Tom Griner Remembers the VIC-20 - from an interview conducted by Rick Melick on October 28, 1996
REVIEW: Here is the game that almost challenges Omega Race as the best Vic 20 game. Choplifter was a very popular and successful game on the C64. All the elements that made the C64 version so good are all here on the Vic. The graphics are very good. There are a number of terrific little touches in the graphics such as the flapping flag on your base, the little POWs waving to be rescued and some very good parallax scrolling in the stars and as you cross your boundary line. The object of the game is to rescue your POWs from the enemy. As you fly your helicopter into enemy territory you are attacked from the ground by tanks and the air by jet fighters. There is some good sound, particularly the whooshing of your rotor blades. Choplifter was programmed by Tom Griner, one of the leading game programmers for the Vic 20, who made quite a number of excellent games for the Vic, arguably pushing it further than any other programmer. My Score - 10/10. -Tonks(RT#70, 6/2003)
> Where did you get your ideas for games? How did you plan a game?
Many of my best Vic20 games (such as Astroblitz or Predator) were done based (roughly) on the general game play of their arcade games. Some of the last games I did were "ports" (conversions/reimplementations) of Robotron and Stargate for the Commodore C64 computer. This was done under contract with AtariSoft and Williams. That was exciting to actually work on "real versions" of those games with the blessing of the original manufacturer. The flip side of my inspiration was the challenge to actually making a "pip squeak" computer actually do these things. I had just learned to program, and felt like I had something to prove. Just as a lot of "demo coders" feel that have to one up their peers with next best graphic routine, I felt I had to one-up all the other game programmers by showing that I could make the Vic20 do something it hadn't done before. This was not at all a formal competition - it was just something in the back of our heads - that if we do something amazing, there could be some other programmers (that we respected) who might be impressed with what we did. I would have to say in summary, that for the most part, all my game programming was done for my own personal gratification and I likely would have done it even if no else were interested.
> How old were you when you programmed the VIC-20?
In the range of 16-18 years old.
>How many hours did you spend each day programming? Where did you do your coding?
For the first few games, I was "highly motivated." As you hear about a lot of "nerd programmers", I would stay up sometimes for 30 hours trying to implement an idea. Basically, the cycle would be that I was just going to school doing my normal thing, then I would get inspired with an idea (basically a version of a completed game) and I would feel driven to focus a lot of intensity on that project until it was done. Somehow I managed to fit school in along side the game programming, but I am sure my teachers noticed that I was a little distracted wh en I was lost in thought about a game I was working on. Since I was not a professional programmer, and I had no "track record," my early programming was done on a used VIC-20 computer on a black and white fuzzy TV in a corner of our small rented house.
>What were some of the unique challenges to programming the VIC-20, and how did you overcome them?
Well, as you may know, the VIC-20 didn't have a lot of RAM even by the standards of 1982... It was a very "entry level" computer. As with some of the dedicated game consoles (such as the Atari 2600) games had to be coded to fit into a very small PRO M carts... So the game coding had to be very efficient. All the best Vic-20 games were hand coded in assembler by people who knew how to write "tight" code. This would also help in the "game play" area since the system CPU wasn't a speed demon and needed to be burdened with as little code as possible.
When I started writing Vic-20 games the only other games available were "character based" (since the vic-20 didn't have bitmapped graphics built in). I realized it would be a big improvement to have bitmapped graphics, so I developed a way of remapping that character fonts to simulate a bit mapped display. This was a sort of obvious idea to some, but I was among the first to actually make it happen in a usable way.
Oh - my only storage device was an abysmally slow tape drive. Often I would code entire games (typing in 6502 opcodes for a couple of hours) and then try running it (without having saved it all) because I was so anxious to see if would actually work. If it had any bugs, I might have to start typing in all over again! I had a binder of paper pages where I would just start writing down hex opcodes based on an idea that I wanted to implement. A couple of games were actually written down 100% on paper before I ever typed them in - and they ran as-is the first time I tried to make them go. Today, I have far too many "other" things on my mind to imagine being able to go to those extremes!
There were a lot of creative tricks to be played with the low res graphics, limited colors and "odd" sound chip. Everything seemed like a challenge.
In a way though, having a very limited set of functions and a very simple CPU made life easier. Games from that time tended to be somewhat "obvious" and simple to understand. I think that is one of the things people liked about them.
> Does the VIC-20 hold a special place for you, or was it no more or no less significant than the computer sitting on your desk right now?
At one point in my life I was glad to have gotten past my teenage game playing obsession... I gave away my Vic20 and all my original game carts. I didn't have any Vic20 anything anymore... Now, I too am caught up in the recent nostalgia and (just like you) have gotten a copy of the Vic20 emulator and fired up the old games. In some ways I am embarrassed to say that I spent a bunch of time writing crude games that are so low res that they look quite silly these days, but in other ways I am proud of my accomplishment.
I hope to find a Vic20 emulator for the PC that can emulate the sound chip. I think much of the experience of playing those games is lost if you don't have the original sound!
These days I spend most of my time writing C, C++, perl code for Sun Unix Sparc workstations... Also, I have the Vic20 emulator going on a IBM Thinkpad 760ED which I carry around with me for work purposes. It is sort of "cool" because I have a bunch of MPEG2 video CDROMs that I put together to run on the latops MPEG2 decoder.
