Daily Archives: October 2, 2011

Ken and Roberta

There are two prototypical kinds of “computer professionals” in the world. First there are the purist hackers, who dive into the depths of circuits, operating systems, and programming languages like explorers discovering new lands; it wasn’t by chance that away from the computer Will Crowther was a caver, nor that he now spends his time deep-sea scuba diving. For the purists the reward is in the thing itself, in learning to understand and navigate this binary wonderland and maybe, just maybe, someday making (or helping to make) something really, truly new and cool. The other group is made up of the careerists. These people end up in the field for some mixture of a variety of reasons: because they need to earn a good living to support their family (no shame in that); because they’ve heard computers are cool and the next big thing (hello, Internet bubble); because they have a vision of society which requires computers as its enabler (hello, Steve Jobs); because they just want to get really, really rich (why, there’s Steve again hiding out in the corner hoping not to be noticed — hi!). One thing only binds this disparate group together: they are attracted to computers not by their intrinsic interest in the machines themselves but by externalities, by a vision of what the machines can do, whether for them or for others. The two groups often seem — and believe themselves to be — at odds with one another, but in truth they need each other. Witness the dynamic duo of Woz and Jobs that built the Apple II and got it to the masses. Or witness Ken and Roberta Williams, the power couple of 1980s adventure gaming.

Ken and Roberta married in 1972. He was just 18 at the time; she was 19. He was attending California Polytechnic Pomona University as a physics major, and failing; she was living at home and not doing much of anything. Contrary to what you might be thinking, there was no shotgun involved. He simply wanted Roberta in his life and was determined to have her there, permanently. Steven Levy writes that his words to her were simply, “We’re getting married, and that’s it.” She “didn’t fight it.” Right there you learn a lot about their two personalities.

Within a year or so of their marriage Ken, a restless, driven, somewhat aggressive young man with no real respect for or interest in higher education with its hierarchical structure and its abstract theorizing, could see he wasn’t going to make it as a physics major, much less a physicist. Roberta, meanwhile, was now pregnant. Ken needed a career, and he needed one quick.

In the early 1970s the institutional computer industry was nearing its peak, supplying mainframes and minicomputers by the thousands to businesses, universities, public and private schools, branches of government, and research installations. We’ve met several of the prominent companies already (IBM, DEC, HP), each serving their own core sectors of this huge market while competing with one another on the margins. Another was Control Data Corporation. Founded in 1957 by a group of refugees from an even earlier company, Sperry, CDC had by the early 1970s carved out a reputation for itself as a manufacturer of prestigious and expensive supercomputers of the type used for some of the most intensive scientific computing. The supercomputer market was, however, a small one, and so the bulk of CDC’s business was courtesy of its line of more plebeian mainframes that competed directly with IBM for corporate business. To carve out a place for itself against the larger company, CDC tried to stick to a “10% rule”: to make sure each of its systems was always 10% faster and 10% cheaper than the nearest equivalent IBM model. For a number of years this approach was very good to CDC, sufficiently so that the company opened a little trade school all its own to train future custodians of its systems. Armed with a $1500 student loan co-signed by a very concerned father-in-law, Ken entered Control Data Institute. In doing so he was conforming to a stereotype that remains with the computer industry to this day: the pure hackers go to universities and get computer-science degrees; the careerists go to trade schools and get certificates in something “practical.”

Indeed, the atmosphere at Control Data Institute promised nothing like the free-wheeling intellectual exploration of the computer-science labs at MIT or Berkeley. The emphasis was on pounding in the rote tasks and procedures needed to maintain and run the big, batch-processing mainframes of CDC at the banks and other large bureaucratic entities that housed them. And that suited Ken, hungry for a career in business, just fine. Where an MIT hacker might have seen intolerable drudgery, he saw money to be made. When he turned out to be pretty good at this computer stuff — even within limits to enjoy it — that just increased the earning potential.

After finishing at CDC, Ken spent the rest of the 1970s living a life that we more typically associate with the following decade, bouncing from company to company in search of ever better salaries while generally also juggling two or three independent consulting gigs on the side. With computers still mysterious, almost occult objects to most people, a fast-talking, energetic, and ambitious young man like Ken could go far with just the modicum of knowledge he had gained at CDC. As that knowledge increased and he became an ever better programmer and problem solver courtesy of the best teacher of all, experience, he seemed even more of a miracle worker, and found himself even more in demand. Ken, in other words, was becoming a pretty damn good hacker almost in spite of himself. But he always wanted more — a new hot tub, a bigger house, a nicer car, a place in the country — even as he dreamed of retiring young and bequeathing a fortune to his children. (These things would in fact happen, although not in the way Ken thought they would in the 1970s.) Ken made no apologies for his materialism. “I guess greed,” he later told Levy, “would summarize me better than anything. I always want more.”

