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Tom Griner


Tom Griner was a whiz-kid who came out of nowhere to write a burst of a dozen Vic 20 games. For a while it was impossible to open a game magazine and not see a review of something he had written. He later moved to the Commodore 64, updating one of his Vic 20 games and doing high profile ports of "Robotron" and "Stargate" for Atarisoft. He disappeared from the game world not much later.

How did you get started in game programming?

My first exposure to computer games was playing with an Atari 2600. Games like "Pong," "Adventure" and all the other classics. When coin-op arcades started to appear, I became a video game junkie. I would dig through coin-return slots looking for lost quarters so that I could get my next video game fix. As a dedicated fan of Williams arcade games, I would make the rounds to all the local establishments to make sure my initials were on all the top scores of the "Defender," and later "Stargate" and "Robotron," machines. There were some other faves like "Asteroids" and "Battlezone", but I never really got into "Centipede," "Pac-Man," "Donkey Kong" or the like. When I started to learn about programming, from dorking around with computers in high school, I decided to see if I could make my own versions of the commercial games that I loved to play. At first it was just for my own fun, but others noticed what I was doing, and it sort of evolved into a career.

What's the story behind your first Vic game?

Across the street from my high school was a small store called "Mr. Calculator". It was a calculator store owned by a Japanese company called "Systems Formulate Corp." They got a Vic 1001--a Japanese precursor to the Vic 20--as a demo machine to put in the glass case at the front of the store. It came with a couple simple games written in BASIC.

Since I was hanging out in the store to play with their Commodore PET, the store owner asked if I could convert their BASIC game demos from Japanese to English. I looked at the games, figured out what they did and said that I thought I could rewrite them better in machine code rather than try to fix them. After doing a few, I started writing unique games. The first couple were simple "Asteroids" and "Defender" clones called "Meteors" and "Guardian." They didn't really do much, but they were some of the first machine code games ever done for the Vic 20.

What other interests did you have at the time besides programming?

Not many! Well lets see: arcade game playing of course, skateboarding (not very seriously though), TV watching, and network "hacking"--for instance, playing "Zork" via the Arpanet from some public terminals at Stanford. I picked up a lot more hobbies, like flying and SCUBA diving, later in life after getting past my video game addict phase.

How did you hook up with Creative Software?

The president of Creative Software walked into the Mr. Calculator store and announced that he wanted to meet the programmer who was making machine code games for the Vic 20. He was a bit startled to find a kid sitting there programming, but he offered me a royalty-based marketing arrangement.

The Vic 20's technical limitations seem severe today. Did they give you trouble at the time?

The limitations all seemed like a fun challenge. If it were easy I might not have felt compelled to go to the effort. Of course, I cursed the machine now and then, and often wished for certain things to be different, but in the end it was just a puzzle that needed to be solved.

How did you develop your game ideas?

Mostly from daydreaming about arcade games. At the time I was playing so much that when I closed my eyes I could envision scenes of video game characters scrolling around in space. The ideas came very easily. At the time I had far more ideas than time to implement them. Once one game was done, I would just start right in on something else that was floating around in my head. Admittedly, much of my work was derivative of other ideas, so it is hard to say what I would have come up with if I hadn't been exposed to all the other games that had come before my work.

On average, how long did it take you to write a Vic game and how well did it sell?

From start to finish, the average game took about one month. Keep in mind that this was in my spare time while I was going to school. I was writing other software, which was never sold, during the same period--1982-1984--so I didn't quite produce a game a month during that time. I did not keep very close track of sales, but I know that they had lots of my games on the shelves at some big retail stores like Sears and K-Mart. As a very rough guess, I would say that all of my games combined sold somewhere around a million units. There were some side sales too, like reprogrammable cartridges and compilations which included my stuff along with others games. Also many of my games were pirated so some people got to play them but never actually bought them.

When did you move from the Vic 20 to the C64?

I remember considering work on C64 material when I was doing my last couple Vic 20 games. As I recall, there was a little concern that the higher price of the C64 would make it have less overall units sold, so some people were advising to not switch right away, unless the C64 proved to be a big seller. When I started Vic 20 programming, I had no idea or little care how many Vic 20s would ever be sold, but by the time the C64 came out, people were starting to give me advice on what I should do.

Why was "Astroblitz" revived for the C64 as "Astroblitz Deluxe"?

All my idea. I just wanted to do some new tricks with the concept. People at Creative weren't all that thrilled with the idea, so if you like "Astroblitz Deluxe" you can thank me, otherwise you can blame me. I think sales were not very great on "Astroblitz Deluxe" so I guess it wasn't a big success. The original "Astroblitz" game got a number of very positive writeups in Vic 20 magazines, so I consider it to be a success.

