An Ivans Chou production. Some graphics courtesy Ender Designs

An Interview with Tim Phillips

The following is an interview that I [isc] conducted with Tim Phillips [TP] the author of the very popular fantasy/adventure role playing game Realmz for the Macintosh and Macintosh compatible computers. Tim is also the author of several of the Realmz scenarios including "City of Bywater", "Assault on Giant Mountain", and "Destroy the Necronomicon".

Tim Phillips, has been a model for Mac developers everywhere. Dedicated to developing a superior product that runs on a superior operating system, Tim is constantly striving to improve his product. While maintaining high standards and integrity for his product, Tim also has a carefully listening ear to the end users, and he is constantly including new features based on the suggestions of Realmz users.

Through such dedication, Realmz is now an award winning product that rivals commercial offerings, sporting one of the most intuitive user interfaces and number of features available in any fantasy role playing game.

isc: "Tell me, Tim, how did you get started with programming?"

TP: Well I tell you, I won't give you the [short] answer on this one. I will give you the complete history.

When I was a sophomore in high school (around the year 1982) I got my hands on a Vic20. For those of you that don't remember it, it was the baby brother to the Commodore64. It had a whopping 3k of memory. (Yes, that 3000+ BYTES). It cost an outlandish $90 to buy. I learned basic from the little manual that came with it.

My first game was a version of Stratego. It was pretty good too. Consider that for graphics I had to redefine the character set. (Something that is just not done anymore [since] in the days of MEGA-RAM). It consists of telling the computer that the letter "A" no longer looks like an "A" but as one small section of graphic. By the time you paste together the entire ASCII character set of 256 characters you have a ton of tiny graphics pieces you can fit together.

For mass storage I used an old tape drive (similar to an old tape recorder) that would store the info on audio tape. Very slow and error prone. As an example, to load 2k of data it would take about 3 minutes. If you bumped the table or something it would freak and you would have to rewind and try again.

To get over the 3k limit of memory I would load a program that would do some initializing stuff, dump that, load another program, do some more etc.... That was the days of lean mean coding machines. Microsoft should learn a few lessons there.

isc: If you could get in Bill Gate's face, what would you tell him in respect to his apparent philosophy about software development?

TP: To just pull back a bit and quit trying to stuff every feature and the kitchen sink into one software package. Ultimately the goal is so they can keep pumping out new and improved versions and charge for upgrades. What I hate about that is: those that support them early on have to pay $149 + $49 (Upgrade) + $49 (Upgrade) + $49 (Upgrade) etc... to get to the version that is out there today. While some slob who just jumps in and starts to support them TODAY gets the same version for only the $149. Why should somebody that shelled out the $$ early on have to pay more to wind up with the same product?

Realmz has a lot of versions but I don't charge to upgrade. I figure if you liked it enough at version 1.0 to shell out the $$ then I should thank you for the support by letting you enjoy better versions for free. That way those that shell out early don't get penalized for being early but in fact benefit by having fun longer.

Lots of times I have been to a software store and held off buying a piece of software because I know in 3 months a new version will be out that will give me MORE for LESS. Ultimately, after gazing at the box and holding off buying 2 or 3 times, the thrill of owning it goes away and often I end up NEVER buying it. If more companies would make it a benefit to buy in early instead of the other way around, think how much simpler life would be?

Apple sort of does the same thing by charging for updates to System Software. Granted, they need to make a buck, but charging me multiple times for the same software annoys me. I don't have a problem with paying a small fee to get it shipped to me on CD/Floppy, but it should be freely available to those that can access the net.

As an example, I just bought a brand new PowerMac 4400. These babies have only been out of the gate a VERY short time. Guess what, System 7.5.3 is on it. I would almost excuse them if it had 7.5.5 but now they want me to pay to have them ship 7.6 to my door. NO THANKS.

(New Mac owners should read the side note.)

isc: What happened after the Vic20?

TP: When I was a senior in high school I bought an Atari 1200XL for $200. Again, using a tape drive for storage. But this little gem had 64K RAM. I told myself "I will NEVER be able to program a game that will need more that that!" Ha!

So I started into a game called "Dungeon". As is standard practice, every game programmer on the face of the planet has at one time done or at least started a game called Dungeon. Using the sophisticated 8 bit technology I had at my command now I whipped out a pretty good game. Again, a lot of character set animation. I worked on that thing off and on til my sophomore year in college. By the time I really had it finished the market for Atari Computer games was pretty much a dead horse.

