Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Programma International - Coin-Op Breeding Ground

Today, I take a brief break from my “literary history” to talk about one of the more interesting software publishers of the personal computer industry’s early years – Programma International. Those of you who cut their gaming teeth on an Apple II may remember Progamma for their “crude” games (most written in Integer BASIC) sold at bargain-basement prices, but Programma was one of the earliest and largest PC software publishers, with its 80-page catalog listing 300 titles (not all of them games) for the Apple II, Commodore PET, TRS 80, and other systems. According to Steven Levy’s Hackers, in fact, Programma was the biggest distributor of Apple II software in the world in 1980. Among its many offerings were utilities, business applications (including the seminal world processor Apple Pie), and a host of games ranging from simple text games to clones of arcade games (Clowns & Balloons and Apple Invaders) to more sophisticated games like Star Voyager and Battlestar I. Despite its importance, however, the company has been largely forgotten and little has been written about its history. And while this article is woefully inadequate in that regard (I wasn’t able to find out much info about it myself), it is a start. One that I hope will lead someone else to pick up the mantle and pen the company’s full history.
Programma International cofounder Dave Gordon (from Softalk, July, 1983)
Programma International was primarily the brainchild of two men: Mel Norell and Dave Gordon. A native of Brooklyn, Gordon attended high school in New York City. When he was 18, his family moved to Los Angeles where Gordon earned a master’s degree in accounting from Cal State Los Angeles in 1964 (it was the one major with no foreign language requirement). He then spent thirteen years as an accountant and computer controller in the entertainment industry, working for firms like Warner Communications, Gulf & Western, and Paramount. In 1977, Gordon was working for ASI Market Research, which operated a theatre in Hollywood that screened movie and television previews, when he made a discovery that changed the course of his career – microcomputers. 1977 was the year of the microcomputer “trinity” – the Apple II, PET, and TRS-80. Fascinated by the new devices, Gordon put a down payment on both a TRS-80 and a PET. When he got his first look at an Apple II, however, he immediately cancelled his orders and got an Apple II (serial number 126) instead. A self-described "pack rat" (at one point he had a collection of 5,000-7,000 LPs), Gordon decided to attempt to amass a library of every piece of public domain software made for the Apple II. He quickly began making the rounds of users groups, computer stores, and other owners, where, as David Hunter of Softalk put it, he "copied and traded software as if they were bubble-gum cards." He apparently copied a few non-public-domain programs as well, as he was known as one of the industry’s biggest software pirates. He even traded software with Apple Computer itself, where he also made friends with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Mike Markkula, and several others. According to Softalk, he “brought out the first Woz Pack from Apple”, a collection of programs written by Steve Wozniak (though it was also offered by A.P.P.L.E. – the Apple Puget sound Program Library Exchange[1]).

            With the personal computer industry exploding, Gordon began to think about forming a company of his own. That’s where Mel Norell comes in. At the time, Norell ran Programma Associates, a small company that produced software for the Sphere computer. Introduced in 1975 by the Sphere Corporation of Bountiful, Utah, the 6800-based Sphere I was one of the more interesting of the early personal computers in that it came with a built-in keyboard, monitor, and numeric keypad – a rarity at a time when most PCs were kit computers like the Altair 8800 (the Sphere was also available in kit form). Some have even called the Sphere the "first personal computer". It also included 4k of RAM (expandable to 64k), a cassette interface, and multiple I/O ports. Unfortunately, Sphere couldn't meet the enormous demand for the Sphere and only about 1300 were produced (half of them kits) before Sphere went belly up[3]. In 1978, Gordon and Norell formed Programma International, which quickly became perhaps the most prolific producer of Apple II software (if not microcomputer software) on the planet. Of course, in one way that may not have been as great as an accomplishment as it seems, given that there were only a handful of software publishers in existence at the time. On the other hand, the fact that there WERE so few in some ways made Programma’s accomplishments all the more important. Programma produced software in a number of genres, but it’s the games for which they are probably best remembered. Sadly, they are also remembered (when they are remembered at all) for producing “cheap” games – in both price and quality. This reputation, however, is a bit unfair. While Programma’s games were primitive compared to games released just a few years later, in the late 1970s no one minded. Microcomputers were new, games often sold for $10 or less, and there wasn’t much to choose from. Still, while many of Programma’s offerings were excellent, others were crude even by the meager standards of the 1970s. In addition, a number of them were riddled with bugs (a result of Gordon’s policy of buying anything and everything). Before long, Programma was experiencing cash flow problems due to the large number of returns they were getting. In addition, Gordon and Norell frequently clashed over the direction of the company. In addition, Gordon and Norell were increasingly at odds over the company’s direction. In part, this may have been due to Gordon’s larger-than-life personality, which could be in turn charming and enthusiastic and overbearing and unyielding. By late 1980, despite its status as the world’s largest Apple II software producer, Programma was on its last legs. In October, Gordon and Norell sold the company to Hayden Book Company who turned it into Hayden Software with Gordon initially staying on as Vice President and General Manager. Gordon’s personality, however, soon clashed with those of the Hayden executives and in he was fired in the spring of 1981 and replaced by Norell (who was heading another Hayden subsidiary called Sigma Systems). A few months later, Hayden shut down its software division entirely.

