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Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Dark Ages of PC Games

Even for one who remember the early days of PC gaming, it's an eye opener to find documentation of what was actually happening. I recently found an old CD that contains some correspondence about my work on some of the earlier games. This was not really the Dark Ages. I remember saying it was the equivalent of Hollywood in the silent movie era, and the first "talkies" were just beginning to come out.

Here's what I think is the first letter I wrote to Scott Miller of Apogee software on April 25, 1991. My comments upon reading this for the first time in 26 years are in brackets [FWIW].

Mr. Scott Miller, President
Apogee Software Productions
April 25, 1991

Dear Scott,

I appreciate your letter and the chance to work with you and 
your  family  of software authors.  I promise that  I  will  work 
diligently  to  compose and arrange music you will  be  proud  to 
include  in  your  software.  I have to  apologize  for  not  yet 
including the tape I promised.  It will follow as soon as I  have 
received  the  latest version of Sputter, the program  that  will 
allow  me  to translate my 16 bit samples to 8  bit  SoundBlaster 
samples.    That   should   be  only  a   short   time   in   the 

[I looked for information regarding Sputter and it has more recently been the name of some software to "accelerate BitComet downloads." Yes, this was the DOS computer days where a PC would greet you with a "C:\" followed by a flashing prompt. I well remember the computer BBS's (Bulletin Board Services) filled with questions like "What good is a PC? All I get is a "C:\" on the screen -- and when I type anything, it doesn't understand" or words to that effect. These were very confusing times for those who bought the early PC's and had never owned a computer. By this time, I had owned a "Trash 80" -- TRS-80 and had built a TRS-80 clone (it even had a color monitor way back then)!]

[So, the operating system had no included software for editing audio, and Sputter was the answer to that. I have no memory of actually using Sputter.]

Since  I  last  spoke with you, I have  come  by  some  good 
software  and  instrument  sounds.   To me,  the  sounds  of  the 
instruments  playing  the  music is as  important  as  the  music 
itself.  I think that the music on Dark Ages is commendable,  and 
for  the  most  part, the choice of  instruments  was  excellent.  
Anyway, I got one file that contains over 900 instrument  sounds, 
most of which are garbage, but the task is to find the good ones.  
I have written a little program to audit the sounds, but it  will 
take a while yet to get through all of them.

[Dark Ages was the first "shareware" game to have AdLib sound card music. The AdLib was an FM synthesizer. It did not play digital audio, so any sound effects used in a game had to use the FM synthesizer. You can read about Dark Ages here: Dark Ages (Wikipedia)]

[Some of the FM instrument sounds I found (called "patches" back then) were very good, and were credited to a person with a username at one of the nationwide BBS's -- Prodigy or CompuServe. I messaged him so I could send him some money for his work. I never heard back from him, or his username was no longer recognized. I never found him. Remember, there was no internet search engines back then.]

[The program I wrote was in the BASIC language. I don't remember writing it. I do remember it played a melody and maybe some high and low end pitches for each new patch.]

I  have  received  the  Software  Development  Kit  for  the 
SoundBlaster, and it has helped some.  It mentioned a  Composer's 
Utility  (not included), which has not been advertised as  it  is 
new.   I  called  Creative  Labs and lucked  upon  talking  to  a 
salesman who is sending me those programs free (he says I will be 
the  only  one  to  have them  outside  of  Creative  Labs).   He 
expressed interest in Commander Keen and Dark Ages, so I sent him 
a  copy of the Shareware Versions.  I have tried to impress  upon 
Creative  Labs  the importance of helping us  get  good  sounding 
games out so they will sell more cards.

[I have very little recollection of this except to say I remember trying to get both AdLib and Creative Labs more interested in games that would greatly increase sound card use and sales.]

I am including a list of the phone calls I have charged  to 
your  number thus far.  I apologize for several very short  calls 
where my computer failed to link up with another.  The calls have 
been well worth the cost, especially the ones to VGER BBS,  which 
specializes  in AdLib and SoundBlaster software.  All but one  of 
the successful connections was made when I charged the call to my 
number (for some reason the operator assisted calls were a poorer 

[What's an "operator assisted call?" Ha! These were still the Dark Ages for telephones. They were all wired. Many people still had rotary dials. I didn't -- touch tone dial was "the way to go" for speedster dialers like me! "Operator Assisted" meant that I actually talked to a person at the phone company (usually a lady) who made a long distance connection for me. Long distance call costs were based on time and distance, and they were not cheap, even for back then.]

Also  enclosed are invoices for purchases made thus far  out 
of  the  $400 you sent.  I have an AdLib card on  order,  and  it 
should be here very soon.

[One of the reasons I believed Scott Miller was the real deal: he put his money where his mouth was. He sent $400 for me to purchase what I needed to get started with sound cards. I already owned some high end synths and samplers, but they did little good to produce AdLib and Sound Blaster ready music.]

