Talking with John Calhoun (part 2)

Good times.

This is the second part of an interview with John Calhoun, the author of the classic Mac game Glider. If you haven’t read the first part yet, you probably ought to. And if you haven’t played Glider, you can find a version that probably runs on your machine on John’s home page.

Chris Klimas: What was the initial feedback on Glider like?

John Calhoun: The shareware checks and letters started to trickle in one day. I don’t remember how soon, but they started to arrive. Maybe one or two a week — something like that. I recall that the checks often paid for pizza on Fridays for me and my girlfriend at the time (who is my wife now). As starving college students, I confess we really enjoyed that aspect of it.

Of course, the feedback was almost all positive. (Why would you even bother to write me if you didn’t like the game?) I think, however, I received all of two pieces of hate mail regarding the nude “Soft Dorothy” logo. A couple of people thought it was wildly inappropriate on a “kids game.” I think a few places (like BudgetBytes and EduCorp) wrangled over including the game in their collection because of the topless fairy.

One of the hate letters lost any sort of legitimacy when the person went on to accuse me of attempting to lure children into satanism. They saw the picture on the wall in the game as representing Lucifer …

Mostly, though, I got lots of nice and warm letters. I felt obliged to reply to everyone that wrote me with, at the very least, a thank-you letter — after all, I was eating pizza with their hard-earned money. It ended up taking an inordinate amount of time to reply to everyone, to the point that I started to dread getting the shareware mail. Isn’t that odd? I think back now on the whole thing and wonder why I felt so much guilt accepting their checks.

Often, though, they would ask me questions in the letters accompanying the checks. (Like how to get past the cat.) It would have been rude not to reply.

CK: Is there a story behind Soft Dorothy Software?

JC: A couple of things conspired (as usual).

The most direct connection would be to Duane Blehm’s shareware Macintosh games at the time — Stunt ’Copter, Cairo Shootout, and Zero Gravity. They connected with me for a number of reasons. The author was a Kansan like myself, and this sort of surprised me since most everything you knew relating to computers seemed to have California in the address. As well, the games had a kind of playful style and very clean and well-drawn graphics that I admired. Likely as much as anything, his games pointed the way for me and suggested a kind of pedigree for Glider.

He had a kind of logo and psuedo-company that he stamped on as a sort of signature on all his games. I think it was Hometown Software, and he had a little icon-sized graphic of a scarecrow that he used consistently. He probably meant the scarecrow simply to represent his rural setting (Ulysses, KS), but I thought of the scarecrow as an Oz reference and immediately made a sort of leap to Dorothy Software as a possible name for my “company.”

Well, things kind of went strange from there…

I was in college and a bit of a boundary-pusher, so it seemed like a rebellious and perhaps artistic thing to do to push the whole thing into the realm of the risque. A little flip of the word order gave me Soft Dorothy, which besides having that risqué element, sounded even like a good name for a band. Also, the new word order was more enigmatic and slightly concealed the Oz reference.

So the band needed an album cover …

The fairy or classical nymph artwork came from an old French engraving that appeared in a book of copyright-free artwork. I thought the engraving was beautiful, so I took the book down to the one scanner I knew of at the University of Kansas and scanned it in (it was a grayscale Apple scanner with a HyperCard front-end, if anyone wants a take-me-back). The resulting scan worked wonderfully for black and white. I touched up a few pixels in MacPaint and added Soft Dorothy Software in white text.

Whatever you think about the wisdom of my using a topless fairy for a game splash screen, I would like to at least point a few things out. My games were non-violent. The artwork was over a hundred years old and probably didn’t raise as many eyebrows in Europe then as it did here and in the 20th century.

My attitude at the time was, if you had problems with the art, that was your problem. But to show I wasn’t a complete bastard, I switched logos to the more tame Ozma graphic when I did the decidedly preschooler MacTuberling game.

CK: When did Casady & Greene (the publishers of the commercial version of Glider) enter the picture?

JC: They came into the picture when I called their offices in California and suggested to them that they might be interested in publishing one of my games.

I had just finished reading Steven Levy’s excellent non-fiction book Hackers. There is a section on the heyday of game programming on the Apple II in the late 70s and how all these nerds were living the good life writing computer games out in California. They were partying on two-liter bottles of Coke and all-night Dungeons & Dragons played among stacks of the latest computer hardware and software. I read the section enviously, remembering back to my own tinkering with Tron on the Commodore 64 and thinking that I had really missed out on a golden era.

With that fantasy still fresh in my mind, I made a call to Casady and Greene. I had seen a few of their games advertised in MacWorld magazine and they seemed somehow like a good match for Glider. So I called …

CK: How did that go?

JC: I either talked to Terry or Michael Greene — I’m not sure who. But I told them I wrote a few shareware games that might make for good commercial games. I mentioned Glider and Pararena. I told them that judging from the letters, Glider was the better bet. The person I was talking to on the phone asked me if I might send them out the games on a floppy and I decided, for some strange reason, to play it a little aloof. I told them they could download the games from a number of places and they ought to check them out.

