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The rise and fall of type-in games listings

By David Crookes. Posted

All it took was a printing error, and suddenly readers were holding their magazine or book up to the light and scrutinising the lines of code. They were sure they’d typed every character into their computer with care, so why did they keep seeing “Syntax Error” screaming back at them from the screen? Was that letter ‘O’ really a zero? Was that a lower-case ‘L’ or a ‘1’?

For the readers and editors of the publications which carried them, type-in listings were a blessing and a curse. They’d dangle the opportunity of ‘free’ software in front of computer users, then make them work their fingers to the bone for it. The rewards would come to those who had the patience and nerve to accurately key in each line, and in the British computer scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, type-ins were hugely popular.

Among the first to spot the potential of printing type-in listings was David H. Ahl. Hired by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1969, he became manager of Education Marketing the following year, and his job was to devise programs to demonstrate (and sell) the firm’s computers to maths teachers. In 1971, Ahl began editing the company’s newsletter, EDU, calling for readers to submit their own programs. “Before long, users at our first installations began sending in various small, primitive games – and lots of them,” Ahl says. “These came mostly from students, not teachers, and we started using the best ones on sales presentations as well as in the newsletter.”

Type-ins even appeared in unusual places. The MAD Computer Program for Apple, Atari, and Commodore computers was spread across two pages of MAD magazine in October 1985.

As more programs were printed, so more were submitted. Ahl accumulated so many, he decided they’d work well in a book. Published in 1973, 101 BASIC Computer Games would go on to sell a million copies over the next decade. “In retrospect, it was a pretty crude book,” confesses Ahl, now aged 82. “The text was typed, the cover cartoon was drawn by one of the artist contributors to EDU, and the games came from six or seven different versions of BASIC using as least many different printers. I cleaned up or rewrote about two-thirds of the games in a minimal way, but I didn’t put them in one standard version of BASIC. That would have been a huge job, and I felt it would be a good learning experience for users to translate from one version of BASIC to another.”

Ahl believed so much in the value of type-ins that, after leaving DEC in July 1974, he launched a bi-monthly magazine called Creative Computing while working as educational marketing manager for AT&T. The first issue launched that October, and within four years the publication was being worked on by a group of eight people in a converted greenhouse above a truck garage. “I published lots of computer games in its pages and the timing of the launch was perfect because the Altair 8800 – the first widely available computer kit – was announced on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975,” Ahl explains. “One of the most popular games was Super Star Trek, which underwent a long process of improvements and debugging from the original 1970 version, written by Mike Mayfield in HP BASIC.”

Programmed by Fabien Fessard, the stunning shooter Axys: The Last Battle was printed over five issues of French magazine, CPC Infos.

A learning curve

Super Star Trek was an early lesson that no matter how hard people worked on type-ins, something would invariably go wrong. Originally 650 lines of code, the newly published version was nearer 1000 lines long. “It was as bug-free as we could make it, but we got letters, some with yards of printout, complaining that it didn’t work,” Ahl says. “Trouble is, one typo in 8000 characters would screw up the execution.”

Initially, Ahl and his team attempted to respond to every letter. “But we eventually realised we couldn’t afford to pay a full-time programmer to debug every program that readers entered incorrectly,” he continues. “We ran several articles in Creative Computing about debugging techniques and told readers it was all part of the learning process.”

Listings were soon viewed as a tool for education; Amstrad understood their benefits, and printed listings in its manuals. “It was very important to us that people could do something productive with our computers as soon as they got them home,” says Amstrad’s former technical consultant Roland Perry, who wrote the manuals for the company’s CPC computers, which included such games as David Radisic’s Raffles. “Looking at the listings gave people a starting point for creating their own simple programs.”

BEEBUG magazine was full of type-in listings in each issue. Not bad for a quid.

Although simple, some of the programs published in magazines and books were surprisingly decent. Readers of BEEBUG magazine for the BBC Micro may remember Artillery Duel by Colin Walton – a 1983 type-in as playable as any commercial release. They may also have fond memories of Block Blitz by David Pilling, printed the following year. Some CPC users may have designed graphics using GPaint, printed in Schneider Magazine, or they may have purchased five consecutive issues of CPC Infos to enter the huge listing for space shoot-‘em-up, Axys: The Last Battle – possibly the longest type-in ever printed in a magazine.
Type-ins were breeding grounds for up-and-coming talent; a way for programmers to share expertise and code. “It was interesting to see the same names pop up across many type-in books,” says Mark Shepherd, who blogs at typeinbooks.co.uk. “I have more than 500 in my collection now, and some authors were very prolific, publishing many books across different machines. Some of these were by people barely out of school, and others by seasoned academics. It really was a pioneering time.”

