Dan Horn

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.

Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast

Source URL: http://ataripodcast.libsyn.com/antic-interview-88-dan-horn-infocom

Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

KS: I’m Kevin Savetz, and this is an interview episode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. Dan Horn started as a programmer at Scott Adams Adventure International, where he programmed the Atari version of Treasure Quest. Then he moved to Infocom, where he was technical director, then became head of the micro computing group. This interview took place on May 21, 2015.

KS: In my mind, Infocom was this amazing wonderful place, filled with amazing, creative, talented, wonderful, intelligent people. You may not do anything to dissuade that out of my mind. That would just not be acceptable.

DH: Well you know, I would not debate that. Honestly. When I look back over the years, and I talk about those jobs that you have that were amazing. You know the people were amazing, the company was amazing, the products were amazing. You know, I only have two. It was Infocom and Turner Broadcasting when we were, you know, creating CNN.com. It was the only time. At Infocom I was not the guy in charge, I was charge of the micro group. At Turner I was the guy in charge of making it happen. I really modeled what most of what I did on what we did at Infocom. On what I kind of learned in that process. So I’d have to agree with you completely on that.

KS: I didn’t know that you were at Turner. That thing that came up recently about the doomsday video for CNN. Is that legit?

DH: You know I haven’t seen anything about that. Which?

KS: Oh they found in CNN’s video clip database computer, a clip that Turner wanted to run… it was like “hold until confirmed end of the world,” and it’s a band playing a song “Nearer my God to Thee”, and that’s it, and that this is the last people are going to see when the world’s going to end.

DH: You know I would not put it past Ted. No I kind of sort of interacted with Ted fairly often, and remember one time at a company meeting. We’re talking 500 people. He was up there talking and I don’t of his meds wore off or not, but he was basically, he said “Look this is real simple. We got a lot of competition. So if you guys can take out CBS, hell I’d give you a million bucks. And he said if you take out NBC, CBS and Fox, and I can be like five million bucks.” The thing is, with Ted, you never knew if he was deadly serious or not, but it was like a straight face. And so we ended cutting that clip into like all kinds of presentations. You know, whatever is like a challenge on a presentation, we’d pop Ted up saying, “you know, if you’d do this, I’ll pay you to take out the competition.” It’s like, oh God. So it would not surprise me at all that he said that, and had the video made. Working for Ted was very simple. He would hand you a $2 million budget, and he would say go make a network, you’ve got six months, and if it doesn’t work, you’re fired. And fine. Most of us, we loved that, because it gave us control of what we could do. It was bizarre working for him. Because talk about running hot and cold, you never knew when you walk in the office you never know who was going to be there. But that was not the way Infocom was, it was a lot more of a community, a lot more of people just getting together and having a good time.

KS: Okay so how did you get hired? How did you get started at Infocom? Tell me… Let’s start at the very beginning.

DH: I was working at Adventure International, you know Scott Adams Adventures. I had been brought in there as a programmer. I didn’t know diddle about programming. I worked with Russ Whitmore, and basically he made sure that I knew I didn’t know anything. He was absolutely brilliant. Still is for that matter. But effectively I did some coding he holds Diver Dan as the thing that he has always has held onto his blackmail material. It was, you know you did diving through a cave system, tried not to run into walls, like Sea Dragon. What he tries to remind me is that I spent five weeks getting the splash screen right. It was beautiful. Rippling water, Dan’s Dive Shop. It was gorgeous. But when you played the game, the diver pretty much ran about a million miles-an-hour headfirst into the wall, and got stuck. I never could get collision detection to work properly in machine language, so I ended up becoming the technical director of Infocom, where I did all the customer support, the bug fixes, all the all the stuff for the coding. In that process, I was exposed to some of the early PDP-11 versions of Infocom games, and I became a beta tester, you know, for all the games, with Mark Blank. Because we had some of the equipment and I could test some of the stuff. I mean it was probably a good year, I did beta testing on all the games that came out, and the one thing I noticed is that they were not coming out on any of the microcomputers, and I was like “this is crazy. This is a huge market.” So I basically talked to Mark blank and got him to fly me up there, to Boston, and did kind of a dog-and-pony for him, and Mike Berlin, and Joe Perez, and Stu Galley and Dave Lubling, and whoever else was there in the interview process, I don’t remember. And basically I got put in as the microcomputer manager of microcomputer games, and we pretty much worked under Mike Berlin, and that was really how it all came together. I had been recently married, so the opportunity to move to Boston, and to work for this cool gaming company, ws pretty slick stuff. So I think at the time I was… I think I had left Adventure International, I think I was working for Allied Representative, a management fertilizer mixing company for an orange grove. So needless to say the fertilizer mixing… game development… yeah I chose Boston.

