Josh Lavinsky Interview

Josh Lavinsky is the author of "Time Trek" and "Space Warp" for the 4K TRS-80 Model I. Published in 1978, they were very fun real-time versions of the normally turn-based "Star Trek" battle simulation. Josh was gracious enough to talk to me and share a bit of history behind the games.

How did you get started with computers and the TRS-80?

Actually, I was about 13 and I was always a big tinkerer so my Dad got me into building Heathkit stereo equipment for him (he was quite the Hi Fi Buff but not at all technical). I realized I could make money doing this and started building stereos and TVs for other people. My parents had a friend who owned a local computer store that needed somebody to put together old motherboard type computers before they had TRS-80's and Commodore PET's. I wound up initially building computers and then repairing them which I didn't know anything about but after blowing up a few I got pretty good. Wound up getting my own TRS-80 and starting to write games thinking that was more fun than going out and playing with kids at recess.

Did you have any other published TRS-80 programs besides Time Trek and Space Warp?

No, I did not. That kind of consumed me for a while and when I was done with it, spent some time marketing and licensing until it seemed quite popular. I went away to college and decided I'd rather be social and have fun in my new environment. I kind of moved away from it.

Were you inspired by the original BASIC Star Trek games?

Some of the original books that came with the TRS-80 came with had some simple games. Everything was very static, very synchronous. At the time there was really nothing that was real-time other than Pong and early Atari. I guess my dream was to bring something real-time into the game and you had to start throwing out BASIC pretty much.

How long did it take you to write Time Trek?

That's a really good question. It went through a lot of evolution. I started out in BASIC and realized that wasn't going to work. Then assembler and realizing that even that wasn't going to work. I'd say probably about 9 months.

What was the development environment for Time Trek?

Well, again, started out with BASIC, got more sophisticated and moved to assembler and even there found there was some things you just couldn't do directly. Wound up doing things to start poking around, moving memory, using things around that weren't supposed to be played with. Doing things with the cassette relay to make noises I'm sure nobody would have ever sanctioned.

Did you have a disk system?

No. Initially it was all built with loading stuff from a tape recorder (I only had money to buy the most basic 4K system, so had to use my Dad's tape recorder and modified B&W TV for a monitor). It was only after Radio Shack licensed it and wanted some changes and they provided me a disk system a year or two later. It was all developed with loading off a tape recorder and hoping that we had enough backups that when tapes failed there was another one somewhere.

Time Trek is very sophisticated internally. It's dual threaded, there are subroutines for multiply, divide, cosine, pseudo-random numbers, sound, line drawing and it's all crammed into 4K. How did you manage such a feat?

A lot of it was iterative. You keep adding more functionality and running out of space, recompressing things. And reuse -- writing subroutines that could be used for a hundred different purposes and making sure they were compressed to a bare minimum. Taking over parts of the machine's memory that were meant for other things. The thing bootstrapped itself in and just took over everything. There was no memory left to spare that the operating system might have wanted, so we took over everything. I don't even remember if we put stuff back correctly.

The other thing that was an interesting challenge was to give it some intelligence in how to play against you but not make it perfect.

Did you have any other assembly language experience besides Z-80?

I started out with some earlier processors in the Intel line (I think 8008) when I was building computer kits for people with switch panel entry. Just a little bit; all the sophisticated stuff came when I wrote Time Trek.

Did you write all the subroutines yourself.

Yeah, I did. I don't think there was anything that was left of the OS. Luckily, Radio Shack published a detailed tech document on the memory maps and ROM operating system so there was firmware that could be reused. But eventually it just became more efficient to write my own routines. It's amazing when you look at the history of things. 4K is not big enough for a toaster now.

Do you still have any original source code or design notes or anything like that?

Yes. I'm sure they're pretty yellowed, but I should have all the source code. I've got some printouts of stuff. The question is if there are any tapes left with source code. I'll have to look. There may actually be disks in there.

[Josh found a technical design document (PDF)].

Did you set out to target the minimal 4K Model I system or did that requirement come later in development?

Yeah, it was always the goal. A lot of people were suggesting I just set 16K minimum. But as I understood the market most people didn't have that (such as myself to start with). So if you wanted to mass distribute a game it would have to have been 4K. Most of the games at the time were targeted to 4K. There was Microchess and there was a version of Time Trek that was written for the Commodore PET completely independently.

