Saturday, December 27, 2014

History of Softape - Part 2

Two posts back, I gave a brief account of the history of the early Apple II software publisher Softape. Today, I will take a closer look at three of its most prolific game programmers.

Gary Shannon

NOTE – I already talked about Gary Shannon in my history of Programma International. The information below is a copy-and-paste of that material.

Gary Shannon's Dragon Maze

In 1963, Gary Shannon was fresh out of high school when a neighbor who worked for IBM taught him the rudiments of computer programming for a job he wanted Gary to work on. To further hone his skills, Shannon went to a commercial programming school in Los Angeles and also did contract work installing IBM 370s as well as business programming for Hughes Aircraft and Capitol Records. In the 1970s, he took a job with Cal State University, Northridge, where he soon discovered another passion.

[Gary Shannon] They had a policy where you could take classes during the work day as long as you got your 8 hours in so I started to work on a Masters in Computer Science. I didn't finish it, though. What they were teaching didn't have much to do with the real world of programming, so I dropped out of the program. Also, that was about the time that the Apple II first hit the market and I got totally addicted to game programming.

As his interest in the Apple II grew, Gary took a job at Rainbow Computing in Los Angeles. Founded in 1976 by Gene Sprouse and Glen Dollar, Rainbow Computing was one of the earliest Apple retailers (they also sold computer books and magazines, software, and other computers like the Jupiter III). Among the customers who frequented the store were Ken Williams (who founded Sierra On-Line in 1979), Sherwin Steffin (who founded Edu-Ware in 1979) and Dave Gordon (a friend of Shannon’s). Shannon soon began producing games for Programma, including Dragon Maze, Jupiter Express (an outer space shooter), Nightmare Number Nine, and Othello. Shannon's Nightmare #6 had been distributed by Apple in 1978. Shannon also produced games for Softape, including Advanced Dragon Maze (one of the games on Softape’s very first program – Module 1), Monster Maze, Jupiter Express (in which the player piloted a ship through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter), and Othello. He also produced Forté – a language for inputting music data.

Steve A. Baker

Another prolific Softape game programmer was Steve A Baker, who produced over a dozen titles for the company. Baker was studying to be a cosmetologist, and was actually close to graduating, when a friend showed him an HP-25 calculator. The two of them entered a Lunar Lander program and played it for hours. Interested, Baker found a gravity simulator program in an issue of Popular Electronics in which the player launched a spacecraft that was then controlled by gravity. After modifying the program to include a moon that the player could orbit, Baker was hooked and decided to launch a new a career as a computer programmer.

            He soon landed a job at a surplus electronics store that also carried a number of early hobbyist computers like the Imsai and the KIM-1 and began reading everything he could get his hands on from the store’s extensive library of computer books and magazines (a task made easier when the store gave its employees one copy of every magazine it had as a Christmas gift).


            When the Apple released the Apple II, Baker built his own system using an Apple II motherboard and parts he cobbled together from the store’s inventory and began programming games in Apple’s Integer Basic. Unable to afford the expensive 16K RAM chips, Baker initially had to make do with 4K chips, which limited him to lo-res graphics. His first game, Gunslinger, was a lo-res gunfight between a cowboy and R2D2. At a computer club meeting, a friend introduced him to the owner of Softape, who hired him as a programmer for $800 a month and published a number of his games, starting with Gunslinger and Fighter Pilot (on the same double-sided cassette) Fighter Pilot was a lo-res first-person space combat game that also included synthesized speech (produced via Apple Talker). According to Baker, the game originally included a number of elements borrowed from Battlestar Gallactica (such as the character Starbuck), but they were removed after the show’s lawyer’s complained. Before long, Bill Graves (who’d written Softape’s Forth ][ assembler) introduced Baker to assembly language and hi-res graphics and he began creating more sophisticated games, like Star Mines and Nightcrawler. The latter was a computer version of Atari’s Centipede with the addition of a number of elements like a black hole that would warp the player to a lower pit on the screen. The game was later released as Photar with many of the Centipede-like elements removed. Baker’s bestselling was probably Microgammon, an ASCII-graphics version of backgammon (a game baker had learned while working for Mattel in the Intellivision). Other Softape titles by Baker included Go-Moku, Journey, and Burn-Out


            After leaving Softape, Baker worked on a number of games for other systems, including Defender and Stargate ports for the Atari 800 and Apple II, the Atari 2600 ports of Epyx’s Summer Games, Winter Games, and California Games, and Pilgrim Quest and Sporting News Baseball for the Apple II.

Bob Bishop


Softape's most prolific and well-known programmer was probably Bob Bishop. Born in Milwaukee, Bishop attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he majored in physics. Bishop initially had little interest in computers until one fall when he signed up for a Fortran programming class and got a copy of Daniel McCracken's seminal A Guide to Fortran Programming. First released in 1961, the work (and its successors) became the standard Fortran textbook in colleges across the country. About three days later, Bishop wrote his first program to solve a problem he'd first begun to work on in his high school days involving calculating the area of a square based on a point a given distance from three of its corners. While waiting for the results of this program (this was in the days when programs had to be submitted to an operator on punch cards), he wrote another to generate prime numbers. Unlike his first program, this one worked the first time it ran (eventually the physics department obtained a CDC 3600 that cut the turnaround time to about two hours).


