Interview with VERONIKA MEGLER ("The Hobbit" programmer)

edited March 2012 in Games
This interview with Veronika Megler (The Hobbit) has been published by elmundodelspectrum.com in Spanish, I copy it here for you all in its original version (English). In the web you can read interviews with Rafaelle Cecco, Steve Turner, Bo Jangeborg, David Perry, etc.

Thanks and hope you like it.


?A topic to begin: What is your occupation at the present time? Tell us about your current projects.

I am currently taking a sabbatical from my career as an IT (Information Technology) Architect. I am studying for a PhD in Computer Science, with Professor Dave Maier at Portland State University. I am applying Information Retrieval principles to large archives of scientific data, in a project we call ?Data Near Here?. I?m having a lot of fun, building tools that help the scientists I work with find the data they need for their own research.

?How do you start programming? What was your first computer? ZX81, perhaps?

I studied Computer Science at university, and we started programming using ?mark sense cards?, which we fed into a batch computer. We had to wait in a long line to use it. I don?t even know what kind of computer it was. Then we were writing in C on Unix, and in Assembler on a PDP8. My first computer was one I built myself, from individual parts ? diodes, resisters, capacitors ? that I bought at an electronics store and soldered to a board. It was a project in an electronics magazine at the time.

?How did you meet Philip Mitchell and the rest of Beam Software? How are you offered to join Melbourne?

Phil and I were friends in the same classes in Computer Science, at Melbourne University. There were four of us, Phil, Ray, Kerryn and I, who always did our team projects together for our classes. For pair projects, Phil worked with Ray, and Kerryn and I worked together. During my last year of my Bachelor?s degree, I answered a small advertisement looking for a part-time programmer, and became I think Beam?s second employee ? I think William was hired as the first, although we never saw him. Then Fred wanted to hire more people, so I brought in Phil, then Kerryn and Ray. Kerryn wrote many of the games in Basic for the books that Melbourne House published. Ray only worked there for a short time. Phil and I worked together on The Hobbit, and on another game, Penetrator. But we?d all worked together on university projects for a couple of years before that.

?Did you have a previous interest in games before joining them or was it a completely new world for you?

Well, I played Space Invaders ? it had only come out a couple of years earlier - and the arcade games that Atari had at the time.

?Had you played any text adventure before creating The Hobbit?

Yes, I played ?Classic Adventure? on Unix; you know, the maze of twisty little passages, the dragon, and so on. But once you?d solved it once, it was boring, and I stopped playing it. So that was one of my main goals ? to make The Hobbit more interesting and compelling than Classic Adventure.

?What was the situation of software industry in Australia during early 80?s? Were you at MHouse the pioneering company in videogaming ?

I?ve been told we were the pioneering company in computer games in Australia; I certainly wasn?t aware of any others at the time. The main company I was aware of was Atari, in arcade games; but they were overseas and that was considered a completely different industry at the time.

?Alfred Milgrom, Melbourne House?s owner, entrusted you to create the best Adventure ever. But where did the idea of adapting The Hobbit book came from?

I think it was Fred who picked The Hobbit as the game. That decision was made very early, within the first few weeks; I don?t remember much discussion about choosing it.

?What computer did you first used to program the game?

We wrote the game on the TRS-80. We wrote it in Assembler, initially using a simple text editor. Then some early Interactive Development Environment tools became available, and that made it easier. But debugging was always a nightmare.

?Did you assume directly each game conversion to other platforms? What was the most successful and your favorite version?

I was not involved in the game conversions to other platforms, so I can?t comment on them. I remember the Spectrum being in the office, but we still did most development on the TRS-80, as it had better tools.

?What were your responsibilities during the game development, and what were Philip?s? Were you, let?s say, the creative part and Philip the tech one?

We split The Hobbit ?down the middle?. Phil designed and wrote Inglish, the language interpreter, the message database and compression, and the graphics. The compression meant that people couldn?t dump the game and read the messages to figure out the game, and we could use more space for the gameplay. The messages were stored as a grammar, and I?d pass to the message engine the subject, object and verb that I needed, so we could use the same ?message? over and over.

I designed and wrote what these days would be called the game engine and the game itself; the locations, the objects, the characters, how the characters played the game, what actions were possible and how they would be implemented, the puzzles, and so on. The concept was to make it general and pluggable so we could replace the database of messages, locations, characters, objects and special puzzles and very quickly have a different game, although I don?t think that ever happened. Very little in terms of actions was hard-coded, which was both a strength and a weakness ? people were constantly telling us something didn?t work when it never occurred to us that someone would try that. Other games at the time had only a few hard-coded actions that were possible with each object, so they never ran into these problems. But if you wanted to use the dwarf as a weapon to kill the troll ? provided you were strong enough to lift the dwarf, I?d let you.

The interface between us was pretty clean; you could type anything in Inglish, and Phil would take very complex sentences and feed them to my side as the classic ?take sword, kill dwarf? interaction that the other games used. But that was hidden from the player. When you entered a location, I?d call Phil?s graphics routine and his code would draw the picture.

?Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a book for kids in the beginning. The adapting work had to be complex. The course of the adventure is quite adult and has a very relevant literary part. How do you carry out this adaptation of the book content?

Well, I sat down with the book and worked my way through it, picking out the pieces that I could imagine how to program, figuring out how to set them up so that they were puzzles but that someone reading the book might be able to guess how to solve them. And then I programed them. Because The Hobbit has so much cooperation between characters in it, it drove the concept of being able to tell characters in the game what you wanted or needed them to do in order to solve certain puzzles.

?Tell us about technical aspect of character creation and how do you ?program? them.

