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What are the real facts behind Pac-Man’s 2600 development?

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Just to reiterate some of Frye's contradictions:

 

Development - has claimed:

6 weeks - as quoted in the book, Racing The Beam (pg. 67)

5 months - as quoted in the April 1998 Next Generation article

6 months - as quoted in the documentary Stella At 20 - 

(12 min in)

 

4K vs 8K - in the same Next Gen article, Frye mentioned 8K ROMS weren't available when he started programming it.  VCS Asteroids came out in July/August 1981 and was the first 8K VCS game released.  The bank-switching technique was developed (but not put into production) 2 years before, for Video Chess.  In this thread (http://atariage.com/forums/topic/232660-pac-man-review-from-1982/page-8), Goldberg claims to quote Tod from a Facebook conversation they had regarding the story about him being offered use of an 8K ROM for Pac-Man, which is something Rob Zdybel said happened in Once Upon Atari:

 
Goldberg: Were you offered to move to 8K for Pac-Man towards the end of coding for it?
 
Frye: Nope. 8k wasn't even an option until after Pacman coding was complete.  I did have a meeting after Pacman came out, to assess the possibility of a quick revision with less flicker, if we used 8k as an option.
 
Goldberg: So where did the claim that you originally asked for 8K come from?
 
Frye: It came from thin air. I never considered 8k. rom was not really an issue. ram was.

 

Popularity - Frye also stated, "Pac-Man wasn't a particularly big game.  'Pac-Man fever' hit between the start and the finish of the project."   PuckMan was released in Japan in May 1980 and the Midway Pac-Man version in October 1980.  Working backwards, VCS Pac-Man came out late March 1982, and production took a good 10 weeks (2.5 months, so Tod likely finished it no later than December 1981 (since the game's copyright date is 1981 which reflects when programming was completed).  Go back 5 months at most for programming, so let's say he started no later than July 1981.  So since October 1980, Pac-Man wasn't a huge hit by the following summer?  A friend of mine remembers the Tomy and Entex handhelds coming out almost immediately together and Coleco's arriving quite a bit later (all in 1981).  Can't find any release date for Odyssey2 K.C. Munchkin; it was definitely out by January 1982 (it was reviewed in the March 1982 issue of Electronic Games), and possibly a few months before that.  Also, Buckner and Garcia's song was released December 1981 (and the album in January 1982). 

 

Colored background - In a keynote from the 2015 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Frye states he wish he had made a black background with a blue maze, but claims Atari had a rule against black backgrounds because it would have burned the maze into the CRT (apparently this rule didn't apply to space games...).  This makes no sense since Atari touted the anti-burn-in effects of the VCS from day one, plus Tod included the color cycling code routine in his Pac-Man game!  And I've never heard any other Atari VCS programmer state such a requirement, either.  The story I heard back then was that Pac-Man had a colored background and muted colors, to help make the flickering monsters less noticeable (and they were relabeled as ghosts because of their flickering, which was more logical to accept than having flickering monsters).

 

