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Bill Gates once stayed up until 4am to write a game that Apple thought was 'embarrassing'

Bill Gates. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/ Getty.

It’s the stuff of Silicon Valley legend: In 1980, a young Bill Gates convinced IBM that his tiny startup Microsoft was the perfect choice to provide the operating system for its new PC

The problem was that Microsoft didn’t actually have an operating system to sell. So Gates scrambled to buy a startup working on an operating system called 86-DOS, or “Disk Operating System.” It renamed the software to PC DOS and sold it to IBM for $50,000.

As part of the deal, though, IBM wanted Microsoft to provide a version of BASIC, a simple programming language for beginners, along with a few simple games to show it off. What they came up with was “DONKEY.BAS,” a silly game about a car that has to avoid donkeys in the road.

It also happens to be the first PC game ever developed. Behold:

(The “.BAS” part just means that it was written in BASIC.)

Here’s how Gates described the process of building DONKEY.BAS in a 2001 keynote

Actually, it was myself and Neil Konzen at four in the morning with this prototype IBM PC sitting in this small room. IBM insisted that we had to have a lock on the door and we only had this closet that had a lock on it, so we had to do all our development in there and it was always over 100 degrees, but we wrote late at night a little application to show what the Basic built into the IBM PC could do. And so that was Donkey.bas. It was at the time very thrilling.

Andy Hertzfeld, an early Apple employee, memorably recalled his first time the Macintosh team saw an IBM PC, and being especially unimpressed with the selection of games onboard — singling out DONKEY.BAS as the “most embarrassing game,” with “the concept of the game was as bad the crude graphics that it used.”

Young Bill GatesMicrosoftBill Gates in1990

Wrote Hertzfeld, on discovering this terrible game was made by none other than Bill Gates:

We were surprised to see that the comments at the top of the game proudly proclaimed the authors: Bill Gates and Neil Konzen. Neil was a bright teenage hacker who I knew from his work on the Apple II (who would later become Microsoft’s technical lead on the Mac project) but we were amazed that such a thoroughly bad game could be co-authored by Microsoft’s co-founder, and that he would actually want to take credit for it in the comments.

In 2001, to show off how far the company had come, Microsoft built a 3D version of “DONKEY.BAS,” called “DONKEY .NET,” where the aim is to hit donkeys with a car. That version might be lost to history, and is difficult to get running on modern systems.

But if you want to play the original DONKEY.BAS, you’re in luck: MIT is hosting a browser-based version here, while an enterprising developer has built an iPhone and Apple Watch version that you can buy for $0.99. You can also play another early DOS game, GORILLAS.BAS, in the browser here.

Bill Gates would go on to become a massive fan of another classic Microsoft game: He was such a huge fan of Minesweeper, he had to delete it from his own computer to stay productive — still, he would end up sneaking into his executives’ offices to play it. 

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