A 14-year old whiz kid, national Space Invaders champion, co-founder of Interplay, brain behind the cult classics Tass Times, Wasteland, and Bard's Tale III. The story of a lonely boy who discovered herself in a drawer full of burgers and assembly code.
It is early evening as I sit down to chat with Rebecca Heineman, known to most of her friends, colleagues, and fans simply as "Burger." The nickname seems a bad fit for this energetic and charismatic woman, whose passion for coding and game design are as infectious as her impish grin.
The two of us are Skyping with video, and Becky is sitting on her bed at the Trylon Corporate Apartments in Montreal, using the camera on her laptop.
As she launches into her first story, her enthusiasm is so great that the laptop begins bouncing up and down like a carnival ride. I ask her to move it from her lap to the foot of the bed. The camera stops jostling, but I'm still a wide-eyed kid on a rollercoaster.
Becky's roots in the video games industry go back, well, to its roots. She first gained notoriety by winning the National Space Invaders Championship in 1980, a feat she credits more to patience than prowess.
She also spent time at the Avalon Hill, the famous wargame and board game company, which began adapting some of its lineup to the computers of the early 1980s -- when machines like the Apple II and Commodore 64 were the playground bullies.
Becky's job was to port games like London Blitz to the even humbler Atari 2600. During this time she was a 14-year old, but it was easier to lie about her age than to tell the truth. Who would believe someone so young could know so much?
Most of her fans probably know her best for her tenure at Interplay Productions, the Brian Fargo-originated publisher and developer she helped to found with Fargo and three other developers in 1983. While at Interplay, Becky designed Tass Times in Tonetown, a quirky, irreverent, and highly innovative point-and-click adventure published in 1986. She also did the heavy lifting on Interplay's famous computer role-playing game, Tales of the Unknown: Volume I, better known as The Bard's Tale.
A long-time fan of the genre, Becky would go on to write The Bard's Tale III in 1988, widely considered the best game in the series. She also designed the critically acclaimed Dragon Wars in 1989, which met with lackluster sales despite its bold innovations and meticulous design. She also earned a reputation for her many excellent conversions of popular games to the Apple IIGS, Macintosh, and many other platforms.
However, unlike most of those early coders, who hit or missed in the '80s before eventually moving on to other careers, Burger has remained a key player. She was most recently senior engine programmer at Ubisoft Toronto, and was also an essential member of Microsoft's Kinect team.
During my chat with Becky, I couldn't help but wonder if this were really the person so often described as a hermit and a loner; a brilliant hacker who kept herself barricaded in a cubicle. Of course, at that time she was named William Salvador Heineman, a classic case of a woman trapped in a man's body.
In 2003, she began the transition to womanhood, and is now a lesbian. While it is tempting to separate Becky's personal life from her many achievements as a programmer and designer, I can't help but wonder if she owes some measure of her success to her willingness to veer away from convention and take the roads less traveled by.
I had figured that my interview with Becky might lead to a few good stories about the good old days and perhaps a few nuggets for the history books. What I got instead was a fascinating tour through the life of one the industry's most intriguing and controversial figures, Ms. Becky "Burger" Heineman.
I found this on your website: "Who am I? I'm a 46 year old woman, computer programmer, game designer, writer, engineer, pastry chef, markswoman, loving mother of 5 even though my kids have grown up and moved on." Do you feel that pretty much covers everything? Markswoman, really?
Rebecca Heineman: Yes. I used to have a Ferret 50 caliber, long time ago...Not anymore, I don't have any firearms. They've long since disappeared in the divorce, etc. But I used to go out with some friends shooting, and here's a little piece of trivia: in the game Wasteland, in the packaging there's a picture of Alan Pavlish, Michael A. Stackpole, and so forth all dressed as Mad Max road warriors -- the guns they're holding are mine.
I understand that you also like to bake cakes?
RH: Yes, I do, cakes, pies, cookies... I have kids, and they always loved it when mom cooked them stuff. I had this cake recipe I did called "Death by Chocolate," and right now it's a favorite for my son Jacob and my son William -- every birthday, I have to bake them that cake. It's called "Death by Chocolate" because you start with chocolate fudge cake mix, and as I pour it in a Bundt cake pan, and then I put M&Ms or little chocolate baking bits, then another layer of cake mix, until the pan is full.
