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How did you get into game programming?
When I was growing up, my father was a systems analyst for the lamp time sharing systems division of General Electric in Nela Park, Ohio. Often he would have to go in on the weekends, and he would take me with him. I'd play with the computer while he was working. When I was 12, he taught me how to program in BASIC. The first program I ever wrote was a little line-oriented golf game where the computer would place your ball on the left-hand side of the line, pick a random position for the hole, and you would guess how hard you had to hit the ball. Then, after each stroke it would move your ball and draw a new line. Your score for the hole was the number of strokes you took to sink the ball. This was around 1974 or so.
Backtracking a little, I played a lot of pinball as a kid. In fact, one of the wedding gifts my parents received—prior to my birth I'm pleased to report—was a pinball machine. Also, my father was in a bowling league for many years, and I'd hang out in the Brunswick Lanes for hours at a time while he was bowling. Back then, you could play a game of pinball for a dime. At some point, the bowling alley got a "Pong" machine, and I was hooked.
I'd wanted my own computer for years. When I turned 16, I got a part time job as a slave at Food World and saved up for my first computer. Eight months later, I bought an Apple II. I almost bought an Ohio Scientific computer instead. If I had, I can't imagine how different my life would have been.
Did you write any games before "The Bilestoad?"
My senior year of high school, I put together a pretty straightforward version of "Asteroids." I was living in Florida at this point, and a friend of mine who worked at the local computer store would drive over to central Florida to pick up software from Scott Adams' company Adventure International. The summer of my senior year, I tagged along on one of these trips and gave Scott a demo of my game. He liked it, and we ended up signing a contract. The game was released as "Asteroid" at first, and later, when Atari started to get on our case about it, the name was changed to "Planetoids." It hit the market in 1980 and was reasonably successful. It was on Softalk's best seller list for several months, was reviewed in Byte magazine's "Coinless Arcade," and so on.
I wrote another game called "Space Warrior" during my Freshman year at Georgia Tech. When I was finished with it, I shopped it around to a few of the major publishers at that time and got an almost immediate offer from Broderbund. It was an original design, but other than nice animation and smooth action, it was pretty unremarkable. It was on the best seller list for a couple of months, made Byte's "Coinless Arcade," and pretty much sunk into obscurity after that.
My next game was "The Bilestoad."
What Apple II game programmers did you look up to?
Tony Suzuki was great—really detailed and fluid animation. I'm still amazed that he was able to make "Star Blazer" run on an Apple II with 48K. There was also a game called "Serpentine" that I thought was an extremely clever game idea and design. Mostly, though, I looked up to the guys at Williams and Atari who were doing really amazing game designs like "Defender," "Robotron," Battlezone," "Joust," and later "720 Degrees," "APB," etc.
I also liked Bill Budge's "Raster Blaster" and Dan Gorlin's "Choplifter" a lot.
What made you decide to tackle a project as large as "The Bilestoad?"
Well, you know, these things grow. You start with a simple idea, like "Hey, two guys with battle axes and shields hacking away at each other," and you just sort of embellish it, and embellish it, and try to create a whole context for the idea. Then you look at what you can really do on a 1MHz Apple II in 6502 assembly with only 48K RAM, and you hack away until you're out of memory. Then you put it in a disk mailer or a couple of wads of cardboard and cast your bread upon the waters.
I know that one of the influences was the movie Excalibur. There were some truly awesome scenes of guys in armor engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Of course, the infamous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur does battle with the Black Knight had some effect. On the video game side, "Defender" was the the first game that I recall that used a scrolling landscape bigger than the screen with a radar view; I really liked the idea of having all that virtual acreage to play around in. Then, too, the sort of cat-and-mouse theme or hunter and prey seemed like a natural.
How old were you when you wrote it?
I started working on it sometime in 1981, so I was 19 or 20.
What was your development system like?
Apple II, Integer BASIC ROMs, 48K, external disk drive. I wrote most of it in the LISA assembler—which was line numbered, just like BASIC. The only debugger I ever used was the monitor built into the Integer BASIC ROMs. I think back on it now and I wonder "How the hell did I manage to do that?" I must have been a lot smarter then than I am now.
How long did it take to write The Bilestoad? Did any parts of the design or programming give you trouble?
I remember spending weeks at a time just tuning a few specific graphics routines, counting cycles, trying to get everything to run as fast as possible. Working with graphics on the Apple II was a total bitch because of the funky way the display was set up. Alternating pixels corresponded to individual colors for the bottom seven pixels, and the top pixel was a half-shift that changed the color mapping. Then, if you had two pixels set next to each other, you got sort of white. So, shifting the bits in an image so that they lined up with a particular X-coordinate on the screen was a total pain in the ass. The rasters were displayed in a really funny order and trying to blit a set of contiguous raster lines onto the screen as quickly as possible was also a pain.
It took me around six months of concerted effort to put the game together. This was spread out over about a year and a half of calendar time.
Were there any objections to the violent nature of the game from people who saw you working on it?
Not while I was working on it. The only people who ever saw it during development were my friends at Georgia Tech, an institution that has never been noted for its political correctness.
Believe it or not, it turned out to be pretty hard to sell "The Bilestoad." It was rejected by Sierra On-Line as being too violent. Muse initially made me an offer, and then retracted it when they decided it was too violent for them after all. Broderbund was interested in it, but decided the controls were too hard and awkward and passed. I eventually managed to get a pretty good deal with Datamost. It seemed like a good deal at the time, anyway.
After it was published, I think the violence definitely kept it from getting the magazine attention it deserved. In fact, I remember reading a snippet in one computer gaming magazine in which they explicitly stated "We will not review violent games like 'The Bilestoad' because it supports a negative trend in video games."
