Rockford Diamond

Interview: Peter Liepa

Butterfly Rockford

In 1983 Peter Liepa wrote the first Boulder Dash game for the Atari 800, together with Chris Gray. Although Peter himself wasn't much into the C64 at all, a C64 conversion of BD was released a year later by First Star. The gameplay and the caves are practically identical in both BD's. Only the graphics and the sounds are slightly different.
In october/november 2005 I did this interview with Peter. It's a great honour for me having spoken with this man, as well as publishing the resulting interview here on my pages.

Peter Liepa Peter Liepa
Peter Liepa in 1986 and in 2002.

Peter, in the Atari/C64 scene you are known as the creator of Boulder Dash, one of the best games ever. But besides this fact we know very little about your personal background. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Ok, this is probably going to sound like ancient history to most of your readers. As a kid I aspired to be an animator or special effects designer on the one side, and a particle physicist on the other. In high school we had a special program that allowed us to intern at the National Research Council of Canada for a week. I applied to work in a physics lab, where I was put to work at a drill press making an experimental apparatus. I was hopeless at it, but couldn't keep my hands of my supervisor's shiny new Wang Calculator. And when we were taken on a tour of the computer center, I asked to spend the rest of the week there. They had an interactive terminal, which in those days was an something like a Teletype or an IBM Selectric hooked up to some central mainframe. It ran a sort of interactive PL/1, and I quickly learned to program it. After that week, my only exposure to the concept of programming for the rest of high school was through books. In those days, the concept of personal computers was unimaginable.

I started off in physics in university, but very quickly found it both too practical and too fuzzy. And the particle physics courses seemed like years in the future, so I switched to math. My summer jobs were in computer programming. And I took a couple of theoretical computer courses and played on the university APL terminals, wasting reams of paper on things like Conway's Game of Life.

After graduating in math, I drifted around studying subjects like human memory and perception and wrote an unpublished manuscript that seems to have inspired a stream of research on how memory works. After a master's degree in Control Theory, I spent a few years in software consulting. This was just as mini-computers were becoming available to businesses and information was stored on 8 inch floppies.

How did you get the idea and the inspiration to create Boulder Dash?

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

The publisher put me in touch with Chris Gray, who had submitted a game in Basic, but didn't at the time have the skills to convert it into machine language. So this seemed like a good project to get my feet wet, and I sat down and got started. The game was similar to an arcade game called The Pit, but after examining it more I didn't think the game had any 'legs' – too much of it was predetermined. But I 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. I realized that using a random number generator you could generate random caves, and that by controlling the density of rocks and jewels you could get some interesting game play. The game play was not only interesting from a puzzle standpoint, but it also appealed to various emotional drives – not only obvious psychotic ones like greed (collecting jewels), destructiveness (dislodging rocks and killing fireflies) – but more neurotic ones like cleaning all the dirt out of a cave. And I think the game had a sense of humor – if you find somebody inadvertently crushing themselves under a dislodged boulder funny.

What exactly was your contribution within the development of the first Boulder Dash game (Atari 800)?

Chris and I lived quite far apart, so that our meetings were infrequent and involved a long drive. It turned out quite quickly that our design goals and methods were fairly incompatible. I was developing a game quite different from his original, and did so just about completely on my own. I 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. To be fair, Chris probably had lots of ideas, but they didn't really fit with my concept of where the game should go. And this was probably difficult for Chris because a project that he originally started was quickly evolving to a state where it was difficult for him to contribute. 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.

Where did the name "Boulder Dash" come from? Who invented this name?

The working title of the game for a long time was "Cavern Raider", and several lame variants like "Cavern Crystals". Eventually I 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.

How long did it take to finish the BD game?

About 6 months. Mind you, this was about 2 hours per day of "real work", but the rest of the day tended to involve activities that supported the work, even if it was procrastination. In other words, I probably spent more time procrastinating and preparing myself than I actually did working.

I want to give some credit here to some friends I had at that time that were running a software consulting company. They kindly gave me some office space where I could work on BD. It's not so much that I needed a desk as much as I needed a work-like environment that cut out non-work distractions and also supplied some social interaction. Videogame development in those days was a fairly solitary activity, but I doubt that I would have been able to do this work if I had been doing it locked away in a room entirely by myself. But my friends eventually broke up their company. So I began working at home, but as a result my only work-related contacts were by long distance phone calls and I soon became bored and lonely and started seeking other ways of making a living.

Even though BD was finished in about six months, it probably took another six months to find a publisher and work out a publication agreement. By this time I was full time employed at a company that developed word processing software.

By the way, I've always thought that the length of time that an artist (be it a novelist, songwriter, poet, or game designer) spends with a creation must vary with the soundness of the creation. What I mean is that for me to work on this game (with only a vague confidence that it might be published) for this long meant that it was sufficiently fun and interesting for me not to get bored and distracted by something else. The same must be true for songwriters and stage actors who have to perform the same material every day for a long time. Hope that makes sense.

Title screen Atari
Title screen of the Atari version.

Is the character of Rockford your creation too? How did you come to this idea? By the way - what kind of animal/human is Rockford actually? An ant or something?

Originally, in the early physics engine stage, Rockford was just static shape like a cross or something. When you 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. I think at some point Chris suggested that the digging shape should be a "man" and we came up with a simple human shape. When I showed an early version of the game to a potential publisher, they pointed out the "the man" was way too small, and need to be a more recognizable character. But I couldn't make "the man" more prominent without making everything larger as well. So this is 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. The caves still had 40 elements across, but each element was now made up of 4 characters arranged in 2x2 pattern. So each cave was now 80 characters across, and scrolling was introduced.