Then I bake it, take it out, and ice it with chocolate icing and then put Hershey's Kisses all over the cake or sprinkle it with M&Ms. So, essentially just one bite would make you gain five pounds. My sons can't get enough of it, and I'm like, crap. There goes my diet.
Have you ever played Portal?
RH: Yes, and it's not a lie. In fact, that's a fun story. Microsoft has a tradition in my department in the advanced technology group that every time it's your anniversary of being hired, you're supposed to bring a pound of M&Ms for every year you've been there. So my first anniversary, I made a Death by Chocolate cake with one pound of M&Ms baked into it, and then I went around the office area and made "Cake This Way" signs. Over the cake were big signs saying "Not a Lie" with big arrows pointing down to it.
How did you get started in the games industry? Apparently, it was a National Space Invaders Championship in 1980?
RH: I had a friend named Tom Whicker. He and I would play video games all the time. I didn't have much money, so I had a 2600 and an Apple II, and I was copying the cartridges -- I designed my own "dev kit," shall we say -- because I was just too flat broke. But he had every single cartridge made. So I would grab it and copy it from him. We played Slot Racers and Space Invaders all the time.
Atari announced that there was going to be a Space Invaders tournament at the Topanga Canyon Plaza sometime in July in 1983. He was convinced that I had to be good. I was like, "Yeah, right." So he drives me up, and as it's my turn, I start playing and I'm so bored playing this game.
I was talking with the judge because I had nothing better to do. I was like, "Oh, I just lost a base," and play, play, play, play, and another hour would go by. Base, play, play, play. "What's my score?" And he said, "You've got like 83 thousand six hundred points."
And of course, my reply was "Is that good?" As it turns out, it was more than double the second place player. They announced that I was the winner. I was like, "You're kidding me? I'm going to New York for the finals?"
So, in November I flew by myself to New York City to play in the championships. Just so you know, back then I was a loner. I lived by myself. I flew to NYC, met the other contestants. The kid from Dallas, we kept calling him Tex, and the kid from Chicago was being sponsored by some appliance store. He had this big t-shirt on him and was like the total sponsor hog. Of course, when the game played, the aliens landed on him in ten minutes. So he got kicked out.
So they finally started the game. They had five TVs, five Ataris, and they gave each one of us a shirt with our cities on it. Mine said Los Angeles. It was sudden death. We'd just play the game, and we'd get three bases, maximum difficulty level, and the idea was to see who'd be the last man standing.
After an hour and 45 minutes, only the guy from Chicago was out. Everyone else was still just killing the aliens. They had a whole bunch of press behind us, and they were getting antsy -- because an hour and 45 minutes of Space Invaders does get kind of boring. So then they just said, "Okay, so that concludes the Space Invaders tournament!" I was like, "Does that mean we can stop playing?" I just reached over and yanked out the cartridge, and said "That's it! I'm done with this game!"
I wanted the Atari 800 computer that was the second place prize. The fifth place was a $50 gift certificate, the next one was $100 worth of stuff and a video game collection, but the Atari 800 computer -- oh, gosh -- I really wanted one. Because the grand prize was a standup arcade game, and I didn't want that.
So they then said fifth place goes to Chicago, fourth place goes to Texas, third place went to Hing Ning of San Francisco. I was sitting there going, "I got the computer! I got the computer!" And then when they said the computer goes to Frank Tetro of New York, I went "Crap!" Then they said "The winner of the Space Invaders Tournament is the kid from Los Angeles!"
So they asked me how I felt. "Uhh, uhh." But because I won that tournament, I got to meet up with Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel of Electronic Games Magazine and started writing some articles for them on how to beat video games. I was a consultant for a book called How to Master the Video games and How to Master the Home Video games.
After about six months, I let Arnie Katz know that I knew how to program the Atari 2600. And he was like, "That's impossible, you're just a kid." Well, I'd made my own dev kit. And then he said that a company in Maryland named Avalon Hill was really looking for anybody who could program the Atari. I said, "Sure!"
