|Hello and welcome Paul! How are things?
Fine. Except that I'm beginning to think the Internet doesn't care anymore and that I should get back to making music full time.
That sounds like a really good idea, but tell us how did this whole thing with computers start.
Around 1982, I was still playing guitar professionally, as I had been for the previous dozen years. However, disco was making regular work harder to find for live bands and even studio work. The era of the 'lead guitar' was closing. Coincidentally, the VIC 20 was released and I saw it at a music store. Having been a die-hard sci-fi buff always, I expected personal computers to show up sooner or later so naturally I bit (pun intended). Strange to think that a computer that could barely hold today's smallest GIF image cost around $300.00. I taught myself BASIC and began making games. Now, I liked movies more than video games and even though the graphical capabilities of the VIC 20 were scant, I had to go as visual as possible. I think that's why I got my first job (not Cosmi) with an asteroid type game while other candidates had more text and number based amusements. The game had stars and shaded meteors and a little ship that maneuvered and fire a blaster. In any case, I landed the job that just covered the cost of the rental car I needed to commute 50 miles to do it. The first day, though I auditioned with my VIC 20, they handed me a C64 to work with. Since the asteroid game looked fairly fast even in BASIC, I naturally lied when asked if I knew machine language (6502). So I spent the next two months creating Forbidden Forest in order to learn 6502 programming. By the time the fourth monster was finished, this little shop was going broke. The Cosmi people came by to buy the equipment and furniture. I was still at my desk working and when they saw Forest, they bought me too.
What was the name of that company?
The place was called Synchro. Two guys started a small shop to make games for the Apple II, VIC 20 and the new C64. I found the ad in the paper and answered even though it was 30 miles away and I had no car at the time. When I went there, they were looking at other applicants' work, things like black jack done in BASIC with no graphics.
Who was there? What was said? What did you think when Cosmi came for the furniture? Had you heard of them before?
I knew nothing and no one. I've never been much of a networking guy. The great George Johnson (by great I mean size) came in with his foreman Bill for the fire sale. Most everyone was gone by that day, off to other jobs (or not), so the the place already looked like an abandoned building. I tend not to be influenced by my surroundings when I'm making something, so I just carried on. The guy who started the small shop brought Johnson in, I ran some scenes, they probably said something – don't ask me what – and left. Negotiations were held elsewhere. I was just informed later that I would get a call from Cosmi (they were just starting to put together their game group).
How was the climate for games in America at this time?
I don't know. I have never been one to keep my finger on the pulse of the trend. I remember that games made the consumer computer market while Microsoft quietly built a business empire with more serious faire. Of course, one must realize that when you're involved in something commercial, it seems like that's all you ever hear about or notice, so your perspective is skewed. And like the Internet boom, nobody ever bothers to think that something that is going well may not last forever.
What kind of a company was Cosmi?
Cosmi was started by some men who had established European market ties for cheap audio cassettes made in Asia. Because Commodore programs were stored on cassette as well as floppies, there was a natural crossover. So they started recruiting programmers to make their own games. When I previewed Forest at the first meeting, there was an audible gasp when the little archer started running. My simple trick of moving two sprite trees a little slower in the background to simulate 3D seemed to be affective. They also liked the blood splatter. These elements seemed natural and necessary to me so I was surprised to hear that such things were state-of-the-art at the time.
Is it fair
to say that you pioneered movie-like features in games?
Yes. I like movies. I didn't (and don't) play games very often. So this was perfect for me. I didn't think, "Hey, you know what these games need?" Today, the total filmic quality of games reveals that the two forms have major incompatibilities. Movies are meant to be watched, games are meant to be interactive. The result too often is that you have to do one for a while and then do the other for a while. It's not a real blend. And the writing sucks.
You were doing everything for your games; programming, art, and music. Was that something that came naturally and something that gave you complete control?
Well, yes. Also, in those days programming and graphics were much more related then they are now. Making a graphic meant building pages of numbers bit by bit (technical accuracy, not pun). Music is vital to all entertainment forms (including Mime) and I had been playing and composing for some time prior.
