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.
HM: So Peter, what it is you do today?
Up until a couple of years ago I worked at Alias, the company that produced Maya and other high-end graphics content creation tools. I got deeply involved in something called “geometry processing”, which is all about doing things with the shape and quality of meshes and models.
That came to an end after Autodesk bought Alias and since then I’ve turned my attention to doing graphics on the Web – mostly through HTML5, and in particular WebGL.
HM: Are you working independently now? Contracting?
Yes. My current contract revolves around architectural visualization using WebGL. When I’m not busy with a contract, I tend to work on personal projects involving mathematical visualization on the web. I’ve also been working on a browser-based port of a casual Windows game I wrote years ago.
Generally I’m finding this phase of my career a lot of fun. It combines being a relative newbie in web technology, and going through that learning curve, with my years of graphics and math experience. And I’ve always wanted to write math demos which are available to the widest possible audience — which modern browsers make possible.
HM: Let’s go back 30 years now and ask about the conception of Boulder Dash. I’m not clear on where the urge to create a game came from, particularly because your output seems to have been pretty much just Boulder Dash – correct me if I’m wrong. You didn’t work on much else at that time…?
No, Boulder Dash and sequels were my only products in the 8-bit gaming era.
Those were the days of gaming consoles like the Atari 2600, and then the Atari 400/800. I think the Commodore 64 came slightly afterwards. I had a friend who would invite people to play on his Atari and big screens, and after a while I had a “I can do that” revelation. I don’t know why, but my academic career was in mathematics and right after grad school I fell into business-oriented software development. That was interesting but probably not satisfying my creative urges. I had always been interested in music and animation, purely as an amateur, and developing Boulder Dash fed my twin passions of artistic and technological creativity.
HM: So the story goes that you were put in touch with Chris Gray to port a game he had written from Atari Basic to machine language. But there were creative differences which eventually involved lawyers – and the finished product bears little resemblance to the Chris’ prototype. I find it interesting that Chris continued in the video games industry – I believe he’s currently Senior VP of Production at Majesco Entertainment. Yet you, having apparently won the design battle over Boulder Dash, have not. A lot of game devs from the 80s became disenchanted with the gradual corporatization of gaming and it was sad to see such achievers from the 8-bit era become industrial statistics.
That doesn’t seem to have happened to you. You’ve previously said you had no fondness for other platforms outside of the Atari, so would it be fair to say that you were interested in the artistry of game design rather than ambition?
It’s complex. The landscape for game development became somewhat rocky in the 1980’s and 3D graphics, which was also attractive, became much easier to make a living in, especially in Toronto. Both the 3D and the gaming industries are hard to “break into” and even though I had a previous success in Boulder Dash, I never came across a gaming company in Toronto that was both of interest to me and willing to give me the time of day. So 3D graphics won.
For me, the gaming thing was about creativity more than ambition. Looking back, my core interest has always been mathematics and visuals. So there are lots of ways to pursue that, gaming being only one. Perhaps what was holding me back from joining the gaming industry in the long term was that I was not particularly interested in playing games. And I often get the sense that gaming companies only want to hire people who are passionate about games.
HM: I want to push a bit more on the question of creativity in games. We often talk about creativity when discussing game design – but there’s a difference of opinion about whether the final article is art or not. Would you consider Boulder Dash art? Saying that – does it make any difference?
I think it depends on your definition of “art”. I’ll also say it doesn’t make much difference – at least to me.
“Art” for me tends to be something you hang on the wall and admire but don’t use. I think it’s more appropriate to think of Boulder Dash as a piece of design, where all the pieces mesh to create a compelling experience. If you want to go towards “art”, I think words like “beauty” and “aesthetic” are more applicable because you can apply those words to a much wider class of things – popular songs, gadgets, mathematics, cars, etc.
HM: Now back in the day, there was no Internet interfering with our lives. This meant collaborating would have been very long form, via phone if you had one – hey, I didn’t – or lots of letters and travel. You lived quite some distance away from Chris. If the Internet existed as a support mechanism back then, do you think the story of Boulder Dash would be different? Could Chris and yourself have worked towards a common design? Or worse, could it have destroyed the project quickly with Chris realising this wasn’t going anywhere and pulling out? Hypothetically speaking.
Totally hypothetical. But no, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Chris and I were on totally different wavelengths. The original project – a straight conversion, with Chris doing the creatives – would probably have been short and sweet, but the original project evaporated when I decided that’s not what I wanted to do.
HM: Did the conflict have any lasting impact on you? You’ve implied elsewhere that the solitary nature of development didn’t appeal, yet your only collaboration ended in what could be termed divorce.
The conflict ended up being an intellectual property dispute, so I quickly learned about intellectual property and where things could go wrong – that was the lasting impact. As for collaborations, I’ve had plenty of them in my career, just not in gaming. Collaboration, when you can find it, is great because you get a lot further more quickly when different heads and skills are in the game.
HM: Incidentally was it First Star Software, the publisher of Boulder Dash, that forwarded Chris Gray’s original Basic game to you?
No, it was a small publisher in the Toronto area. I think by the time I was ready to publish Boulder Dash they were going out of business – at least they weren’t very responsive to my enquiries.
HM: Ah, now that’s what I was wondering. Did you think of self-publishing? I know it would’ve been quite the effort but did it ever come up?
Hah. I’m terrible at that kind of thing. I certainly knew that at the time, although I was naive about other things. At one point I was introduced to a publicist who offered to work with me, but I thought I could do that sort of thing by myself. It turned out I’m also terrible at self-publicity, although I didn’t know that at the time.
HM: Do you see any royalties from the new versions of Boulder Dash, the recent iPhone version for example?
Yes, I see royalties. Kind of hard to believe, because for a decade or so the royalties all but dried up.
HM: Colour me surprised!
There have been lots of mobile and web versions. I think the game was “carried” through the wilderness years by tons and tons of clones. This seems to have created a community of developers that First Star can partner with, and a market to which it can sell. It’s an inadvertent business model, but seems rather common in the software industry.
Not really. When I broke with Autodesk a couple of years ago, I fully expected to fall into iPhone game development. But like 3D graphics long ago, web development seemed to take my attention. I made a brief foray into the iPhone for a contract but that did not whet my appetite for more. And these days my heart is really in mathematical visualization, of the sort in the videos on my Vimeo page. Eventually I want to create an interactive browser-based version of them.
Sometimes I aspire to expanding the Brainjam webapp into a larger set of logic-type puzzles, but I created it really just as a learning project for myself. My guess is that if, by playing with some logic puzzle I really get inspired, I might turn it into a game. Boulder Dash is at heart a logic puzzle – mathematically it is a cellular automaton – and it just happens that I stuck with it long enough to make it appealing to a larger audience.
One thing I’ll point out is that for a product like a game to be successful, a lot of effort needs to be put into fit and finish. I might be exaggerating somewhat, but the basic mechanics of Boulder Dash were created in a matter of days. It then took six months to apply – or rather, evolve – the “fit and finish.”
These days, it’s all I can do to spend a few days on a project – unless somebody is paying me to stick with it – before moving on to some other shiny object.
HM: I know that feeling oh too well.
HM: I will just have to cherish the two hours I spent filling a box with circles as possibly Liepa’s last game…
Oh gosh, that’s like an arrow in my heart. I’ll have to write another game just so you can’t say that!
HM: Ha ha. The game development worlds of the 1980s and the present are completely different. There’s not just the AAA tier of multi-million dollar juggernauts, but also the small indie space. And the tools are more accessible and cheaper. Anybody who wants to make a game probably can. But has anything been lost over the intervening decades? Do you think there’s anything we can’t get back?
I’ve got to say that the situation is probably better than ever. A while back I interviewed a pair of Turkish game developers, something I couldn’t have dreamt of 10 years ago. I don’t think anything has been lost other than probably the sheer novelty of playing games on a screen. A while back I saw a website where people recounted their childhood experiences with Boulder Dash, and it might be valid to say that childhood experiences these days, in our electronics saturated households, are not the same.
The worst part, I suppose, like the rest of the web, is that anybody can get in, but only a relatively tiny few will have any exposure or success. In my day, you had to be capable of writing 8-bit assembler and then create something that got past the gatekeepers at a game publisher. So it was difficult both then and now to get real exposure, but for completely different reasons.
HM: You’re right. Also it could be argued game design was elitist in the 80s, you had to be a technical wizard to make anything. But still, getting any exposure is blood-out-of-a-stone. This leaves me with one last question. Aside from a million clones, Boulder Dash is one of those perfect moments in video games; it’s not something I aspired to, it was so good that it simply felt out of reach. There’s still a lot of love for the game and many game developers grew up on this. Do you ever think about the impact of the game? The consequences of what you created?
I don’t really have the right perspective. To the degree I’ve thought about the impact of the game, it’s in small things like giving Rockford a life independent from the joystick, the way he’s impatient when the joystick isn’t moving. But other than the clones, it’s not clear what the influence and consequences are – perhaps because I don’t very much follow the gaming world.
Are there games out there that you are especially enthusiastic about? I don’t want to give the impression that I’m totally uninterested in games. On the other hand, not interested enough to go out and buy special hardware, or devote much time to a game. And I seem to be hopeless at multiplayer shooters.
HM: I can recommend Portal. And have you played World of Goo?
I’ve heard lots of good things about Portal 2 and will try to check it out one of these days. I played the free version of Goo a couple of years ago. Beautifully executed and annoyingly clever.
HM: Thanks for your time Peter. It’s been a real pleasure.
If you to want read more about the development of Boulder Dash, there’s a great interview from 2005 available on Arno’s Boulder Dash site. Arno also maintains a database of levels created with the Boulder Dash Construction Kit, which is still receiving updates today.