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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Recent article about VCS Pac-Man in this month's Retro Gamer Magazine.  Tod again claims having a 2-player option was somehow an essential part of Pac-Man, as if we were talking about a co-op feature like with Warlords.  Anyone else would have dropped the 2-player option very early in the dev process, realizing what the restrictions were with having only 4K.  As for the color scheme, look at all the other coin-op ports that were done before Pac-Man.  Even b&w arcade games like Breakout and Space Invaders duplicated the colored overlays that were used.  For him to say "Nobody knew what was important" is nonsense.  Clearly everyone else knew what was important, and the rules weren't as unclear or unknown as he likes to claim - if you're doing a coin-op conversion, the objective is to COPY the arcade game as closely as possible.  "No one knew?"  EVERYONE knew.  If the game was purely b&w, like Air-Sea Battle or Asteroids, then sure, take advantage of the fact the system has color.  But to take a game like Pac-Man and put a colored background in it, when part of the visual appeal of most games back then was to see colors against a black background (something Rob Fulop fully understood with most of his games) just shows how goofed up on drugs Todd must have been for him to think that was a good idea.  How come he didn't put a colored background in his 400/800 Asteroids?  Yet with most of his VCS games (Pac-Man, SQ FireWorld, Aquaventure, Save Mary), the coloring schemes were just an eyesore.  Sorry, but to spend 6 months on a 4K game and have it look or sound nothing like the game it's based on is still just as unforgivable, even 36 years later.  No, he was no pioneer with Pac-Man, other than he was the first to do a truly horrible coin-op conversion version.  He came come up with all the excuses he wants, but Tod did a shit job on the game.  Yeah, he 'touched' millions of people, if you want to call disappointing them 'touching' them.  And the touted reward program that Atari initiated?  Yeah, Tod "pioneered" that when he threatened to leave during the Pac-Man development unless he got royalties.  Some pioneer.

RetroGamerMagazine-the_story_of_pac-man_on_atari_2600_4-18.pdf

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^  This ^

I know people love the game "because it's all we had and we played it a ton".  But it just wasn't a very good port.  Just getting the colors right would have helped.  I've always wondered why someone at Atari didn't offer feedback on the game while it was in development.  I guess things just didn't work that way back then. 

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I agree with Scott.  I have heard Todd say the same thing every time he speaks about it and I find it hard to swallow.  Having the right colors would have gone a long way.  Also having Pac-Man turn the right way would have been nice.  That's why I like Nukey Shay's "upgrade" to the game and it is the version I usually play when I want to play Atari's Pac-Man.

 

 

post-1146-0-12387000-1523030190_thumb.png

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I just picked up on something here that in all these years I never caught onto. At 14:20 into the video Frye says "As it happens, I was more or less on probation at the time"(referring to his employment at Atari). Why would Atari management choose Tod Frye for arguably their most important Atari 2600 game project if he was "more or less on probation at the time"? Given the importance of the title and constraints involved why wouldn't Atari have chosen someone else, or put two or three people on the project to develop something over the top and ahead of schedule?

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I've never found what what Frye did to get himself on probation.  It's hard to imagine what one would have to do back then at Atari, but Dennis Koble mentioned Frye wasn't the most motivated guy:

 

http://www.ataricompendium.com/archives/interviews/dennis_koble/interview_dennis_koble.html

 

Q: Were you involved or know anything about the Space Invaders and Super Breakout LCD hand-helds Atari planned in 1980?

Dennis Koble: I never actually have seen one of these before today (or even a picture of it).  The LCD games were done in the VCS consumer division while I was Manager there, but I only remember just a little about Super Breakout in particular because Tod Frye, who programmed it, had trouble focusing on deadlines at the time and I had to “handhold” him in the evening to try to finish it.

Tod was (and is) a very smart guy, but in those days he had a hard time focusing on the task at hand and therefore was not good at meeting schedules which Atari (under Ray Kassar) was focused on.  It galled Ray Kassar to no end that he had to rely on a bunch of flakey-ass programmers to run a 5 billion-dollar-a-year business.  To say there was a clash of cultures is a gross understatement.


Q: If I recall, Tod Frye mentioned in an online keynote video that you were the CES Manager when he was given VCS Pac-Man to do.  As far as I know, Tod started Pac-Man around May 1981 (btw, that same Atari book claims Pac-Man was Tod's first game at Atari! lol).  You mentioned Imagic was formally founded on July 17th, 1981.  Do you recall when he started it, or what month you left Atari?

 

Dennis Koble: No, I do not, although I expect it might be in the public record as when Imagic was formed.  I left Atari during those times to start Imagic with a number of other people.  I wasn’t away long from Atari when we founded Imagic.  It was all a whirlwind.  It is possible Tod did start VCS Pac-Man while I was still Manager, but since I can’t remember who took over for me, perhaps that was during the time when I told Atari I was leaving.  I think I probably gave Atari a couple of weeks notice, but I don’t really remember the details.

