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Eight Rock Star Programmers You Never Heard Of

My heroes have always been coding cowboys.

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Programmers are the musicians of the video game world. Okay, musicians are the musicians of the video game world. BUT, if you take away the music, you can almost safely say programmers are the musicians of the video game world. It's probably best to just say that programmers are the programmers of the video game world and be done with it.

(Note to self: delete the above paragraph)

Much like a band, or in the case of modern gaming epics, an orchestra, there are various disciplines in the fields of hardware and software design. There are the people who provide the all-important rhythms, the deep foundations of the music. Then there are virtuosos who spin code like Stanley Jordan plays guitar. That is to say, with two hands, and very well. Then there are band leaders and conductors.

These guys are way beyond that, in the scheme of things.

They're one-man bands, writing symphonies and performing them on the fly, using math and language to create worlds only some of us are privileged to visit. In short, they are rock stars of the world of electronics.

I realize point oh one percent of you are familiar with everyone on this list. You can nitpick details in the comments section. The rest of you probably maxed out at sort of knowing who Woz was, or will inevitably whine about Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds. The fact that people know who you are talking about negates your argument. Nerd. These guys have done more for the world than all open source software combined, because they spread joy and pleasure instead of hopelessness and frustration, which I believe comes bundled with some Linux distributions, now.

Jaron Zepel Lanier

You're know you're something of an iconoclast when you still have your Well account.

Jaron is a major head. When he was still a pup, he wrote what's widely considered the first really psychedelic videogame, Moondust. It's abstract, and possibly also the first to allow the creation of music in response to video game events. You didn't so much play Moondust as play it.

Writing one of the coolest old school games of all time was just a jumping off point for our generally amused friend Jaron.

The dude, in the finest Lebowski sense of the word, was in Time Magazine, in the top 100 somethings, FFS. He even wrote a best-selling book, You are Not a Gadget, in case you were wondering about that.

That's enough to qualify for minor deity status right there. But Jaron used the profits from Moondust to develop his own powerglove and VR goggles, and basically took over the virtual world. He makes his own virtual instruments, and has even performed with the Grateful Dead. He takes the whole rock star programmer thing literally. Oh, do you remember the time he brought down Internet 2?

Rock Star Status: Jerry Garcia.

Leo Schwab - AKA Bols Ewhac

If you were to look up look up Leo in a hacking dictionary, he would be in there. Under "hacking".

In fact, his name is synonymous with hacking. And the cool, fun kind, where almost no one ever goes to prison and gets raped as a result.

Back in the days, Leo wrote tons of cool little display hacks for the Amiga. They would, oh, turn your screen upside down, or make it turn to static. They were a class of cute, technically impressive, and mostly harmless little hacks that became known as Schwabbie hacks.

Don't believe me? Hacking definition from The Telecommunications Illustrated Dictionary, Second Edition.

He also did 3D animations the hard way. Uphill, on a computer with 512k and no hard drive. Witness "The Dream Goes Berzerk", which managed to top the Boing Ball and Juggler animations that made waves in the young world of 3D motion video. He even attracted the attention of CBS...with an anti-CBS animation depicting their logo being smashed by an axe. Apparently, they said some things about hackers that he didn't quite agree with.

Sadly, then Leo turned to the hard stuff. He began coding commercial video games. I've never really forgiven him for the disk-swapping nightmare that is "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" He was also on freakin' Starcade. Possibly playing against Old Dirty Bastard. Can you say that?

Like most supergenius madmen, he took to wearing a cape and coding graphics drivers, leading to this famous bit of arcane lore: Adventures in Graphics Drivers.

Amiga, Be, Inc., 3DO. If there was a doomed but lovable system out there, Leo has coded for it. And if he hasn't worked for your favorite company yet, be patient. He'll get there eventually. His old web page reads like a snapshot of Internet Archive.

Rock Star Status: Carlos Santana.

Todd Frye

Todd was the original unknown rock star. He wrote Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. It was sort of terrible. But, to be fair, he wrote it by himself in six weeks, in 4K of memory. And then Atari made more than twelve million dollars off of it.

I don't know about you, but I actually cried in the store to get my copy.

Then I cried again when I got home and played it. WTF, Todd? The dots are dashes. If you were a WW II telegraph operator, we'd all be dead.

Todd's real claim to fame, if you ask me, and by reading this article, you sort of are, was adapting the arcade game Xevious to the same hardware. If you know anything coding, and the 6502 processor, you know this is impossible.

No one told Todd. He was given the assignment as a reward for his work on Pac-Man. Some say it was in fact a punishment. Legend has it, he went home and smoked a joint of weed, coke and angel dust, and figured out how to do it. Nonsense, you say? Can't be done, you say?

Todd Frye says suck it. He's got weed to smoke.

Rock Star Status: Syd Barrett.

Brad Carvey

Expect Brad to also be featured in an upcoming column, "Scary Geniuses Who Plan to Rule the World Soon". His movie star brother is listed in Wikipedia as his brother.

Brad was the prototype Garth from Wayne's World. Dana Carvey, parodying Brad, while wears Video Toaster shirt.

"What the hell is a Video Toaster?", you ask, most ignorantly.

Oh, it was just a broadcast TV studio on a card that Brad designed on a napkin with a friend or two. The VT, as people who have grown tired of typing out 'Video Toaster' have long since taken to calling it, sometimes, was owned by every cable station in the country in the 90s.

If you watched TV during that decade, you saw the Video Toaster in action and didn't know it.

