Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Programming - From PET BASIC to PHP

When I was a kid I used to own a Commodore 64, an old 8bit home computer, among the first truly successful home computers.  It came with a built in BASIC language called PET BASIC, a line-numbered procedural language that had much more potential than I ever got out of it.  Despite this lack of talent, I still managed to write a few little text-based adventure games, nothing with a parser or anything, just basic "Press A to go deeper in the cave, press B to talk to the wizard" sorts of things that provided me with a sense of accomplishment, but were terrible.  Since then, however, I've been obsessed with creating games. 
That wonderful old computer also exposed me to the concept of modems and telecommunications through a home computer, and I gained a new obsession; BBSes.  If you're too young to remember the flash-revolution that was the BBS era, it was basically the precursor to public internet use; they where computers set up on land-lines to receive phone calls from other computers to allow you access to BBS software there loaded, which typically included a few interesting "Door games", a few message boards, and maybe a poll or two.  While this sounds impossibly quaint compared to todays internet, remember that this was literally the first time a regular person (meaning someone not involved with the military or a university CS department) could use their computer and leave their home through it.  Thousands upon thousands of these existed across the globe, with North America being a highly concentrated area.  Near where I lived there where no fewer than 40 local "Boards" I could call and spend an hour talking with the various communities there on, playing the weird, ASCII/ANSI based games, and just killing time.  At one point I even ran one with my friend, which we dubbed "The Mother Board", a terrible, terrible pun that we just thought was hilarious.  These sprang up in earnest around 1985 or so and lasted until about 1995, at which point the internet was suddenly unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
Of course, the internet had existed the whole time, it was just a very specialized thing; people in the know could find places to access, but the public was typically paying extortion-level prices to access it for even an hour, and that access was typically hovering around 14.4K BAUD, which, if you had to deal with today you'd probably go insane.  And it was very UNIX centric, with some aiming more towards Dos/Windows users.  The C64 was definitely never designed to access the net, but (as was typical of the C64 community at the time) there were people who designed ways to allow you to do this.  Using a terminal program, you could now leave the confines of your local city and move right out to the whole wide world, talking in USENET groups with people from one end of the world to the other.  And that's when I gained my obsession with the internet.
As time went on the net became more and more normalized; it changed from being wild country to being a tamed village, then a city, country, to the point that it is today; a digital outline of the globe.  At the same time, gaming was taking leaps and bounds; Wolfenstein was released as shareware by ID and completely broke everyone's mind, then they released Doom, and the world never looked back.  3D environments where now a reality rather than a dream so devoutly to be wished.  The PC suddenly looked more attractive than home console systems; the NES and SMS suddenly looked ridiculous in comparision, and the SNES, TGX16, and Genisis could barely keep up. I became obsessed with learning how to write these programs, how to make these worlds that I spent so much time in.
Then everything changed.
Somehow, sometime, everything in the game industry turned into Hollywood.  No longer where PC games designed by teams of four, over the course of a year from their homes, making a solid living on shareware distributions; now there where design houses that where centered in "silicon valley" run by CEOs and boards of directors.  As a reaction to that indie scenes popped up, complete with the personality cults that things like that typically generate.  The fun in games seemed to be drained out; on the one hand you had clones of clones of clones getting regurgitated out over and over, banking on safe-bet titles and mechanics, on the other you had games "as art", with such ridiculously symbolic qualities involved, such deep personal meaning to the designers that they've lost all appeal.  Neither seems satisfactory to me.
I still like designing and writing games, but I have no real expectation that I'll be able to support myself doing it without choosing one of the two teams.  So now I'm thinking of switching to web design, bringing up my JQuery, JS, PHP, HTML, CSS and whatever other talents I can bring to bare up; it seems to still have a place for people who just love the work to make money.  
As a side note, here's a installer for a game I did for a local "game jam" called TOJam.  Obviously, I'm no artist, but it's a fairly (in my opinion) interesting take on the classic screen-wrapping side-scroller, in the sprite of defender:
The HTML5 version

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