And that was about it for the phone conversation.

For me, it was just a crapshoot, so I didn’t lose much sleep waiting for them to call back. But in fact they finally did. I’m not quite sure when — it seems like it was Christmastime maybe, 1989. It may have been a few weeks or a month since I had called them. In any event, I’m sure it would have been Michael Greene on the phone. C&G were prepared to publish the game on a couple of conditions:

First, to differentiate the shareware game from a commercial game, they wanted it to be in color. Second, they wanted more than the 10 rooms. They may have suggested 30 or so. To my mind, the house should have a good deal more even than that. I suggested to them that I would probably have to create a room editor, and they agreed that an editor would be a nice bonus to the game.

And that was about it. Since I still had a Mac Plus (which had no color), they would front me enough cash to buy a color Mac (to be deducted from future royalties). Cheap bastard that I was, I picked out a Mac IIsi and a cheap third-party RGB display.

Keep in mind that throughout this whole deal, I never met anyone from the company. I would spend the next eight or nine months writing the game, talking to them on the phone, uploading to them (via modem) beta versions, going over the finer points of the contract with Michael without having ever seen a single employee of that company. We would meet face-to-face for the first time in August (I think) at MacWorld Boston.

But before that meeting could ever take place, I still had a game to write. The fact is, I didn’t know a thing about programming color, my sound routines were… weak, I would have to re-invent Glider and add tons of new features, an editor, and a challenging house with plenty of rooms. Considering all that, it went very well, thank you.

Here’s a bit of trivia. Likely the only bits that are shared between the shareware Glider and the commercial Glider are the pixels of the glider itself. Not a single line of code to my memory was lifted from shareware Glider to be used in commercial Glider. It was a complete rewrite. Nonetheless, I always thought that every single pixel of the original glider bitmap was just where it ought to be. Since I had 16 colors to work with, I think I gave the glider richer shading, but that was it.

Color was not a huge challenge after all. And I’ll tell you something that I’m sort of proud of. Glider 4.0 (the commercial version) was a mere 16 colors. But if you look at the game, I used a lot of dithering to obtain what appears to be a good deal more than 16 colors (by dithering colors with grays, I was able to produce a number of de-saturated colors to give the rooms a more muted and dingy look).

Sound was tricky, but by spending a little cash I licensed some sound code from the author of Crystal Quest. Sound effects, on the other hand, turned out to be sometimes a little challenging (although fun).

The editor was, as I may have mentioned, more work than the game itself.

And then of course there were all the new features …

CK: What did you think about as you refined Glider for the commercial release? In particular, how did you decide how the items (i.e. the battery and the foil) would work? Was it just a matter of tweaking things until it felt right, or did you have an overarching design in mind?

JC: I don’t remember specifically how things all came together … one thing to keep in mind is that just because I added an object to the game, it didn’t mean I had to use it — or use it often.

So I think really the operating theme was variety. I would make lists of things you might find in a home and consider them with regard to game play, similarity to objects already in the game, etc.

Some ideas were nixed, like a ceiling fan, because of my perception that it would be a performance problem (a large graphic like that constantly animating).

Other objects were created to fill a niche or add gameplay. I wanted a way to clear the power-ups a player may have accumulated (perhaps to make a room challenging that would not be so if the player had held on to some reserve power-up like the battery), so I stretched the paradigm a bit and plucked a microwave oven out of the blue as a way to facilitate this. More examples: fans were created so that there was a way to push the paper glider horizontally.

And then there were the sort of wild card objects. Initially in Glider, a switch on the wall meant “turn on the lights.” But since there were more animated objects added (toasters that popped, balls that bounced), I stretched the function of the switch so that it could enable and disable a number of things. In fact, I then followed that and added the notion of a “light object” that had to be placed in a room in order that the room was illuminated. I imagined that people would come up with clever uses for the switches.

But to make the possibilities even richer, I added a timer that could be linked in. So a switch could start a timer and a timer could toggle an object’s state … firing off a toaster, for example, after a specific interval. Linked objects could also be in other rooms in the house, so that a switch in one room affects a toaster (say) in a distant room.

Other objects were just home filler or fun objects. The wall calendar (which actually shows you the correct month) was just wall dressing. The boom box that you could switch on or off (to toggle the game music) was for fun only. As was the Macintosh Plus, etc.

Having just described all these things, now might be as good a time as any to confess that I have grown a bit uneasy of late at all the liberties I took with reality in an effort to make Glider more diverse and varied. I think someone posted or commented recently to the effect that they liked Glider up to Glider 4.0 (the first commercial version), but that when in Glider PRO, you could fly outdoors and such that they thought some of the simple charm of the game was lost. Perhaps Glider had become too bombastic …

I have begun to sort of agree with that. I think if I were to follow up Glider at this point, I would take a reductionist approach to the game idea. Maybe distill down from all the various versions of Glider the sort of core of the game. I would borrow objects and ideas from both but probably toss many objects and make a smaller, simpler house —

CK: Were there any other notable ideas that didn’t make the cut?

