Never too late to learn: an interview with an 85-year-old games developer
It’s not uncommon to pick up a hobby or two as one gets older. What is retirement than having a bit more free time to do stuff you actually enjoy doing, rather than have to? Fishing, gardening, model building, line dancing, water pilates, tai chi – there are many pastimes which owe part of their popularity to enthusiastic adoption by those in their later years.
Videogame development, on the other hand, tends to be associated with the young. Specifically, the wide-eyed and ambitious young who by the time they hit their 30s, are burnt out husks so far removed from their initial idealism that they’re ready to work for investment bankers for the sake of a steady paycheck and realistic programming goals. Mobile phones and the Nintendo Wii may have made gaming as a hobby acceptable to all ages, but as far as games creation is concerned rudimentary tennis sim Pong is a positively youthful 44 and its developer is only in his 60s. Even the creator of Mario is still a few years off of retirement age.
And then there’s 85-year-old musician and games creator Rod Fisher, who didn’t even start crafting levels until he was over 70.
We’ve downloaded a few of his games (all for free and without ads) and were pleasantly surprised when they brought silly smiles to our faces. They both reminded us of the early 90’s PC game era and the homebrew feel you get from shareware.
Fascinated, inspired and full of admiration, we contacted Fisher to find out about his journey into the wild west of videogames, and why he continues to create.
htxt.africa: How did you begin creating games and what was your first project?
Rod Fisher I started playing games on the Amiga and had some ideas for games of my own. But there was no ready-made game engine to make it [easily] at that time. Around the year 2000 I downloaded a trial of GameStudio and knew I could use my skills in graphics, music and 3D modelling advantageously in that environment.
My first game was called Vive La Legion. It’s concept was a lost patrol of the French Foreign Legion wandering in the desert, chasing mirages that turned into FPS scenarios.
I trashed that first game but kept the Saharan Outpost mini game from it which is still on my website. The first game to get favorable reviews was “Get Bin Laden” which had many downloads due to its topical nature, coming shortly after the 2001 attack on the twin towers. It was an FPS that is still available in the archive section of my website. Before PlayStation and Xbox these early games didn’t look so clunky.
Where did you learn the necessary skills to begin making the games?
I’ve been a professional musician all my life and I still play weekend gigs. I studied orchestration and arranging at a music conservatory. I had graphic arts skills and in the 70s I held art director jobs at two ad agencies. I got into film making and script writing which led to renting a Wang word processor for a month for $700 in 1979. It was as big as a desk and the manual was two inches thick. Then I got hooked on computers and my first one was a Kaypro.
In the mid 80s I got an Amiga and I was in heaven. I used it to model and animate 3D golden letters flowing from the clouds, etc, for TV commercials, for composing and sequencing music and for graphic projects like fliers and posters. With Lightwave it was a creative joy.
As to programming, C-script is a nice cover for C+ that takes a lot of pain out of the process. But it was the friendly teenagers on the GameStudio forum that got me through many ugly problems. I found out that there is code and then there is beautiful code that does the same thing elegantly. I also discovered that coding is a very creative process and those who are best at it can see the solution just as a painter visualizes a finished work or a composer hears the final coda. I also had a couple of great collaborators in Denmark and Switzerland, as listed in the credits, who made major contributions to some of my games .
When did you decide to take the games you had made and put them on the internet?
That was my intention from the beginning, although I didn’t have a website. I uploaded them to host site where gamers could find them. I think it was called “Winsite”. When it disappeared I built a website.
The name of studio is “Attic Games”, do you really make the games in your attic?
It was an unfinished attic when we moved into our 100-year-old family home about 30 years ago. I added a dormer and sheet-rocked it. Now it’s my man cave.
What tools do you use? We notice most of your games run on the same engine.
I have used other modelling software but for low-poly modelling the MED program that comes with GameStudio is hard to beat. I use PhotoShop for graphics and Sonar for music.
Why did you decide to let anyone download and play the games for free with no advertisements?
I tried to sell my first game. I sold two copies – one to a daughter. That was a lesson in the commercial possibilities of game making. I realised there was no way I could compete in that arena. I decided I would rather have someone playing my games for free than nobody buying them. That turned into a very satisfying solution. I used to check the downloads of Lost Dutchman Mine and was delighted and amazed to know that kids were playing it in really strange places like Mongolia, Lapland and the Seychelles. I quit checking a few years ago but at that time it had been downloaded about 150 000 times.
The post on Reddit that crashed your site and informed us of your work: who made the post and what was the sudden surge of activity like?
First of all, I’m flattered that the anomaly of an octogenarian geezer making PC games has garnered so much interest. I’ve actually received some PayPal donations for the first time in ten years.
Of the games you’ve made, which is your favourite and which do you want to go back to and make better?
To me, the most important and hardest thing to get right in a game is gameplay. Pearl Harbor Encounter is my favourite because I got the gameplay about perfect. I have been thinking of reviving that first game, Vive La Legion. I still like the concept.
Many of your games are based in old western times. Are you a particular fan of this time period?
I prefer to use historical scenarios, not just westerns. I may make a Flying Tigers game. There’s a lot of interesting history between the crusaders and the space age that has been ignored by game makers.
What’s next for you? Are you going to continue making games?
I’ve got eight things left on my “bucket list” which include a couple more books and some original music. A new game would be number nine.
What’s your favourite game that you didn’t make?
Sid Meiers Pirates. I never get tired of raising hell on the Spanish Main. I’m a sailor and I appreciate the programming of the wind and the response of the vessels. I also like the interface – one mouse does it all. I copied that style in Territory: the Mountain Men.