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Remembering the Apple II era with legendary game developer David Lubar

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Remembering the Apple II era with legendary game developer David Lubar
Author, game developer, and author (again) David Lubar in 1984, at the height of one of his careers.

In 1980, Lubar introduced himself to the burgeoning computer world as a freelance writer for the magazine that brought the first developers together, Creative Computing. But it was in realizing the power of the computing ideal through that magazine that Lubar found his second, simultaneous calling: as a developer as well as a writer. In 1984, Activision helped start the trend of marketing programmers as artists, and so his name appeared as part of the title of the arcade-style game for which he is best known: the incomparable Pastfinder. True, Lubar made his name on the Atari 8-bit platform, where he would later translate Ultima IV from the Apple. But it was the Apple II that first inspired this man, who had never considered programming as a career, to blaze the trail for thousands of others (myself included) to try for the first time building mathematical staging grounds for impossible worlds. Today, he is a successful author of fiction for young readers, including the fabulous Hidden Talents For our continuing 30th anniversary look at Apple Computer, TG Daily spent some time with David Lubar.

David Lubar: Actually, I was a writer first. I got out of college, I started writing, and one of the places I sold a story to was Creative Computing magazine. At that point, my degree was in philosophy. I’d never taken a computer course. My only exposure to computers was, a friend of mine had a password for the Rutgers mainframe, and we would always use his password to play games like Star Trek, which we played on a teletype. It would print out the grid for each move of the game, and there’s a little “E” for the Enterprise, “K” for Klingons, and it was stunningly primitive, [but I thought] it was impossible to play the games on monitors. I could not envision how you could play the game on a monitor. So at this point, I knew nothing about computers; but at this point, having sold a science fiction story to a computer magazine, I picked up the magazine and instantly became hooked.

TG Daily: I can’t tell you how many “K’s” I blew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s; in fact, that might have been the thing that got me into programming…You went on to develop one of my favorite games in history, Pastfinder.

A robotic explorer from seven millenia hence seeks clues to the decimation of a civilization, in Lubar’s classic 1984 game Pastfinder, here seen in its original rendition for the Atari 8-bit series. As the scenery scrolled downward, your character rotates and hops over a field which can become as slippery as ice. (A review of the Commodore 64 translation appears here.)

DL: I had the pleasure of showing that game to Steve Wozniak, because we were both at the first hacker’s conference, and that also gave me an opportunity to thank him for creating the Apple II, and tell him how the computer had changed my life, for taking me from [being] a writer to a programmer, just because it was such an easy machine to work with.

TG Daily: What is the story you told Steve Wozniak; what is it about the Apple that changed your life?

DL: I was a writer trying to make a living writing magazine articles, and I got hooked on computing – when I started reading [Creative Computing] magazine, and gave a great deal of thought about what computer to buy, and when I bought the Apple, it turned out a real affinity with programming it. Before I knew it, I was up to my elbows in the monitor [the machine-language control program], writing assembly-language programs, publishing programs in magazines. That brought me to the attention of Sirius Software, who hired me. I had gotten a job at Creative Computing by then. Larry Miller, who was developing Atari 2600 games at Sirius, offered me a job programming games. We actually used Apples as our development computers to write and download the games to the 2600.

TG Daily: I never realized the Apple was the development computer for the 2600.

DL: For some people; other people started using [IBM] PCs, of course; but early on, a lot of people were using Apples; later, some people were using Amigas.

TG Daily: It seems like there’s a lot of people today, even professional game programmers, who probably don’t really have a clue as to what a game programmer in the year 1980 actually did.

DL: Basically, we did everything. One person conceived the game, did the art – which was pretty much done on 8×8 pieces of graph paper grids, because all of the graphics are very primitive – did the music, because the music was pretty much just sounds, and did the programming. And eventually as the machines became more sophisticated and more capable of better art, somebody realized, “We’d better bring in artists,” and they started bringing in musicians. That was great, because later on I got to work with some artists who were actually pretty well known in the comic book field, and with some musicians who have done a lot of things beyond the game world. But originally, every game was just one guy hunched over a computer, doing everything.

TG Daily: What would you think would be the major points that would distinguish a 1980s era game programmer from a modern-day programmer?

DL: I think the big factor is that we had very limited resources. We couldn’t squander a byte. The Atari 2600, you had 128 bytes of RAM, total. That’s for saving the score, for the stack. The games were 4 or 8 or 16 K of ROM. So every byte counted. There was no room for inefficiency. Generally, even when you wrote the game as tightly as possible, it was still too big, and then you had to start getting creative.

One of the translations I did, I took one of the Ultima games from the Apple, and put it on the Atari; and I was in the middle of the project, it suddenly hit me that I had a disc that was completely full of text, and the Atari had something like 20 or 40 K less storage than the Apple. So I had to redo the text with five bits, because that’s as much as you needed, and pack it down that way. Those were the gotchas and surprises that would hit you if you were translating a game from one system to another. It saved me three bits out of each byte, and I needed that.

The not-so-hidden talents of the Apple II

Author and developer David Lubar today.

TG Daily: And perhaps the fact that it was such an open book, when it presented itself to the hobbyist, that there really wasn’t, at first, this repertoire of functionality. It, in effect, said, “Well, what do you want me to do?” That, I think, made it more appealing to the first generation of real computer users, who were the people who could start filling in the blanks.

DL: You were handed this lump of clay, and you [made it into] what you want, as opposed to being given a nice ceramic ashtray that only serves one or two purposes….That was the other thing: You had a monitor listing [a complete listing of the ROM-based operating system] with [the Apple II]. It came with the operating system not only listed, but documented. If you wanted to intercept keystrokes, it told you exactly what to do. It was completely documented and understandable.

On the first week of every month, we who were among the original computer geeks waited anxiously by our mailboxes not for letters from prospective loved ones, or employers, but for the latest editions of the great magazines: Byte, Compute!, and Creative Computing. David Lubar’s bright, insightful, simply written reviews and features set the standard for how computing journalists would write, decades after his byline would leave these pages and emerge on the title pages of video games.