Did you do all of the art yourself?
Yes, I did all of the art myself, excluding the box art and manual art. I had a whole lot of grid-ruled blotter paper and scads of graph paper, and I'd draw pixels on them, and then rule them up into rows of three pixels and four pixels and then I'd convert them into hex by hand. Yeesh.
The design stands out as very original today. Was originality important to you at the time?
In my first game, "Asteroid," I was just trying to figure out how to do graphics on an Apple II in 6502 assembly, and it was a pleasant surprise that I ended up making money on it. After I had my feet wet, doing original, creative designs was very important to me. There were so many creative things happening back then with computer games. Almost every new game that came out was a new way of slicing up the universe. There weren't a set of formulas around, thank goodness, so we had to ask ourselves, "What's the best way to present this idea?"
About the name "The Bilestoad"...
Beil is German for axe. Tod is German for death. I phoneticized them and stuck in an "s" for a compound word and the rest is history. I was somewhat influenced there by Anthony Burgess's wonderful novel Clockwork Orange. Since I set my game in the distant future, it would be completely unrealistic to assume that people would be speaking twentieth century English, hence my use of borrowed German words throughout the game.
The game seemed popular and received great reviews. Did it do well commercially?
Nope. Datamost only sold around 5,000 copies of the game. I've gotten email from a lot of people and even met people who know and love the game and you know what? I've never met or talked to anyone who had an official copy.
Pretty frequently I see the recurring threads on software piracy on various newsgroups. People really believe that there is no impact from their copying software. Well, there is an impact. I couldn't support myself by writing computer games, so "The Bilestoad" was the last game I did.
Why didn't you write any other games?
I'd put together "Planetoids" and "Space Warrior," and made a little money. Both of those games were cute little hacks, but there was nothing really memorable or Earth-shaking about them. So after I had my feet wet, I said to myself, "Now I want to do something real. I want to do the best game I can possibly do. If it works out and does well, I can do this for a living and spend my life working on games." So, I worked my ass off on "The Bilestoad," made the best game I possibly could, and released it.
It didn't do well. In fact, it didn't even make as much money as "Planetoids." It didn't even make the best seller list as my throw-away game, "Space Warrior," did. Meanwhile, I was out of money, in debt, and about to graduate with a degree in Artificial Intelligence. Feeling generally unloved and unappreciated, I got a high-paying job at an AI company and worked for a living.
Around 1992, you were planning on reviving "The Bilestoad" for the Macintosh. What's the story behind that?
In 1990, I went back to school for my Ph.D. in AI. I needed a domain to test some of my theories, and "The Bilestoad" seemed like a fun domain. So, I hacked up a version for the Mac to support my research with the side idea that eventually I might be able to publish it and check out the market again.
Well, of course, work and life get in the way, so it's taken me a little while. A couple of months ago I put together a pre-release demo of the Mac version. Check out my web page or your local Info-Mac archive.
So now, I try to steal whatever hours are available on the weekends, and occasionally in the evenings when I'm not working late, to play around with finishing the game up. Since I don't expect to make significant money off it, and since my time is limited and since I work very hard at my slave job, the work goes slowly. As a hobby, it beats building ships in a bottle, I guess.
What are you up to these days?
I finished my Ph.D. at Brandeis and I'm the Director of Intelligent Media here at Continuum Software, Inc. I'm working on data mining, machine learning, and intelligent agents.
Do you use assembly language or have you switched to a high-level language?
I spent many years hacking in Common LISP, which is about as high-level a language as you can get. I do most of my work in C now, with some C++, some Visual BASIC, some shell-scripting, a little Perl, AWK, sed, etc. In the new version of "The Bilestoad," all of it is in C except for the graphics routines which are all in assembly.
In my opinion the proper way to develop time-critical software, like games, is to code it all up in a high-level language, profile it, find the inner-loop code, and only rewrite the inner-loop code in assembly. Even then, compilers have advanced to the state where it's hard to do much better than the compiler by hand-coding in assembly.
Are you still interested in games? How do you feel about the titles currently being released?
I'm turning into one of those old geezers who is always ranting on incessantly about how much better everything was when he was a kid. People have these awesome toys now! Real computers! Amazing graphics, speed, memory, everything. And what are they doing with them? Mostly sideways-scrolling run-and-jump platform games, shooters, and the latest "Karate Champ" clone.
I mean, "Scramble" was a great game—the first true shooter, as far as I can remember. "Rolling Thunder" was a great game—one of the first sideways-scrolling games. "Karate Champ" was a great game—the first side-view one-on-one fighter. But these are all 1980s ideas. The graphics are much nicer now, of course, but I think it sucks that creativity, for the most part, consists of designing even bigger and scarier boss monsters and inventing ever more disgusting fatalities
On the other hand, there are still some good and creative games coming out. And, no doubt, in five years, the industry will have turned them into formulas as well and will be mass-producing clones. Some of the games I've been really impressed by include "Myst," "Civilization," "SimCity," "688 Attack Sub," "Tetris," and "Fool's Errand."
"The Bilestoad" was, as its core, an early one-on-one fighting game. What's your opinion of the flood of such games that have been released since 1991?
I can sympathize with their desire to make money; I never could manage to do it myself. They're playing it extremely safe. They've found a formula that works, and they're milking every last dollar out of it. Good for them. Don't expect me to be personally excited about it, though.
Would you consider getting back in the game business?
When I have enough money in the bank to essentially retire and don't have to worry about generating an income, I can think of no more fun way to while away my idle hours than by creating new games. But, other than that, one has to eat you know. In the meantime, we'll see if there's any positive response to the Mac version of "The Bilestoad."