 

-------------

 

The story Frye tells in Once Upon Atari about there was already some resentment towards him and some looked upon him as a clown before his big payday with Pac-Man also is worth noting.  His drug use wasn't the issue, since that was basically part of Atari's culture since day one.  But not being productive or doing sub-standard work?  Yeah, I imagine that would be the worst thing anyone could have done back then.  So if I had to guess, I'd say the basis for his probation was regarding that.

 

The question I have is, where was Marketing and all their critical play-testing with this game?  Nowhere, absolutely nowhere.  It was Pac-Man.  That's all they cared about.  Even Larry Kaplan said as much - they didn't care as long as it had the right name on it.  The name was more important than how it looked or played. 

 

We know that with Warshaw's Yars' Revenge.  Marketing (specifically Steve Wright) delayed its release for months, because they felt there were problems with it.  Maybe the problem was, it wasn't the Star Castle arcade port they originally wanted, so maybe that was 'punishment' for Warshaw (a new hire at Atari, with this being his first game) taking it upon himself to reinvent the game.  Warshaw never made such comments AFAIK, but the office politics at Atari were said by many to be "interesting".

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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You've heard all the same rumors about Pac-Man that I have - that Tod was rushed to make the game, and that the game was actually a prototype.  Well, I just came across this post on AA.  It's 2nd-hand info, but again a completely different story that apparently came from Frye.  The game is so bad, it almost makes this version of events believable.  As much as Pac-Man appears to have been done in a matter of weeks, if Tod started it before Dennis left to found Imagic (which was founded in July 1981) and Marketing was that hot on getting the game out, it would have been out by Christmas of that year, and not late March the following.  So I just don't see any rush there on anybody's part to get the game done and out the door.  The  AA story is interesting, but I'm not sure there's much truth to it:
 
 
 

"I asked Tod about this when I worked with him at 3DO. He wasn't as into reminiscing about Atari as Howard Scott Warshaw was, but I did coax some tid bits out from him about this. The details that I can remember are: What he showed to the execs was only a prototype to show what could be done theoretically. But the execs felt that with a little polish, the game could ship in a matter of weeks, and they'd all make tons of money. I think it was Tod's intent to sit down and remake the game correctly, but the execs didn't want to "waste time" when they thought what he showed them was playable.


Regarding the color, Atari marketing had a strict policy on avoiding black backgrounds for any game that didn't take place in space. They felt that color helped to sell a game because color TVs were only beginning to become mainstream around that time, and they wanted to hype up the fact that the VCS could produce color. So it's doubtful that marketing would have let Tod correct the colors if he wanted to.


And lastly, the bit about the ghosts flashing: Tod knew how to implement the now-famous horizontal interrupt that was later used in Ms. Pac-Man to cut down on the flashing. But his project manager was an ass and was very patronizing to him, so he left it out and submitted a final version that did not contain the fix. He was one of the first Atari programmers to get a huge royalty check under the new bonus incentives that Atari arranged to keep from losing programmers to the competition (Activision, Imagic...) so I don't think he lost too much sleep over the lack of accuracy.


Honestly, Tod is a brilliant guy, and if he wanted to make a more accurate conversion of Pac-Man, I'm sure he could have. But it doesn't matter how smart you are; when you work for buttheads all you make is poo. (I cleaned that last bit up, but you know what I mean)"

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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The comment about color tv's becoming mainstream at the time makes all of the statements suspect to me.  That is false.  Plus there are plenty of other Atari games from that time or earlier not set in space with a black background.  Let's see.  Missile Command, Video Pinball, Haunted House, Centipede, I could go on...