KS: Good choice.

DH: It was. It was a brilliant choice on my part, simply because it got me at infocom and absolutely sheer luck, that’s for sure.

KS: So were you beta-testing Infocom games while you were still working at Adventure International?

DH: Only near the end. The Adventure International games,you know, words just a simple two-word purser. We never really moved past that. We were starting to explore some graphic game systems. I watched Scott Adams learn the Forth language, and write a game in it, like production-level game… in two weeks. And if that’s anything, it’s an indication of how brilliant Scott used to be.. was. Smart guy. But yeah I ended up working… leaving there to go work for the fertilizer company, and that’s why I ended up doing more beta testing…to keep my sanity

KS: So did you do any programming for anything for the Atari, that actually came out? Or was it just the Diver Dan?

DH: No, I did… I think I did the Atari version of Treasure Quest and I did the Atari Quick Reference cart. Not very exciting stuff, but you know… as I try to tell people, even back then people, knew better than to give me a keyboard.

KS: I guess I didn’t realize that Infocom was originally focused on… not microcomputers. I thought they started there?

DH: No, no. In fact Infocom… before I got there, they really… we had some… we had Zork on the Z80. I think that’s where it came out. But that was it. All of the other work was being done on basically mini’s and mainframes at the time. It was basically the computer science class from MIT, Mark and Joel, and all these guys, they all popped up. And they created infocom. The thing is they… at MIT they weren’t learning about microcomputers, they were learning about all the existing systems out there, so they really didn’t know that world. They were just not plugged into the microcomputer world, but at Adventure International, that’s all we did. You know we followed everything that was micro-, because we didn’t do any mainframe stuff or mini stuff. So when I got up there, it was taking like, I don’t know, weeks, to get the Infocom platform to one microcomputer platform. And it was like CP/M, and Z80 and Commodore 64 and whatever else was out there. By the time we left, our team was converting all titles in about four hours. I mean so we got a new game, it went out about a week… generally exposed we had about 24 platforms; really had close to 42, because it was… whatever we put out was to the mainframes and micros the Mindset, the Amiga, you know everything that anybody wanted… we did. Andrew Klusniacki did the Commodore 64 over a weekend, because RadioShack said they’d give us $360,000 if we could get it by that Monday because they were releasing the Color Computer.

KS: You mean TRS-80? You said Commodore.

DH: No I’m sorry Color Computer.

KS: Color Computer all right.

DH: That was one of RadioShack’s products. And they brought it out, and Klus turned it around. And we basically… you know how the system works, you know, we had…

KS: The Z-machine interpreter

DH: Yeah. So what we were doing iswe were writing interpreters for all the microcomputers that sucked in the data, and we had write all of our own, you know, Windows drivers, keyboard drivers, mouse drivers, and all those things were machine-dependent. So anything that was machine dependent is what we did.

KS: Talk to me about some of the problems and concerns you had about creating different versions for different microcomputers. Especially if you have any Atari-related memories or thoughts, that would be great.

DH: Well you know we had the Atari ST, the 400 the 800… there was something before the ST wasn’t there?

KS: There was the 400 the 800. There was the XL series. Then the XE series, and then the ST’s.

