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.

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.

Unwinding an Apollonian Gasket

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.

Fuchsian Reflection Group Zoom

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.

HM: In games development today, the bar for entry is very low. You’ve created Brainjam, a Solitaire game, and I saw you had a game prototype last year, something in Javascript with expanding circles filling a space. I have a sneaking suspicion that you are often tempted to have a go again. Am I right? Do game ideas still come to you?

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.

That Javascript game you mentioned, which was written for the JS1K comp, was entirely unoriginal. There are several versions of it floating around, of which “Surfacer” for the iPhone was the one that originally caught my attention. The point of that project was to compress an entire playable game into less than 1025 bytes. My only regret, with that one, was that I didn’t fix the dimensions of the play surface — somebody who had a full screen browser window was going to find it much easier than someone with a small window.

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.

Inverse Quadratic

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Creative Urge: Peter Liepa

  1. Great interview and interesting responses from Peter. Almost makes me wish I’d been around for the age of Boulder Dash! Is there a particularly good / faithful / Liepa version of the game available for PC or 360, do you know?

  2. Shaun, Peter and I also had some more discussion about mathematics and the position of WebGL in browser-based development which unfortunately didn’t really fit well with the rest. That’s one downside of interviews – simply having to cut stuff out.

    I think your most obvious options are to play Boulder Dash XL on the 360 (came out this week on XBLIG) or PC (coming later) which also has a retro mode. Then again, you could spend some time setting up an Atari emulator and playing that way, like I did for the video above.

    The only caveat to using my chosen emulator (Atari800Win) is it won’t allow you to configure the XBox controller, and it automatically interprets the button embedded in the movement stick as the Atari joystick trigger – so you end up pressing the trigger simply through movement. This is a pain in Boulder Dash… but completely frustratingly destructive when playing Necromancer a few weeks back, which is just not playable if you opt for the “safety” of the keyboard instead.

    There are other versions mentioned by Wikipedia – Boulder Dash Xmas 2002 Edition, GemJam Gold and Boulder Dash – Treasure Pleasure. But I haven’t tried any of these versions first-hand so I couldn’t tell you how authentic they feel.

    I’m intending to pick up Boulder Dash XL when it comes out on PC to see how it compares. I think some of the subtleties of its “broken” design will be lost, but I’m keeping an open mind.

  3. What an interesting man. Though I think having passion for games (but not just games) should be a prerequisite for getting into the industry. After all, I’m certain there are plenty of people interested in both games and mathematical visualization. Someone on the TIGSource technical (game programming) forum put it best by saying that their primary interest is in programming, but games provide the most interesting problems to solve.

  4. What I think should be noted is that Peter is an example of someone not being knee-deep in the video game theory nor game obsession… and yet he produced one of the most enduring concepts to hit the digital playground. First Star Software are still making money on the back of his creation. If they were to follow the rigid line “you don’t have passion for games, so we don’t want your game” then, well, that’s thirty years of revenue gone up in smoke.

    No-one hired him after Boulder Dash. Who wants to bet that all of the game development houses missed a real opportunity here?

    Peter is an edge case that doesn’t fit neatly into any game developer box you can cite, that makes him very interesting and also tragically doomed from a game dev perspective, precisely because no hiring process boxes him very well.

    I often wonder what Peter’s untapped creativity would have come up given the chance yet… I’m not sure if he’d have been that happy in a game developer house anyway, knowing what happened to game developers after the home computer surge of the early 80s.

  5. I should clarify- these days, someone like Mr. Liepa would have a passion for games if they were to bother making one. Considering how easy it is for people to be exposed to games now, there’s not as much of that worry about potential being untapped. A modern Peter Liepa would find the tools and produce their game on their own time, possibly during their high school years.

    So I suppose you’re right on the games industry missing out on directly working with people like him, but the independent community (and anyone that wants to play the game) won’t be missing out on its impact.

  6. HM, shortly after reading your interview I happened upon a review of Boulder Dash XL on Eurogamer – part of their download round-up for the day. It sounds like a good version of the game and, as it involves minimal setup pain, I think it’ll be the one I try out.

  7. @BeamSplashX: Probably, yes.

    @ShaunCG: Been hearing mixed reactions to it. I imagine if you’ve not been exposed to BD before, it’s probably going to be just fine. But if you’re a BD aficionado then there is much at stake =)

  8. Just to clarify Boulder Dash XL is on the XBLA not XBLIG. Although I think there are some Boulder Dash clones and games that take inspiration from it on the Indie Games scene (Miner Dig Deep is similar in theme).

    Really interesting interview and reminded me a lot fo the interview with the creator of Katamari Damacy (Keita Takahashi?) who decided to make a kids play ground and slag off Namco Bandai quite a bit instead of making another game (I think he might be working on an MMO though). He had not made, nor was particularly enthusiastic about games prior to KD

  9. Gasp! You’re right BC! I got confused with Blocks That Matter on XBLIG which tries to splice Boulder Dash, Tetris and Minecraft together (this was when I was researching the impact of Boulder Dash and was going to get mentioned on the previous article but I pulled the ref in the end).

    Interesting counterpoint regarding Katamari Damacy. Seems like we need to keep a place empty for designers who are not hardened gamers, so the gaming universe can be enriched with their unique creations.

  10. Hi Avram! Don’t think it has – doubt it was in the public domain – probably only Chris or Peter will be able to verify if copies still survive.

  11. Great interview, and I loved the “Between A Rock…” article! Just shared the hell out of it.

    I, too, would love to see Chris’s original BASIC game. I grew up with Boulder Dash (it was one of very very few commercial games I owned for my Atari 1200XL; everything else was stuff I wrote myself in BASIC), and it had quite an impact on me. (Watching Populous and Powermonger on my friend’s Amiga did, too. These are games where it becomes extremely apparent that it’s possible to create an _entire autonomous world_ inside of a game, and plop a user in the middle.)

    PS – Did you folks see the official (as in, First Star Software condoned) Atari 2600 port of Boulder Dash?! 🙂

  12. Hey Bill, I remember you from comp.sys.atari.8bit when I used to hang out there about ooooh 15 years ago. Had a quick dig, here’s a conversation about the program Paperweight we were both involved with. Oh and Electron Dance is a one-man band, it’s just me =)

    I had tried to spread the word about this series to some of the Atari sites a year ago but didn’t seem to get any traction. Glad to see some of the Atari enthusiasts are now finding their way here!

    This whole series was an especial foray into the history of Atari games and I generally write about more contemporary gaming issues. Having said that, I would still like to go back and cover Alternate Reality at some point. You might enjoy the video I put together for the final part.

    If you’re interested in a site which covers very similar ground, I can highly recommend The Digital Antiquarian, well-researched and well-written. Here’s a recent example on the rise of Ultima/Richard Garriott.

    I never saw the Atari 2600 port of Boulder Dash but then again FSS did license their IPs to death… and still are. I’m not surprised.

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