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 Regarding the color, Atari marketing had a strict policy on avoiding black backgrounds for any game that didn't take place in space. They felt that color helped to sell a game because color TVs were only beginning to become mainstream around that time, and they wanted to hype up the fact that the VCS could produce color. So it's doubtful that marketing would have let Tod correct the colors if he wanted to.

 

 

The comment about color tv's becoming mainstream at the time makes all of the statements suspect to me.  That is false.  Plus there are plenty of other Atari games from that time or earlier not set in space with a black background.  Let's see.  Missile Command, Video Pinball, Haunted House, Centipede, I could go on...

 

Out of curiosity, here is a breakdown of Atari games released in 82, same year as Pac Man

 
Black Background
Berzerk 
Defender 
Haunted House
Star Raiders
Super Breakout 
Yars' Revenge 
 
Color Background
Demons To Diamonds
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Math Gran Prix
Pac-Man 
Raiders Of The Lost Ark
RealSports Baseball
RealSports Football
RealSports Volleyball
SwordQuest EarthWorld
 
So most games did have color backgrounds. It's possible that some of the non space, black background games were made before the color emphasis (if true). It's also possible that black simply fit Haunted House better, and that Bezerk and Super Breakout were considered space games. Super Breakout also already featured a lot of colors.
 
When 1983 came around, Ms. Pac, Vanguard and Battlezone both featured new, color backgrounds, although several arcades games retained their black background. This was also the time the GCC took over a lot of the programming, which may have given them more freedom. 
 
Also, here is a color tv ownership chart
TV-VCR-Remote-Cable_Ownership.JPG
 
So when the VCS first came out, about 1/4 of TV homes were still in B & W. That's pretty significant, in the millions. And it's possible that some of those who had color TVs, made the kids play their games on the old B&W TV. My neighbor had to play his NES on the B&W TV! But as the 80's grew older, color TVs became more the norm.
 
So based on TV ownership numbers and the fact that other arcade games like Ms. Pac got color backgrounds, and based on the fact we are hearing this 2nd hand, Tod's story is at least plausible. Still might be totally made up, but there is at least some evidence to possibly back this up.
Edited by nosweargamer

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Berzerk and Pac Man make for a good comparison.

 

Both are arcade ports where the original game had a black background.  Neither is set in space. 

 

I'm not buying the "Atari policy against black backgrounds" theory.  I will buy the "rush job at mamagement's insistence" theory. 

 

The goal of all arcade ports was to get the home version as close to the real thing as was possible, given the limitations of the system being ported to.  Pac Man was one of the first VCS game to absolutely fail at this. We would have accepted flickery ghosts, a non-standard maze, and missing fruits.  But to not even come close on the colors and sounds?  Ridiculous. 

 

Berzerk has some differences from the arcade version.  Most notably, no speech.  But in general, the game is pretty close.  Same look, feel, colors, and sound.  It "looks" like Berzerk.  And that made it great. 

 

Pac Man on VCS was a good game, and a big seller.  But it is my belief that it hurt Atari long-term.  As I've stated before, that's the game that planted the kernel of doubt about Atari in my mind.  Never again would I pay full price for a game from Atari without reading a review first.  This was the moment I went and got a Commodore computer instead. 

Edited by RickR

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I think I may have heard the thing about Atari not wanting black backgrounds from more than one programmer but that didn't mean it was impossible to do.  Besides, was it really going to take more space to use a black background with a blue maze (even if the maze looked nothing like the arcade)?

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No, the choice of what colors to use makes no difference as far as memory is concerned.

 

With all the VCS programmers I've talked with over the years, I don't recall any of them ever stating that nonsense about only space games could have a black background (or apparently the option to have one, since Space War doesn't).  Someone on Atarimania commented on what a good job Frye did with the b&w scheme, so I checked it out.  At powerup, the date is in color, and then turns gray when the game starts its color-cycling routine.  I start a game.  Everything is in b&w, as it should be.  The game ends, and... whadaya know, the score is in color now.  The longer you leave it on, the more it changes color, as it goes through the color-cycling routine.  After powering it up again and leaving it run, the date does the same thing.  Frye couldn't even get the b&w scheme correct...