DH: Yeah basically the Atari side of things was pretty normal. We had some issues, because we wrote some of these and Pascal, and the interpreters were all really machine-language, and occasionally we tried to move them up to a higher-level language, just to make them easier. Mostly we didn’t have any real problems with the Atari systems for some reason. I think probably we had a real good relationship with Atari, and we were kind of tight with them, because we were able to put out an awful lot of products for them very quickly, and had very good success with them, from the initial ones, all the way up through the newest ones. We also did Fubliski on the system, and the idea was… a lot of us wanted Fubliski on the 8-bit machines, because we could have done an 8-bit version, but I remember Mike Durenburg said we don’t want to do anything that’s not perfect, so it’s gotta be 16-bit, and on the ST and XE or whatever it was, and that’s kind of where it ended up, and it never really never really flew as well as it should have, but about that time we try to come out with that database… that pretty much hammered everything with the graphics side of things.

KS: That was kind of the beginning of the end. The database cornerstone. Right?

DH: Yeah I mean we had the games, and they migrated from, you know, basic text adventures to higher-level parsers, to more intelligent systems like Deadline. One of my favorite ones is you know you walk in a room, and there’s a guy and he walks out. If you walk in the room and hid around a corner the guy would walk in and start fiddling with a safe, and if you walked around that he would like run out. And then if you walked in and wait until he opened the safe he grabbed the briefcase and run out and throw it in the lake. That was not part of the normal system. I mean that took a lot more smarts on interpreter and the development system. And that just kept regressing in small chunks, with maps and other systems like that, and then we kind of reached that natural event-horizon where we want to do graphics. And we were real good friends with people at Sierra Online and Activision and everybody else that was doing graphics. And one of the things we noticed about it was, you know, back then it was 16-bit display, on the Atari 800, or 8-bit on the 800, 16-bit on the other ones. You couldn’t show a letter on the floor, you couldn’t show a lipstick next to a lamp, it just it was virtually impossible. Sierra tried it and you ended up with the King’s Quest series and things like that. And we didn’t really want to go there. So we ended up spending, literally, three months I think, and my team Mike Berlin, Mark Blank we played games. We played board games, and card games, and dice games, and computer games, and every kind of game we could get our hands on, just to really understand what made a game, you know what really made a game. And out of that came Fubliski. It’s actually a really, really good game. It took a long time for us, but I like to tell people that I had a job that I got to spend three solids months playing games. Out of that came two very interesting Infocom activities. One was the weekly Uno game. Which I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced combative Uno, but you know we took it to a whole new level. And then because it was Boston, you know we got the normal 8, 9 months of winter, we also got into Diplomacy. There are more dead bodies around Infocom in the during the winter, because of Diplomacy than anything else. We had entire teams and divisions and people just hating each other because, it’s “ok you attack them” and then you wouldn’t do it, and you’d back the other guy. It was an amazing game. We played games because we wanted to understand what a good game was. The Atari platform was the first place we really put it, because of all the features and functionality that Atari had built-in. When I did collection detection on an Apple II, I literally had to look at the pixel in-memory, watch this memory come over, try to write to that pixel, and go “oh that’s a collision.” With the Atari you didn’t do that. You said the sprite ran into this sprite and it set off a flag. And I had all these colors and all this sound and everything. And that made for a much more flexible and interesting environment to develop an. I still have a Fubliski floating around here somewhere.

KS: Great. I think when we were talking at VCF you told me a story about copy-protection.