            With his new interest in programing, Bishop went to grad school at UCLA where a campus computer club allowed students two minutes a day on the school's mainframe. After earning his MS, Bishop worked at Xerox for a few years, then moved on to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab where he worked on the Apollo 17 project, the HEAO (High Energy Astronomical Observatory), and the IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite) as head of the 20 programmers in the science ground data handling group. Eventually, the group got an IBM 7044, which Bishop was able to use for his own projects (he later called it his first "personal" computer). Before long, real personal computers began to appear. In 1975, Bishop began seeing ads for MITS' Altair 8800, IMS Technologies' IMSAI, and - the one that really excited him - the Sphere. Despite his persistent calls, however, he was never able to get his hands on a Sphere (neither were many other hobbyists). Then, in 1976 he saw an ad for the Apple I and was so eager to get one that he drove to the address on the ad. Expecting to find a large, fully functional company, he was surprised when he was given Steve Jobs' personal phone number. He eventually made his way to Jobs' house, where Jobs' mother invited him inside to wait. When Steve showed up a few minutes later wearing a scraggly beard and sandals, he took Bishop to his garage and tried to demo the Apple I but couldn't get it to work. Eventually, he got the machine working well enough to convince Bishop he had to have one (which likely wasn't too hard). In November (1976), a fellow employee named Gordon Culp, who was staring a computer retailing company of his own, sold Bishop an assembled Apple I for about $1,000 and he created his first game to reach the public - a Star Trek program written in BASIC that was published in the May, 1977 issue of Interface Age. In early 1977, Apple began advertising the Apple II and once again, Bishop knew he had to have one. Unfortunately he couldn't afford the $1678 price. He made another trip to Apple where he met with Steve Wozniak and Mike Markkula and explained the situation. They took him into a back room and offered to sell him one for a "few hundred dollars" if he gave back his Apple I. Bishop readily agreed and went home to wait for his new machine, which was scheduled to arrive on July 3 (less than a month after its official release on June 10th). Much to Bishop's chagrin, the machine didn't arrive on the 3rd and he spent what he called "the lousiest fourth of July of my life" waiting for the next mail day. At ten the next morning, he finally got his machine (serial number 0013) and turned it on, only to find that nothing happened. He eventually figured out he had to press the reset button and before long began experimenting with the machine's new hi-res graphics capabilities. By the next morning, he'd written a game called Rocket Pilot, which was published in the January, 1978 issue of Kilobaud. He followed with three more games: Saucer Invasion, Space Maze, and Star Wars  (Bishop claims they were the first four hi-res games written for the Apple II).In April of 1978, he wrote Apple Vision, a hi-res graphics demo program in which a dancer appeared on a tiny television, gyrating to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw". While it was crude by latter standards, it was a revolution at the time (it took Bishop two weeks to write) and Apple even included it on the disks that shipped with the Apple II, giving many users their first glimpse of hi-res graphics.      



            While Bishop's initial games were all published as program listings in magazines of the time, he also offered them for sale on cassette via Computer Playground, a computer store in Westminster, CA where Bishop was teaching programming classes. One night while lying in bed, Bishop began to think about how the Apple read data from cassette via its cassette-in port (this was before a floppy drive was available) then converted it to 1-bit digital format  and stored it in memory (to output data, it did the same thing in reverse, via the cassette-out port). What if, Bishop thought, he connected a microphone to the cassette-in port and used to record his own voice data? In just half an hour, Bishop wrote a program called Apple-Talker, the first speech synthesis program for the Apple II and followed with Apple Listener, the first speech recognition program. The next day, Bishop demoed the program for his students. When no one said anything, Bishop figured that had been unimpressed. In truth, they had been stunned into silence and soon asked him to do it again.


            At some point, Bishop began to work for Softape, who released all of these programs on cassette along with a number of others, including another game called Bomber, a music/graphics program called Music Kaleidoscope, and a database called The Electronic Index Card File (originally created to catalog Bishop's collection of Donald Duck comics). After his career at Softape, Bishop created a number of other games for DataSoft (most notably Dung Beetles and Money Munchers), and later worked for Apple (a job he says Apple offered him mainly to keep him from taking a job at Atari) and Disney Studios and on the game show Tic Tac Dough (which used nine Apple II's for its prize board).



Sunday, December 21, 2014

Swordquest Origins

While working on the section of my book on video game comic books, I came across some information on the Swordquest series that I found interesting and I that I haven't seen mentioned on the various Swordquest sites on the web.

I'm sure most of you know all about Swordquest, but just in case here are the broad details:

Back in 1982, Atari decided to create a sequel to its Adventure cartridge called Adventure II. The game eventually morphed into something completely different: a series of four interconnected cartridges called Swordquest in which players competed to win an actual treasure. There were supposed to be four games in the series, each based on an element - Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld. Each would also come with a mini comic book produced by DC Comics (DC was owned by Warner and had already produced the Atari Force mini-comics that had been included in various 2600 games, starting with Defender). The player used clues in the games and comics to solve a puzzle that they would submit to Atari. 50 of the solvers (I may be getting the details wrong) would then be selected (based on a statement saying what they liked about the game) to go to Atari HQ to play a custom version of the game with the winner being awarded a prize worth $25,000. The winners of the four individual games would then compete for the grand prize - a jewel-encrusted "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" designed by the Franklin Mint worth $50,000.

In Earthworld (I think the others worked the same way but I'm not sure) the way it worked was that the player would travel through various rooms (in this case, based on the 12 Zodiacal signs), often by playing brief arcade game sequences. For certain rooms if they dropped the right combination of items, a pair of numbers would appear, directing them to a certain page and panel of the comic, in which a hidden word appeared. Then then had to take five of the ten words (part of the puzzle was figure out which ones - I think it Earthworld it was the ones with a prime number) and send them to Atari.

