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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
KS: I’m Kevin Savetz, and this is an interview episode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. Peter Liepa was co-creator and programmer of Boulder Dash and Boulder Dash 2 for the Atari computers. Boulder Dash was published by First Star software in 1984 and is regarded as a seminal game for the Atari 8-bit machines this interview took place on June 16, 2015.
KS: Tell me about the first time you saw an Atari computer.
PL: I had a friend who was into these things. I think he had an Atari 2600. He had, you know, a gigantic TV screen in a tiny apartment, and he bought an Atari 400 when they came out, and I don’t know, once-a-week or so, a bunch of us would go over and play video games. So that was my first exposure to an Atari 400.
KS: So at some point you decide to get one for yourself?
PL: Yeah, I mean after playing these games, the idea…. I was a software developer at the time, but kind of doing more conventional business-oriented stuff.
KS: For what kind of platform?
PL: I think at the time I think it was something called an IBM Series-1, which was a minicomputer built for real-time control. I’d studied control theory at university got my first job, working on that, but that quickly evolved into, again, more data-processing type stuff. Anyways I sat there playing these games in the idea of “I can do this,” or “I can build one of these” welled up in my head. So I went out and bought my own Atari 800.
KS: So what kind of games were you… had you hooked? What were you playing a your friends’ place? Do you remember?
PL: Good question. At my friend’s place, it was things like Miner 2049er. I think MULE. The games that I bought for myself, and really got hooked, on were things like Crossfire, Choplifter. Maybe Oils Well. I remember playing that. That is all I can think of offhand.
KS: So at some point you must have said yourself “I can do this, I’m going to learn machine language.” Tell me about that process.
PL: Well again, I thought “I can do this myself,” even before I bought the computer. That’s the reason I bought the computer. I had already had some exposure to machine-language, or very low-level language. The IBM Series-1, for example, ran on something like. Or an interpreted low-level language something like that. That’s funny I’m sure I had machine language exposure, although I can’t remember explicitly how or why, so maybe I didn’t. But my journey, I think started, in those days everybody read Byte magazine and that’s where you got all your information, along with the manuals that came with the Atari; and I read about this language called Forth, which was really suitable for programming on environments with really low memory, I think these machines came with maybe 8K. So I set about I think acquiring a Forth interpreter/compiler, I guess it’s an interpreter, and learning that. I’m sure also did also did lots of stuff, like everybody else, typing in demos from Byte magazine and the various other magazines that were there. That would of course been in Basic
KS: But Boulder Dash is not programmed in Forth was it?
PL: Tt was. Well it was originally. If we want to jump way ahead here, Boulder Dash was developed and Forth. Around the time where it became apparent that it was a shippable product, or how do we say it, I was beginning to shop for publishers. Again I can’t remember if this was before I contacted anybody, or after, but yes, I realized I would have to convert this to machine-language, if anything only to embed it on a cartridge. I think there was a kind of half-baked assembler available, developed in Forth. It wasn’t complete, so I think I ended up completing it, and I gradually ported, sort of in-place, or migrated Boulder Dash from Forth to assembler.
PL: I believe I could partially convert a bit at a time although, again, I don’t quite remember how that worked.
KS: That seems like a project.
PL: Well it was a project. You know write your own assembler, or at least finish your own assembler. Port the thing over. I don’t think I re-wrote it from scratch.
KS: Okay let’s go jump back. So you’re thinking... Your there… you’re learning Forth, thinking about programming a game, and tell me the story about how the beginnings of Boulder Dash started to happen.