[About this same time, I spoke with someone at AdLib and was told they were going to be in Atlanta for the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in a few weeks. I went to that convention where AdLib had a booth. Surprisingly, they were not very interested in music for games. I never understood that. Evidently, AdLib felt that the sound card was going to sell well to Broadcasters?]

In the meantime, I am spending time learning the  instrument 
sounds  and  how  they may be used as sound effects  as  well  as 
musical  instruments.   I downloaded a program that  will  change 
Standard MIDI files to Creative Music Files and AdLib files.   It 
is  relatively  primitive,  but at least I  can  get  started  at 
hearing  what things will be like on the SB/AdLib.  I  have  also 
ordered a copy of a sequencer package that supposedly will  allow 
me to compose directly on the SB/AdLib.  Also, it is supposed  to 
allow  me to edit the instrument sounds -- we shall see, as  what 
is advertised is not always what works.

[I don't remember the name of the program that translates MIDI files to Creative/AdLib files, but I do remember the name of the "sequencer package" -- it was Sequencer Plus Gold, and it was everything they advertised it to be.]

I tried Dark Ages on my 10MHz XT, and it works just as  good 
as it does on the 386 25MHz.  Maybe your ad for it should specify 
a fast machine rather than a particular type of CPU?

[I still have the bill for that XT PC clone. I bought the thing at Rhythm City in Atlanta from the owner, George Luther. At the same time, I bought Texture -- a pattern based sequencer. Some time after that, I bought Cakewalk 1.0. All of this was before I had started working on game music. And, WOW, a 10 MHz XT! Can you say "FAST!" And then a 386 25MHz! Can you say "BLAZING?"]

I have yet to show Commander Keen to anyone that they  don't 
sit down and get lost playing it -- it is a real winner.  I  look 
forward to working on the music for the sequel trilogy.

[As I've said before, just a week or so before I was first contacted by Scott Miller, I had downloaded the first "Commander Keen" trilogy (using the Prodigy BBS). Like others who had done the same, I was very impressed with the game. When Scott messaged me on Prodigy, I had no idea he had anything to do with Keen. He somehow picked me out of 50 or so people that responded to his post about needing someone to write music for games. In our first call, he mentioned that he marketed Commander Keen. That was all I needed to hear to accept his offer.]

The W-9 is enclosed as requested.

[Let's don't forget TAXES!]

I  will  keep you posted on things as they progress.   I  am 
working  on your theme, but I haven't found the right  instrument 
sounds  yet.  I am enclosing a 360k disk with Color My  World  by 
Chicago  on it.  It is my first attempt at putting something  out 
through  the  SoundBlaster.   I chose it as  I  found  instrument 
sounds  that  reminded me of the song.  Just type "PLAY"  and  it 
should run, as the driver and program are included.

[I don't remember doing this. But how about the massive storage on a 360k floppy! I don't have the "Color My World" sequence or the patches I used for the sequence.]

Talk with you soon, and until then take care.


Telephone Calls Charged to Apogee Software Productions

Date - Time - Called - Reason

04/17/91 - 10:30 PM EDST - VGER BBS (California) - D/L files
Several attempts
Charged successful call to my number

04/17/91 - 11:30 PM EDST - SB BBS (SoundBlaster-California) - D/L files

04/18/91 - 07:30 PM EDST - MicroMusic BBS (Atlanta) - D/L files
Several attempts, no success

04/18/91 - 09:00 PM EDST - MicroMusic BBS - D/L files
45 minutes

04/19/91 - 09:40 PM EDST - VGER BBS D/L files
Unsuccessful attempts

04/20/91 - 07:47 PM EDST - VGER BBS - D/L files
32 minutes, charged to my number

04/21/91 - 12:30 PM EDST - Creative Tech Support
 Told to call back next day

Several  calls  made to Creative Labs 800 order line and transferred  to  Tech 
support, so no charges for these.

[See the notation "45 minutes" to download a file. Today you'd say, "How many gig?" Back then you would have said "Gosh, that had to be a huge file, even at 2400 baud!" Greatly simplifying it, the dial-up modem was receiving 600 bytes per second. 45 minutes is 2700 seconds. So the file must have been roughly 1.6 MEGABYTES -- a truly huge file for that time in history! Now, even at "slow" cable speeds, you'd get this file in seconds. Aren't we lucky to live in these times?]

[How does one get into writing music for video games? For me it was being prepared when LUCK STRUCK.]

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read.

    Thanks for sharing and adding comments for context. It is easy to get caught up how much easier things are today as to what it was like back in the late 80s early 90s in regards to computing.

    I hope you are also well and am very glad to see you post something. All the best Bobby Prince you have been a huge inspiration.