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Interview with David P. Gray - 31 March 2008

Shortly after the site's 3rd birthday, I looked into interviewing some of the most requested game developers from the forum. I'm pleased to announce that David P. Gray will be the first interview in a short series.


As always, we'll start with the autobiographical section of the interview. Who is David Gray, and how did you get your start?

Well, I'm not the recording artist of the same name but I did start out first! This David Gray is someone who fell into computers after leaving school and quickly realized they made the most excellent toys. I was born in the UK and started out programming torpedoes and defence systems, then emigrated to the US with my wife and continued with air traffic control and then high speed networking. Although I enjoyed the work it was a constant battle for my employers trying to stop me from programming games which were always my first love.

How did I start with writing games for a living? I noticed that in the U.S. whole departments were sometimes laid off, no matter how well individuals might be performing so I decided there had to be a better way of making a living. At least one where I controlled my own destiny. I looked for something else to do, not necessarily with computers but something entrepreneurial. At a party I got talking to a gynecologist who told me he wrote a program in Basic on his PC that someone in another country wanted to buy. It was a eureka moment! If this non-software person can write and sell software successfully without even trying, surely I, with a programming brain the size of a planet, could do better? That doctor got me started. I don't recall your name, but thank you!

Hugo's House of Horrors
Hugo's House of Horrors was not filmed on location at Maniac Mansion

Hugo's House of Horrors is a point-and-click adventure game with kind of a spooky, Halloweeny feel to it. What was the inspiration for the game? Was Maniac Mansion one of the influences?

No, I have never played Maniac Mansion so it was always amusing to see the occasional comparisons. The inspiration was the British Hammer House of Horrors movies which must have made an impact on my subconscious when I was growing up. The game that inspired me was actually Leisure Suit Larry, by Sierra. The program was called lll.exe so I called mine hhh.exe in homage. I loved that game but was amazed at the endless stream of writing credits. I wondered if I could do something remotely close just by myself. I also noticed that no other shareware games had such "large" character sprites — they were usually tiny.

You made a number of interesting choices in Hugo II. First, it's a murder mystery, a genre that's a bit less scary and a bit more cerebral. Why did you decide to go in that direction? Are you a fan of the British tradition of murder mysteries?

I guess my British background is showing again. I used to love reading Agatha Christie whodunits as a child. The murderer was invariably someone mentioned near the beginning of the book and barely mentioned again until the denouement. I think I honored that in the plot.

The second major change from the first Hugo game is that you mostly play as Penelope this time. Was that an attempt to be egalitarian, or did Penelope fit the genre better? Did fans request the ability to play as Penelope?

Yes, it was an effort to break the mold and have a female hero. Perhaps she was Miss Marple in disguise.

I figured out pretty quickly that Hugo II is huge! In the first game, play is limited to the area inside and around the house. In Hugo II, the house is at least twice as big, and you can wander a long way from the house and all the way to the city streets. There's even a huge maze that required me to draw a map. This must have been a very ambitious project! Bearing in mind the time savings from the lessons you learned and the engine you developed for Hugo I, did Hugo II take longer to develop?

I previously read about a so-called Second System Syndrome. Wikipedia puts it better than I can: "...the tendency to design the successor to a relatively small, elegant, and successful system as an elephantine, feature-laden monstrosity. The term was first used by Fred Brooks in his classic The Mythical Man-Month." Bearing that in mind I proceeded to follow the prescription to the letter. I think it took longer than the first game, even though I'd written the engine already.

Not Doctor Who, not a Dalek, and not the TARDIS in Hugo II
Not Doctor Who, not a Dalek, and not the TARDIS in Hugo II

I hate to give this away, but you even get to go to another planet in Hugo II, and there's a cameo by Doctor Who and a Dalek. He even gives you his sonic screwdriver! I certainly didn't expect to find science fiction in a murder mystery. How did the decision to include that stage develop? How long have you been a Doctor Who fan, and who is your favorite Doctor?

Nope, you're most definitely wrong there. That is not Doctor Who and the robot character is not a Dalek and I think you'll find he calls it a sonar screwdriver. Lionheart are pretty hot on copyright, I hear, so that's just as well, isn't it? However, by complete coincidence, I am a Doctor Who fan and like most children in England grew up loving him. My favorite is, of course, Tom Baker (the one with the jelly babies and the outrageously long scarf).

And a robot dog, which I notice didn't appear in Hugo II, so I see your point. Moving right along...

