Makes ya wanna think.

personal game career history

14 Years

Fourteen years ago I had one of the coolest, funnest, hectic-est jobs in my life: Demo God for Microsoft Research’s Virtual Worlds Group. I worked with coders, artists, writers, interns, and musicians to put together and run demos to show off our amazing Virtual Reality platform. I love to collaborate and the VWGers were a passionate, talented group to play with. At its best my job was exhilarating.

Demos are fickle beasts. Software in development is notorious for breaking when you demo it to anybody with clout. I remember frantically sprinting to my office to recompile a tearful intern’s project for an internal mass demo. I got it working and she was able to demo the work she’d spent months creating.

I had a blast in the Virtual World’s Group. Management politics was a mess but the geek troops made an amazing Virtual Worlds platform way ahead of its time.

Kevin Goldsmith and Doug Sharp in Doug's MSFT office celebrating Halloween

Before becoming Demo God I was co-leader of VWG world-building tools with Kevin Goldsmith. We had lots of laughs and did good work.

Fourteen years ago – October 17th, 1997 – I sat at my desk trying to code. I’d done no work the previous day although I’d tried hard. My epilepsy pre-seizure symptoms had been bothering me for days and on the 17th I had to admit that my Brainrot was back. I couldn’t work. Every time I forced myself to code the symptoms got worse. I was sad and afraid.

Doug Sharp as Himself

My MSFT office door.

At age 25 (1977), while student teaching for my Elementary Ed certification at the UofMN, I had some strange, nasty spells and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. While teaching my first 5th grade class I took Phenobarbital  for a year, which controlled my seizures. I hated the drug – I called its effects “living in a baggie” –  and when my symptoms abated I got off Pheno with my neurologist’s permission.

In 1988, while working on my biggest game to date for Activision – called Future Cop at the time – Brainrot hit hard. For 3 1/2 years (88-91) I was extremely sick and on massive doses of various numbing anti-seizure meds as we tried to find one that worked. By 1991 I was a candidate for brain surgery. Luckily the symptoms started to abate. Although I still had infrequent seizures and tons of pre-seizure symptoms I threw myself into completing the game, now called “Free D.C.!” Due to time pressure from company investors (release by Xmas or die!) the game was released before it was finished — the only one of my three games that wasn’t a hit.

In ‘93, through an insane sequence of events, I was hired as a programmer by Microsoft (not too likely with only a degree in El Ed.) I had 5 good years at MSFT although none of the projects I worked on made it to market.

Every time Brainrot hit me I’ve been neck-deep in highly collaborative, exciting work: Elementary Ed teacher training and big collaborative software projects. I love to collaborate with passionate people but it’s kryptonite to me.

Fourteen years ago today I sat at my desk with a head full of sparks, unable to code. For the next months we tried to find tasks I could do for VWG but I was too sick to work. From 1997-2003 I had frequent seizures (I don’t black out but am incapacitated by them.) By the time my neurologist found effective anti-seizure meds (Lamictal and Keppra) my seizures had caused brain damage which resulted in my Central Pain Syndrome and cognitive losses.

Since 1997 I’ve tried, when well enough, to work. I had a brief clear spell in 2007 and coded a very playable version of ChipWits (Margaret did a great job creating the art) but was too sick to polish it to my satisfaction for commercial release. In the last few years I completed Channel Zilch and now Angry Robot is giving it a good long look.

For 18 of my 59 years I’ve wrestled with brainrot. I hate the pain and the years lost but I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

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The King of Chicago

I scanned some old reviews of my computer games ChipWits and The King in the process of gussying up my bio at channelzilch.com.

In 1985 ChipWits was a hit so when my software agent Bob Jacobs formed Cinemaware he asked me to write a movie-themed game. He wanted his first line-up of cinematically-inspired games to include a knights in armor, a space, and a gangster game. I was a fan of old gangster movies so I dibsed that genre. My buddy Kellyn Beeck chose knights and wrote the smash hit Defender of the Crown.

In 1986 I wrote The King of Chicago – designed, did the artwork (for the Mac version), programmed, and wrote half the game script.

King cover

I came up with a new way of telling interactive stories which I called Dramaton. I hated hardbranching interactive storytelling – pick-a-path plotting – so I devised a way of telling a story probabilistically using a bunch of suitably-labeled animated scenes.

The Mac version got  great reviews (“King of Chicago represents a landmark in computer gaming” MACazine Review ) and so we did an Amiga version. I coded it and Cinemaware artists (led by Rob Landeros) did some amazing gangster graphics.

King of Chicago back

The Amiga version of The King got rave reviews (“The King of Chicago is a brilliantly devised game that far outstrips others of its genre.” – Personal Computer World) and sold 50,000 copies in 1987 – my biggest hit.

I’m still immensely proud of The King of Chicago. It means a lot to me that The King is respected by some of today’s top game designers ( “I don’t think people realize what a landmark achievement in game development it was.” – Casey Muratori, creator of Sushi Bar Samurai). It’s fun to see fans’ enthusiasm on nostalgia gaming forums like Lemon Amiga.

Here’s a walkthrough  of the Amiga version posted by a fan to YouTube:

I’m not finished writing hits!


