If I compiled a list of my favourite games before I started this project Boulderdash would appear at zero. That’s a pretty dire programming joke but it’s absolutely true. No game has ever entranced me to the same degree. I still have the cassette of my Atari 800 version, actually the copy even has the cassette inlay drawn by my 12 year old self (it’s on the bookshelf behind me, I’ll dig it out). Its design simplicity is eternal but more importantly it is Fun. The frequency at which Boulderdash clones and updates appear, most recently on the DS as Boulderdash Rocks!, are proof of its endearing appeal.
[my awesome cover art, aged 12 & 3/4]
So it’s with a twinge of sadness that this is probably the last big part of talking with Peter Liepa about Boulderdash. I want to thank Peter for the astonishing amount of time and patience he’s shown me and the project. It might be obvious by now that I’m not an experienced interviewer (hard to believe I know) and his tolerance of my ‘style’ has not only been pivotal in me starting to understand the differences in game development but hugely inspiring. Plus I got to find out some exciting news, Peter’s working on a new puzzle game but that’s as much as I can tell you at the moment. Okay, enough with the schoolboy mawkishness already.
Back to the plot…loading…
Peter, if games are all about a “feeling” of enjoyment and fun then would it seem reasonable then to assume that you must have a sizeable iterative process loop of “play/testing/refining” your game model in order to arrive at something enjoyable? Probably the majority of your development? That is, beyond a rough spec/idea for the physical constraints of the world, the rest of the specification is written as a result of development and not the other way around?
That sounds about right. Frankly, it’s not as if I had an official “process”. I was just a guy working at the metaphorical “kitchen table” trying to create a game. I had much bigger things to worry about than process. In fact, my experience to date had been that process wasn’t much use unless you were working with a larger team. And I am by nature an improviser.
So perhaps it would run along the lines of “my first goal is to have something that does y in a weeks time and then as a result of play testing y I actually now know that my model also needs x to support and precede y to help make more sense of its function” and this might not have been visible through spending a month writing a formal specification for it, as it’s almost impossible to feel fun through a written description, in the same way that reading a play will be nothing like the experience of going to the theatre to see it.
Sounds like a good plan. Obviously you want to think things out as far as you can in advance, but recognize that there are diminishing returns for that. There are lots of things that you don’t know yet, and value (as a navigational aid) will reveal itself as you go along.As my project will also result in the agile development of a social/Mobile game, I wonder if you had thoughts on how Boulderdash would evolve if you were developing it today with the influence of Facebook and Twitter? (I guess an impossible question really, as it Boulderdash exists as a product of it’s time really) Beyond something like social hi-score tables did you ever conceive of it being multiplayer for example? Have you ever had any desire to revisit it – or games in general? I have a vague recollection that I may have thought of multi-player Boulder Dash at one time, but as you point out it was a product of its time. It did just fine as a one player game. Funny you should ask about revisiting games. From 1994 until early 2009 I worked at Alias, the company that created Maya and was acquired by Autodesk. Since leaving that company, I’ve had the mental bandwidth to return to some of my “roots” in mathematical visualisation, generative art and gaming. One of the projects I’ve been working on lately is a web version of my game Brain Jam, which was released as freeware in early 90’s and enjoyed some cultish popularity. It was written back then as a learning exercise for C++ and Windows, and is being rewritten now as a way of learning web technologies. It’s on the backburner right now, due to a contracting project, but we might be able to talk more about its process when I resume. I guess I’m coming to the end of my questions too (sadly!), so perhaps it’s fitting then to ask about the end of the development of Boulderdash. How much time was spent on “polish” in regard to the whole development time (actually, how long was it, start to finish?) The game has always struck me as something of a labour of love as it’s so beautiful to see and hear. A good example for me is the way that the cave structure is first revealed to the player, as it flips each border tile to show dirt/boulder/firefly/diamond etc and scrolls to Rockford who finally “arrives” in the cave slightly later and gives a genuine sense of transition.