I like the fact that the game takes a long time to complete, but there are two areas of Hugo II that seem unnecessarily hard: crossing the bridge without dropping the matches, and navigating through the venus flytraps. I'm sure that every player has wanted to ask you at some point, "Why is this game so <expletive deleted> hard?"

You're right, of course, the bridge and the fly traps were too hard. I guess it was an attempt to make it last longer. But I more than made up for this when I added the point and click interface because with that you can just click where you want to go and the computer guides you there automatically. So now it's too easy. Can't please everyone!

Hugo III is a jungle adventure, which is yet another genre change. Usually each game in a series is more of the same, with different levels and challenges, but you go in a different direction every time. Was that to increase the marketability of the series by offering variety, or are you a fan of these different genres and wanted to have a game for each?

I wanted a complete change for each episode. To some extent the genres were decided by the names of the episodes. The first episode was an alliteration of H's and with house and horror — well that was the origin of Hugo's name. The second episode arose so that Hugo sounded like whodunit. I ran out of stupid rhyming ideas for episode three but a local computer artist called Gary Sirois was recommended to me by (I think) Nels Anderson who lived in a neighboring town. Gary was good at drawing trees so that's where the jungle theme came in. I'm simplifying this a bit, by the way!

Hugo III, Jungle of Doom!
Hugo and Indiana Jones: Separated at birth?

Hugo looks a bit like Indiana Jones in Hugo III. Was that one of the inspirations for this adventure?

Hmm, maybe subconsciously, it was an awesome movie for sure. But I think Tarzan had more of a role. I must admit I did get a bit confused about the jungle in this game. It is supposed to be South America but it kind of got transposed to Africa in my mind. Gary did point out to me that there are no wild elephants in South America. I am pretty rubbish at geography. I told him to keep the elephant in as it was a major part of the plot. If anyone asks, it escaped from a zoo.

Hugo III features a number of technical improvements. There's a perspective system that changes Hugo's size as he gets farther away from the camera, for one. If you get stuck, the game will also offer a hint. Were you able to accomplish everything you wanted to have by the end of the trilogy, or were there things that you wanted to do that didn't make it into the games?

My one regret with this game was it was way too short. Having the graphics professionally drawn put the cost up and that explains the low number of screens and hence puzzles.

The Hugo Trilogy was later ported to Windows 3.1, which added some really nice Sound Blaster music and sound effects. It also allows you to use the mouse instead of having to type commands. It's quite an improvement. You changed the names of all three episodes, though. Why was that?

Thank you. The point and click port was inspired by a game called Beneath a Steel Sky. I redid the music properly for Windows MIDI and the opening theme gave me an unexpected challenge. Originally, on the DOS version, I'd made up a melody, made of simple tones. We all remember with agony the PC speaker style music, don't we! To do it as proper music I had to figure out what the chords were to go with the tune.

I changed the names of the three episodes because, um, I can't actually remember. Something to do with not getting them confused? Or I'm thinking it was to do with licensing arrangements with publishers? This is a very long time ago!

Nitemare-3D
Nitemare-3D takes Hugo into the hypothetical 3rd dimension. Gameplay takes place inside a "cube", or Frinkahedron. Glayvin.

The next Hugo game was a First-Person Shooter called Nitemare-3D. That's a long way from a point-and-click adventure. What led you in that direction? Did you develop your own engine or license someone else's? Wikipedia claimed that the game uses the Wolfenstein-3D engine, but one of our forum posters said that's ridiculous.

Your visitor is correct, it doesn't use the Wolfenstein engine. It couldn't have as Nitemare-3D (DOS version) was released on May 17, 1994 and the Wolfenstein engine was put in the public domain much later than that (at least a year later I believe). I wrote the game from scratch as there were no engines available at the time I was developing it.

The game was inspired after I played Catacombs of the Abyss but took far longer to write than I thought it would. It was originally going to be a space pirates type game but I fell out with my artist (who shall be nameless) and started over with a new artist to do a 3D remake of my previous Hugo's House of Horrors game.

I believe Nitemare-3D did score one first — it was ported to Windows and released as Nitemare-3D for Windows on Dec 1, 1994 and was, to the best of my knowledge, the very first 1st-person shooter game to run as a regular Windows app, running as it did first on 16-bit Windows 3.1 using the special WinG library from MS. It subsequently ran on all Windows 9x and was recently updated to run under Vista.