Anyhow, the first game drew about 5,000 entries, but only eight were correct. The prize (a talisman and small sword) was won by Steven Bell. The contest for the second game (Fireworld) - a jeweled chalice - was won by Michael Rideout.

Next came Waterworld, but while finalists were apparently selected, but final prize was never awarded and, in the wake of the video game crash, Atari dropped the entire contest and never produced Airworld. No one is sure what happened to the final three prizes (the Waterworld finalists were supposedly given $2,000 each while Rideout and Bell were given $15,000 each as compensation).

Anyway, the whole thing was an excellent idea gone bad. Aside from the crash, one problem was that the games themselves, to put it bluntly, stunk. I realize this a matter of opinion and I have to admit that I didn't actually own any of them, though I was actually quite excited about the contest. A friend of mine had Fireworld, however, and after I played it, I was shocked at how bad it was and quickly decided I wasn't willing to submit myself to the agony of playing the game just to win a jewel-encrusted tchotchke that I would likely never use and didn't know how easily I would be able to sell.
As a standalone game, it was (again, IMO) worthless. The only reason to play it was if you were going to enter the contest.

Anyhow, that's now what I want to write about. What I wanted to write about was some new info I found.

I was actually researching Atari Force at the time, not Swordquest. Since the Atari Force comics were written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, I immediately wondered if they might have been discussed in Alter Ego, a comic book fanzine edited by Roy Thomas.

I didn't find a complete article, but they were discussed in an interview with Thomas in Alter Ego #100. There was only a paragraph on Atari Force, which didn't really reveal anything new (other than that the idea started when DC's Jenette Khan had Conway and Thomas fly to Silicon Valley to meet with atari engineers and the fact that Conway did basically all the work on the series, despite the fact that Thomas was credited as co-creator).

More interesting to me was the following paragraph on Swordquest:

"Then came Swordquest. Gerry and I came up again and huddled with a couple of Atari’s engineers. The company had this general idea for a series of four interconnected games under the banner 'Swordquest', with a grand prize they’d promote to help sell it. A sword was to be buried somewhere in the United States, and the person who found it – working from clues that were to be imbedded in the games themselves – would get a considerable amount of money. This was based on a similar gimmick that we were told had recently been used by a book company, with clues hidden in some picture book; that had sent people scrambling all over the country in search of a buried treasure. Gerry and I immediately came up with the idea that the four games should be based on the four classical 'elements' – earth, air, fire, and water. It was basically a rather effete sword and sorcery comic – Atari wouldn’t have wanted any real blood-and-guts – and George Perez was assigned to pencil the accompanying comics, which would again be printed in a pocket size. Gerry and I split the work on this one, but I forget exactly who wrote what."
The next paragraph is even more interesting.

"Only thing is, as I recall, before we did the fourth comic, a real problem arose with the earlier treasure hunt thing. We were told there were lawsuits in the case of the earlier book because some overeager people hunting for the treasure were digging up people’s lawns and demolishing property. So Atari pulled the plug on the Swordquest game before it got completed. Well, the comic book was a lot better than the game anyway."
Now this last paragraph conflicts with what is known about the game. As far as I've read, the final contest was never supposed to involve digging up the sword. Instead, it would be similar to the others - players would play a custom game and the winner would be awarded the sword. In addition, I've never heard that Atari's dropping the series had anything to do with potential lawsuits. It's always been presented as being due to the video game crash and Atari's financial situation.
While I don't think Thomas's info is entirely accurate, however, I don't think he just made it up either. Nor do I think he was just getting the book contest he mentioned confused with the Swordquest contest (he specifically says that they were told about the lawsuits and that the original idea was based on the books).
My first question, however, was what book contest Thomas was talking about. I distinctly remember one such contest from around that time but not distinctly enough to remember the name.
A quick bit of research turned up two possibilities.

The first was Masquerade, a book written by Kit Williams and published in the UK in 1979 that consisted of a series of 16 paintings that provided clues to the location of a jewel-encrusted, golden hare that had been buried somewhere in the UK.  The book sold over a million copies worldwide.

The second was Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse, written by Dr. Crypton (puzzle writer for Discover magazine)  and published in 1984 (as an alternative to the book, a video tape was also produced that provided the requisite clues). In this one, a golden horse worth $25,000 was buried somewhere in the US, along with a key to a safe deposit box containing a $500,000 annuity.
Was one of these the book Thomas was talking about?
One problem with Masquerade was that the treasure was hidden in the UK, not the US (though the book was published in the US by Schocken Books). In addition, a "winner" to the contest was declared in March, 1982, which doesn't seem to fit Thomas's story either (though it might). OTOH, while I didn't find any references to lawsuits, contestants did dig up private property, causing some controversy (read the Wikipedia article for more detail).
Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse might seem a better candidate. The problem here is the 1984 publication date, which seems to rule it out. . After looking into the book's history, however, I'm not so sure.

According to an August 21, 1989 article in the New York Times (reproduced here) the idea for the book was cooked up in 1982 by Dr. Crypton and filmmaker Sheldon Renan (who produced the video tape for the game) who sold the rights to former record company exec Barry Grieff in 1983. Grieff then raised $3.5 million, formed a company called Intravision to market the idea, and contracted with Warner Books and Vestron Video to distribute the book and video tape. Unlike Masquerade, this one was a flop. Only about 80,000 books and 12,000 videos were sold, Intravision went into debt, and the treasure was never found (at least not by the time of this article - the annuity was donated to Big Brothers/Big Sisters).

