I just came across the news (also) that Douglas E Smith, the creator of Lode Runner passed away last week. Lode Runner was a pretty formative game for me and not simply because I played it a lot. It contributed to my design thinking in a really profound way. I wrote about it indirectly for Edge Magazine's 20th Anniversary Issue just over a year ago when I was still doing a monthly column for them. It first appeared online on their website here.
I'm reposting the article here, today, to re-present those thoughts outside of the celebratory context they were originally published under.
Toward the end of 1982, sales of the Commodore VIC-20 were in decline and as Christmas approached outlets like K-Mart were marking down prices on the VIC-20 to clear out shelf space for its next-gen replacement, the Commodore-64.
As the only child of a single, working mom, I had long given up hope of ever receiving an Intellivision or a ColecoVision, so it must have been some magical combination of my relentless begging, K-Mart’s aggressive pricing, and Captain Kirk’s commercial for the ‘home computer of the Eighties’ that allowed my mother to entertain the fantasy that her son might one day work with computers on a starship.
Her fantasy came half true – and so did mine. The VIC-20 could play games on cartridge, just like a console, but the selection was terrible and the cartridges were $80; half the price she’d paid for the machine itself. I only ever received one.
Fortunately, the one I got was Lode Runner, which is an excellent game. Even better, it included a level editor that allowed me to design my own levels and save them to cassette. Once I had exhausted the levels that shipped with the game, I began making my own content. When I tired of that, I taught myself to code in BASIC and made my own games. My first complete game was a text adventure where you were a thief who needed to get to a safe and loot it before the person in the house caught you.
Sadly, by ’84 or ’85 I had all but drained the VIC-20 of its fun. Making more text adventures to play by myself offered diminishing returns and after three years of Lode Runner, the game had become stale. My mother could not afford to buy me another computer and eventually I stopped using my VIC-20.
My last hurrah as a gamer was spending most of ’85 - ‘86 school year playing Ultima IV with a friend on his Apple II. We played nearly every day after school and finished the game perhaps three times, but after that, I don’t think I played another game for about seven years.
Twenty years ago, in 1993, I emerged from my own personal gaming Dark Age. The game everyone was playing was Doom, and while I still did not have a PC to play it on, I had several friends who did. A good many of my nights were spent hanging out at friends’ houses playing Doom while everyone else watched Aliens on VHS and got hammered. And it didn’t stop with Doom; Syndicate also came out that year, and the following year X-Com and TIE Fighter both landed. The year after that was Dark Forces and Command and Conquer. And as the decade wore on, things just got better. Duke Nukem 3D and Quake both launched in ’96, and 1997 was Jedi Knight. And then, sometime in late 1997 or early 1998, I played the demo of Thief on a friend’s PC. That was when I knew I had to have my own machine.
In 1998, both Thief and the original Rainbow 6 turned first-person shooters on their head by challenging the notion that ‘shooting’ was the important part of the genre. I played both on my own Pentium II, 300 MHz machine with 64M of RAM, running under Windows ’97. It was on this machine that I played Alpha Centauri, System Shock 2, Unreal and Unreal Tournament. By the time Deus Ex shipped in 2000, my pitiful P2 couldn’t keep up – and neither could my wallet.
And then something magical happened. I started leveraging the skills I had learned years before on the VIC-20. Not the BASIC coding skills or the Lode Runner specific level design skills – but rather the tenacity and determination to squeeze more fun out of the machine. I started building levels for Unreal Tournament, and then levels for mods. I found copies of older games – games that built a bridge back across my Dark Ages toward my childhood. I played Dune 2, Command and Conquer, Ultima V. I played Wolfenstein 3d and made levels for that too.
I used the times when I was not able to consume games as entertainment to reflect upon how and why I value games in the ways that I do. Before sitting down to write this column and reflect upon the last twenty years of gaming, I had assumed that the seeds of my appreciation for player expression and creative play were planted by a few key titles in the mid ‘90s. But now I see that, for me at least, the verbs ‘to play’, ‘to create’ and ‘to learn’ all represent effectively the same concept and that fusing these concepts is something I hope my games might do for others.
It seems to me, now, that these past twenty years of playing games, learning how they mean, and how to make them, and then creating them for others is an obvious – even predictable consequence of those three years I spent with my VIC-20. In some sense, the person I am today represents the delivery of some vague and indirect promise that Captain Kirk made to my mother. He suggested that a game machine is a delivery vehicle for content and that it ultimately supports the broadcast culture paradigm that separates creators from consumers. A computer, by contrast, can be used to create. And as a consequence, even in technological obsolescence its potential value approaches infinity. A game machine will always depreciate in value, while a computer is an investment in the future.