DH: It was actually at Adventure International. We try to do copy-protection at Infocom. And it was… at that point, even at that point, back then, it was kind of futile attempt. Because having worked at Adventure International on what you could do, and how you could break protection. I mean I literally had code that would install itself in the stack, execute in the stack, the last thing it would you do is erase aside from the stack. Ok, and this is stuff that’s happening in milliseconds on boot, and that would check a sector that you couldn’t write on Atari, that you had to write on a TSR-80, but it would error out with this specific error on the Atari when you did it, and then two weeks later Scott’s brother, wrote an app that would crack the thing. So at Infocom we decided was that the feelies, were really the copy-protection. A lot of people did the book, look at page 29, word 17, that kind of thing. But once PDF’s came out that was futile. But if you had a feelie, you were compelled, not really for copy-protection purposes, but you were compelled to have it, because it was cool. I mean the Suspended mask, Imean people loved the Suspended mask. Everything that we had, that was part of the game, really enhanced that experience. And it also was kind of de-facto copy-protection. When we made mention of it inside the game and you turn the button over, look here, and you could see something. It made a difference. I mean copy-protection in general is... how do I put this gracefully. If you have games that were amazing, or products that were amazing, you would never need copy-protection. Okay. I think Apple has kind of figured that out with the app-store, where you get the lite version, and it’s basically a fully-blown app version of it, but maybe it doesn’t save, or maybe there’s a couple of really cool features like Dropbox-integration. But you get the whole app. Now Adventure International we played a few little things that were a little interesting. When we discovered it was a copied disc, it would start throwing random bits into memory, and it would sometimes degrade very gracefully, you could play it for long time, other times you have to hit a sore spot in the game, and it took the whole game out to multicolored… you know the Atari “bomb screen” you know. The copy-protection thing was always a challengem because you had marketing versus game developers versus creative people, and we had a lot of all those at Infocom.

KS: You know I really never realized the feelie thing is brilliant, because I pirated a lot of software when I was a kid. But I owned several pieces of Infocom software, because I wanted the stuff. I still have my “Don’t Panic” button that came with Hitchhikers and stuff.

DH: You know that really was the… actually you know it’s funny… you want to see where Infocom started, or actually where Deadline started, that’s where they started…

KS: “Murder off Miami” by Dennis Wheatley, got the book here…

DH: If you look in here… so you’ve got there’s a picture and let’s see, where’s one of the cool things they’re okay… so I just remembered this because, I can show you some of it. That’s a little packet of hair. That’s a real little cigarette butt. Okay. And this was where it all started. You can ask Mark Blank about it. This is a little letter written in Chinese. And this is a murder mystery. And these feelies are important. Actually there vital to the game. Here’s the Western Union telegram.

KS: Okay this is a book that was a book that was a murder mystery sort of book?

DH: Yep. This is a piece of cloth with a little redeye on it that’s supposed to be the bloodstain. This is where Deadline came from. Mark looked at this or read it, or saw it somewhere, and the thing is, to make this game, or make this idea, required feelies. It required external non-computer things that you can look at.

KS: Stop slamming on your desk.

DH: Sorry about that. If you look right here on this picture… you can just barely see where the heels from the body were drug. You couldn’t solve this book, without those things. That’s where we came up with the idea for Deadline. And Deadline was one of the first Infocom games that had feelies. I’m not gonna even pretend for a minute that had anything to do with it. This was the Marinski’s, Blanks and Berlin’s of the world. But the feelies are important. And on all the platforms it was nice because the packaging was the same, the feelies were the same, about the only thing that changed was the disk. And we had disc formats from CP/M, down to Mac, the floppies. I don’t think we ever did cassette tape at Infocom but we certainly did it. No, no, we did. Because I have or had an old Zork-1 Z-80 that was cassette. Yes feelie’s important.

KS: Was it difficult initially taking these things that were meant for big computers with relatively huge amounts of memory and squeezing it into 32K, 16K?

DH: Yes. The system was designed as an interpreter. So there was about a between a 10 and 30 K interpreter that ran on each of the machines, depending on which kind of drivers we had to write. A lot of the machines as they move progressed, like I said, with the Atari you could make specific calls to the Atari and Apple systems, and they did more natively. Back in the VT-100 and DEC-1134 and whatever else systems, they were all only text. Filled the screen. So all you were doing was pushing characters onto the screen. But once you got to the Atari, then you start to get Windows boxes, opening this closing this, the mouse drivers, the window drivers, the hard drive drivers. It became more complicated to make those things work. The games themselves were really just a big data file. So if the medium that you had could handle it, you put the big data file with a little interpreter, and the interpreter was written in machine language, and it was basically interpreting ZIL, Z-machine code, and then doing whatever needed to happen. Now, some machines like the Mac, when it first came, out we had to rewrite basically throw the operating system away, we had to rewrite everything because it didn’t work. And that’s why the Mac system, when you play the game, when you closed it, it rebooted the machine. Because otherwise there was no operating system to go back to. Because all we did was we emulated and rewrote many drivers, window drivers and everything else. And we did that when necessary you know. Sometimes the Color Computer and the Mindset and the early Amiga stuff, it didn’t work. Now we were pretty damn good at making drivers, because all of this was a very low-level machine language so we needed a window, you know we painted the right lines, and push the things around and it did what had to do. But that just came from having a really talented team, and people that really knew what they were doing.

