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Roland Ludlam on Liight and the Hurdles of Game-Making [Interview]

walljump Following our interview with Orb author Joshua Turcotte, we turn our information thresher to another isolated game, the closest that Game-Maker ever got to a respectable scrolling shooter, Hurdles. The game is short on presentation and deep in ingenuity; it does what it sets out to, and then moves on. To contrast with that focus, its author Roland Ludlam is something of a polymath: hacker, musician, illustrator, photographer, poet.

Most recently, Ludlam has co-founded a small game design company, Studio Walljump, with the aim of producing a new puzzle-music game for WiiWare. We caught him with a dual-edged interview; come for the moldy game, and get a preview for the bargain.

Taking a shot here, and assuming that this address works. Are you the Roland Ludlam who designed the Game-Maker game Hurdles, about fifteen years ago?

Roland Ludlam: Hi, yup, you found me! I have to tell you that was probably the last e-mail subject I was ever expecting to see. It’s not every day someone dusts off a 17-year-old shareware game that takes about 2-1/2 minutes to complete. I was always way more focused on designing level tiles than on actually finishing anything.

Brings back some good memories, though — I used to adore Game Maker. I must have dozens of unfinished games collecting dust on a 512MB hard drive somewhere.

Ha, that’s swell! I’ve been pulling together as much information as I can about Game-Maker, and tracking down and talking to as many old users as I can. I know it was ages ago, but do you remember how you first encountered Game-Maker?

hurdles

RL: I asked for Game Maker for Christmas when I was 12 — it must have been in a catalog I had lying around or something. No idea which one at this point. At any rate, it was one of my favorite Christmas presents of all time for sure. That was (I think) the original version of GM. Several years later I purchased Game Maker 3.0, but most of my time and energy was spent on the first one, because at that point Windows was starting to take over and I eventually moved up to using Klik & Play, which was a totally killer game dev. environment for Windows. A lot harder to draw level tiles for 640×480 though.

So you used Game-Maker through all its phases of development. Just clarifying the point — did you move on to Klik & Play when it became clear that RSD was no longer going to be supporting Game-Maker, or was the transition already happening by the time that 3.0 came out?

RL: For me, the switch to Klik & Play was motivated more by frustration with Game-Maker’s logic & flexibility than anything else. I was feeling more and more like the kinds of games and ideas that I had were just flat out impossible with GM. The upgrade to 3.0 was welcome and improved things a little, but it still felt very 1-dimensional to me. It’s funny — one of my other “complete” game maker games was a remake of Pharaoh’s Tomb by Apogee Software, which was my favorite shareware title (so much so that I registered it!).

That’s really interesting. I haven’t seen many puzzle games made with Game-Maker. How closely did you imitate the original?

Pharaos_Tomb

RL: Truthfully it was incredibly difficult. The size of the tiles in Game-Maker and the inflexibility to change that made it pretty hard to do things like spikes with decent collision detection. It was kind of fun, though. I ended up making a game that played like the original Pharaoh’s Tomb, but didn’t actually mimic the level design exactly. It was probably way too hard though. If I can dig it up, I’ll send it over to you so I can get sued by Apogee.

Anyway, it was a serious endeavor in GM to figure out how to restrict the screen so it didn’t scroll — Pharaoh’s Tomb was based around fixed one-screen puzzles. But more than that, there really wasn’t any provision for writing sophisticated logic or control setups with GM. Klik & Play had a very intelligent and powerful logic writing system based on events and reactions, and truthfully, I credit it with properly introducing me to how programming works.

Klik & Play’s biggest weakness was that it didn’t support scrolling very well (at least not when it was first introduced), so that was unfortunate. But it had much more sophisticated collision detection, excellent audio support, mouse control, the list goes on and on. I must say I always enjoyed developing graphics and level artwork much more with GM, though. The simplicity of the palette / tile editor was just the right amount of structure. Klik & Play was a major purchase for me — I think that I actually saved my money and ponied up $50 for it. At that point I was very sure of what I needed to move ahead, and the features that I had read about in the catalog I had were exactly what I was looking for.

After Klik & Play, I started programming in Flash, and then moved onto DarkBASIC and Blitz BASIC 3D some years later. Blitz BASIC 3D is probably still my favorite environment for game development — it is the most powerful, straightforward framework. Once you’ve made the jump over to being OK with writing some code, anyway. The prototype for Liight that we pitched Nintendo with in order to get our WW license was actually written in BB3D, and it was really sweet!

I’ve got to ask, how do you pronounce Liight? Just as if it had one “I”? l337? Licht?

RL: Nick always just says “light”, so that’s it I guess.

Tell me a bit about Liight — the basic concept, and where it came from.

light1large

RL: Liight was a collaborative work that I undertook with a high school buddy of mine. We were chatting on the phone one day and he mentioned to me that he wanted to prototype a game idea that he had and then try to use it as a jumping off point for starting his own games studio and trying to get it onto a console. He didn’t realize that I’d been programming as a hobby using Blitz3D for quite some time, and I offered to help him out, hoping we could work together some.

