Season 2, here we go! Hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I did researching it.
Note that we have a new logo, made by my fiancee. And I'll be updating the description and goals (but probably not the backer tiers) on the Patreon page tomorrow.
The story of how a terrible description of the Donkey Kong arcade game led to the creation of Lode Runner, one of the greatest games of all time and one of the earliest games with a built-in level editor.
[You're listening to The Life & Times of Video Games, a documentary podcast about video games and the video game industry — as they were in the past, and how they came to be the way they are today. My name's Richard Moss, and this is episode 14, Lode Runner, the first in a new season. I'll talk a bit more about what that means at the end of the episode.]
Doug Smith was a student and part-time computer centre consultant at the University of Washington in 1982 when he came upon a game development project for the VAX-11 minicomputer called Kong. It was primarily the work of James Bratsanos, who'd created an earlier version of it — a prototype, if you will, called Suicide — for the Commodore PET the previous year at high school.
James didn't often play games. He just liked to code, to devise the methods by which magic could happen on a screen. He hadn't even played the game that inspired Kong, or Suicide. Which isn't much of a surprise, given how different these prototypes were to that game.
Suicide took its cue from an excited but vague description a friend had given James of the Donkey Kong arcade game. As such, it was reminiscent of something you might have heard about Donkey Kong fourth- or fifth-hand, like from a friend who had heard about it from a friend of theirs who had watched somebody else play for 10 minutes. Which is to say recognisable only to the barest of degrees — comparable only if you squint at it for a few seconds and walk away.
In any case, Suicide starred an '@' symbol that the player would steer around levels collecting stuff while evading a group of pursuing monsters. It had platforms and ladders, and your little @ hero could dig holes immediately to its left or right — but not directly down — to temporarily reshape the environment. To plot an escape route, perhaps, or to temporarily trap those pursuing monsters — who would take a few seconds to climb out of any holes they fell into.
This was the game's first touch of genius. Giving players the chance to also dig directly down would have been interesting, but it would have limited the possibility space. In a game with gravity, digging down beneath your character's feet means falling. It means easy escapes in a tight spot. But digging down to either side of the character presupposes strategising and planning. It forces the player to think their way out of a jam and allows the designer to craft mini-puzzles within each stage, to hide things beneath layers of platforms — like, for instance, a gold block tucked beneath a double-thick platform that's three blocks wide, in which case the player would have to dig two adjacent holes, drop into the space they just created, then dig again to create a path to the gold.
This first bit of systemic brilliance was intentional, but the second was much less so.
Each time the computer ticked through another processing cycle, the game would loop through all the objects in the level, one after another, and adjust the paths taken by the monsters — who always tried to follow the shortest route to reach the player, and so would only move somewhere if it meant closing the distance between them.
This was a simple choice, from a programming standpoint, but it fundamentally affected the game's design. James' algorithmic approach imbued the monsters with an illusion of intelligence. Where most other games of the era would set their enemies on predefined paths or move them according to behavioural patterns, here they seemed to ponder — to scheme — about how to best catch their prey. Occasionally they would stop and stand still. Sometimes, like when the player dropped down a big distance, they'd radically change their path and snap off in a different direction, their movement filled with a new sense of purpose.
This philosophy to the monster AI would stick with the game as it moved from prototype to prototype, system to system, on the way to its first commercial release, as we'll touch on later. But first, let's finish the story of how the game was made.
At the University of Washington, Suicide begat Kong, and, with help from Doug Smith and another programmer, Tracy Steinbeck, it grew more complex. They experimented with projectiles and mines and shields. Things like that.
But still it was an ASCII game, with platforms as solid block characters and bad guys portrayed as the symbol used to denote a paragraph break — a backwards P with a double line on the vertical stroke. Most people thought they looked like cobras, so the monsters were commonly called snakes. Nothing was animated, as such; rather, the characters just kind of bounced around the screen, appearing and reappearing in different places as the play state refreshed.
Students at the university could boot up the game by loading a program called 'graph' and entering a secret password into the function prompt. Because as at most universities at the time, the University of Washington frowned upon the use of its precious computer processing resources to play games.
Sometimes Doug's eight-year-old nephew would come in and help to playtest Kong. One day he asked why they couldn't put it on a floppy disk and play it on an Apple II. A reasonable question, for a layperson, but one that was impossible to fulfill because Kong was written in a language the Apple II couldn't easily understand for a machine that lacked a floppy drive.
But after some cajoling, Doug decided to rewrite Kong in Assembly language on a borrowed Apple II. He called this version Miner.
The full details of what happened next are now lost to time, but there are some things we do know. The first of these is that Doug's friend Mark Ledbury, who owned that borrowed Apple II, encouraged him to finish making the game. The second is that James Bratsanos's involvement ended here, partly because he didn't know Assembly language. But also because Doug was so strong-headed that once he made the decision to carry on there was nothing that would stop him, and so in a sense James was simply left behind by the sheer pace of Doug's work.
