And then something strange happened…I describe it as “the best week’s work I’ve ever done in my life”. It was something I started on a Monday morning and finished on a Sunday afternoon; it was a game that was written in a week start-to-finish. And that was what was so nice about the industry back then – you could just do that. You could sit down and bang out a game; 3.5k of code didn’t take a lot of time to fill.
And I wrote this game. I was very fond of Centipede, but Centipede was too cutesy for me, with its flower gardens and little centipedes – I wanted something more hard-edged for this game.
I actually had the name of the game before I wrote the game; I’d been up at a computer show in London and they had posters for this new Harrison Ford film that was out called Blade Runner. So I saw the posters and they had this very distinctive font that said ‘Blade Runner’ at the top. But I didn’t want to use ‘Blade Runner’ because my game wasn’t anything like Blade Runner; it was a game based on this grid so I thought, “Hey, I’ll call it Gridrunner.”
So I wrote it and I thought it was a very nice little game, but I didn’t think that much more of it, really. And I sent a copy out to my friends in the States who were distributing my games, and one night I remember the phone going at about four o’clock in the morning. I crawled out of bed and answered the phone and it was this guy from Human Engineered Software, and he was ranting! He said they loved this game and had been playing it for hours and I should stand by to make quite a lot of money, and I thought, well, it’s just this silly little game I made in a week, but okay, fair enough, and I put the phone down and went back to bed and went to sleep. Got up the next day and thought I’d had a weird dream where I was sure they’d said that this game was so good I was going to make loads of money! But it turned out he was actually quite serious and they turned it into a cartridge and it did turn out to do really well! It was the first major success for Llamasoft. It was number one on the VIC-20 charts in the States which was really surprising, and made me enough money to keep me going for several years.
Like I said, the best week’s work I ever did in my life. I wish I could have another week like that!
– Jeff Minter, from his “History of Llamasoft” presentation at Assembly ’04
Now, I could go into a rant here about how games were better in the old days, but I don’t really believe that. True, there were some fantastic games made back then, but there was also a bunch of crap that nobody remembers any more.
What I will say is that modern software development has become very abstract, with layers upon layers upon layers upon layers, and this is simply the worst possible thing that could have happened for game development which really has to go straight to the hardware in order to be fast. So we get APIs that do touch the hardware directly, but because they have to play nice with these abstracted operating systems we have to jump through all these hoops and do things like raw memory writes just to put a damn pixel on the screen. And God help you if you forget to set your pitch and your width correctly…
This is why I like making and playing little text-mode games. I’m honestly fascinated by things like Roguelikes, even though most Roguelikes frustrate me because they are too damn hard.
And of course, the company that could have given us a very straightforward game development API because they control both the hardware and the OS refuses to do so because they hate gamers. Well, screw you too, Apple…see if I ever buy an iPod.
And this is just the Price that Must Be Paid in order to do modern game development (at least on the PC). It’s difficult, and it’s going to stay difficult for a good long while. But in the end, we do it because we are compelled. And it’s not like there aren’t any rewards…