So they called me up and within ten minutes said, "You're hired. Here's a plane ticket, come work for us. And you are 18, right?" And I said, "Yep!" In reality, nope. I lied my ass off for a couple years because I started in the video game business when I was 14.
I worked for Avalon Hill and taught them how to program the 2600. I worked on London Blitz and Out of Control. Then I started going from company to company, doing some work for Time Warner on a Play Cable system, then did some consulting, but I wanted to leave New York. My friend Alan Pavlish kept saying there was a company named Boone Corporation who could really use some VIC-20 programmers. So I said, "If he gets me back to California, please!"
So I got a job there and was doing Chuck Norris Super Kicks and Robin Hood contracted by Xonox. We had a running joke in the office that if you were being bad, you'd get stuck with a Xonox game. So I must have been bad because I worked on three of them.
After that, I started working on some original titles, Final Eclipse that never got shipped, and an original version of The Demon's Forge done by Brian Fargo. I was redoing some of the graphics routines for him, but then Boone Corporation folded. We were all fired. That's when employees of Boone, Brian Fargo, Troy Worrell, Jay Patel, and myself with an investor named Chris Wells, got together and thought -- we could do better. Brian got us a contract with World Book Encyclopedia doing some cheesy chain titles, and we created a company named Interplay.
I still remember when we were signing the lease. The guy asked about the name of the company. I didn't know. "It was 83 production place. Interplay Production!" Okay...Of course, the first two years of Interplay, we had all these companies calling us about "Intercourse" and "Foreplay" productions and requesting our catalog of X-rated stuff. But that started my video game career. I was at Interplay for eleven and a half years.
How did you learn to program?
RH: I learned to program because in 1977 I got an AMES 65 kit computer. In high school I got interested in the TRS-80 and the teacher didn't know what to do with it, so I started playing with it. Then, later on, I met a friend with an Apple II. They were hot off the press. I had to have one. I kept going to his house, all the time, so I could play with his Apple II -- and he got annoyed with me showing up at his place because he wanted to use it.
I had a paper route and saved up my money. I bought a used Apple II from some guy around the LA airport. I started getting cassette tapes for games, but then later on I started getting curious about the mini-assembler. The manuals for the Apple II were all written for programmers, so you'd look at all this code and be like, "What the heck is this stuff?"
So I started reading it, studying it. Looked at the disassembler -- 800L was my friend for many years. But then I learned how to make hardware. It shouldn't be hard to make a memory card, wire it up, get parts from Radio Shack -- back when you could get parts like that from Radio Shack.
When I started playing with the Atari 2600, I went to a BBS and saw how to make a copy cart. Ah! I made a RAM cart because I was too cheap, but what if I used that same technique and wired it to a cartridge -- I molded it together into a dev kit. I could take a cartridge, plug it in, download it, save it to disk, upload it to ram, turn on my Atari, I could play the game!
But then I noticed that when you took the ROM cartridge and typed 800L, it made sense. It was 6502 assembly, just like the Apple II. From that, I started disassembling the code. I did a disassembly of Freeway by Activision, reverse engineering it from binary code all the way to what looks like the real source code. Every line is explained. That was me learning how to program the Atari 2600.
After that, Avalon Hill hired me, and was actually paying me to do this stuff that I'd been tinkering with all these years. I was like, "They're paying me to do this? Cool!" I kept striving to get better and better and better, and now here it is almost an eternity later, and I'm an expert in Power PC, ARM, Intel, AMD 64... The stuff I'm doing right now you'd require multiple college degrees to do -- proud or not, I never went to college. I learned all this just by cracking books and doing it.
How long was it before you met people with the same or superior level of skill?
RH: It took years before I found anybody. I remember meeting a friend who worked at Softdisk -- a guy named John Carmack. He and I started talking about code and so forth, and he was one of the few people talking at my level. Other than that, for many years -- even now -- I have to dumb down my conversations with people. It's frustrating, but now that now at least a dozen people who I can talk to without having to dumb down anything.
Is John Romero in that category?
RH: No. John Romero is a good programmer, but he's not an expert. He's not a great programmer. He doesn't do engines. Carmack did all the heavy lifting.