KS: So did you stay at that same position… what was that position title, your title?

DH: Microcomputer manager or something like that I can’t remember what it was.

KS: So was that your position pretty much your whole tenure there?

DH: Yes that started with me, and Duncan Blanchard, which was an MIT grad, and then I think I was there four or five years, and by then I had Duncan, Linda, Dan Easley, Mike Morton, Andrew Plusnacki, Paul Gross, and then Brian Moriarty, who I hired to come in as a programmer, and he came in knowing he’s going to be an implementer. He did some great coding, but what he wanted to do was write stories. And that’s what he ended up doing. Uou know he went out of the micro group and into the imps, and he did very well in both capacities. So it was good I actually do think he was… I might’ve brought him on the Atari ST now that I think about it. Because he was at Antic. And that was where they were…

KS: He was at Analog.

DH: Analog I’m sorry. And you know he was involved with all kinds of Atari people developers, and creative people, and everything else, so he really knew that business. He came in and I think he probably did 800 version and probably the 400, but again the people in my group were pretty low-level technical guys. These people were machine-language coders, they were not Pascal. You know, we did some work in C, but you know, we tried to really work in machine-language most of the time.

KS: Did you get to meet Douglas Adams?

DH: Actually Douglas Adams and I became great friends. Because he was… Douglas was a Mac guy, so Kawasaki brought us one of the first Macs. Actually brought us the Lisa, with the five meg profile, and we had to put it in a locked room, and all that kind of stuff. But Douglas was a big Mac guy. So I ended up going over to England, because I just traveled a lot, and used to hang out with Douglas at his house and up and down at the Groucho club, and Douglas came over to the house couple of times, and he was a big man. Very large man. Two stories. One, I remember sitting down for dinner one nigh,t just he and I, and he ordered three bottles of wine. And then he asked me what I wanted. And then the other time, he was over dinner at the house, and my wife was in the kitchen, we had a pet skunk. And he’s actually in one of the hint books, I think, as Chaos, was our pet skunk. And one of the tip books for Infocom. And Douglas…the skunk used to lay at the top of the stairs, because the air was cool coming up from the basement. Douglas came around and here’s this 6’8” guy coming around the corner. Scared the hell out of the skunk. What skunk to do is when scared they stomp. They use their front paws to stomp. When he stomped, and missed the stair, and rolled down the stairs, and he landed at the bottom, and just stomped the hell out of the floor down there. And Douglas just laughing his ass off. He fell to the ground and was in hysterics. And so here I’ve got this huge man laying in my hallway, in his stairs, can barely stand up, and my skunk at the bottom of the stairwell. And from then on I tell everybody that Douglas kicked my skunk down the stairs. So that became a great story. I knew Douglas, I knew Mike Bywater and Michael and I became great friends too. He’s the guy that worked on the parts of Hitchhiker’s that Douglas couldn’t get done, and the potential Restaurant at the End of the Universe that never got out the door.

KS: What else should I ask you that I have it yet?