Now that I had something like 16x16 pixels instead of the original 8x8 for each element, I could add a lot more detail, including making "the man" more recognizable. I 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. I suppose in my mind he was kind of a furry smurf. I was much more interested in animating him, and I think that the way he blinks his eyes and taps his feet when you are not controlling him added a lot of depth to the character.

Boulder Dash has 3 official sequels: BD II (Rockford's Revenge), BD III and the Construction Kit. Did you code these games too?

I designed all of the new elements in BD II. But because of the terms of the publishing agreement, I believe that First Star decided it was financially advantageous for them to develop further sequels without me. So I had very little to do, if anything, with BD III, although I might have helped designing some caves. And I remember working on the Construction Kit because the programmer they had hired had left a number of serious bugs that needed to be fixed.

After coding BD, did you also play the game sometimes? Was it easy for you to complete your own creation?

While coding BD, I played it incessantly, not only for quality control, but for inspiration and calibration. I consider myself an average game player, so the five levels were more or less adjusted to what I found easy and hard.

Have you created any programs/games other than BD (on any system)? Perhaps BD is your only game ever. If so, why did you stop?

I stopped working on videogames because I couldn't stand the platforms that came after Atari. I know you are a C64 fan, but I found it unappealing, and the IBM PC was much worse. The Amiga had a reputation as a wonderful graphics platform, but I don't know that game development on the Amiga was financially that viable. There are other reasons that I stopped. One is that the game industry had booms and busts, another was that game creation in those days was fairly solitary. So I just happened to move on to other things, namely 3D workstation computer graphics. I think that PC graphics finally caught up in the mid-90's to what I thought would be a decent gaming platform, but by then I had been out of the games world for a long time.

I did create a Windows game called Brain Jam. But that was more of a project motivated by wanting to learn C++ and Windows programming. It's available on my website.

Cave A
Cave A on the Atari.
Cave B
Cave B on the Atari.

Have you played any other computer games at the time you've created BD? What games did you prefer?

I played a number of Atari games. The favorites that come to mind are Crossfire, Choplifter, Oil's Well, and Castles of Dr. Creep.

If you could turn the time, would you want to rewrite any parts of your BD game, and why?

I don't think there's much I'd change. The caves could have been bigger than they were, but that’s about it.

Now let's talk about the recent BD clones, both the commercial and the freeware ones. Have you played some of them? What do you think of the way others are "developing" that what is initially your creation (e.g. by adding new elements and more detailed graphics)?

I've played the clones only very occasionally, to see what people are doing. I think the last one I looked at was Treasure Pleasure. Quite honestly, several of the clones (even some of the legitimate commercial ones) don't seem to get the game play right. On the other hand, others are excellent.

By and large, the opportunities for more realistic, more detailed, and more expressive graphics are there in modern systems and should be exploited. But the "heart" of the game still has to be there, and that is a matter of whether the programmers and designers are skillful enough and "get it". So there's no reason that a modern clone or derivative can't be 100 times better than the original. On the other hand, all the money, programmers, hardware in the world aren't necessarily going to make it so.

What is your best memory of the days when you were programmer?

It's probably the time of my life when what I was doing most fulfilled both my technical and artistic sides.

And what is your worst memory of those days?

There were a lot of problems working out how to divide credits and royalties with Chris. Eventually lawyers were involved.

As you know, many people are still fascinated from your creation, although we're living in the 21'st century! What do you think of all the BD fangames, tools and websites that were created by the BD community during the last couple of years?

I've looked at some of the fan sites, and I think it's great to have that sort of thing. And as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes the desire of fans to create versions of the game conflicts with First Star's copyright, which is too bad. I haven't really played many of the freak games, largely because I haven't come across very many of them, and I am generally leery of downloading software unless I absolutely trust the authors. I've managed to track down some arrangements of the Boulder Dash theme music which I thought were very skillful.

I'm delighted that Boulder Dash is still amusing people in 2005, although it has very little connection to anything I do these days. But right now I'm at a geometric design conference in Phoenix, and the other day I was approached by a German student who wanted to have his picture taken with me because of Boulder Dash. So it's still an icebreaker of sorts. Most of these people are old enough to have played BD on a C64, but I wonder what the next generation is playing it on, and whether they will continue to associate me with it.

Do you still have contact with other Atari freaks, who were active in the 80's?

No. All the contacts I had were long distance, and I would only meet them when traveling. I've lost touch with all of them.

What are you doing nowadays (2005)?

I work in software development at a company named Alias which produces 3D software for design and entertainment. The two main products are Maya and StudioTools, both of which are pervasive in the fields of cinematic special effects, video production, and automotive and industrial design. We (as a company) won an Academy Award a couple of years ago for our contribution to the special effects industry.

My main hobbies seem to be (in no particular order) gardening, skiing and mathematics. You could argue that mathematics is related to my work, but that's mainly because at work I tend to seek out projects with interesting math.

And finally, do you also play computer games from time to time?

I don't really play any computer games (unless you think of Planarity and Sudoku as computer games). I think the main reason is that for years I've had RSI problems (popularly known as carpal tunnel), and have avoided activities that might exacerbate the condition. But I've learned to better manage the RSI, so the second reason is that most contemporary games haven't interested me that much. The third reason is that I don't actively seek out games, so that even if there were interesting games I wouldn't know about them. The last games I remember actually playing for more than a few minutes were Cyberia and Fury3, both of which are from the last century.

Peter, I wish you all the best. Thanks to you again for creating the Best Game Ever and of course for doing this interview.

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