Donn Denman’s “Make a Mess, Clean it Up!” isn’t quite as good a story as I remembered. But it has stuck with me since I first encountered it in Folklore.org, Andy Hertzfeld’s oral history of the development of the original Macintosh. I have lightly edited it, in keeping with Folklore.org’s Creative Commons BY-NC license).
Andy [Hertzfeld], Burrell [Smith] and I [Donn Denman] had a standing competition playing on the Defender machine. The goal of Defender is to defend your humans from abduction by aliens. The evil green aliens drop down from the top of the screen and randomly pick up your humans, and try to bring them back up to the top of the screen. You control a ship and have to shoot the aliens, either before they grab a human, or during their rise up to the top of the screen. If an alien makes it to the top with a human, they consume him and become a vicious mutant, which attacks very aggressively. You start the game with ten humans, and if the last one dies, all the aliens become mutants, and they swarm in on your ship from all sides.
Often a single mutant is enough to kill you. They move quicker, and with a different pace and pattern than the other aliens, so the normal evasive techniques don’t work very well. Mutants move so quickly over small distances that they seem to just jump on top of you. Your ship is faster over the longer term, so you have to outrun them, establishing a gap, and only then do you have enough room to safely turn and fire at them.
One day Burrell started doing something radical. He immediately shot all his humans! This was completely against the goal of the game! He didn’t even go after the aliens, and when he shot the last human, they all turned to mutants and attacked him from all sides. He glanced in my direction with a grin on his face and said “Make a mess, clean it up!” and proceeded to dodge the swarm of angry mutants noisily chasing after him. “Burrell’s not going to win this competition” I said to myself. “He’s not going to last long with a screen full of mutants!”
When Burrell’s next turn came up I was surprised by how long his ship survived. He’d already developed a technique for dealing with a whole mass of mutants. He would circle around them again and again, and that would gather them into a densely clumped swarm. Then, while circling, he’d fire a burst pattern across the whole swarm, not needing to aim at individuals. He was doing really well, cutting through the swarm like the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Burrell was no longer attacking individual mutants, instead he was treating the whole swarm as one big target.
Burrell may have lost that game and the next few, but it wasn’t too long before he was really mastering the machine. Instead of avoiding the tough situations, he’d immediately create them, and immediately start learning how to handle the worst situation imaginable. Pretty soon he would routinely handle anything the machine could throw at him.
I was beginning to see how Burrell could be so successful with everything he does.
My high-school track and cross-country coach used a version of this technique to help us become better sprinters. His theory was that really improving at sprinting requires you to run faster and harder than you are currently capable of. He claimed there were two ways to do that: tie yourself to someone faster than you, or run downhill. So he took us to a grassy hill near school – I remember it as being about a 45-degree angle, although it wasn’t actually that steep – and told us to run all-out downhill, not worrying abut keeping our balance. If we weren’t falling over, we weren’t running hard enough.