Liight is a puzzle game that focuses on color, forcing you to combine colored spotlights together to illuminate sensors with the correct (or no) light. It seems very simple at first, but gets punishingly hard in the later levels. Nick designed the game, the graphics and the original idea, and I implemented it and provided some feedback about things and ideas. One of the best aspects of the game is the integration of music. Each sensor on the map is assigned a loop of music, and when you solve them the music is added to the mix. So as you solve a puzzle, you’ll eventually get a really good techno groove going. It’s a neat effect.

I’d say that Liight is all about a sort of soothing, fun playing experience that combines really slick visuals and sounds. Rather than anxiety provoking puzzle games, or twitchy action games, it’s more of a sensory experience. It’s also incredibly original — I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it.

I see that you’re including a sort of level editor with the game.

light2large

RL: We did add the ability to create puzzles — actually we started with building the editor feature so that Nick could even use it to design the levels that are present in “Solve” mode. Using WiiConnect24, you can share your puzzles with friends too — I hope people do that!

Lastly, we added an arcade mode called “Nonstop” which is like the polar opposite of “Solve” mode. In Nonstop, you are given a steady stream of sensors that drop onto the board and you have to light them correctly for five seconds before they disappear. If too many build up, you lose. Nonstop focuses on scoring — by lighting multiple sensors at once, using all your lights, chaining things together, you can build your score very quickly. In my opinion it’s completely ingenious, and I hope that people will spend some time figuring it out.

I’ve seen some players play for ten minutes straight just staying alive, and wind up after that time with a score of 10,000. And then you watch someone play for points who ‘gets’ it, like Nick, and he’ll have 200,000 points in the first 25 seconds. After ten minutes he might have 2,000,000 points. The subtlety and difficulty of nonstop mode, combined with it’s fast-paced heart rate raising gameplay should really appeal to hardcore gamers, whereas the puzzle mode of Liight is much easier for all types of gamers to enjoy.

What was the process like, of prototyping and pitching the game to Nintendo?

RL: The prototype flew together — Blitz3D is a fabulous language for writing games and is almost too easy. We ended up going overboard and even added Wiimote support using Bluetooth and GlovePIE, which can translate the Wiimote instructions into joystick / keyboard / mouse actions. So the prototype played exactly as we anticipated it would on the Wii hardware. Nick had formerly worked for NOA, so he had some good connections there and pitched them on it. They were really positive about it and ended up granting us our dev license.

What did Nick do at NOA?

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RL: Nick worked mainly as a interface designer. He did a bunch of menus and interface designs, including helmets & huds for Metroid: Prime, etc. I don’t know if he still does, but after he left he did some contract work for them on various projects and stuff.

From a development perspective, [Liight] presented some really unique challenges, and that was really my favorite part of it. The engine that drives it and makes it work was so much fun to design, because the lights themselves all needed to be able to cast shadows and accurately illuminate objects and determine what they had illuminated. After that was all working, I ended up re-architecting it several times because of performance as well — I found that certain operations on the Wii were much more expensive performance-wise than on the PC, so I spent weeks lying awake at night trying to figure out different ways to handle the light effect.

The way we landed on is really smooth and looks great, I think. It was also several times faster than the initial version! I’m probably boring you now, but I could go on and on about Liight — it’s been so incredible to work on a project like this, and I have been so impressed with Nick’s ability to take a simple idea and turn it into something so professional and fun to play. If you haven’t already, you can read more about Liight on WiiWare World (Nintendo Life) too. I hope you’ll get to play it after it’s out!

So what influence, if any, has your experience with Game-Maker had on your later design work?

block designer

RL: I would say the biggest influence and take-away for me from GM was getting involved and investing serious amounts of time into graphics and tile creation, animation, etc. At that time there really weren’t very many good tools (that were inexpensive) for doing that sort of thing, and without programming experience, I wasn’t about ready to start coding my own game in C. I designed literally thousands of tiles and tile sets, etc., many of which were never even used for anything — it was just fun to do. As to actual game design takeaways, I don’t think there’s anything specific that I would cite. More the fact that I learned that I enjoyed making games much much more than I ever did playing them! Still do.

Beyond RSD’s demo games, did you chance to study anyone else’s Game-Maker games?

RL: Afraid not! Maybe one or two that I might have stumbled on, but none that I can remember. Both GM and Klik & Play were pretty much lone-soldier projects for me. Part of what I find so much fun and engaging about working in Blitz3D is the community. It is incredibly active and helpful. I actually continued to solicit help with programming questions and approaches in the B3d boards during the Wii project long after I’d stopped working in B3D simply because there were so many smart and helpful people there!

Back then there wasn’t really any opportunity for community around it other than local BBSes, which is how Hurdles somehow found its way out into the world.

So you were a part of BBS culture. I figured as much, given the amazing FILE_ID.DIZ included with Hurdles:

HURDLES: Outstanding New Arcade Game!! Written by 13 Year Old Wiz Kid, Roland Ludlam! 256 Color VGA Graphics, Excellent Soundtrack, With Sound Blaster Support! Best New Game!

Did you ever dial up the Frontline BBS (which served as a sort of semi-official
Game-Maker distribution site)?

