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David is also the designer of several of LucasArts' popular graphic adventures.
Did you write any games before "Rescue on Fractalus!"?
In 1977, my wife, Annie, and I opened Marin Computer Center, the world's first public access microcomputer center. I started my game designing career by cleaning up public domain games written in BASIC. This is also how I learned how to program—by looking at other people's programs. At first, the changes I'd make were simple: letting the player type in "y" or "Y" or "yes" or "Yes" instead of just "Y" when answering questions like "Do you want to play again?" Then I started doing conversions of programs from one version of BASIC to another (for example, from Radio Shack TRS-80 to CP/M to Apple) for Creative Computing magazine and for Scott Adams.
My first commercial game was for Sesame Place, a small theme park in Pennsylvania featuring the Sesame Street characters. The game, "Mix and Match Muppets," let the child choose body sections from Cookie Monster, Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Grover, and then assemble them in various combinations. Corey Kosak, a brilliant thirteen year old, did the assembly language routines for the animation. The rest was written in Applesoft BASIC. Corey later went on to work at Broderbund as a programmer.
How did you come to work for Lucasfilm Games?
Immediately before Annie and I had decided to open our computer center, we considered moving from Marin County, located just North of San Francisco, to Eugene, Oregon, where the housing was much cheaper. But being an enthusiastic Star Wars fan, I had the thought that if I lived in Oregon, the chances of ever working for George Lucas and his Marin-based company, Lucasfilm, were nil. So we stayed in Marin and hoped that one day he'd waltz into our center and, being duly impressed, ask me to work for him. Well, that never happened, but we did have a few computer center regulars who worked for George.
In 1982 I finished writing a book with Mitch Waite for Byte/McGraw-Hill called Computer Animation Primer. Mitch wrote the first half of the book, which dealt with various computer animation techniques used on high-end computers as well as on the Apple II. I wrote the second part of the book which was a step by step tutorial on how to use animation tricks on the Atari 800 computer using BASIC, and again with Corey's help, assembly language. One of the most exciting parts of working on this book was visiting various pioneering computer animation companies during the research phase, including Lucasfilm's new computer division. We featured some of their best high-resolution color images, including the Genesis effect from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and a computer painting by John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story.
The week I finished the manuscript, Gary Leo, a Lucasfilm employee and one of our computer center customers, told me that Lucasfilm was about to start a Games Group within their Computer Division! This was very exciting news to me! I immediately gave them a call and set up an interview with Peter Langston, the person just hired to lead the group. Ironically, Lucasfilm had a games development deal with Atari, and my manuscript illustrating my knowledge of the Atari computer became my passport into the Games Group as employee number two.
How did the concept for "Fractalus" develop?
For the first three months of my employment at Lucasfilm, I shared an office with Loren Carpenter, the computer division's genius behind using fractals to create computer generated mountainous landscapes, as seen in the Genesis effect fly-by. I asked Loren if it would be possible to use a simplified form of fractals on an Atari 800. Loving a challenge, Loren spent some time thinking about this and decided to give it a shot. We gave him an Atari 800 to take home and, in the next several weeks, he learned 6502 assembly language and the hardware specifics of the Atari 800 and came back with a working demo of fractal-based terrain running at an acceptable frame rate. In the meantime, I began creating a story and designed the gameplay that could take advantage of Loren's technology.
What other people worked on the game?
Loren continued working on the game in his spare time at home, perfecting and speeding up the fractal-generating and 3-D transformation routines. Charlie Kellner, one of Apple Computer's early employees, wrote the flight dynamics, sound, music routines, and 2-D cel animation routines. Peter Langston wrote the music and the night flying routines, Gary Winnick drew the animated characters, including the Jaggi monster, and I wrote the code to handle the instruments, scoring, transition sequences, and game logic. I had learned 6502 assembly by now.
Did the design have to be scaled back to get the game to run in 48K of memory?
We never had to scale back the design to fit, but towards the end of the project we were constantly having to recode parts of the game to reduce the size of the routines.
Besides the landscape, what other parts of the game were particularly interesting to write?
One of Loren's tricks for keeping the frame rate high was to unwind as many loops as possible, using inline code instead. Unfortunately, this took up quite a bit more memory. So Loren and Charlie did a lot of testing to see which routines were the most critical for fast frame rates and worked out the compromises to get us the best possible rate in the allocated space.