I know you're a big fan of Wizardry. It seems to come up again and again in my interviews with classic game designers. What is it about that game that makes it so special?
RH: Simplicity. Absolute simplicity. The ability to tell a story with so minimal graphics. If you remember, back then, the only kind of games were text adventures -- so your mind did everything. But it was really reading a book. But they took it a step further, and put the maze with the little Turtle graphics and static picture. It was the first game that introduced the grinding. In fact, if you play World of Warcraft, it's still Wizardry grinding! We had a joke during Bard's Tale -- what's the story of any RPG? Start weak, get strong, kill the evil fill in the blank. That's every RPG ever.
Wizardry introduced the concept of a party. The idea of start weak, get strong, kill the fill in the blank. As you were doing the grinding and leveling up the characters, you actually felt really bad when one of your characters died. It was like, "Crap!" I remember when one of my characters died, I was like, "Shit, damnit! I gotta go all the way back to the Temple of Cant."
But once you get one character killed, but if it's a critical character, and the rest of your party may not back it. The stress and suspense -- very few games today capture that kind of terror. And they did it with just line drawings and little postage stamp sized pieces of art.
You worked on some adventure games. Mindshadow, Borrowed Time, Tass Times in Tonetown. Is that your favorite, Tass?
RH: Yes, because basically it's a close as you can get to an acid trip without taking acid.
So, you've done a lot of acid in your day?
RH: Nope, I'm totally drug free from birth. But that doesn't mean I can't have psychedelic nightmares and try to make good games out of them.
It's a cult classic.
RH: Yeah, because it really innovated a lot of things. It really started the point-and-click adventure. Now the graphics look dated, but a lot of the concepts feel brand new. You were able to click on things -- I had hot zones on every piece of art, so if you clicked on the give button and went to a character and clicked on him, it'd automatically type in "give to that person's name." You could click on two things to interact with both of them.
I had all kinds of jokes and puns in there. Everything about it was so off the wall and twisted. The unit of money was guitar picks, the whole point of the game was that a crocodile was buying up the land and evicting everyone -- a slumlord. You had a crack newspaper reporter who was a fluffy little terrier named Ennio.
Everyone dresses up like punk rockers as envisioned in the '80s, and when you first show up, dressed in normal clothes, they all look at you as though you were dressed like they are as if you were here. So they say, "Man, you're weird looking! Get some real clothes!" It was just so different. The soundtrack was good, too. Tass Times was the first game to ship on the Apple IIgs, and it used all 31 voices on the Ensoniq chip. Very few people did that since.
I've been holding off on this question for awhile, but I have to know. How'd you get to be called "Burger"?
RH: Remember when I told you I was flat broke? When we founded Interplay, we didn't pay ourselves much. We were starving. When I was at Boone Corporation, I was being paid twelve thousand a year. Slave wages. I was a kid; I didn't know any better. My entire life was get up, go to work, work until I'm too tired, sleep, repeat. Didn't have time for cooking, and I didn't have any money.
There was a place called Hamburger Stand. They sold 29 cent hamburgers. Since I spent most of my time at the office, I didn't want to walk over, buy a burger, and walk back.
So I'd buy a bag of twenty of them. Blow six bucks, get twenty burgers, go to my office, and put them in a drawer. I was too cheap to buy a refrigerator -- well, really too broke. Every so often I'd open the drawer and eat a burger.
I had an office mate who was a health food nut, constantly complaining about how I should eat right, exercise like he did. One day I was working all through the night. I didn't leave. It's the morning, and he comes in, sits across from me. I'm still working.
Around 3 p.m., I'm done. Burger time! I pull open the drawer, reach in, put the bag down, grab a burger, and start munching. Wasn't thinking anything about it. That's when my co-worker looks at me, looks back, looks at me -- and it dawns on him that the bag has been there for who knows how long. Those burgers are pretty firm.
He just loses it. He jumps up, his chair goes flying, he goes, "That burger is insane! That burger is insane!" He runs out. I'm sitting there like, "What's with him? Whatever." Then later Brian Fargo comes in and asks what I did to him. I didn't do anything. What's going on? My co-worker had gone to the restroom and tossed his cookies. That's how disgusted he was.
