Dos: Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions! Can you first tell us a bit about what you did at Softdisk?
Stuart: My by line was my given name, Cregg S Hardwick, which is why I switched to Stuart when I started writing fiction. I was an Associate Editor on Big Blue Disk/On Disk Monthly, which means I wrote my own programs, edited submitted programs for publication, and wrote documentation and whatnot. I played with the emulator you linked the other day, and it's actually remarkable how little I remember. I do recall that at the time, computer mice were a new thing most of our subscribers didn't have, and I wrote the keyboard mouse emulator used in many of our later programs.
Dos: Did you get to take on an active role in putting together ZZT and ZZT's City into the ODM release or did you simply receive a program from Tim Sweeney to put onto the disk as-is?
Stuart: I would have made any changes or edits for the version we published, plus edited any text that accompanied it. We did a lot of compiled Microsoft BASIC (using someone else's linker when we could because theirs was a dog) as well as Borland Turbo Pascal and other languages. Most of our submissions needed a fair amount of work, but ZZT didn't. It was pretty clean and I remember spending a fair amount of time just playing it looking for bugs.
Dos: Many of the differences between ZZT's City and what we've known as City of ZZT are sprinkling text about ODM and Softdisk throughout the boards. Did you add those?
Stuart: Yes. I was a fan of the early text adventure games and the puns and Easter eggs often found in them. ZZT made it easy to make little changes like that, but sadly, we didn't have much time to spend on such things as I'd have liked. We had a monthly production schedule, into which we shoehorned two and three month development efforts where we could. ZZT didn't need much work, so it didn't get much.
Dos: Some of the other changes noticed are mostly in the game's jail section where there are some additions outside of the main board paths (a mortuary, and a "rare noose collection" sign). The ending also has slightly more text as well as some tables in the pub and signs for SODA and BEAR [sic].
Stuart: I really don't recall. I doubt that I added any rooms, but I might have. I makes sense though that if those were the only changes, I might have added them-
-I wouldn't have had time to do much else. I might well have added spelling errors. Our quality control mostly involved Jim Wieler mashing on the keyboard to see if the program locked. ;-)
Dos: In the City of ZZT we're familiar with, there are two boards that connect, but the edges don't quite line up. This is actually fixed in ZZT's City. Since the error exists in later releases, is it a safe assumption that ZZT's City is essentially its own branch in the development of the original ZZT worlds?
Stuart: I can only assume he created a branch to submit to us. You have to remember that in those days, all communication was by telephone or mail. Paper mail. With stamps. I don't know, but if I were Tim and knew that my game might be in limbo for a few months and I had other derivatives in the pipe, I think it would have been smart to consider the submission a branch. I don't specifically recall fixing the misalignment, but that is exactly the sort of thing I would have looked for and fixed. And because we never thought about the future, I wouldn't have written Tim to report any bug fixes, so it's not surprising the bug persisted.
Dos: Do you recall if Softdisk published any other ZZT worlds? There are mentions of Town and Dungeons appearing in future releases.
Stuart: I left Softdisk in January of 1992 after the defection of the "gamer guys" (the guys who went on to found iD), persistent mis-management by the founder, and an erroneously scheduled cron job that for about a year made the accountants think subscriptions were growing at twice the rate they actually were, all converged in a layoff of half the staff. The company never recovered, and within a few years was out of the software business and eking by as a local Internet reseller until it closed. I'm Internet friends now with many of my coworkers, but we were not in touch for years after the collapse and I have no knowledge of what appeared on later issues. If the text on the issue says other installments were coming, I must have written that text, which means either I or Jim Weiler or Jay Wilber had exchanged letters with Sweeney agreeing to that, but I have no recollection of that and I'm fairly sure I never had any disks.
Dos: Were you in contact with Tim Sweeney during the project?
Stuart: Not that I recall. That would likely have been the managing editor, Jim or Jay.
Dos: The ZZT executable itself is different from any previously known version and has its editor removed. Did Tim provide a trimmed down ZZT, or did you (or someone else) handle the changes necessary for Softdisk's publication?
Stuart: I would have made all changes needed for publication by Softdisk. I don't recall if I removed the editor or if he submitted a version with the editor removed or if it was just a compiler flag. If he didn't submit a version without it, I definitely would have removed it if I could. We were a "magazine on disk" and whether the old floppies or the 3.5" disks, space was always at a premium. In fact, every .exe or .com program was compressed using a utility called "LZEXE" written by a brilliant French kid named Fabrice Bellard. LZEXE compressed the executable using Huffman Coding and installed its own decoder at the head of the resulting executable. This saved a ton of space, and because disk access was so slow, actually improved load times substantially.
Dos: Any clue on where the "3.56" version number comes from? (To us, it looks like the version is either a modification of ZZT 3.00 or a version from slightly before or after it.)
Stuart: That would be the internal Softdisk version that would have been incremented multiple times during our editing process. You have to remember that we had no code repository in those days. We didn't even have a LAN. We stored files on our hard drives and floppies and passed them around via "frisbee-net" (tossing them across the office). Since we had nothing but filenames and datetime stamps to go by, we incremented minor version numbers all the time, even during a two or three month development cycle. I would guess he submitted a 3.x version and we incremented from there, but that's only a guess. We never had a formal versioning standard, though I tried to promulgate one my last year there.
Dos: And the million dollar question: ZZT's source code has been lost to time. I certainly wouldn't expect you to, but is there any possibility that you have source code (or any old documents) pertaining to this version of ZZT kept somewhere?
Stuart: Ha ha, not a chance, sorry. I don't think I ever even had it on my own machine. Vekovius was so cheap, most of the office computers were 286 clones and I don't even think most of them had hard disks. I bought my own 386 "lunchbox portable" which was really more like a sewing machine. It was gray, it was Chinese (or Korean), and it's probably somewhere in Shreveport's landfill. The only thing I still have from Softdisk is a couple of "PC Business Disk" covers and the cute little Lexan bowl we all got at the Christmas party before we lost our jobs a month later.
Dos: Any closing remarks?
Stuart: Thanks for sending the link. Softdisk was a great--but tragic--place to start my career. I was surrounded by people smarter than me--but none of us were listened to where it counted. By the time I joined the ODM department, the Internet was a thing, the industry had outgrown the "Magazette" and the handwriting was on the walls to everyone but the owner. The quality of submissions vs what was cheaply available through other channels was way down, and I spent much of my time re-writing and seriously editing. Honestly, ZZT is one of the few submissions I actually remember--which is because it was fun to play and didn't need a lot of work. It was good to see it again.
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