Charlie was a big fan of stop-motion animator Mike Jitlov [Wizard of Speed and Time]. Charlie bought Mike's movies on 16mm film and would go through them frame by frame, studying Mike's technique. One trick that Charlie borrowed for "Rescue" was based on the physiology of the eye. When we see a bright flash of light, the iris closes down right afterwards, even though the flash is gone. This causes a momentary darkening of everything else. So in the game when we put up explosions or laser flashes, Charlie darkened the sky and terrain for a few frames to make the flashes seem brighter.
Did George Lucas play any part in the development of the game?
The original game design did not include any shooting of enemy ships. I was still a peace-loving hippie at heart and didn't want to create a game in which you had to shoot things. Instead, you had to use your ship's ability to out-maneuver enemy saucers within the narrow canyons of Fractalus, ideally causing them to crash into the canyon walls.
When we had an early version of the game working, we invited George to take a look. We gave him the joystick, and he immediately started pressing the fire button. When nothing happened, he asked, "How do you shoot the enemies?" I explained that this was supposed to be a rescue craft whose sole purpose was to get in, land, pick up the stranded pilots, and return to the mother ship. He wanted to know if this was a gameplay related choice or a moral choice. I hedged a bit and then admitted it was really a moral choice. He said, "It needs a fire button." We reworked the game so you could shoot at the saucers and gun emplacements.
George wanted to add some tension to the game and suggested that some of the pilots who approached the ship might not be what they seemed. Out of this idea emerged one the best parts of the game, the Jaggi monster popping up in front of the windshield and then beating on it until the glass broke, killing the pilot with Fractalus' noxious atmosphere and ending the game. This made "Rescue" the first game to really scare people. Even though I knew what to expect, I'd still get an adrenaline jolt when the alien popped up! A few years after the game came out, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had designed "Rescue on Fractalus!" She said, "Oh, you gave my 5 year old nightmares! He had been playing the game for several hours on the easier levels. I was out in front of the house when he came running out to me, yelling, 'Mommy, there's a MONSTER in the computer!' He would not go back into the house until I accompanied him, and it was quite a while before he'd get near the computer again."
The sound in "Fractalus" is well-integrated into the game and seems carefully crafted. Was good sound a priority for the development team?
Being a part of the same company that produced Star Wars, we were very aware of the importance sound played in an experience and Charlie spent a lot of time getting the sound effects right. This was also one of the first games that used sound for things that happened off-screen. An important part of the game was listening carefully for the pilot's knock on the airlock door and, if you inadvertently let a Jaggi into the ship, you'd hear him tearing it apart behind you. The effect was so good that I heard people swear that their favorite part was when the Jaggi would grab you from behind—even though this never happened!
Were there any easter eggs in the game?
We started a tradition with "Rescue" by using members of the development team for box and manual photos instead of hiring actors. I appear as the Valkyrie pilot dressed in an orange jump suit on the box cover and in the manual. Peter, Loren, and Charlie appear, from left to right, as pilots in the inside front cover of the manual. Charlie, Loren, David Levine, Peter, Noah Falstein, and Gary Winnick appear in the inside back cover. The name of the star system where the Jaggi home world is located is Tepdi Vad Neroleil Rahcre. This is some of our first names spelled backward and offset by a couple of letters.
Why was the game originally titled "Behind Jaggi Lines"?
The name of the Jaggi monster emerged from the then new technology being used in the computer division's graphic images called antialiasing. It smoothed out the "jaggies" or stair stepping of pixels normally seen in computer images. So both in the Computer Division and in "Rescue" the Jaggies were the enemies. Unfortunately, because of the low resolution and very limited color palette on the 8-bit systems, we couldn't eliminate the pixel jaggies. In fact, the two diagonal window struts were very jagged. We really wanted to make fun of this and call the game, "Behind Jaggi Lines", but marketing nixed the idea.
When did you first realize that a pre-release version was being illegally distributed?
