Interview with Tymac - Creators of 8-bit computer hardware, games and utilities in the 1980's

Bill Loguidice's picture

C-64C-64I had posted this back in January 2006 on the original Armchair Arcade and thought it would make sense to re-issue it as a blog post on the new Website for better indexing and future reference.

What follows is the original post from January 2006:

On behalf of Armchair Arcade, I took the opportunity to reach out to the current Tymac (www.tymac.com), since they're based in my neck of the woods. I had heard rumors that they were the same company that produced 8-bit computer hardware, games (talking!) and utilities back in the 1980's and wanted to see if indeed that were true. Today, I got a response back from what will remain for now an unnamed source (though it's easy enough to figure out!), who was around doing great stuff back then and plays an important role at the company now. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to turn this into a full feature for a future issue of Armchair Arcade, expanding on the talk with this gentleman and reviewing some of the games. It should be fun. In the mean-time, enjoy this glimpse...

List of some Tymac games for the Commodore 64: http://gb64.com/search.php?a=5&f=1&id=1464&d=45

------BEGIN EXCHANGE------

[NOTE: TYMAC responses lightly edited by Bill Loguidice (AA)]

AA: (On being the same company...)

TYMAC: "You are correct, we are the same company. Software and accessories for home computers wasn't a detour, it was our primary product line in the 1980s. It supported the development of our current product line of industrial automation products. Here is a brief run down on some of our home products:

* Disk Doubler - when Apple switched disk density formats for their 5.25" drives between Dos 3.2 and Dos 3.3, we created a product that with a flip of a switch would allow users to read one or the other format without a utility.
* The PPC-100 - a printer interface for Apple ][ computers. It was the entry level product.
* The Tackler - an intelligent printer interface for Apple ][ computers. It added functions like print screen and emulation modes, so software that expected an Okidata could use an Espon.
* The Connection - similar to the Tackler but for Commodore VIC20 /C64 computers.
* Various ram expansion / slot expansion products for VIC20.
* Quad Disk - a 640K double sided 3.5" floppy drive for Apple ][ computers that beat Apple 400K / 800K 3.5" drives to market -- then they overwhelmed us.

About 1982/83 Tymac contracted with Game Gems (GG) to develop several games for Tymac. Most of the games were for VIC20 or C64, but some did exist for the Atari home computers and the new IBM PC. The most notable feature of the games was many of them included digitized speech, which was unheard of at the time. One of the projects we worked on a was a phoneme based library. A phoneme is a basic sound of English speech--look in a dictionary, the pronunciation key tells you what they are. You could have the computer say almost anything by sending text to the voice generator. If you wanted to say "Hi" or "High" for example, you would send the text "H^I", which would select the proper phonemes. We used to spend a lot of time reading the dictionary, looking up the proper pronunciation of each word."

AA: (On some of the development techniques...)

TYMAC: "I can explain the development process used, which was unique at the time. I was the lead programmer at GG during this time. Game Gems was formed from Unique Software, the staff, management and location were all the same. One day we came to work and found out we were a new company. While not part of what Tymac contracted for, we also developed for the Atari 2600 (the home video game console). We used Apple ][ (and later Apple IIe) computers for all development as there were much better tools available. The VIC20, C64, Atari 2600 and Atari home PC's all used processors derived from the 6502 family that was used in the Apple. The process started by creating a mini-loader program in Assembly language on the Apple. Dump the memory block containing the loader to a printer. Go to the target machine (VIC20/C64), drop in to the debugger / monitor and hand type in the hex bytes, and execute. The loader would allow the data transfer from the Apple Game port (digital I/O pins) to a port on the target machine. Once a basic link was created, more and more complex utilities would be developed until a complete assemble, download and run could be handled remotely from the Apple. While developing "Flyerfox" on the C64, I found the need to be able to do additional debugging. I created what I think was the first CPU emulator for the C64 running on an Apple. With it you could single step through the running program on the C64 and see the registers changing and modify memory and registers on the fly. This tool was my secret weapon to develop a program that occupied 63 3/4K of 64K memory on the C64 by banking out the internal ROM so that the program became the operating system. Every copy of "Flyerfox" included the target half of the emulator as it became the only way to complete development.

