How to get started in computer game development in 1982
If you are a fan of retro-computing, you may have caught interactivity Black mirror episode Bandersnatch when it came out on Netflix. His portrayal of a young British bedroom coder who made his way into the home computer game industry in the early 1980s was of course fictional and dramatized, but for those interested in a real parallel without that the protagonist does not succumb to an obsession with the supernatural book, there is a recent epic Twitter thread blazing a trail of an industry veteran in the business.
[Shahid Kamal Ahmad] now has an impressive portfolio spanning his nearly four decades at the forefront of gaming, but his story begins in 1982 as a diabetic British Pakistani teenager from an unprivileged background in London writing BASIC on his Atari 400. His BASIC games are good, but not good enough to be accepted by a publisher, so he sells his precious BMX bike to buy books on the Atari 6502 assembler, a coffee percolator, and out of curiosity, [Rodnay Zaksâ] Programming the Z80. An obsessive three-month apprenticeship in 6502 programming and Atari architecture ensues, and its game Storm in a cup of tea sells to Artic Software. He’s a professional game developer.
We follow him through a few other projects until he gets to Software Projects in Liverpool to try and sell his game. Faces of Haarne, for which he secures the post, but also gets the opportunity of a lifetime. Jet Set Willy is the hit of the year on the ZX Spectrum, and they urgently need a Commodore 64 port. Can it do it in four weeks, with a bonus if he hits three? The subsequent descent into high-pressure assembly coding and learning the quirks between two completely different 8-bit architectures is an epic in itself, but he handles it in no time over the three weeks and they pay him when even the bonus. His career in the video game industry is cemented.
Throughout this tale, reminders of 1980s Britain are everywhere, far from bringing a retro paradise, it was a place carved out by industrial decline, with very little for the lowest in society on which ones to be optimistic about. His descriptions of casual racism are hard-hitting, but the group of computer-addicted friends at school is probably something all teenagers of the era with interests in that direction can relate to. The real hero of the story is probably his mother, who somehow found the resources for this Atari 400 and provided him with the support and encouragement he so badly needed.
This thread captures a unique, never-to-repeat era in which a teenager could master emerging technology and make a living without an expensive education. Like Bil Herd’s description of his Commodore career around the same time, it’s worth reading.