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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I totally would've gone with the black background. I'm just say, with all the changes in management over the years, I could see someone like Ray K, coming over to Tod's area and talking about how it would be a good idea to spruce up up game with color. Besides, these are the same guys who decided that programmers were interchangeable and ET couldn't miss.

 

It would also be interesting to find out why they games like Ms. Pac and Vanguard color backgrounds vs the original black.

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It would also be interesting to find out why they games like Ms. Pac and Vanguard color backgrounds vs the original black.

 

 

Atari had a rule at the time stating "No black backgrounds except for space games" which was supposedly to minimize screen burn-in. I suspect there was a marketing component to it as well, but who knows. Tod Frye has spoken about this "no black backgrounds" rule before, citing it as a reason why he went with the blue background and orange maze, and at times said if he had to do it over again he would have broken the rule and gone with a black background and blue maze.

 

Tod begins talking about this in the PGRE 2017 video below at 3 mins 25 secs, and cites the "no black backgrounds rule" at 11 mins 11 secs saying "There was a guideline at Atari that you should not use black backgrounds unless you were doing a space game" :

 

 

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Great video.  The black background rule he mentions sounds like more of a guideline.  I get the impression he could have chosen any colors he wanted.  "We just didn't know what mattered" is his quote. 

I know it's 40 years later...but didn't they play test with any kids who could have told them how important the colors were???

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Great video.  The black background rule he mentions sounds like more of a guideline.  I get the impression he could have chosen any colors he wanted.  "We just didn't know what mattered" is his quote. 

 

I know it's 40 years later...but didn't they play test with any kids who could have told them how important the colors were???

 

Yes to all of the above. Per the guideline/rule, Tod has discussed this in other talks that are also available on YouTube and elsewhere. I don't know how specific they get into it being a "guideline" vs. being a "rule" but he talks about them being discouraged from using black backgrounds outside of space games, and that he should've "broken the rules" done the black background anyway and explained to management why, and he probably could've gotten away with it.

 

Your point about the play tests and focus groups is a good one. Tod Frye is pretty strong in defending Pac-Man point by point. His basic argument is that they "just didn't know"... this was a time when many things in video games were being done for the first time, and "nobody knew" that Pac-Man meant a black background with a blue maze.

 

I see his point but I could also take his argument apart bit by literal bit. It's like, did you ask a kid? I'm sure any kid back then could tell you that it didn't look the way Pac-Man was supposed to look. "Nobody knew" has a kernel of truth but it's also a lame excuse and I don't accept it and Atari shouldn't have accepted it either. It's Pac-Man. You're Atari. Get it right. If you watch a lot of "Tod Talks" you'll notice how often he brings up a few things, such as "nobody knew" and aiming to design things "just good enough" and he brings up his 100 acid trips numerous times. Then go watch the Activision guys and you never hear phrases like "just good enough". They have the demeanor of NASA engineers.

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Furthermore....I don't think it's fair to place so much blame on Tod Frye.  He seems like a good dude, and he was in his 20's at the time.  No, the real blame lies in Atari management.  For not taking the time to do it right, or offer the right testing and comments to the developer. 

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 If you watch a lot of "Tod Talks" you'll notice how often he brings up a few things, such as "nobody knew" and aiming to design things "just good enough" and he brings up his 100 acid trips numerous times. Then go watch the Activision guys and you never hear phrases like "just good enough". They have the demeanor of NASA engineers.

This is a great point!  The Activision guys knew that great quality sold more games and built a brand.  And most of them were chased off by Atari.  "Prima Donnas" indeed. 

 

This is a great discussion, and I sure do enjoy reading everyone's commentary.  Thanks.