> How did you get published with H.E.S & Creative Software?
A brief history: Across the street from my high school was a small store called "Mr. Calculator". It was a calculator store owned by some Japanese company. They got a Vic-1001 (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 (with the "chicklet keyboard") 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 just writing unique games... The President of Creative Software walked into the store a few weeks later and said "who is this guy who is giving away all this great Vic-2O software?". He was a bit startled to find a "kid" sitting there programming, but he offered me a royalty based marketing arrangement. ( I think I signed up for a pretty lame deal, but money wasn't my main interest at that point ). Over the next year or so I wrote a bunch of games which Creative Software was selling "all over the place". A couple of HES people kept calling me saying that I would be much happier working for them. I pretty much ignored them for a long time because things seemed to be working fine at Creative... But after a while, Creative grew a lot and started telling me that they wanted to have professional idea people design the games on "scoreboards" and just have me code them. They then said that they wanted to only sell "proven" ideas. After they pretty much forced me to do the "choplifter" port (which I only marginally enjoyed doing), I decided to give HES a try since I felt I could be more creative there.
While I was at HES the Vic2O market dwindled away and HES pretty much closed do-. I liked the people there a lot, but the market just wasn't there to support them.
> Describe your relationship with those who published you?
While at Creative, I was pretty much a free-lance loner. For the most part, I would just show up at their door once a month (or so) and drop off a completed game.
There were two partners who ran Creative, one of which I liked a lot just because he was a very nice guy... The other guy was very "driven", but I never felt felt like we ever became friends. In hindsight, I think he was a big asshole that I never should have gotten involved with in the first place.
At HES, there were a lot of people who really enjoyed the games and seemed to be having a lot of fun. It really is too bad that they couldn't transition to another platform and keep that company going. They started trying to convert from the Vic-2O/C-64 market over to the Atari 520/1040 ST which just didn't work out as a game platform. In hindsight, they should have just gone on vacation for a few years in 1986, then started selling IBM PC games in 1990...
> Without being specific, describe the payment for your published work? (EG, good, bad, unfair, fair, etc...)
Well, being a part time student, with programming as my first real job - everything seemed wonderful to me. I was definitely making more than other students with part time jobs... But from what I gather, I was being ripped off all over the place. My contract with Creative only gave me a small payment (something like 5% of profits) only in certain markets for certain media. My games were distributed outside of the terms of my contract in ways which I made no money, but the company did... Basically, I ran "blind" just getting periodic royalty checks which seemed to be in almost random amounts. I guess sales were sporadic... To be honest, I didn't spend a lot of time trying to keep track of how well things sold. I just worried about the code I was writing.
In hindsight, I saw them grow from a 2 person "closet operation" to a large company with perhaps 50 people. They moved a couple of times to larger buildings while I was primarily the only Programmer working for them. Eventually they hared some other programmers (such a Jaron Lanier of VPL fame), but I don't think any of their other titles did as well as the ones I wrote.
When I went to work for HES, I was more concerned about living on my own and making a living. I asked for (and received) advances based on future sales so I knew more what sort of money I would be making. I think HES tried to be more open about wanting everyone to share in any success, but the reality was that when I joined with them, the Vic20 "heyday" was already over...
> Do you have any idea how many Choplifter cartridges were sold?
As you can tell from some of my earlier notes - Choplifter wasn't my favorite game. I guess Creative was right to get me to rewrite that thing for the Vic20, but I would have much rather continued to implement my own ideas. I really had little idea how many of carts were sold overall. I knew things were doing well because I saw my games in some big stores (such as Sears and K-Mart)... But I can't tell you exactly how many sold.
Oh - I should probably mention that I kept a Vic20 users mailing list going for a while. I had put hidden messages in some of my ROM carts to "write me a letter if you find this message" . I got letters from all over the world, and kept a list of about 100 addresses for a while. I would periodically send out updates to everyone saying "these are the people that found my messages". What I probably ended up doing was help start an underground market for trading copies of my games... But oh well...
> Did your work on the VIC-20 help you to get where you are today in your career? What are you doing these days?
I don't think my game programming has made much difference in my -resume or long-term employment options. My career "evolved" into one of "Systems Administration", "Systems Programming", "Systems Engineering", etc... Basically I became much more corporate. I have definitely always worked with computers, but in the last 6 years it has been writing software used in banks. I have done a lot of work with global videoteleconferencing, molecular Biology, Network Design, Web page design, etc, etc .. Not as exciting or fun as the game work, but I feel that I am in demand in areas that have much more stable, long term employment prospects.
> What do you think about the VIC-20 emulators and the effort to preserve your works for future generations of historical compute enthusiasts?
I love it. There is really something to be said for keeping these old things around for future generations to reference. The computer industry is still in its very early stages, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned by studying what has happened in the past. By going back and playing my old games, I may get inspired to go on and do something new. It certainly brings back a lot of long lost memories.
There is a lot of new stuff around that is "better" than the old, but it is nice to be able to be able keep the best of the past available as a source of inspiration and nostalgia.
There are a lot of 70s and 80s "retro" things coming into fashion I don't want to feel like too much of a "dork" by buying a bunch of "living in the 80s" CDs and watching "Star Wars" on video over and over, but still it is fun to check back into eras that have gone by. If only I had collected Microsoft stock instead of game software!