Procedural Dungeons of Doom: The Making of Rogue – Chapter 4

Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and new friends come together to port Rogue to new generations of computing platforms.

Procedural Dungeons of Doom: The Making of Rogue

Chapter 4: Typewriters and Mainframes

Author’s Note: This story has been adapted from chapters of Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games, written by the authorIt can be purchased in paperback and electronically from Amazon.

 

Olivetti was founded in 1908 as a typewriter manufacturer by Camillo Olivetti, an electrical engineer residing in Italy. By 1930, Olivetti’s son Adriano had taken charge, and steered the company in new direction. The company produced and sold an electric calculator, the Divisumma, in 1948, and built Italy’s first mainframe computer, the Elea 9003, in 1959. In 1965, Olivetti broke new ground when the company released the Programma 101, the world’s first desktop computer, which looked like a typewriter-sized adding machine.2

Even though the Programma 101 was small enough to sit on a desk, mainframes still ran Olivetti’s offices and laboratories, and BSD UNIX was the company’s operating system of choice. One of the chief administrators at Olivetti’s United States location was Jon Lane. “This was my second job after college and during the UNIX days,” Lane told me. “UNIX was just getting out into the real world, and of course, people from universities had more experience [using UNIX] than people in the industry, so I was able to do whatever I wanted if it involved UNIX.”

Jon Lane

Jon Lane

Just like on UC campuses, BSD UNIX ran on mainframes and supported dozens of users who dialed in through dumb terminals. BSD UNIX supported multiple users by way of time-sharing, the process of carving up a mainframe’s cycles of operation among all the users dialed in to it. More users logged on meant fewer cycles for each user, which meant more waiting between actions. Part of Lane’s job entailed monitoring cycles to see which programs ate up the most time. A few months into his tenure, a new program appeared in his reports. “There was a group of people running Olivetti’s network, and Rogue came up as the number-one used [program] on the network. More CPU cycles went to Rogue than anything else.”

Lane saw no harm in Rogue since the game ate up a very small percentage of cycles during Olivetti’s hours of operation. After work, most of the engineers would stay over to play. Lane joined in happily, caught up in Rogue‘s risk-reward design. When business took him to Olivetti headquarters in Italy, he had a fortuitous encounter. “I went to Italy to install some stuff, and Michael [Toy] was also working for Olivetti as a consultant. Michael and I became fast friends. I said, ‘Hey, your game is unbelievable. We should get that running on the PC that just came out.'”

Toy saw potential in Lane’s pitch. More powerful than competing hardware such as the Apple II, the PC was becoming the platform of choice for businesses looking to adopt word processors and spreadsheets. Game developers found merit in the PC as well. Toy and Lane founded a company called Artificial Intelligence Design. Toy had salvaged Rogue‘s source code from UC Berkeley, but it amounted to a sketch on a cocktail napkin instead of a fully realized blueprint. “Michael [Toy] had the source code, but I definitely had to rewrite [a lot of the game],” Lane recalled. “We didn’t have curses, so I had to rewrite all the [text output] libraries.”

RogueDOS2

Rogue for IBM PC.

Functionally, the PC version of Rogue—titled Rogue: The Adventure Game—behaved like the original version. Aesthetically, it exhibited several changes. DOS, the dominant operating system on the PC, supported a set of characters called Code page 437, or CP437 for short. On top of the familiar array of letters, numbers, and symbols, CP437 featured special characters such as the diamond, heart, spade, and club playing-card iconography.

Thanks to CP437’s plethora of special characters, the PC version of Rogue was a visually impressive game, though still primitive. Uppercase letters once again stood for trolls and other monsters, but symbols replaced other previously text-based representations. Instead of an “@,” players controlled a smiley face. Dungeon walls were made up of solid brown bars, and meandering stretches of white-and-black squares stood for corridors that connected rooms. A yellow asterisk symbolized gold coins. The Amulet of Yendor, the object of every Rogue player’s desire, appeared as a golden ankh.

Since Toy and Lane intended to sell Rogue, they made several changes to stay out from under the watchful eyes of the lawyers who represented Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR. Kobolds and Xorns, two of the many monsters that Rogue lifted straight from the pages of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, were replaced by generic yet powerful monsters like the kestrel, a falcon-like bird of prey.

 

Friendly Rivalry

When the game was finished, Lane and Toy paid out of their own pockets to advertise to PC owners. Rogue sold more copies each time they stepped up advertising, but they still barely broke even. They lacked the deep pockets necessary to secure shelf space dominated by big distributors such as Merisel. To their surprise, developers at Epyx wanted to help Rogue carve out a spot on store shelves. Based in San Francisco, Epyx published action and role-playing games for a wide range of desktop computers. A few of the developers had tried Rogue for PC, loved it, and urged Robert Botch, vice president of marketing, to license the game for other platforms.

Botch took a look at the game and raised an eyebrow. “Rogue was a concern to many people on my staff due to its apparent niche appeal and lack of graphics,” he explained to me. Still, Botch decided to trust the taste of Epyx’s engineers and contracted A.I. Design to bring Rogue to the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga. “If we focused on more core gamers and limited our costs, we thought it might be profitable. And I would imagine, as usually happened in the business, we had a title or two that was behind schedule [leaving room in the lineup for Rogue].”

