Let’s Interview; Dragon’s Lair, Doom and Bleem Developer Randy Linden
Well, it’s interview time again here at Gaming Reinvented! Yep, after a few weeks of not posting anything, we’re back talking to all kinds of industry figures about their experience developing video games. We’ve got developers, composers, YouTubers… heck, we’d go as far as to say 2018 could be the best one yet for Gaming Reinvented’s interviews.
And no better example illustrates this than today’s interview. Namely, one with a very interesting video game developer called Randy Linden.
So, who is he? Well, have you ever played that port of Doom for the SNES?
Messed around the Bleem emulator on PC (before Sony sued the company behind it)?
Or perhaps even tried out Dragon’s Lair back on the Amiga?
If so, that’s Linden’s work. He’s been involved in tons of games over the years, on every console from the NES to the Amazon App store, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
So, relax, pull up a chair and settle down for part 1 of our in-depth interview with Randy Linden about his experience working in the gaming industry! It’s going to be great!
Starting with a bit of personal background stuff. Who are you? Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I’ve been a programmer for 35 years now: my first published title was an almost-unknown game called “Bubbles” for the Commodore 64 similar to the arcade classic “Centipede,” but other titles I’ve worked on are probably more familiar: Dragon’s Lair for Amiga (the first time full-screen full-colour animation was streamed from floppy discs on a home computer) and DOOM for the Super Nintendo.
Above: Dragon’s Lair on the Amiga was one of Linden’s first games
I’ve also done non-gaming software as well: A database program called “Paperback Filer” (later renamed to “Pocket Filer”) for Commodore 64 and 128s, a Commodore 64 emulator for the Amiga called “The 64 Emulator”, a PlayStation emulator called “bleem!” for the PC and “bleemcast!” for the Sega Dreamcast.
My latest project is “Cyboid”, a full 3D FPS that’s like “Quake” and runs on Amazon Fire devices (TV Stick, TVs and Tablets) and Android devices (Tablets, Phones, TVs and SetTop Boxes.) Cyboid has single player, split-screen two-player and multiplayer online for up to eight. The game runs well, even on low-end hardware like the Fire TV Stick.
What about your gaming history? How did you first get interested in video games?
Our school received a Commodore PET, one of the first available computers worldwide and we were allowed to book time on the machine to learn how to program, although most of us used it to play games!
The system used cassette tapes for storage and there were two or three games that changed my life: Space Invaders, Adventure (the classic text game) and Lords of Karma, but it was an adventure-style game where you could save your progress by entering the machine-language monitor and typing in a command which saved out the block of memory with the game variables to tape — when you wanted to continue playing, you loaded the game, switched tapes and then loaded your saved state and then ran the game.
Were there any you remember fondly from that time?
Sure! Here are a few of my all-time favourites:
- Space Invaders (Commodore PET) was a virtual clone of the classic game, but all done in 6502 assembly instead of BASIC
- Parsec (TI99/4A) because it improved on the classic “Space Invaders” with unique alien graphics every few levels
- Xevious (Arcade) was a vertical scroller that had pseudo-3D graphics and had hidden objects you discovered by bombing the ground below
- Venture (Arcade) had a bunch of “rooms” with unique monsters which required different strategies to defeat
- Dragon’s Lair (Arcade) used a laser disc to show a video instead of using graphics — the controls and timing was all pre-programmed, but the animation was awesome
- Lode Runner (Commodore 64) had unique gameplay and tons of levels
- Forbidden Forest (Commodore 64) had great graphics and one of the best sound tracks on the C64
- Frantic Freddie (Commodore 64) also had an awesome sound track
- Sword of Sodan (Amiga) because of the massive animated characters (as tall as the full screen), a programming achievement at the time
- Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation) had awesome gameplay, great graphics and sound, tons of challenges and unique gameplay throughout
- Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64) for the real 3D graphics and immense levels
- DOOM (PC) a “hall of fame classic” that introduced network gameplay to the world
- Quake (PC) another true classic that brought 3D to PC all done in software
And how did you get started in video game development anyway? Did you want to make games from a young age?/
I was always fascinated by arcade games — the graphics, sounds and gameplay — much more than winning, and that drove me to play more and more so I could see what the next was like!
The first game I wrote was called “Barriers” on the Commodore PET — it was really simple: a vertical wall starts at the left side of the screen and moves to the right where there’s a space ship you control. You can move all around the screen and shoot a laser to blast a hole in the wall as it’s moving closer. If you make a big enough hole for the wall to pass by without touching your ship, the next wall was a little bit faster.
