Neil Harris Remembers the VIC-20
- from an interview conducted by Rick Melick on January 3, 1997

>Describe you position at Commodore and your role in the VlC-20

I was hired as a member of the VIC-20 product launch team in January, 1981. I reported to Mike Tomczyk, the product manager.

I had learned to program in BASIC during high school in the early 1970's. In the mid-70's, after dropping out of Cornell University, I was earning a living as a programmer, writing accounting software in BASIC. It was very dull work.

Then in 1978, Commodore opened a computer store in Philadelphia. I was hired there, and worked in several other retailers. I wrote several programs and articles for PET User Notes, and worked in several stores. Then one day I heard of a job fair that Commodore held soon after moving their offices from California to the Philadelphia suburbs. When I described my background to the human resources lady, including programming a PET, writing, and sales, she immediately steered me to Mike Tomczyk.

nh2.jpg (259160 bytes)Mike was a huge influence on me and on the Vic-20. He was really the main man. On the org chart I don't know where he reported, but like most important people at Commodore he reported right to Jack Tramiel when it counted. Mike taught me a lot about marketing. After working for Mike, it was hard not to make that my career path.

On my first day on the job, Mike showed me a manuscript for the VIC-20 user manual, which had been written by an outside company. The book needed a lot of work. The Vic-20 group was so small that we could not get our hands on computers, so the very next day I brought in my old Smith Corona portable typewriter and rewrote the manual from the ground up.

About a month later I heard from an old friend- Andy Finkel, who I knew from my high school days -- we learned on the same computer system, worked at Star Trek conventions, and both went to Cornell. Andy was looking for work. I told Mike to interview him the next day and to hire him right away! Andy was a wizard, and he also knew the PET computer. The VIC was very much like a PET. And we needed the help.

I spent the first six months writing and programming. Then I was promoted to assistant product manager. Six months after that I was promoted to a sales support position, working for the sales team that got the VIC into K-Mart, Sears, and the other big accounts. A year later and I became manager of the publications group, including Commodore's magazines and the online area that opened on CompuServe. I left Commodore in late 1984, to join Atari along with many expatriated Commodorians.

>Describe the corporate climate and work environment at Commodore?

When I joined Commodore, it was about a $50 million a year company, most of the business coming from Europe. The US presence was virtually nonexistent.

The US company was mainly interested in selling PET and CBM computers into business. One oF the PET software managers used to joke that the VIC was something that would be given away free when someone bought a PET.

We knew better. Mike was careful to forge us into an independent team. We called ourselves the VIC Commandos. We did everything together, including taking long lunches at the local video arcades -- for R&D, of course.

Often we couldn't get supplies, or even office space. In the early months we crashed in the office of the service manager, who let three of us work on a table in half his office. Since we could rarely requisition equipment, we would stay late and swipe what we needed from the PET guys. They could get their requisitions filled for those missing pieces, and we got our work done.

>How did your work on the Commodore VIC-20 help you with your career today?

At Commodore I made the transition from techie to business. I became more confident in my abilities, seeing them applied to a huge industry instead of mom-and-pop computer stores. I became absolutely hooked on online services.

>What are you doing these days?

I'm executive vice president of Simutronics Corp., the leader in creating multi-player computer games for the online services. I joined the company in 1993 after five years as GEnie's marketing director. While at GEnie I also went back to school, finally, and got a degree in business.

I'm part owner of the company, responsible for the money side of the business -- sales, finance, and marketing. We offer games including Gemstone, Dragonrealms, CyberStrike, and ArchMage on America Online and other services.

>Does the VIC-20 hold a special place for you, or was it no more/less significant than the machine on your desk right now?

The VIC-20 was a special system at a special time for me. Despite the many obstacles, we succeeded as well as we expected, much more than anyone else might have expected. We were up against fierce competition and won.

On the other hand, don't try to get this Pentium system away from me. We've come a long way since 1981.

>The VIC-20 Programmer's reference Guide was an excellent publication. How long did it take to compose, and what were some of the unique challenges in writing it?

As PET hackers, we knew what information people needed, especially since so much of it had never been documented by Commodore. We jumped at the chance to write a definitive Programmers Reference Guide. We enlisted the aid of a young British programmer Paul Higginbottom and split up the technical work among the three of us (myself and Andy). I wrote the outline and the sections on BASIC. Mike Tomczyk wrote the introduction and some of the examples, and Andy and Paul tackled the memory maps and assembly language. The team was by-god-determined to open up everything inside the machine in order to make life as easy as possible for software developers.

We worried that people would get wind of what we were doing and forbid us from publishing the schematics. So we never, ever asked for permission.

>What do you think of the VIC-20 emulators, and the effort to preserve the history of the VIC-20 for future generations of computer enthusiasts?

It was a very strange feeling to boot up a VIC-20 emulator on my PC and see the old VIC BASIC prompt after all these years. My old demo tape still ran! (I can prove it's mine -- the screen with the mailing list puts my name in the blank.)

I'm all for history. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The times were interesting then -- the industry was just forming and we were basically making it up as we went along. We tried to learn the right lessons even then, watching what Apple had done well.

>You worked on several programs published on cassette for the launch of the VIC-20. One was an educational title, Space math. Can you share some of your memories about the launch of the VIC-20? (Any idea where Duane Later is these days and how I can contact him?)

I haven't heard anything about Duane in years. He was really only part of the team at the beginning, for a few months.

The VIC-20 was launched only a few months after the team came together. We had lots to do. We wrote the manuals and the first software. We licensed the best titles we could find, including the text adventure games by Scott Adams.

Our sales force didn't understand why we thought people would like text games, but they ended up being our top-selling titles. We figured if they worked for Apple on a $2000 computer, they'd work for us on a $300 one. By the way, Andy Finkel is the hero on those games -- they were 24K of assembly code, but only 16K could fit on a cartridge. Somehow he shrunk a full third out of the games.

I also got to work on the VIC-20 box. We needed to make it look like there was lots of software. I got all the screen shots and tried to arrange them artfully, or at least so the colors were interesting.

I also worked on some ads. I personally conceptualized the ad that seemed to be the final nail in Atari and Tl's coffins in the PC wars. The price of the computers was virtually identical, but we also kept the peripherals cheap. I wrote an ad that added up the whole systems and clearly showed the difference. From then on, the vast majority of sales were ours.

>Did programmers often work in teams at Commodore?

Our group worked as a team, and we pitched in to help each other a lot. In terms of BASIC, I had the most experience, so I ended up helping there. I was hopeless at assembly language, so people like Andy Finkel took the load.

>I also liked VIC21 Blackjack... Were there any other software titles you created? What about prototypes?

In the original cassette six-packs, I worked on Slither/Super Slither and VIC-21 myself. Duane Later was having trouble debugging Space math and he was busy with cartridge games, so I polished that one up, did the same for the personal finance tape that Lee Ancier created.

I was very proud of that blackjack game. Getting it to fit in 3.5K of available took dedication, especially since I wanted to include all the casino rules (splitting, doubling down) and also make it support 2 players.

Some of the tricks included stacking multiple statements on a line Since the : only took one byte and a new line number took 5. If you try to read that code, it's a big mess. I was a very clean structured programmer and it took a lot to avoid good habits and write spaghetti that would fit. I even jumped in and out of FOR-NEXT loops to save bytes.

Those were the days. You had to be a man to write code in 3.5K.


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