Then one day I was at the Engineering Expo here at the UW Madison and I saw a Mac128k machine running MacPaint. BLOWN AWAY!!!!!!!!!!! I was. Seeing all those circles and boxes fill with patterns as you put them on the screen was a real amazing thing in those days. About 6 months later I managed to get together about $900 to buy a used Mac Plus (1 Meg Mem). Hard to believe how little $900 use to get you in the Mac world. Thank god those days are over.

I did not really do any programming on the Mac for about 2 years as I didn't have too much free time or money in college to give it a whirl.

I would slowly upgrade machines whenever I got the chance. By the time I graduated I had a MacSE with a 20Meg Hard drive and 4 Meg Memory. They had color macs by those days but I could not afford one.

After school I landed a job as a Civil Engineer designing highways for the Dept of Transportation in Wisconsin. Three days before I was supposed to start work, Desert Storm broke out and my reserve unit was called up. I had the luxury of playing in the Saudi Sun for 10 months. Actually it was 2 months of duty at Fort McCoy then 8 months in Saudi proper.

isc: Wow! I never knew you were a "war vet"!

TP: Don't think of it as too glamorous. As a little FACTOID, only 1 in 10 people in the military have an actual job that would throw them in harms way if they had to go to war. i.e. 9 of 10 people have jobs like Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker. Don't get me wrong, many of those jobs are very dangerous but your not really required to fire any shots in anger. As an a supply Sargent in an ammo dump. We sat on top of enough stuff to wipe out a good piece of Iraq. (As a matter of fact, we did.) If something were to go wrong..... well, use your imagination there.

The vast majority of the time it was hurry up and wait.

There I was, sitting in Saudi with nothing better to dream about than my wife and a decent meal. One of my friends sent me a current issue of MacWorld when I was over there and it had a picture of the Mac IIsi on the cover. The headline read something like "A low cost color Mac"

That itching, burning, yearning started all over again. I must have read that magazine about 300 times. I gazed at the picture of the Mac IIsi like it was a nude woman.

About 2 months later when I was in Kuwait City (post war), me and a few other buddies who were also big into Macs had our picture taken holding up this same MacWorld magazine while sitting on a blown up Iraqi tank.

We thought that maybe we could send that picture into MacWorld and beg them to send us a Mac IIsi to us out there in the desert so we would not freak out while waiting to go home.

We never did send that picture in and I still have it. Maybe I will scan it and let you post it so people can see just what a Mac freak looks like.

isc: Would love to!

TP: Well, about 5 months after the war ended I finally got back to the states. When I was over there I saved all my pennies and got a Mac IIsi when I got back. $1500 I believe for just the box. OUCH!

Armed with that, one Inside Mac reference book, a copy of ResEdit and a copy of Think C, I dived in and started to make Realmz.

It was more of a hobby than any real effort to make a game that others would play. I worked on it more for the thrill of having something to do that really interested me. When I was in Fort McCoy waiting to go to Saudi I hurt my knee (real bad). The Army would not operate on it in Saudi and they would not send me to Germany for the operation as it was not good PR at the time. (Do I sound bitter?)

When I got back I had it operated on by a civilian doctor but could not do anything real physical for about 2 years. It was messed up pretty bad by the time they operated on it as I walked around on it and trashed it about 8 times in Saudi. Each time I went to the rear area hospital and got the same treatment from the docs, "Have some Motrin and try not to hurt it again".

That is pretty much what kept me going at Realmz. I had nothing better to do with the majority of my free time. Then to make things worse, me and my wife had to live apart for about 9 months right after I got back as she was finishing her masters in Madison and I had to work in Superior (about 320 miles north).

Needless to say, not being able to do anything physical (Either alone or with the wife) left me with far too much free time so I spent it on Realmz. There it is. The LONG version of how I got started programming and how Realmz got it's start. Oh, originally the name of the game was Realms but some company put out a PC commercial game by the same title about 2 years after I started working on it, but way before I sold copy one. That is why the 'Z'. I don't have any kind of great love for the 'Z' but I did like the name as a whole.

isc: So at what point did you and your wife get married?

TP: We have been married for over 10 years now. We eloped when we were 20 years old. At that time her parents made her move to Texas or they were going to cut her off from funding for college. After one semester she asked to come back and they said, "No". We [then] took matters into our own hands and eloped. That is why we were so poor for so long.

