Interview with Mike Livesay
This interview conducted and copyright in April 2001.
Mike Livesay, currently 40 years of age and living in Simi Valley, California is the programmer of the Apple II and Colecovision versions of Miner 2049er. He also created the "unofficial" sequel, Miner II for the Apple II. Both programs were licenced via a company called "Micro Fun" which was the entertainment division of the then, MicroLab, Inc.
He now runs a small game development company called LTI Gray Matter (www.livetech.com) which has games such as Activision's Arcade Classics (PSX), Mech Warrior II (3Dfx), Gex II (PC) and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PC) to its credit.
Q: How did you become interested in computers?
I got interested in electronics pretty early on. Built my first Radio Shack electronics kit (I think it was a strobe light) while I was in 6th grade. Spent many hours in Jr High breadboarding digital circuits after reading Don Lancaster's "TTL Cookbook". Built my first computer (based on the OSI Superboard II) while in High School - had a lot of fun building addons to it (like an S100 bus interface).
I wrote my first game for the OSI (a crude version of Space Invaders) entirely in assembly language, w/o an assembler (they didn't have one). I had to write the program on paper, look up the opcodes in a 6502 data book and write them down next to each instruction and then enter the whole thing byte by byte into the computer using the OSI's crude monitor program. It was a bit challenging, because if you wanted to insert an instruction, you had to enter the whole damn thing in again. I can't even imagine anyone being crazy or anal-retentive enough to write code that way - I was pretty driven in those days.
I grew up near Chatsworth, CA (aka Silicon Valley, South), so my first part time job was at retail store that carried ICs, CPUs, and other semiconductors. My second part time job was with a hard disc manufacturing company, where I had a chance to work building stuff for their engineers. The owner (an MIT engineer) kind of took me under his wing, so I had a chance to work with him on his various pet projects. It was a great learning experience for a young high school kid.
Q: What was your first pre-built computer and how did you decide on that particular unit?
During my Freshman year, the university I attended purchased a bunch of Apple II Pascal systems for their computer lab. I was able to talk my parents into co-signing on a loan for me to purchase an Apple II "so I could do my homework on it". I was actually more interested in writing code on it and playing games. It proved to be a pivotal purchase in my life, since my interest prior to owning the Apple was mainly focused on the hardware side of things - I really wanted to be an engineer, not a programmer.
Q: How did you become a video game programmer?
After playing games on the Apple for a while, I started attending one of the local Apple computer clubs. As was common at that time at the clubs, people would get together and trade pirated games. Thus, I got interested in hacking newly released games. After a while I found that I enjoyed hacking the games more than playing them - there was a fun battle going on between the hackers and the game developers/ guys creating the copy protection schemes. Some were very elaborate and hacking them could take weeks.
To get back to your question: After hacking the game for a while, I wrote a couple of "nibble copiers" (programs that would copy games that were copy protected) and sold some on consignment at a few local computer stores. I never sold copies of the games I hacked. I was in it for the glory of successfully figuring out/hacking someone else's protection scheme instead of profits. I also started creating copy protection schemes for various software companies for games and commercial software. This is how I first got in touch with an Illinois company called Micro Lab (later renamed "MicroFun").
While working with MicroFun for a while doing copy protection, I wrote my first commercial game on the side (a pretty terrible game called Roach Hotel) which I demoed to Micro Fun. After they saw the game, I was able to convince them to sign a two year game development agreement. I was in heaven - suddenly I was making more money than my father and having a total blast writing games for the Apple II, C64, and Colecovision.
Q: What games have you programmed or been involved in the programming of (in rough chronological order)?
Please note that some are original titles, most are ports.
Q: How did you get the contract to do Miner 2049er?
To be honest, my first few games for MicroFun were never really that commercially successful. My talents really lie more on the technical than the game design side of things. However, those early games provided me with the opportunity to hone my craft as a game programmer. With each new game I was able to develop better graphic techniques and game programming tricks. Everything was written in assembly language in those days and there were no books on game programming or graphics. You had to watch and figure out what other game programmers like Bill Budge, Nasir Gebelli, Mark Turmell, etc were doing, as well as try to come up with better ways to speed up or improve the quality and sophistication of your graphics and gameplay. It was an exciting time really.