The interesting part for our purposes was that the book was published by Warner (Atari's parent). Unfortunately, it seems that they didn't know about it until 1983. If so, it seems it couldn't have been the book that Thomas was talking about.

So where does that leave us?
Is Thomas's story completely inaccurate?
Is there another such contest that could have served as inspiration? (there were a few other "armchair detective" book/contests I found from 1982 involving buried objects, but they were all were in the UK. As I mentioned, I clearly remember one such contest but I'm not sure it was Masquerade or the golden horse book or some other books I couldn't find reference to).
Did Warner know about the golden horse book earlier?

My guess (and it's just that - a total guess) is that the idea for Swordquest did have something to do with one of the buried item book/contests, though I'm not sure which one. I don't know if Atari ever considered burying the sword, however. If they did so, it may have been early in the concept stage, since from what I've read, the initial rules stated that the finals would involved playing a video game (though, oddly, my initial memory was that there was a buried sword involved). And I don't think that the cancelling of the series had much do to with worries about a lawsuit (at least not about digging up private property - though they may have been worried about being sued for something else). It seems to me that the standard explanation (i.e. that they were cancelled for financial reasons) is the most likely. OTOH, I do wonder where Thomas got the info..

A quick aside that has nothing to do with Swordquest or buried treasure contests. A similar idea appeared in 1983 when William Morrow published a book called "Who Killed the Robins Family" in which players tried to solve a murder mystery to win a $10,000 prize. In 1984, Warner Books published the paperback addition. This one I definitely remember (it also sold a million copies).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'm Hooked, I'm Hooked, My Brain Is Cooked - Two Pieces of Video Game Radio Ephemera

Today, I cover a couple of little discussed radio relics of the golden age of video games – one a pop song and the other a radio drama.

 Space Invaders by Uncle Vic
The pop song is the 1980 novelty hit "Space Invaders" by Uncle Vic, one of a number of songs related to the game Others include “Disco Space Invaders” by Funny Stuff, released in 1979 on Elbon records; “Space Invaders”, another 1979 song by the Australian band Player 1/Playback and The Pretenders 1979 instrumental “Space Invaders”. Those songs will have to wait for another day. Today, we’re talking about Uncle Vic. Before we get started, here's a link to a YouTube video of the song
     Uncle Vic was Victor Earl Blecman, a 27-year-old musician, nightclub owner, and DJ for WGCL in Cleveland. Blecman's music career has started in Elyria, Ohio in1965 when he formed a band called The Cavemen with three junior high school classmates. The band continued through Blecman's high school and  community college years under various names, including Flight, Pennsylvania Crude Oil, Revolver, and Izz, playing at various local clubs like Pickle Bill's and Big Dick's (in 1971, Izz shared a bill with Black Sabbath). Vic would often inject his oddball sense of humor into the band's sets and before long he was doing more joking than playing. He eventually landed a job as a disk jockey in Elyria, while performing disco-themed comedy as "The Fantastic and Intergalactic Uncle Vic" at Elyria's Rathskellar Club (where, in 1976, he tried to set a Guinness World Record for continuous joke-telling). In January, 1977 he opened an adults-only disco club in Elyria called Uncle Vic's Night Club along with two partners. Meanwhile, Blecman had patented a keyboard instrument called the "talking machine" that made use of recorded sounds. In June of 1978, he attended a Chicago trade show trying to find a manufacturer for his device when he ran into the Bradley Brothers, an English trio who had invented another keyboard instrument called the Novatron and signed up to distribute the machines in North America. He also recorded a record called "Baby, Now That I've Found You", scoring a minor local hit.

Uncle Vic in his high school days (from Elyria Chronicle, 1970)

From Elyria Chronicle, 1969

Izz - From Elyria Chronicle, 1971

The idea to create a novelty record based on a video game came around May of 1980 when Vic was playing a show at his night club and noticed that his audience was distracted by the blooping and bleeping of a Space Invaders machine in the back room. Annoyed, Vic's band began playing along with the game, imitating its sounds. The audience loved it and Blecman soon decided to record a song based on the game. 

[Vic Blecman] That's where I saw people line up for the machine. Cheering and yelling and completely lost in playing. So were the watchers. Then I read about the space machines in magazines and heard about tournaments in Europe, South America, America, and Japan. It's international. I decided something that popular deserved to have a song written about it. <Jane Scott, "'Space Invaders' 45 could blow your mind', Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980>

Uncle Vic's Night Club - birthplace of "Space Invaders"

Then Blecman found out that the Pretenders had included a song called “Space Invaders” on their debut album and almost dropped the idea, until he found out that the song had nothing to do with the game. Blecman then assembled a group to record his song (which he claims he wrote in his bathroom in about half an hour) and recorded it at 3 A.M. at Kirk Yano's After Dark recording studio in five hours at a cost of $4,000. Backing up Blecman (who played bass and sang vocals) were Kirk Yano on guitar, Jose Ortiz on drums, and Pete Tokar (who duplicated the machine's sounds on a synthesizer[1]). 
       "Space Invaders" opened with the lines "Well, there it is in the corner of the bar / I tried to run, but I didn't get far / Those weird little men; I blow 'em away / Id' sell my mom for a chance to play", followed by the song's hook, sung in an alien voice: "He's hooked, he's hooked, his brain is cooked". The chorus featured the words "Space Invaders" sung over and over as the synthesized sounds of the game played in the background. As the song ended, it got faster and faster (like its coin-op inspiration) before ending with a loud explosion.

