Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stories where people throw money at me. Literally. Part 2

I have almost never had to work on my birthday. Since it falls between Christmas and New Year's Day, I've never had to teach on my birthday, and a lot of the the companies I've worked at also decided that the last week of the year was time off.

But one year during my stay at Atari, I remember that I worked on my birthday. I did it voluntarily because I had a bug in my code.

I did not do this work because I was incredibly diligent. I did it because my brain wouldn't let me do otherwise. When I had a bug in my code, I would have these recurring dreams that looked something like the screens of numbers and symbols racing by made famous in The Matrix, but long before that film was ever made. This was my subconscious trying to be helpful.

Yo! Subconscious! STFU! This isn't helping.

When I worked at Atari, I wrote in assembly language, specifically 6502, the name of a chip designed by guys who quit Motorola en masse and made a fast little chip they sold dirt cheap to compete against their old employers and Intel. They sold theirs for $25 each when the bigger companies were selling similar products for $179. This combination of fast and cheap made the 6502 possibly the most important piece of computer technology of the late 1970's. It was the guts inside the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600 and Atari's home computers, the 800 and 400.

Besides these real applications, it is also the brains inside the fictional robots in The Terminator and Bender in Futurama. A fine programmable tool, but clearly it makes robots anti-social. Future robot designers take note.

Well, I solved my bug as a birthday present to myself, and among the skeleton crew at Atari that day was Rick Mauer, who actually was there because he was so conscientious. Among other games, Rick designed the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders. The original coin-op version is by the Japanese company Namco. What Rick was famous/notorious for among other programmers was making games with numerous variations. You want to play Space Invaders without shields? That's an available option. Are the early levels too slow? Rick's version would let you skip ahead to tougher levels. This meant that Rick reserved a byte in RAM for variations, and each bit in that byte was a switch that told his program how the game would be played. Nowadays, it's no skin off a programmer's nose to set up variations, but back then, we had a total of 128 bytes of RAM, and some programmers thought using a precious byte the way Rick did was wasteful. (I do not number myself among these people.) The computer you are sitting in front of has millions of bytes of RAM. Things were very different back in the day.

Conscientious or not, when the late afternoon rolled up and I asked Rick if he wanted to play backgammon, he welcomed the break. While he was not a participant in the original Scumbag-athon, Rick was certainly an Original Scumbag. Though he had a more glorious career than I did in the videogame field, I can say with no false bravado that I was a better backgammon player than Rick. We played a dollar a point, and winning a game is worth one point unless the doubling cube is involved or the game ends up as a gammon (double win) or backgammon (triple win). That day, I was whipping on Rick pretty hard. After a couple of hours, I was up $29, and Rick, not happy but resigned to the situation, decided to call it a session and pay what he owed.

"Jeez, but you're lucky!" Rick half snarled and half sighed.

"Well, it is my birthday." I said.

Rick fished a ten and a twenty out of his wallet and threw them at me. "Please! Keep the change! Happy fucking birthday!"

After I stopped laughing, I invited Rick out for a meal, my treat. But he said no. He really was conscientious, and he still had work to do.

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™! Serbia is the last large European country to visit the blog. Now the only countries I don't have are Albania and some postage stamps the size of Andorra or smaller.

Now playing: Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach - Tears At The Birthday Party
via FoxyTunes


Padre Mickey said...

Happy burfdei at you,
Hippy bofday for you
Boppy hifday, dear Matty Boy,
Hampy bird day on yoooooooooooo.

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday to US. I turned sixty on 12/27 and spent the week at my birthplace Panama City Beach. I'll be posting pictures of the trip tomorrow on the Zgirl blog. I hope your birthday was a good one. It's nice to find someone in blogosphere who spent a lifetime getting one gift for two occasions. Am I right?

Matty Boy said...

Tank U, Padre!

Happy birfday to z&m as well. Actually, my parents were very good about making sure I got prezzies on Christmas and four days later.

FranIAm said...

Oh happiest of birthdays to you dearest Matty Boy!

Another great installment in your tale. Loving it very much.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Happy birthday!

Karla said...

Hippo birdies two ewes!!


Tara Mobley said...

Happy birfing-day Matty!

Matty Boy said...

Thanks to all my well wishers! You did so well wishing me well, I got a well for my birthday!

(Not true, and not that funny, but it's the best lame joke I could come up with on short notice.)

FranIAm said...

Well, what can you expect? (whomp-WAH)

That was terrible of me. Sorry.

Distributorcap said...

happy birthday

so are you missing?
San Marino
Vatican City

what about the CHannel Islands -- isnt that sort of a country

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, dcap.

Upon further review, I realize I'm still missing non-postage stamp sized Albania. Oh, cursed fate!

I'm also missing Malta, the place where the falcons come from.

Splotchy said...

Happy Birthday!

Say, my birthday is coming up on January 1st!

I realize I haven't gotten you anything, but it would sure be a lovely bday present to read another Atari or game programming post from you!

Also, if you wouldn't mind saying what games you worked on, I'd love to hear it.

I really don't plan on bugging you with every comment I make, honest.

Dee Loralei said...

Ya know Matty, methinks you aren't actually very good at having money thrown at you literally. Two money throwing episodes you've regaled us with and you didn't net $50.00? Sheesh, the wind machine o cash you aint.

And then by inviting Rick to dinner, you were going to basically pay him his money back. And I'd bet money that you gave Dave Johnson (who has a great blog, BTW,)his money back since you didn't actually throw Mr Enthusiasm in front of one train, let alone the 4 you contracted for.

The anecdotes were very cute, thanks for sharing.

Matty Boy said...

Hey, splotch. I have plans for Jan. 1 post. I can tell you my work that was published. Submarine Commander and Double Dunk for Atari, Dolphin and Zenji for Activision, all of which were my work almost entirely. I also helped out on Road Rash II for Electronic Arts, Ballz for PF Magic and Defenders of Dynatron City for LucasArts Games.

You're right, dee, of all the money literally thrown at me, I saw $1 profit, earned $29 fair and square and gave $20 back. Game programmers started seeing real money figuratively thrown at them over the next few years, and that amount was substantial, several checks very close to the same size as I saw when I won money on Jeopardy!, which was $25,550.

Splotchy said...

Thanks for the info! I don't believe I have played those games, but they look pretty darned cool (Dolphin, especially). If you don't mind, I'll try to find the ROMs of these games and play through my 2600 emulator.

I had fifty or sixty cartridges at the point we transitioned from a 2600 to a Commodore 64, but I guess that's just a drop in the bucket of all the available products available. I need to find a book on this era of videogames, as I don't want to bug you incessantly.

I am really in awe of this era, for a variety of reasons -- the limited memory and the ingenuity required to design a compelling game, the original sounds/music, the gameplay, etc.

Matty Boy said...

Further note to Splotchy: Only Double Dunk, Submarine Commander and Dolphin are Atari 2600 games.

I accept your awe in the name of all 2600 programmers. We did some great work with a very limited system.

hyfler/rosner said...

I forgot your birthday. Sue me. So have a happy birthday. Or had a happy birthday. Oh well. As they say in the baseball biz, wait til next year. Is it too late to wish you a happy new year?

Matty Boy said...

Wish me a happy Chinese New Year. You have plenty of time to put that on your to do list.

dguzman said...

Happy belated birthday, my friend!