Space Taxi the Interview Ė with John F. Kutcher Jr.

By Alan Hewston

RT:  From your resume, I see that you wrote the C64 versions of Rescue Squad in 1983, just after finishing high school, and Space Taxi in 1984 Ė this is quite impressive!  What were your first programming experiences and how did they lead up to writing those two classic home computer games?

JFK: My first computer was not a C64, but a TRS-80, and I still have them both.  I saved up as a freshman in high school in 1980.   Home computers were pretty new then - not mainstream at all. I started writing games almost immediately once I got it.  Most of my programming skills were self-taught in fact, in 9th grade, they let me out of my Math class to work on the school computer as an independent study.  I had a knack for it and things grew from there.  My family had one of the Pong units way back when, but I was more motivated by the arcade games such as Asteroids, Tempest, Pac-Man, Centipede.  I was exposed to some early TRS-80 Games and that really got me going.  I did write several games for the TRS-80 just for fun, including a tempest clone and an adventure game.  I think that I also wrote a Space Invaders clone and a Bowling game.

RT:  How did you come to program C64 games for Muse?  RT Note: this was a last second question with a very interesting answer.

JFK:  Someone mentioned to me that the C64 was going to be the next great game machine, so I convinced my grandfather to bankroll me with one.  Dr. Sacco, a great guy, and my employer at the time, also believed in me and let me use part of my work time to write Rescue Squad.  When I got it close to being finished, I literally opened up the phone book and looked for a publisher!  I saw an ad for Muse, which was close by. I called them up and asked, "Do you sell C64 games?"  They said,  "No."  I said, as I was hanging up the phone, "Oh OK, I just had one I wanted to get published."  Right before I hung up I heard them yell, "Oh, wait.  We just don't have any YET, but we are looking for them."  So I went in.  I showed the game to them.  By the time I got home, I had a message to call them.  They said they had a contract for me to sign.  They worked with me to add the music, and had a number of suggestions.  But it was published within two months. I started working on Space Taxi that Fall, my freshman year at Hopkins University and the money would be put towards my schooling.  There is always risk when you write games to be published as you never know how much they will sell.  I was able to help pay my way through college with the games, so Iíll always look back fondly on all the work that went into them.  It was a blast writing them at the time.

RT:  Itís obvious that your work with Dr. Sacco had a major influence in Rescue Squad.  So what influenced Space Taxi?

JFK:  Not sure.  I guess to some extent Lunar Lander, because the physics in Space Taxi are so precise.  The Idea for multiple screens, I am not sure where I got that from.   As for the various screens themselves, they were just things that came to me creatively.  I recall making about 1 screen per day once I got into the groove of developing the game.

RT:  What awards did your C64 games win?

JFK: Rescue Squad received a best of the year award.  Space Taxi received a fair number of good reviews  (A, A+, A-) in about a dozen magazines, including: Creative Computing, Nov Ď84; Infoworld, Feb Ď84; Infoworld, May Ď84; and Personal Software, July í84.  It was a blast seeing my name and game in print on the newsstand in the magazines.  Space Taxi was also nominated for Electronic Magazine's Action Game of the Year (lost out to something else).  Perhaps the best achievement was the Consumer Electronics Software Showcase Award.  I think there were only 10 in the games category, so that was quite an honor. I should also mention that Silas Warner (who wrote Castle Wolfenstein) created the fancy music for Space Taxi. 

RT:  Tell us more about you having the copyrights to the game/code? 

JFK:  Well, after Muse went under, the rights went back to me.  I licensed them for a couple years to the distributor, but again, after the period of time was up.  It all reverted back to me.  So, I always held the copyright in the games.  I had the old C64 disks transferred to a PC a long time ago, so still have the source code and all of the sprites files, and levels etc.  I also worked on some educational software for Dr. Sacco.

RT:  Were you seeking a degree in computer science, and what field of work did you hope to be in some day? 

JFK:  I was working on a BS in Electrical Engineering, but I stayed at Hopkins for grad school and received my Ph.D in Computer Science in 1992.  While completing my dissertation, I began working full-time at a medical database management company.  Got into writing database applications for trauma centers - a big difference from game writing, but I applied many of the Technical Skills.  Also spent a fair amount of time working at my programming business (which would eventually become Digital Innovation, my current software development company Ė see www.dicorp.com).  During the late 80ís and early 90ís I was the product development director at a national medical database analysis firm. 

RT: When did Muse exit the industry, and did you quit programming videogames due to your schooling or career getting in the way? 

JFK:  I do not recall exactly.  I believe it was 1986 that Muse went out of business.  I remember going to the auction with a friend from Hopkins.  We thought we were going to be able to pick up some items at a great deal. We laughed at the whole day.  Broken computers were selling for more at the auction than you could buy them brand new down the street. Amazing how people get caught up in the bidding frenzy.  I believe it was a software distributor who bought out the software titles for Muse.  I did get some additional royalties from them. 

As for my programming videogames, I think it was a couple of things.  One was probably Muse not making it as a company.  I moved on to MicroProse for a short time in 1985, where I consulted on the original C64 port of Solo Flight. I added additional terrain features to it, like flying over water, mountains etc.  But, I eventually went back to working for my original employer, Dr. Sacco.  He was into the educational software market and the trauma research field.  Eventually, my career centered around applying computers to trauma database applications, and Iíve now grown a successful part of our company around serving that market. 

RT:  Did you ever program on any of the other classic game machine computers of the 1980ís? 

JFK:  I had some part time programming jobs where I developed some software for the Apple II. 

RT:  What do you work on today? 

JFK:  Mostly database applications.  We have several successful products, including many in the healthcare field.  We have the leading trauma registry product in the US Ė used by over 600 trauma centers.   We have developed over 80 custom database applications for numerous clients and business partners. Some of our larger projects include ones for the American Heart Association and the Society of Critical Care Medicine, as well as our core products for trauma centers. 

RT:  Did your family get a kick out of your games and programming? 

JFK:  Sure, especially Mom.  You know how Momís are. 

RT:  Tell us about your family and gaming experiences today? 

JFK:  My wife Sue and I have two boys, Timmy 5, and Steven 2 1/2.  We do not spend a lot of time playing games, but as you can guess from my childrenís ages thatíll change soon.  Theyíre still a little young now, but next year weíll get the latest stuff.   I also enjoy playing sports, including playing in a couple of amateur baseball leagues, as well as skiing and volleyball. 


John F. Kutcher Jr. today with his sons Timmy, 5 and Steven, 2 1/2

RT:  What is your favorite video game of all time? And is there a future for Space Taxi (hopefully our readers with any ties to the industry will take notes)? 

JFK:  Hmmm.  Hard to say.  Growing up I always liked Asteroids, even though the game is fairly simple.  I would like to see, or help get Space Taxi rejuvenated onto a newer system?  Iíve exchanged emails with some people on the Internet about it.  Actually, one person made an Egyptian theme version of Space Taxi that runs on a web browser.  Very neat!  The emulators run it pretty well also.  One day it would be fun to make a 3-d Version of it, with a view from inside the taxi, but thatíll have to wait for me.  Iím way too busy now with the company.  But anyone working on a Space Taxi project should definitely drop me a line.  If they get it far along, Iíd be happy to share some of the design details etc. to help make it an authentic replica.  Thanks to everyone who has expressed their enjoyment of Space Taxi to me over the years.  Itís been great to hear from folks.  I gotta dig out my old C64 and get the games up and running to show the kids.  Iím not sure if my wife ever played it, but we were dating before then, so Iím sure that sheís seen it.  I'll need to get a good joystick and an emulator for Timmy. 

RT:  Thanks again John for your time. I know that our readers will find this very interesting, especially how you almost hung up on Muse.  We wish that you could have written more games for us to enjoy, but your programming skills are obviously well suited for your successful career in trauma databases and educational software.  I may do a review of Rescue Squad Ė itís a neat 3 screen game with many elements that are fun and challenging. 

Our readers should look back at Retrogaming Times issue #23, and read more about the great game Space Taxi.  Johnís friend told him about my article and then he read it and recently contacted me to say thanks.  Also see a new game of Space Taxi at:  http://taxipilot.sourceforge.net/ 

John F. Kutcher can be reached at: jkutcher@dicorp.com, and check out his company website at: www.dicorp.com

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