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Stephen Biggs


It's easy to forget that not everyone who wrote a game in the 1980s was showered with riches and fame. Stephen Biggs' first game, "Slamball" for the Commodore 64, published by Synapse, was finished just in time to be lost in the whirlpool of the video game crash of 1983-4. And that was the last original game he wrote.

What were you up to during the years before you started working on Slamball, 1980-82?

I was working for IBM as a co-op in San Jose. I had been going to school studying Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana after I got out of the Air Force. When I got the opportunity to come out to California to interview for that job it was -20 degrees in Illinois and 72 in California. I got the job in 1980, writing BAL, EXEC2, and REXX for VM/370 machines.

When I had finished my first semester of work at IBM, I commuted back to Illinois to continue with summer session classes, and then after that I went back to San Jose. After the next full semester of work, on my way back to Illinois during that next January, I stopped off in Arizona to visit an Air Force buddy of mine who suggested that I transfer to Arizona State, which I did. Unfortunately, this gave IBM the opportunity to sack me because "IBM is committed to your getting your degree, and your transferring makes it that much longer until you do get your degree." This is after I had run out of money, expecting to be able to continue with my job at IBM.

So, I moved to Berkeley and lived on a friend of mine's couch while searching for any sort of programming work, without any success--in Silicon Valley even!--until I met Kelly Jones, the guy in charge of software development at Synapse, in a bar one night. He said, "So, you're brilliant, but nobody will give you a chance, eh?"

How did the Slamball concept develop?

When I came into Synapse the game had already been in development as an original game for the Atari 800, being written by a guy named Dirk Van Horne. I don't know where the original concept came from, whether it was some sort of stock concept in the files of Synapse or whether Dirk himself had it.

I was taken on to write the game as a port to the Commodore 64 in parallel with the Atari development. Basically, Dirk and the higher-ups at Synapse got into a few real major confrontations, and he walked off the project, leaving it half-finished. I then got original writer credit, whether deserved or not! I think it was mostly deserved because, while Dirk had worked on a lot of major stuff like the pinball collision routines, I also worked on a lot of major stuff and actually survived to complete the game for the Commodore 64. It never made it at all for the Atari, marketing claims notwithstanding.

How did the development go? Were there many sticky technical problems?

Everything, and I mean everything, except for some minor utilities in BASIC, was in 6502 assembly language at the lowest, nitty-gritty level. When I jumped into this, I had never before seen a Commodore 64 or ever used 6502. Thus, one of the sticky technical problems was the necessity to steepen my learning curve, which I think I did successfully.

At the height of the development, assembling the game took thirty minutes or more even with a RAM disk, since everything had to be read from the disk, anyway. If there was any sort of little glitchy bug, I had to reassemble it. Quite painful, considering the systems that I work with now--Pentium Pro, etc.

One of the major differences between the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 is its coarse scrolling mechanism. With the Atari 800, all you have to do is move a screen map pointer with byte resolution to get it to scroll down or up the next line. With the Commodore 64, you are on 1K screen boundaries with the necessity of moving up to 1K of data every time you want to display a new screen--impossible to do in one vertical blank interrupt with a 1MHz processor.

So, how do you get fast scrolling on the C64? I pioneered a method of storing look-ahead screens in the rest of available memory, and then when the vertical blank interrupt happened every 60th of a second I would just update the screen pointer to point to that area of memory. Since the entire game was running in the interrupts I could use the dead time in the background to update the screens based on where I was at any one time, thus catching up statistically when there was any sort of user or game inactivity.

I made a really bad mistake when I programmed the software copy protection. I added so much garbage to be loaded as part of the misdirection that it took way too long for the game to load, which pretty much made it so that it was a real pain to play. Seven to eight minutes is too long to wait!

Aside from the technical development problems there was the personal lack of motivation due to the lack of money. If I didn't get a milestone done, I didn't get any money. I finally convinced the people at Synapse to give me a small stipend, $200 a week, so I could eke out a subsistence life.

How long did it take to write?

Nine and a half months on my end. I had taken more time than I should have because I was getting $200 a week subsistence against future royalties and my motivation was ebbing. I believe that the entire game from start of concept to shipping was about a year.

When did you realize that Slamball wasn't going to be the hit it deserved to be?

Thank you for that!

