There were not many famous programmers for the Atari ST in Germany. Guido Henkel is one of them for sure. Games like Hellowoon, Ooze and Lords of Doom on the ST or the Das schwarze Auge trilogy - aka the Realms of Arkania in English - and Planescape: Torment will be unforgotten. ‘Hellowoon’ was the first game, that I bought for the ST, I had the idea to do this interview over a year ago and to my pleasure, Guido agreed with the words: ‘Yes, of course. Thanks, that you still remember me’.
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2) First computer, first experience
4) Hellowoon: first game that was published
5) Writing parsers
6) Why Hans-Jürgen never got so famous
7) Tools used
8) What happened to Die Schicksalsklinge
9) It's the end of the word
1) Hello Guido, thank you for the interview. Can you introduce yourself to the people, who haven't heard from you before. Where do come from, where do you live now?
Hey there. I'm Guido Henkel and was born in Stuttgart a long time ago. Some 7 years ago or so I left Germany, moved to the US and settled down in Southern California where the sun always shines. :-)
2) What was your first computer and your first programming experience?
I started programming on a Commodore PET and a Commodore CBM-3032. These were 8-bit personal computers we had at school back then. With a whopping 8kB of RAM those were monster machines at the time. Soon they brought in an Apple II which had color and a 16kB RAM expansion. It quickly became my favorite machine and I started writing my first games on that computer. I started in BASIC but quickly realized that it was simply not suited for anything I wanted to do. Having been fairly hardware savvy at the time - I even built a simple micro-processor in school out of discrete elements as part of a science fair presentation at the time that was later used by the teachers in class to demonstrate what exactly is happening inside the core of a CPU - I quickly switched to machine language. This meant opening a hex monitor writing all code in hex values without any symbols or such. A line of source code would look something like this back then
$A9 $02 $E8 $FF
...and so forth. It was an amazing time and I think it's easy to see the sense of achievement one got out of poking these hex numbers into a computer's memory and getting it to actually do something, like drawing sprites, moving characters around the screen etc.
Eventually I bought a used Commodore VIC-20 with a datasette for around $1000. That was the first computer I personally owned.
3) Give us a short overview of your computer history. Which systems did you have, which were you favorite and why? Do you still have your old machines?
Originally I started programming on the Apple II and Commodore PET in school, spending most of my waking hours in the computer lab there. Later I made a Commodore VIC-20 my first home computer and was working on it for some time and then the C-64 was released. By comparison it seemed like the most amazing computer technology could ever produce at the time - and it was. I began saving money and some months later I bought one, complete with a 5.25" floppy disk drive. I immediately poured over the ROM listings of the machine and began writing more elaborate games - none of which were published, though, but helped me build my programming skills. Hans-Jürgen Brändle, who was a friend of mine since the VIC-20 days, since he was the only guy who also had one, became a great partner of mine during that period as we began writing games together. He would take care of one part, I would work on a different part and once a week or so we would put our pieces together. During that period I was also experimenting with a few other computers, such as the Spectrum ZX-81 and the Atari 800.
When the Atari ST surfaced I knew I had to have one. Immediately! I remember I took out a bank loan at the time to buy this computer and I was simply in awe. I had used the Apple Macintosh at work before for desktop publishing, but that was a $20.000 computer back then. Having the same sort of processing power at home for around $2.000 was just incredible. So Hans-Jürgen and I started digging deep into this machine. Games became a bit bigger then and we began switching to assembly language - which is still machine code but uses instruction names as opposed to the hex numbers. The 68000 was a very cool processor and I decided to begin work on a game I would eventually like to see published.
From there I added an Amiga to my roster when it was released. First, an Amiga 1000 then the Amiga 2000 down the line. I loved the hardware of the Amiga but hated the crummy operating system. As a result the Atari ST has always been my favorite machine. It was lean and mean.
Then my publisher requested a C-64 version of the game, which caused me to go back to that computer, as well as an IBM PC version - which seemed outlandish because the PC had only 4 colors at the time. Then EGA came around making it 16 colors out of 64, and eventually VGA with 256 colors. Within only a few years the PC developed into a real workhorse while the traditional home computers constantly lost ground and eventually died - sadly.
Some time down the line I did some work on the Acorn Archimedes, the PlayStation, the PS2, the Xbox, the Gameboy, the Pocket PC and now a wide variety of cell phones, of course.
Unfortunately I don't have any of these old computers any more with the exception of an Atari TT. I thought about buying some on eBay a little while ago but I knew they would only gather dust and not find any real use, so I decided against it :-)
4) You said, that none of your C64 games were published. I remember having read about the listing of 'Hellowoon', you sent to a German magazine called 'Homecomputer'. But the listing was much too long to be printed. Nevertheless it was the first game you published. Can you tell us more about it?
