A Letter to Owen, Part 2
A woman contacted me on Facebook to tell me that she of a gift she was preparing for her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy is a very avid gamer, and she wanted to present him with a book of letters written by people who worked in the game industry. She asked me to make a contribution, and here is more of what I wrote.
While most of my college assignments involved using the computer to solve scientific and business problems, I took any opportunity I could to use the university computer to print out poetry or pictures. My COBOL professor took an interest in my creative efforts and offered me a job as a clerk in the computer store he owned with several partners.
Rainbow Computing was the second computer store to open in the Los Angeles area, about a block away from the Cal State Northridge campus. The store mainly sold mini-computers for small businesses, but soon after I started working there, we began selling a computer made for home use – the Apple II.
Programming was now emerging as a hobby. People formed computer clubs to discuss this new technology, computer magazines appeared with programming tips, and hobbyists would hang out at their local computer store on the weekend. At first, people had to write all their own software, including games, but as they did, computer stores began selling them. Rainbow Computing published its own software catalog selling programs mostly written by its customers. Part of my job was to make copies of the floppy disks containing the programs, photocopy instruction manuals, and put everything into zip lock baggies for sale either on the store floor or through the catalog.
Once people realized that there was money to be made here, some began forming actual software publishing companies. A couple of the earliest game publishers, including Ken Williams of Sierra Online, bought their first computers at Rainbow Computing. Another, Sherwin Steffin, formed a company called Edu-Ware Services, and asked me to write games for him.
The first game I wrote was what would now be called an expansion for a science fiction role-playing game called Space that Edu-Ware had published. I wrote Space II in about two weeks (I still had my college homework and store clerk duties to do, after all!). It received good reviews from the computer magazines, and I earned about $100 in royalties for my efforts. Afterwards, I wrote an oil crisis simulation called Windfall (one week programming time) and a television programming strategy game called Network (I had to do that one in three days because Edu-Ware wanted to show it at the San Francisco Computer Faire that weekend).
After I graduated from college, I joined Edu-Ware as a full-time employee. The company operated out of Sherwin’s apartment, and I was being paid $800 a month. My parents were horrified and thought that I was throwing my education away.
I didn’t care. Although Edu-Ware was primarily in the business of publishing educational software, it allowed me to also occasionally design and program games for them. Now, when I was in college, I watched a British television show called The Prisoner airing on the local PBS station. It was about a spy who, after resigning, was abducted and taken to a resort-like open-air prison called The Village. The show dealt with issues about individuality and the role of authority, but it was also very surreal and bizarre. I absolutely loved it, and I convinced Edu-Ware’s management to let me spend six weeks making a game based on it, even though the show really wasn’t that well known here in the United States.
The game turned out to be a critical hit and sold well for Edu-Ware. However, we never acquired the rights to the television series because we were naïve about such things as trademarks and copyrights, but the entertainment industry wasn’t paying attention to home computer games, so we got away with it.