You didn't know it, because it was broadcast quality. For $1900. The Toaster and Lightwave 3d, the accompanying rendering software, went on to do work on shows like Seaquest, Babylon 5, and lots of other nostalgic geek shows. In fact, it's still in use today, in various reincarnated forms.

Brad's production company Free Range Digital did the dragonfly intro for the film Men in Black. No, that was not a real dragonfly. In 1994, he told me he could put augmented reality headsets on the shelf at Wal-Mart for $500 apiece. And he does not talk crap.

Not rock star enough for you? How about being associated with Todd Rundgren's Fascist Christ, the first 3D animation banned from MTV?

Brad was working on a DNA sequencing computer that was the genetic equivalent of a ten dollar car the last time I talked to him. I wonder if I'll be spared when his benevolent reign comes to fruition?

Rock Star Status: Bach. Not Sebastian, either.

Jeff Minter

Rock Star Status: Captain Beefheart

No, he isn't. He's Jimi Hendrix. I don't know enough about Captain Beefheart, anyway. But Jeffy is like, wow. He paints in big, bright, bold lo-res graphics, EXACTLY like if Hendrix was writing a song using an 8-Bit device. About Llamas. And that's just his early, blued-based stuff. His games are like records you can just put on repeat.

It is 3D in which Mr. Minter really hits his stride. His broad strokes from a carefully chosen palette give way, mid-career, to concise swirls of notes, buzzing around your head out of the ether in a most cosmic-like manner. "Minter is God" read the buttons of the affected. Pure psychedelia in digital form.

But Jeffy is more than virtuoso. He spearheaded an actual, if failed, revolution. One of his designs was slated to be the pack-in game for a system Nintendo was working on, named Revolution. This was obviously way too much for The Man, as the game wasn't included, and the system name was watered down to the non-revolutionary Wii.

Rock Star Status: Jimi Hendrix

Jim Sachs

If you played games in the 80s and 90s, Jim Sachs touched your heart, much in the way I assume Cat Stevens touched your heart in the 70s. With less guitar. He played with light and shadow in a showstopping way. His art influenced gameplay. Jim Sachs can get more out of a simple color-cycling animation than most guys can do in an entire album. Again, draw your own Cat Stevens references from that.

Look, Jim did a lot of stuff, but let's be honest, here. Defender of the Crown will always be his . He's gonna have to play it at the beginning, middle, and end of his shows.

The next, eagerly-awaited Cat Stevens album from Jim was slated to be the eagerly-awaited 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea game. Drawn with the same loving attention to harmony and melody as one assumes Cat Stevens once did, the gaming public drooled at the prospect. I think we did it all using our imagination, as that's all we had to go off of. 20,000 Leagues. Jim Sachs. Defender of the Crown.

Here's where it gets sad, and actually almost sort of parallels the life of Cat Stevens. It seems our Mr. Sachs worked so hard on this game, 20 hours a day, people say, that he eventually had to pull off of the project. The world is sadder for the loss.

In a sense, it's almost like Jim never left the idyllic aquatic environment of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, instead electing to remain there forever, in a world without deadlines or silly sleep requirements.

Dang, that is kinda sad, actually. He's on Facebook, really, so no worries. Although one wonders what his artwork would be like if he had instead embraced Islam...

Rock Star Status: Cat Stevens

Team Amiga

The Amiga people were more like The Beatles, but they looked and acted like the Monkees. By all accounts, it was like watching Sargent Pepper being recorded with Wacky Sax playing on a continuous loop. This was a famous misdirection straight out of 'The Art of War'.

Amiga were making a computer. Well, they were making a game system, ostensibly. But they didn't want anyone to know any of that. So they released games, joysticks, and peripherals. In fact, they released the original Wii Balance Board, the Joyboard.

But check this out: In 1984, the Macintosh debuted. Black and white, mono sound, one-button mouse, single-tasking.

The Amiga came out in 1985, with 4096 colors (kinda), 16-bit stereo sound, a two or three-button mouse, and multi-tasking. It's been the model for computers ever since. Also somewhat obscure and European. Like Ozric Tentacles, I guess.

The Amiga's real power was in its operating system. Intuition, the backbone of Workbench, had mystical properties. It could read minds. Consequently, other Amiga users were your tribe, sight unseen. We were all hanging out a big muddy rave together. Somewhere in Europe.

There were way too many people involved to start naming them by names. Kinda like...Ozric Tentacles? But as if creating the most iconic computer of all time wasn't enough, a few Amiga people released some solo albums as follow-ups, the Atari Lynx and Panasonic 3DO. Perhaps you've heard of them.

Okay, perhaps I should stop picking bands I know little to nothing about. I have no good way to tie the Amiga people to Ozric Tentacles, short of using some cliched way to say they created digital/analog alchemy on a grand scale.

Rock Star Status: Ozric Tentacles

Joel Spolsky

Joel Spolsky? Rock star?

Hell yes. Although he'd probably cringe at the comparison, and we imagine he shuns rock star programmers in general. perhaps that's because rock star types don't always get on well with other rock star types.

And Joel is about as big as it gets, in a sense. He was project manager (or some such lofty title - I don't really research these things) on an obscure little project that may have passed across your desk once or twice in your life - Microsoft Excel.

But Joel didn't just rest on his laurels. Oh, hell no. He's now one of the top columnists on Silicon Valley topics. His articles on usability are like User Interface Design erotica. He builds teams and projects in a decidedly non-Microsoft fashion. Not content to rehash major label pop forever, he continues to refine his art, on his own terms.

Joel rocks. But he rocks in a timely manner, on budget, and meeting the targeted specifications.

Rock Star Status: Tin Machine-era David Bowie.

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