I believe "Happy Computer" was the magazine, the precursor to what later became "Power Play." In all honesty I do not properly recall if or what was going on there, but there is a chance I sent in a listing for them to print and it being rejected, yes, that's quite possible. I did a few of those things in these days, just trying to get something "out there" so to say. I also sent demos to companies like Kingsoft at the time who were publishing all sorts of home-made software, but I remember I never got a response from them - which made for some great war-stories of course when 10 years later I started doing business with them distributing Attic's games in Germany.
"Hellowoon" went through a number of iterations. I originally started the game on the VIC-20, abandoned it and redesigned it when I switched to the C64, because now I had more memory etc. It got scrapped again when I switched to the Atari ST and underwent a complete re-invention for that machine. On the Atari ST I finally completed the game and that's when I got serious about having it published, and eventually wrote the C64 version for it as well.
I Had another look to the 'Hellowoon'-preview. You sent the listing to the magazine 'Computronic' and it was in fact the ST version. They couldn’t print it, because it would have filled the whole issue ;-).
5) Your first games were adventures and you liked to write and improve parsers. What was so interesting in writing parsers?
Parser programming was very exotic back then, and I think that was what the appeal was to me. I saw what Infocom were doing, and I played the Scott Adams games, but they all seemed so innately limited. I couldn't understand why and I couldn't tolerate it, so my mission at that time was to write a parser that is better than what they had - and more importantly, one that understood German. It is a very analytical process to write text parsers and I have a background in typesetting, so I've always had an affinity to the written word, which may explain my fascination with it as well.
I was never really intrigued by graphics programming at the time, and I believe it had a lot to do with the fact that everyone was doing that. I wanted to carve out a niche for myself in which I could excel and German adventure games with a top notch text parser were the perfect match. I also need to point out that both, Hans-Jürgen Brändle and I, are avid readers and have huge book collections. Again, it was only natural that we were both attracted to a game genre that was working on your imagination rather than your visual senses and reflexes.
6) I have to insert another question. Hans-Jürgen and you have worked very close together. But Hans-Jürgen never got so famous. Are there any reasons?
It is hard for me to answer that because Hans-Jürgen sadly passed away this past summer. He was always the better programmer of the two of us. He was the engineer and I was the hack, in a way, so we had very different approaches. The reason he never became as recognized as me is that he was not as outgoing as myself. As a result I was always the one who did the talking to the press, which in turn translated in my face showing up in magazines and people recognizing me. When we started Attic we also knew and decided that it would be much more effective for the company to have one “face” as opposed to many, so that people could easier identify with me – the face - and the company. Again, as a result I was usually more prominently featured than Hans-Jürgen and our partner Jochen Hamma.
I’m very sad to hear this. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and with you.
7) You made all the work on your first games by yourself. Which tools did you use for the different parts (graphic, text, code...)?
I honestly don’t even remember all of them. I think on the C-64 I was using SMon – a hex debugger – to write my code. As for graphics, there was no software back then. We entered all graphics in hex data into the memory.
On the Atari ST, I always loved Tempus as my text editor and used a variety of C compilers, until Borland’s Turbo C came around. Instantaneously that became my preferred compiler and assembler. Graphics were done in Art Director.
On the Amiga we used DPaint for all our art needs – of course – and Cygnus Ed as my editor. I don’t recall the name of the compiler I used but it was “the” reference compiler at the time.
8) Many of us know your ST-games 'Hellowoon', 'Ooze', 'Exolon' and 'Drachen von Laas'. Have you started other games that never saw the light of day? I.e. I found the information, that 'Das schwarze Auge: Schicksalsklinge' was released for ST. But I'm very sure, it wasn't.
“Die Schicksalsklinge” was originally planned for release on the Atari ST, but we canned it down the road because the game became so unmanageable for the platform and the ST market was dying underneath our feet.
As for other game ideas? Oh yes, there were many. Still are. I am constantly accumulating ideas for new games, sometimes start developing them and then abandoning them for a variety of reasons. It’s part of my process, I suppose.
9) Many thanks, Guido, that you've taken the time answer these questions. Can you write some keywords, maybe about Atari Legend or for the people who try to preserve the Atari ST?
It is pretty fascinating for me to see that there still is interest in these old platforms. I think they are more than just nostalgia. They are, in fact, a part of history because the computer games market we see today, directly resulted from us working on platforms like the Apple II, C-64, Atari ST, Amiga etc. It was those platforms that opened this world of computers to so many people, and more importantly, they gave my life a purpose! So, keep the spirit alive!
If you would like to read more about his games, take a look at the legacy (in german) and click at the ‘i’ in front of his name.
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