I thought Classic Adventure was limited by the fact that it was always the same, and characters like the troll and dragon were always in the same location and only did one thing. That was something that clearly, ?the greatest adventure ever? couldn?t suffer from. The design came to me very quickly, when I sat down to work it out. I gave each character a specific sequence of actions, but every game I started them in a random place in that sequence; and the actions had random components too, so for example Gandalf would pick up a random object, run in a random direction, drop a random object out of what he was carrying, and so on. Each time the player had his turn, each of the other characters would have a turn (one action) too. And then it was a small step to have the characters interact with each other, as they were all essentially playing the game too.

Programming a character was as simple as giving them a list of actions to cycle through. You could also have ?special? actions, that only applied in some locations or under some conditions. Or, you could jump a character into a different list of actions as a ?character change?. There was one character (I don?t remember which one) who was peaceful until attacked, but then would become violent and kill everyone in sight. The interface used for character actions was the same as that used by the player. The game really didn?t distinguish much between player and non-player character, I used all the same logic and code for both.

When I first started testing the characters, I realized that the random number generator was producing the same numbers each time ? it was actually pseudo-random. So Phil wrote a random number generator that was truly random, not just pseudo-random. I remember it took him quite some time and quite a bit of experimentation before we got one that really was random enough.

Then we decided that we would add time; so if the player did not act within some time period, it would print ?time passes?, and then all the other characters would have their turn anyway. So the game would play by itself, even without the player. The characters, their interaction and the randomness made it much more compelling, and I think is the core reason why The Hobbit was so memorable and so much fun to play.

?Even today I discover new things about the game. Users report curious news too 30 years before. I once found Gandalf dead in a location, that shocked me!!! XD I think I got to kill him with Bard one time! Did the game surprise you with any unexpected behavior or situation?

Always! But that was made it fun. It was hellish to debug, because it could crash because of actions occurring in some other part of the game that you had no idea were happening ? and then could not figure out what had caused the crash. Yes, if Gandalf ran into the angry dwarf, he?d be likely to end up dead. And there were some puzzles that I?d written so that you could not complete the game then, because you needed Gandalf; but it turned out other people worked out other solutions to the puzzles that didn?t need Gandalf, that I hadn?t thought of.

?There are phrases that became famous as: ?Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold? Mi favorite is the terrific: ?You see some pale bulbous eyes staring at you...? (I hated those eyes, dying thousand times). Do you have any favorite part?

I liked the uncertainty of the game. That?s what I most remember. And I enjoyed designing the game, the structure and the puzzles, more than I enjoyed playing it. After all, I knew how to solve the puzzles!

?A 1.20 version of the game was launched, and it shows the game was really complex and that you were concerned about improving your work and make it as perfect as possible. Did this revision cause you problems between users, mags, or was well received?

I was gone by then. When we finished our degrees, Ray, Kerryn and I all moved on to ?real jobs?, as computer gaming was only considered to be a hobby at the time. Phil stayed on at Beam.

?The Hobbit caused great impact in Spain, something unusual considering it was an English adventure. English level in Spain was a problem to enjoy the game and many of us learnt it to be able to play it! Were you aware of the real importance of the game and its success? What Melbourne told us about the incredible sales rates?

I did not know how popular it became till much later. It?s really only in the past few years have I begun to understand its impact, since people like you have been sending me emails telling me how the game changed their lives, the things they learned or did because of playing the game. I think it changed other people?s lives far more than it changed mine.

?How many copies were sold? It?s told about one million counting all platforms. Is there any game in 80?s that sold so much? It?s really a lot even today.

Many years ago I was told that it sold a million copies on the Spectrum, and that it was the first game ever to sell that many. And it was never released in the US because of copyright ownership of The Hobbit there.

?Which other games were in process in Melbourne at the same time? Were you interested in its development?

We wrote Penetrator, in between The Hobbit. It was released with a game editor that Phil wrote to make it easier to write the game. Kerryn wrote many smaller games. But The Hobbit was a big investment, and took longer than Fred had intended, I think.

?Why The Hobbit engine (parser) was not used in any other game? Why not in Sherlock?

You mean why was Inglish not used? I?m sorry, I don?t know. I?ve actually never played Sherlock, so I can?t even guess, I?m afraid.

?Why did you leave Melbourne House after a year and such a great success?

Well, it was a part-time job during university, and back then it was not considered a ?real career?. And I was tired of writing and testing Assembler and wanted to do something different for a while. I love programming ? but not all day every day.

?Any funny recent story related to The Hobbit? Maybe a recent complaint by mail of any user?? XD

I recently got an email from someone asking about a message they once got 30 years ago, when they corrupted the game. They wanted to know if the message had some particular meaning, if we?d coded it into the game. I don?t think they believed me when I said to my knowledge, no, it was just an effect of how they corrupted the game.

?Last game you played?

The only computer game I played for many years was Tetrus. But it?s a while since I?ve even played that.

?Any operative videogame console or computer in your room? Does anyone play games at home?

No, sorry, I have no videogame console, and no one plays computer games here. I?ve worked with computers for many years, so I relax by doing other things. I think I played so many games during that time, it was enough for a lifetime. Now, we relax by having coffee and dinner with friends, hiking, skiing, and going to the theater and museums.

?Favorite food?

Hm, I?d have to say, dark chocolate. Preferably with some good black coffee and a glass of red wine. I really love the Tempranillo in Spain ?

?I love? traveling for pleasure, ruins of old civilizations, and visiting Spain. We?ve been a number of times, and particularly loved Barcelona, Tarragona, Majorca , and the ruins of Baelo Claudia.

?Do you keep in touch with your old mates?

I did for a while, but our lives took us different directions and to different places, and we all eventually lost touch. It is a long time ago now.

?You are so kind to talk to us, we send you our best wishes from Spain.

It?s a pleasure!
Post edited by jmvbok on

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