Anyway, after finishing my third game for MicroFun, they approached me with an Atari game they had licensed for the Apple (they were actually the first publisher to license a game) called Miner 2049er. The Atari version wasn't quite finished, but I could immediately see its potential, so I put my ego aside and took my first port project. They wanted it out by Christmas, so I had like two months to port the Atari version to the Apple. I was given no source code or anything, just a cartridge and an Atari I could play the game on for comparison purposes. I spent the next two months coding around the clock (and enjoying every minute of it). I'd work from 9am to 9pm, watch some TV and then work into the wee hours of the night. It was pretty much 24/7 all the way.
Anyway, we barely made Christmas, but it was in the stores before the 25th of December (1982). What's kind of funny is that we actually had the Apple version in the stores a few months before the Atari version, which is why there was all the confusion about which version came first.
The Apple version immediately went to the top of the charts and stayed at #3 on the all important SoftTalk top 30 chart for months. I think we took top position for one month, but beating VisiCalc in sales (which was always #1 at that time) was next to impossible. I starting earning some actual royalties, which was a fun, new experience for me!
Q: What were your thoughts of Miner 2049er?
Its a great game, a classic. Bill Hogue created a very addicting design and some really interesting and creative levels. It was really a ground breaking title when its was released in 1984. It made the front cover of almost all the mags, and was voted game of the year that year by Electronic Games magazine. Bill was the reigning God of game developers that year.
Not to take anything away from Bill's genius or anything, but when you think of it Miner is really Pac-Man (which has just been release when we started working on Miner) turned on its side. In many ways, the play mechanic is exactly the same. Instead of Ghosts, you have mutants; Instead of a Puck you have Bounty Bob. More importantly, instead of dots to gobble, you have platforms that you have to solidify. As in Pac-Man, this causes you to traverse every inch of the maze within a set time limit - that's the key addictive element of the game. Of course, Miner had many other innovations, like the slides, being shot out of a Cannon, and other gadgets. But the basic game play is very similar to Pac-Man.
Q: Can you tell us anything interesting stories about your development of Miner 2049er?
One of my most enjoyable times during the Miner 2049er experience was when the Colecovision came on the market. I immediately ran out and bought one (it came with Donkey Kong and had other well-ported classics like Zaxxon and LadyBug). It was a great machine for its time - blew away the Atari 2600.
Anyway, after playing a few games I decided to crack open the unit and see what was inside. To my delight, I found that it was made from many off-the-shelf parts - no custom chips really. It was based on a Z80 and used a GI sound chip and a TI graphics chip. I was able to get the data sheets for all the chips.
Shortly after releasing the Apple II Miner, I contacted MicroFun about the possibility of doing a Coleco version of Miner and they were interested. But they contacted Coleco, who said "no third party games" and refused to give us any specs or development kits.
Undeterred, I went ahead and reversed engineered the Coleco and put together my own dev kit, based on the Apple II CP/M system. I was able to rewire one of their game carts to use a zip socket so I could insert EPROMs in them. Thus I was able to develop games by coding them on the Apple II system, burning the code into an EPROM which could be run as a game cart on an actual retail system. The only problem with this scheme was that it took like 15 minutes to assemble and burn an EPROM, so you tried to make as many changes per burn as you could. Also, there was no debugger, so if things didn't work, you debugged by saying "Gee, I wonder why it didn't work". It was a little crude, but it worked well enough to develop a game.
Anyway, I got the ok from Micro Fun to do Coleco Miner and four months or so later we released it. We even had room to throw in an extra level (the impossible to get to 11th level). We were the first 3rd party developer for the Coleco (actually we were the only one for good amount of time).
It was well worth the effort, because the game flew off the shelves and outsold the Apple version by over 2:1. Six months later I was making like $15k/mo in royalties, which was a huge amount of money for a single, 24yr old kid in the early '80s. And I did all the stupid stuff a 24yr kid would do - I bought two sports cars, upright video games, went to Hawaii with my buddies, etc. It didn't last long, but it was a nice ride and a lot of fun.
The CES (the equivalent of the E3 at the time) parties were always a blast. Every year they got more outrageous. MicroFun threw their Miner2049er launch party in the gold mine exhibit of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. We drank champagne out of tin cups and rode the mine carts through a simulated mine. Too much fun, really. Everything seemed to be going video games at the time - even Hollywood got into the act. I remember when movies like Tron and WarGames came out - it was cool to see an actors like Jeff Bridges and Matthew Broderick playing game programmer/hacker characters. Suddenly it was cool to be a Geek!