Genie in a bottle

Regular names included Ian Sinclair, Clive Gifford, Ian Stewart, and brothers Clifford and Mark Ramshaw. David Perry began his career writing games for Interface, the magazine of the National ZX80/ZX81 Users Club edited by Tim Hartnell. “I learned a lot from magazines like Interface, and ended up submitting my own programs,” Perry tells us. “I think the act of typing in code from other programmers taught me how to structure things such as ‘LET lives=3’ and question, ‘What if I change that?’ But it was also interesting because Tim kept saying ‘Dave, can you write a chapter?’, ‘Can you write a book?’, ‘Can you write a mini-magazine?’”.

Perry contributed to many books, and would later go on to develop a host of hit games including Earthworm Jim and Disney’s Aladdin. But he wasn’t alone in forging a long and successful career after cutting his teeth on type-ins. Sean McManus contributed regularly to a section of Amstrad Computer User, which specialised in programs of ten lines or less. He also wrote longer listings, including Easi-Sprite Driver for Amstrad Action, which added new commands to BASIC so you could move sprites around the screen and make more colourful games.
Robin Nixon, a home computer hobbyist from the 1970s and 1980s, also became known within the type-in pages of magazines. “I bought all the magazines and decided I could write programs of equal or better quality, so I did and sent them in,” he tells us. “Mostly, magazines just looked at submissions and rejected them, accepted them, or asked for improvements, but after about a year or so, a publisher offered me an editorial job. It became part of my salary to write type-ins and assess those submitted by readers.”

Crash magazine didn’t print listings, but made an exception when it incorporated a tie-in with anarchic comic, Oink!. It included type-ins written by Frank Sidebottom, the character created by songwriter/comedian Chris Sievey.

In general, editors wanted anything fun and useful; programs to catch the eye and inspire. Although users tended to type them in because they wanted to use the program (“I first got into them because I was essentially getting a ‘free’ game,” says Shepherd), lots of people who would become professional developers got their start on type-ins. “I figured out BASIC programming from reading type-ins of games and algorithms from Your Sinclair, C&VG, and Personal Computer World magazines before I even had a computer at home,” says Ripstone’s head of technology, Paul Hughes, who has also worked for Ocean Software and EA among many others. “One of the first things I started to do when I got a ZX81 and then a VIC-20 was convert type-ins from one platform’s BASIC to another to see if I could port the game. But I also read an article about computer chess artificial intelligence, which blew my mind.”

Racing ahead

Sometimes readers could learn from the masters: Jet Set Willy designer Matthew Smith, for example, contributed Andre’s Night Off to the June 1984 issue of C&VG. It was promoted on the cover and claimed to be a “missing screen” from Smith’s aforementioned smash hit. It was commissioned by the magazine’s editor Tim Metcalfe as a way of boosting sales. Indeed, type-ins were a money-spinner for magazines, although the wealth didn’t always trickle down. Brothers Philip and Andrew Oliver earned just £10 for their Dragon 32 game, Road Runner, printed in C&VG in 1983. But the Oliver Twins, as they’d later become known, were nonetheless chuffed to see their top-down racer in print. “Our skills weren’t good enough to make games that people would have to pay money for,” says Philip. “That was the next goal.”

The brothers were already fans of type-ins. “We learned to code by typing other people’s listings and modifying them,” Philip says. “Mostly, this was from the manual that came with the computer, because there were so few listings in Dragon 32 magazines. We also tried listings designed for other computers and getting them working.”

Philip and Andrew Oliver’s first ever game, Road Runner. “Back then, the bragging rights within our reach was to get a game published as a listing,” Philip says.

Even so, they found BASIC to be pretty slow, so they kept things simple for Road Runner. “We’d discovered if you printed text to the bottom line and it overflowed, it would scroll the contents of the entire screen up,” says Philip. “So we came up with the idea of a top-down racer, which sounds grand, but was no more than blocks programmed to create the edge of a winding road with several more blocks to represent your car.”

Rather than submit the game on tape, the brothers copied the code by hand and gave it to their mum to type on her work’s typewriter. This cumbersome method is likely why it took a year for the game to end up in print. Shortly after, though, the brothers created Super Robin Hood for Codemasters, developed Dizzy, and eventually headed up Blitz Games Studios. They’re still active in the industry today.

