A Grain of Sand, A Gust of Wind
Leo Christopherson was one of the earliest computer game designers. He published Android Nim. in late 1978. In terms of depth and substance, Leo’s game was nothing to write home about: just plain old nim. But its graphics were sensational. Leo turned the stacks sideways and replaced the static pieces with animated robots. Their little heads constantly moved back and forth, the eyes wandered, and they shifted stance. This was genuine animation on a TRS-80!
The reviewers went wild. This game was fabulous, it was magnificent, it was glorious. Leo basked in the approbation of the world. He was honored and admired.
And then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Leo Christopherson was gone. He designed one or two more games, but they were straightforward repeats of Android Nim. People lost interest in his cute little animations. I never heard anything more of Leo Christopherson.
Bob Bishop was one of the first Apple II programmers. He worked at Apple from the beginning, and he became one of the pioneers of graphics techniques on that machine. Bob used games to show off his graphics techniques. They weren’t very impressive in terms of gameplay, but boy were they snazzy in the graphics department. Bob’s games did things that nobody had ever seen before.
Apple II owners loved his stuff. They bought everything he produced. They loved him. The magazines and reviewers gushed with praise. Awards showered down upon him. Bob Bishop was the darling of the Apple II community. And he was rich, too.
And then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Bob Bishop was gone. His games were never much fun, and there were other games that offered more substance. Other people were learning some of Bob’s tricks. His work no longer had the same sizzle. Bob drifted away. I’ve heard that Bob is somewhere near Santa Cruz these days; I don’t know what he’s doing.
Nasir Gebelli picked up where Bob Bishop left off. Nasir developed advanced graphics techniques for the Apple II. He was fast and prolific, grinding out game after game on a time scale of months. An entire publisher, Sirius Software, was founded on Nasir’s output. And what output it was! Nasir had developed dozens of tricks for squeezing the fastest animations out of the Apple. His games boasted fast, full-screen animations that nobody else could match.
Nasir Gebelli was an overnight sensation. He raked in the royalties; wealth was his in a matter of months. His games were on every store shelf; they were reviewed in glowing terms in every magazine. Nasir Gebelli was a one-man gold mine. A game need merely have the simple tag line "By Nasir" to be assured of massive sales figures.
And then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Nasir Gebelli was gone. Sometime around 1983 or 1984, in the general collapse of the games industry and the specific collapse of Sirius software, Nasir Gebelli disappeared from the scene. I don’t know where he is now.
Greg Christenson was a high school student when he burst upon the scene. Bright, shy, and quiet, Greg put together just one game: Caverns of Mars for the Atari. It was a simple vertical scrolling game, not too different from Defender. After all, Greg was only a high school student, new to programming, and using the Atari Assembler/Editor cartridge as his development tool. He really didn’t know much about game design per se. He simply started with Defender, made it vertical, and then added interesting bits and pieces until he had a game.
But the graphics were fantastic. It used many of the graphics capabilities of the Atari, and the result was impressive. Caverns of Mars sold a zillion copies. Greg earned a ton of money. The press loved him. Here was a high school kid programming a hit game in just eight weeks. Talk about a Cinderella story! Atari gave him a $25,000 award for the best game published by the Atari Program Exchange. Everybody wondered excitedly what this wunderkind would accomplish in coming years.
But then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Greg Christenson was gone. I don’t know what ever became of Greg. He just disappeared from the gaming scene.
John Harris was another wunderkind. I remember he came to one of my training seminars for the Atari computers in 1981, but no other memories stand out in my mind. But a year later, John unleashed Jawbreakers on the world. It was a Pac-Man clone, pure and simple. Jawbreakers was a beautiful game, better than the Pac-Man that Atari itself produced. It had lovely music, beautiful animations, great sound effects -- everything about this game was excellent. Of course, the design itself was a complete nothingburger -- it was just plain old Pac-Man with a few minor embellishments. But who cared when the graphics were so great?
Jawbreakers generated quite a legal row between Atari and Sierra. The legal battle dragged on for some months, ending in a pyrrhic victory for Sierra. John wrote another game for Sierra, I believe. He was profiled in Steven Levy’s book Hackers, and there were of course the adulation and favorable reviews that go with creating a hit game.
But then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and John Harris was gone. I’ve been told that he went to work for an advertising company, but that was years ago.
Jonathan Gay and Mark Stephen Pierce were a hot pair. Together, they created Dark Castle and Beyond Dark Castle, two of the hottest Macintosh games ever created. The games could not boast much in the way of creativity: they were, after all, straightforward running, jumping, climbing games. But they bristled with animations and digitized sounds at a time when such things were considered sinfully luxurious. And Macintosh players loved these two games. They bought a huge number of copies, dumping bushels of money all over Silicon Beach Software. The games collected every award around.
But now, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and nothing is to be heard from Jonathan Gay and Mark Stephen Pierce. I don’t know where they are now or what they’re doing. One would have thought that after such great success, these two would go on to even greater things, creating even more sensational games, but that was not to be.
There are an uncountable number of grains of sand. The wind will never stop blowing. There are still those in our industry who follow the paths taken by these earlier stars. Some of them even now bask in acclaim and wealth.
* My thanks go to the magnificient and unknown orator from whom I stole the lovely phrase used in the title. Indeed, the structure of this essay is modeled upon his speech.