RL: Ha ha! That .DIZ file was written by the sysop to the local BBS. I interacted a little with a few of the sysops in the area and on a whim, asked if I could upload my game to the user area so that other users could play it. He was delighted and prepared that file. Little did I know it would then make its way onto shareware CDs. I think he eventually uploaded it to the Internet as well — he was the first person I was aware of having an Internet connection. He used it to download the latest shareware games so that we could get them.

I don’t believe I ever logged onto the Frontline BBS, but I would have liked to, if I had known about it. I was sort of on my own as far as GM was concerned — I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone else who used it (until now). You’re making me want to dig up some of my old projects for a little nostalgia. That will be fun!


Was Hurdles the only game that you distributed at the time?

RL: I think so. I might have released a few others, but at that point, BBSes in my area were closing left and right because of the Internet coming to town, so all of that activity sort of started to go away. I also began focusing much more on graphic design and web design, and it was years before I developed games again!

It’s a curious game, as it plays very much like a shooter — except without the shooting. Which makes it feel like a sort of side-scrolling F-Zero or OutRun. If you can recall, where did the design come from? Was it another response to the engine’s limitations?

toadsbike

RL: OK, so here’s the confession: the Hurdles idea was stolen completely from the speeder level stage in Battletoads from the NES. I’m (still!) a huge NES fan, and have to say that NES games are my favorite games. Battletoads had this great area where you did exactly what I tried to mimic in Hurdles for a short while. I loved it and thought it deserved to be expanded into more than just a tiny sub-stage.

Unfortunately, I was totally bummed about the fact that Game Maker’s map size only allowed for a short level in Hurdles before it would wrap around on itself. If I had my way the levels would have been much longer. Oh well! I put the points in because after I finished it initially, I found that people would just cheat and buzz through the level on the top or bottom and avoid the obstacles. Rather than try to prevent that and make them die, I decided to provide incentive to ‘do it right’.

Something that just occurred to me is that you could have introduced a sloping section to allow the level to wrap around to the second “floor” (if you will).

RL: I totally made a level that did exactly that! But ended up tossing it out for some reason. I think it might have been possible to see the previous area you’d passed through down below or something. At any rate, it was a good idea. Now it seems so weird that that was a limitation of the game engine. But as you’ve said, part of the brilliance of GM was that it drew enough boundaries that even kids (like me) could use it and learn to make it work. And I think that problem solving is always the most satisfying aspect of programming or creating anything, so you might as well sell it as a feature!

I’ve also got to mention the sound test, which on the one hand is an awesome touch. Then one realizes that all of the music is borrowed (thanks to RSD’s weird choice of music format), so it’s… kind of funny to see this gallery for it.

RL: Wish I could remember this. I think I did it mainly as a joke. I was just tinkering with GM and wanted to try to fake a mouse pointer, so that’s what I did it for. I know the CMF’s were cheesy, but as you said, we weren’t left with many options. If it’s any consolation to you many of my later projects (not using Game-Maker) contained original scores — I love to make music too, and feel like it’s one of the most important parts of video games (and often overlooked).

It really is. So I take it you never figured out the CMF file format? I think I only know of three or four people who ever managed to write original music in that format.

RL: I don’t think I ever invested much in the CMF format. I was mainly using MOD trackers back then, and they were so much better than CMF I wasn’t really interested in figuring out more for the CMF format.

What sorts of scores did you write? These were to later games of yours?

RL: I write lots of music — I’ve played guitar and written songs, played in bands, and so on since almost as far back as my Game-Maker days! But I had so much fun writing electronic music for Blitz3D stuff too. I sometimes wish I’d tried to do that for work instead of programming & design.

Did Hurdles ever have a title screen or story? Because the version I’ve got is lacking those.

RL: Nope. I made a few other games that had stories, but Hurdles was just really about the arcade gameplay!

Have you been paying attention to recent trends in game design? A bunch of small-scale and indie games, like Passage and Braid and Pac-Man Championship Edition, have been stripping away the last 25 years of clutter, and studying how to express ideas through simple game mechanics.

lolo

RL: Yeah, I think that this new trend is so exciting. Not to mention stuff like Mega Man 9 for WiiWare. So cool. I can appreciate what people like about huge immersive games like Half-Life, but for me there’s nothing quite like playing a round of Contra, Double Dragon II, or The Adventures of Lolo. The list goes on and on! I think that there were so many great games for the NES — a lot of bad ones, but so many good ones. I play my NES more than my Wii.

I’ve been talking with one old user who has been working on porting some of his games to the Nintendo DS. Would you consider going back and tinkering with some of your old projects again? Even now Hurdles feels pretty fresh, and could maybe stand an update.

RL: Nick and I have talked about DS development and I would love to do some of that! I doubt I’ll go back to Hurdles, though. Nick and I have a few ideas for what’s next, but nothing totally solid yet! It would be pretty awesome to remake Hurdles in B3D though — and I doubt it would take long.

You can ogle at Ronald Ludlam’s current work at Studio Walljump. Alternatively, you can download his teenage work here.

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