• Dr. Evil Laboratories

  • by kentsu

This blog recounts the history of Dr. Evil Laboratories, the creator, manufacturer, and retail sales of peripherals and software for the Commodore 64, including the Imagery! adventure game system, the SID Symphony Stereo cartridge, and the Swiftlink-232 cartridge.


Begin the Begin

What was Dr. Evil Labs and why should I care? Who are these guys, anyway?

Welcome to my attempt, along with the help of several friends, to recount the history of the little company known as Dr. Evil Laboratories, the inventors and makers of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge, the SwiftLink-232 Serial Cartridge, and several other less-well-known but equally awesome software products.

I never expected to sit down and write the stories of these now long-ago days, mainly because I didn't think anyone would be interested enough to listen! Thanks to Thomas Ferguson (to be properly introduced later) and Greg Alekel (creator of this site, commodoreserver.com) and my two sons Kyle and Sean, for appearing to show genuine interest in this topic and prodding me to get busy and do something... Thanks--I think. I am amazed by the amount of new development work going on in the CBM 8-bit world. The enthusiasm and buzz was a truly an inspiration to spend the time telling the Dr. Evil story after all these years.

People start companies for many different reasons. Making money is often top of the list. And sometimes, the business challenge of running a company is a major motivation. With Dr. Evil Labs, neither was the case. The company was a means to an end, an end that we reached after a long gestation period where the people centrally involved got to know each other, became friends, and had many, many discussions that started with "Wouldn't it be cool if...?". And, full disclosure, that question did not come from a point of pure altruism when it was me asking it. :-) I loved my Commodore 64 computer and was always dreaming about new and different things it could do--specifically, new and different things *I* wanted it to do--but I usually didn't have the technical chops to make those ideas a reality. So, as you'll see from the stories told here, we leveraged our complementary skills to do some very enjoyable projects. And yes, we made a little bit of money too, eventually. And I in particular learned a whole lot about running a company--enough that I don't desire to ever do it again!

I am a strong believer in serendipity. I have seen it at work throughout my entire adult life, if not earlier. Without overstating my point (I hope), human beings like to pretend they're in control. At best, I think we can shape the conditions within which our lives happen. The formation of Dr. Evil Labs is one of many examples of this in my life. Three people were the initial nucleus of the company: Ray Moody, Roy Riggs, and me, Kent Sullivan.

Long before there was a Dr. Evil Labs, Ray Moody and I met at a one-day freshman orientation event at Purdue University in the summer of 1985. Ray was from Valparaiso in northern Indiana and I was from the tiny town of St. Paul in the southeast part of the state. Neither Ray nor I remember how or why we began talking, but we hit it off right away. However, like so many ephemeral meetings, we didn't exchange contact information so that could have been the end of the story right there.

Serendipity, fate, and/or karma had other ideas. A few months later, we both started our freshman year. It turned out that Ray and I were assigned to the same dorm, Wiley, and we ran into each other soon and picked up where we left off. Roy Riggs had started at Purdue the year before and had been an acquaintance of Ray's since the third grade. While they didn't hang out socially much, Ray and Roy spent a lot of time together in various computer labs in both high school and college. Not to overstate the case, but I provided a sort of missing link and things started to jell.

Dr. Evil Labs officially began as a company on January 1, 1987. In the intervening 18 months or so, we spent a fair amount of our time figuring out how to live away from home, navigate a huge college campus, and adjust to the much-increased class workload. But of course, it was not all work with no play. And play for us was often working with our favorite machine, the Commodore 64. We all brought C-64 systems from home and it seemed like every dorm room on campus had one.

As one might imagine, playtime was often spent trying out, and sometimes devoting the time to master, the latest and greatest games, and there seemed to be a new one every week. Like many college freshmen, we were not exactly awash in disposable income, so we partook regularly in "backup copies" that were freely circulating up and down the hallways. Ray and Roy were both very talented programmers. Ray had written his own 6510 assembler, in fact, and Roy had a real passion for adventure games. Ray, too, liked a good game and had created his own Defender clone in 6502 machine language on the Apple II, using his high school's computer lab. (He had a C-64 at home, of course!)

