Interview with Adam Pedersen - 7 November 2007
I've been looking forward to interviewing Adam Pedersen for about two years, so it looks like Thanksgiving is coming a bit early for me this year.
I like to let my interviewees introduce themselves, so could you please tell us who is Adam Pedersen, and how did you get your start?
I started programming at age 12 when I got my first computer, a Commodore 64. I made a few games on that platform, which I lost unfortunately. It would be nice to have them now, on an emulator. One was a color version of Lawn which I played on the PET, where you move a lawn mower around to clear the yard of "grass" characters. Another was an animated Tetris clone. I first started Jetpack on the C64, but didn't get very far. There were a few other little games that I don't remember.
On a side note, I really liked the way you could redefine characters to be graphic elements on the C64. It turned your ASCII set into tiles. It was fun programming on a platform with strange limitations. It feels like creating art, where you are limited by the consistency of your paint, the texture of your canvas, and your brushes. Having to invent your own clever ways around limitations makes your work more inspired, and the final product better. I think that the way games (and animated movies) are made now is too scientific rather than artistic. There used to be some fantastically imaginitive gameplay ideas coming out every year - back in the day.
So in 1992 at age 19, I found Software Creations (SWCBBS) and rather than shopping around and maybe ending up at Apogee or Epic, I took the first offer I found, which turned out to be pretty much a dead end company. I didn't know it at the time unfortunately, but if I had ended up somewhere else I would have likely created a lot more games instead of going back home trying to get a game engine made by myself and delivering pizza for years. I was working on a really cool pinball game at SWC that would have blown away Epic Pinball, but management was poor and I had little time to work on it. Now this is amazing - I don't know if anyone knows this, but back then there was a guy at SWC who wrote an engine superior to Doom (which had just come out) - it had true 3D, and you could get close to a wall and it would get more detailed instead of more pixelated, and world objects could move. So with the success of Doom, does SWC put a team and some funding behind this engine? Nope. Their attitude was, that's really cool, let's do something with that someday. Eventually SWC dropped their software line and I took it over under the name Impulse Games, but it went nowhere. I had no experience running a company and no guidance from anyone else. I ran a Doom BBS called Megasphere for a couple years, and many many unfinished projects - I'll list all my unfinished projects with their working titles for the hell of it. These are chronological:
an adventure game (Time Crusade)
racing game (High Octane)
airplane dueling game (AeroDuel)
a massive multi-purpose game engine (Cyborg/Nautilus)
a 3d engine (Dementia)
a graphical interface for BBS's (Telenet)
a full screen rotating/scaling shooter (Infiltrator)
I don't want to start any more projects I'm not going to finish! I did all these projects for fun and stopped when it stopped being fun - I lacked the motivation of knowing that you'll actually be able to make a living on the finished product, and I also lacked the motivation of being on a team. Finally I gave up on the game engine (it would have been obsolete by the time it was done), and made a dating site called cybersoulmate.com. It was there in that critical period where some sites got huge - like myspace and plentyoffish. Mine wasn't one of the ones that got huge, unfortunately it must have been lacking some key element. That went down after 5 years, and now I'm working at Xfire.
It sounds like that engine had anti-aliasing, which was used in the Jaguar port of Wolfenstein 3D to prevent the walls from becoming pixelated as they were approached. Pixelation was finally banished for good with the Nintendo 64 launch title, Super Mario 64. We've all heard of companies that made legendary mistakes, like passing on Superman or the Beatles, but at least those had happy endings. When John Romero saw that John Carmack had gotten smooth horizontal scrolling on EGA, other coders at Softdisk didn't appreciate it, but he got his buddies to leave the company and form id. When you guys were developing things that were ahead of their time, did the talent at Software Creations ever talk about starting their own company, or get snapped up by other companies?
It wasn't anti-aliasing, it was sort of like higher-resolution textures. Like a picture on a wall could get more detailed when you got close. We never talked about leaving and starting our own company, because we didn't have enough people, and we didn't have any business savvy. I didn't know any better at the time, about what opportunities were being missed. Hindsight and all that.
Jetpack is one of my all-time favorite games. I remember playing Lode Runner when I was very young, in which players can temporarily "phase" the matter in the floor to trap enemies, and you try to collect all of the gold in the room. When I first played Jetpack, it felt familiar, and yet it was so original that I couldn't stop playing for hours. The hero has a jetpack, and he can phase walls in four directions (even trapping enemies in ceilings!), and there were different kinds of enemies. The levels were sophisticated and colorful. I couldn't believe you had created 100 of them! I was pretty impressed the first time I got to a level that was full of marbles. What was the inspiration for Jetpack? Could you tell us a bit about its development?
Thanks, Lode Runner was a big inspiration, I mainly liked the little man underground concept. Also Jumpman was a lot of fun back on the C64. Other inspirations were Bruce Lee & Pitfall 2. I only created about 50 levels, friends and beta testers created a lot of them. Really we were struggling to get 100 done, and there are many that I'm not happy with. I'm working on a Flash version of Jetpack that will be playable in-browser, and for that one I want to keep only the best levels from the original game. That game will have a few tweaks like a 3d look and new graphics, but will not be the full step I planned for Jetpack 2.
I only made $30k from Jetpack over 5 years, despite it being hugely popular. Jetpack was the #1 seller out of 50 titles for SWC, and the freeware version has gotten over 750,000 downloads from adeptsoftware.com.
A popular feature of Jetpack is the incredibly easy to use level editor. I made a level that I was quite proud of, and gave it different difficulty levels by adding more and different enemies to it. Approximately how many levels were you sent over the years? Do people still send you Jetpack levels?
