My colleague Laszlo Nemet is a senior backend developer at Sponge Hammer. His job title doesn’t give away the vast amount of coding knowledge and experience he has been gathering over the staggering 34 years since he started game development, beginning with coding. He has been involved in all kinds of games from small mobile projects to AAA multimillion titles. I can say that he is comfortable in any field of programming thanks to his broad knowledge, whether it’s the backend, physics, engine, bug fixing, UI or frontend.
Now he sat down with me and spent hours talking about was coding was like in Hungary in the late ’80s and early ‘90s.
When did you start making games?
I started in 1988. The first time I saw a computer was in ‘87. It was a Commodore Plus/4 and Wizard of Wor ran on it. I fell in love with that immediately. Then, in ’88, I started high school. I shared an Enterprise 128 with my brother, and fortunately, he was away the whole week, so I used it fulltime during the week, and on the weekends, I tried not let him near it (laughs). That caused the occasional argument.
I started using BASIC without any training or knowledge. It was extremely difficult to make anything work or solve any problems. My first program was a huge failure; I remember it had every error possible. Fortunately, in school, I met a few guys – we became colleagues as well later on – and we kind of put our heads together and tried to figure out the problems. One of them became so enthusiastic that he bought an Enterprise 128 as well and together, we finally had some success.
On a funny note, we had IT classes at school, and they were taught via Videoton TV-Computer at the time. Around December, four months after starting high school, we had the idea to change from BASIC to Assembly, so we asked the teacher for help. He advised us to join the afternoon IT class for advanced students. Unfortunately, we only attended the first one because no one was able to understand a three-line code we wrote, so we couldn’t get any help. We were pretty much on our own and spent many nights trying to figure out how the system specifically and how programming in general worked.
That was 34 years ago. How did you do that without all the information available on the internet today? Did you learn it from books?
That’s right, there was no internet, and we had limited access to books. We knew that there were registers and memory, but we had no idea how they worked. We aimed high and said, “Let’s make a game!”. Now we just needed to figure out how. The initial idea was very basic: we wanted a red dot to go from point A to point B. It was as simple as that. It was pretty much like “Hello World!”
We used BASIC to start with, but shortly after we were told that it wasn’t really for making games. When we were done with that red dot – we called it character – we changed to Assembly.
What made you change to Assembly?
At that time, most of the knowledge around programming was passed on by word of mouth. We talked to other enthusiasts, the IT teacher and so on. That’s how we arrived at Assembly.
We used a program called assembler in 88. It was a very basic editor, it displayed all sorts of information, numbers, and characters. We didn’t know what to do or where to start, so we started to speak to people who might have seen it before or knew anything about it. After that, we tried to re-create our character, the little red dot, in Assembly. We did that, but we saw nothing; nothing happened, and we didn’t understand why. After tweaking it and trying to figure it out, we realised that it actually was working, but it was so fast that we couldn’t see the red dot crossing the screen! That’s how big the difference was between BASIC and Assembly. This confirmed that Assembly was the right choice and we started to learn it more seriously.
Assembly, and especially Z80, is very basic: there is no multiplying or dividing; you are only able to add and subtract. So that’s what we did to create some demo programmes and games.
This was the first part of the interview I had with Laszlo, and there’s more to come. In the next episode, he will talk about his first game, about accessible hardware at that time and a few of his projects he abandoned due to difficulties back in the early ’90s.
What’s your experience with coding in the 80s and 90s or if you born after 2000, how did you get into coding?