Crestfallen at first, Gordon borrowed money from friends and started another company, called Datamost in Gordon's living room in fall 1981, along with  Gordon's Arlene, his brother Allan, and his sister-in-law Ina. One of the company’s first successes was Randy Hyde’s book How to Program the Apple II Using 6502 Assembly Language, which sold over 30,000 copies – enough to keep the fledgling company afloat. It was games, however, for which Datamost was best known and they produced some of the industry’s biggest hits, including Thief, Snack Attack, Pandora’s Box, Tubeway, Pig Pen, Cavern Creatures, Spectre, Aztec, The Bilestoad, Money Munchers, Tharolian Tunnels, Flip Out, and Swashbuckler (among many others).

Datamost's booth at the 1983 West Coast Computer Fair, from Softalk

So, what does Programma International (or Datamost) have to do with coin-op video games? Programma actually bought its games from a number of programmers, many (probably most, given the timeframe) of them young, unproven, and previously unpublished. Among them were at least four (and probably more) who went on to design and program arcade games.
Chris Oberth
Christian H. Oberth’s interest in computer programming started when he read Ted Nelson’s seminal Computer Lib/Dream Machines around 1974-75. His first experience with computers came when he encountered the Plato system while attending Wright Junior College in Chicago and (later) DeVry University (in Downers Grove, IL). Instantly hooked, Oberth decided he had to have a personal computer of his own and purchased an Apple II (serial #201). At the time, however, there were no classes that taught microcomputer programming. Oberth signed up for one programming class but dropped it after he found that it utilized punched cards and other ancient technology. Instead, Oberth learned his craft the way many of the third-generation programmers did – through typing in games that appeared in magazines like Creative Computing. Meanwhile, Oberth got a job in the shipping department for a musical instrument repair company. In his spare time, he turned out Apple II games in his living room, packaging them on audio cassettes in Ziploc bags and peddling them to local computer stores. Eventually, Oberth’s skills came to the attention of Dave Gordon, who called him and invited him to L.A. for a meeting. After the meeting, Programma published Oberth’s first game – Phasor Zap, following it up with 3-D Docking Mission (both 1978). Before long, Oberth found a second publisher – a computer and musical instrument store in Chicago called The Elektrik Keyboard.
screenshot from Phasor Zap

[Chris Oberth] The Elektrik Keyboard was one of the musical instrument dealers that our repair shop serviced. I just happened to run into the owner walking out of CES with an Apple II under his arm. Apparently he wanted to add computers (midi music) to his store. When I told him I owned one and knew how to program it, he hired me on the spot.[Interview with Chris Oberth – Retrogaming Times #24, May, 2006]

