Hollie Satterfield, creator of “Space Dynasty”

What does it take to get published? How about a deranged TRS-80 Model I that has taken over a lunar colony? That did the trick for Hollie Satterfield in 1983, when 80 Micro magazine published his computer program “Attack of the TRS-80.” Afterward, he embarked on a career as a programmer analyst — and along the way, he created a popular BBS door game: Space Dynasty.

I shared some thoughts about Space Dynasty yesterday. This interview was conducted by email Feb. 16 through Oct. 18, 2013.

You can follow Hollie Satterfield on Twitter: @thathollie

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What led you into BBSing?

I got a TRS-80 in high school. I wrote a lot of BASIC programs. I sold one, “Attack of the TRS-80,” to 80 Micro magazine which they published.

I bought Atari computers while in college. I dialed in to BBSes at college with my 300-baud Atari modem and had fun with them. As an introvert I found BBSing to be a good way to communicate with people with common interests.

I majored in computer science but they used about 95 pct. mainframes then. Computer science at Virginia Tech was taught using Pascal, not because they expected you to use that in real life, but because it taught you proper programming techniques.

When I got out of school, I used a lot of COBOL and a little C at work. I wanted to write more C. WWIV BBS software convinced me to switch to PCs since I would get the source code when I purchased it. And I could still use Turbo Pascal to write BBS doors, which were fun. (Ataris were dying out anyway.)

I love the idea of a game with a killer TRS-80 and the ability to use “suspension of disbelief points.” Were your other BASIC programs primarily games like “Attack of the TRS-80″?

Photo courtesy of Hollie Satterfield

Photo courtesy of Hollie Satterfield

The TRS-80 was very limited as far as graphics, so I wrote mostly text-oriented stuff, just trying to learn what could be done. I was as interested in writing clever code as much as gameplay.

I didn’t really design games so much as I ported/reverse-engineered them from somewhere else, as I did with Space Dynasty. The 80 Micro game was about 1/100th of a board game from SPI where you roll the dice, and then you roll the dice, and then you roll the dice to see how to roll the dice, etc. I just automated the tedium as much as possible in 16K.

Were you able to sell any of this software?

I did sell another game to 80 Micro, but they went out of business before it was published.

What were your favorite computer games in the mid-to-late 1980s?

I always liked Asteroids. I got an Atari VCS as soon as they came out, but I probably spent the 80s playing M.U.L.E., Lode Runner and the The Great American Cross-Country Road Race as much as anything else. The Road Race was good because you had to plot your course around the U.S., comparing distance vs. weather limitations, as well as do the Pole-Position-type auto racing arcade portion.

I’m curious what kind of BBSes you frequented early on. Mostly Atari BBSes? Ever see ATASCII animations ?

I do vaguely recall ATASCII animations. But I expect I was mostly downloading games and pictures of girls in college and afterward. Perhaps it should be mentioned that I am a male. I get an endless amount of junk snail mail addressed to “Ms. Satterfield,” so it doesn’t surprise me that most people assume I am female based on my name.

You were a BBSer for many years. How would you compare your social experiences in the BBS scene with today’s social-media-driven online world?

Facebook seems to exist largely so that people from my high school class can send me chain letters that no modern day high school student would find remotely believable. There was a lot of immaturity in the BBS days; my BBS was mostly kids. But old people like myself who think they know everything seem to be way more resistant to listening. I do enjoy following bands via social media. I admire various musicians and try to support independent music.

Earlier you mentioned that WWIV BBS software was appealing because you would get the source code when you purchased it. Obviously you stuck with it, and even wrote several “chain” programs specifically for WWIV. What did you like about WWIV?

WWIV was a great community in addition to being quality software. WWIVnet let you connect to people outside of your area, across the country.

Besides allowing more discussions on various obscure topics, people could collaborate on the software. It was a lot like the current open-source movement, in which people work together with people they don’t even know to solve problems and create useful software. If there was some change you wanted to make, there was somebody somewhere who could tell you where that happened. There was maybe even somebody who had already made that change. Source code modifications were always being collected and passed around, and you could see what other people had done and decide whether you should do that — or maybe do the exact opposite.

Many popular door games were written in Turbo Pascal, from your own Space Dynasty to Solar Realms Elite to Global War. Why do you think so Turbo Pascal was so well-suited for developing these games?

Turbo Pascal is one of my favorite languages: easy for beginners to pick up and powerful for experts to use. It is easier to organize and distribute your programs than Microsoft BASIC. I spent many hours confronting the 64K data size barrier in Microsoft C and very seldom had this problem in Turbo Pascal beyond breaking code up into units. (C++ is much more straightforward than C but still not something you are ready for after writing a couple of BASIC programs.) Talk about flexible, Turbo Pascal is object-oriented if you want but also able to incorporate inline assembly code if you want. I wish I still had some use for it.