Blecman pressed 2,000 copies of the record on his own Partay Label and negotiated with Progress Records to distribute them, mailing copies to a number of radio stations. The song quickly became the most requested song on Cleveland area stations (though Blecman, who was also a disk jockey at Cleveland’s WGCL, wasn't allowed to play it on his own show due to FCC regulations) and also became a hit in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. Blecman then struck a deal with Prelude Records, who'd also released the novelty classics "Ahab the Arab" by Ray Stevens and "My Ding-A-Ling" (shamefully, Chuck Berry's biggest hit) to release "Space Invaders" nationally as a single (b/w "Ode to Slim", an homage to Slim Whitman). While "Space Invaders" failed to crack the national charts, it became a Dr. Demento staple and, for those who heard it, a fondly-remembered relic of the golden age of video games. Two years later, Uncle Vic tried again with another video game song based on Pac-Man titled "It Won't Beat Me". The song went nowhere.


Space Invaders
©1980 by Uncle Vic

Well, there it is in the corner of the bar
I tried to run, but I didn't get far
Those weird little men; I blow 'em away
I'd sell my mom for a chance to play

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

They start off slow, but they don't play clean
It's tricky and low; it's a mean machine
There's lots of them and one of you
When the walls are gone, they'll get to you

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

Faster and faster all the time
An hour of this will blow your mind
Gotta get them before they get you
and you'll be broke before you're through

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

As the gang looks over your shoulder in awe
They don't believe what they just saw
You slid to the left and slid to the right
You're the Space Invaders king tonight

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

A feeling of power comes over your hand
Row by row, you're in command
There's one last devil movin' real fast
One single shot (shot noise); got him at last

Space invaders (game sounds)
(Hey, wow, man!)
Space invaders
(I'm gonna get me one of these)
Space invaders
Space invaders
(Got it going now!)
Space invaders
(I'm on my fourth row!)
Space invaders
(Gee, they almost got me.)
Space invaders
(We're in trouble now!)
Space invaders
(Oh, wow, really cosmic, man!)
Space invaders (pace quickens)
Space invaders
Space invaders
(Too fast for me, man!)
Space invaders
(high incomprehensible squawking)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders....

Uncle Vic in 2008

Nightfall – No Quarter
While Uncle Vic’s hit is far from well-known, I’m sure a number of readers will remember it. I can’t say the same for my next bit of radio ephemera. Actually, I’ve already written about this one, but it was way back in the second post I ever did, so some of you may have missed it (for those who didn’t, this part will largely be a repeat of my earlier post).


This one isn’t a song, but a bit of radio drama, an art form that has become increasingly rare, but was a bit more common back in the 1970s and 1980s (remember the NPR production of Star Wars?). This one, however, wasn’t an NPR program. In fact, it wasn’t even American. It was an episode of Nightfall, a Canadian horror anthology series broadcast on CBC from July, 1980 to May, 1983. I am actually a longtime fan of “OTR” (old time radio), particularly radio horror. Nightfall isn’t OTR, but it is one of the finest radio horror anthologies ever produced, IMO.
Unfortunately, the subject of this post wasn’t one of the program’s finest efforts (though I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway). . It was, however, a rare (if not unique) example of a video-game-themed radio drama. The episode I’m talking about is “No Quarter”, which aired on March 4, 1983. You can download it from many places on the web. Here is a link to an internet archive page with “No Quarter” along with most of the other episodes of the series (if you have any interest in horror or radio drama, check out some of the other episodes)
"No Quarter” tells the story of Paul Weaver, a poor shlub who becomes obsessed with video games after playing Donkey Kong while waiting for a delayed flight at the Vancouver Airport.  On a drive home from dinner, he and his wife get into an argument over the time he's spending on the games. She is concerned that the games promote anti-social behavior in violence. He replies that the games are educational ("The Defense Department uses Armor Attack as a simulator for tank training." he argues). After he loses his job when he misses an important meeting because he's busy playing Defender ("It you want to beat Defender, don't use the smart bomb in hyperspace”, the arcade owner dubiously tells him), his wife launches a public crusade against video games. One day, Paul gets a mysterious package containing an ultra-advanced arcade game called Death Ship in which an intergalactic slave laborer tries to escape his "Robotron masters". Paul begins playing the game, drawn in by its incredible graphics, voice synthesis, and hyper realistic action. As his score mounts, the game becomes even more lifelike, until it eventually becomes a little too realistic (you’ll have to listen yourself to find out how it ends). Almost unknown today, the episode contains a host of video game references. Death Ship’s digitized voice intones "coin detected in pocket" ala Berzerk. At one point, the arcade owner tells Paul "Some computer science student in Buffalo blew the brains out of a Pac-Man. You know it only stores six figures. Well, he turned it over three times and the screen split the maze on one side and this electronic gibberish on the other."

[1] Jane Scott, “’Space Invaders’ 45 could blow your mind”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980.  Other sources report that Blecman played all of the instruments except keyboard.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Softape History - Part I (plus a review of Atari: Game Over)

A few weeks back, I posted an all-too-brief history of Programma International – one of the earliest and largest Apple II software publishers. Today I cover an even earlier company that is in some ways even more interesting – Softape. Once again, this post will be more of a very brief sketch rather than a proper history and will surely not come close to doing the company justice and I hope that others will take up the mantle and flesh out more of the details of this sadly unappreciated company.