Did you use any special tools?
My hands and brain. If there were tools available, I was not aware of them. I wrote all the code using a Hexmon cartridge which allowed for number entry and mnemonics but no labels, headers or compiling. The main reasons were that as soon as the numbers were put in, it was ready to test, which was faster, and I found that I remembered numbers better than names (labels). So $F4A6 was more meaningful to me than say Strxcntr.
How many people were employed at Cosmi? Where was the company located? How did the offices look like?
When I was first purchased by Cosmi (along with the Synchro furniture), there were six guys starting games. Within a month, that dwindled to three. We all worked at home because there was no Cosmi company at the time, just George Johnson's house in Pasadena. But the atmosphere at my house was very comfortable.
Johnson had inherited well from his father and he made and sold cheap audio cassettes. I was invited to his house, a large mansion in Pasadena, one night. Other potential programmers were gathered there too. Some I knew from Synchro. We sat around the living room and listened to Johnson's ideas ("here's another easy way I can make money") and then we ran some game snippets by some of the guests. I say in all modesty, nothing special appeared. When I started up Forbidden Forest, I at first let the archer stand there and get killed by a spider. Foreman Bill burst out with a shocked laugh when he saw the blood splatter. Score one. Then I explained that all you had to do was run away and I started the scroll. When they saw the pseudo-3D perspective there was an audible group gasp in the room. Score two. A little later, Johnson's partner, also named Bill, said quietly to me that he seen a lot a games and that "this is a hit." I worked at home after that. I finished Forest and wrote Aztec Challenge, Slinky and Caverns of Khafka during the next year. I was paid a good salary.
We went to Vegas for CES every year. I always went off on my own to gamble and what-not while they stayed in their suite making deals with European buyers. (Yes, I'm an idiot.) It was not until Super Huey that I really started to notice that a great deal of money was being generated and not much of it was coming my way. I got better salary and bonuses and such but... (Yes, I'm an idiot.)
What was the working conditions like at Synchro and Cosmi?
At Synchro, which only lasted about three months, I worked in a windowless 12x12 pale room with two retired aero space workers. We actually got along quite well. For the rest of my Cosmi days, I worked at home. Therefore, the worst conditions would be staying up for three days in the same clothes trying to meet a deadline.
Forbidden Forest was your first machine code game and it sold a hundred thousand of copies worldwide. This is truely amazing!
I should have been a publisher. But because it was my first game and my first programming exercise, I had no rules to follow and there were no inhibitions. As always, I treated myself as the audience and did whatever I could to excite and surprise myself. One technique was to write complete action sections with lots of random variables without checking each step along the way. I would then run it to experience the whole scene as a viewer instead of a creator. Naturally, things didn't work a lot of time, but when they mostly did, that was as close as I could get to an outside perspective.
Every time I play the music from the game, I get a chill down my spine. It's scary and it could very well be the music from a Hitchcock movie. How did that tune come about?
How does music come about? Music is the sound of emotion. As a musician you keep mixing and matching the finite notes and chords available until they make you feel something. Also, your reaction (I mean you) is a composite of the whole experience when you first heard the music. So even when you hear it by itself later, your brain is recreating the entire event emotionally.
Did you get fan-mails after the game was released?
Yes, for a while. Strangely, I started to get e-mails a few years ago from adults who had fond memories of their Forest experience. That was surprising.
Did the game make you rich?
I should have been a publisher.
Your games always had this fresh quality about them. It was nothing like we'd seen before. And not to forget, they were scary. How did you work out game ideas?
I didn't – which may account for the freshness. You see, because a creator can never appreciate his own work because he knows it so well inside and out, the best I could do to get some enjoyment was try to surprise myself either with an ad lib idea or an unexpected result. Basically, I built the story as though I was seeing it for the first time objectively. As for originality, I doubt there is such a thing really. Everything we do is a semi-conscious rearrangement of parts we have experienced before. What we think of as original is simply "I've never seen it put together like that before." If my stuff was different than other games, it was likely because I didn't play many video games and so had very little of that material to 'inspire' me. As I said, I like movies.