But about two years after Miner was released, Atari went under and took the whole industry down with it. The party pretty much ended until Nintendo 8-bit came to the rescue in the late '80s. The Japanese have pretty much owned the console market since.
Q: What is the story behind the unofficial sequel, Miner 2049er II ?
After the Coleco Miner, MicroFun contacted me about doing a sequel to Miner (Miner II). So I went to work designing 10 new levels and programmed an Apple version, using a much improved rendering engine I had developed (everything was software rendered on the Apple - no sprites or polys). Miner 2 used an enhanced version of the engine I wrote for "The Heist". It was the best engine I had written for the system (and the last one). Actually, I think it was the last Apple II game I wrote. The game was released to the market just as the Atari debacle was hitting the industry, and MicroFun closed its doors shortly after its release.
I mistakenly assumed that they had the rights. I later found out that MicroFun never had Bill Hogue's approval, nor the legal rights to do a sequel. However, there is a flip side to the story. The rumour going around at the time was that MicroFun had licensed Bill's sequel (Scraper Caper) and paid a large advance. I think their feeling was "Well, we paid for a sequel, so we're doing one.", but this is really speculation on my part. I wasn't privy to their dealings with Big Five. Bill could tell you the real story.
The early demos of Scraper Caper looked awesome, but never really showed much game play - just some cool animation and effects. No one ever really saw a playable level. After that one CES where Bill showed it, I never saw or heard about it since. The demo started out with some cool simulated fireworks, and then had some cool animations of Bounty Bob running across the screen and climbing up a fire ladder. I don't remember much else - there might have been more to it, though.
I'm not sure why, but it appeared that Bill kind of abandoned the Scraper Caper project - it was never released on any platform. I know he had made a ton of money off Miner Atari and all the licensing and royalties, so maybe he just got tired of game development and wanted to retire (I'm just speculating here). It's too bad, because what he had to show in those early demos looked great, and the public was clamouring after anything Miner at the time. He could have totally cleaned up on almost anything he chose to write, really.
Q: Did Microfun have any input in the design of the new levels?
I created the levels and did all the art, sound etc. It was still early days then, so most game programmers wore all the hats. MicroFun strictly published the games; they never got involved in the design or development.
Q: Were there any aspects of Miner 2049er that you didn't like and that you would have done differently?
To be honest, I can't really think of anything that would have made a major improvement. One thing that I wish I had done for all the games I worked on in those early days was to have asked for higher development budgets so I could use a graphics artist (a novel concept in those early days). I'm certainly not an artist and it is pretty funny that I could get away with doing my own art in those days. I think I could have improved the sales of most of those early titles if I had been able to find a good artist/animator. As a point of reference, the development budgets of an original game in the early '80s was like $25K; today its usually in the millions. So there wasn't really much money to hire artists, level designers, and musicians for your titles. You pretty much had to do it all yourself.
Q: Have you met Bill Hogue and if so, what were your impressions of him?
I visited Bill at his home and the Big Five offices a couple of times and he came out to my place once or twice. He was a decent guy, a couple of years younger than myself. Obviously a very talented programmer and game designer - some of the stuff he did with the Atari 800 hardware was pretty amazing. The last time I met with him he had just bought a brand new Vet and had one of the first cell phones installed in it (back when cell phones cost a small fortune). The movie Blue Thunder had just hit the screen and Bill was buying a helicopter and taking lessons. It was great to see another programmer achieve such a level of success. We never really socialised much (I had a girlfriend at the time and being young game programmers, neither Bill nor I were very social anyway). I haven't really spoken with him since the mid '80s - I'd love to know what he's been up to.
Q: What was your best programming effort in the 80's?
With out a doubt, Arcade Game Construction Kit. It took almost two years to develop and was a huge challenge. There was a huge number of features (a character creator, level editor, sound designer, etc). Each background tile had a huge number of attributes (including elasticity, friction, animation, etc). You could trigger the animation of other tiles based on collisions with other tiles. It was powerful enough so that you could write games like Pac-Man and Miner. It was a major pain in the ass to debug, since there were so many combinations of attributes that could interact with each other (talk about Chaos Theory!).
