Lode Runner: A True ZX Games Story, E!

The 1980s were a wonderful era for new game ideas, and at ZX Games, this is what we truly love and are passionate about. Although we are not entirely sure what was going on at the time, it is amazing to think that one person could have a brilliant idea and then turn it into a game that sold millions of copies.

Today, game development is a completely different process. We really don’t like the idea of assembling a sizable team of programmers, writers, animators, etc. to make one complicated game that won’t be original but will take some getting used to. Good games are characterized by simplicity and minimalism, and bright minds are characterized by creative thinking.

Lode Runner is the featured game today. It’s incredible that this 1983 release is still in demand and that people buy it regularly. Imagine this: not a day goes by without at least one person expressing interest in buying Lode Runner…

  • Creator of the game: Douglas E. Smith
  • Occupation at the time of invention: student, major in Physics
  • Location at the time of invention: University of Washington, Seattle

Before moving to Seattle to enroll in the university’s computer science department, Douglas Smith lived in Renton, Washington. Ironically, the future creator of Lode Runner failed twice to meet the requirements for computer sciences and was forced to declare a major in physics. In the aftermath of Lode Runner’s success, Douglas eventually dropped out of college and earned a million dollars.

On the university’s VAX 1 computer, the first iteration of Lode Runner was created in Fortran. The fact that it resembled Donkey Kong led to the name Kong. The game was initially referred to as graph until it was finished because creating video games was not an authorized use of university resources. The user had to enter a secret password in order to run a graph on the university computer. It was soon discovered that many students were using graph instead of computer science because they were familiar with the password, which quickly spread among the student population.

Kong only had James Bratsanos as a co-author. He contributed about 15% of the total man-hours to the Fortran version’s development and 0% to versions after that.

Kong operated ASCII terminals. The player was represented by a dollar sign, the enemies by solid-block characters, and the bricks by paragraph symbols.

A paragraph symbol is essentially a capital P turned around and a double vertical line. They were referred to as snakes by everyone because they thought they resembled cobras. The player was difficult to control and moved quickly. The player had to stop moving by hitting the space bar.

The next iteration was known as Miner. The 6502 Assembly Language program was created on an Apple II+ computer in Douglas’ bedroom. When Douglas realized that the game needed more animation, he decided against sticking with the original idea of the enemies moving around the screen like snakes. (Moreover, the paragraph symbol cannot be animated, can it?) Still bounding around the screen, the player moved quickly. Ice skating appeared to be going on.

Douglas sent Miner to Brøderbund, Electronic Arts, Sirius Software, and Epyx, four companies that market video games. He received a $10,000 advance from Bøderbund as well as 23% of the proceeds from sales. One of the others made a fixed $100,000 offer to him. By selecting Brøderbund, he made the right decision. Later, when Miner was widely distributed in southern California, Douglas accused Sirius of leaking a copy of the book.

The only restriction Brøderbund placed on him was that he couldn’t sell the advance elsewhere. To get the royalties, Douglas would have to complete the game with four major points:

  1. Animation
  2. Sound Effects
  3. New Title Page
  4. 150 Levels

Douglas dropped his classes for the quarter (Spring, 1983) and worked nonstop thanks to a new incentive. It is said that he was not creative enough to come up with another 120 levels at the time because he only had about 30 levels. So he invited the kids from the neighborhood over to create new levels using Douglas’ screen editor. For each child who made it into the final release, he paid the kids according to their level.

An ex-animater from Walt Disney was employed by Bøderbund. He’d create a classy title page in exchange for a portion of the sales. He extended the invitation to Douglas, who accepted it.

Because Douglas was unable to create proper animation, he simply stole the four-frame running man sequence from Broderbund’s Choplifter game (hence the name Bungelings). As a result, the game’s snakes were tuned to move like running stick figures.

Under the name Lode Runner, the game was completed by the summer of 1983.

James Bratsanos received a flat fee from Douglas for his contribution to the creation of the Fortran version. James accepted the offer despite being shocked to receive anything at all.

Royalties for Douglas began to arrive in droves. Choplifter’s Brøderbund record of $77,000 in one month’s royalties was surpassed by him. There are rumors that Douglas received total royalties of $2 million. He was able to purchase a Porsche 911 Carrera, a Bayliner Speedboat, and a home in Issaquah, Washington with the net profit, despite having to pay the government a sizable portion of the income in taxes.

Douglas quickly realized, however, that he didn’t have enough money to retire on because it was disappearing so quickly. He established QAD as his own business. Quick and Dirty was the meaning of the name. Sadly, we are unable to determine the company’s mission. Douglas did not have much success with it, as far as we know. He consequently launched a new business soon after called Ralph. The Apple II microcomputer was set to get Ralph as a brand-new video game. But the project eventually ran behind schedule and was abandoned. Making updated versions of Lode Runner is what Douglas decided to return to doing.

Please let us know if you know Douglas E. Please let us know where Smith is right now and what he’s up to these days. We will reward you by providing any of our games at no cost…

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