We were both trying to go to school full time and her parents would not help out. My parents did what they could but I am the youngest of 7 kids and they did not have a whole lot of loose change if you know what I mean.

I worked my way through school filling vending machines until I got a summer job as a Student Engineer for the Dept of Transportation. A whopping $8.35 an hour. I thought I was on easy street when I got that job.

isc: Were you still working at the Department of Transportation when you started working on Realmz?

TP: Yes, I sort of started it at the same time I started my full time Engineer job when I got back from the sandbox.

isc: If I may ask, at what point did you take that leap of faith and turned Realmz from a hobby into a full-time job?

TP: About a year and a half ago when I quit my job as an engineer. That was a tough thing to do. Paid vacation, insurance, sick days, donuts in the morning. Not an easy thing to give up.

isc: So, If I understand correctly, you went to college and got a degree in CivE? Why not Software Engineering or Computer Programmer?

TP: To be honest, I wanted to be a Computer Science Major but they had a requirement of having to take 3 semesters of a foreign language. As most people can easily guess by my writing, I'm not too good with English, forget about having to learn Spanish.

I'm nothing if not realistic. I knew then that there would have been NO chance of me passing 3 semesters and it would have been washout city for this cat. So I stuck with my guns and finished engineering school.

isc: So you taught yourself C programming from a reference manual?

TP: I did have one HOW TO book called "Macintosh C Primer" A very good book for beginners. The Inside Mac book had very little example code and what it does have is in Pascal. With a lot of trial and error I managed to learn C and the Mac Toolbox one piece at a time.

Not an easy thing to do.

isc: I know, I tried. So, is Realmz, basically your first C project?

TP: Yep. It sort of got out of hand. For the longest time it was just me tooling around doing whatever. After a while it looked like it could actually be fun.

Ever since it has sort of been an ongoing thing. I use to enjoy it a lot more than I do now. Mostly because now it's how I pay my bills.

isc: So did you always have a thought in the back of your head to author and market some of your own software, even back in your high school days? Have you always had a fondness for fantasy/adventure role playing games?

TP: I always thought it would be cool to try but never really thought a slob like me could do it. It was always one of those fantasies that you never really expect to come true.

The fact that it did still blows me away. Every day I think about how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing.

isc: Of all the game genre's in all the gaming world, did you just pull the "fantasy role playing game" out of thin air or did you spot a weakness or unmet niche in the Mac game market?

TP: Pulled it out of thin air. Just seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. Looking back at it now I think it would have been much easier to do something in the sci-fi area or perhaps a sit and spin shooter. Those kind of games have a lot less chemistry. By chemistry I refer to the old "More exceptions than rules" idea.

In sci-fi there is a lot more logic behind stuff. More power = More Damage, faster ships, stronger shields. Pretty formula stuff.

In fantasy there are a LOT of teeny tiny little exceptions to everything. Some creatures are more resistant to charm. Charm person only works on humanoid classes. Some creatures are immune to charm even if they are humanoid. Some undead are immune while others are not. etc... etc... The list is as long as my arm and that is only having to deal with charming.

The same starts all over again when you look at regeneration, fire resistance, magic requirements of weapons to hit creatures etc... etc... always more and more exceptions to the rules. Makes for a lot of places for things to get screwed up. JUST LIKE CHEMISTRY.

Sometimes I just wonder why I did not just do another Sit N' Spin asteroid clone. There are plenty of them out there but at least you only spend 30 minutes to come up with the ideas for it and the rest is all just brute force coding to get it done.

isc: Really? If you had it to do over, what, if anything, would you have done different?

TP: I'm not really sure. All in all I am happy with the game. I guess if I had to make one big change it would be that the monster sizes could be more flexible. Currently I have it hard coded to accept 1, 2 and 4 hex monsters. I sort of wish now I would have made it more of a flexible thing where they could be any size and shape. It would be a real headache to go back and change it now but if I would have done that from the start I think it would have been really cool.

isc: What do you have currently in the works for Realmz? And what, if any, are your future plans for Realmz?

TP: The big item is the scenario editor. I figure I should have it out this summer sometime. I am sort of splitting my time among a lot of projects just now but I hope to get that editor done real soon.

isc: What about the "rumors" of new scenarios (based on what we saw in the scenarios menu) like "Siege at Natari", "Blood Ties", and "Mithril Vault"? We've all been terribly impressed with the plot and the game play of "Destroy the Necronomicon". Will you continue to work on new scenarios for Realmz?