It's actually pretty tricky to create a good level. Jetpack fans have submitted thousands of levels. I used to put them on the website, but I don't have time to do it manually anymore. With Jetpack Flash I plan to have an online account system where you just click a button to automatically upload and share your levels online, with preview images, etc. Also the levels will be combined into mission packs - managing 3,000 levels is crazy, the mission packs will make that much easier.
In the freeware release, you wrote that Jetpack runs great on an 8086. That's amazing! What tools did you use to create Jetpack?
My college only had 8086's - they weren't exactly advanced. So I optimized it to run well on them. It was a long time ago, but I think I used Turbo C, and Deluxe Paint.
Squarez Deluxe is a puzzle game that uses pieces that are reminiscent of Tetris, though larger and more complex, and you took out the gravity. Pieces had to be arranged in squares rather than lines. It seems to be quite a bit more challenging than Tetris. Were you trying to make an advanced version of Tetris, or what other games influenced or inspired the gameplay?
It's temping to write a clone of a game instead of something original, because the fun you've had playing the game is inspirational. So I understand that desire, but I also get bored with it - I have trouble following recipes too, I like to throw some changes in to see what happens. So like Jetpack, I was inspired by another game (Tetris), and decided to use that inspiration combined with some of my own ideas. I actually like Tetris better than Squarez, the gravity was a much more fun sense of urgency than a timer. I do like the random elements of Squarez though, bombs, missiles, etc.
God of Thunder is quite an unusual game. There are some screens that involve solving incredibly hard puzzles, but there is also some fighting, and you have to talk to people to get clues. The need to occasionally push objects around to block or take advantage of traps and projectiles reminds me of Rescue Rover, and problem solving adventures like The Adventures of Lolo. Add fighting to the problem solving, not to mention a few sidescrolling dungeon screens, and there's a bit of Zelda in the game. Comparisons can be drawn to any game if one tries hard enough, but my experience of God of Thunder is of thoroughly original gameplay and some devilishly hard puzzles. What was your vision for God of Thunder, and how did it come to be?
I didn't write God of Thunder, that was Ron Davis. I did a lot of the level design, and some beta testers created levels too. That's where you get the wide variety of puzzles, different people working on the project. It's a bit messy. GOT, as we called it, didn't sell well at all, or get much press, which is too bad because I think it was pretty fun.
Ack! Now I look stupid on my own website! Okay, my question about level design still works. I hope that my comparison to the Legend of Zelda is flattering. The Zelda series is one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time. If you could go back and make any changes to God of Thunder, would you add more bosses, or add more fighting?
I know that Zelda was an inspiration for Ron Davis. If I could change anything, I would have lowered the price to $20, and put in some flashier stuff at the beginning to get people hooked. And maybe try to give all the levels a more cohesive feel.
An incredibly difficult screen in the second episode of God of Thunder. I still haven't beaten this screen.
Okay, who designed this level? I had no trouble with the first episode, but I got stuck in the second episode on this screen. Can you give me a hint?!
If it's hard, it was probably Doug Howell. I have no idea though. But there's a solution in the hint book, #74.
Okay, let's talk a bit more about Impulse Games. Your games were originally distributed by Software Creations, a popular BBS, but they abandoned their software division and you stayed on to run it as Impulse Games. You also founded Adept Software, which is associated with all three of your DOS games. What is the story behind that, and the relationship between those companies?
Impulse Games was a joint venture between me and Ron Davis. We had no publishing or business knowledge, so it was pretty much doomed to failure. The fact that SWC turned the company over to me is a testament to their own bad business decisions. But I was eager to do it — in my position, 20 years old, and president of a software company with dozens of titles! I was very proud of myself — I thought a title was everything back then. We ran several full page color ads in magazines like PC Gamer and CGW, got a few products in boxes, and worked on a game engine, until the company finally ground to a halt a year later.
Adept Software is just my own personal company, made up of the first 2 letters of my first and last names, and my middle initial.
And now the question that everyone has been waiting for! You mention Jetpack 2 on the Adept website. How is that coming? What should we expect?
I have been promising Jetpack 2 since 1995. That makes it longer running vaporware than Duke Nukem Forever! And it has been put on the back burner again — I want to release Jetpack Flash first, as it will be a lot easier and quicker to do, since I have an actual paying job I need to do on the side. But Jetpack Flash will have several fun changes. I'll list out a few of the planned changes:
A few new game elements / creatures
Levels in mission-pack form
Mini-plots, other than "get all the gems"
I'm undecided on using rendered or hand-drawn graphics, but I'll need an artist - I'm no good at graphics.
How is Jetpack Flash coming along, and when do you expect it to be finished?
I have no idea when it will be finished, I've been wrong several times before. However, I'd like to get it done in the next year.
Do you still play your own games, and DOS games in general? Other than your own games, what are a few of your favorites?
I don't play my own games much. I would probably play the new Jetpack if some interesting mission packs came along. I probably play more DOS games than any other platform including Windows. I prefer creative gameplay to fancy graphics. Some of my old favorites are: X-Com 2, Heroes of Might & Magic 2, Grandest Fleet, & Master of Magic. I also play some MAME and C64 games. More recent games I liked include Grand Theft Auto & Mafia. Oblivion is a little fun but kind of painful to play because I can see how good that type of game COULD be if someone would just do it right. It looks like they spent thousands of man-hours tweaking the graphics and barely updated the gameplay from Daggerfall 10 years ago.
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
I'm a dog person, since I'm allergic to cats.
Is there anything else you'd like to say, or anything you'd like to promote?
Not really, I'm productless at the moment :)
Thank you very much for your time, and good luck with Jetpack Flash and Jetpack 2.
Thanks, it was fun to delve into the past!
Update: Adam is working on Jetpack 2, you can following the development at Jetpack HQ.com.
Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.