Over time, my programming focus changed to projects which presented unique technical challenges, often in the category of “that can’t be done” for various reasons (hardware, software, CPU speed, memory, etc.)
Onto your game development history now. What was the first game you ever created? Did you work on anything interesting before Datastorm for the Amiga?
When the Commodore 64 was released there was a bundle that included the monitor, computer and a desk to put everyone on. My mom bought me that one year for my birthday and I wrote my first “professional” game called “Bubbles”, a clone of the arcade classic “Centipede.” — I say “professional” because it was actually published by a company and I was paid for it!
There was a start-up company in Toronto called “Syntax Software” that had just released a game called “Cyclons” which was available at the local computer store. I looked up the company and the owner’s name was “Randy”, so I knew fate was calling! So I called the owner and arranged a meeting. I worked at Syntax part-time for a few months doing various programming jobs and eventually demo’d “Bubbles” … and the rest is history!
How did you get involved with Visionary Design Technologies anyway?
VDT was a start-up that I founded and ran from my mom’s basement — VDT’s first title was “Dragons’s Lair” for the Amiga.
I had always been fascinated by “Dragon’s Lair” and one day I started calling companies which sold arcade games to track down the laser disc from the game.
I rented a laser disc player and used the “Sunrize Industries” digitizer to scan some of the images — the digitizer used coloured filters and required three passes for each frame of animation.
Eventually I contacted the company which made the digitizer and told them about the project …
They sent a prototype of their next-gen digitizer which could scan images much faster and didn’t require any filters. Many years later, another company was started by the same owner of “New Horizons” — that company is “Roku” — cool, eh?
What about Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media? Seems like quite a jump going from Datastorm to Dragon’s Lair here…
Actually, Dragon’s Lair was done about a year before DataStorm — and Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media was founded after they saw a demo of Dragon’s Lair.
Dragon’s Lair was one of those “impossible” games that I knew was possible on the Amiga because of its unique hardware capabilities — the game required took a huge amount of work, but it achieved a milestone for gaming and home computers in general.
Here’s something interesting: The game requires six disks to fit all of the graphics and sound data, but the entire program is only 8K bytes — yes, eight kilobytes total!
Did you ever meet Don Bluth himself? How closely did your team work with him on the project?
I’ve never had the pleasure of speaking with, or meeting, Don Bluth.
Sullivan Bluth was largely “hands-off” on the project.
Either way, it seems the game was released on pretty much every system under the sun at one point. So how would you compare the Amiga version to the other home computer ports, or the versions for various video game consoles of the time?
The only versions of the game that I wrote were on the Amiga, “Dragon’s Lair” and “Dragon’s Lair: Escape from Singe’s Castle.”
Almost all of the other versions were done by “David Foster”, an incredible programmer at a company called “ReadySoft” that he founded.
It was many years later that I realized David was the single-most influential programmer in my life — his skill, talent and drive taught me early-on how to do things “right.”
After Dragon’s Lair and its sequel, it seems you worked on Home Alone for the NES. How was it working on that title? It’s certainly not been the best received game for the platform.
Home Alone had some fairly nice technical aspects (for example, full-screen graphics that required precisely timed interrupts to swap character sets as the raster was drawing the screen), but you’re absolutely right about the reception; unfortunately, many people didn’t like the gameplay and overall difficulty of the game.
What inspired the game’s design? It’s not often you see stealth style games on the NES…
We wanted to do something unique and different for the game while keeping with the theme and style of the movie: running around the house, setting traps, avoiding the burglars.
The gameplay was fairly different from almost everything else available, and perhaps that contributed to the lacklustre reception.
And neither has Where’s Waldo, which has gotten a reputation as one of the worst games of all time. Was it a challenge trying to adapt the books to a system with the NES’ technical limitations?
Where’s Waldo was another title where we wanted to stay true to the style of the books, but in addition to the “search for Waldo” levels, there were a few unique games as well (a slot machine-style level, for example.)
The programming was fairly complex for what appears to be a “simple” game — for example, the “interrupt-timed multiple-character set” technique was taken to a whole new level because the “objects” are randomized every time you play the game.
What about the gameplay side of things? Did anyone at THQ or Bethesda think this wasn’t working out? How did the game’s development progress there?
There were two of us working on both games at Bethesda, another great programmer “Paul Coletta” and myself.
We pretty much did everything except the graphics which were done by a very talented artist, Nancy Freeman.
Nintendo graphics are all character-based and I wrote a custom paint/graphics tool that made it easy to draw bitmap graphics which were automatically processed into multiple character sets that the game code reassembled in real-time as each frame was drawn by the TV raster.
