Friday, July 17, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Steve Bjork

The hardcore are more likely than most to recognize the "big names" of the early video and computer gaming era -- people like Rob Fulop, David Crane, Carol Shaw, Dan Gorlin, Eugene Jarvis, Jeff Minter, Scott Adams, Nasir Gabelli, Roberta Williams, Steve Meretzky... the list goes on. These designer-programmer-producers made a splash in the pioneering days, when a lone designer or a small team could think up, program, and even market a game largely on his/her own. Today, they are respected for their innovative ideas, their unique styles, or their ability to squeeze performance and gameplay out of the primitive hardware of the time.

One gentleman that never got much broader recognition is Mr. Steve Bjork, who did a lot of programming for the TRS-80 Color Computer at Datasoft back in the day. I met him once at a RAINBOWFest show in Chicago, and remember him as a portly, affable gentleman who was willing to share his technical insights in person, though he couldn't often be bothered to write them up for publication. He was fairly prolific, too -- I played several of his games myself on the CoCo -- and he later moved on to console programming in the 8- and 16-bit era.

I wouldn't call him an innovative designer -- his output consisted mostly of adaptations and conversions from other platforms -- but he was a talented programmer who worked in a variety of genres. My earliest encounters with his work were the unlicensed Popcorn (a straight take on Atari's Avalanche, which also inspired Activision's Kaboom!) and Clowns & Balloons (Exidy's Circus.) Later I played his conversion of Datasoft's illustrated adventure Sands of Egypt and his official conversion of Sega's Zaxxon, which was very smooth and impressive, blowing Elite Software's unlicensed (and terribly named) Zaksund out of the water. Bjork also handled Color Computer conversions of Activision's Pitfall II, EA's One on One, Midway's Rampage, and many other popular titles, although even then he continued to dabble in "original" games like Ghana Bwana (inspired by Congo Bongo.)

To appreciate Bjork's work, you have to understand that the Color Computer had one thing going for it -- Motorola's spiffy 6809E processor -- and many counts against it, especially when it came to gaming. The joystick had luxurious analog sensitivity but was not self-centering, and the "chiclet" keyboard wasn't very responsive. There was no sprite or music hardware provided to simplify graphics and audio programming, meaning precious CPU cycles had to be consumed to do everything a game required. The graphics capabilities were limited, with a "hidden" 4-color black background mode that Radio Shack never officially supported, as it was unpredictable whether the palette would boot up as black-red-blue-white or black-blue-red-white. Even the speedy microprocessor was a bit of a disadvantage from a publishing perspective, as it made conversion from contemporary 6502-based platforms like the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800 tricky.

So what I appreciated about Mr. Bjork's work is that he made a serious effort to work around the CoCo's hardware limitations, while many other game programmers just accepted the rough edges. He cared about things like aligning his frame updates with the vertical blanking interrupt and spending precious memory on page-flipping, avoiding the rampant flickering common to CoCo games. He found ways to make sound effects work without visibly interrupting the animation, another jarring flaw in too many titles. He made it possible for some fairly sophisticated designs to cross the border into my backwater gaming territory growing up, and I doubt too many other programmers could have managed it, or would have bothered to try.

Steve Bjork never got a lot of press back in the day, and I have no idea what made him so loyal to the platform, but without his dedicated efforts Color Computer users would have missed out on a number of worthwhile games. And he stuck with the CoCo even past the point where it could have been (I imagine) even remotely commercially viable to code for it.

Thanks for the good times, Steve.

8 comments:

  1. We probably spent the evening at the same table at that CoCoFest; I think it was the first "Last" Chicago CoCoFest. This years' will be the 20th, and all are welcome: http://www.glensideccc.com/

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  2. Spent hours on my COCO playing the Sand of Egypt. Still recall the splash screen by James Garon, Ralph Burris and Steve Bjork. Those were the days!

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  3. I used to program on the CoCo, first with coco basic, then later assembly. My brother and I spent hundreds of hours programming, modding other's programs and playing games on the coco. Some of my fave memories in my life :) I still would love to get back into programming. I have been looking at Liberty BASIC as an option. I find it addictive tho, it used to eat all my spare time like a metaphorical pacman lol. The thing that fascinates me most is designing AI programs.

    Dan

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  4. I created over 5001 programs in my career. Steve ain't nothin.
    Frank,

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  5. The Coco3 had much better graphics capabilities such as 320x225 in palettable 16 colors. It also had hardware scrolling. However it was still lacking sprites and a music chip.

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  6. Sad that one of the anonymous posters had to say Steve Bjork "ain't nothin", because Steve truly was awesome. I, too, am a software engineer and I can tell you that Steve produced some really good stuff. I never looked at his source code and I never met him in person, but the software worked flawlessly. As the author of this article noted, he took care to produce a high quality product. I tip my hat to that man.

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    1. Easy to be anonymous and slight someone. The few "Franks" that come to mind would have been more appreciative and less trollish.

      I've written a rather large number of programs in everything from machine code on Z80, 6502, 6800, 6x09, Data General (Nova 820/4X, Eclipse S130/S140/S200), SEM-500, to FORTH, FILE-FORTH, ALGOL, FORTRAN 77, C, Tandy Extended Basic, Data General Extended Basic, Data General AOS Multi-User Basic, Basic09, ISO Pascal, Turbo Pascal.

      I've easily written many hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

      I even resolved the issues with the original COCO IDE Interface Adapter after working dozens (hundreds?) of hours with Carl and Eddie, only to find that the problem was in the way the data was written to the command register. 16 hours later I had a working Dual IDE drive system. What I didn't know was that someone else was also working on the software and had figured it out. :p

      But, you know what? My name is not on any boxed product someone can point to and say, "Hey, that's the guest speaker I met at 'Last' Chicago CoCoFest", or saw at RainbowFest. Nope.

      Mark W. Farrell
      Formerly: xlionx on Delphi back in the 300 baud days.

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  7. I never met Steve Bjork but remember one specific thing about him. When I was 16, so probably 1987, I wrote him a letter asking if he could write me a piece of code as I was trying to build my own text/graphic adventure game. I offered to pay him $100 if I remember. Soon after, the phone rings and my Dad says "It is someone named Steve Bjork". I was thrilled. Although he didn't write me the program, he was kind enough to call me to encourage on. I realized at that time what a class-act he is/was. I did end up finishing my game on my own but it was a cool story to tell my friends!

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