PL: My situation was, that I had plenty of ideas for games, but no idea whatsoever of the market or how to get them published. I found out about a local publisher. I lived in Toronto, so local means one of the suburbs around Toronto, called “In-Home Software”. They had published at least one game, if not more. So I went and talked to them, with the question “I am an aspiring game-developer, what genre would you suggest I adopt?” Their response was that they knew this young-man who had submitted a game in Basic called Pitfall, that was not really commercial-quality, but they thought it had potential. His name was Chris Grace. So we got together, and the project started off with the intent, simply of converting his project to machine-language, and letting In-Home publish it. When I actually got home with the game, I realized it was kind of primitive, which I suppose... Well, it was in Basic, it was a single screen. It reminded me of a game called “The Pit,” which was an arcade game at the time. It had rocks and dirt. But after playing it for a few hours, I just thought you know, “this needs more spice; this needs different dynamics.” So I kind of put it aside, and just went and started writing. I think it was in Forth, but I don’t know for sure. I just started writing some prototype physics for rocks and dirt. Technically, it was a cellular automaton, so the physics were fake physics, obviously, or you know grid-based, discrete-based. The idea was that I would simply put rocks and dirt on a screen using a random-number generator. I may have added some way of painting them on as well. Then I would just play; the physics would be the rock… rocks would be supported by other rocks and dirt, but once you took away the dirt, the rocks would fall, then if a rock fell on another rock, and there was a chance to fall sideways, it would do so. Yeah, after a couple of days, I think I had that running, and had found myself quite fascinated. I just loved playing with it. That kind of in a nutshell was where Boulder Dash was born.
KS: So you collaborated with Chris long-distance somehow?
PL: Well so that was a little problematic, because…. Yeah was long distance. I think we found out pretty quickly that we were on fairly different wavelengths. So unfortunately, that collaboration kind of fizzled; and I more or less took off on my own with the game.
KS: So you worked on it for about six months, is what I read?
KS: You had a “real job” at this time too?
PL: I did not. I think one of the decisions I made was to quit any real job I had. At the time I think it was kind of working as a contractor/consultant. The idea may have been originally been to kind of blend the two, but I decided, yes, I was just going to live on savings and work on this game. Some friends of mine were also working as consultants in an office, and they kindly rented me a desk, so I would actually have a workplace. So yeah, it was full-time in the sense that I wasn’t doing anything else. It was part-time in that probably my productive hours were two or three hours a day, the rest of the day was just sitting around preparing to work, or coming up with inspiration or whatever.
KS: So I find it odd that you originally went to In-Home, but you ended up publishing with First Star. Was In-Home circling the drain by the time you’re done with the game?
PL: I do not know. All I know is that several months into the project when I thought I had something that, you know, could see the light of day, as far as being published, I started urging them to… I don’t know, put together a contract for me, a publishing agreement. At that point, even though I had had talks with them occasionally, I guess to show progress, nothing was happening. I don’t know why. I don’t know if they were circling the drain, or had other things to do, they were just not responding, so at some point I just cut my losses there and started searching for publishers in the States.
KS: So how did you do that search, and how did you find First Star?
PL: Well again, now I used Byte magazine, probably as a stand-in for all of the publications of the day. But in those days there were, I suppose, a number of publishers, Electronic Arts was just kind of in its infancy. Believe it or not Parker Brothers, I think, was in the business. I kind of decided, for better or for worse, that rather than go with a west-coast company, I would go with an east-coast company, and First Star was based in New York. They were somehow affiliated with Warner Bros., or Warner Communications. In those days, I suppose you could work long-distance, but it was not the way you do it now, or you just pick up Skype, or transfer files. Those are still in the days of snail-mail, and I think email really existed. So I simply went with a company that was geographically close and looked like it was reliable; and of course they were very happy to take the game.
KS: Sure. I bet. Was it 90% done at that point? Was it absolutely complete?
PL: I’d say 90% done. There may have been eight screens out of 16, that sort of thing. So again, I’m not quite sure. I do know the negotiations took quite a while, several weeks. By that time I actually had started working again. So the game was essentially complete, in terms of all of its mechanics and all that. It may have actually had 16 caves. I think the only change they asked for was to add some “intermissions”, because that was the thing in those days. So I just ended up building some mini caves with slightly different rules. So yeah, it’s funny. All I can say is that I think of more business-oriented purses, or more fame-oriented person, would have been increasingly excited by this thing being published, and money coming in. But for me, all of the joy was really in developing the game.
KS: Okay what was technically interesting? What was technically joyful about it? About actually developing was interesting about it for you?
PL: Well my background is in mathematics. My vocation was in software development. As a child and young adult, I had been very interested in things like art, and music; animation. For me this was a way where they all came together, in a really compelling way. So it was kind of deeply satisfying, because I think everybody has pulls on their nature. Everybody has a kind of, you know, split between left-brain and right, and this interest and that interest, and the demands of vocation versus the demands of things that they dream about doing. Until you can actually bring those things together, you don’t realize how satisfying it can be. So it was a really fulfilling experience.