That sense of scrolling encourages the user to explore, eagerly searching out those diamonds. Were these things that were added after the core mechanic was working, i.e. design ideas that came as a result of polishing? When did you decide it was time to stop – or did the publisher decide for you? What was your overall experience of the development and publishing relationship?
game had smaller tiles that all fit on one screen. To make them more vivid, the tiles had to be bigger. And once they were bigger, the game no longer fit on the screen, so scrolling was introduced.
I can’t really remember how it was that I decided the game was complete. Something about works of art not being finished, only abandoned. By the time I found a publisher, I only had a few sample caves. It was easy enough to design enough caves for the whole game, once we decided what was enough. But they specifically asked for a “granny cave”, which was their term for a cave that anybody, including your grandmother, could get through. And they also wanted “intermissions”, which seemed to be popular in games at the time as rewards.
Lastly, I loved reading your blog entry (http://www.brainjam.ca/wp/2009/11/scoring-the-boulder-dash-theme/) that had the music transcribed using a flash application. How important to you was the music and soundfx? The soundfx is terrifically atmospheric and has a distinctive echoey and metallic effect (that could be my memory playing tricks on me) Did you design the soundfx?
[My ‘backup’ of Boulderdash -not that I feel the need to justify myself but I did buy the original, I just used this one as I was archivist nut even back then]
My brother’s weak bladder, now and again, had its upsides. It was a
baking hot day in Cornwall and my parents were driving us to Tintagel
castle but not long after setting off my brother needed to stop and
use the toilet. Again. So, my father pulled into a car park on the
side of the road and we got out into a baked yellow field next to a
small cafe. I was ten and there was no gameboy, no DS to fix my
addiction. I remember sitting in the car watching those miles of
tarmac, looping around our family holidays, approach and pass
hypnotically as I dreamed about various computer and video games.
of ‘Arcade Quality’ games at home. This was the holy grail, Tintagel
could go fall in the sea for all I cared (I think bits of it actually
have now). What we obsessed over were those few pages in Computer and
Video Games (C&VG) which were dedicated to “Arcade Action” and their
lusty promises that next year could see a home machine capable of
producing the same adrenaline inducing highs we got from seeing those
hi-res, high-velocity games. It was unrequited and we wanted
requiting. My mum took my brother Cris to the toilet and I left my father leaning
against our silver Escort, rolling his Golden Virginia. I wandered
over to a small outbuilding next to the cafe, probably kicking massive
clouds of red dust and huffing as I went. Stupid castle. Stupid brother.
etc. Then I saw it. It was a new holy grail. It was a game that looked like
a cartoon. Or a cartoon that looked like a game. What was this
witchcraft? It was, of course, this: I sprinted across the parched field back to my father leaving a plume
of dust like Roadrunner. “Dad, I need 50p!” As you can imagine, in 1983, 50pence was a lot of money. You could
buy a 3 bed suburban semi back then. Luckily, I think my
father just wanted to smoke his rollup in peace so there was a little
bargaining done and he flipped me a 50 pence piece – it was probably
in exchange for me not whining all the way up Tintagel’s many many
steps (seriously, it’s a crazy amount of steps). I raced back and put
the money in the bright yellow box of magic. The introduction was incredible. I was playing a bloody movie. And
then of course my “go” ended as quickly as it started. I didn’t really
have time to work out what to do. I was just happy to bask in its mind
bending, money pinching majesty. I walked those steps to Tintagel in monastic silence wondering what
else was possible. Anything, as it turned out.