JC: Before the battery was added to the game, my idea was that you would re-fold or morph into a dart at a keystroke. The dart would fly faster and more level. Perhaps another keystroke re-folded your plane into a helicopter and you floated straight down … anyway, it was probably an interesting idea but in both implementation (lots of tricky art to do the re-fold well) and practice (would anyone really master this?), it seemed like an idea not worth pursuing.

CK: What was it like holding the boxed version of Glider in your hands?

JC: I confess to being a sucker for packaging. That is, the shipping version felt “real” to me, while the shareware version was less so.

In fact, a box and manual weren’t the only thing about the commercial version of Glider that made it more substantive. When the game was shareware, I would work on it for a while and then release it almost on a whim or whatever. Maybe midterms were coming up, maybe I was losing interest in the game — there may have been any number of external things that coincided to where I just said, “What the heck, ship it.” And then the next shareware version was off.

With the commercial one, I had beta testing going on at Casady & Greene and they would point out bugs which I was obliged to fix. There were lists of features I had to tick off as they were completed. There was nothing arbitrary about the release of the game or when. The game really had to be done, as bug-free as possible and as whole and feature-complete as possible. To that end, the commercial version was more professional — less a rough draft.

I think too I was conscious of having a publisher. There were people on payroll so I couldn’t screw around (no nude Soft Dorothy artwork this time). Casady & Greene were paying for an artist to do the box, and another employee to help with the manual. And I think out of that pressure came a more polished and professional product.

But yeah, it was fun to have a boxed version. The box art seemed a little weak to me, but it was decent …

I think I was more impressed though a year later, when C&G would mail me a Japanese localized version of Glider. That was cool. A nice and sturdy box with a Japanese manual. The guy who translated the manual had put his “seal” or signature on the manual. I didn’t understand it, but it was cool.

Those were heady times, I guess. Glider in shrinkwrap. Translated to Japanese. A MacWorld Game Hall Of Fame award. And soon after, a Windows version … I suppose it’s too bad that things didn’t keep going up and up, but I can’t say they weren’t fun times. I’m glad I had that experience.

CK: What happened to change your mind about creating games?

JC: First, I was getting bored with it a bit. Parts of game writing could be tedious, and it was always time-consuming.

Second, a follow-on game (Pararena), a game for the Newton (Silicon Casino), and another follow-on game did very poorly. It seemed as though Glider was my one good idea. I almost begrudgingly (at first) wrote Glider PRO to more or less go back to what worked. In fact, I enjoyed rewriting Glider yet again, but it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be doing that again every year or two …

And third (and why I couldn’t keep doing Glider-style games), the gaming market was changing. LucasArts and other deep-pocketed companies moved into gaming and brought teams of artists and programmers. What a commercial game was was being redefined. Consumers were beginning to expect the game to ship on a CD (or two) with hours of cut scenes. Myst was released, and it too pushed the envelope in terms of artistry and just plain sweat and labor that consumers would begin to expect for $40. And with licensing deals with movies and the like, a little game like Glider with no big names was becoming increasingly marginalized. Glider began to look more like a shareware title than a commercial title.

And there was really very little I could do to change that. I liked working alone on my own ideas, but the winds of change were in the air, and I could see that the solo game author was a dying breed.

Now, having said that, I hadn’t foreseen the Internet as the rebirth of shareware that it was to become. It, at the time, still didn’t have the penetration that it does now. PayPal didn’t exist, either.

Still, it was a risky business and I had become a little bored.

As an example of sorts, I think for the first whole year of Pararena, I made less than I made from my first Glider royalty check. In fact, it would have taken 10 years or so for Pararena to even begin to match Glider’s first year of sales. In fact, I’d have done better at McDonald’s working part-time than to have spent the time I did writing Pararena.

And Silicon Casino? Wow …

So, one summer I enrolled at KU again for a summer course in Calculus III. I was entertaining thoughts of grad school in perhaps computer science. At some point that summer, I got an e-mail or letter from Apple Computer asking me if I would like to interview for a position as a graphics engineer. Of course, I jumped at it.

I didn’t hear back from Apple right away. Instead, I wrapped up Calculus III and, sadly, realized that I really didn’t desire to go back to college (I did get an A for the class, though). It was just as well, because Apple formally offered me the position at Apple out in Cupertino, CA.

That night, my girlfriend and I celebrated with Chinese food at one of our favorite restaurants in Lawrence, KS. I kid you not, my fortune cookie said that night, “Take the path that has been set before you.” And so we were off.

CK: Have you thought about giving it another shot now?

JC: Maybe. If I can find the time. I actually would like to do a clean Glider that is more like Glider 4.0 than Glider PRO. Something indoors but with some of the better bits from Pro (switches, timers, etc.). And better art and a more fluid sort of movement.

I have considered it. But with three girls now and work at Apple — I’m a little burned out. Maybe when I’m no longer programming for a living.

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas