In 1978, at the age of 13, I took a 6 week summer computer class at school. We had a Wang 2200A and a home built OSI. After an early childhood experimenting with electricity, I was hooked. For a year I saved my babysitting income to purchase a Commodore Pet 2001 for $800. Another year paid off the debt.
I learned BASIC and then 6502 machine language. Soon I had upgraded to an Apple ][+, which had a mini-assembler. At 16, my friend Chris Brookins and I decided to write a game, and I was stubborn enough to keep at it for years. Eventually rumors must have spread through my user group, the Philadelphia Area Computer Society, because a new Apple sound card arrived in the mail. When some PACS friends and I went to Boston for the 1983 Applefest, I stopped by the Sweet Micro booth to thank them for the card. Nick Condon & Rod Nakamoto were very impressed with Alpha Strike, and asked me to come back later that day to meet someone.
Arriving at the appointed time, who was standing there but Steve Wozniak! I put in my disk, and it booted to a first person view from inside the cockpit, with large F-15 style planes flying past and music & sound from the Mockingboard. On seeing it, Woz exclaimed that an Apple ][ couldn't do that! He then told me about this new company that was starting up, Electronic Arts, and gave me his card. He wrote a little note of introduction to Trip Hawkins on the back:
Within a week or two, my parents and I were flown out to California to meet with EA. Rob and Norm Sirotek, publishers of Wizardry, also came to Philadelphia to meet me. Bill Budge, of Raster Blaster fame, called to entice me to EA. I even formed a corporation. During all this, I was a senior in high school and found it very difficult to concentrate on my studies. I graduated in June, becoming the second youngest 'software artist' working with EA. At the CES in Chicago, Electronic Arts made its public debut, and we agreed on the contract terms. Trip and I signed EA contract number 25 on August 23.
I worked at home for several months, while Rich Hilleman provided tech support. I sent him software with my new 1200 baud modem. Soon my producer, Stewart Bonn, asked me to come to California for a month to finish up.
At EA's Campus Drive offices, I worked constantly. I would stay at the office for 2 to 3 days, napping on the couch occasionally, then go to a rented room to sleep for 6 hours or so. Every 2 or 3 weeks, I'd take a break and sleep 24 hours straight through. During this period Stewart mentioned that I needed re-upholstering...
Since I was not an employee, I didn't have a key to the office. I once arrived at 4am on a Sunday morning, thinking there's not a chance anyone would be there to let me in. After pounding on the door, Stan Roach, one of the marketing guys, welcomed me in. Here was a company for me!
I worked with Jim Nitchals, of EA's R&D department. The 6502 can't even multiply or divide unless you write the algorithm, but I needed zillions of arctangent operations every second. Jim helped me work that out. His cube at EA had magnets all over one wall, which destroy data on magnetic disks. Surprised, I said, "Why have you got those?!"
"They add exitement to an otherwise boring life." I met Jim on my first visit to EA's corporate headquarters. He wore a blue tank-top, cut-off jeans, and studded leather wrist bands. He had a studded leather belt fastened with a pair of handcuffs. His hairstyle was mohawk. Boring, yeah right!
We hired R.G. Kelley, a comic book artist, to draw enemy tanks and planes. He drew a lot better than I did, but we still kept quite a lot of my art. The cockpit, mountains, home base, laser blasts, clouds, rocks and base computer were all mine. This was long before mice, so I used an Apple graphics tablet.
Late one night, Jim noticed that the tablet interfered with the music on my radio. He asked for the tablet's manual, which included a schematic, and went off to his office for an hour or so. He returned with a diskette, and said "run this!" It was an assembly language program that played music on my radio by manipulating the graphics tablet!
The original game music was "I, Robot" from the Alan Parsons Project. My hacker friend Captain Infinity had entered the notes into Will Harvey's Music Construction Set. Alan & Co. wanted a 2 percent royalty, which was a big chunk of my share, so we hired Doug Fulton to compose new music. Doug has since done quite a lot of game music, to great acclaim.
A shortage of memory was always a problem. Skyfox was the first game to require 64K instead of 48. Originally, enemy planes flew just above the ground but I had to add the cloud layer as a memory swapping gimmick. For both size and speed the whole game was written in assembly language. Of course, there was always a long list of bugs to fix. By playing the game while connected to a video recorder, the testing department helped me find more. EA had an Atron Probe for especially pesky bugs. When I plugged it into the Apple's CPU socket, it would record low-level operations, trace and trap memory and I/O access. My friend Terry Fowler designed it, and later he designed the hardware for our Genesis work.
Work on the project consisted of meeting milestones: getting small sections of the game to work, then major schedule events named alpha, beta and gold. Alpha means every major component is in the game, though not necessarily working right. Beta is the first candidate for thorough testing. Gold means the quality assurance department says it's ready to ship.
With each major milestone, I officially delivered a copy of the game to Electronic Arts. Unfortunately, if I handed them a disk, the laws of the time said that I would have to pay an additional 8% sales tax on all my income. So each delivery meant packing up all my equipment and moving out of EA's office. I set up somewhere else, and then sent the data back to the same office by modem. Voila! I sold intangible information, not sturdy mylar.
In July of 1984, Electronic Arts accepted the Apple II version as Gold. From then on, the marketing and sales departments took over, and I started on the Commodore 64. Called 'porting', this process normally means making changes and patches to the original code as quickly as possible. But I had been teaching myself how to program by writing this product, so my code had become very disorganized over the years.
