Friday, August 28, 2015

Nasir Gebelli and the early days of Sirius Software





In my last post, I made mention of Apple II game programmer Nasir Gebelli. Today, I will take a closer look at Nasir, his work at Sirius Software and Gebelli Software, and the founding of Sirius. Unfortunately, information on Nasir is pretty sparse and he appears to be a bit of a recluse (though he seemed quite willing to talk when John Romero tracked him down in 1998). I do not have much to add to the little that is already out there, but thought I'd report on what I did find. Nasir has become something of a minor legend among Apple II gaming fans, primarily because he wrote a number of early action games for the Apple II featuring animation that was a cut above the competition. Part of his legend may also be due to the fact that id Software co-founder John Romero was a huge fan of his - a fact he has mentioned on multiple occasions. In the book Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers, for instance, Romero gushed, "Nasir Gebelli is my favorite. He's my number one programming god, my idol. He's awesome." So what was Nasir’s story and how did he get his start?






Nasir was born Seyed Nasir Gebelli in Iran. While a number of sources claim that he was born in 1957, public records indicate that he was born in February 1954. At some point, he moved to the US to study computer science at Cal State[1] (Kohler 2005). According to a profile that appeared in April 1981 issue of Softalk, Nasir began programming on an Apple II "out of desperation" when he found that other computers didn't allow him to do what he wanted to - to input code in machine language and see the results immediately. Nasir bought his first Apple about a year before the profile appeared and it seems that he quickly became proficient with it and began programming games. Around spring of 1980, perhaps because he was doing poorly in classes (Levy 1984), Nasir took some graphics utilities he'd written to a Computerland store in Sacramento and demoed it to the owner(s) (Levy 1984; Carlston 1985). It was the start to an auspicious and prolific, if short-lived, career.

The Founding of Sirius Software


The Computerland store had been opened in late 1979 by a retired Air Force colonel named Terry Bradley. Bradley, who had a master's degree in management from Golden Gate University, had honed his management skills while working as an airlift director for the Air Force. Unsure if he could hold onto a civilian job and unwilling to risk losing his retirement benefits, Bradley spent 21 years in the Air Force until he retired in 1979. After leaving the Air Force, he began looking for a new career. He briefly considered becoming a real estate broker and even got a license, but quickly decided that it was not the job for him. What he really wanted to do was to own his own business. Toward that end, he visited the library and began researching franchise opportunities. He decided to open a small print shop, reasoning that the risk and required investment would be low. He changed his plans again, however, after he saw an ad for Computerland - a chain of personal computer retail stores that had been founded in 1976. Intrigued, Bradley visited a local Byte Shop to see what running a computer store was all about. Liking what he saw, he approached Computerland with a proposal to open a new store in Sacramento. Computerland agreed and in late 1979, Bradley opened his store. (Softalk July 1982)


In the spring of 1980, Bradley hired a Vietnam veteran and insurance executive named Jerry Jewell as sales manager. Like Bradley, Jewell had served in the military and worked as an executive, but according to Bradley, the similarities ended there.

[Terry Bradley] "Jerry and I come from completely different backgrounds and are ten years apart in age. There’s only three things we have in common. We’ve both been in military service, we both like our meat raw, and we have sympathetic views on the way to run Sirius." (Softalk July 1982)

Before coming to Computerland, Bradley had worked as a special agent and an account executive in the insurance industry. In 1979, hoping to switch to a more lucrative career, Jewell bought an Apple II and decided to learn some rudimentary programming skills. About two weeks after buying his computer, Jewell enrolled in a class in assembly language programming at the Lawrence Hall of Science - a public science center/museum established by the University of California at Berkeley. The class was taught by Apple's Andy Hertzfeld, who would later design the Macintosh system software. Assisting Hertzfeld was hacking legend John Draper, a.k.a. "Captain Crunch." With no disk drive, Jewell was unable to run the sample programs that Hertzfeld distributed to the class and for eight weeks, he was lost, not understanding a thing Hertzfeld was saying. Eventually, however, he got a disk drive and was able to catch up by listening to tapes he had made of the classroom lectures. In the spring of 1980, Jewell went to work for Bradley in his Computerland store. While the store sold some home and business software (like Easy Writer, an early word processor written by John Draper), most of the people who came in were writing tools or games of their own, which they were only too eager to demonstrate. (Levy 1984)

One of them was a struggling college student named Nasir Gebelli, who walked in one day with a disk containing a set of graphic utilities program he had written that made it easier to draw shapes on the screen. Gebelli, who had purchased his Apple just a month and a half before, demonstrated his program not long after Jewell began working at the store. Initially, Terry Bradley thought that the program was merely "OK" and asked to keep the disks for a day or two. A few days later, Nasir returned, certain that they'd be impressed once they actual saw his work, and demanded, "What do you think of it now" (Softalk July 1982).  Bradley, Jewell, and Nair decided to go into business together and in May 1980 they formed a company called Sirius Software with Bradley as president, Jewell as secretary-treasurer, and Gebelli as the sole fulltime programmer. 