Oberth published over a dozen games with The Elektrik Keyboard between 1978 and 1980, while also serving as head of their computer department (it was there that Oberth met future Gottlieb sound guru Dave Thiel). Then, in 1980, Oberth got another job offer.
[Chris Oberth] One day while working at The Elektrik Keyboard, a guy came in and ordered several Apple II's. He was using them to prototype hand held games and toys at Marvin Glass. Turns out, he was the programmer for Milton Bradley's Simon game.[Interview with Chris Oberth – Retrogaming Times #24, May, 2006]

The meeting led to a job at Marvin Glass (Oberth was hired by none other than Ralph Baer), where he worked on prototype handheld games like Finger Bowl (for Tiger), Light Fight (Milton Bradley), and Alfie (Playskool). After a brief stint at Marvin Glass, Oberth (along with fellow Marvin Glass employee Gunars Licitis) went to work for Stern, where his work included Armored Car, Rescue, Tazzmania, Minefield, Anteater (which was licensed to Tago Electronics – Oberth also produced an Apple II version of the game called Ardy the Aardvark for Datamost) and the unreleased Crypt. But that story will have to wait or another post. He also worked for a number of other computer and coin-op game publishers including Microlab (Boulder Dash), Epyx (Winter Games), Mindscape (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Gametek (American Gladiators), Incredible Technologies (World Class Bowling), and Electronic Arts (NBA Live 2001). Chris Oberth died in July, 2012 at age 59.

Gary Shannon

In 1963, Gary Shannon was fresh out of high school when a neighbor who worked for IBM taught him the rudiments of computer programming for a job he wanted Gary to work on. To further hone his skills, Shannon went to a commercial programming school in Los Angeles and also did contract work installing IBM 370s as well as business programming for Hughes Aircraft and Capitol Records. In the 1970s, he took a job with Cal State University, Northridge, where he soon discovered another passion.
[Gary Shannon] They had a policy where you could take classes during the work day as long as you got your 8 hours in so I started to work on a Masters in Computer Science. I didn't finish it, though. What they were teaching didn't have much to do with the real world of programming, so I dropped out of the program. Also, that was about the time that the Apple II first hit the market and I got totally addicted to game programming.
As his interest in the Apple II grew, Gary took a job at Rainbow Computing in Los Angeles. Founded in 1976 by Gene Sprouse and Glen Dollar, Rainbow Computing was one of the earliest Apple retailers (they also sold computer books and magazines, software, and other computers like the Jupiter III). Among the customers who frequented the store were Ken Williams (who founded Sierra On-Line in 1979), Sherwin Steffin (who founded Edu-Ware in 1979) and Dave Gordon (a friend of Shannon’s). Shannon soon began producing games for Programma, including Dragon Maze, Jupiter Express (an outer space shooter), Nightmare Number Nine, and Othello. Shannon's Nightmare #6 had been distributed by Apple in 1978. Shannon also produced games for Softape, another cut-rate software publisher formed in 1977 (as Softech) by three other of Shannon’s friends: William Smith, Bill Depew, and Gary Koffler (who later served as Datamost's VP of Software).


Softape version of Shannon's Othello (the game was also published by Rainbow Computing)

Gary wasn’t the only game programmer in the Shannon family. His sister Kathe Spracklen and her husband Dan had programmed a chess game for Z-80 computers called Sargon. After they introduced the game at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire (where it won the first computer chess tournament) they placed an ad in Byte magazine and began selling photocopies of the code for $15. Eventually, they sold the game to Hayden Software, who released it for a number of personal computers. Gary Shannon programmed the Apple II port of Sargon II. In late 1979, Shannon took a short-term contract for San Diego coin-op manufacturer Gremlin Industries do sound-effects boards. Shannon went on to design and program (with Barbara Michaelec) the outstanding vertical shooter Astro Blaster, but that story will have to wait for another post.
Bob Flanagan

            Perhaps the most prolific of the Apple II programmers discussed in this post was Bob Flanagan. Flanagan’s programming career started in middle school when his school got a pair of 33 ASR teletype terminals. Made by Teletype Corporation and originally developed for the U.S. Navy, the Teletype Model 33 was released to the public in 1963. It went on to become one of the most popular terminals in the industry with over 600,000 Model 33s and 32s (the companion model) being produced by 1976. Three models were available: the 33 ASR (Automatic Send and Receive, which used punched tape for input and output), the 33 KSR (Keyboard Send and Receive, which used a keyboard), and 33 RO (Receive Only, which had no input device).