I wanted to build the new version piece by piece correctly, so I estimated the number of days to clean up or replace each subroutine. The total came out to 9 months. Stewart and I looked at that schedule and said, "January. Let's finish by January." Of course we slipped the schedule again and again as the deadlines approached. The C64 version was eventually completed within a few days of the original 9 months.
I had written the original version using the Lisa assembler on an Apple //e computer with an Axlon ramdrive, but similar tools did not exist for the C64. Cross-development means that editing and compiling happens on a different kind of machine from the target, and I now became the proud owner of EA's first IBM AT with an 80286 CPU, 640K of RAM, and a 20 megabyte hard drive. I replaced the 6MHz crystal with a 9MHz version, perhaps making me one of the first overclockers. Steve Hayes and EA's other coders called my machine the 'fire breathing dragon'.
The R&D group had been developing the 'Artist Workstation' (AWS), and I became their guinea pig. The AWS supplemented common commercial editing software with Dan Silva's custom painting program, Prism, and Steve Hayes' & Greg Riker's cross debugger, DDT. Jim Nitchal's contribution was the N-Wire, a communication cable and software that allowed the PC to talk to all the different gaming platforms.
In August of 1984, in the midst of an economic slump in the technology business, Skyfox was released. Electronic Arts products were packaged in 9 inch folding album covers to mimic the way music was sold. This was part of Trip's strategy to promote software artists like rock stars. The style for Skyfox was comic book, which contrasted with competing flight simulators like subLogic's.
In the storyboard, I appear as a vision in the clouds. This was quite a surprise when I first saw it, since I don't remember posing for the artist. For quite a while after Skyfox shipped, this earned me the moniker 'Tobi-wan-Kenobi'.
Skyfox received EA's “silver bullet” treatment. That means I got the lead in marketing and sales. Skyfox was not just another product in the catalog, it was the featured product with special promotion. Each package even included a Skyfox t-shirt offer!
I attended several Consumer Electronic Shows in Chicago and Las Vegas where publishers entice distributors and retailers with their products, both the current line up and upcoming titles. Skyfox was featured at the EA booth. They had enlargements of the album cover on the walls and a large screen monitor running the game. Brøderbund Software was directly across the aisle from this display, and Doug Carlston told me that Brøderbund was cancelling a project in development because of Skyfox.
At the time, and ever since, EA's distribution network has been the best in the world for computer games. The sales department sold directly to retailers, not just to distributors. For a few months, I shared an office with the sales team, and it was fun to hear Mary's accent change as she talked to retailers in different states.
EA had publishing partnerships with Ariolasoft, Drosoft and Serma Software in Europe, and other companies in Australia and Japan. Soon after Skyfox went on sale, my roommate Mark Lewis moved to London to start the international headquarters. All of these operations promoted Skyfox in the local languages. The packaging was translated, and perhaps the software also. In addition to standard catalog ads, each company put full page Skyfox ads in the computer magazines. Below are the ones for the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and France:
In Germany, where Skyfox was named Himmelhunde, there are severe restrictions on entertainment violence, so the album art was modified and the ads emphasized speed: "Von 0 auf Mach-4 in 4 Sekunden."
In addition to the publisher ads, countless retailers put Skyfox into their local catalogs and advertising. When I visited computer stores, I would often find my demo playing on a computer at the front of the store or in the window. Compared to other games, it showed off the hardware well.
Most of the computer magazines reviewed Skyfox and all that I know of rated it well. Computer Entertainer sent us a nice certificate for "best action/arcade game" of the year and Family Computing gave Skyfox the "best shootem-up arcade" award.
Hardcore Computist printed a different kind of article. In Issue 19, there was a glowing review, 10 points on a scale of 1 to 10. But two issues before, in #17, the controversial magazine featured instructions for defeating our copy protection!
The newspapers also reviewed Skyfox, but they often ran stories about me too. My favorite is the article from my local paper, The Main Line Times. These examples don't amount to more than a small fraction of the press attention that Skyfox and I received. It's clear that EA did first class work in public relations and promotion. I even had an Italian TV crew interview me for an Evening Magazine style show! They filmed me driving the Lotus, but I never saw the broadcast. I did see Skyfox mentioned in the Wall Street Journal though!
Before the first Game Developers Conference in 1987, EA hosted Artist Symposiums. Skyfox swept the awards at the very first of these annual events, August 9, 1985. Steve Wozniak gave the keynote at the ceremony, and I received plaques and trophies for:
On September 22, 1984, Skyfox made its debut on the Billboard sales charts at number 10. By early November, it had moved up to 6th position. When the Commodore version hit the shelves in 1985, Skyfox went to number 1 and stayed there for most of the year. I didn't receive ranking reports from Europe, but in Japan it also reached number 1.
the Promise of
Login Magazine, Issue #4, 1985|
Skyfox is #1, Archon #17, 7 Cities of Gold #20
Stewart, my producer, presented me with a very nice framed gold diskette when sales reached 100,000 units. And a platinum disk when sales topped a quarter million. According to my royalty statements, 317,545 copies were sold. It was the best selling computer game of 1985.
One of the most amazing things about the whole experience was the fan mail. I have a small file of letters written by adults, teenagers and even an 8 year old. Almost thirty years later, I still get an occasional email from a fan. I'd like to thank everyone who bought Skyfox, and especially those who wrote!