RogueDOS1

Toy and Lane divvied up the work. Since Lane had done most of the heavy lifting on the PC version, Toy, who was eager to put his new Macintosh through its paces, handled development of the Apple version. The Mac had several advantages over the PC. Apple’s operating system featured a graphical user interface (GUI) where users got around by clicking on icons, whereas DOS required users to type in commands. The Mac also sported more memory and a faster processor. A.I. Design could distinguish the Mac version of Rogue by including graphics that resembled characters and monsters. This raised a new issue: neither Toy nor Lane had art skills decent enough to be featured in a commercial product.

To give the Mac version the treatment it deserved, Toy reached out to an old friend. “The PC version still used character graphics, but for the Mac version, I drew all the characters,” Glenn Wichman said. “That was me. That was my contribution: I did all the graphics for that version. They were black-and-white, 25-by-25 pixels.”

Despite his interest in working on the game again, Wichman returned to the Rogue fold warily. After dropping development of the original incarnation of the game at UC Santa Cruz, Wichman had missed out on the exposure Rogue had given Toy, Arnold, and Lane. It was a sore spot for Wichman that he had been given a perfunctory mention in the credits of the PC version, which read The game of Rogue was originated by Michael C. Toy and Kenneth C.R.C. ArnoldAdapted for the IBM PC by Jon LaneSignificant Contributions by Glenn Wichman and scores of others. In effect, Wichman took exception at being lumped in with the nameless college kids who had suggested changes to the game during its development at UC campuses.

When a snowstorm buried Lake Tahoe under a blanket of cold, Toy and Wichman got a chance to bond. Lane and Toy had season passes at Squaw Valley. Renting a cabin, they hit the slopes while Wichman, who had no interest in skiing, remained behind in the warmth of the cabin and drew walls, doors, monsters, weapons, and quivers of arrows. At night, they wrote code for the Mac and discussed design ideas with Wichman, whose trepidation at reuniting with Toy thawed in the face of the excitement and challenge of engineering a new version of Rogue.

Wichman's artwork included in Rogue's manual for Mac.

Wichman’s artwork included in Rogue’s manual for Mac.

“The next big change came with the Macintosh version, where we embraced the Mac idea of a windowed GUI, with separate windows for inventory, map, status, and overhead view, also mouse-based point-and-click movement,” Wichman explained. A greater use of graphical elements made Rogue appear more modern. The player’s remaining life was displayed as a graphical bar that drained as the player-character—now represented by a small knight—took damage.

Snow began to fall over Squaw Valley, first at a serene trickle and then in a torrent. Inside, the A.I. Design trio fell into a cozy pattern of exploring the snow-covered mountains by day and working through the night. When they ran up against technical barriers like the Mac’s paltry amount of memory, they leafed through stacks of computing magazines in search of optimization techniques. “It was a funny time when software engineers were doing things on their own,” Lane reminisced. “The software industry hadn’t gelled yet, the way it did when Microsoft started taking out all the private citizens like us who were trying to make some kind of dent in the software world.”

The contract between A.I. Design and Epyx afforded Toy and Lane a modest sum for each version of Rogue they produced. As payment for the artwork used in the Macintosh version, Wichman was given the Mac he had used to create artwork, a payment he felt was commensurate to his contributions.3 Around the same time, Epyx offered to let Wichman helm the adaptation of the game to the Atari ST. Wichman accepted the offer and got to work on an Atari ST provided by Epyx. The computer sported a dual floppy-disk drive; no hard drive was available. One disk drive held the C compiler on which Wichman wrote code, and the other held the game that took shape over several weeks.

RogueAtariST2

Since neither Toy nor Lane were interested in working on an Atari ST, Wichman had carte blanche over his adaptation of Rogue. He turned all artistic contributions over to Michael Kosaka, an in-house artist at Epyx whom Wichman felt was better suited to harness the ST’s deeper color palette, and focused on design. Rogue‘s core gameplay remained the same, although Wichman did add in new secrets for players to discover such as the centaur’s ability to curse the player’s armor and items.

For Wichman, the opportunity to leave an indelible mark on Rogue was the final board he needed to mend old fences. “Michael [Toy] was doing the Amiga version. We worked side by side and had a friendly rivalry going to see who could come up with the better version. That started to remind people that a lot of Rogue‘s ideas were mine, and that I was a bigger part of [the game] than I got credit for. Once the Atari ST version was out, I could say, ‘I did this version. Rogue is just as much mine as it is anybody’s.’ I no longer felt bad about being left out.”

 

Legacy

Robert Botch and his marketing team took a different tack when the time came to market the handful of Rogue ports published by Epyx. “We felt the game would not sell well through our main distribution channels which were Toys R Us, K-B Toys, Kmart, Target, and other mass merchants. Action games with high graphic content were the type of titles these retailers wanted to sell because that is what their customers were buying.” Knowing that the average consumer judged a game by flipping the box over to check out the screenshots on the back, Botch played it safe and distributed Rogue through software catalogs.