[Bob Flanagan] [the 33 ASR’s]…were hooked up to a remote computer via acoustic phone modem. I started by typing in games from 101 BASIC Games by DEC. There were several awesome games in there that I typed in as is, played and saved/loaded from the paper tape…[including] BLKJAC, GOLF, GUNNER, GUNER1, HANG, HORSES, LIFE, MNOPLY, MUGWMP, POETRY, POKER, ROCKET, ROCKT1, ROCKT2, YAHTZE, I had a lock box with 15 or more tapes rolled up of various games. Then I started to get bored and started modifying them to do other stuff to improve them or experiment with an idea. Then I went in halfsies with my mom and purchased an Apple II computer when they came out in 1977. I think it was about $1,200. I then spent all my time learning assembly language to support my first game, Speedway, which was published by Programma International on cassette tape

Gordon initially hired Flanagan on the recommendation of a high school friend and Programma programmer named Harry Tarnoff to do cassette duplication, demos, and other programs. When he started designing games, he offered them to Gordon as well. Flanagan was a huge fan of arcade games and video games in particular, as his work for Programma (and later Datamost) shows. Speedway was a version of the Chicago Coin electromechanical classic of the same name, though with a strictly vertical layout (Flanagan’s programming skills were not yet advanced enough to do curves and turns). Flanagan’s second game, Sea Wolf, was a version of Midway’s 1976 arcade video game hit. Other arcade-inspired games included Datamost’s Thief (a takeoff on Berzerk) and Spectre (which one review described as a Tron/Pac-Man combination). Other Flanagan games include Pandora’s Box, Space Ark (Datamost), and Guardian (initially for Continental Software under the alias Tom & Jerry, so as not to hurt Dave Gordon’s feelings or affect Flanagan’s relationship with Datamost). While Flanagan did the bulk of the design and programming, friends occasionally helped out (like many of Programma/Datamost’s programmers, Flanagan worked from home) and Flanagan insisted they get full credit for their work (unlike the coin-op and console industry, many in the computer game industry readily gave credit to their designers in advertising and packaging). Scott Miller helped out on Spectre, Guardian, and Pandora’s Box, Bob Andrews on Sea Wolf, and Art Huff came up with the concept and graphics for Space Ark.  Flanagan later went to work for Atari on the coin-op games Marble Madness, Paperboy, Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, Xybots, Space Lords, Skull & Crossbones, Marble Madness II, and Vapor TRX as even later developed a number of titles for the PS1, Wii, and PC. But that story will have to…well, you know.

Note the coin-op and other game elements: Berzerk robot, Space Invaders alien, Pac-Man ghost, and an enemy from Apple Panic (the enemy with two blue triangles looks familiar too but I can't place it)

Mark Turmell (sort of)

            Another coin-op programmer who got his start at Programma was Mark Turmell, whose coin-op work included Smash TV and NBA Jams. Turmell’s game for Programma, however, was never actually published. Turmell had begun studying computers at 15, taking evening classes at Delta College (a community college in Michigan) while attending high school during the day (his high school didn't offer computer classes). Turmell would attend high school classes in the morning then arrive at Delta at 2 in the afternoon for his five data processing classes, often staying in the campus computer room until near midnight. Attending college at age 15 offered its share of challenges. Because he had no driver's license, he was unable to check out the tapes he needed to complete his programming assignments (luckily, a professor took Turmell under her wing and wrote him a permission note to check out the materials). Nonetheless,by the time he graduated high shool, he had almost earned enough credits for an Associate’s degree in Data Processing[2]. At 16, he bought an Apple II computer, scraping together the money he made from mowing lawns and taking out a loan from his parents. Not long afterwards, he broke into the Delta College computer, just to see if he could. Instead of expelling him, however, they hired him, allowing him to earn enough money to pay his parents back. At age 17, Turmell was hired by a local engineering firm to debug a software package they had purchased to help lay out the city's sewers. The gig led to a job as a consultant with a number of other companies. Turmell, however, was intent on earning his living as a game programmer. His first effort was a game called Head On, which he sent to Programma International. Programma gave him a contract and planned to publish the game until another computer game with the same title was released.  While attending college at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Michigan, he created a vertical shooter called Sneakers that featured multiple screens of zany enemies (inspiration came from Gorf and Astro Blaster). Turmell finished the game in about three months then fedexed it to Sirius Software. When Sirius got the game (which went on to become an Apple II classic) they offered him a job on the spot. Turmell followed up with Beer Run and Free Fall before moving on to design Atari 2600 games like Fast Eddie and  Turmoil for 20th Century Fox software then landing a job with Williams.