The Aztec Challenge music builds up as you progress in a game level. That was something that impressed me a lot back then because it became more exciting to play the game as you progressed.
Actually, that is a tried and true cinematic technique. For example, say you have a close-up of a face. The person is remembering something dramatic but all you can actually see on screen is the face for however long. Even if the actor makes expressions, you can not be sure of the emotional nature of his thoughts. However, if music slowly builds an emotional theme, the actor need not do much of anything. The music will give you all the emotional information you need. Of course, the intellectual details are presumably supplied by previous scenes. In the case of Aztec, that would either DUCK or JUMP.
How long did it generally take to compose a tune and what about the sound effects?
Most of the music in the games, although I stopped using music after Huey because I wanted the simulations to be very realistic, came from things I had written prior to the computer age. Fifteen years as a guitarist and composer left me with a large library of bits and pieces ready for use. So the time was spent on programming the themes into the C64, which once I got the feel for it, went pretty quicky. Sound effects are very subjective things and I would play around at random with combinations until I heard something I liked. Because I was often looking for something that had no real reference, like a giant scorpion dying or a magic arrow falling from the sky, I could get pretty fanciful. The nice thing about art is that once something is created and made part of a new form, that's the way its supposed to be whether it made any sense to begin with or not.
Give us a more in-depth look of the work on Aztec Challenge, Caverns of Khafka, Super Huey, Beyond Forbidden Forest, Slinky, Navy Seal, and Trivia Monster.
Aztec Challenge was a game originally created by another Cosmi programmer before my arrival. It was very Mario Bros like as I recall and was done on Apple II. I was asked if I could do a port to the C64 since Forest was finished and I hadn't started another. For one reason or another (one being that this was a loose-knit organization), I went off and made a completely new game from scratch that in no way resembled the first except for the title. The ideas that arose as the game developed were suggested by movies about ancient tribes from South America to Greece. So many B-movies of past cultures included scenes where the hero has to run some gauntlet of arrows, spears, alligators – whatever – that most scenarios in the game came quite easily.
I do remember putting some effort (recall this was only the second program I'd written) into using the joystick in some new ways to get greater flexibility into the character. As it turned out, this was actually a major factor in the gameplay. The first round, for instance, where the Aztec is running for the pyramid while dodging arrows, is all about learning to push forward or back almost instinctively depending on whether the arrow was high or low. There was also a 50/50 chance that the player's natural instinct was to push to duck and pull to jump. Again, if my games were somewhat different, it was due to the classic excuse: "I didn't know the rules." Most games used the joystick logically, moving a 2D object in the eight directions available. Hence, games were constructed with overhead view, sometimes slanted, or used flying objects (an overhead view looking sideways). So without thinking before acting, I made a game with the character running INTO the screen with forced-perspective marks on the ground to simulate movement. In fact, the object never leaves the center of the screen so what are you supposed to do with the joystick? This is just one example of me making something how I wanted it to be rather than how it should be and then forcing it to work. (Note: while this may sound very 'maverick' of me, let me warn you; this is by no means guarantees popularity.)
Well, that's a lot about Aztec Challenge but it conveys by general approach to the other games you mentioned.
Continue with Caverns of Khafka, please.
Caverns of Khafka had a very similar beginning to Aztec. In fact, not only did I create an entirely different game than the original but pushed the joystick limits even further. Since the hero was climbing around an underground cavern collecting things, he had to move in numerous ways to navigate the random matrix I constructed without much thought. For example, walk, run, crawl, jump, climb, throw rope, climb up rope, grab things with rope, fall, laydown, shoot and die – in any direction. All this and more with a joystick capable of eight positions (four reliable) and one fire button. I must have enjoyed working out these little problems.