Margaret is a 3rd-generation Computer Game Developer

The first computer game I ever played was written by my Dad, Jack Sharp. In the early 60’s he was a meteorologist in the Air Force and was learning to program. I was in 5th grade. His group held an open house for all the families to come ooh and ahh at the blinking lights of the massive mainframes.

He had written a game, a simple reaction-speed game. A line of people formed to try their reflexes against the big metal brains.

The game was to look at a row of lights and when they lit up to press any key on the teletype machine as fast as you could. Between lights on and keypress the computer would count supahfast. The computer would then print out “I COUNTED TO 13,047. FASTEST CONTESTANT’S SCORE: 11,012”, or if you were the fastest so far “CONGRATULATION!!! I ONLY COUNTED TO 10,711. A NEW RECORD!!!”

We, of course, were dazzled by the machines counting speed. I was determined to set a new record.

I was filled with adrenaline when it was my turn to play. My reflexes were over-primed. I saw a flicker and TAP – lightning fast keystroke. The computer printed “CONGRATULATIONS!!! I ONLY COUNTED TO 0. A NEW RECORD!!!” I had jumped the gun, hit the key before the lights went off, and I was devestated. I felt like crawling into a hole.

My Dad was embarassed. He said he was sure he’d put a check for jumping the gun into his program. But there was no was to reset my “record score” of zero without rebooting the whole shebang, which was for some reason not possible.

So the first time I played a computer game I found a bug. In my Dad’s program. In front of all his colleague’s families. Luckily Dad had a wonderful sense of humor.

Dad went on to have a great career in meteorological computing. He wound up heading the massive Automated Weather Network – a worldwide network of weather observation gathering and forecasting computers which was an early-70’s precursor of the Internet. He was proud that some of the low-level network code he wrote survived in the system for many years.

Too bad I’m such a godlike coder that Margaret will never have the thrill of finding a bug in any of my games.


Moving Forward

I haven’t published a game in 15 years. Haven’t programmed professionally in 9 1/2 years. For most of the past decade I was too disabled by my brainrot to work. I had a part-time aide.

My “brainrot” is a nasty blend of epilepsy, peripheral neuropathy, and quite probably chronic fatigue syndrome. It is an hourly challenge to work around my cognitive limitations to get ChipWits out the door. I am about 30% as productive a programmer as I was 10 years ago.

I have been really beating myself up about missed “deadlines” for dropping a playable build. In the past when I was shipping a game it made sense to make myself feel awful for schedule slips – back when timing for Christmas release was life-or-death for a game’s sales. While working on King of Chicago I can remembering seeing the first orange Autumn leaf and my knuckles going white with stress.

In talking to friends about how ChipWits is going I find myself saying We made progress today, or We got something done, or It keeps moving forward.

I have a great deal of hope that releasing ChipWits as an ongoing beta will be the ideal way for me to get back into the game industry. I will post known bugs and features to be added and knock them off at the pace I can accomplish.

Stressing about deadlines was keeping me from enjoying rebuilding ChipWit. I am getting better at feeling good about moving forward.


Archeological expedition into the Ancient Maps of ChipWits

Mike and I wrote ChipWits in 1984 in a blaze of inspiration and insanely hard work. After launching the Mac version in Fall 84 we produced the Commodore 64 version and the Apple II version in less than 6 months.

I didn’t keep the best notes. I’ve got a box of disks and printouts and sketches of IBOL ops and even the first drawing of a ChipWit (which I will scan and upload here). Nowhere can I find maps of the original 8 missions.

So I am playing the original game on an online Apple II Emulator (IE only for now, they are working on their Firefox emulator plugin):

Stymied by a impassable pastry

The majesty of Apple II Graphics: ChipWit #7, lacking ZAP or PICKUP, is blocked by PIE.

I wrote a keyboard-driven ChipWit so I could explore at will. IFKEY S->SKATE FORWARD, IFKEY X->SKATE RIGHT45, IFKEY Z->SKATE LEFT45.

Apple II Keyboard-driven ChipWit with a bug

There are 2 Bugs in this ChipWit! Spot ’em! Answer tomorrow.

The Apple II IBOL editor is pretty amazing. We did the Mac version first and were Mac zealots so not only did we port the game to the C-64 and Apple II but the cursor-driven menu interface. as well. Note that instead of a mouse, players had to use a joystick to control the cursor. Clunky but it works. Running in emulation the interface is even clunkier.

I wound up having to kill 2 editing-induced bugs before it ran.

I decided to spelunk in Octopus Garden first – the most challenging mission. The ChipWit always starts on a random square in a central room. There are 8 corridors running from that room, each terminating in a room containing a high-score DISK to PICKUP.

It feels very strange playing one of my own 22-year old games. I know that I spent endless hours working with Mike on the Apple code and all the sound-FX and silly little animations did a real deja vu number on me. It was fun when an electrocrab sidled up to me because my heart-rate did go up and I SKATED my guy out of the room ASAP.

I ran into 2 pies that blocked my path (fiendishly placed there by some devious game designer (me or Mike)). So now IndieBot (the CW’s new name (after I. Jones)) sports a ZAP chip to clear the PIE.

I’ll have all 8 missions mapped by tomorrow. If I survive the PIE.

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Yesterday’s bug – The arrows from both bottom chips should point right:

IndieBot debugged