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Furthermore....I don't think it's fair to place so much blame on Tod Frye.  He seems like a good dude, and he was in his 20's at the time.  No, the real blame lies in Atari management.  For not taking the time to do it right, or offer the right testing and comments to the developer. 

 

That's exactly right! Atari put all this on one young game designer in their 20s, just like they did to HSW.

 

I was just about to type that I'm of two minds on this Pac-Man thing. On one end, I like Tod Frye. You can tell by his talks that he stands by his work but also has a great attitude towards it. Furthermore I might be among the minority who have a lot of fun playing original Pac-Man on 2600. It's just a game. Nobody should want to ruin a guy's life over it.

 

On the other hand, there's this picture they paint of Atari being this place where you could goof off and drop acid and cash million dollar royalty checks for games. But you don't get to do that and put out low quality stuff. When I hear Tod talking about designing a game to be "just good enough" I cringe a bit and think how bad that sounds, and it really stands out when you go from a Tod Talk to listening to David Crane talk about all the time and skill they placed into every detail of the games they made, even while at Atari. Some things start to sound like lame excuses and I can't deny that part of it.

 

In the end they made games that I've spent almost my entire life enjoying. I love Tod and don't want to bash him.

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Completely agree! 

No bashing of Tod Frye or HSW is warranted in my opinion.  In the video above, Tod Frye mentions he had no idea how much scrutiny the game would get.  A little naive.  But no one could have guessed there would be 40 years of scrutiny, that's for sure. 

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Completely agree! 

 

No bashing of Tod Frye or HSW is warranted in my opinion.  In the video above, Tod Frye mentions he had no idea how much scrutiny the game would get.  A little naive.  But no one could have guessed there would be 40 years of scrutiny, that's for sure. 

 

Exactly! The flip side of that coin is that no one could have guessed how little scrutiny Atari management would have given the game before release. Whatever naivety may have happened on Tod's part, there should have been failsafes at Atari to make sure the final product was on point and provide Tod with a little guidance. Whether that's in the form of management, marketing, or play testing and focus groups coming back and saying "this game would be a lot better if it was a blue maze on a black screen" and taking the time to make even simple changes before release.

 

Meanwhile Yars' Revenge was being held up endlessly in play testing because someone higher up didn't want that game released at all. They play tested Yars' Revenge in Seattle against Missile Command (the most popular game at the time) and it came back that players preferred Yars' Revenge. It set a new high record for playtesting, meanwhile they were holding the game back and Pac-Man was released the way it is. What was Atari thinking? For decades there've been murmurs of internal sabotage, but to what ends?

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I think there is also something to be said for Atari losing their best programmers during this time. It would be like a sport team losing all of their All-Star veterans. Who's going to bring up the rookies?

 

Atari started out headed by guys who knew something about programming. They were able to guide the newbies. But then those guys left, followed by the guys they poured into.

 

What was left? Seems like a lack of locker room leadership and management that didn't know much about gaming.

 

Maybe if they treated their programmers better, a David Crane or Alan Miller could have pulled Tod aside and said "Don't listen to Ray. It's Pac-Man. Make it black. And let me show you a trick to make betters dots and ghosts."

 

And maybe this is why GCC did so well with the silver box games. Like early Atari, they learned the business together and could help each other out.

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YES!  More great points NSG. 

I'm a manager myself, and it really helps to have some veterans on the team to gently guide and ground new people while letting them try new ideas too. 

But the irony is that Atari could have easily kept the best programmers and maybe even prevented the birth of third party software if they'd have just given David Crane et al the simple recognition they sat down and asked for.  Bad management usually starts at the top, and I think that's the case of what happened to Atari.  Management that didn't know or understand the games/technology/entertainment industry and didn't understand the value of great developers. Let's be honest -- would it have hurt Atari to put the little developer picture and bio on each game and given royalties?  Of course not.  Imagine the feeling of creating a game that sells millions of copies and not getting anything but your 30k salary. 

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