Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Changing Lives: David Fox – Part 1

This is the twelfth article in the Where We Came From series.

Lucasfilm Games team (left-to-right): Charlie Kellner, Dave Levine (seated), Peter Langston, David Fox, Loren Carpenter, Gary Winnick (Source: Electric Eggplant)

Last week, Electron Dance looked at the origin of Lucasfilm Games and their first title, Rescue on Fractalus! designed by David Fox. David is most likely remembered for his graphic adventure Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) although he also contributed to Maniac Mansion (1987) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989).

Electron Dance recently caught up with David to chat about his Lucasfilm days and the resulting conversation is presented in two parts. This week, we discuss the growth of the Games Group and the development of Rescue. Next week, we talk about Lucasfilm Games moving into graphic adventures, why David left LucasArts and what he has really been trying to accomplish for the last thirty years.

Let the words begin.

Throwaway Games

HM: Okay, David, let me ask a little about what the “Lucasfilm Computer Division Games Group” was like in the beginning. The Computer Division was tasked with researching computer graphics and Games was just a small part of that. How many people did you have at the start?

The first person hired was Peter Langston to be the manager of the group. Then Rob Poor transferred from a position he held in the Computer Division to help us with tools. Then I was hired, end of summer 1982 and Dave Levine a month later. I think by the end of the first year, we had about eight members. By the time we moved to Skywalker Ranch in 1984-85, about fifteen. When we left the ranch in 1990, we had 60-70 and were growing fast.

It was pretty exciting to be a part of it at the beginning. We all felt under a lot of pressure due to expectations created by the buzz of our group starting up. Magazines were basically expecting us to deliver the "Star Wars" of the video game world. Internally, though, that was softened by the R&D nature of what we were doing.

We weren't expecting to hit a home run on our first time out there. In fact, the first two games we worked on were considered "throwaway games" - if they sucked, we just would drop them and chalk it up to experience. When they actually turned out to be really promising, we shifted into production mode.

It took a while for us to all realize that this shift was happening and I think that caused some problems, and a bit of schizophrenia, when we were partway through the transition.

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Tomorrow’s Promise

This is the eleventh article in the Where We Came From series.

Alien approaching ship on surface of Fractalus

At first there is nothing except the hot, orange glow of the toxic Fractalus atmosphere. A second later, ragged mountains and valleys fill the cockpit window and the player gasps.

Tomorrow, it appears, is already possible.

It Starts With George Lucas

While producing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas felt physical model-based special effects were limiting and established the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 to explore the application of computers to special effects work. State of the art hardware was not good enough for the challenges of the big screen so the division’s goal was to prepare for when technology had caught up with the ambition.

Then in 1982, Atari suggested Lucasfilm should diversify its business into video games. A partnership was forged in which Atari paid Lucasfilm $1M to fund the Computer Division's Games Group. In return, Lucasfilm would develop games for Atari’s platforms.

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The Fukushima Syndrome, 2

This is the tenth article in the Where We Came From series.

Last week: Attempting to learn more about the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, I study a complex simulation program that was released on the Atari 400/800 computer in 1981, SCRAM by Chris Crawford. I've read the manual and bought the T-shirt. Now it's time to show this reactor what I'm made of.

Atoms, apparently.

It's probably just me, but I like to visualise the process of nuclear fission as atomic sex. All it takes is just one neutron to penetrate the heart of an atom, to fertilise it. The fertilised atom divides into two and, in this orgasm of reproduction, fires more neutrons into the atomic void. These neutrons find other atoms to fertilise... and the reactor core becomes a vast, self-sustaining sex orgy.

But what happens if the orgy gets out of control? How do you stop nuclear reproduction? Obvious. Nuclear condoms.

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The Fukushima Syndrome, 1

This is the ninth article in the Where We Came From series.

Tsunami impacts roadway

On March 11, 2011, a wall of water made an incursion on the Pacific coast of Japan, travelling six miles inland to erase 15,000 people and the places they lived.

The tsunami also attacked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and took out its generators, leaving the reactor for dead. What followed was a desperate attempt to shut down the reactor's enraged metal heart in a battle that continues to this day. Fukushima is not Chernobyl but the environmental impact remains significant as radioactive material continues to leak from the site.

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The Creative Urge: Peter Liepa

Peter Liepa

Peter Liepa

This is the eighth article in the Where We Came From series.

Yesterday, Electron Dance examined Boulder Dash, an important title in Atari 8-bit gaming genealogy which gave birth to a franchise that still survives to this day.

Today the author of Boulder Dash, Peter Liepa, talks to Electron Dance on mathematical visualization, career choices and why there are no more Peter Liepa games.