The above image, and many others, were taken from, which also includes more information on Softape

Setting the Stage

      Softape was founded in late 1977, a key year in personal computer history. According to a number of histories, the personal computer industry was still in its infancy at the beginning of 1977. While this is arguably true, I would actually argue that it would be more accurate to say that it was in its teenage years. Contrary to popular belief, personal computers did not start with the Apple II, at least not if we define "personal computer" as a computer marketed for personal (rather than corporate or institutional) use. While they are largely forgotten today, there were many personal computers (or microcomputers as many called them at the time) that appeared prior to mid-1977. The June, 1977 issue of Byte for instance, featured ads for the Apple II, the IMSAI 8080, the Sol 20 (Processor Technology of Berkeley), the Poly 88 (Polymorphic Systems, Santa Barbara), the Altair 8800b and 680b (MITS, Albuquerque), the Z-2 (Cromemco, Mountain View), the SWTPC 6800 (Southwest Technical Products, San Antonio), the OSI Challenge (Ohio Scientific Instruments, Hiram OH), the Equinox 100 (Parasitic Engineering, Albany),  the Compucolor 8001 (Compucolor Corp, Norcross GA), the FD-8 (Midwest Scientific Instruments, Olathe KS), the Xitan Alpha-1 (Technical Design Labs, Princeton), and machines by Denver's digital group, as well as reviews of the KIM 1 and the Noval 760 (the latter produced by a division of Gremlin Industries – yes THAT Gremlin - and co-designed by one of the designers of Blockade and other arcade games). And personal computers didn't start with the Apple I either, or even the Altair 8800 (though the Altari could be credited with launching the revolution). A handful of other kits, projects, and machines appeared earlier, such as the Mark-8 and the Scelbi 8H. Some trace personal computers all the way back to the ECHO IV in 1967, or even earlier).

Sadly, these machines have been largely ignored in most computer histories. Two exceptions are Paul Frieberger and Michael Swaine’s Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer and Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer. While both are outstanding, I found that the former left me wanting, really only serving to whet my appetite for more information on these early machines. By far, the best source of info I’ve found about these seminal companies and machines is Stan Veit’s wonderful book. It certainly isn’t the best-written book on personal computer history (though neither is it poorly written), but it may well be my favorite. Aside from the fact that these machines were mostly hobbyist kits, one reason they have been forgotten is that they didn’t last. In 1977, however, three PCs appeared that did: the Apple II (introduced in April and first sold in June), the TRS-80 (released in August), and the Commodore PET (released in October). Unlike most (though not all) early PCs, these machines were (relatively at least) user friendly and sold well. It was in this milieu that Softape appeared on the scene.

The History of Softape

Softape was the brainchild of three people: William V. Smith, Bill DePew, and Gary Koffler, all of whom had attended John Burroughs High School in Burbank (though none of them realized this fact when they first met). Smith graduated from high school in 1974 and earned an AA degree from Los Angeles Valley College in 1977 (an interesting aside that has nothing to do with computers or computer games - Smith’s grandmother was Beatrice Roberts, a model, dancer, Miss America finalist, actress [she played Queen Azura in a 1938 Flash Gordon serial], wife of Robert Ripley [of Believe It or Not fame], and mistress to producer Louis B. Mayer [the second M in MGM]). More relevant to our purposes was Smith’s first encounter with computers, which came in 1976 or 1977 when he saw an article in Popular Science detailing how to build an S-100 bus computer (the hardware bus used in the Altair 8800 and other early PCs). After taking a computer class at Los Angeles Valley College in 1977, Smith and his best friend, Dave Mosher, built the computer, with the help of the owner of The Byte Shop in Pasadena[1] and parts cobbled together from various computer manufacturers. Realizing that other people had invested similar time and effort (not to mention money) in computers of their own and needed a way to protect them, Smith and Mosher formed a company called International Computer Accessories that sold clear Plexiglas computer covers nationwide for machines like the Imsai and Byt-8 (a personal computer created and sold by Byte Shop founder Paul Terrell). Meanwhile, Mosher had taken another job selling fish and fish supplies to aquariums and pet stores. While selling his products, Mosher met another aquarium-supply salesman named Gary Koffler, who also collected and traded Apple II software on cassette. After Dave told Smith about Koffler, the two met and formed an instant connection inspired by their shared love of computers. They quickly wrote a program called Rollin’ On the River that Koffler began trading with his many computer contacts, one of whom another Apple II enthusiast named Bill DePew. DePew had graduated from John Burroughs High in 1972 before briefly attending UCLA. He also had an uncanny ability to learn new things quickly. The three met at DePew’s house in Burbank and decided to start a company to make products for the Apple II, something few companies were doing for the still relatively new computer. The three initially planned to offer both software (programs Koffler had collected plus others written by DePew) and hardware (like a thermostat they found that connected to the Apple II’s game port). Calling their company Softech, and funded by profits from Smith’s Plexiglas cover business as well as a vending route he owned, they rented a 900-square-foot building on Vanowen Street in North Hollywood for $195 a month and went into business, with Smith handling the marketing, accounting, and office management, Koffler heading up sales, and DePew developing the software (Debbie Jorman was the office assistant).