Nasir, Jerry Jewell (seated), and Eric Knopp

For their initial offering, Jewell and Nasir worked together to develop Gebelli's demo into a graphics program called E-Z Draw (billed as "the poor man’s graphics tablet"), which Jewell began to peddle to computer stores in Los Angeles and the Bay Area (it is unclear if this happened before or after Sirius was formed). Before long, however, they turned to games. Nasir may have been Sirius’ only programmer, but he was a prodigious one. While he may not have produced 12 games for Sirius in his first year, as Steven Levy reported, he did create at least eight (Levy may have been referring to the number of games he made with Sirius and Gebelli Software, or Sirius may not have released all his games - or Levy may have been mistaken). In any event, it was am impressive feat. At a time when most programmers took months to write a program, Nasir was cranking them out in mere weeks. And these were not text adventures or simple BASIC games, but arcade games - always a challenge with the Apple II.

Levy reports that Both Barrels was Nasir's first effort (though some list it as a 1981 game). If so, it was an inauspicious debut. Things improved with Nasir's other 1980 creations: Star Cruiser, Cyber Strike, and Phantoms Five. All three were similar to games Nasir played in the Sacramento arcades he haunted. While produced by Sirius, it seems that at least one of the games (Star Cruiser) was initially distributed by Synergistic Software. If so, this may have been because Jewel and Bradley (who thought the money was in hardware rather than software) were still working at Computerland during the day while running Sirius in their spare time.

That would soon change, however. In November 1980, Sirius Software was incorporated in Sacramento and in December, the company made its first appearance on Softalk's bestseller list when Star Cruiser debuted at #3, behind VisiCalc and On-Line System's Wizard and the Princess graphics adventure. The next month, Star Cruiser (which was still at #3) was joined by Cyber Strike (at #6) and in March, they were joined by Phantoms Five. By then, to Jewell and Bradley's surprise, Sirius was doing well enough to be a fulltime business and in May 1981, the two sold their Compterland store. That same month, Sirius had its biggest hit yet when Space Eggs supplanted VisiCalc at the #1 position on Softalk's bestseller list. A takeoff on Moon Cresta, Space Eggs had started as a cosmic shell game until Jewell suggested that Nasir replace the shells with eggs.

[Nasir Gebelli] "It had gone from weird, to weirder, to weirdest. Yet it is the only game I’ve written that I continue to play because it’s so unpredictable. That is probably one reason why people are so compulsive with it. I was both pleased and a bit scared when I witnessed the sight of my old roommate shooting at those shells – I mean eggs – for six hours straight." (Softalk April 1981)

In August 1981, Sirius placed an astonishing six titles among Softalk's 30 bestsellers: Gorgon at #3 (which sold at least 23,000 copies in a year), Space Eggs (#7), Pulsar II (#14), Autobahn (#14), Orbitron (#18), and Gamma Goblins (#26). All but the last two were written by Nasir Gebelli. So what was the secret to Gebelli's success? One was his talent for creating faster, smoother animations than anyone else was capable of on the Apple II (which was probably not really a great platform for arcade/action games). Nasir achieved this via a technique called "page flipping" in which two pages of animation were switched back and forth several times per second to reduce the flicker that plagued other games. It does not appear, however, that he started using the technique until his later games. In his April 1981 Softalk profile, Nasir mentions the technique as something he planned to use in the future. Nasir was also famous for not taking notes while programming or writing out his code.

[Nasir Gebelli] " "Ninety percent of the work involved in realizing the game on the screen is in my head. Virtually all my ideas are worked out before I commit the work to disk." (Softalk April 1981)

John Romero was also impressed by Nasir's prodigious memory.

