as a kid, the people that made games for a living, the same games that helped me forget about the prospect of “nuclear annihilation” for a few minutes at a time, became my heroes.

10. Their jobs inspired us to do the same: Finally, the unavoidable last aspect of this phenomenon is that the game developers of the classic era inspired us to follow in their footsteps.  If we can not fill their shoes, we, at the very least, try to use the ideas that inspired us to keep on creating new and interesting games.

Furthermore guys like the aforementioned Woita, David Crane and Ed Logg are are still inspiring us today because they are still in the industry.   They make games now, just like they made games 25 years ago.  It’s inspiring not only because they are still doing it, but also because we can now join along with them.  So, for those classic game programmers who are still dreaming up new games, for the ones who are up late, just like we are, trying to get a game to work in Flash, or on the iPhone, or any where else, for those who are still coding, building, and compiling: we salute you.  May you continue successfully for many years to come.

-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)

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