Once he'd finished his new version, Doug submitted Miner to publisher Brøderbund [BROOD-er-bund]. They turned him down. The graphics were too simple, and they had the wrong scale — characters needed to become bigger in relation to everything else.
Doug wasn't about to give up. He borrowed $800 — or maybe a thousand — to buy a colour monitor and joystick and then he set to work improving the controls and redoing the graphics and animation. Now Miner took on the familiar Lode Runner look — an all-white faceless stick figure hero, the sprite copied from popular Apple II game Choplifer but hand-animated by Doug himself, and the coloured-shirt faceless bad guys that pursue him, with small rectangular blocks for gold and floors either in a brick pattern — if you can dig through them — or a solid block of colour — if you can't.
At some point he tried to improve the enemy AI, to rewrite it so that the enemies really would find the shortest path to the player, every time. But he later told Retro Gamer that it made the game too perfect. It took away the quirkiness, the humanity, of enemy behaviour, so he ripped it out and went back to the old logic.
He also had each level begin frozen in place — nobody moving until the player acted for the first time. Miner was not a run-of-the-mill action platformer, and this change ensured that it would be received as the strategy-puzzler that it was meant to be — a game that's not about killing bad guys or getting from one end of a level to the other but rather about plotting an optimal route to collect all the gold on the screen and escape without ever being captured. A Pac-Man with gravity and shovels.
Coming up on Christmas 1982, Doug resubmitted the game to Brøderbund, and to three other publishers. One offered him $100,000 as a flat fee for rights to sell the game commercially, sans royalties. Brøderbund offered a $10,000 advance plus 23 percent royalties on gross sales, conditional on him making additional improvements to the game.
He accepted Brøderbund's offer. They did the sound effects for him, but he needed to think up a new name, polish the animation — which at that moment looked more like ice skating than running — and deliver the 150 screens he promised in his pitch.
Doug had only mustered around 30 screens by himself, and he couldn't possibly come up with 120 more. He simply wasn't creative enough as a designer. So he got his nephew and the kids in his neighbourhood to come over and play around with the screen editor. He promised to pay them for each screen that made it into the released game.
He also paid James Bratsanos $1,500 for his role in the development of the prototype versions, and Brøderbund paid one of their in-house programmers, Dane Bigham, to create a Commodore 64 conversion.
By mid-1983, they were done. Miner made its final name change to Lode Runner, in reference to a story they'd cooked up about your white stick figure being a Galactic Commando racing through the 150 treasury rooms of the oppressive Bungeling Empire to reclaim excessive fast food taxes in the name of the people.
Brøderbund shipped the game a short time later for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit computers, then soon after that also for various Japanese systems. Over the next several years, Lode Runner would find its way onto the Nintendo Entertainment System, around 20 different home computer systems, and even an arcade machine — which made it the first commercial home computer release to be adapted for arcades, instead of the other way around.
It was an immediate success, both critically and commercially. Brøderbund had told Doug at the beginning that they'd be happy to sell 10,000 copies of the game in its lifetime. They passed a million in 14 months and ended up with around two million on the Nintendo Famicom alone.
In Japan, especially, the game climbed quickly to the top of the pile — available on nearly every gaming and home computer system in the country within a year and played by millions.
Brøderbund's own company newsletter touched on the phenomenon in the Autumn of 1985 in a piece about a Lode Runner tournament involving 50 of Japan's best players competing on a giant Sony screen, 86 feet wide, at Tokyo Expo '85. A local TV station even asked Doug to test his mettle against the kids in the tournament — two of whom were able to outscore him in a three-minute race to get as far as possible in the game.
Western magazine reviewers were no less extolling of Lode Runner.
Softalk magazine praised its crisp, charming look and the way it layered its challenges across the 150 increasingly diabolical screens. And also, in praise of another forward-thinking design decision, they pointed happily to the option to give yourself extra lives or to jump to whatever level you like, whenever you like — provided you're not after a high score record. Softalk's readers agreed; they went on to vote Lode Runner the most popular Apple program for two consecutive years.
The game picked up numerous other awards, too, including Billboard magazine's Best Overall Computer Software program of the year.
Electronic Games described Lode Runner as the "thinking gamer's climbing contest," for its reliance not only on good dexterity but also on smart strategic analysis.
InfoWorld senior editor Scott Mace had one of the smartest reads on Lode Runner's quality — pointing out its subtle brilliance, unimpressive on first glance but packed with clever touches like the invisible trapdoors that your character suddenly falls through or the fact that enemies could well be carrying gold around with them — gold that you need to finish the level — and you'd be none the wiser unless you trap them in a pit. "Lode Runner is a battle of the seen and unseen", he observed, later extending his plaudits to the startling number of variations it offers on its floor-and-ladders theme before you even get to the editor — which was no doubt a happy side effect of the small army of youthful level designers who contributed to the game's creation.