Softech’s first product was something called the Software Exchange (later the Softape Software Exchange), which Softape’s winter 1978 catalog described as follows:

The largest problem in personal computing today is the lack of organization and distribution of software. Much software exists, but it is not readily obtainable, Softape is committed to filling this void. Since you had the insight to join the microcomputer revolution, we have no doubt that you will recognize the value of this opportunity. The Softape Software Exchange was created to interface the microcomputer owner and the microcomputer programmer. Through the exchange every kind of program will be available quickly and inexpensively. Programmers, both novice and professional, can have their software distributed nationally. If the software is "top notch" and of sufficient interest, Softape will contact you about royalties. No program will be distributed until the author has given his permission, and a mutually beneficial agreement has been agreed upon.

 After paying a $20 membership fee, customers could order software “modules” on cassette for $2 each. The first title, Module 1, included three games: Advanced Dragon Maze (a lo-res maze game by Gary Shannon), Digital Derby (a lo-res horse racing game), and Saucer War (a two-player space combat game). William Smith describes Module 1 as "the first program available nationwide for the Apple II". While I am not sure this is true, it was likely among the first. The group mailed a copy of the program to every Apple II retail store they knew of, a task that was made easier by Apple, who had kindly provided them with pre-printed labels, along with its dealer and warranty lists (they bought one of the first 5 MB hard drives from Corvus Systems to store them). At one point, Softech even paid to fly Steve Wozniak down to Burbank to attend a club meeting, after which he retired to Smith’s house to watch Battlestar Gallactica.

Just as they got started, however, a company from San Diego contacted them and told them that they were already using the name Softech so the group changed the name to Softape, which had nothing to do with a downy gorilla, but rather referred to the fact that they made software on cassette tape (the standard method of distributing software at the time). In an effort to save money, the fledgling company cut corners whenever it could. Rather than buying an expensive tape duplicator, Bill DePew created an audio bridge that allowed them to make multiple copies of a tape at once. (in later years, Softape partnered with GRT Corporation, a large music tape and record manufacturer with more extensive duplication facilities). Instead of advertising in national magazines like Byte, Creative Computing, or the Apple II magazines that were just beginning to appear on the scene, Softape marketed its product directly via a newsletter they created called Softalk.

The Softape Software Exchange grew to include at least eight modules with utility and productivity software in addition to games. Eventually, however, Softape found that some programs like DePew’s blackjack game Apple 21 and Bob Bishop’s Music Kaleidoscope merited release as stand-alone products, which they sold for $9.95. While these may seem like “bargain basement” prices compared to those of Apple programs of the early ‘80s, it was actually fairly standard pricing for the cassette-based programs of the time, which rarely sold for more than $15-20 (with the exception of business software). In its relatively brief life, Softape released at least 75 programs for the Apple II (and possibly many more). Among them were graphics programs (Etch a Sketch), music programs (Appleodion), utilities (Dump/Restore), educational programs (Typing Tutor) a Forth interpreter (Forth ][) and over 50 games. It also produced a handful of titles for other systems like the TRS 80. Among the more interesting (or at least interesting sounding) games were Baseball Fever (a full color baseball simulation), Coney Island (featuring 22 different ball-and-paddle games), Journey (a little-known text adventure that may not have been released), and Microgammon. I’m not sure what their most popular games were, since they mostly came out before Softalk’s bestseller lists and other lists, but my guesses would be Microgammon, Photar, Planetoids, Star Mines, Apple 21, and Best of Bishop (which combined Rocket Pilot, Space Maze, Star Wars, Saucer Invasion, Apple-Vision, and Dynamic Bouncer).

Its most groundbreaking program may have been Apple-Talker/Apple Listener, perhaps the earliest speech synthesis/voice recognition program for the Apple II. Softape used the technology in programs like Tic-Tac-Talker (a talking version of tic-tac-toe with voice control). The company’s most ambitious effort was probably Magic Window, a full-function word processor created by Gary Shannon and Bill DePew and released in 1982 under the Artsci/Softape label. Its most unusual feature was that the onscreen cursor actually stayed still while the virtual “paper” moved (like an old school typewriter). The program was voted #1 Word Processor of 1981 (according to Softalk) and came with an optional spell checker (Magic Words) and a mail merge program (Magic Mailer).

In addition to the software, the company also made hardware, like the Bright Pen (a light pen input device that they also used in games like Bright Pen Craps), Reset Guard (which prevented Apple II users from inadvertently hitting the machine’s  reset key), and the Axiom-820 printer. One of the company’s greatest legacies was not a program, but a magazine. After three issues, the Softalk newsletter was converted into a full-scale color magazine (and, IMO, one of the best Apple II magazines on the market) in July, 1980 under the direction of William Smith, Bill DePew, and Margo Tommervic. In 1979, Tommervic, then a freelance textbook editor, won $15,000 on the gameshow Password. She and her husband Al, an editor at Variety, decided to use the money to purchase a TRS-80 microcomputer. After a rude Radio Shack salesperson chided Al for smoking his pipe in the store, however, the two left and bought an Apple instead. Margot became an instant computer addict and gamer. While visiting Rainbow Computing (an early computer retailer) she saw an ad for a new adventure game called Mystery House from On-Line Systems, offering a prize for the first person to finish it. When the game went on sale that Friday, Margot was there to purchase a copy and by noon the next day she had solved it. Around this time, Tommervic visited Softape (whose offices were a short distance from where she lived) to buy a copy of Magic Window. Within a few days, she and Smith agreed to start a new company to publish Softalk as a full-scale glossy magazine with Tommervic (who had used the rest of her Password winnings to help finance the venture) as Editor, Smith as Advertising Manager, and Bill DePew as Technical Editor. Published from September, 1980 until August, 1984, Softalk grew to over 400 pages at its peak and included how-to articles, industry news, product reviews, fiction, and monthly games and contests (one asked readers to count the number of turkeys hidden throughout the issue, another asked readers to guess the identity of Lord British, based on clues provided in each issue). For the video game historian (or at least this video game historian), two features stand out. One was the monthly bestseller lists for software in various categories, based on actual retailer sales figures. The other was the monthly “Exec” column, which featured an in-depth history/profile of a single company.