So then, the rumor started. "Did you eat any burgers lately?" So they started calling me Burger. I played along. "Okay, I'll get a burger. I'll eat a burger." Later on, unbeknownst to anybody, I had an issue with the name I was given at birth. So I would rather be called Burger than by that birth name. "Just call me burger." For the next twenty years, that was my name. Everybody called me Burger. Now my name is Becky. I finally shed the name Burger.
After Tass Times in Tonetown was finally earring a real salary. Then I started eating real food. It was also when Brian Fargo started developing a taste for sushi. I didn't want to eat anything else but burgers by then -- I was in a rut, McDonald's, Wendy's, Arby's. Brian took us to a sushi place. I was like, "Ew!" But the rumor was that I would eat anything. Brian said, "I don't know what's in that tray, but if you a big helping of it, I'll pay for your meal." Free food? I was so there. It wasn't bad! Today it's my favorite food.
What was your involvement with Bard's Tale?
RH: Brian Fargo had a high school buddy named Michael Cranford, and we were playing Wizardry all the time. Cranford was doing a D&D session where he was the game master. All throughout Interplay we thought we had to do a Wizardry killer. So, the project was given to Cranford to go ahead and write Tales of the Unknown, and that is the name of the game. They thought we were going to call it The Bard's Tale, and the sequel would be The Arch-Mage's Tale, and later on The Thief's Tale. But the title was going to be Tales of the Unknown.
The problem was Cranford, while he was okay coming together with the scripting and so forth, he couldn't do high-performance graphics. That's what I did. So, at this time in Interplay, I was becoming the tools programmer, or the technology programmer. I wrote all the graphics routines, I did all the sound routines, the animation. I also did the graphics editor, called Quick Draw. Apple later used that name -- damnit, I should have copyrighted it. But I wrote the art program that all the artists were using.
The tools, the extractors, every single piece of software so all the heavy lifting work -- I wrote that. Whereas Cranford wrote the actual game logic, and the text instruction and some disk routines. I remember we had wars because I would write in an assembler called Merlin and he was using Orca/M. So I would have to write it in Merlin, then translate to Orca/M or give it to him for translation, and we were constantly back and forth. It made a rift between us.
Once Bard's Tale was almost done -- we had a couple bugs left, Cranford had fixed them -- Cranford then had the final floppy disk, and he came in and held the disk hostage. He told Brian to sign a contract, which changed the terms of the deal with him and Interplay, or he was not going to give the disk to Brian. He was going to sell itself or something of that nature. We needed the money, so Brian signed the contract, and Cranford gave the disk, and the game shipped. Thankfully for Interplay, it made us a boatload of money.
However, that contract had a clause in it that basically said that the sequel, The Destiny Knight, was Cranford's and Cranford's alone. I did do some more functions, more assembly, more routines for Cranford, but basically the engine is Bard's Tale I. He just changed the scenario code. He recycled all the code I wrote, used all my tools.
Unfortunately, when Cranford plays D&D as the dungeon master, he plays it so that if everyone in the party dies, the DM wins. This is totally against how D&D works -- the DM is not supposed to be a participant, he's supposed to make it fun for everybody. That showed up in the way Destiny Knight played. Destiny Knight was a very difficult game. In a way it was because Cranford actually said if people get killed, he wins. I was like...Okay.
Once Destiny Knight was done, the contract between Cranford and Interplay ended, and that's when I said I wanted to do Bard's Tale III. I have ideas, let's get Michael Stackpole involved so we can have a professional writer, and I'm just going to take all of Cranford's code -- because I considered it a P.O.S. -- flush it down the toilet, and start from scratch.
All the graphics routines I kept. But I improved upon them, and I added multi-sized dungeons, increased animation frames with better compression. I even came up with two voice audio on the Apple II, which was not really done except for music programs. This was in a game where music was an integral part of it.
I was even able to shove in some Monty Python references, Sir Robin's Tune -- "Bravely ran way," which lets you run from combat. When you go to the temples, they say "dona eis requiem" and you're healed.
