Betty Ryan

Betty Ryan (Tylko) was the first woman game developer at GCC.  She created the Atari Quantum arcade game and several Atari home computer games.

“For a while every time I ran my code, it would blow a fuse in the hardware. I went through boxes and boxes of fuses before I figured it out.”

Betty Ryan
Betty Ryan Tylko

Betty graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Engineering and Applied Sciences, as there was yet no Computer Science major.  She loved math and mathematical puzzles. There were few women in Computer Science at Harvard, but the small group stuck together and thrived. CS graduates were a hot commodity in the late 70’s, and after graduation Betty was hired by Strategic Planning Associates, a management consulting firm. She wrote financial analysis software that allowed consultants to simulate the effects of corporate changes on their client’s bottom line. When the company moved to Washington, a coworker recommended Betty look at General Computer Company (GCC). GCC was licensed to develop arcade and home video games for Atari, and Betty loved playing games in the arcades.

Betty started in January, 1982 as the 9th employee and first woman game developer at GCC. The first game she programmed was Atari’s Quantum arcade game. What made Quantum special was that it used a vector screen instead of the more common raster technology. This meant that instead of filling a buffer with a color for each pixel on the screen, the code would generate a series of x and y coordinates to move a beam around a 2D plane, setting the color and turning the beam on and off as it moved to draw objects on a black background. When Betty first arrived at GCC, the game hardware consisted of an Atari Tempest cabinet and monitor fitted with a new prototype controller board. She says, “There was a machine cabinet with a trackball controller, and in the center of the screen was a bright, glowing ball. It looked sort of like a comet, but without a tail, just a bright glowing star in the center. That was where I started.”

At the time, most arcade games used 8-bit processors and were written in Assembly language. The new game would be the first to use the new Motorola 68000 16-bit processor, opening up the possibility of writing in a higher-level language. However, there were no 68000 compilers available yet. Betty remembers, “I first chose Pascal, as it was the first compiler scheduled to be released. I went into my office and wrote code on paper for weeks while waiting for the compiler to arrive.” When the compiler finally did show up, the very first build showed an inefficient and time-consuming method of translating array references into assembly language. It wouldn’t suffice for game development, so Betty ordered the C compiler and went back to coding on paper until it arrived.

Quantum’s software was developed in parallel with its new hardware. This made it often difficult to determine if bugs were due to software or hardware issues. Betty remembers, “There was once a GCC awards dinner, and I was given the Blown Fuse Award. For a while every time I ran my code, it would blow a fuse in the hardware. I went through boxes and boxes of fuses before I figured it out.” Betty worked on Quantum for almost an entire year. The development lab was an open arrangement of worktables, emulator stations and prototype games. Anyone was able to walk around and play the games in development.  This was great for ideas and feedback, but could also be annoyingly frustrating.  There was one bug in Quantum that a single engineer was able to reliably reproduce on command.  He would spin the trackball, encircle the entire screen with the comet’s tail, and instantly jump to the next level. Almost 40 years later Betty still remembers this bug and how she never solved it. Surprisingly, she remembers the details and explained what she thought caused it. “I was always pretty sure it was related to aliasing. The change to the beam’s x and y positions on the screen used 8-bit variables.  The leftmost bit is actually a sign bit, indicating a positive or negative value.  If the absolute value was ever greater than 127 (28-1), the value would be interpreted as negative since the left most bit would then be a 1 and the rightmost 7 bits would be interpreted as the size of the negative value. If the comet’s x or y position were to change by more than 127 in a single cycle, as might happen with a rapid trackball spin, the sign bit would flip and it would cause the direction of the beam to flip backwards. Nice theory, but unfortunately never solved.

The early days of GCC were intense, with engineers regularly working 80 or 100 hour weeks.  The pressure was offset in unusual ways.  One engineer used to juggle, and soon everyone else was juggling too. Engineers could take a break by playing video games in the in-house arcade or around the lab.  One of the company benefits was membership in a racquetball club, so employees often played each other before work.  The staff was also rewarded with several company-sponsored trips to DisneyWorld.

After Quantum, Betty worked on Atari home games for the 2600, 5200 and 7800, including Pole Position, Dig Dug, Atari Lab and GCC’s version of Millipede. These were written in coding teams, and Betty found it much more enjoyable working with a partner.  The games were written in assembler for 8-bit 6502-variation processors.  The 2600 had only 128 bytes of RAM, so it required conservation of bits and a lot of creativity. The game code also had to finish processing in the time it took the television’s beam to travel from the bottom right of the screen back up to the top left.  This meant counting cycles of the assembly code, and often modifying methods to achieve the same result in fewer cycles. The games were developed on emulator stations, so hardware in parallel development was no longer an issue. The work involved not only coding but also graphics and music design, and Betty often worked with Patty Goodson for that.  Once completed, the games were sent to Test and Debug, where another woman, Betty’s sister Carol Ryan Thomas, worked to methodically identify bugs and verify fixes.

As one of the few women in the industry, Betty experienced the stereotypical perspective that women were not supposed to know about computers. She remembers a particular incident during the annual Consumers Electronic Show in Las Vegas (now Consumers Technology Association). At the convention, many companies hired women to advertise and attract the mostly male visitors to their booths. They were derogatorily called “booth babes.”  Betty demonstrated products in GCC’s booth as an engineer. One guy approached her and harassed her saying, “what did you know about video games a week ago, honey?” A GCC colleague stepped in and corrected him, saying, “She is one of our engineers.” The flustered guy just shuffled away.

With the crash of the gaming industry in 1984 and the future of Atari unclear, General Computer Company became GCC Technologies, and Betty continued on in the company. The first product GCC created after the shift was an internal hard disk for the Macintosh. The original Macintosh used floppy disks that had to be swapped in and out of the single floppy drive to switch between application and operating system disks.  Not only was this aggravating, but it was painfully slow.  GCC’s internal hard disk offered speed and 10MB of storage. Customers who installed GCC’s hard disk violated the Apple warranty, so GCC assumed that warranty as part of its business strategy. This change in its business model required technical people in Sales, so Betty volunteered and was assigned the West Coast and the Southeast US territories. It was fun and interesting for a while, but after six months she really missed engineering. She returned to write a software driver for the 20 MB hard disk, followed later by drivers for an accelerator board and laser printers. Betty continued working for several years in engineering, right up until a few hours before her first child, a daughter, was born. She remembers, “I worked until 7 o’clock that night, went home and at 8.30 it was time to go to the hospital. That was the end of my career at GCC.

Betty had three more children, then returned to work as a freelance web-developer when one of her sons wanted to modify his website and had difficulty getting the technology to do what he wanted. Betty offered to help, but he didn’t see how video game experience could possibly be useful on a website. She remembers, “I had been ‘just a mom’ for so many years so it took a lot of convincing for him to let me try. I am grateful to him now because that’s what pulled me back into working again and we were able to make the changes he wanted. PHP is very similar to C so it was easy to pick up, and a mySQL book helped translate my theoretical database knowledge into practical skills.

Once back in the technical world, Betty built a web-development company to create sites for small businesses. One website was for Azeroth Advisor, an automated game advice newsletter for World of Warcraft players that was developed by old friends from GCC. They had created an extension for the game that would keep track of a player’s progress, such as his character’s level, inventory, and location in the game. This information would be sent to a cloud server, which would then automatically generate newsletters based on those variables. Betty built the web site and the dynamically generated HTML for the newsletters.  Although primitive by today’s standards, it was a challenge in 2007 to animate in Javascript, producing characters walking and dancing across the screen. Betty remembers, “It really felt like being back in the video game days, making things move despite technical constraints. It was great fun.