[John Romero] "Early on, seeing Nasir’s games, I really liked the speed of his games – great speed…He was chain smoking, drinking coffee, and turning out games. He never had a program that would save his code; he typed them directly into memory on the Apple II. There was no source code or comments. He’d type in one line, it’d be converted to machine code, then he’d type in the next line. There were no symbols, nothing. No source code for anything. He had to keep the whole game in his head." (Barton 2013)

Nasir spent as much time drawing pictures as he did writing code - though he made a number of changes after seeing his work on screen.

[Nasir Gebelli] "Only when I see the images on screen can I be sure that my ideas are workable. I might have been sure that this creature of that ship was exactly as I desired – but they were on paper, not on screen. That’s the real testing ground. And as I fiddle with them, they might change into something that I wouldn’t have thought of in the rough draft stages." (Softalk April 1981)

Sirius rode Gebelli's talents to the top of the burgeoning software scene. Thanks in part to a $1.5 million order from Apple, Sirius had made $3.5 million during Gebelli's time with the company. So successful were they that at one point they were able to purchase eight pages of advertising in Soltalk at a time when many publishers could barely afford one (Carlston 1985). Gebelli also reaped the benefits of Sirius' success, earning a reported $250,000 in royalties in his first year - money he used to buy a sports can and a new home (he also married a beautiful blonde - though whether or not that was because of his newfound success, I cannot say).


Despite his talents and the success of his games, however, all was not well between Sirius and its programming wunderkind. By the time the August issue of Softalk hit the stands, Gebelli had already left to form his own company. Speaking of Gebelli’s departure in July 1982, Jerry Jewell remarked, "Nasir is an excellent programming talent. He just wasn’t a team player" (Softalk July 1982). While Nasir had earned a fortune in royalties, what he wanted was equity. He had been a major part of Sirius' success and felt that he deserved a share in the company's ownership. when he didn't get it, he and general manager Phil Knopp left and formed Gebelli Software, which was incorporated on August 7, 1981


The subsequent history of Sirius is beyond the scope of this post (hopefully, the Digital Antiquarian will tackle the subject soon), but suffice it to say that Sirius, at least initially, survived the departure of Gebelli none the worse for the wear. By the time he left, they had already begun contracting with other programmers, many of them teens. Orbitron, for instance, had been written by Eric Knopp while Gamma Goblins was created by brothers Tony and Benny Ngo. Other programmers included Larry Miller, Dan Thompson, and Mark Turmell. Sirius had also hired a number of other employees, such as ex-sheriff Jim Ackerman, who joined the company as production assistant in spring 1981, and product manager Eric Bock (author of Pascal Graphics Editor), who often worked with programmers to clean up their games. Overall between 1980 and 1983, Sirius produced at least 40 games for the Apple II and other systems, including such classics as Snake Byte, Lemmings, Beer Run, Bandits, T.W.E.R.P.S, Wavy Navy, Repton, Kabul Spy, Sneakers, Escape from Rungistan, Critical Mass, and Gruds in Space.

Nasir Gebelli, meanwhile, continued to produce games at his Gebelli Software. The first, Horizon Vdid not fare so well, however. Softline called it "a good follow-up to Gorgon but not a great one," complaining that the player’s ship "handles at best like a garbage truck on an icy road" and dismissing the aliens as "listless and dimwitted." On the other hand, it noted that the game’s first-person graphics were "one of the best three dimensional effects for an Apple game seen in recent times." (Softline March 1982) Despite this, Softline named Horizon V its "dog of the year" in March 1983. Nasir followed up with Zenith, Firebird, and Neptune - none of which matched the success of his earlier efforts.

So why did Gebelli fail to match the success he'd had at Sirius? Perhaps Gebelli's meteoric rise had made him complacent or perhaps life as an executive was not his strong suit. Gebelli reportedly spent lavishly on his new company, installing luxurious furniture and a state of the art photocopier. Doug Carltson tells of an investor who scheduled a meeting at Gebelli Software for 8:30 only to find the doors locked when she arrived. The first employee didn't show up until 9:30 and the principals didn't arrive until 10. Another problem may have been that Gebelli's games no longer stood out from the crowd as they had before. In 1981, a number of arcade games had arrived from Japan, such as Alien Rain, a slick Galaxian clone licensed from StarCraft and programmed by Tony Suzuki. In addition, the demands of running his new company reportedly left Gebelli with little time for programming, forcing him to turn to others, some of whom appear to have been poached from Siris. Alan Merrell and Eric Knopp, both former Sirius employees, produced High Orbit (Merrell), Lasersilk, Candy Factory (both Knopp), and Russki Duck (Merrell and Knopp).