When the first kit computers that one could build in one’s home appeared in 1975, Ken barely noticed. There was no real money to be made in them, he believed, unlike his big, boring mainframes. When the trinity of 1977 marked the arrival of a PC you didn’t need a soldering iron to assemble, he likewise paid no attention. It was not until a couple of years later that the beginning of a real, paying market in professional business software, exemplified by pioneering applications like VisiCalc and WordStar, made Ken begin to pay attention to the little “toy” machines. When he finally bought an Apple II in January of 1980, it was for a very specific purpose.

At the time there were only two real language possibilities for Apple programmers: they could use BASIC, which was easy to learn and get started with but quickly became a nightmare when trying to structure large, complex programs; or assembly language, which gave the ultimate in precise control over the hardware but was well-nigh impenetrable for the uninitiated, tedious in the micro-management it required, and just as bereft of structure. Ken saw an opportunity for a more sophisticated high-level language, one designed to be used by serious programmers creating complex software. Specifically, he wanted to bring FORTRAN, as it happens the implementation language of the original Adventure (not that Ken likely knew this or cared), to the little Apple II. With that purpose in mind, he registered a company of his own, choosing to call it On-Line Systems, a name fairly typical of the vaguely futuristic, vaguely compound, but essentially meaningless names (Microsoft, anyone?) that were so common in the era.

And what was Roberta doing during these years? Well, she was raising the Williams’ two children and happily (at least to external observers) playing the role of housewife and homemaker. She had always been a painfully shy, passive personality who by her own admission “could hardly make a phone call.” If Ken seemed to already be living in the frenetic 1980s rather than the mellow 1970s, Roberta seemed a better match for the 1950s, the doting wife who took care of the children, made sure everyone in the family had a good breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and meekly entrusted the big decisions and the earning of a living to the man of the house. That makes what happened next doubly surprising.

Shortly before Ken bought that first Apple, and while the Williams’ second son was just eight months old, Ken happened to have a remote terminal at the house for one of his gigs. The mainframe to which it could connect had on it a copy of Adventure, which by now had been ported to a variety of other platforms beyond the PDP-10. Ken called Roberta over to have a look at what he regarded as nothing more than a curiosity. Roberta, however, was immediately transfixed. “I started playing and kept playing it. I had a baby at the time, Chris was eight months old; I totally ignored him. I didn’t want to be bothered. I didn’t want to stop and make dinner.” As Ken wondered what had become of his dutiful wife, Roberta stayed up most of the night playing, then lay awake in bed working through the puzzles in her mind. It was no doubt a relief to everyone when she finally finished the game after a month of effort.

But the respite didn’t last long. After Ken brought the Apple II into the home, it didn’t take Roberta long to learn about the works of Scott Adams. Soon she was back to obsessively playing again. But then another thought began to crowd out the conundrums of the games: what if she could make a text adventure of her own? She was turning the most inspirational corner I know, imagining herself as a creator rather than a passive consumer. Inspired mostly by Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians and the board game Clue, she began to sketch ideas for a text adventure as cozy murder mystery, a genre that the form had not yet tackled. When she was pretty far along, she took a deep breath and laid out her ideas to Ken.

The story concept was certainly innovative, but it wasn’t the sort of innovation that would immediately appeal to a guy like Ken, with little interest in game design in the abstract. He was rather interested in products he could sell, operating intuitively by a rule he would later, for better and perhaps sometimes for worse, codify and articulate regularly: “Games have to have ‘WOW-value.’ If you don’t say ‘wow’ when someone describes the game to you, or you see it from 10 feet away, there’s no reason to market the game.” At first, caught up in his FORTRAN software and his prior experience of computers only as serious tools of business, he was dismissive of Roberta’s little project. But as she persisted, and as he perhaps began to notice that companies like Adventure International were growing rapidly and making real money just like the “serious” software houses, he began to reconsider. Still, he needed something special, needed an angle to help their little game stand out from the likes of the established line of Scott Adams games.

He began to think about the Apple II, with its comparatively cavernous 48 K of RAM, its fast and reliable disk drives, and its bitmap graphics capability. What if he designed their game around the unique capabilities of that machine, instead of taking the portable lowest-common-denominator approach of Adams? And then came the brainstorm: he could use the Apple’s hi-res mode to include pictures with the text. That would certainly make their game stand out. Pretty soon FORTRAN was forgotten, and work on Mystery House (the first of a whole line of On-Line Systems “Hi-Res Adventures”) had begun in earnest. The husband-and-wife team were not that far removed from Woz and Jobs. Here, Roberta designed the thing out of her inherent fascination with the thing itself, while Ken enabled her efforts, providing the tools and support she needed to bring her vision to life and, soon enough, finding ways to sell that vision to the masses.


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