TP: Not sure if I will continue to work on any of my own or not. Depends on how much time I have on my hands. I do want to get New Centurions out there as soon as I can in order for it to develop into as complex a game as Realmz.

isc: With the release of the SDK, will you be focusing your work on New Centurions and leave the scenario writing to the masses or will we expect to continue to see great "Tim Phillips'" scenarios?

TP: I'm sure I will work on something new here and there but I really want to move on. I figure with SDK out there it will help relieve a lot of peoples cravings for more scenarios and let those that always wanted to do their own get started.

This will let those who have a good story get it out there and maybe even make a buck or two in the process. I feel that the Realmz SDK will be the first of it's kind. There are some other fantasy game builders out there but in my view they are all pretty limited in as far as what you can do. With the Realmz SDK you can design a game that is heavy on story, short on Hack 'n Slash or visa versa or both.

Most of the Realmz scenarios have been aimed a little more towards the Hack 'n Slash idea as that area is really lacking in the Role Playing Area. Sure, there are games out there that give you hack and slash, but they don't go into enough detail of character development. I got so sick of games that had your character broken down into 3 colored lines, Health, Attack, Defense. I wanted a game that let me get into the nuts and bolts of a characters stats. That is where I think Realmz is top of the line.

isc: I see that Fantasoft is starting to expand its scope and started distributing games of other genres, such as Monkey Shines. Do you expect that Fantasoft will continue to expand its scope and we might see other games or types of games wearing the Fantasoft label?

TP: Sure, Monkey Shines was just the first. We currently have 2 other projects in the works that are more Arcade like than RPG. One is Monkey Shines II. It will have a lot of cool new stuff. Odds are it will require at least an '040 machine to run to take advantage of all the new things we are putting in.

The other is a space shooter that can be either 2 people on one machine or modem hookup or up to 4 people via network. It will be more of a "Duel in Space" kind of game.

isc: Tim, I have to say your story is fascinating! It seems life has served you a lot of ups and downs, and it seems to me that your marriage is very important to you. How has your experiences affected your perspectives and in turn caused you to be so dedicated to the Realmz product?

TP: I would not say there were a lot of ups and downs, mostly just downs. However, I am one of those that has the attitude "Think how bad life could be."

I figure if you stick with anything long enough, sooner or later it will pay off. Now that Realmz has paid off, life is looking up. Now, I get mostly UPS and very few DOWNS. It all evens out in the end, but you have to grit your teeth for a few years early on while life pummels you over the head with a whole bunch of DOWNS.

isc: Many of us who bought and played with the early generation of personal/home computers dabbled in programming, but few toughed it out and actually made a career out of it. What keeps you at it?

TP: I guess that says exactly what I was saying. If you do tough it out, sooner or later it will pay off.

It does not hurt to be in the right place at the right time. However, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, over and over again and I still made it. Just goes to show you that it can be done if you stick with it.

isc: Thanks for your time, Tim, you've been very generous to take this time to share so much of yourself with us. I'm glad to have been able to spend this time getting to know "the real Tim Phillips" and put a face, so to say, on Realmz and Fantasoft. I wish Fantasoft the best of luck in all its future endeavors.

side note: Check out the following web site:

It's Apple's conscience. They are offering free upgrades to System 7.6 for those who recently bought a Mac with System 7.5.3 installed instead of 7.6. All you have to do is prove that you bought a Mac after December 7, 1996 and they will ship you 7.6. Be aware that owners of certain Mac systems must immediately download and install the 7.6.1 upgrade because the Mac you bought will not run 7.6.

Apple®, the Apple logo, Macintosh®, Macintosh SE®, Macintosh IIsi®, MacOS, the Macintosh logo, and ResEdit are registered trademarks of Apple Computers, Inc.

Inside Macintosh by (multiple authors) is published by Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., Copyright © 1985 by Apple Computers, Inc.

Macintosh C Programming Primer by Dave Mark and Cartwright is published by Reed Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Copyright © , 1992

Realmz tm, New Centurians tm, Monkey Shines tm, Fantasoft, and the Fantasoft logo are copyright Fantasoft, LLC.

Stratego ® is a registered trademark of Milton Bradley.