p.s. I’ve got the day off today and I’m taking the children to Barry Island, a place that still has amusement arcades and the place where I first remember hearing ‘that’ Star Wars game…
[update] Had a fantastic day trawling around the arcades on Barry Island, too many fruit machines these days, but still found a few gems (below)
A strange paradox occurs with word of mouth marketing. Good products spread quickly through recommendations but equally, bad products, achieve the same level of (anti) recommendations. What’s interesting here is that the average products, the products that are not bad just not great, can become invisible. They idle around in the doldrums; they can’t catch the wind. Remember that Amiga game, Elf? Probably not, not because it wasn’t brilliant, it was actually pretty good but at the time there were much better ‘hyped’ games and it failed to gain “traction”. Arguably this is the job of marketing, to ensure the product does get traction. Streetfighter II on the other hand was talked about like it was a rock star, even my parents knew about it, and this prior to it being officially available . The grey imports went for anything around £100 for the Snes Japanese or US import.This is best form of marketing for the cash strapped indie: word of mouth. This is not to fall into the trap of thinking that this is free or you can forget about product quality, you still have to get your product out and into the hands of people to talk about it. So the product needs to be good for these early adopters to think about spending their ‘social capital’ on it. Therefore you need to think carefully about how to create that buzz with the limited resources you have (some expert advice on those methods in part 2) As a good example, yesterday I met with some old University friends for our annual meet up and we quickly started swapping game recommendations. One of which was the iPhone’s Espgaluda, an incredibly fast bullet hell shooter. My old friend Steve, who introduced me to Ikaruga years ago, eagerly fired up his iPhone to show me after I admitted I’d not heard about. After a few minutes of playing around I’d seen enough to know I’d be buying it soon enough, even at the eye watering price of £5.49 (an absurd app store relativism I’ll cover later). And now I’ve just told you about it. This is a great form of marketing. I’m sure the marketing professionals have got a term for this sort of buzz marketing (maybe it’s buzz marketing!) It’s gold dust really as it uses your personal network and associates itself with the trust/integrity you have for the person telling you. Perhaps video games are special in this area too as almost all of us are, by nature, early adopters, perhaps largely due to it being delivered by a technology that is rapidly changing. A good contrast would be the literary world, I love reading and I love book shops but the technology hasn’t changed in centuries and so I never feel the velocity of ground level recommendations (e.g. “have you seen God of War III, you need to get it now, it’s sick” – btw, sick, I’m led to believe is the new cool, but I could be quite wrong here as I still use the words cool and ace), this has been there since day one of the videogame industry.
This is based on a very definite sense of missing out and knowing that games, like pop music, are at their most vibrant and potent within the timely bubble of their release. They quickly attach themselves to you and become forever entwined in nostalgia. Games are also instant gratification, and their output across many genres is prolific, pop music works on the same network, perhaps even faster. It’s probably no surprise then that I also love pop music and most gamers I know are the same. Perhaps there’s something in this memory grafting relationship that’s worth exploring later.I don’t think things haven’t changed in this respect since the early days and this is how I came to ditch my beloved Spectrum for something that I could mow the lawn with. Rewind to 1984 and my neighbour, Paul Tucker, invited me to his house to show me his new computer. It was a C64. He loaded up a new game and I was stunned to hear a symphony, a rendition of an English country garden, being belted out of this big (and ugly) grey box – my Spectrum, in comparison, was like a small box of buzzing bees. My beloved little rubber keyed wonder’s days were numbered. The legendary Jeff Minter, through my neighbour’s recommendation had notched up another sale of Hovver Bovver http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hover_Bovver and started my migration to the world of the 6502.
By the way, and somewhat incredibly, Jeff is still developing games through his beastie inspired company Llamasoft and I’m hoping to visit Jeff and Giles soon. I believe they are working on a new iPhone game and I’m really interested to get their views on making and selling games and how that’s changed over the past 30 years. For what it’s worth, the industry and us gamers are all the richer for having them around. I mean, where else are you going to find giraffes in space? I think if you head on over to Steam you can pick up their latest shooter, Gridrunner Revolution and Space Giraffe for around a tenner – http://store.steampowered.com/sub/3014/
In the meantime, enjoy some “quintessentially British” Minter output (and you can read more about ‘Yak’ here: http://llamasoft.co.uk/yak/AHistoryofLlamasoft.pdf
This month’s Edge magazine has an interesting article by Randy Smith
(http://www.next-gen.biz/users/randy-smith) on emergence. At the root
of his argument are using the questions “Then what happens?” or “What
else?” as drivers to extrapolate the causal chain of events in your
game design. He goes further and explains that in separating out an
event’s outcome as a communication ‘channel’ it allows the designer to
foster emergence through having your main objects be producers or
consumers of the channels.