Vista doesn't like 16-bit Windows software! Was it a simple matter of recompiling the game with a 32-bit version of WinG, or did you have to switch to a different library and do a major rewrite?

No, I fixed a few trivial bugs but it's still written in 16-bit using the same Visual C++ I used at the time and virtually untouched. The problem was upgrading the installer which I believe can't be 16-bit on Vista. I switched it to a 32-bit installer and it worked. Vista 64-bit is another story — I don't think it will run 16-bit software so no chance there. Although you could always run it using Virtual PC.

Is the Vista-compatible version only a registered version? The most recent shareware version of Nitemare-3D for Windows that I can find is still v1.8, which is from 1995.

Oops. Thanks for pointing that out. I must update the demo version some time.

Although Hugo and Penelope can meet an untimely demise in the Hugo Trilogy, all three games are appropriate for gamers of any age. Nitemare-3D has Hugo killing a lot of monsters and is clearly aimed at an older audience. Was there any negative feedback from parents that Nitemare-3D was too violent for a Hugo game?

No, there was no negative feedback from fans of the original game that Nitemare-3D was too violent. There is not a drop of blood or gore to be found in the game, the monsters are cartoonish and the atmosphere is not dark in any sense. You'll be amused I'm sure to hear that the game was actually banned in Germany in 1995 by their BJPI (Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons) and you can see it on the list to this day at http://www.cybercafe-software.com/indexlist.html. The official documentation I got from them (in German) stated it was quite obviously corrupting the youth with it's spurting blood and death screams. Hmm.

You're currently selling a game called Jigsaws Galore, which allows jigsaws of between 4 and 64,000 pieces. It allows you to do the things that people do when putting together a real jigsaw puzzle, like sorting all of the edge pieces or sorting by color. You can put pieces into trays to reduce clutter, break a puzzle into tasks, and give yourself enough room to work on very large puzzles. Once again, this is a long way from a Hugo game. What took you in this direction?

Traditional games have better longevity and accessibility. They can be just as challenging and rewarding to develop — a game can be whatever you want to make of it.

Have you made any other games?

No, unless you count all the games I wrote at work! My very first game was unbelievably bad. It was written using a very early DEC VT30 graphics computer which had colored characters which could be reprogrammed for primitive graphics. My game was an attempt at snooker (like pool but with more balls) but when the cue ball hit the pack everything slowed to a crawl. I then did quite a good Asteroids clone on a cursive system, which my boss didn't know whether to be annoyed or impressed with. At my first job I came into contact with the original Colossal Cave and Dungeon games and Hugo owes a great deal to those, naturally.

What programming languages did you use to make all of these games?

Hugo was written in Microsoft Quick C, an early IDE for the C language, circa 1989. The port to Windows was with Visual C++. I hated Visual C++ and embraced Delphi with open arms when I wrote Jigsaws Galore. The games at work were whatever was being used at the time. Fortran, Pascal, C, Ada.

I see that you've been asked before about making new Hugo games, and your reply is that modern adventure games are expected to have celebrity voices and graphics designed by Hollywood studios. I think that would be true for a new game, but not for a Hugo game. I see people begging for a new Commander Keen game, and I don't think anyone would care if it had 320x256 VGA graphics with 256 colors. In fact, people would probably be disappointed if anyone attempted to modernize the game and move it away from the traditional look and feel of the Commander Keen series. I suspect that enough buzz could still be created for a new Hugo game to get people to buy a Hugo adventure that uses the same engine as the original trilogy, don't you think? (By the way, I'm pretty good at voices.)

You make a tempting offer! I'll have to think about that. Ok, I've thought about it and the answer is ...No!

Do you still play 16-bit DOS and Windows games? Do you have any favorite games from that era, or favorite authors?

No I don't play old DOS games but I do occasionally play the old arcade games using the MAME emulator. That is seriously nostalgic stuff. For more recent games I'm into Imperial Glory at the moment, as my son is heavily into the Napoleonic wars. I am proud to say I can win the battle of Waterloo as both Wellington and Napoleon.

My favorite game from the early shareware era was Captain Comic by Michael Denio. I think that game probably inspired a lot of shareware game authors, myself included.

Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything you'd like to promote?

Thank you for your most interesting questions, I enjoyed the trip down memory lane although it did stretch my memory a little too much in places.

Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with your future projects!


All of David P. Gray's games can be purchased from his website at www.dgray.com.


Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.