Ruben Albertson / Datasoft,
Added on April 19th, 2011 (7045 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Ruben Albertson. I was one of the "original" Datasoft game programmers back in the early 80's.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
Back when I was a college student (1978-1982), I got interested in personal computers when I saw the Commodore VIC-20 at an electronics store. I bought one and learned how to program in 6502 machine language by inserting the code via peek and poke commands in a little program I wrote in BASIC for that purpose. I eventually bought a Commodore 64 when it first came out.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
Quite by accident. I actually wanted to work on Wall Street when I graduated, but I finished a little Defender-style game on the C64 and I saw an ad in the back of some computer magazine from a company in California hiring game programmers. I didn't mail the disk to them. Just for the hell of it, I flew from Chicago to Los Angeles and walked in to the Datasoft office. I met John Butrovich and John Garcia, showed them my demo, and Garcia made me an offer on the spot. I decided then and there to take a little life detour.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
The first attraction was that it came stock with 64k of RAM (when you chopped out the space taken by the graphic chip), so you could put a lot of stuff in there. In my opinion, the graphics capabilities also seemed far better than the Atari 800, though the Atari seemed crisper and more precise.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
O'Riley's Mine. This was a Dig Dug rip-off designed by Mark Riley for the Atari originally. I wrote the C64 port. It was actually an interesting programming challenge because you had to fill a random maze from the bottom to top with water (the leading edges of the water in the tunnels animated in four frames of characters) while these little monsters would chase the miner digging for gold. I added an extra feature to the game. Little boulders would drop on you if you dug too close underneath them. Unfortunately, they made me take it out of the final. The music for Oriley's was copied from the Atari version, and I believe that programmer Mark Riley had simply stolen some old 1920's ragtime piece for that. Kelly Day was the artist.
I worked on The Games: Winter Edition by Epyx as I was friends with Ron Fortier who also was my co-worker at Datasoft. I wrote the speed skating event on contract. It sucked.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I worked for Datasoft in-house, Big Five Software (Miner 2049er) in-house, Miles Computing in-house, Epyx freelance, Electronic Arts in-house, and Software Toolworks/Mindscape in-house. I don't have the time to go into nitty gritty except to say that Mindscape was a horrible place to work, as it was simply nothing more than a vehicle for a few executives to bail out and get rich in the process. And again, I can't go into extensive details except to say that Troy Lyndon is a guy I know real well, and I have the fascinating true story of how that crook ended up running a Christian video game company which is nothing more than a stock pump and dump fraud.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
When I worked at Datasoft, I kept a regular 9 to 5 schedule. Crunch time meant long evenings in the office and pizza delivered in. It was actually fun and challenging because we were dealing with projects that you could get your arms around, not like nowadays where you need large teams at various locations around the world.
When I worked at Electronic Arts, I rolled in around noon, went to lunch almost immediately, came back about 3 and yukked it up with the other guys at EA Sports. At 5:30, a bunch of us would hit the restaurants and strip joints in San Francisco. Yeah, I was the ultimate slacker.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
Back then, the goal was to bang out a title in three months. Programming, art, music. Incredible.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
We usually used a 6502 cross assembler hosted on a something like a TRS-80 model II or a faster CP/M box. The machine code would then be downloaded via RS232.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
No, which is strange considering I was really doing all this on a lark anyway.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
I'm most proud of that first C64 game, O'Riley's Mine at Datasoft. It became an interesting footnote in my life. I had a lot of fun while I was there, mostly because I really liked all my co-workers.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
Put the frickin' boulders back in O'Riley's Mine! As I dimly recall, simply setting one location in memory to 1 instead of 0 will turn the feature back on. No, I don't remember the address! :(
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Time Pilot! Always loved that game.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Of course. I wasn't a die-hard though. Ms. Pac-Man and the aforementioned Time Pilot kept me busy on mall lunch runs.
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
Not really. I was an interloper so I really don't feel it's right for me to judge the work of others who took their job seriously.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
Inspiration? From a games programmer? I knew that it was a golden age which couldn't last. But not for that business, high school nerds would never have gotten laid, and guys like Bing Gordon would be unemployed actors. I left the business in 1992. By that time, EA was just another corporation. All the fun had been squeezed out of it, as evidenced later by the "EA Wife" fiasco. Too bad really.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
On occasion, certain people at EA Sports (who shall remain nameless) and I would bring some of the girls from the strip clubs back to EA headquarters late at night (this was around 1999 when it was located in Foster City, CA) for "tours" of the company. We'll leave it at that.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
I worked on NCAA Football for the Sega Genesis by Electronic Arts. My contribution was nearly nil. By this time, I was earning much more money trading stocks than I was working full time. I kept this very quiet from everyone, even my closest friends. They knew I played the market, but that's about it. I didn't buy any ostentatious stuff, figuring I would try to ride out my tenure at EA as long as possible to collect the benefits and options (which I considered icing on the cake). This actually turned out to be a fun sort of "permanent vacation" for me. I became notorious in the company for writing emails poking fun at the executives in all sorts of odd ways. It took them two years to finally figure out a way to fire me!
What are you up to these days?
I finally achieved my original dream. I now run a hedge fund for a small group of institutional and private investors. To this day, I still make fun of EA executives, only now on Facebook. I reside in beautiful South Florida.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
If you're serious about a career in games, I am not the example to follow. ;)
back to the list of available interviews