in my head (sorry, it’s early) but from my experience of working on
subscription based web2.0 and messaging APIs it makes a ton of sense. In fact, we see this sort of emergent behaviour all the time. For example, many of the creative uses for Twitter have sprung up as a direct result of this. The modern web is now a fertile ecosystem of interdependent services and events available to query via RESTful APIs or to be consumed as pushed events, most now with geolocation data tagged to it. Going back to my game design (which was trashed earlier this week and
is now slowly being resurrected in parts), there are a few high level objects which from the start were described in terms of the notifications they
broadcast as certain events are triggered. But Randy’s article has
opened up this mechanism for me think a lot more broadly about each object
and how it can interact with the environment to allow for emergence. More on this later, off to London to meet some old friends for the weekend!
Indira Gandhi said that. Along with many other things, she was right.I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote this week, with particular
thought regarding game design and my seemingly inherent, almost
subconscious, urge to use conflict as the main mechanism. It reminds
me a lot of the 3rd chapter of Darwin’s Origin of the species entitled
“The struggle for existence”: “we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live
on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we
forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings
are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey” So perhaps it’s natural to use these mechanisms as the basis of our
models as they largely define our existence. But evolution is a
strange fruit. The violence that bought our survival
and brought us to this point is now a burdensome creature to our
society. Perhaps the violence in games gives Mr Hyde somewhere to,
well, hide. (apologies for the awful pseuds corner guff & pun) The debate on violence in videogames I’ll leave for smarter people
than me. I just wanted to bring it up as following on from this week’s
events (culminating in me trashing the original game design) I find
that I can’t help but feel that what I’m doing should in someway allow
the player to connect with others without conflict. Actually more honestly, I find more and more that I want to produce
something that I can sit with children and play. Which makes this
whole project even harder 🙂
I’ve just finished reading Scott Steinberg’s great (and free) book on videogame marketing, which was recommended to me by a friendly marketing expert. I started with a little developer’s scepticism but it made a ton of sense to me. Especially coming from a background writing business tools where a lot of my time was spent in meetings outlining why we wanted certain resources for our development efforts. This is a practice that I think has great value as it forces you to evaluate your project rigorously and not let it become a folly.
I really recommend you take a look if you’re interested in the Marketing and PR of videogames – you can download it here http://www.sellmorevideogames.com
It has given me a great appreciation for the magic they weave, especially in the face of being “given” a product that they were unable to have any influence over at the design stage – i.e. a non market driven creation.
Before putting my daughter to bed we played about with her train set. I let her put it together and for a 2 year old she did a pretty good job only she doesn’t yet understand what happens if all the pieces of track don’t join up. She’s not experienced that yet. This reminded me of the design and development process. Everything needs to join up. The design. The team. The message. Everything. This takes experience.
You start out with a vision to build something which in your head looks like this:
Only when you start, what you actually see is this:
This is not happyland.
This can be daunting, especially if someone is paying you to put it together. If this is the first time you’ve emptied the box you’ll likely get it wrong the first few times and end up like this (this is actually what Emilia put together):
This is not right. This is still not happyland.
Unless you get lucky or are, irritatingly for duffers like me, a genius, chances are you’ll learn by making mistakes. The problem is on some projects, like this one, the margin for error is tiny. Especially if you seek some funding as I think I will do.
Which means you have to re-arrange the track whilst the train is travelling around it like this:
This can be scary yet exhilarating. But usually not for the people who gave you money. They want happyland and you’ve got crazyland.
It helps if you’ve done it before or have someone who has close to hand to tell you where each part goes, as I do with my daughter, so you end up with something like this:
This is happyland.
I know, it’s a strange metaphor.
During the 2 hour train journey to London yesterday (for a talk by Keita Takahashi about his new playground, see previous post – http://www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp/en/event/games/invitation/100713.html) I wrote a two page description of my game design. It’s been bubbling away over the past two weeks of sketching and prototyping, so writing about it now was a fluid and concentrated experience. There were no grey areas or rhetorical questions or placeholders; just a full description of the game mechanic which felt robust and fun. I couldn’t wait to get back and get some work done on the prototype but first I had the enjoyable distraction by way of listening to some experts on the subject.