For PC Magazine's reviewer, Lode Runner's editor was the best part of a great game, a mental challenge all its own that provided laypeople with a special "glimpse into the artistry of creating a computer arcade game."
Everyone said nice things about that screen editor, which in a rare move for the time was bundled with every copy of the game. And which involved basically painting an empty playfield with platforms and ladders and guards and everything else in the Lode Runner toolbox. It was magnificent, this idea that you could make your own screens, at the flicker of a few keys, to extend the game as far as your imagination would allow.
Brøderbund took full advantage. They sponsored a Computer Gaming World contest for its readership to design new Lode Runner screens for a modest prize of $50 and a few other perks, plus a place on a CGW disk of 60 screens. In the UK, Zzap magazine made a deal for the best of their reader-submitted screens to make it onto Championship Lode Runner, a special 50-screen version of Lode Runner that Brøderbund made out of the best player-created screens in the world.
Additional Lode Runner games came thick and fast, although the original game continued to be the main seller. Programmer Josh Scholar got to make the first attempt at a 3D spinoff with the isometric Lode Runner's Rescue — which mixed Lode Runner with popular Atari game Crystal Castles. Japan got several minor sequels that didn't appear anywhere else — levelsets, essentially, with the occasional new feature or two. And Amiga fans never got an own official conversion, so they made a few of their own.
The rights reverted back to Doug in 1993, which is probably why a full, proper follow-up sequel came in 1994 with The Legend Returns, with Dane Bigham returning as level director and an art team on board to complete an elaborate redo of the graphics. Plus a design team that added several new elements like a jackhammer and pick axe and a few new block types.
Then in '95 there was a not-so-great online multiplayer version, and a few years later the series tried 3D again — both on personal computers and the Nintendo 64 — to modest success.
In 2005 Doug decided to finally sell off the rights entirely. He wanted to put it behind him, after 22 years with the franchise. He once said that he'd only worked around five years out of those 22 — time that he put into a mix of business deals, programming gigs, design roles on Lode Runner sequels, and top-level production on the English-language version of Secret of Mana as well as Squaresoft's only American-made role-playing game Secret of Evermore. The other 17 years — the ones that he decided to take off — he spent living it up with fast cars, fast boats, fancy houses, wives, and travel.
The Lode Runner publishing rights ended up in the hands of Spelunker HD publisher Tozai, which has been admirably controlled in its exploitation of nostalgia for the original game — I hope in recognition of the fine balancing act between appreciating and ruining an all-time classic.
Because that's what Lode Runner is. It's one of the greatest games ever, a masterpiece in finely-tuned imperfection — just polished enough to look fluid and feel fantastic but also just rough enough to have quirks you can play with. The accidental humanity of the enemies, the fast and slow strategy of digging holes, the immense possibility space of the level editor, the demonstration of that possibility space by its 150 included levels. Its elegant, exquisitely-crafted systems made in the same recursive fashion in which they worked.
Lode Runner was, and still is, the consummate arcade puzzler, a work of interactive art that showed us why the decline of the arcades wouldn't be all that bad — because at home you could not just beat a game, you could explore it, break it, extend it, ponder over it, and reshape it into the game you wished it would be.
The Life & Times of Video Games is created entirely by me, Richard Moss — music and writing and editing and all.
If you're wondering what became of Doug Smith, he retreated from the games industry after he sold off the Lode Runner rights in 2005. Perhaps living the high life took its toll, or maybe it was bad luck, but Doug barely made it past the game's 30th anniversary. He died in September 2014, aged 53.
His story is not the only one I'll be exploring over the next few months. This is the first episode in a new season of the Life & Times of Games. We're going to have six episodes this time round, each released a couple of weeks or so after the previous one. And in a break from the old format, these six episodes are all going to draw solely on research and analysis. Interview-driven episodes take me ages to make, and the show simply doesn't earn enough money to justify that right now, so I'm trying this style out for a bit — then we'll take another look at the options after the run of six.
In the meantime, if you like what I'm doing here I'd appreciate your support. You can help by sharing your favourite episodes with friends and on social media, by leaving a review in your preferred podcast app, or by making a donation.
I accept one-off donations via paypal.me/mossrc and monthly recurring donations on Patreon at lifeandtimes.games/patreon. Patreon backers also get various perks, like bonus interviews and soundbites, behind the scenes info, and the chance to vote on future episode ideas.
I'd like to extend a huge thanks to everyone who's supported me so far, especially my producer-level backers Wade Tregaskis, Vivek Mohan, Simon Moss, and Seth Robinson.
And as always, you can find show notes and past episodes and everything else at the website lifeandtimes.games.
Until next time, my name is Richard Moss, and this was The Life & Times of Video Games. Thanks for listening.