Neither Gebelli Software nor Sirius would survive the video game crash of 1983. In the case of Sirius, the end was hastened by a seeming lucrative deal with 20th Century Fox to develop VCS games that proved disastrous when Fox was unable (or unwilling) to pay. Meanwhile, Nasir Gebelli had experienced one of the fastest rags to riches to rags stories in gaming history. Less than two months after buying his first Apple, he had gone from being a complete unknown to perhaps the hottest game programmer in the industry and back to obscurity, all within the space of two years. It must have been quite a ride - and perhaps an appropriate one for a man whose ability to turn out software at breakneck pace was legendary.

After his company folded, Nasir Gebelli reportedly traveled the world and disappeared from the public eye. He resurfaced in 1986 when he met with Doug Carlston of Broderbund, who told him about the NES. Carlston took Gebelli to Japan, where he met with Shigeru Miyamoto and others at Nintendo, who were not interested in working with Gebelli. Luckily, Square’s Hironobu Sakaguchi was a fan and the two went on to work on the Final Fantasy games. Gebelli also worked on a number of other NES titles, including Rad Racer, 3-D WorldRunner, and Secret of Mana only to disappear to travel the world once again. Other than an appearance at John Romeo’s 1998 Apple II reunion, he has remained largely out of the public eye. 

Now that we have taken a look at Nasir’s career, let’s take a brief look at his Apple II output.


Both Barrels (1980??) 






As I mentioned above, the date on this one is a bit unclear. Given that it is not one of Nasir’s better efforts, however, I suspect that it may be his earliest game. Both Barrels combines two shooting games: High Noon and Duck Hunt and neither are very exciting. 


Star Cruiser (1980) 









The influence of arcade games is obvious in Gebelli’s Apple II oeuvre. Star Cruiser is a fairly straightforward take on Galaxian. As with most, if not all, of Nasir’s games, the shapes were created with E-Z Draw. 

Phantoms Five (1980) 










Phantoms Five is a vertically-scrolling overhead shooter in which the player drops bombs on ground targets. Some targets, like hospitals and prison camps, have to be avoided. When the player is aiming, the ship is replaced by targeting crosshairs. Periodically, the player encountered enemy fighters, whereupon the action switched to a first-person sequence. 
For many, the first game to spring to mind will probably be Xevious but that game did appear until much later. The most likely influence here, if there is one, may be Atari’s Sky Raider. 

Cyber Strike (1980)










From the game’s description: “The date is 320.45. You have been briefed by Major General Nasir about a clone attack on bases Keppler, Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton. The attack was masterminded by the notorious leader, Gar, and executed by his fleet of robot fighter drones. Your job is to command the Gamma Glider IV drone into the trouble areas and eradicate the enemies. You send the drone through hyperspace and remotely control the drone's actions. You have antimatter torpedoes and meteor shields for offense and defense. Destroy up to 4 enemies at each base then resupply before continuing on.” 
Cyber Strike was another first-person outer space shooter. While it was still an action game, it was a bit more sophisticated than Nasir’s other 1980 efforts, with separate screens to display local and galactic sensors. While there were similarities to some arcade games, it could probably best be described as a more action-oriented version of the mainframe classic Star Trek. As such, the most likely influence was probably Star Raiders for the Atari 800. The most well-known arcade version of the mainframe original was Sega’s Star Trek and the most well-known Apple II version may have been Cygnus’ Star Fleet I: The War Begins. 

In the Sirius version, the player piloted their “Gamma Gllider IV,” using the IJKM keys to steer and the 1-3 keys to change speeds. H engaged the “hyperdrive control” while F fired the “antimatter torpedo” and S toggled the “meteor sheild” on and off. The B key allowed the player to dock with a nearby base. 

Autobahn (1981)





This time, the arcade influence is all too clear. This one is a fairly straightforward version of Sega/Gremlin’s Monaco GP.  The game was an overhead, vertically-scrolling driving game in which the player drove a “Formula 7” racer, sponsored by Sirius Software. The player could switch among three gears that increased his maximum speed from 120 to 160 to 200 kph. 