I hated the title but the idea of a simulation of something real captured my interest and in fact shaped most of my work for the remaining Cosmi years. Cosmi tells the story that they wanted a flight sim and I didn't. Actually, I said "Fine, but it has to be a helicopter." (I was watching Airwolf on TV at the time.) I set about learning the mechanics of flying a chopper. No, I never actually flew one myself. Again, calling on the poor joystick to due double duty, I discovered an interest symmetry between the two devices. A helicopter is operated by two sticks. One for going up and down, the other for tilting the rotor (or whirly-gig) that achieves direction of flight. The joystick has one stick with four major directions. Just divide that in half and you have two chopper sticks (not for eating Japanese food). Anyway, because it was the first helicopter sim out and because choppers were becoming more and more popular in the media, the game took off and went straight up (word play for sure).
Beyond the Forbidden Forest
Beyond the Forbidden Forest is like any sequel to a hit. Higher production values but the original spirit is missing. "You can't go home again." "Don't look back." It's all true for me. It had bigger monsters with less charm and better archery with less funny clutzyness. But the music was good I think and I'm very pleased with the fire-breathing Hydra. A full-screen, animated, four-headed dragon just wasn't being done in those days. To give you some idea what doing graphics was like then; imagine having the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Now make sixteen different recognizable, coherent pictures using just those pieces.
One of the other programmers ripped off Q-Bert in an interesting way and I was called upon to do the C64 port. It wasn't really my kind of thing, so I made a fairly duplicate recreation. I tried to add some touches like more interesting enemies and amusing death actions, but there's just so much one can do with a flaccid metal spring. My only real contribution was the elaborate WIN episodes with fireworks and Sousa marches.
I liked Navy Seal. After leaving adventure games for a few years to do simulations like The President is Missing and Def Con 5, it was fun to go back to an action game. Also, by that time I knew pretty much everything one could do with the C64 and so the animations, graphics and sound effects were very good for the time and the gameplay had great variety. It was one of the few games I actually enjoyed playing.
What about Trivia Monster?
Trivia Monster was a joke. I was asked for it because of Trivial Pursuit's success. I made a monster to come out and eat contestants and a friend and I threw together 2000 questions, a large portion of which were about beavers. The only interesting part was creating new sound effects on the SID chip such as banging, screaming and applause.
Thoughts on the SID ship?
Once you get into the available sounds, that becomes the audible universe. You don't say "Gee, I wish I had a violin", you play the instrument you have until they sing the song you want. Also, audio is an incredible physical process. The basis of additive synthesis that is used in some synthesizers is that two, perhaps unpleasant, sounds played at the same time can create a new pleasant sound. I think the SID chip was a respectable invention for the time and I enjoyed helping it find its potential.
How did you specifically create a sound and what program did you do the music in? Don't tell me you typed the notes in hex-mode!
I did everything in hex – bit by bit – in Hexmon. All it displayed was a disassembly of mnemonics and hex and a hex page dump. To create sounds, I typed hex into the sound chip addresses for the different settings and then typed long strings a hex numbers for the notes. To create the music, I used my guitar. It was easy.
Going from being a professional rock musician to making SID music, was that like taking two steps back or was it a nice change?
Music is a transcendental entity. The challenge is always to express it as best as possible with the instruments at hand. Whether guitar, bass, and drum or a symphony orchestra, kazoo or SID chip, you just keep practicing until the right feeling is conveyed.
Did you keep up with what other C64 musicians were doing? Any composer you specificly liked?
Sorry. My memory. I'll listen to some of Chris Abbott's CD and get Back In Time to you.
Is there a C64 game and/or soundtrack that you wish you'd done?
If there were any at the time, I can't recall them now. I'm sure there were many fine ones but I don't keep memories very accessible. Perhaps when my brain begins to deteriorate (further), it will all come back to me.
Are you composing today or updating some of the old C64 tunes?
Music is still the thing I find most satisfying and when I get a chance to write and record something, which unfortunately is somewhat rare, I feel I am back in my real element. I am currently working on a song – in between other things – that could be a radical departure and at the same time a return to my guitarist roots. I let you know when I happy with it. Perhaps you could debut it to the Continent.