Almost all development was in assembly language for two main reasons. First, there were not many alternatives besides interpreted BASIC and a couple of then-new languages. The other reason was execution speed, as nothing could do a professional program except assembly language. The 6502 could be considered a RISC processor, as it had very few instructions or registers, but executed most in 2-3 clock cycles. Many of the new languages were trying to distance the programmer from the hardware, in writing game programs you needed every trick in the book and sometimes threw out the book to do what you wanted, so direct hardware manipulation was key. One example was the C64's video. The engineers as Commodore said there are 16 colors to work with. I found a way of getting closer to 100. The trick was to cover the screen with sprites (hardware graphic overlays) that would have one color pixel one screen refresh and another the next one. 30 times per second the program would switch colors, so to the user they would blend. The best use of this was a graphics 'paint' program we developed, but never fully released. Some very detailed images were created with the program but could only be viewed on another computer running the sprite banking program. A couple of images with a viewer were released on floppy disk as part of a demo in a magazine, but I don't remember which one or exactly when.

Some of the games included: "Flyerfox" - flight simulator/arcade game, "Typesnyper" - arcade typing tutor, "Biodefense" - arcade save the body from infection, "Gandalf the Wizard" - arcade game, and a few others."

AA: (On what happened after 1983...)

TYMAC: "Unfortunately, things didn't workout between Game Gems and Tymac. As I understood it at the time, Tymac expected finished games, Game Gems expected its programmers to work for free for a percentage of future royalties GG got. The problem was Tymac was going to pay a flat fee, there would be no royalties. Just by chance and not knowing this, I was able to get a contract to complete a program for a flat fee for GG, but when I finished, I had to fight to get paid. I refused to do any other work until I was paid. Most of the other programmers stopped working too, concerned about ever being paid. Most wanted to be paid at least a salary to finish the programs. The owners of GG had no intention of actually paying for the programs they were selling to Tymac. In the end, Tymac and GG went to court. I had left GG and was working at Educational Software when Tymac contacted me and asked me to join the company in 1984. We put together a team that consisted of some of the programmers from GG to finish up some of the programs. The problem was the lost year, the industry had caught up to the lead we had and by 1985/86 the computers were changing. The core products in what we called Micro-products were becoming obsolete and the programming talent was being used to develop the industrial automation products. By 1990, the work force that once included 50 people in micro-products was down to a handful and they were being used more and more in the industrial side. The Tackler and PPC 100 printer interfaces and Quad Disk continued for several more years

The automation equipment was mostly based on Apple ][ or Apple IIe motherboards. As game programmers, we knew the hardware inside and out and could make a 1 mhz processor out perform the IBM PC's 4.77mhz in these applications. Only in 1990 did we discontinue using the 6502 in new products. To this day there are still machines running with Apples in them, some installed since the mid 1980s. These machines have run constantly, nearly around the clock, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. That is nearly 200,000 hours. Apple makes a good product."

AA: (On any remaining stock of the classic hardware and software...)

TYMAC: "As to your last question, there are precious few remaining copies of the games and products. About 10 years ago our basement where we stored obsolete materials was flooded, destroying almost everything.

Our flood was caused by a contractor resurfacing the street, where he collapsed our underground oil tank and had to stop. The open hole and damage to the building combined with heavy rain the next day caused several feet of water to enter what had been a dry basement. It appears the entire waterflow down the street came in. We had the heaviest stuff at the bottom of the skids (diskettes and flattened packaging) and topped with the light stuff (foam packaging) The same flood caused the total loss of the booth we used at the CES show, so we were unable to ever attend again."

------END EXCHANGE------

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