Pulsar II (1981)









Pulsar II combined two different games, each with eight levels: Pulsar (a takeoff on Cinematronics’ Star Castle) and Wormwall (a maze game).
Gorgon (1981)







One of Nasir’s biggest hits, this was a straight up clone of Defender, with a few additions, like a fuel supply, Sirius, in fact, ended up paying licensing money to Williams for the game (though I don’t think they did so until after they shipped the game and Williams contacted them).

Space Eggs (1981)











This was probably Nasir’s biggest hit overall and one of the finest vertical shooters for the Apple II. Some have noted the game’s similarities to Phoenix. As mentioned, above, however, I think the real influence was Moon Cresta. Aside from the three stage ship in the opening (I don’t know if you could get it during the game), the first level of the two games is nearly identical. The player faced four different screens of enemies: spiders, lips, wolves, and bouncing killer fuzz balls. 

Horizon V (1981)





We discussed this one already, but here’s the official description:

“While on a routine patrol of one of the five planetoid outposts of the Galactic Federation, you are set upon by angry G-bellians who believe you have kidnapped one of their most prized performers, Paulette the G-belly dancer. Before you are able to explain your innocence, the G-bellians attack and you are forced to defend your planetoid. Using radar and plasma weapons you destroy first the ships and then the G-bellians themselves before you run out of fuel. As you make a run for fuel, some of the G-bellians follow you into the time warp. But before you can get to your fuel you have to destroy the oncoming G-bellians. Finally you reach the fuel dump and lock into the center of the fuel target. . . then onto the next planetoid...”

Firebird (1981)








While this one looks something like Crazy Climber, the gameplay is entirely different. The player plays a firefighter named Piggo, who tries to extinguish fires caused by fireballs (or maybe it’s flaming poo) dropped by a giant bird.  

Zenith (1982)




This one was another first-person shooter in the mold of Horizon V with the addition of allowing the player to turn their ship. It seems to have fared better than its predecessor (The Arcade Express newsletter, for instance, gave it a 9 out of 10). As described in the game’s manual: 

“You are a Skyfighter patrolling the airspace above the city Zenith as it's being built. Aliens are invading and your job is to shoot every single object above the city to prevent it from harm.”

Neptune (1982)





If  Gorgon was Nasir’s version of Defender, this was his tribute to Scramble. A somewhat underrated game.

Notes
[1] Carlston 1985 says that Gebelli was attending UC Davis at the time he visited Computerland. It may be that he attended both schools, or one the claims may be in error.



Sources

Steven Levy. Hackers. 1984
Doug Carlston. Software People. 1985.
Softalk. April 1981. Nasir Gebelli>>>
“Exec Sirius”. Softalk. July 1982.
Matt Barton. Honoring the Code: Conversations WDuck Huntith Great Game Designers  2013.
http://wikipcpedia.com/wiki/content-software-for-games-consoles/you-can-be-sirius-%E2%80%93-sirius-software/





9 comments:

  1. I knew some of this but what i knew were only random and interconnected pieces. You put it all together and filled in all the blanks. Thrilling read. I am in awe.

    Never stop. Your work is so important :) and I do appreciate it so much.

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  2. It's like this was written specifically for me or something!

    Thanks a ton for digging up this information. If I do manage to somehow get into contact with Mr. Gebelli it will give me a huge lead on exactly what to ask him about. I knew a bit about his propensity for games which seem to define the Apple II era but very little about specifics and the people who worked for him.

    Also thanks for also showing all the available images of him, as I could only find one of the frames in the picture above posted elsewhere, and I thought it was from when he was in Japan. You're doing true historian's work here.

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  3. Awesome! My dad had one of the first computer stores in the S.F. Bay Area called DataCheck (Milpitas, CA) and we sold this software. It was always so popular and I also enjoyed playing them on our Apple computers. Thanks for sharing and putting this all together!

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  4. I'm going to be finally putting up the 20 minute interview with Nasir from 1998. It will require changing some of the information in here that I had erroneously provided years ago.

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  5. He was fast, and most of his glitches became features.

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  6. Just some quick updates: Nasir told me that he made more money with Gebelli than Sirius, so after he shut down Gebelli Software, he was able to take a 3 year vacation and travel the world. Not quite rags to riches to rags. After he made Final Fantasy 1-3 and Secret of Mana he was able to retire way early because he got an amazing royalty from Square for his work.

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    Replies
    1. Hey John, I hope you can convince Nasir to do another interview, especially about Secret of Mana. I'm sure a lot of people would be really interested to hear it!

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