Today we talk to Peter Liepa. He’s a programmer and game designer, best known as the creator of the game Boulder Dash in the early 80s. It’s a great honour for us to talk with him today. Welcome to the Retrokompott podcast, hi Peter.
Oh, hi. Proud to be here.
Do you remember your first contacts with a computer?
It was in high school, I was probably 14 or 15. There was a March break and students in our class, if I recall correctly, were placed in various institutions across the city. I grew up in Ottawa, Canada. And in my case I went to the National Research Council, which is what it sounds like. It’s a Canadian institution that does research for various purposes. And back in the day I was interested in being a physicist so I got a kind of apprenticeship or one week apprenticeship in a physics lab. After about a day I felt I was not enjoying myself and I think at some point, maybe in those first couple of days, I discovered a calculator there that I was. And in those days calculators were huge things with LEDs. And I think I was more interested in that than what the physicists were telling me to do, which consisted of drilling holes in a piece of metal, you know, as part of constructing some apparatus. And that led, I think, to a tour of the computer centre at the National Research Council. And I guess I got to sit down at a A teletype terminal and do some programming, and I immediately fell in love. I sort of spent the evening at home, I think, writing a program out that I asked whether I could enter it the next day. And before I knew it, I think there was an agreement between the physics lab and the computer centre that I could transfer for the rest of the week.Yeah, so it was love at first sight.
What was the first real computer game you remember you saw?
Probably like everybody else Pong I’m guessing, yeah.
And the first computer you owned by yourself?
I think I may have bought a TRS-80 Eddie I think, the Tandy RadioShack. No, no, no. Yeah. No. Yeah, that’s right. It was kind of on … but I returned it after a month. It was that sort of deal. So I think my, you know, my first real possession of a computer was the Atari 800. And I believe it was bought with the intent of writing a game.
Did you only play at the first days or did you try to program the computer? What did you prefer?
Oh, when I bought the computer I bought it to program, if that’s the question. I mean I bought some games as well, of course.
And how did you learn to program? Those were the early days, there was no Internet, for example.
Yeah, it’s funny, I’m sort of rewinding the tape here. I knew how to program already because I had. I was … I was fairly old when I started this. I think I must have been 28 or 29. And so I already graduated from university, had a masters. I think I learned a little programming when I was a student. Yeah, in fact I had taken computer courses, both as an undergraduate and as a masters student. And my first job was in a computer consultancy where I programmed what was called in those days a mini computer. So I was fairly well versed in this sort of thing. I think just before I started developing Boulder Dash I was working on a … I think the original IBM PC. Either that or, you know, the second version which was called the AT, I can’t quite remember. So I already knew computer languages and concepts. I’m not quite sure whether I understood machine language which was I think the standard for video games at that time. But yeah, I was pretty well versed.
Did your environment, your family, your friends, understand what you were doing? Because it was the early days of computer technique.
I think William Gibson once said “The future is already here, although it’s less distributed.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that quote, and I might not be getting it right. But certainly in my world I’ve been working with computers for probably at least 10 years. The friends that I hung out with at that point were also very familiar with computers, you know, either professionals or hobbyists or game players. And I lived away from my family at the time so my family wouldn’t have been that involved anyhow. They may have been aware that I’d quit whatever I was doing, and was running a game, but I don’t think they would have thought that was particularly unusual. So in other words, computers were a presence even in the early 80s. Home computers were something else, but I think everybody knew about them. Maybe not that many people had them, but they were not that mysterious.
At what time Boulder Dash got into your life?
At what time did Boulder Dash get into my life? So I had been playing video games with friends on their equipment. And at a certain point I just thought to myself “Oh, I could do that.” Which I think is a common enough insight that young people get. I mean, it’s not necessarily with computer games, but it’s with other things like acting or whatever. And so I decided I was going to write a game. I contacted a local publisher to ask … I think what I was uncertain about was that there were so many possibilities in that. I would prefer to start with a genre that, I don’t know, was commercially in demand or of interest. So I contacted a local publisher to ask what genres they might be interested in. And they introduced me to Chris Gray, who was a … somebody who was submitted to them a demo of a game which was pretty well a clone of an existing game in the arcades. And this company was interested in publishing that, but the demo had been written in BASIC, so it was too slow, and it basically had one level. So I mean, the whole thing was not really ready for primetime, and I thought “Well, okay, somebody wants to publish this. I’ll just hop on that bandwagon and agree to translate it into assembler or machine code.”