I remember seeing the PET version and wondered if there was any relationship.

No, there wasn't. In fact, it was kind of really a surprise to me. I had met a guy named Dan Fylstra who had started Personal Software (later renamed VisiCorp) and was interested in buying the game and thought they could market it to Radio Shack. They licensed it and it just so happened they were approached by somebody independently that had written one for the Commodore PET. Actually it was up in Canada; his name was Brad Templeton. I know we met once. Really nice guy, but yeah, it was just sheer coincidence. And, of course, VisiCorp was the company that basically had the original spreadsheet (VisiCalc).

Actually, an interesting bit of history. I was working at NASA Ames for a summer in college and VisiCorp was right next door so I spent a lot of time that summer with those guys socially. One of the guys we hung out with Mitch Kapor. He was trying to get Dan to invest in moving VisiCalc to the IBM Personal Computer and wasn't getting a lot of positive energy on that so he got a million dollars in venture capital and went back to Boston and started Lotus.

How did Time Trek come to be a published game?

Originally I was just selling it directly with ads in the back of published newsletters. My brothers were putting together tapes in the dining room. I don't know if I reached out to VisiCorp or they reached out to me. They had very strong interest as the game had really good reviews. They kind of took it over and put together better packaging. Part of the discussion was around the idea that we really wanted to get it into Radio Shack stores. They packaged that and a couple of other things together to do the deal with Radio Shack. That was all part of the original contract negotiation with them, that they would cover that option.

The Radio Shack deal came at the same time as 3rd party publishing?

It came pretty quickly after. We had discussed and negotiated it part of the contract that they (VisiCorp) would have the rights to sell it to Radio Shack under specific conditions. Luckily, my Dad was a corporate attorney so it helped.

When was the last time you used a TRS-80?

I don't have a TRS-80. I've used an emulator or two over the years to show people the game. It's been a long time. My brothers have probably pulled it up once or twice, but it's been a long time.

What have you been doing since your work on the TRS-80?

Interestingly enough, in my senior year of college one of my good friends went to see Laserium on a date and he came back in the middle of the night, woke me up and goes "Josh, I think we should invent the home version of Laserium." It was like, OK, it's late tonight, we'll do that in the morning.

We actually developed that and it was good example of having technical background doesn't mean you know the first thing about running a business. So we developed this whole laser light show thing, everybody loved it, thought it was going to make millions (was always funny to come home and see a bunch of people lying down in our dorm beds, in the dark staring up at the images on the ceiling and telling us how great it was). It sat in a box, we really didn't know how to market it. My friends and I started a tech consulting company for a little while, but again ran into not knowing what we were doing in running a business.

I moved to California, and got my first "real job" working for the famed Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank. Learned a little bit more about business and eventually licensed the laser show to a company called "With Design in Mind" and they actually sold that in a wide range of stores and catalogs for a while. Actually, it did fairly well, but it was very difficult to show in daylight so it was difficult to sell in stores. That did very well. Some other friends had an idea for a non-contact Compact Disc cleaner which we built and licensed to a company called Recoton. It was sold under the Discwasher name. This also did very well.

I was looking for a change from Aerospace and got an offer to work for the Walt Disney Company which was just down the street in Burbank. (Actually a lot of Skunk Works folks became Imagineers, I had a friend who was working as a fluid dynamics person on top secret aircraft one day and was riding Splash Mountain the next week to get the splash just right). My boss was the chief procurement officer at Disney. After I had been there a few years, he got an offer he couldn't refuse from JPMorgan and made one so I went back to New York where I'm originally from. Now I'm working for a FinTech startup. Haven't been doing any coding, but it's still technical.

Do you have any stories from the TRS-80 days that come to mind?

Certainly a crazy fun time. I mean, being out in Palo Alto there, going to little conferences where people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would be there -- didn't know anything about them at the time. It is a very interesting history how very few people moved around and just started all the big software companies. My Dad would tell me you don't realize what you have. I was 16 when I started and by the time I was 20 I had moved on. I was making pretty good income, similar to his, in fact, which must have been unsettling, but he was a great man and was certainly very proud. But at that age you can't really appreciate what you have or what you've done. I'm not sure I make as much now as I did then. Great learning experience, great people. It is funny how age has nothing to do with success certainly.

George Phillips, November 10, 2015. gp2000 -at-