[1] It may be that both Apple and A.P.P.L.E. produced it or that Softalk was referring to A.P.P.L.E. instead of Apple.
[2] Electronic Games (October, 1982) claims he actually did earn the degree.

[3] While http://sphere1.yolasite.com/ claims that Sphere was "killed by its own success" and unable to meet demand, a December, 1976 article in Byte (quoted at the same site) mentions that the company's problems were due to "...a credibility gap on promised software...partly due to parts problems and documentation delays..." and doesn't mention an inability to meet demand. 
NOTE - a major source for this story (and almost the only decent source of info I found on Programma) was the article Exec: Datamost that appeared in the July, 1983 issue of Softalk. Thanks also to Bob Flanagan, Gary  Shannon, and the late Chris Oberth for agreeing to talk with me.

As I mentioned above, Programma International deserves a much better article than this. I hope that someone will take it upon themselves to tell the full story, perhaps the Digital Antiquarian (http://www.filfre.net/) - IMO the finest computer game history blog on the web.
This section doesn't really relate to coin-op and only tangentially relates to Programma and Datamost (though it does relate to two of the programmers above), but I thought I'd post it anyway, since I've never seen reference to it anywhere else. On December 3, 1982 in conjunction with Comdex show in Las Vegas (or at least at the same time), a group called Software Distributors held its first "Wizard versus the Wizards game championship. The game pitted a dozen computer game programmers against one another in a contest involving 12 different games (one programmed by each of the programmers). After playing each game for five minutes, points were awarded based on their ranking in each game.  The top four moved on to four semifinal games on an Apple with the top two switching back to Atari games for the finals.
The programmers were (with the company they represented and the game they entered):
Jim Nitchals (Cavalier? - Microwave), Dan Thompaon (Sirius - Repton), Mark Turmell (Sirius/Fox? - Turmoil), Bob Flanagan (Datamost - Spectre), Jay Zipnick (Datamost - Pig Pen), Peter Filberti (Datamost - Night Raiders), Steve Bjork (Datasoft - Canyon Climber), Gerry Humphrey (Datasoft - Clowns and Balloons), Russ Wetmore (Adventure International - Preppie), Chuck "Chuckles" Bueche (Sierra-Online, Jawbreaker II), Ken Williams (Sierra Online, Threshold), and Joe Hellesen (Roklan - Wizard of Wor).
Broderbund didn't sent any representatives because they were too busy working on the Atari ports of Choplifter and Serpentine.
Jim Natchals beat Dan Thompson in the finals to take the crown.
The results of the competition and some photos appear below (taken from the January, 1983 issue of Softline)
Mark Turmell watches Dan Thompson play



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. In the BONUS SECTION, I was surprised to see some computer games I had heard of mentioned, and a company/programmer I was familiar with. Steve Bjork (Datasoft at that time) did tons of games, including official ports of Zaxxon, Rampage, Pitfall 2/Super Pitfall, and endless others. Wild.

  3. I met him in Christmas 2014 when we were in the US. He was very friendly and helpful and I was glad to have met a pioneer of the CoCo games software scene of the 80's.