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 E! True ZX Games Story: Boulder Dash 
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Post E! True ZX Games Story: Boulder Dash
E! True ZX Games Story: Boulder Dash
by: Mikhail Zhilkin



Boulder Dash, released in 1984, is in no way balderdash. Please do not take the "we do not like pun" high horse here as in terms of this article it has to do with the history of invention.

Here is couple of quick facts about the Boulder Dash story:

* Peter Liepa, who is credited as the game creator, studied Physics just like Douglas Smith (http://www.zxgames.com/en/loderunnerstory.shtml).
* Unlike Lode Runner's creator, Peter did not become quick- and super-rich.

So, here is the story…

* Game Inventors: Peter Liepa, Chris Gray
* Occupation at the time of invention: Peter Liepa - unemployed; Chris Gray - unknown
* Location at the time of invention: Canada.

The game concept and its realization seem to be simple (at least in terms of modern technologies). However Boulder Dash's cookbook is composed of one man's versatile interests and another man's idea.

Fascination with animation

Born in 1953 in Ottawa, as a kid Peter aspired to be an animator or special effects designer on the one side, and a particle physicist on the other. He had to drop the latter as he found it too practical and fuzzy and thought there was vague future for particle Physics. The incentive for animation, on the other hand, lived with Peter until there was the right time to let it out.

Fascination with computers

When in high school, Peter was sent to the National Research Council of Canada for a week as part of an internship program. He had to work in a physics lab, Peter's supervisor had a shiny new Wang Calculator and it arrested the young intern's attention. In the same week all interns were taken on a tour of the Council's computer center. Amazed by what he saw, Peter asked to spend the rest of his internship time there. At the computer center there was an interactive terminal, which in those days was something similar to Teletype or IBM Selectric hooked up to a central mainframe. Peter quickly learned to program it, but after the end of week's internship there was no opportunity to study computers for a long time. In those days, the concept of personal computers was unimaginable.

Peter started off in Physics in university, but soon switched to math. His summer jobs were in computer programming, and he spent a lot of time playing early things like Conway's Game of Life, which printed results on paper and had not digital screen whatsoever.

Fascination with human nature

After graduating in math, Peter drifted around studying subjects like human memory and perception. He received a master's degree in Control Theory. Both Control Theory and knowledge of human nature are another key points in what was later to become the cult game.

Another man's idea

When Peter was in his late twenties, he visited a friend of his, who was deeply into electronic toys and had a large screen TV and an Atari 400. Peter spent several evenings playing games, and then had a "I can do this" flash. He went out and bought an Atari 800 to start writing games. But rather than just starting to write a game, Peter thought it would be prudent to contact a local game publisher to see what sort of game might be in demand.

The publisher put Peter in touch with Chris Gray, who had submitted a game in Basic, but did not have the skills to convert it into machine language. The game was similar to an arcade game called The Pit, but after examining it more, Peter found that the game had very few game play variations - too much of it was predetermined.

The development

Not satisfied with Chris' game algorithm, Peter started playing with basic elements of dirt, rocks and jewels and within a couple of days had built the basic "physics engine" of what was to become Boulder Dash. He realized that using a random number generator one could generate random caves, and that by controlling the density of rocks and jewels one could get some interesting game play. The game play fascinated not only from a puzzle standpoint, but it also appealed to various emotional drives - the obvious psychotic ones like greed (collecting jewels), destructiveness (dislodging rocks and killing fireflies) and the neurotic ones like cleaning all the dirt out of a cave.

Chris and Peter lived quite far apart, so that their meetings were infrequent and involved a long drive. It turned out quite quickly that their design goals and methods were fairly incompatible. Peter was developing a game quite different from Chris' original, and did so just about completely on his own. Peter designed all of the elements, physics, caves, the game play, the graphics, the music, and the title. Chris helped out with a few odds and ends - he suggested, for example, how to make the graphics for the game title by composing big letters out of the Atari character graphics. In the end, there was a lot of debate as to how exactly Chris should be credited and what his share of royalties should be.

The working title of the game for a long time was Cavern Raider, and several other variants like Cavern Crystals. Eventually Peter came up with the name Boulder Dash, which is a takeoff on the word balderdash. Coincidentally, a board game named Balderdash was also published in 1986.

The game's main character - Rockford.

Originally, in the early physics engine stage, Rockford was just a static shape similar to a cross. When one moved the shape, it dug through the earth and absorbed jewels. In fact, the graphics were very simple, and elements were all single characters in a 24x40 character display. There was no scrolling in the early versions of the game. It was Chris who suggested that the digging shape should be a "man", and together they came up with a simple human shape. When Peter showed an early version of the game to a potential publisher, they pointed out the "the man" was way too small and needed to be a more recognizable character. But it was not possible to make "the man" more prominent without making everything larger as well. So this was where the hard work began of converting the game from one that ran on a 24x40 character display to one that scrolled over a much larger region.

Now that the game elements were bigger, Peter was able to add much more detail, including making "the man" more recognizable. He built a character editor to work out the pixels and the animation. It was at this point that the Rockford character took shape. Rockford was not supposed to be any particular kind of human or animal, he just evolved in the pixel editor. Since Peter used to be interested in animation, he worked out the character to make Rockford blink his eyes and tap his feet. This was an innovation that added a lot of depth to the character.

The result

Overall, it took Peter about 6 months to finish the first version of Boulder Dash with no more than 2 hours of actual work per day.

Even though Boulder Dash was finished in half a year, it took another six months to find a publisher and work out a publication agreement. By this time Peter was already full time employed at a company that developed word processing software.

And so, the rest is history - Boulder Dash was eventually published by First Star in 1984 and was an instant bestseller.

Having survived for over two decades on the market, the game is still here to fascinate us. You are always welcome play our remake of Boulder Dash (http://www.zxgames.com/en/boulderdash.shtml), which is as close to the original as possible and needs no emulators to run.

Where is Chris Gray now?

We have no idea.

Where is Peter Liepa now?

Peter works in software development at a company named Alias, which produces 3D software for design and entertainment.



About The Author

Mikhail Zhilkin of ZX Games (Sales, Support and Public Relations). Apart from being ZX Games founder, Mikhail is doing his post-graduate study in Physics, lives in Tokyo, Japan and expresses his extreme pacifism by not doing compulsory military service in his home country. Mikhail enjoys playing soccer and ZX Spectrum games.

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This article was posted by permission.


Tue Jul 31, 2007 7:29 pm
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