Our first projects together were cracking a few particularly-offensive copy protection schemes that did not arrive through the trading network already cracked from other sources. (By "particularly-offensive" I mostly mean schemes that tortured the 1541 disk drive in one way or another. In one case though, Roy broke the gnarly protection scheme on the special version of the Paperclip III word processor for the Batteries Included BI-80 column card, which used undocumented 6510 opcodes, in order to fix a keyboard drive bug that caused it to lock up when the Stop key was pressed.)

Perhaps there are still a few disks floating around out there with an opening splash screen from the "F.B.I." -- the very tongue-in-cheek name for the few games Roy or Ray cracked and released into the wild. ("F.B.I." stood for, of course, Fail-safe Breaking, Incorporated. Hah hah.) Craig Barnhart and Jim McMahon were part of the core gaming group, and they often did a lot of the late-night uploading and downloading to/from various C-64 bulletin boards. Craig was a C-64 BBS sysop for a time as well, and Ray's memory is that I had already been introduced to Roy by the time that Ray introduced me; it was probably Craig who made this connection. Craig also played a crucial testing role for the Imagery! adventure game designer, which we'll talk about in a future post.

So, Ray, Roy, and I spent a fair amount of our free time together and we spent a lot of that time hacking on our C-64s. Looking back, it's kind of inevitable, given Ray's and Roy's talent levels, that our thoughts and conversations would move from "fixing" someone else's "bad" (copy-protected) code to new things we could do ourselves. Remember "Wouldn't it be cool if...?"?

In the next post, I will dive into the first "smash hit" from Dr. Evil Labs, the amazingly-useful (at least for college students in the 1980s) Kermit v2.0 terminal emulator / file transfer program, authored by none other than Ray Moody. After that, I will dive into the Imagery! adventure game system, Roy's epic creation, with some discussion of the system it was based on, Eamon for the Apple II.

It's my intention to include relevant software (.D64 disk images) and collateral (PDFs), for each project. Hopefully those documents will help (re-)create for you the spirit of the products we had so much fun creating. And, given the strength of the C-64 retro scene, maybe some of these items will help fill gaps in items you might have acquired second-hand. (There's also an entire side story about how hard it was to convert many of these very old documents into PDF. Maybe I'll blog about the too :-).)

Finally, I intend to create a series of blog posts that track the business side of Dr. Evil Labs, focusing on some fun facts about the company's growth, profitability, and engineering demise.

Thanks for reading!

Kent Sullivan
Former General Manager
Dr. Evil Laboratories

P.S. In case you're wondering about the obvious R.E.M. lyric ripoff for this entry's title, most of the other titles I thought of sounded way too high-falutin', and my reminiscing reminded me that I was very late to catching onto how amazing R.E.M.'s music was, which included passing up an opportunity to see them on the Purdue campus in 1987. D'oh!

Leave a Comment

You must be signed-in to post comments.


TIhde 8/26/2012

Thanks for deciding to post this; I for one love knowing about the companies that helped support the machines I grew up with. I remember selling the Swiftlink-232 at the store I worked at, but only hearing about the SID-Symphony. The rest I don't recall at all, unfortunately.

kentsu 8/30/2012

You are most welcome. I would love to know more about where that store was. I bet this happened after CMD bought the rights... I don't recall selling carts to a retail store, but how knows?!

judland 8/30/2012

A great introductory posting. I really enjoy reading about C64 history from fellow users and am looking forward to your future posts. Please keep them coming!

BarkerKipp 9/15/2012

Great story, great writing my friend! Can't wait to read your other posts!

E-Doo 10/18/2012

An excellent post! I, too, love hearing stories of the "good old days" of people working and playing with the Commodore 64. Thanks.