Regardless of that, it seems quite a few YouTubers have made critical videos about it, like the Angry Video Game Nerd. Did you ever watch any of these videos? Or any others based on games you were involved in?
I’ve never seen any of the videos — but I’ll have to take a look now that I know they’re out there!
Interestingly, it seems those games were by Bethesda, the same company responsible for the Elder Scrolls and Fallout. What was it like working there back in the 1990s? Was the company very different before they moved to RPGs and PC games in general?
When I worked at Bethesda their major title was “Wayne Gretzky’s Hockey” and it was only just before I left that they started working on RPGs in general.
Here’s another interesting fact: I ported Wayne Gretzky’s Hockey to the SNES in six weeks — the full game was operational including the team management aspects, but it was never released.
Moving onto Doom now. Were you thrilled to be working on a port of such an influential game?
DOOM was a truly ground-breaking title and I wanted to make it possible for gamers without a PC to play the game, too.
DOOM on the Super Nintendo was another one of those programming challenges that I knew could be accomplished.
And what was it like being a programmer on the project? What challenges did you have to overcome to get it working on the SNES?
I started the project independently and demo’d it to Sculptured Software when I had a fully operational prototype running. A bunch of people at Sculptured helped complete the game so it could be released in time for the holidays.
The development was challenging for a few reasons, notably there were no development systems for the SuperFX chip at the time. I wrote a complete set of tools — assembler, linker and debugger — before I could even start on the game itself.
The development hardware was a hacked-up StarFox cartridge (because it included the SuperFX chip) and a modified pair of game controllers that were plugged into both SNES ports and connected to the Amiga’s parallel port. A serial protocol was used to communicate between the two for downloading code, setting breakpoints, inspecting memory, etc.
Any features you wish you’d wanted to include but couldn’t get working here?
Sure! More levels for starters — Unfortunately, the game used the largest capacity ROM available and filled it almost completely. I vaguely recall there were roughly 16 bytes free, so there wasn’t any more space available anyway!
However, I did manage to include support for the SuperScope, Mouse and XBand modem! … Yes, you could actually play against someone online!
Did Nintendo try and censor the game a lot? Because I hear various hell references were removed in this port…
Everyone was expecting a hard time getting the game approved, but Nintendo was very easy to work with and had very few requirements beyond the “blood” not being red.
Either way, it was an impressive port regardless of any changes, and showed the potential of FPS games on the system. So, did anyone ever consider porting Doom 2 to the SNES as well?
Thanks so much for the compliment, I really appreciate it!
Sadly, I don’t recall anyone suggesting a “DOOM 2” for the SNES, but it would have been nice!
After Doom, it seems you get involved in a project called Bleem!, which was an emulator that could play PlayStation games on the PC. How did that idea come about? After all, it’s not often that emulators are made by actual companies…
Bleem! was another one of those projects that presented a huge technical challenge that I couldn’t resist — it was right at the beginning of 3D hardware on the PC along with Direct 3D
When I had an early prototype operational, I was contacted by “David Herpolsheimer” who was interested in the project and would become my partner as we created the company and launched the product.
Wrapping Up Part 1…
So that ends our interview for now. Obviously, there’ll be more coming soon (since hey, we didn’t even start to cover Bleem’s situation or Linden’s latest mobile game at all), but for now, it’s over.
And you know what?
It really makes us remember something important about all those old games we’ve seen discussed online. The licensed titles that the likes of the AVGN or other caustic critics review harshly on YouTube…
Namely, that they’re not all low effort productions. Oh sure, some are (with examples from Wii shovelware makers and Steam asset flippers being rather notorious here), but many are indeed ambitious titles the developers had a lot of hope for. Home Alone was an interesting stealth type game on the NES, even if the system wasn’t best suited for it. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tried something creative with the dual worlds gameplay, despite said mechanics not turning out to be all that fun in the end. Heck, even Superman 64 was trying to be the GTA or Arkham Asylum of its time. It just got buried by executive meddling, a poor schedule, tons of bugs and a setup that was simply beyond its creators’ capabilities.
And it’s worth remembering that. Every game has its own story, and the difference between a successful one and a failure is often much smaller than you think. Even in cases where a developer has made dozens of great games. After all, who’d have thought Home Alone and Where’s Waldo would be tech showcases? Or that their development would be as interesting as that of Doom or Dragon’s Lair?
Not us, that’s for sure!
So check out all kinds of games for your articles. Interview not just mainstream devs, but lesser known ones too.
Because for every Miyamoto, there are thousands of lesser known stories waiting to be told.
As for us? We’ll be back later with part 2 of this interview. Until then, good night and we wish you a happy new year! Thanks for the interview Mr Linden, it’s been great.