Tell us a bit about the creation of Super Huey 2, Chernobyl, Def Con 5, The President is Missing and those productive titles you told me about in an e-mail.
Super Huey 2 was just Super Huey had I had twice as long to work on it. However, as is often true with sequels, the feeling gets cooler and more detached, and it shows.
Chernobyl was a very interesting experience for me because I love science and scientific technology. I am woefully ignorant but fascinated. My casual reading is relativity, quantum physics and String theory. As such, I started a game about a nuclear power plant but after doing the reseach I ended up with a pretty accurate simulation. An operator at a plant in Georgia wrote me that he loved to go home after work and try different ways to blow up the reactor. I am very glad I provided a fictional outlet for him.
It was writing Chernobyl (Have I mentioned that I fought against that title? "The poorly named nuclear powerplant simulator.") that gave me the idea of how a movie and a game might meld comfortably. Def Con 5 and The President were a result of this notion. To wit: if the player can believe that his role in some great drama is sitting at a computer with the power to affect actions and outcomes – as opposed to thinking he is inside the adventure either invisibly or as an avatar – then the physical reality of his position and the distance from the action are fully appropriate. The trick lies in creating the most believable responses to his actions. ---One day, investors willing, I will prove this theorem.--- If Def Con 5 were done that same way with movie visuals, it would be great.
The President is Missing casts the player as a CIA desk-bound operative who has to unravel the mystery of the Presidents kidnapping with other world leaders by using his computer to access all the information and using his brain to put it together. It won an award for "Most Original" game at CES in 1988. The interesting part of putting that together was that all the information used was as authentic as possible. (Only names were changed to protect the guilty.)
Oh, the productivity titles? They were an attempt to supply some of those tools I never had. I just collected code I had used for my work and built a GUI. Why they are not as familiar as the first bunch is open to speculation. Perhaps the games were too realistic (not fun?) or perhaps a breakdown in marketing strategy. Ah, fame is fleeting.
What was the reason for discontinuing work for Cosmi?
Three things: resentment over money, boredom with programming, the IBM PC.
What did you move on to after that?
I eventually went to Tiger Media who were pioneering CD-ROM interactive titles. They were working on a title that used live actor dialogue over comic book style artwork. I read the script, and as it was awful, I convinced them I could do better by presenting a new treatment of the story and new complicated character relationships. I spent the next four months writing essentially a four hour movie script for Strange Deadfellows. Once the script was done, I composed the music for the piece. The actors gathered at the Magic Castle in LA for the first read-through. That was a great experience, hearing the words come alive. I laughed a lot. We recorded the scenes in two weekend studio sessions, an amazing feat given the size of the script. Most of the actors were very talented and did a great job. Of course the rush left some rough patches. I think the script would still make an excellent movie though it would be expensive with all the special effects that come with haunted houses. (Investors?)
What are your fondest memories of working with the C64?
I don't retain specifics of my own past very well. I really do live for the now. But, in general, there is no feeling quite like working on something you've made from thin air for hours and hours and then sitting back and watching it work.
At the time, the C64 was a pretty remarkable machine. I suppose once I got proficient, it was low memory and color limitation that were most bothersome. It was a real boon to discover some 'hidden' RAM that resided below the ROM chips. Once one figured out the switching ins and outs, it became a virtual C64.
What was the coolest thing someone invented on the C64?
Well, I was very grateful for the Hexmon cartridge, as you might imagine. Other than that, I would have to say Forbidden Forest. (Just kidding?)
Did you do games on other machines as well?
If you're talking about the Cosmi period, not really. Though many games were ported to Apple II, PC and so on by others. I did begin programming on the PC by 1987-88, but found the machine lacking in many ways. Since 1990, I of course have been involved one way or another with numerous platforms and mediums, pretty everything from CD-ROM to WebTV.
Thanks for everything Paul! Finally, what's the best thing you've gotten from your computer interest?
The best thing is that it allowed me to make a living doing something creative. I would have made every effort to do so if computers had not been around but this worked out nicely. Another plus, I must confess, it allowed me to work alone. I don't really play well with others.
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