KS: Awesome. I think it is interesting that Boulder Dash it’s still a proper… It’s still owned by First Star, amazingly... It’s still a property that they develop, it has really been an enduring… had an enduring legacy.
PL: Yes it is kind of interesting. I have often thought, “well geez… I could have gone with Electronic Arts,” maybe. Maybe they were a much bigger, more successful publisher, but I think with First Star… yeah, this kind of longevity is basically one of their few properties, and it seemed to be the one that had real legs. I suspect with Electronic Arts, we would never heard of Boulder Dash again. Not that I’ve got anything against Electronic Arts, and this all speculative.
KS: Do you still get a slice of Boulder Dash from them?
PL: Yes I do, which always amazes me. You know a large part of the royalties, of course, were within the first few years of the game coming out. Then I think there was a long dry spell, where it was just felt that 2-D arcade games like that were old-fashioned; there was no market for them. Then, I guess with things like the Internet, and new kinds of computers, especially mobile coming out, there was sort of a resurgence of interest, if you will. So yes, there are still royalty checks coming to this day.
KS: So you finished Boulder Dash, then what happened? Was Boulder Dash 2 a foregone conclusion, or what happened then?
PL: I think First Star indicated an interest in Boulder Dash 2. So I created that. It was very much based on Boulder Dash 1. So I think I had some new entities in the game. I simply developed another 16 caves, and new theme music. That sort of thing. But yes, I guess it was simply the second game, or the second installment in the series.
KS: Now you were an Atari programmer. Did you have anything… Did you have any involvement in porting Boulder Dash to all the other platforms it was ported to?
PL: No. First Star went and found other people to port. The one porting job I did, was to the PC Junior, which was supposed to be the next big thing.
KS: Oh you poor thing.
PL: Yeah. So yes, yes I had the pleasure of implementing Boulder Dash on the PC Junior, and I guess we were interested having it and run on the PC as well, unfortunately neither of those boxes were very good as machine… I’m sorry, as game machines. I did as good a job as I could, and got deeper into chip architecture that I would never want to, on that kind of machine, to make things like scrolling work in real-time. But, yeah, I think that kind of sunk without a trace. Big waste of time.
KS: I read in a couple of places, that you left the world of games, due to a lack of enthusiasm for other platforms, which had followed the Atari computers; which this is a highly relevant question for me, because this is an Atari podcast. So tell me why the Atari was better than everything else.
PL: Wow… that is kind of a hard question. I’m not sure that I have the ammunition to answer it off the top of my head. It just seemed purpose-built for games. It was a really nice design, and I think there’s just so much available; everything fell into place. I kind of started looking at Commodore 64’s, and I’m not even sure how I did that, because I don’t think I ever owned one. I just thought the architecture there was so kludgy and… You were kind of fighting against it. Maybe they had just made a much cheaper… or designed a machine that was much cheaper to build than Atari; I don’t know. You know my dislike was not entirely realistic, I suppose, because as a game machine, and as a computer the Commodore 64 probably was way more successful, in a commercial way, than Atari, and there were no shortage of games. In fact a lot of people just thought that Boulder Dash was a Commodore 64 game. It turned out to port very well to the Commodore 64. Yeah, I just wasn’t attracted to it the way it was to the Atari. By the time you got to PCs were… well the graphics were business-oriented, if anything. You could just do so much less. It really was a dream machine, I thought.
KS: So after Boulder Dash 2, I guess you didn’t have much involvement in the other things that came after. Is that right?
PL: Well First Star I think realized, with the royalty structure, or perhaps for other reasons, that if they started developing these on their own they’d… I guess have more control, and more revenue. Although I’m speculating here. But it made sense. I think that did draw me in as a consultant, on a few of the sequels. There was a construction kit that, I think, was in the weeds, and I can never quite remember, but there was some arcade-version that they were doing, that again I think the project was a bit in the weeds, and they needed somebody to develop or design levels for them. Both of those were kind of short-lived, and somewhat incidental.
KS: Yeah. So after that you went back to a “real job” and that is… that more or less is the end of your… the Atari story, from your perspective?