The game in the arcade was The Pit or which one?
Yeah, the game in the arcade was The pit. This demo was called Pitfall. I think at the time Chris really denied that it was based on anything, but it’s pretty obvious. Anyways, so the idea was to do a quick conversion and get this thing into publishable form. But you know, I think that agreement was made before I’d even really closely looked at the thing. And so when I started I decided that … yeah, this game was not going to fly, it had problems and decided to more or less start from scratch on something. And of course that project was not called Boulder Dash immediately, but yeah, that was kind of the origin of that sequence of events.
Was the idea from Chris Gray and you edited things or did you both work on new ideas for the game?
We lived a fair distance apart. I live in Toronto, he lived in a suburb with his family. So we were separated by distance and as it turns out I suppose by temperament as well because … I don’t know, even though I drove out to visit and to talk about things we didn’t really click that way, and so development kind of drifted apart, even though originally he was supposed to be a collaborator. It was just the way things worked out. Things took on a life of their own, or at least my ideas about what the game should be. Pitfall if you … or sorry, The Pit, if you ever seen it, is an arcade game that doesn’t involve, I think, a robot landing in a flying saucer. You can actually see, I think, little excerpts of it on YouTube if I remember correctly, or at least descriptions. And this robot has to dig down into the earth and I guess if they had certain obstacles, like little lakes of acid or avoid falling rocks, that sort of thing and then make his way back to the saucer. So there was a kind of superficial similarity, I think, to what Boulder Dash ended up being, because first thing I did was actually work on making the rocks and the digging a little more realistic than what they were in the demo. And you know, from that came the physics at Boulder Dash. And everything built from there.
Who had the idea to call it Boulder Dash and why was it named Boulder Dash?
Again, it did not have that name early on in development. I mean there were working titles like Crystal Caverns or whatever. I think it wasn’t until four or five months into the work that, you know, when I was beginning to fine tune a lot of details and go beyond just the physics that I, you know, thought about what to call it and somehow Boulder Dash popped up. In English there is a word balderdash which refers to just nonsense. It’s a sort of British idiom. And so Boulder Dash was a play on the expression balderdash. And coincidentally, there was a board game that came out in the same period that was called Balderdash I think. Yeah, so there’s always a little confusion between my video game and that board game.
The main character, Rockford, was that an early idea or did you name it later?
So Rockford evolved, you know, the original playing with physics or development of the physics, which is really where the game I guess had its origins because the physics had to be interesting and fun. At that stage of development everything is extremely rough. You know, dirt was just squares on the screen, rocks were circles and there was a player object that was a plus sign. And I think to the extent that … yeah, so the plus sign became a humanoid figure. There was a game, I don’t how familiar you are with that era. Presumably you are quite familiar if you heard of Choplifter. Yeah, so Choplifter was a very … I certainly loved it, I thought it was a great game. And that consisted of little humanoid silhouette figures that, you know, ran back and forth. So I then created a stick figure of sorts to be the player proxy. But the original version of the game … everything was quite small. Like all the objects, the rocks, the walls, the person which I called The Man were half the size of what they were in the final game and we can get to why that is. But you know, they were quite small and undetailed. When I had sort of a working demo to show to the publisher, the publisher gave the opinion that, you know, The Man was not a very interesting figure. Not charismatic, or, you know, didn’t really have a character. The publisher suggested that there had to be more character to this. And as a result I ended up doubling the size of everything and making everything quite larger and this is why the game scrolls, because in the original version or earlier versions the entire playing field was visible on the screen. But when I had to convert my existing caves to the new format, there wasn’t enough room on the screen obviously and therefore scrolling. And it was only when things got larger and I was able to use a few more colours and fill in the characters that Rockford as a cartoon character emerged. And in fact, Rockford was not so named until First Star had agreed to publish the game and I guess as part of the marketing and packaging materials they gave the little guy a name.