Q: What are you doing now?
I own/run a small game development company called LTI Gray Matter (www.livetech.com). We have four in house programmers and do porting and other game development work for companies like Activision, Crystal Dynamics, etc. Our recent work includes the PC versions of Activision's Tony Hawk Pro Skating II, Crystal's Mickey's Magical Racing Tour, Activision's Interstate 76, etc. We also wrote Activision's Atari 2600 emulator titles (Action Pack for the PC, and Arcade Classics for the PSX), as well as the Intellivision emulator for the Intellivision Classics PSX. We're currently working on two PC ports for Activision that will be out this year.
We've also done some internet games, including all the games on iwin.com and are just about to release a Java pinball sim for the iwin site.
Q: Have you ever thought of creating a new and modern version of Miner 2049er?
Many times and actually, I had been approached a couple of times about doing a new 3D version. But I knew that getting the rights would probably be difficult and there was lots of other stuff to do, so it just sort of fizzled. It would be fun to do a 3D enhanced version - you wouldn't have to twist my arm all that much!
Q: What annoys you most about the video game industry, past and present?
The video game industry of today is much different than when I first got involved in it, in the early '80s. Actually, the industry today is very healthy and is pretty fair in its treatment of developers (at least in my humble experience). One disadvantage for new budding game programmers is that the entry barriers to the industry are pretty high these days. To write even a short demo, you need to be up on 3D, DirectX, Win32, and a host of other technologies. You also need to be up on both C and assembly, and be able to write very optimised code. And with the detail and complexity of games these days, forget about developing a complete title totally on your own (unless you and about 10 other people are willing to starve for 18 months).
One of the biggest peeves I had with the industry in the '80s was that most of the publishers were making good profits at the expense of developers, most of whom were starving. After the Atari disaster, the publishers took full advantage of the fact that most developers were out of work, and basically transferred all the risk in the business to them. Unless you were one of the lucky few, you usually were paid little or nothing in the way of advances. Most publishers wanted developers to bring them finished games before they would pay any advances. What a low risk way to do business: the publisher could just sit back and wait for a developer to bring them the next Pac-Man or Miner and then market it using little or no advertising to their established channels, with little or no up front expenditures. The developers would take all the risk and slave and starve for months, and if they were extremely lucky they might someday make a few bucks (assuming they weren't screwed out of their royalties). I remember calculating that based on the huge number of hours I put in over the two years I worked on Arcade Game Construction Kit, I could have made more flipping burgers than I did on the advances and royalties I received.
Many of the floundering publishers during the '80s would also just downright screw their developers. I had many such experiences during that time. One that comes to mind was when I was doing a port for a publisher and had delivered the final version a few days early on a Friday. The publisher gratefully accepted my delivery and told me I'd get my final payment (which as about 40% of the total advances) the following week. We'll it turned out that the publisher went Chapter 11 that weekend and closed its doors the following week. The publisher of course knew this was going to happen when he accepted my delivery. A few weeks prior to this the publisher and one of his VPs had flown to Hawaii, stayed at a posh hotel, and leased a Ferarri to tour the islands (they showed me pictures when they returned). I never received my final payment - I just had to eat it and move on. To add insult to injury, I later found out that the publisher had sold the title for about 4x what I was paid to a Japanese publisher, so he could have easily made good on his promises. This guy has since tried a few times to start a new publishing house, but with vary limited success - he's burned way too many people. I guess there is some justice in the world.
Anyway, I was pretty black and blue by the end of the 80s, but in retrospect it taught me a good life lesson: In business, the best strategy is to trust no one and hedge your bets by seeking and nurturing relationships with honourable people; terminate relationships early on with people who prove otherwise. If the slime meter is above 25%, move on. I generally go into negotiations with the assumption that I will get screwed - that way I am pleasantly surprised if it doesn't happen. However, I should say that my current clients (including Activision, Crystal Dynamics, Uproar) have never played games, bounced checks, or done anything less than honourable during the many years I've done business with them. We have a pretty symbiotic relationship that serves us both well. I'm very fortunate to have them as clients (I know that may sound PC, but after what I went through in the '80s, I mean it sincerely).