Rogue enjoyed a transitory stay in the upper ranks of Merisel’s catalog, then dropped off and faded away. Everyone put forth their reasoning for why the game failed to catch on in the mass market. Robert Botch said he found the game tricky to market. Magazine advertisements were out of the question. Those demographics consisted of casual gamers who put stock in flashy graphics and shied away from gameplay mechanics like permadeath.

Rogue box1

Wichman’s gut reaction was to blame software pirates, but years of reflection caused him to come to terms with tough truths. Unlike many games of the era, Rogue had no sound, no animations, and no distinct character classes such as paladins and archers, which gave players access to unique play styles and strategies. In Rogue, every player-character was more or less the same. Plus, he, Toy, and Arnold had set a precedent years ago while at university. “The people who made it the most popular game on campuses in the early ’80s were used to playing it for free. The idea was we would give them that same experience on their home computer, but charge them money for it. I think that wasn’t the audience that was looking for games in software stores.”

For Ken Arnold, Rogue worked better as a conversation starter that afforded him the opportunity to have interesting conversations. “Michael [Toy] and I gave a talk in Boston on Rogue, and on the value of games in a work environment. It was a packed talk. Everybody was there to see it, and I really enjoyed it. You enjoy people liking what you did, and hearing, ‘Oh, your idea gave me the idea to do this.’ I really enjoy that.”

Wichman waved off Rogue‘s commercial failure and the modest payments he received. To him, the game means something more. “The total income I made from Rogue is $15,000—advances on royalties for the Atari ST version. But Rogue also gave me a career; Rogue was my diploma, Rogue was my resume. And somehow Rogue just kept hanging in there, year after year; people kept playing it, kept porting it, kept adding on and improving it. We didn’t set out to invent a genre, but that’s what ended up happening, and I feel so blessed to have been a seminal part of that.”

Jon Lane simply appreciates that he was able to go along for the ride. “PC World put Rogue for the PC as the sixth best game of all time.4 I get to say that’s my version, but not really. Michael [Toy], Glenn [Wichman], and Ken [Arnold] were the geniuses behind the game, and Michael put together the idea that random numbers would make the game different every time. That one little thing made Rogue one of the most important games ever. Every once in a while, and even now, I hear people talking about Rogue and how great it was. I never jump into those conversations, but I do hear them, and I kind of laugh.”

 

The Michael Toy

Michael Toy, curmudgeonly by his own admission, feels twangs of regret when he looks back on Rogue. He marveled at the imagination and beauty that players injected into the game, but lamented that most monsters were simple automatons differentiated only by how hard they hit. “Moria is probably the closest to what I wanted to do when I made Rogue. It’s got shops, and all the monsters are really different. When I played Moria, I felt more like, yeah, this is what I wanted to get Rogue to do.”

Ironically, Rogue‘s failure to attract notice from mainstream gamers did not keep the game from leaving an impression on gaming culture and mainstream technology. So complex was Rogue, with so many moving parts, that a professor at UC Santa Cruz used the source code as an illustration of how complex programs work.

Rogue2

Even so, it was a chance meeting at USENIX, an annual conference where technology professionals gather to discuss trends in computing, that allowed Rogue to take on greater personal significance for Toy, as well as attain a profound level of historical significance for the computing industry. Toy, attending with Lane, hobnobbed with pioneers such as Bill Joy, Ken Thompson—and Toy’s idol, Dennis Ritchie, co-creator of UNIX and the author of the C programming language. Lane recounted the story of Ritchie’s and Toy’s meeting. “Dennis Ritchie was talking to us, and someone said, ‘Dennis, this is Michael Toy,’. And Dennis Ritchie is the god of UNIX, right? So Dennis looks at Michael and says, ‘The Michael Toy?’ Michael looked at him and said, ‘I can die and go to heaven.'”

As the conversation went on, Ritchie jocularly accused Rogue of being responsible for the single greatest waste of CPU cycles in history.5 Toy was thrilled. “Dennis Ritchie, one of the administrators, had his own system. We talked to him about Rogue once, and he said he figured out how to get around the copy-protection system. One of the early alphas of Rogue that was posted up on UC Santa Cruz was discovered, and I still don’t know exactly how. Someone hacked our labs. They renamed the binary from ‘Rogue’ to ‘UBL’ for Under Bell Labs. It had quite a big following at Bell Labs as UBL, and I didn’t even know about it. All of those people were my heroes. They made UNIX, and they were playing Rogue.”

**


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Bibliography

  1. In 1965, Olivetti broke new ground: “Desk-Top Size Computer Is Being Sold by Olivetti For First Time in U.S.” Wall Street Journal. http://bit.ly/1w43xyB.
  1. As payment for the artwork used in the Macintosh version: “A Brief History of ‘Rogue‘.” Wichman.org. http://www.wichman.org/roguehistory.html.
  1. PC World put Rogue for the PC as the sixth best game: “The Ten Greatest PC Games Ever.” PC World. http://www.pcworld.com/article/158850/best_pc_games.html#slide6.
  2. Ritchie jocularly accused Rogue: “The Making of: Rogue.” Edge. http://www.edge-online.com/features/making-rogue/.
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