The C64 version of "Robotron" seemed like an impossible port. How did you manage it?

I think I once saw an alternate C64 "Robotron" that was done by a different programmer--Atarisoft may have hedged their bets--so you need to be careful to make sure you are talking about my version. You can tell mine by the "reverse spinning white highlights" on the spinning circles in the title page. And my "Robotron" was hacked by some pirates who removed my name and initials and put in some hacking club "greetz" instead, so it may be hard to identify.

Since "Robotron" was a favorite game of mine, I pretty much begged to get the assignment. I really wanted to have a home playable version of that game so I committed to the challenge. Doing the graphics and movement was pretty instinctive for me. Actually, the hardest part of programming all of the games I did was doing some good sounds. I struggled to make the SID and other sound chips do what I wanted. Many of my games were fully playable with no sound, and I went back and added on sound as an afterthought.

Which of your games was the biggest success? Which were you the most satisfied with?

Astroblitz got a lot of good press, so I was proud of that. I think sales of "Shamus" and "Choplifter" were very good, but I am less proud of those since they were basically ports of games that other people invented. Since, I had never played the original versions before being asked to do the Vic 20 versions, those games were not near and dear to my heart. Doing those two games was more like work rather than fun.

I am very proud of my "Robotron" and "Stargate" ports for the C64 since I highly respected the original games, and a lot of people told me that I did an exceptional job in capturing many small details of the originals, even though I wrote them from scratch. My memory of the original games was so vivid from playing so much that I did nearly all of the gameplay and graphic design from memory. When nearly complete, I double-checked my version against the arcade games and made a few minor adjustments.

I guess I always wished that I had more computer to work with. Every game was a compromise in many ways. What I really wanted to be doing was fully-immersive 3-D multiplayer virtual reality stuff, but I just wasn't in the right time or place to do that.

Did you write any games after 1985?

I was involved in some games for The Learning Company--"Reader Rabbit" and "Robot Odyssey"--but I just did some graphics code for a consulting company that built the finished product.

I became corporate and started doing business applications. Things like "molecular biology gene sequence database pattern match utilities" and "videoconferencing equipment control software." Lately I have been doing Web security work and "business intelligence filtering engines." Not as much fun as game programming, but at least it pays the mortgage every month.

Have you played any of your games using the currently popular emulators? What do you think of them today?

Yes, I have played most of my old games on the emulators. I think the emulators are way cool, and I love being able to rekindle the memories when I fire up those old relics on my laptop computer. Now that I have forgotten many of the details of those old games, it is in some ways more fun than ever. I get tripped up by the secret things that I once knew from writing the game.

"Maze" and "Shamus" are the ones I am messing with lately. I guess the "bigger than the screen" playing field in "Maze" still seems fun to me. The one-screen games like "Predator," "Terraguard," and "Videomania" run out of steam pretty quickly. "Stargate" and "Robotron" are just too control intensive to play well without the original joysticks or exact keyboard layout.

Why did you get out of the game business?

A few reasons:

I grew up--well, sort of.

The home game market hit a slump for a while.

I needed a change.

There is a lot more competition these days.

And game design changed: Mindless shoot-em-ups are not so big anymore. People want "Kung-Fu Karate battle of death" games, which don't interest me, or "watch a movie" adventure games, which can be fun but don't excite me too much.

Do you ever feel the urge to write another game?

One reason I used to write games, is that I wanted to have some fun things to play. I wasn't happy with what I could buy, so I thought I might be able to do better myself. Now there is a lot of good stuff available, so I have less reason to want to make my own. Yes, I do miss creating game characters and bringing them to life and I miss the tightly coded, optimized graphic routines. There still is a chance I might do some more; I do think about it now and then.

If you did write a game today, would you stick to the 2-D format you used in the past or would you move to 3-D?

My favorite games to play these days are "Super Mario World" on my N-64 (got all 120 stars!), "Shadows of the Empire," "Doom," "Quake," "Duke Nukem 3-D," etc. All of these are very lively 3-D games, so yes, I would be inclined to work in 3-D. I like immersive experiences; I'm an IMAX 3-D movie nut.

Multiplayer games also interest me. If I didn't have bills to pay, I would probably try to write some killer 3-D multiplayer Internet-ready game, but making money off of a game is unpredictable. Trying to take on Id, Lucasarts, Nintendo, and so on is a big challenge. Joining them as a staff programmer probably wouldn't be that lucrative for me.