Born to Code, Part I

In the comments to a previous post it was suggested that I blog about how I became a programmer. I’m not sure I can make that an interesting story, but if nothing else it might be a fun nostalgic trip.

TRS-80 Color ComputerMy introduction to computers came when I was a 15-year-old extreme underachiever. I absolutely hated school, which I’m sure frustrated my parents to no end. One day, completely unannounced, my dad came home with a brand new TRS-80 Color Computer, hoping to spark some interest from his brainy-but-disenfranchised son.

And it worked – I was transformed, an insta-geek. I spent hours learning how to write silly little programs in BASIC, and within a year I had graduated to creating full-fledged games.

The first game I remember writing was called “Possum Run,” a bloody takeoff on Frogger which was inspired by the squished opossums that decorated the roads near my Tennessee home. My friends thought it was a fun game, so I toned down the gore a bit and submitted the source code along with a short article to a magazine called Hot CoCo – and much to my surprise, they accepted it. I was 16 at the time, and I remember being thrilled at seeing my work published.

Of course, being a teenager, I also used my programming skills to play pranks. I had a lot of nerdy fun writing a fake “personality test” which I asked people to try. At first the program would compliment the user, telling them that they had desirable personality traits. But before long the program would start questioning their integrity, eventually degrading into hurling crude insults their way. I also wrote a war simulation which I used to trick a friend into believing that I’d hacked into a military computer and had accidentally launched a few missiles (let’s just say that he wasn’t the brightest of my friends).

Snippet of Moon Runner assemblerI was published a few more times before graduating high school, but I had bigger plans. I decided I wanted to write games for a living, so I spent some time learning assembly language in order to make my games run as fast as the ones in the arcade. Assembler is an ugly and cryptic language, but I loved writing it – it felt like second nature to me. Although I no longer program in assembler, learning it way back then has proven enormously helpful throughout my programming career because it forced me to deal with how computers really think.

Anyway, at 18 I formed my first company, “D & N Software” (I was the N, my dad was the D). D & N Software sold two “professional” games of mine: a Moon Patrol clone called “Moon Runner,” and an original action/adventure game called “Legend Quest.” Despite receiving very nice reviews, they earned just a few hundred dollars – not enough to warrant the months of effort involved in their creation, and also not enough to enable dumping my aging TRS-80 and upgrading to the new world of PCs.

While all this was going on, I had also entered the University of Missouri-Rolla, hoping to receive a degree in computer science. Let’s just say that I didn’t do so well – I was more inspired by the parties than I was by the classes and assignments. Embarrassing as it is to admit, the university “asked me to consider another career” (that’s right, I flunked out of computer school).

Penguin IcarusTruth is, I was losing interest in computers anyway, and strange as it may sound, my real love was cartooning. To make a long story short, I switched schools, changed my major to journalism, and became a cartoonist for the student newspaper. My last game – a platformer called “Penguin Icarus” – was published in 1990 by Rainbow Magazine (a popular Color Computer magazine at the time), and it was several years before I returned to programming.

And that seems like a good cutoff point for this post. I’m guessing some long-time readers already know how I got back into programming after an attempt at cartooning, but for those who are interested, I’ll supply the rest of the story in part II.

 

13 thoughts on “Born to Code, Part I

  1. Thanks for the great read Nick..I find it interesting how people “get their start”. I’m a Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) grad myself (CIS major)…not a CompSci guy, too much math and science. :)

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  2. nick wrote: “I had a lot of nerdy fun writing a fake “personality test” which I asked people to try. At first the program would compliment the user, telling them that they had desirable personality traits. But before long the program would start questioning their integrity, eventually degrading into hurling crude insults their way.”
    Sounds hilarious, reminded me of this recent post about ‘anti-social networks’
    http://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2006/04/antisocial-networking.html
    Think there is any chance of resurrecting that program and putting it on the web? Perhaps as a webapp or javacript thing?
    FWIW, we used (monochrome) TRS-80’s in our computer class in high school (1983)… though we were in the class looked-down-upon by the ‘more-scientific’ class that used an IBM 360? with punch cards. Frankly I thought a class using a computer with screen, disks and monitor was going to be more help to me than learning punch cards… even if it was in ‘data processing’ and COBOL. Gotta love compiles of a simple program that grind both floppy drives continuously for 20 minutes each time… no wonder we wore those poor machines out. ;-)

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  3. I was wondering why I always thought I recognized your name….
    I co-authored two Color Computer games, Konami’s Pooyan and Nichibitsu’s Moon Shuttle (not to be confused with Moon Patrol.) =)
    I worked for DataSoft and we ended up selling the two programs thru RadioShack/Tandy.
    I am still into computers, but went from programming games, into testing/marketing them and then out of the game industry completely due to losing a large amount of money due to software theft.
    Thanks for the peek into your past!
    “‘o.o'”

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  4. I was wondering why I always thought I recognized your name….
    I co-authored two Color Computer games, Konami’s Pooyan and Nichibitsu’s Moon Shuttle (not to be confused with Moon Patrol.) =)
    I worked for DataSoft and we ended up selling the two programs thru RadioShack/Tandy.
    I am still into computers, but went from programming games, into testing/marketing them and then out of the game industry completely due to losing a large amount of money due to software theft.
    Thanks for the peek into your past!
    “‘o.o'”

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  5. “RAD Moose,” I used to love playing “Pooyan” on the CoCo3 – that was a great game! Sorry to hear that piracy led to you switching careers. Piracy is bad in the shareware business, but I imagine that it pales in comparison to piracy in the game industry.

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  6. Hi Nick,
    I’m still using a Coco 3 computer, Mostly for archiving my Coco software collection onto my Pc, for burning to Cd.
    I remember your games done for the Rainbow Magazine.
    Would you believe there still is a Coco Community, While where on the subject of your Games, Any chance you still have the source code for them, Be good to be able to get copies of them for the Coco Games download site.
    Since, I don’t have your Games you sold through your company, only what I have from the Rainbow Magazine.
    If It’s okay by you, drop into the Coco3.com forum, and leave a post.
    Thanxs for the memories.
    Laters
    Briza

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  7. Uncanny, my passion for computing started with the TRS-80 too. I was only 10 at the time but very quickly got into writing little apps in BASIC – only trouble was the keyboard technology at the time was also Basic. i.e. I remember the keys were really sticky – you had to work hard to type anything.

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