Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

we aren’t in autoexec.bat any more toto…

Because I didn’t make it very fluid, I get an email maybe twice or three times a week about someone who had problems installing an expansion pack for GSB if they bought the base game from stardock or steam. The solution is easy, you need to browse to the place where the base game is installed during the installation. It had not occured to me, when setting things up, that this would be a big deal, but a non-trivial proportion of buyers don’t realise it, and they need me to walk them through it, which is fine.

Obviously I made a mental note to ensure that sort of problem will never arise with future games.

What really strikes me though, is how far we have come from the days of my gaming youth. Go back far enough and the boot-up ‘welcome’ screen on my first computer was this:

You were expecting icons maybe? or perhaps a graphic? or any way to actually launch programs or do anything? Unless you were lucky and had money to buy software, you would actually have to type in the code for each game (the whole program) from a magazine. The operating system was pretty much just a way to support the typing of characters on the screen. No danger of antitrust legislation for bundled apps there…

Fast forward through my days as a rock star and boatbuilder (long story) and I got an IBM 386. These were the days of playing X-wing. Now you might think it’s a pain to get the right drivers these days to run crysis, but back then, you had to literally reconfigure the structure of your RAM in order to run a game. People my age will get a cold sweat remembering autoexec.bat and config.sys, the two dreaded files that between them enabled you to balance your memory allocations just right to get that extra 16k needed to boot up SimCity.

The thing that really strikes me, is that re-configuring autoexec.bat and config.sys was so arcane, so complex, and so fiddly, and geeky, that not only was it much much harder than any problems current PC gamers have to deal with, but it was actually harder than most games. I may have got frustrated with constant deaths when storming the beaches in Medal of Honor, but that was NOTHING compared with the challenges presented by emm386.

As game developers, often geeky ones who are older than a chunk of our audience, we need to constantly remind ourselves that there is a huge swathe of people who never struggled with this crap. To them, sadly, the PC is just like a toaster or microwave. You press the button and then it does stuff. If it doesn’t. you complain to the manufacturer. Sadly, I suspect the nation of geeks and tinkerers we had in the 1980s has become a nation of passive consumers. Understandable, maybe inevitable, but maybe also slightly sad?

18 thoughts on we aren’t in autoexec.bat any more toto…

  1. My expansion pack still doesn’t work, and I totally did point it at the steamapps GSB folder :-(

    Gah, that’ll teach me for buying it twice! (First came out, and then again on Steam recently for the convenience).

  2. Aaaah… the good old times… messing around with the cassette drive to adjust the head so it actually can read the data on the cassette… fast loaders, rattling disk drives due to copy protections *wipe a tear*

    Fortunately things have changed.

    Unfortunately, the user in front of the machine get’s used to “the software solves the problem itself” (drivers download, auto-update, etc). And as soon as the user has to make more than 2 steps to solve a problem, he’s lost…

  3. I would think that there 10 times more geeks than back in the 80s, but 10000 times more casual user. Geeks are far from behing dead. It is just that they are not alone anymore

  4. Wow… I had forgotten about all that. I’ve had the same experience, except the computer I had before the IBM clone was a Commodore 64. which, as you probably know, has a similar boot up screen. =D (Mostly) Good times!

  5. The other thing I remember about 386-era games were the hint books (for adventure games like King’s Quest etc.). Some of them came with a pen to make the invisible ink the hints were written with visible, some with tinted paper/plastic glasses to make it visible. For both the memory problems and the games themselves, the lack of the internet to get things working was really kind of crazy.

    I did have a “flashback” of sorts with Doom 3 – I bought a new graphics card to play it, and it turned out to be incompatible with my motherboard. Definitely took me back to the days of trying to figure out what DMA and IRQ settings you needed to change to get the sound working, trying the floppies again, reboot, change settings, try the floppy, reboot…

    All in all I kind of prefer things today.