After I finished the game and put it in the box, there were many problems with the higher-ups at Synapse. I was not the only one to have these sort of problems with them, and they eventually proved themselves to be users and exploiters. I realized that my future would not be with Synapse, so I borrowed $1000 from my friend Peter Adams, who converted "Survivor," "Blue Max" and "Zaxxon" to the Commodore 64, and drove to Illinois to see if I could find some way to continue with school and get my degree.

Since I was not in California, the gentlemen who ran Synapse realized that I could be screwed on my royalty payments and proceeded to do just that. I have letters that prove this. I ended up making $6000 for that entire year of slaving work.

How many copies did it sell?

This is difficult to say since I got such messed up royalty statements that I really can't tell. A few hundred? Couple of thousand? Who knows?

Did it ever get reviewed? Was there any good press?

I have a copy of one review that a programmer friend of mine sent to me after I had left California after finishing the game. It appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section on June 3, 1984, as part of the "Video" column written by Phil Wiswell:

At first I thought this was going to be just another game of computer pinball, but I was wrong. It is computer pinball, but not like you've ever played before, because the table surface is four times taller than the screen. As the ball drops, the screen scrolls down. When you knock the ball up the table with a flipper, the screen scrolls up. It's kind of like playing on a real pinball table using binoculars. There are four sets of flippers spaced throughout the table, and these are activated either singly or in pairs with the joystick. The ball is nicely animated as it caroms off flippers, bumpers, kickers, and other targets, and sound effects add much to the realism. Even more realistic is the ability to "nudge" the ball to the right or left with imitation body English, or to tilt the machine by using too much of that. But the interesting aspect of this game is its object. Your score is not everything. There are various levels, actually different pinball tables, that can be reached by hitting every target on the current level at least once.
Rating: 4 stars.

Did you give any thought to staying in the game industry after 1984?

As a matter of fact, my next job, once I got to Chicago, was with Stern Electronics. Three months after I started work there, they filed Chapter 11 which meant that we would come in at 11, sit around complaining about how this place sucked and go home at 4.

Then I got a job with a message board sign company where I could use my real time experience and thus was catapulted into the sort-of mainstream software industry.

My next brush with the game industry in 1987-88 when a couple of friends, Peter Adams and Bryan Brandenburg, that had started a development company in Salt Lake City named Sculptured Software, started haranguing me to come out and write another game, painting a rosy picture of possible riches to receive.

I quit school and moved out there, converting a game called "Firepower" from MicroIllusions from the Amiga to the C64. A real mistake! MicroIllusions ended up going bankrupt, and nobody got anything from the game.

Sculptured Software was a company that was ten times the exploiter that Synapse was. Synapse was a game publisher in its own right, with its own distribution network, thus it would give the programmers royalties more in line with deserved returns. Sculptured was nothing more than a middle man, sub-contracting out all the games to the slaves that actually did it, paying them shit for compensation and getting rich from the publishers.

I signed a contract with them that I regret to this day wherein there was a clause called a "yellow dog" clause that forbade me from working for any other video game company for a year after I would leave Sculptured. I tried to work for Access Software, also in Salt Lake City, but Sculptured threatened legal action. I capitulated and left Utah for California.

Do you ever get the urge to write another game?

All the time. But the industry now is so loaded with the big players, and it isn't just a geek sitting in the corner making his own game anymore. Now you need graphic artists, musicians, scripters, etc. The programmer now is just a member of the team with the compensation adjusted for that.

What's your fondest memory of those days?

One of the fondest memories of those days was the heady concept that we were "rock stars" riding the wave to fame and fortune, doing things with computers that the manual laborers who wrote COBOL accounting programs could never conceive of or even come close to having the capability to do. I knew one guy, Steve Hales, who made $200,000 the year before. We all anticipated becoming rich, if only we could find that last bug. We all worked thirty hour stretches, slept for fifteen hours after getting drunk, and then woke up to do it all over again, forgetting about any sort of internal biological clock or anything else except the game, the game! To this day, I have a problem playing real pinball.

Of course, it was mostly bullshit, since the only ones who got rich at all were the bosses who exploited us for their own pockets. After my experiences with Synapse and especially after that with Sculptured Software, I have a bittersweet view of the gaming industry. Mostly bitter. Sorry for the negativity here!

The only real positive thing I can say about my time there at Synapse was that I have the game in the box with my name on it and a little bit of fame. At one time, a couple of years later, I was at another job writing database code , and someone came up to me and said, "Are you THE Stephen C. Biggs?" to which I replied, "Of course!" He had seen my name on "Blue Max" for the C64.

Famous but not rich. Oh, well.