You said the publisher was First Star Software. Why did you choose this publisher and how did you get in contact first with them?
So, video games of course were a thing, video games for the Atari. And so there were a number of publishers out there, all trying to get into the business. I think I had maybe contacted a few of them. Like I remember reaching out to Electronic Arts, although I can’t really remember whether that went very far. But First Star, it turns out, was in New York City, which is much closer to Toronto than Electronic Arts, which was in California across the continent. And they had a partnership with Warner Brothers, so I thought, you know, these guys are well funded and established enough and close. So that’s kind of what I (Tonstörung) on.
The game was published for a lot of systems in the end. What systems do you program by yourself?
Well, I programmed the Atari 400/800 that came out as a cartridge. First Star then engaged with a number of developers to do the ports. You know, the Commodore 64 port would have been relatively simple because it was the same chip I think, although the graphics system was different. Whereas the port to the Apple would have been probably a bigger job, the Apple II at the time. The big gaming system on the horizon at the time was the so called PCjr which was IBM’s entrance into the video game field. And I guess it was anticipated to be a big deal. So First Star engaged me to do a PCjr port, which is of course a total waste of time because the PCjr flopped and I don’t think anybody even remembers it these days. So that was a bit of a waste of time. But yes, I did those two. I did the original Atari version, which anyway I think it’s still the best. I think the Atari 400/800 was a great system to work with. And then I did the PCjr which … I don’t know, it was probably published, but went nowhere because PCjr went nowhere.
At those days, did you ever think that this game could be so successful and yeah, it could change your life or will be in your life over decades?
I’ve often been asked that question and I think at the time, even though I thought it was a great game and that of course it would be published and sold, I never really thought about it in terms of either, you know, total sales or longevity. So I certainly didn’t. I mean, there’s no way anybody can predict the future, so I certainly didn’t think that … I don’t know, decades later I’d be doing podcasts talking about it.
Did you get royalties in terms of the amount of the games they sold, or did you … how was it paid at those days?
It was like normal book publishing (…). So there would have been an advance and then there would have been royalties. And the royalties would have been based on sales and licensing.
You said you only did program the first versions on these systems. But there were a lot of other titles based on Boulder Dash or there were other Boulder Dash versions. Were you involved in the production or did other persons do that job?
I actually did Boulder Dash 2 which looks very much like Boulder Dash 1, except that it has, you know, some new gadgets and of course new caves. After that, I think First Star decided to go on its own. And I think meanwhile I was kind of drifting into other areas like computer graphics. So we sort of parted ways, but they were working on Boulder Dash 3 and I think they had come down to a time crunch. And I flew down to New York to help out creating some levels and caves for them, but that was really, you know, three or four day exercise. Really just helping them get it over the top and probably created five or ten caves for them. And then Boulder Dash 4 was the construction set and it again had been developed by somebody else. But it was kind of buggy and tended to crash, so I was asked to get it going. You know, clean it up and put it into a releasable state. So I did that, but that was about it. Well, until so called Bully Dash 30th anniversary, where I was invited to again participate in design, design a set of caves.
At that time what did you do beside Boulder Dash? You mentioned graphic software. You worked in the computer scene as a full time job at those days beside Boulder Dash? Or what did you do as a job?