PL: Yeah, that was the end of the Atari story for me. Probably just as well. I mean I had thought about doing something completely different on the Atari. But, I don’t know. The ideas didn’t gel, and by the time they were just kind of commercial things in the industry… the industry crashed. It seemed to crash every couple of years. Other interests took over. You know, I had a really strong desire to get into high-end graphics at the time, so… there were just other things to do.
KS: Do you have anything to do with the iPhone version?
PL: Oh you mean the new one?
PL: I was asked to develop a cave pack, and I did that back last year. I believe that cave pack is still waiting to be released, as part of an update. That’s all I can say. I did a cave pack. It’s not out yet.
KS: So how was it getting back creating levels again?
PL: It was actually very enjoyable. You know everything was already there, in terms of the new game physics, and a cave builder, so all I had to do is come up with, I think 20 caves. Which, mind you, took about a month. The creative process here is quite difficult, I find… You start with a blank page. Actually what I did was, I would just throw elements at random on the screen, and sort of tinker with them and see what kind of new behaviors there were in this version. Then I would play-and-play until I came up with certain puzzles, so there was a theme to every cave. Sometimes I would just have to go for long bicycle rides, and clear my mind, and come up with ideas… stop the bike, write them down, or at least tap them into my phone. I think probably, actually building a cave, once you’ve got the idea, it was only two or three hours, but you could spend twice that time, trying to come up with ideas, or just playing around. Anyways very, very enjoyable process, I really enjoyed it. I hope that someday that cave pack will actually be released, and people will get to try it out.
KS: What haven’t I asked you yet, that I should have?
PL: Well we did kind of fast-forward, very much, from the start of the game development, to publishing, and aftermath. When you develop a game, I guess, from start to finish, you know you start with very rough stuff, and these original boulder and dirt physics were really just circles and squares on a screen. Eventually you have to flesh that in with graphics. The graphics were originally in the 24 x 40 format. I did show that to In-Home at one point, and they said, “the little guy is just not really that interesting, he’s gotta be more recognizable. It’s gotta be bigger.” So I put a lot of work into doubling the size of the characters, which is where the scrolling came from. And to flesh all that out, it was not only a matter of writing the game, or writing the software for the game, but doing the music, doing the sound effects, doing the graphics and animation. Anyways, all of that, pretty well from scratch, you know it was all a great pleasure to do.
KS: Did you compose the theme song yourself?
PL: Yes I did; and I wrote a music editor to do it. I actually didn’t see the score, until a couple of years ago when I, you know, pulled out the old listings, the old machine-code listings, of the notes. It was a four-voice composition; and typed that into an online scoring program. I have yet to actually play it on a piano. I had to get a musical friend to tell me what key the whole thing was in. But yeah, in those days it was just, you know, I wrote my own music editor, four-voice music editor, and basically plunked notes on a screen, and worked out this composition.
KS: If you could send a message to the Atari computer community that still exists, and you can right now, what would you tell them?
PL: The first thing that comes to light… to mind, is the “get a life” quip. Will Shatner. But that’s kind of cruel; or insensitive. Yeah, I don’t know Kevin. I tend not to live in the past very much. I think it’s kind of amazing what people do. I know that a few years ago somebody developed an Atari 2600 version of Boulder Dash. Which is, I think, truly an amazing thing. Simply because, that machine was so difficult program on, it’s kind of, you know, legendary on how difficult it was. I say more power to you, it’s actually the Boulder Dash community, I think that I’m most impressed by. They are kind of really keeping it alive.
KS: You know you mentioned the 2600 version. A friend of mine named Bill, did a… there’s an annual 10-line basic programming contest for the Atari, and Bill Kendrick did a 10-line Basic version of Boulder Dash, just like… get as close to the gameplay as possible in 10-lines of Basic code… it’s pretty fun.
PL: And that totally blows away anything I did.
KS: Yeah I’ve had that experience too. Someone wrote a version of Pole Position in 10 lines of Basic… that’s not even possible. This was great. Thank you very much, Peter.
PL: Well. it was my pleasure Kevin. I will say “hello” to all of those fans of the podcast. It’s great work that I think you guys are doing. It’s strange to be… I’m ancient history, right? And you’re a historian. Yeah, this stuff has to all be captured, before it all goes.
KS: Well thank you very much.