DH: Let’s see… Atari-centric stuff… The neat thing about the Atari was simply the fact that it was, outside the Apple, our first really interesting computer to work on. I mean it had graphics. It had sound it. It had great interfaces. You know, we could play in the cartridge world. We learned a lot about those businesses that were outside of just the gaming pieces. You know doing coding for the Apple II you know getting a blue color, green color, a yellow and black were really the highlights of that system. Here we had with the Atari, we had thousands of colors, we had rippling/shimmering effect, we had all this other stuff. Now most of it never got to and Infocom game, but it was cool. It was just really cool. You know we got the mindset and the Amiga, Mike Morton was the author of the bouncing Amiga ball, one of the first early demos, saw that and immediately hired him. He’s been working for Apple and Google and all the big players ever since. You know the Atari really was kind of a game changer, because it showed what you could potentially add to a game. Being a text-centrist storytelling company, Infocom was really not positioned to do anything about that. Adventure International, Russ did Preppie. He did a bunch of the Atari games, and he really push the envelope on some of it. You know the audio on Preppie, you know he was a composer, he just… I am so tired of <sings Preppie musical tune>. I’ve heard that my whole flipping life. If you do get a chance to interview him, he did a game with an elephant, that never hit the market, that was really cool. Again for the Atari. And Sea Dragon, obviously and all of these things. That’s really what the Atari did for us, it opened up a world of possibilities that up until then, were limited to a green screen. I mean we just didn’t think you could do these things. And of course ran into although the problems, with learning how a new gaming system could be leveraged. Just the other day, I downloaded the Unity engine. That’s basically open-source and you can create Half-Life. These amazing physics 3-D systems. I look at that and go “my God I wonder what the hell would I do with all this” I mean it’s just like all of this power all the stuff I can do, but then I think back and that’s exactly what happened with the Atari came out. And the thing is as the machine progressed it only got better. And now we expect that. About the only company that has kept up with that is Apple. And then companies that are doing these amazing 3-D products. You know 3-D engines. And I think that was really the highlight of the whole Atari period of time was is kind of expansion of understanding what you could do, if you had those opportunities to do that with this really cool box. And I knew Nolan for years, so being able to see what they were doing from the inside, was I guess part of the advantage me having at an Infocom I ended up working for Nolan for number of years later, at Axlon and you know. Ut was funny, we would talk about it, and I think it turned you on to Anthony Jones he and Grant Donbe, basically ran Atari in the UK. So I got to know Anthony, Graham over there, and then we all went to work for Axlon, when I was out in California. So very incestuous internal community in the Atari world to some degree.

KS: So how did your time at Infocom end?

DH: Basically with Al Vezed and telling me that the company just didn’t have the money anymore. I mean to a great deal, I’d like to think that I worked myself out of a job, because I hired very smart, very talented people, and if you do that, you don’t necessarily need a manager. You don’t need somebody to run interference for you. Infocom was small enough, that from a corporate standpoint, I like to tell people when I worked for Turner and other companies, I’m a big “shit umbrella”, I just keep the crap off people, so they can get the job done. Well if you have intelligent people, in a smart company, you need me less. Because you just have people that can get the job done, and they just want to get it done. So I think in some degree early on it was what I could bring to bear, but after a while you know you start hiring Andrew Klus and Duncan Blanchard and Paul Gross and these guys you don’t need me. I couldn’t argue the fact, I was not an imp, I was not a programmer. And that’s what they needed at the time. So you know that’s pretty much the way it came. And it worked out fine I went to work for Macromedia or Macromind out in California. So I ended up work with Mark Blank, I mean Mark Cantor, One Director and all those products out there and ran the multimedia standards committee, so brought to bear some of those corporate shops to a rogue organization out there as well.

KS: Awesome. Thank you. I think that’s all I have.

DH: Like I said have the problem is I can’t remember everything, the other half is I was not that interesting. You know I think if and when you talk to Russ, and Moriarty, and certainly Nolan, and if you get a chance to talk to Anthony, he’ll give you an international spin on it, but those guys will be able to I think remember more and give you little bit better stories but you know we were in the pit. We were in the technical side of things, those hidden things that have to be done, but they are really out there to show. And it was always part of the problem I was always trying to promote the microcomputer group, and they definitely played second fiddle to the implementers, but without us, they wouldn’t have had anything out there. It was a fun time.

KS: Sounds like it. Good. So you did nothing to dissuade me that it was a wonderful place with intelligent, charming people.

DH: I would never like to do that. You’d have to ask Moriarti about the lobster party. We had like the 5th- anniversary lobster party… man, nothing like having a lobster party in Boston. It was rocking. But yeah Infocom was a great company Adventure International was a great company, and the Atari platform really made a difference in everything we did.

KS: Thank you very much.

DH: My pleasure Kevin.