Yes, I transitioned into computer graphics which in those days was a fairly primitive state, so it’s really just getting off the ground. I think I did 2D graphics I … sorry, sorry to be so slow here, but really … yeah, retrieving some memories from long, long ago, trying to put them in order. Yeah, you know, there would have been things like just business graphics. And I was involved with a company that was building a sort of a simulator. Toronto was going to have an attraction in the CN Tower where you could play a video game, a 3D video game which involved being in a Space Shuttle and I think rendezvousing the Space Station somewhere and, you know, going through an asteroid storm in the process. So yes, I worked in very early 3D graphics. I think this was well before you saw it in the arcades or the video games. And in fact, that platform even though it was built for this, you know, simulation experience at an amusement attraction, ended up being sold I think to NASA for some of their first virtual reality experiments. So yeah, by the time that project was finished, it had morphed into, I guess, something like the Silicon Graphics machines that came along years later but more primitive, sort of, you know, done on a (…) as opposed to a mass production basis. And I think by then … I might be missing a few things … but by then 3D Computer graphics was getting off the ground. There was a company in Toronto called Alias, Alias Research, that ended up doing programs like Maya which is widely used these days for special effects and game production. I don’t know how much it’s used now and it belongs to Autodesk, but certainly it had a heyday. And I also worked on a 3D painting program which was used to make the first live action Spiderman movie. So on and so forth. So yeah, I found that very exciting. I kind of went from 8-bit home machines to state of the art virtual reality machines and special effects from movies. And that more or less took up a large part of my career.
But you were in contact with First Star Software over the years, too. And as you said, involved in some versions of Boulder Dash or ask about some things about Boulder Dash over the years, too.
Yeah, I would have been in contact, but it would have been more a business arrangement. You know, just keeping up to date with royalties, and I guess occasionally First Star would make a deal with another company that required my participation. I think as far as … actually, my work on Boulder Dash … if Boulder Dash came out in ’84 I think Boulder Dash 4 would have been … my guess is no more than four years later than that. So I’m pretty sure I would have been done with Boulder Dash by the end of the 80s in terms of any creative work. After that it was just a business relationship I suppose.
And did you stay in contact with Chris Gray over the years? Did you plan other games at those days?
No. I mean we pretty well parted ways. I mean, you know, creatively we parted ways at the beginning of the Boulder Dash project, which as I said was originally a conversion and then I more or less took it over. And after that there was no relationship other than the odd, you know, coincidental meeting. You know, we’d see each other on the street kind of thing, but yeah, there was no relationship after that.
There were a large number of unofficial clones of Boulder Dash and something like that. How do you think about that? Other people did nearly the same to earn money with it. What do you think about that problem?
I saw it as First Star’s problem. I mean obviously First Star was in charge of (…) actually making money. From my point of view money was very much secondary to just the creative act of making the game. I didn’t really mind. In fact, it was in a way flattering, I guess. And it would have been hypocritical, I think to be upset about it because pretty well everybody did their version of piracy in those days. People were pirating software, pirating games. I mean, even if they weren’t cloning games they were buying pirated copies, pirated copies of word processing software, so on and so forth. And that of course morphed into pirated music and movies. Which kind of brings us to the present day, where everything is settled down and probably everybody consumes some combination of, you know, legal streaming content and then presumably illegal but not frowned upon, just stuff on the Internet.
As you mentioned, their rights were sold now. We talked about that with Mr. Spitalny and Mr. Berendsen some weeks ago. In 2017 the rights were transferred from First Star to a German company called BBG. Were you’re involved in this right transfers? Are you now out of the game or what’s the actual thing now?
I would like to answer that because you kind of made a big jump. I just want to say one more thing about the clones. Yes, although they were a nuisance as far as First Star were concerned, often these clones, I think, were turned into commercial entities that First Star could market. So you could say that there was a lot of creator interest and First Star, I think, was able to harness a lot of this interest and released new versions of Boulder Dash for new platforms over the decades. I don’t know how it compares to other games, but I can’t think of that many games that have just had version after version coming out for decades. You know, there might be a Tetris and this and that, but I think Boulder Dash had amazing longevity. And this, I guess, cloning fanbase probably fit into that and also kept awareness of the game alive. Also these days I think it’s a great start a project for any young person who wants to build a video game because if I say so myself as amazing and kinetic and involving Boulder Dash is, it is a really simple mechanic. The same way that say Tetris is. And so it’s really a great beginner project for anybody learning to do games, and I’ve been contacted by people like that who just as a hobby want to clone it. So I think a lot of good has come out of that. So let’s switch to BBG. Yes, the entire intellectual property of Boulder Dash was acquired by BBG in 2017. I was involved in that transaction only because, I guess, there were a lot of prior agreements that more or less had to be dovetailed into that transaction. But yeah, the intellectual property is now BBG’s, and I’m no longer really officially involved, although informally there has been a lot of communication between myself and BBG. And in fact, BBG came out with a new version a couple of years ago called Boulder Dash Deluxe for which I developed one of the worlds. I’ve kind of been consulting informally on the directions in which they’re going, but it’s really informal. So there we go. I’m in touch, but it’s more or less a brand new product in new hands.