Even though the game was to be delivered on cartridge for the Atari 800 computer and Atari 5200 game platform, we did all our work on Atari 800s. During the beta stage in the fall of 1983, we delivered floppy disks of "Rescue" and our other game, "Ballblazer," to Atari so their marketing department could take a look. We were a bit nervous about releasing diskettes with no copy protection, but were assured they would be kept under lock and key. About a week later, we began hearing that both games had been distributed to all the pirate bulletin boards across the country! We were all devastated. It felt like all of our hard work had gone to waste! Atari denied any responsibility for the leak, and we were never able to prove who did it. The games had working titles, "Rescue Mission" and "Ballblaster," and to this day, I know when someone had a pirate copy by how they refer to these games! [Copies with the title "Behind Jaggi Lines" were also pirated, as revealed by a letter to Electronic Games.]
We tried to spread the word that these were works in progress and, indeed, there were several changes and improvements made to the games prior to their release, but undoubtedly, the distribution of these versions greatly impacted the final sale of the games.
Why was the release of "Fractalus" delayed for so long?
Even though the games could have been publicly shown and released at the winter 1984 Consumer Electronics Show, it was decided to wait for the summer show, possibly because that was closer to the Christmas market. That gave us more time to polish the games, improving the performance, frame rate, and gameplay. They actually did ship for the Atari 5200, but one month after the summer CES, Warner Communications sold Atari to Jack Tramiel. Lucasfilm's deal had to be completely renegotiated, and the deal eventually fell apart. Instead, Epyx became the distributor for the computer version, but they wanted disk-based products instead of cartridges. All the contract negotiations and conversion to copy protected disks, including new fancy graphical sequences played during disk loading, added nine months to the final release date of spring, 1985.
Did it do well when it eventually hit the shelves?
By the time it came out, the Atari computers were on their downward slide. However, the games were converted to other computers including the Commodore 64, IBM PC, Apple II, and two European computers, the Amstrad and Sinclair Spectrum. Since the piracy had no effect on these platforms, the games did well.
What have you been up to since leaving Lucasfilm?
I was with Lucasfilm for ten years. During that time, the Games Group grew in size to over one-hundred people and was renamed LucasArts Entertainment Company. Other games that I designed while there were "Labyrinth," "Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders," and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure." I was also the primary script programmer on "Maniac Mansion."
During my last two years there I was the Manager of Entertainment Software on "Mirage," a collaboration between LucasArts and Hughes Aircraft Corporation. This multi-player, networked, virtual reality entertainment system was intended for theme parks, but never got beyond the prototype stage. On this system I essentially got to create a version of "Rescue" the way I would have liked it to be if I had unlimited computing power at my disposal. Instead of flying a Valkyrie Fighter, you were in the Star Wars universe flying an X-Wing against a squad of TIE Fighters, chasing them in and out of sheer canyons on a very hazy planet. The pod we built had two seats, one for the pilot and one for the gunner. It used an Evans and Sutherland ESIG 2000 image generator and three video projectors to display an image onto a collimating concave mirror. This caused you to focus your eyes at infinity and made you feel like you were really flying through an immense space. The field of view was 120 degrees horizontal and 40 degrees vertical—2000x500 pixels—and we displayed 24-bit texture-mapped antialiased imagery at thirty frames per second. A separate heads-down display allowed you to locate enemies, keep track of your position in the terrain, and check important instruments. We also had a four channel surround sound system with a sub woofer that shook your insides. This was by far the most satisfying gaming experience I've ever had!
After leaving LucasArts, I spent a year independently designing and producing children's CD-ROM titles and consulting with various entertainment companies on virtual reality projects. I then signed on as a Senior Games Designer at Rocket Science Games where I designed "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs." I am now once again a freelance game designer and consultant.
What do you consider to be the biggest mistake that modern game designers make?
They focus too much on the technology, e.g. flashy graphics, and not enough on story and characters.
What games have impressed you over the years?
Most of the games I've worked on are graphic adventures, and so graphic adventures are my favorite kind of games. I love several of the LucasArts adventures, especially the "Monkey Island" games, "Day of the Tentacle", and "Full Throttle." I also enjoyed playing "Myst" and was excited to see the attention to detail in graphics and sound and how everything contributed to creating an impressive immersive experience. I'm very impressed with the quality of movement and gameplay of the "Virtua Fighter" arcade games. The days of fully articulated real-time animated characters aren't far away. I can't wait until they are being used for story-based games instead of fighting games.