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Lode Runner

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Brian K. W. Hook

Apr 7, 1991, 12:47:33 PM4/7/91
Sorry about the previous null messages...RN was being a tad temperamental.

This is the mailing that Rick sent me (hope you don't mind Rick :-) but I
got enough responses to justify a post of this one, and since he did a mass
mailing I assumed he wouldn't mind a tad bit more exposure.

---------------------- Message starts here -------------------------------

Hi Folks,

Thanks for all of the positive feedback on my recent article about
Lode Runner. I almost posted earlier when the discussion started,
but I was a new BB user then and felt intimidated.

The most common request was for historical information about Lode
Runner (doesn't anyone want to hear about my games? sigh). The
article title I gave was fictitious. Sorry I didn't make that
clearer. What follows is more historical than technical. The
uninterested reader may stop at the dashed line. I will follow up
with individual responses to technical questions next week.

Without trying to be too longwinded...
The person most responsible for the development of Lode Runner was
Doug Smith. He and I both lived with our parents in Renton,
Washington, and commuted to school at the University of Washington
in Seattle. Doug attempted to get into the Computer Science
Department twice before settling on a Physics major. Later, I was
accepted to the Computer Science Department, but guess which one
of us became a millionaire. Doug eventually dropped out of college
in the wake of Lode Runner's success.

The earliest version of Lode Runner was written in Fortran on the
University's VAX 1. It was called Kong because of its similarities
to Donkey Kong. Since developing video games was not authorized
use of the University's resources, it was known as "graph" until
its completion. "graph" would prompt the user for a function, then
crap out unless the secret password was entered to play Kong. The
secret password became common knowledge among students, so a "show
process" command would often report 80% of the users running "graph".

The only coauthor of Kong was James Bratsanos (or something like that,
I never met him). He contributed about 15% of the total man hours to
the development of the Fortran version and 0% to later versions.

Kong worked on ASCII terminals. The bricks were solid block characters,
the player was a dollar sign, and the bad guys were paragraph symbols.
A paragraph symbol is basically a backwards capitol P with a double
vertical line. Everyone thought they looked like cobras, and referred
to them as snakes. The player bounced along rapidly and was hard to
control. You had to hit the space bar to make him stop moving.

The next version was called Miner. It was developed in Doug's bedroom
in 6502 Assembly Language on an Apple II+ borrowed from Mark Ledbury.
It was also Mark who prodded Doug to finish the game. Doug originally
wanted to keep the bad guys as snakes, slithering around the screen.
The most notorious "feature" of this version is the lack of inter-square
animation (the topic of my article). Doug had stolen the four frame
running man sequence from Dan Gorlin's Choplifter game, but still moved
the man by leaps and bounds around the screen. It looked like he was ice

Doug submitted Miner to four video game marketing companies: Broderbund,
Electronic Arts, Sirius Software, and Epyx. Broderbund offered him
an advance of $10,000 and 23% royalties on gross sales. One of the
others offered him $100,000 flat. He made the right choice: Broderbund,
of course. Doug blamed Sirius for leaking a copy of Miner which was
widely distributed in southern California.

Broderbund gave him the advance with no strings attached other than
he couldn't market it elsewhere. To get the royalties, he would have
to complete the game to their satisfaction. This included the addition
of inter-square animation, sound effects, and a new title page for
a new name: Lode Runner. He would also have to deliver on the 150
screens he had promised.

With new incentive, Doug worked around the clock, dropping his classes
for the quarter (Spring, 1983). He wasn't creative enough to think of
150 screens (he had about 30), so he let the neighborhood kids come
over and design screens with the screen editor. He paid the kids on
a per screen basis for every one that ended up in the final release.
The game was ready by Summer of 1983.

Broderbund had an ex Walt Disney animator working in-house. For a
cut of the profits, he would design a nice title page. Doug took him
up on his offer. An in-house programmer, Dane Bingham, provided the
Commodore 64 conversion and perhaps others. Doug worked on the
conversion for the Atari 800 conversion himself. I'm not sure if he
finished it. A Japanese company even made a little known arcade
version with horrible sound. Doug offered James Bratsanos a flat payment
for his role in the development of the Fortran version. James was
surprised to receive anything at all, and accepted.

Doug's royalties started pouring in. He broke Dan Gorlin's Broderbund
record of $77,000 in one month royalties. The last I heard, he had
grossed 2 million dollars in total royalties. Apparently, he didn't
get very good tax advice, because he paid about half of it to the IRS.
With his net profits, Doug bought at Porche 911 Carrera, a Bayliner
speedboat, a house in Issaquah, and a wife (as a colleague once joked).

With the money going out so fast, Doug realized that he didn't have enough
to retire on. He started his own company called QAD. It stood for
Quick And Dirty, but he was prepared to say Quality And Diversity if
he felt someone couldn't handle the real name. He and his two partners,
Chip Bulkeley and Mark Ledbury, soon began another project named Ralph.
It was to be one of the first video games to utilize double-hires Apple II
hardware. Mark just did the graphics. Chip ended up doing more work
than Doug and insisted on renegotiating their split before proceeding.
The project became more and more overdue and was eventually scrapped.
Doug went back to making new and improved versions of Lode Runner, his
bread and butter. I haven't heard from him since.

Anyone still reading? That's about all I can handle for today. There
were plenty of other video game programmers in Renton and the greater
Seattle area, but with lower profiles. It was eerie how we all seemed
to know each other.


Rick LaMont

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