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Between A Rock And A Hard Diamond

This is the seventh article in the Where We Came From series.

Toronto, 1982. Peter Liepa, having never written a computer game before, reached out to a local game publisher asking for what kind of ideas might be in vogue. The publisher put him in touch with another programmer, Chris Gray, who had built a game prototype in Atari Basic. It shared some similarities with the arcade game The Pit (Centuri, 1982), in which the player is sent to retrieve jewels from an underground cavern filled with dirt and rocks.

Liepa took on the job of converting it to machine language but felt the game was not compelling enough, so he began pushing the concept in directions he found more interesting. It soon became apparent Gray and Liepa were pursuing divergent design goals and their collaboration broke down to the point where lawyers were eventually needed to resolve ownership of the final product.

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Turning The Page

This is the sixth article in the Where We Came From series.

PDF. Pee. Dee. Eff. How I hate you. Those three letters are like three alphabetic knives in my back – yes, even the D. PDF is Cthulhu's lesser-known Elder sister, an abomination from outside time. And yet it has become a popular format for game manual distribution.

It was Chad Morelock, over at Alliance of Awesome partner Bits'n'Bytes Gaming, who prodded me into thinking about this. This gradual recession of printed manuals is across the board and not just confined to some dusty retro enclave where no one can be arsed to update or print old manuals for the 21st century customer. Publishers are downsizing their print work and producing less in the way of funky specialist items like cloth maps and comics with back story.

As Morelock points out, manuals were part of the experience that existed independent of the action on the screen. They were something you could take to the commode and read in private; you could pretend you were already playing your new purchase when, in fact, you were performing a bowel movement whilst the program installed.

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The Magic Is Back: Steve Hunt

This is the fifth article in the Where We Came From series.

Last year I looked at a fabulous game called Beat Hazard which takes any piece of music and procedurally generates a shoot 'em up experience from it. It was the twisted brainchild of Steve Hunt, also known as Cold Beam Games. When writing that article, I discovered that Steve had been programming since the 80s and, like myself, started out on an Atari 800.

I knew he'd be a perfect fit for 'Where We Came From' so I begged Steve for an interview, mentioning something about starving orphans and guns against puppies' heads. He gave in to my demands.

HM: Okay, Steve, can you tell me a little about how you started out with an Atari and how you got to creating commercial games for it?

My Dad bought an Atari 800 when I was 10-ish and taught me Atari Basic. I used to write a few little games (like a grave robbing game!). However, Basic wasn't that powerful and I soon moved on to 6502 Assembly language. My first commercial game, River Rally, was inspired by watching the boat chase in Live & Let Die and took about 9 months to write (and that seemed like a long time when I was 14).

I sent it to loads of publishers until it was picked up by Red Rat Software who published it in the UK and Europe. I think it sold about 1000 copies, which I thought was great at the time.

So I was a kid writing my own games at home and just hoping for the best. Seemed to work though.

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Where We Came From

This is the fourth article in the Where We Came From series.

As Professor Steven Furnell tries to show me around the department, he is stopped and questioned, a man in demand. It's what you would expect of the Head of Computing and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth.

I'm here because I heard Furnell was organising a "retro computing archive" containing electronic objet d'art of decades past. Most of it – not all – revolves around gaming. Furnell tells me, 'Partly we've done that deliberately to reflect the things that people would have encountered and also to sort of raise awareness of how things were. The average student now will have a PS2 or PS3, a Wii or Gamecube, that sort of generation. So here's an Atari 2600 and you've probably seen the name Atari but maybe you don't realise it has this heritage that goes back that far.'

Every corridor is home to a display of some sort, showing off all sorts of lost computing treasures. A ZX Spectrum. An Atari 800XL. A Texas Instruments TI99/4A. An acoustic coupler modem. A BBC Micro. A VIC-20. One cabinet contains handheld games that were the rage before the dominance of consoles and home computers: Logic 5, Simon, Invader From Space and more.

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Stanley Kubrick Is Gone

This is the third article in the Where We Came From series.

"When I was 12 years old, I picked up a medical encyclopaedia and it told me, in unequivocal terms, that people with CF die by 13. So I had my middle-age crisis real fast, and every year since about 15 or so feels like getting extra balls on a pinball machine."

1982. While the British belt out Come on Eileen like a football anthem, across the pond, the Atari Program Exchange releases a small game about a salmon swimming upriver. It's an unassuming début for someone who would one day be referred to as the "Stanley Kubrick of game design". But Bill Williams, who always feels like he is living on borrowed time, learns fast.

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