I also introduced female characters -- for obvious reasons! I was so pissed with Cranford, I kept saying, "Where are the girls?" He said, "Girls don't play this." If he only knew...I also added new character classes, geomancers, necromancers, and so forth. All of this stuff, and I only added one more disk because I used some really sophisticated compression algorithms. At the same time I was doing this game, I was doing the graphics routines and all the tools for Wasteland. That's why Wasteland has similarities in the graphics and monsters -- it's the same code. It was my code I wrote.
Coming back to Cranford. I received an email from him in which he wanted to "correct" me on a few things. He goes into a spiel and claims you had nothing to do with Bard's Tale I and II, that you were a hermit, out of touch with the larger process. What's the guy's deal?
RH: Two things. Why don't you ask him to explain to you how the graphics routines work? How did he do the animation? He probably won't be able to tell you, because I'm the one who did it. That should right there tell you the truth.
As far as me being a hermit, there's a semblance of truth to it. Due to the fact of certain aspects of my upbringing, and the fact I was running away from my transgenderism, I did intentionally lock myself in a room because I did not want to face the world because I was embarrassed about how I looked, about how I was.
I harbored this big secret, and I didn't want anyone to know. I wanted everyone to call me Burger because I didn't want them to call me that other name.
So, unfortunately, he is right. I mentioned earlier that my workday was get up, go into work, work until I'm too tired to work, leave. As far as out of touch, well that's his word against mine. I produced all these games, I wrote all these games, I made a lot of money for Interplay, my track record speaks for itself.
I'm the one who wrote all the ports, I did the IIgs versions, the C-64, the fast-load drivers. There was so much stuff in there -- right now I'm taking my old Bard's Tale code and porting it to iPhone. And that's because I wrote the frickin' thing. So...
I've tried to contact him about this, but he didn't respond.
RH: Well, the trouble is that after Bard's Tale II, Michael did Centauri Alliance. He took the code drop he had of Bard's Tale II and used that as a base for a sci-fi game. I understand it wasn't a commercial success. It wasn't going to make him millions.
Then he went to college for, of all things, a philosophy degree, and then he went into theology. In fact, if you look in Bard's Tale II, many of the cities in the game are lifted directly out of the bible. He got religion into him. I haven't spoken to Cranford since my transition, so I don't even know what he thinks about it. But I'm certain that since that letter came after my transition, he may also think ill of me because of my transition, which would go against his religious beliefs.
I wanted to talk a little about Dragon Wars.
The Bard's Tale IV until three months before we shipped it!
So many innovations on the engine. What are your thoughts on Dragon Wars?
RH: I think it was my best work. As you saw from Bard's Tale II to III; it was a huge leap in technology. As I was making Bard's Tale III, was already making notes about where to take the engine next. So once we finished Bard's Tale III and got it out the door, I took a clean sheet of paper and wrote the Bard's Tale IV engine. This engine was totally using windows and stuff like that, I had a huge screen for the graphics so it was a majority of the screen, but I still had little bars. I thought, what if we just had the name of the character and graphic bars for your health, magic -- so we could put more information in a smaller space.
But it was the same design, with the pillar with the magic spells, the box on the bottom for the text. I had pop-up windows. I had daylight, sunsets, I even had versions that actually had the sun moving behind the graphics. We ran out of space for that one. The automapping was in a pseudo-2D, and I even had the ability to print, because I wrote printer drivers for all the popular printers then. If you hit control-P, I would detect what printer you had and actually print out to the printer. All of these little innovations were done.
I wanted a story. Mike Stackpole was busy doing novels and wasn't available, but we got Paul O'Connor. He started working on the scenarios. I actually found the book of all his notes and all my programming notes and everything. I just told him, design me a game and let me figure out how to make it real. So he just went nuts; there was this gigantic map and all this text, all this stuff. I said, "Hell or high water, I will figure this out!" And I will shove all this game into a couple of floppy disks. And I did.
One of the problems was that Paul O'Connor, just like the problem I had with Bard's Tale III, was that the scenarios were very linear. I wanted this game to be truly open-world. You start off in the Purgatory, but I intentionally put six different ways to get out of that city. And each one takes you on a completely different side quest. You can then go back to the other cities, but you could take them in any order.
I wanted it so that no matter how it was, only when you were powerful enough to defeat