Overall, Softape/Artsci sold over 100,000 cassettes and 200,000 disks and had annual sales of over $3 million. Unfortunately it never made the transition to the IBM PC (it did try its hand at a few programs for the Macintosh, but it never really panned out), and disappeared along with the Apple II itself (in addition, many of its programmers were hired away by Apple). Eventually, the three partners had a falling out (involving, in part, a woman). DePew and Smith renamed the company Artsci while Koffler went to work for DataMost (whose founder Dave Gordon was an early friend and customer). Bill Depew died on August 2, 2011 in Burbank. In our

The Artsci crew in 1983

Bonus - Automated Dress Pattern, 1978

This is only tangentially related to Softape. The image below is from the September, 1978 issue of Interface Age. It is for an Apple II dress pattern program written by William V. Smith and Paul Essick. The pattern was available from McCall's Dress Pattern Company and could be printed on a 132 column printer.
The interesting thing to me, however, is the medium. The program was distributed on "floppy ROM". I can't imagine that anybody reading this wouldn't know what a record is (even people born after they were supplanted by CDs and mp3s generally know what they are). But if you weren't around during the record era, you may not remember these things. They were "records" printed on flexible plastic that were often distributed as promotional items in magazines or other media (there were even cardboard records that could be cut out of the back of cereal boxes). Even less known is that they were used to distribute computer software, though only rarely. In a way, this isn't surprising. The data from the record was read in through the cassette input port, but the port could be used with any audio source (the data is the same no matter what source it comes from).
Anyway, I thought it was an interesting sidelight of computer history.

[1] According to Smith, this was none other than yoga master, Guru Prem Singh Khalsa

Review - Atari: Game Over

Many of you probably know this, but today marked the release of Atari: Game Over, a documentary about the infamous E.T. cartridge burial in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This thing has been the subject of much discussion in the last several months. I just finished watching it and thought I'd post a few comments.  (NOTE there are some "spoilers" below, though if you've paid any attention to this story, they really don't spoil anything as there isn't really anything to spoil)

I have to admit, that I was actually dreading seeing this thing. From what I had seen I knew what I was expecting and it wasn't good. What I was expecting was that they would dig up the site and find a number of different cartridges and other items, including some E.T. cartridges. Actually, I basically already knew that was what they'd find, since I'd read as much elsewhere and was already convinced that that was what was buried there.

What I feared is that they would then say that the "myth" had been proven true after all and that all those people who said it wasn't true would now have to eat crow (followed by online attacks on the E.T. deniers as a bunch of buffoons or accusations that they "refused to believe" the obvious evidence and continued to cling to their unfalsifiable myth claims).
I was even worried that they would only show photos of the ET cartridges they unearthed, rather than the other material they found - giving the false impression that they had found nothing but ET carts, and millions of them.

The first 90% or so of the movie did nothing to allay my fears.
I am happy to report, however, that my fears were largely unfounded. In the end, they freely admit that they did non find millions of ET cartridges, that only about 10% of the carts they found were ET, and that the dump was a general dump of overstock merchandise that had nothing to do specifically with ET.

In short, while they perhaps didn't say so explicitly, they basically confirmed that the story is a myth.

Let me clarify. The "myth" I'm talking about is not that there were ET cartridges buried in a New Mexico landfill (that much has been known for some time - though some continue to inaccurately report that this is the "myth" that the deniers are denying). Rather, the myth was that there were millions of ET cartridges (and only ET cartridges) buried in New Mexico in an effort to hide (or at least dispose of) all evidence of the ET fiasco - a fact that was seen as having deeper significance as a symbol of the fall of Atari and the video game industry in general).

I suspect that there will still be those who claim the film proves that the "myth" was actually true, which truly bugs me as an amateur historian (as does the seeming fact that the true story has actually been available for over 30 years to anyone who actually bothered to read contemporary press accounts in the Alamogordo and El Paso papers [in other words, anyone who bothered to do basic research])

The landfill story actually forms a relatively small part of the documentary, and the actual revelation at the dig comes across as something of an anticlimax. The documentary is really more about the story of ET itself, and especially Howard Scott Warshaw (the best part of the documentary IMO) with a lesser focus on the history of Atari and the video game industry itself. I personally would have like to have seen them go a bit more into the burial and how it came about (they mention next to nothing about the El Paso plant, for instance), but that would have been a boring story for most people so I understand why they didn't dwell on it. My favorites parts of the movie were those with Warshaw, particularly his emotional reaction at the big reveal. They also interview a number of other people, including Manny Gerard, Nolan Bushnell, and Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One).

While there is nothing new in the documentary for anyone with even a passing familiarity with Atari history, I did find it quite well made and enjoyed it - though that may be more out of relief than anything else (I should also mention that I have very low expectations for video game history documentaries). Zach Penn clearly seems to have a passion for the 2600 (if not its history).

I certainly think it's worth watching (it is available for free for XBox users, or on xbox video of PC users).

Finally, here are a couple of random photos of Big Paw's Cave, the fifth (or sixth?) game in the Moppet series (the second photo is from the AMOA show).