All I Really Need to Know I Learned from a 128K Mac

On Monday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the Real World Ajax Conference in NYC. During my talk on Designing for Ajax, I mentioned how I got my start in the world of user interface and user experience -- writing the Macintosh game GATO in 1985.

Several attendees came up afterward and told me that they had played and enjoyed GATO. That's always fun to find someone who has enjoyed something you created.

One of those that spoke with me was Blake Patterson. I didn't recognize the name but after an email followup I connected him with one of his sites that I have frequented, I also found out he runs ByteCellar a site that covers the history of early computing. Blake requested that I give some of the history behind creating the game and the experiences of early Macintosh development. I pointed him to some comments I posted on Andy Hertzfeld's Folklore site.

Blake wrote up a nice summary of those comments. You can read his article here.

After reading his article it really came home to me how defining the event of writing that game was in my life. Like the famous book, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten; I can say that really All I Need to Know I Learned from a 128K Mac. So what did that Mac teach me?

  • Passion. I fell in love with computing on that puny Mac. I caught the passion of folks like Guy Kawasaki and Steve Jobs for this insanely great computer. Heck that phrase "insanely great" I continue to use to this day.
  • It's Possible. Look when we started development we were green. We did not know the "C" language. We made horrible mistakes. It looked like we would never succeed. We had unrealistic deadlines. But one by one we solved our problems. And we did it.
  • Event-Driven programming. The Mac introduced me to the world of event-oriented development. This underpins everything today. It is the re-introduction of the possiblity of finer-grained events via Ajax that makes it possible to build cool apps on the web.
  • Object-Oriented programming & design. While C was not object oriented, the Mac had an object-based feel to it. It got me into reading the book on SmallTalk, the purest Object-Oriented language.
  • Model-View-Controller. The powerful pattern that taught me the concept of separation of concerns, pub-sub concepts and the power of abstraction.
  • User-Centered Design. The original PC GATO was divided into many screens. When we sat down to do our brainstorming on how to write a submarine simulation game we thought a lot about how submarine crews need access to their controls/panels. We interviewed a GATO class captain from WWII. That drove us to design a display that never lost the most essential controls. You could flip between a map and other less important controls but never lost the gauges, controls and dials.
  • The Importance of Understanding the Deep Magic. What I mean is after GATO was released we went under the hood. We disassembled the ROM code. We documented it. We reverse engineered everything we could. We learned exactly how memory management, regions, event management and so on worked from the bottom up. This need to demystify the complex was first learned on my Mac.
  • Where to Optimize. Learning from the master, Bill Atkinson. His drive to have a solid design approach and then optimize in the 5% of the code was a lesson I took forward into many projects in the future.
  • Use the Tools. There weren't many tools available on the Mac. But we put MacPaint, MacDraw to use to create backdrops and vector shape files to create the graphical aspects of GATO. I have since always tried to use tools in novel ways to get my work done (see my VISIO toolkit as one example).
  • Being Pixel Perfect. Design is made up of nuances. Apple always has gotten this. I fussed over every pixel in drawing the GATO screens (although I will admit the explosion routine was horendous -- it was created the night before our first public demonstration.) To this day it drives me nutty to see something one or two pixels off.
  • Minimalism. Heck we only had black and white. It forced you to think about designs without having tons of colors and shading, etc.
  • Principles of Interactive Design. Directness, Immediate Feedback, Modeless Design, and so on. Writing one of the first complex games utilizing Windows, Menus, Icons and Pointers (WIMP) was an exciting playground to learn within. We had the Mac & Lisa to thank for inspiration.
  • Pay Attention to Real World Constraints. Hey it was a 128K Mac. Its one thing to design for the sky, its another to design for an extremely memory constrained system.
That's the list of things that immediately come to mind. I am sure there are others. For folks who did not live through the Mac & Lisa revolution I hope this little walk down nostalgia lane can capture the magic I felt when working on GATO and my lowly 128K Macintosh.

I should add that the other two developers/designers were James Rhodes and Sean Hill. James was (and I am sure still is) one of the finest developers I have ever worked with. Sean was a master at marketing and creativity. Sean later led the game unit at Sphere (formerly Spectrum Holobyte). As I understood it he was lead for the highly successful Falcon game.

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Sr. Director, UI Engineering, PayPal. Former Netflixer, Y! Pattern Curator. UX & Engineering Leader, Author, Speaker. Early Mac game developer (1985)

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