Generally speaking, there’s not much room in today’s mainstream game industry for freewheeling, doodling or, heaven forbid, ‘making it up as you go along’. Budgets are tight, stakes are high and teams are huge – a successful game today is planned and scheduled to the last detail, from concept to completion. It’s refreshing to hear, then, that a key touchstone for a generation of gamers started life as little more than a mathematical exercise that snowballed gloriously out of control.
Like so many early C64, Atari 400/800 and ZX Spectrum classics, Boulder Dash was an accidental phenomenon, the fruit of a single curious number-cruncher trying his hand at game design for the very first time and hitting upon a genius formula. Typical of the DIY bedroom coding boom of the early ’80s, Canadian Peter Liepa was young, self-taught, and a card-carrying maths geek. His first love wasn’t gaming itself, but code.
“During high school, those of us who were interested were allowed to spend a week at the National Research Council of Canada,” recalls Liepa of his introduction to the world of programming. “We were taken on a tour of the computer centre there, and basically I didn’t leave. That night I wrote out my first program on paper and entered it on an interactive terminal the next day. Right after grad school I fell into writing business applications, in various permutations of employment, freelancing and partnerships. One day, after playing videogames on a friend’s console, I had an ‘I can do that’ realisation and went out and bought an Atari 800.”
Following that lightbulb moment, Liepa seized the initiative and called a local software publisher to ask what sort of thing they were looking for. As it turned out, they had a concept for a clone of an arcade game called The Pit – a Dig Dug-aping escapade in which you had to tunnel through a labyrinth to retrieve a gem. Liepa had a look and came away unimpressed, but something about the mechanic of digging through screens of rubble lit the touch-paper, and he begun fiddling around with the bare-bones concept that would eventually solidify into Boulder Dash.
“I would fill the screen with random combinations of rocks and dirt,” he recounts, “and found that digging through combinations of rocks and dirt was both tricky and a lot of fun.” However, he needed a good reason to be burrowing through all of this virtual dirt. In what was quickly becoming classic videogame tradition, he dotted jewels around his primitive caverns, and then added tension in the form of lethal insects.
“I was very fond of using random number generators to do the detailed work of laying out caves. In other words, rocks, dirt, air, jewels and sometimes walls, butterflies and fireflies were placed randomly. The only thing I would do is tune the densities. I would overlay these layouts with deterministic elements that contributed to the theme of the cave – walls, flies, amoeba, etc.
“Often the caves were inspired by these layouts, or some theme that I discovered while playing with random arrangements. Usually a theme would single out things that you faced in random gameplay. You’d take a theme like chasing, evading or destroying fireflies and butterflies, and make it a main element of a cave. Or a theme would involve amping up the various elements like rocks and jewels. There was no formula for this – it was just like jamming on a musical instrument, and the possibilities seemed endless – not only enough to populate the game and its sequels, but also countless adaptations, both authorised and unauthorised.”
The creator of the original clone, Chris Gray, had some involvement at first and received a credit in the final version of Boulder Dash, but the pair went their separate ways early on in development once it became clear that Liepa was marching to his own beat. Not only that, but the publisher Liepa had originally approached also dropped out a few months after he began programming, but not before it’d made a few suggestions. In early builds of the game, Rockford, the game’s fidgety hero, was nothing more than a simple stickman completely devoid of personality. Liepa referred to him simply as “the man”.
“The original would-be publisher had a look at an early draft and was adamant that the man needed to be a recognisable character,” remembers Liepa. “I was originally dismissive of this, but eventually came around and doubled the size of all the elements in the game – rocks, jewels, and the man. This was a large amount of work, especially because I had to implement scrolling, but in the end the game was greatly improved.
“In designing the character and his movements, I stumbled upon the idea of making him blink and tap his feet while idle, which began to breathe more life into him. I didn’t really have any models or drawings of what character I wanted; I simply changed pixels in my graphics and animation editor until I got a character that worked. Given the coarse pixels available, his head had to be fairly large just to accommodate his eyes.”
Absorbed by his creation, Liepa continued to beaver away despite the absence of a publisher to serve as a safety net. The game was built entirely using the stack-based programming language Forth, from the visuals right down to that nagging, insistent soundtrack. Liepa worked slowly, averaging about two hours of coding a day. “You could argue that it was a leisurely pace but it was also my primary activity during that period, so even if I wasn’t visibly working on it I was thinking about it.”
After six months of tinkering, iterative evolution and trial and error, Boulder Dash was finished. Liepa built a brief demo to send around to publishers and it quickly caught the eye of First Star Software. The game was released in 1984 on the Atari 400/800 and was an immediate smash. Ports for the Commodore 64, Apple II, ZX Spectrum and MSX soon followed. Numerous sequels and remakes have since appeared on pretty much every platform imaginable.
In keeping with the unhurried manner in which he originally made the game, Liepa seems unaffected by the enormous success of his limited foray into the world of videogame production. “Curiously, I was somewhat insulated from the success of the game,” he explains. “There were some good royalties for a couple of years, but my life generally wasn’t affected socially or professionally.”
Boulder Dash wasn’t to be a means to an end, but an end in its own right; a self-improvement project carried through to an unexpectedly successful conclusion. Other than Boulder Dash II, Liepa has had no real involvement in the game industry since. Following the release of the second game, he returned to his origins – the world of applied mathematics, eventually ending up working in the realm of 3D graphics at Alias.
“It’s one of those funny things, but I’ve never been much of a videogame player, and tend to consider myself as unhireable by game companies who want their employees to live and breathe games. On the other hand, I’ve moved away from the high-end graphics industry recently to get back to some of my other loves, like mathematical visualisation, and to learn more about web technology, which previously I’d been an absolute laggard on. I’ve got a simple online game project on the back burner – more of a learning project than anything groundbreaking – but you never know, maybe I’ll move back into games in a quiet way.”
Even so, Liepa’s clearly very proud of his creation. He keeps an eye on the sequels and countless fan mods circulating the internet (“A mixed bag – sometimes the adaptation misses the boat, sometimes it nails it”), picks up the original from time to time, and is keen to wax lyrical on its enduring appeal.
“I’ve always thought that Boulder Dash is a pretty good game,” Liepa humbly insists. “Boulder Dash is at heart a deterministic puzzler. You solve the puzzle by collecting enough jewels in a cave to move on to the next cave. Relative to a lot of action games, you don’t need a lot of speed, agility or fine motor control. And the elements you need to solve the puzzle are right in front of you. So some of the necessary ingredients to addictiveness – challenge and attainable reward – are there. Attaining the award also tends to involve solving and learning patterns incrementally, which is itself addictive.
“But I think that Boulder Dash is also attractive because it appeals to a variety of drives. There are elements of greed, hunting, chasing, fleeing, exploring and destruction that all appeal to primal urges. There is humour in situations where Rockford haplessly gets trapped among boulders, or gets blown up when a boulder falls on him.
“I remember when a female friend who normally didn’t play videogames tried out an early version. She was fascinated at how much chomping through dirt appealed to her the way cleaning house did. Videogames aren’t life – in fact, they are more about multiple lives – but the fact remains that they need to hit emotional triggers in order to be successful. Without that, they would merely be cognitive and motor challenges. I was always pleased to hear that Boulder Dash appealed to old and young, male and female.”