In public sometimes it seems that you are reduced to the game Boulder Dash. Is it a curse or a blessing for you? Are you proud of Boulder Dash till now or do you think “Oh, I did a lot of more things like Boulder Dash”?
I think this is a common thing for everybody, any creative person. There is something they made years in the past for which they are the most widely known and some of them complain about it, but I certainly don’t, I don’t think. I’m sort of a mathematician at heart and Boulder Dash is really mathematics disguised with some graphics. I think I’ve done things mathematically more significant. But the audience for that is in the hundreds as opposed to the millions. So I can’t complain about Boulder Dash.
If you look at all these versions. You said you would like the old versions, but what’s the version you love most? Is there a newer version you would play today or do you play only the Atari versions if you play Boulder Dash at the modern days?
Yeah, the only … I think a lot of the versions over the decades were not that good. Frankly, I think I would look at them and play maybe a couple of caves. Some, I think, were fairly good. I do think I ran through one of the original Nintendo versions for the NES. But yeah, I think the first one is still my favourite and it’s the favourite of a lot of people. I think that the new versions, you know, the ones based on … what was it? Boulder Dash 30th anniversary and Boulder Dash Deluxe. They’re based on a completely new game engine where the physics is supposed to be much more realistic and the characters are kind of pseudo 3D and the animation is miles beyond the 8-bit stuff. But it’s almost a different game. There is something about the original Boulder Dash physics that, I think, is addictive to people and they were very fond of it. And in fact … yeah, I’ll leave it there. So I think that answers your question.
Yeah. Do you have any idea how many copies of Boulder Dash, of the Boulder Dash franchise were sold over the years?
I don’t actually. I don’t know. Did you mention that you were talking to First Star as well?
They did not have a number of it, yeah.
Ah, okay. Well, they would know more than I. And so if they don’t know, I don’t know.
If you look back to Boulder Dash, were there any ideas to improve this game or is it okay like it was?
I think it was okay like it was. Like there’s only 16 levels plus four so called bonus levels, but 16 levels that each have 5 levels of difficulty, level of difficulty just comes down to maybe running a little faster and having a few more boulders to worry about, I can’t remember. But it’s essentially a 16 level game. And although that was sort of standard in those days, games would have 10 levels or a dozen. These days, Candy Crush seems to have at least 10.000 levels, so it just goes on and on. But you know, I can’t express regrets. Well, maybe I could have done caves of different sizes or maybe I could have had more levels. What I did was more or less in accord with the standards of the time, I think. And it was certainly enough for most players as far as I can tell, it was all they could do to get to the end of the game. So yeah, I don’t think there were any regrets, really. I think if I were doing this now, which doesn’t really make any sense because it’s a totally different world, but I may have played a little with non determinism. Right now the existing caves always behave the same way if the player does the same thing. It may have been interesting to kind of roll the dice now and then, and make it a little more frustrating, like even a player who could do a perfect run through a cave might be thwarted now and then because of some chance occurrence. But again, that’s a big topic and I’m not sure whether it would have been an improvement or not. It’s just at the time I was very much into the, you know, deterministic, “This cave must run exactly the same way every every time you play it.” So I’m going to say there probably are things I could have done and people will have their individual criticisms, but I’m … no, I’m quite happy with the way it turned out. All works of art are … they never finished, they’re simply abandoned, and I think I kind of let go of it at a pretty good point.