Why did you decide to make a PC adaptation of Space Empire Elite and Galactic Empire?

There didn’t seem to be a lot of crossover between IBM PC BBSes and Atari BBSes at this point in computer history. Space Empire Elite was an addictive game, prompting a lot of people to call and play daily on Atari bulletin boards, but most people had never heard of it on PC boards. I owned both computer types, had a job coding for IBMs and enjoyed the Atari 8-bit and ST as a hobby.

And, as I have said, I’m not someone who comes up with games from scratch. I’m pretty good at adapting games to a new but familiar format, and/or rewriting code in a new language.

What were some features that you admired in those games and incorporated into your game?

I tried to replicate the basics of the Space-Empire-type game without having access to the code. I don’t really know where [SEE creator] Jon Radoff got his ideas from, but eventually it seemed like the game started having changes just for the sake of having changes, so I tried to stick to basic stuff that was interesting for me to write. I had a lot of feedback once the game got going and I tried not to do anything too crazy.

I was surprised to read in the docs for an early version of Space Dynasty that the game was “largely developed using PC Ditto, an IBM emulation program for the Atari ST.I used PC Ditto sometimes as a kid. Tell me about the process of development within an emulator in those days. Was it slow?

I don’t remember PC Ditto slowing me down much. I started out developing with Turbo Pascal 3, which had a command-line compiler that was a .COM file. This means all the data and code were in a single 64K segment, very compact and speedy. So I could fit PC Ditto, DOS, Turbo Pascal, my programmer’s editor, and my program on a single floppy disk. I eventually bought an XT clone for running my own BBS, and by that time I had switched to Turbo Pascal 4, which was a largier, fancier program. PC Ditto was noticably slower trying to use a more complicated development environment.

How was Space Dynasty received by players and sysops when you released it?

The game was rolled out over a long period of time. I had a lot of help from local sysops doing initial testing and a lot of input from people suggesting which features to implement next.

I wasn’t doing this to make money. I was interested in how BBS games worked; I wanted to keep this sort of game available as the Atari BBSes faded from view; and I wanted to do something in Turbo Pascal.

I eventually included a monetary registration because many many enthusiatic people suggested that I needed to do so, so I eventually got a few hundred registrations.

A number of people over the years have requested the source code in order to do something specific with it, but as far as I can tell nobody has ever done anything with it, even the people who gave me a bit of money for that purpose. I’m grateful to everyone who wrote to me all those years ago to say that they enjoyed the game.

Besides BBSes, you were also a user on the online service GEnie. What were the advantages and disadvantages of the service for you compared with BBSes?

This is stretching my memory, so I hope I’m not making too much of this up. GEnie was a great place to get files for starters, as well as Atari 8-bit and 16-bit programs, newsletters and graphics files.

When I was attending Virginia Tech, engineers had to buy IBMs, so there wasn’t a large Atari community. GEnie was a pay service but it was cheaper than long-distance. Later there were celebrities of a sort: Star Trek visual effects guru Mike Okuda was on GEnie, as well as Babylon 5 creator Joe Straczynski.

Later it was my first personal internet email address and I could get internet newsletters and Usenet newsgroup digests. I remember copying Robyn Hitchcock discussion and rec.music.tori-amos onto floppy discs.

I switched to AOL at some point before GEnie went away, though. It was clearly not winning a lot of new fans towards the end.

Today you’re a “programmer analyst.” CNNMoney once ranked that job among their top 100 “Best Jobs in America.” What exactly does a programmer analyst do, and how did you settle on that career?

Where I work, we sell commercial off-the-shelf “COTS” accounting software to government customers, which is to say that we can customize the software if they want. I modify code and make custom screens and interfaces and stuff like that.

There is usually a cycle. We create a new release and deploy it and then we are done writing code for a while. One of the things I do when I am not writing code is to analyze other people’s SQL.

People who don’t write code may think that programming is more of a science than an art, but you can write something a million different ways, and one of the ways to write something is badly. People without experience may write something that works perfectly well for them and not very well at all for anybody else, and one of the things I do is fix stuff like that. Hence the analysis part: identifying problems, fixing mistakes.

I was always interested in science fiction as a kid, and my dad was a mainframe computer guy. He warned me that computers will drive you crazy, but the timing was right for me to pick up personal computers and major in computer science.

As an introvert, I was always interested in solving puzzles for a living. I am not interested in graduating to managing people at all. So some of my managers seem to have been disappointed that I do not have a game-show-host-type personality. I don’t know that I can recommend this without qualifications as a career path for introverts, but it has worked out pretty well for me so far.

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