  6. I do not particularly miss fiddling with that arcane memory config stuff – never was much fun. Nevermind trying to get a null modem or a 10baseT network to work for playing some multiplayer DooM. You’d usually spend at least a day getting everyone’s machines fixed before the LAN party could start…
    What I do miss is the general attitude of the time of trying to figure things out yourself and actually trying to fix it before crying for help or giving up in frustration. It seems to me folks today have less of a tinkerer mindset and expect things to work or have someone else fix it for them. Witness people asking for help on forums and getting angry if the (voluntary!) help they receive isn’t good enough.
    Then again, maybe this is just the natural evolution of any technology achieving critical mass and reaching a broader audience. I guess most early automobile users were also mechanics…

    In any case – it does have advantages as well. Check out how easily and natural this kid handles technology in a very creative way:

    Good things to come ;-)

  7. Somewhat sad, perhaps, but I still wouldn’t wish getting Ultima 7 to run (WITH audio) on my worst enemies. Every time I lost the .sys/.bat, it was another hour or two to tweak everything juuuuust right to get it running again – including finding a lower-mem mouse driver.

    The game’s memory manager was entitled “Voodoo”. Voodoo indeed, *shudder*.

  8. Oh man, nostalgia times. I remember having to have a special autoexec.bat and config.sys for every game I had. I remember setting up a system of bat files where I only had to write “sc2bat” in the root prompt and a sc2bat.bat file would overwrite the current two files with ones that made Sim City 2000 work, same for other games. Reboot and then play. I still have them backed up on some dusty old floppy disk somewhere… :S

  9. Sadly I missed that period in computing by a few years (or maybe not sadly, from some of your stories), but have no fear Cliffski! There are still plenty of geeks out there, we’ve just been a bit dialuted by the non-geeks using computers.

  10. I was way to young(or was it smart?) to type 800 some odd lines of code on that old ass Tandy to play some number guessing game, so Mom did it. That ritual didn’t last long.

    Did do that dos stuff though, the crowning achievement was getting Doom 2 to “run” on the 386. I got to see the title screen and hear slooow music, I could cycle the menu select icon every 3 to 5 minutes. Starting the game would freeze the system of course. Shortly thereafter, the family got a shiny new 486.

    The hardrive was 30mb, the madness!

  11. Eh, back when you guys were dealing with this stuff, I was double-clicking on my game icons in the Finder, or just inserting the cartridge into the NES…

    Of course, it helps that I was born in the mid ’80s, and didn’t get an actual Windows PC until about ’98, and as a result of those two factors I managed to skip a lot of the more annoying parts of PC gaming.

  12. *sigh* yeah those were the days.
    I remember having to press play on the speccy cassette player and then quickly and carefully leave the room because any vibration would crash the load!

    I also did the same as Marcus and had hundreds of batch files during my 386 days :-D

    Tweaking different memory configurations for emm386 was definitely a good primer for debugging in later life!

    You youngsters never had it so good (and I’m only 32 which must be like 200 in computer geek years :-D)

  13. Hehe, I remember that. I’ve made bootdisks for different games and booted my PC using them to be able to play certain DOS games. Hehe, experienced the C64-datasette, too, where you had to rewind the tape and had to wind manually to certain parts of the cassette to be able to play different levels.

  14. Oh, that issue.
    I got GSB through steam (indie space pack, thanks for these holiday-deals!) and bought the expansion packs via BMTMicro.
    And then the fuss started.
    I saw the folder structure of GSB and thought: Damn, it must be possible to take those extra folders for Order, Tribe and so on into the original “races” folder.
    Well, didn’t really work. Either I had every battle doubled in the list. Or every ship when I tried to build new ones. Or several pieces of equipment in Fleet HQ…
    I finally fixed these things by buying GSB through BMTMicro. Everythings in order now (well, except for the Cruiser target booster I costing 1300 points and the Mark II costing a mere 260… An oversight? But it’s text-files and thus easy editable).

    “People my age will get a cold sweat remembering autoexec.bat and config.sys, the two dreaded files that between them enabled you to balance your memory allocations just right to get that extra 16k needed to boot up SimCity.”
    HA! I remember the days when I created a startdisk for one of the company computers and stole into the office before school to play some minutes of Privateer…

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