What were the most important persons you met or you worked with in your career?
One of the most important persons? I think I’m going to skip that one. Firstable, I’d really have to think about it, and I haven’t. And the other thing is I wouldn’t want to insult anybody by not mentioning them or that sort of thing. So I think I’ll pass.
Okay! What are you doing today?
I’m retired. As I said I am at heart a mathematician. So, you know, to the degree that I do work at all, it’s working on geometry, that sort of thing, geometric theory and problems, nothing terribly advanced, but you know, it’s an interesting mind. But yeah, I’m not doing anything professionally really.
And do you play games still today? Your old games for example, or other games?
Strangely enough, and I’ve said this for decades, I’m not really a gaming person. So over the decades I’ve probably played five or six games. Seems that every now and then, like every five years, I would get interested in something. I remember when Portal came out I was quite taken up by Portal, both one and two. But wow, games have come a long way since I was in there. But yeah, I’m not a big consumer of games. These days I play Candy Crush on my phone and, you know, I think “Yeah, this is really interesting. Boulder Dash would look more like that these days than it would have back then.”
Do you own the old copies of Boulder Dash, the originals, the old hardware? Do you own those things?
Yes, I do. And I’m in the process of donating it to a Canadian Science and Technology Museum.
What’s the future of Boulder Dash? Do you think in 10 or 20 years the people will talk about Boulder Dash again? Because now they talk about Boulder Dash and it’s 40 years ago.
I think you would be in a better position than I to answer that question. I don’t know. I think nobody would have predicted this. I am happy to know that … yes, people are still aware of it. I don’t know how large that community is, but as I said, I think every young programmer who decides they’re going to clone it that’s, you know, that’s a great thing. And there are certainly … yeah, there is a Boulder Dash culture I think. You know, people creating their own versions of the … you know, Boulder Dash 1 … creating their own caves, sometimes with huge, huge caves. There are people who do speed tournaments. Yeah, so there really is a network, I think, of hardcore fans who probably play it along with a lot of the other retro games. But it’s always the Boulder Dash people that come to my attention.
We own a little computing museum here in Hamburg in Germany and a lot of younger visitors know Boulder Dash. That’s what I can say. And if they see a screenshot of Boulder Dash or see the running game, a lot of people know the name.
Yeah, that’s kind of amazing. I don’t even know how they would know the name. Like would they have spent their time playing clones or … I guess these days you can just play the original Boulder Dash on an emulator, right?
I think a version was on the C64 Mini, I don’t know.
Oh yeah, yeah. Yes, right.
A lot of people played it again with this machine because they remember the old things and “Oh, that’s Boulder Dash.” And a lot of younger people still remember (…). I think that’s fascinating. If someone wants to have more information about you, about your work, is there a place, for example in the net, about you? Or do you plan a book or something like that? How could people inform about you or your works?
I do have a small website called brainjam.ca, but I don’t think it’s very interesting to a Boulder Dash fan. Like there is a Boulder Dash page, but it’s not really maintained. As I said, my main activities are mathematical. And in the maths world nothing I do is very impressive, it’s just for my own interest. You know, I’m quite taken by geometry books from the 19th century, so I’ve become a bit of a maths history nut. But I think there’s very little online. I mean, you can … yeah, I think there’s very little online that would be interesting to a Boulder Dash fan unfortunately. Maybe down the road they can make pilgrimages to the museum that I’m donating to and see some of the original equipment. In the original discs, the development discs have been converted into modern media, so interested researchers will be able to kind of trace through some of those materials.
That sounds interesting. Yeah, then we had to thank you to go through your life with us and talk about Boulder Dash and wish you luck for all your plans or the future. And if something Boulder Dash related happened again, nobody knows, please contact us. Thanks Mr Liepa for this nice interview, thanks.
Thank you, Patrick. Good to be here, thanks.