The same applies to John Pickford, one half of the acclaimed Pickford Brothers, whose credits include Zub, Plok, and Naked War. Aged 18, he contributed a program to Popular Computing Weekly called Fast Loader, which sped up the process of loading and saving data from a cassette on the Spectrum – an example of how inventive some of these programs could be. “I remember a listing in Your Computer, which pre-shifted sprites to speed up sprite plotting on the VIC-20 and Spectrum,” says Hughes of another notable program. “There was also an article in Your Sinclair about how David Webb’s Starion used the Z80 stack to clear the screen lightning fast. That was a proper game-changer.”

Benny Bunny hopped his way to a type-in franchise with six games bearing his name, published in Sinclair Programs magazine and another in Sinclair User.

Righting the wrongs

Even so, some type-ins were hard going. To play Chopper Mission in the first issue of Your Sinclair, readers needed to type in a Basic Loader, then a Hex Loader, followed by three dense pages of Hex code. “The elaborate stuff had to be included in machine code, and typing endless hexadecimal numbers was a burden, not something to learn from,” says Elmar Krieger, who had listings published in several magazines, and made such commercial games as Prehistorik 2 and Super Cauldron. “Type-ins were a good way of getting software published in the earlier days, but they were only good for simple freeware.”

Still, data-laden programs made their mark. In 1986, German composer Chris Huelsbeck – later known for his Turrican soundtrack – entered a tune called Shades in a competition run by the magazine, 64’er. It won, and was printed as a type-in. Huelsbeck was just 17 at the time. “It was completely machine code and data so it was all hexadecimal numbers,” he says.

After winning, he told the magazine that he was working on an editor to make the entry of music data easier. This was SoundMonitor, and it too ended up as a listing, printed that October. “I believe the program was an important stepping stone for any aspiring Commodore 64 musicians, and it’s considered the grandfather for modern music tracker programs,” Huelsbeck says.

The shoot-‘em-up Crossroads by Steve Harter was published in COMPUTE! in 1987 and is arguably the best C64 type-in game.

Like Krieger, however, Huelsbeck didn’t type such listings in himself. “I personally never typed in listings like that and, even though the magazine had a special editor with checksums, I can only imagine how much tedious work that must have been. I’ve had a number of fans tell me that they typed it in. I admire that tenacity.”

Checksums were useful for anyone looking to tackle a type-in. Introduced in the late 1970s, they would display verification codes next to each program’s line and, by ensuring the value tallied with the one in their magazine or book, readers would know they’d entered it correctly. “Type-ins resulted in huge amounts of mail, mainly from people entering typos and telling us we’d made a mistake,” Nixon recalls. “Checksum routines built into the type-ins would tell readers which line their mistakes were on.”

“Over time, games became more complex, so the code became longer and longer,” says David Perry. “The odds of typing in a 20-page game and it working were incredibly small, so you’d spend hours typing, then spend even more hours looking for mistakes.”

Mark Shepherd, pictured here with some of his vast collection of type-in books, found that he could eventually pinpoint the print errors which crept into listings.

Yet such effort, combined with the rise of cover-mounted media, meant type-ins soon faded away. Indeed, until relatively recently, type-ins were largely absent from magazines. But as the magazine you’re reading shows, they’re useful as a learning tool. “It’s still possible to learn a lot from a type-in program and coding in general,” says Ahl.

The Olivers agree. “We learnt our first programming skills from type-in listings, and it annoys us that many educators fail to grasp the power of games as a motivator to encourage kids to learn many digital skills. It’s a message we will always shout loud about, and we encourage everyone else to do so, too.”

Tapped for cash

Matthew Smith received £150 (the equivalent of £500 today) for the three pages of code that comprised his Jet Set Willy spin-off, Andre’s Night Off. Robin Nixon, who worked for BBC Micro User, Mac User, and more besides, said contributors tended to receive between £50 and £150. Amstrad Action, meanwhile, only paid £20 per listing, which didn’t prevent some from trying to game the system. Issue 70 of the magazine printed Bomber, issue 72 carried type-in of Breakout clone Thro’ The Wall, and issue 73 ran Picstore. Yet the first two were lifted from the CPC manuals and the latter from rival Amstrad Computer User. “Needless to say, the perpetrators won’t be getting a penny,” the magazine said.

Basic training

Missed David Ahl’s iconic book, 101 BASIC Computer Games, when it was originally released in 1973? Then fear not – you can head right on over to GitHub, where you’ll find the original BASIC games from the book, all handily updated using modern languages such as JavaScript and Python.

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