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Interview with Allen Pilgrim - 27 April 2015

Started on 31 December 2010, I'm pleased to finally be able to share this interview with the surprisingly versatile Allen Pilgrim!

Allen Pilgrim
Allen Pilgrim

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

Hi my name is Allen Pilgrim. I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, CA. I love the ocean and spent many days body surfing, boogie boarding and sunbathing. I also was big into dirt bikes and had fun riding up the steepest hills and taking daring jumps. Currently I live on a couple acres in the country in the beautiful Willamette Valley in Oregon with my wife of nearly 26 years and my two boys.

Hobbies include music: I play piano, keyboards, trombone, some guitar and a few other instruments. I also sing. I am a magician and escape artist. I have produced and performed in some big stage shows. Our family is into geocaching and we have had many fun adventures together. I also water ski, snow ski, ride horses and have done parasailing, hang gliding and skydiving. Camping, cave exploration and anything outdoors is what I love. I'm an avid photographer and own my own video business where I've created hundreds of projects. There are many other things I enjoy but that's all for now.

My profession is Network Administrator and I have done that for two decades. I started learning about computers when I was 12 and my dad took me with him to UCSC so I could earn my Computer Merit Badge in the Scouts. That was 1972. I learned how to program COBOL using a keypunch. They also had a terminal there that remarkably could get information directly from Sacramento. In the early 80's I took a class in BASIC at Cabrillo College and excelled at it. In fact, on one of the games I created, my professor gave me an A+ and wrote, "Allen, you're a fanatic." He was referring to how thorough I was with my error trapping (something I wish I had done better in my later games). In 1989 I bought my first computer which had a 20MB hard drive and 640K of RAM. It had a 4mhz processor but could go as high as 8mhz if you pressed the Turbo button.

When I did Kiloblaster I had no experience programming a game and none in C. I only knew BASIC. I was playing a game called ZZT which was by Potomac Computer Systems (PCS) founded by Tim Sweeney. This was the company that later became known as Epic MegaGames and finally just Epic. ZZT had an editor and I created a game called "The City of Hope." Tim was having a game-design contest using the ZZT editor and my wife said that I should enter the game I created. I said there was no way I would have a chance. So on June 27, 1991 I decided to create a completely new game for ZZT. That game was "Fantasy" and is the one I submitted to PCS. Tim called me and said that it was by far the best game they had received. He said, "I have a proposition for you." He proceeded to tell me about his ideas for Super ZZT. He wanted me to create one of the episodes. I created "Monster Zoo." He loved it so much that he made it the Shareware version.

While I was working on that project Tim called and said he had another idea. He had this idea for a space shooter (Kiloblaster). He asked if I knew how to program in C. I told him that I did not. After his call I bought Borland's Turbo C and started studying. He sent me a two page project with some support routines. All that the code did was to move a white dot on a black screen. He told me that if I could understand this and compile it and create an .exe then I would be on my way. It took some doing but I figured it out. I then worked on moving a static "Space Invaders" sprite that I created. Next I animated it and put it in my "game." In fact, those are the "Space Invaders" characters that I put in the final version of the game. I did a few other graphics as well. Plus the voice "Prepare for Battle" is mine. Then came the hard part - I added some background blocks. I think they were 16x16 and it took 4 to make one square on the screen. I liked the bigger squares which is why I did it this way. What happened was that when the character was moved around the screen it would smear the background. It actually looked kind of cool and made for a fun "art" program. However, it was a long way from being a game. I called Tim and told him it was smearing the background. He explained that I needed to look into dual-paging. I didn't give up, I studied and studied and studied. That was the birth of Kiloblaster.

Xargon was a whole different story and an enormous undertaking.

Let's talk about Kiloblaster before we move on to Xargon. Kiloblaster is a space shooter in the tradition of Galaxian and Galaga. One obvious improvement is the ability to move the ship vertically as well as horizontally. What other improvements did you want to bring to the genre with Kiloblaster, and what were your goals for the game?

My goal was to make the type of game that I would enjoy playing. I used a lot of random timers for enemies so it would be hard to memorize the game. I remember when "Space Invaders" came out and it was so predictable and fairly easy to get through level after level after... I wanted something more like the two games you mention with Galaga being one of my favorites. I also had the goal of adding in the wingmen which was an interesting challenge. The triple fire which also applied to the missiles and all wingmen was an enhanced weapon to make the game more interesting. One other goal was to make the final levels much more difficult. That is the reason for the enemies such as the Widow Maker which is the one that shoots a solid beam with no warning. My biggest goal is that people would have a lot of fun playing. That is something we accomplished for most players.

Your next game jumped to the platform genre, in the highly beautiful Xargon. Is Xargon based on the Jill of the Jungle engine, or did you create an entirely new engine?

I had the code for "Jill of the Jungle" as Tim was developing it and since we were both working on our games at the same time I incorporated a few algorithms in Kiloblaster. The main thing was that I learned how everything worked by looking at Tim's code. When it was time to do Xargon I had created lots of new code and enhanced much of what was there. Some things were completely new, such as the code for the moving platforms. In the end about 85% of the code was mine. That's just a rough estimate and I want to make it clear that I could not have done what I did without Tim's help. He was there for me when I called and needed a hand.

Epic eventually transitioned away from Epic MegaGames — a publisher and sometimes developer using the shareware model — into Epic Games, building a business around developing commercial First Person Shooters and licensing the Unreal Engine. Were you still working with Epic during and after that transition?

I left Epic MegaGames after Xargon was released and had nothing to do with the transition. The reasons are likely never going to be made public but it was totally my choice. Let me just say that I am extremely thankful for the chance that Tim Sweeney gave me and I enjoyed working with him. He is a genuinely nice guy, very smart and generous.

Have you made any other games since Xargon? Do you plan to make any more games in the future?

I have made a number of partial games for fun. My oldest son has been interested in game development since he was very young. A few weeks ago we decided to make a new version of "Xargon" for the Android. It will be a wave-based arcade game and will also have an exploration mode. The artwork will be greatly enhanced with new enemies plus some of the best-loved ones from the original game. That will be created in Unity 5 and we're hoping to have it done by the end of the year. We are also planning a "Xargon FPS" that takes place some 25 years later and features Malvineous' son, Harlem. He's going to be more buff and have actual weapons instead of shooting from his belly button. Not only that but the player will be able to select which weapon to use. We already have all of the music for the game. This music is of a much higher quality than what we did in the original game. This game will be created in Unreal 4 and much of the story is already laid out. We hope to take the player to the world of the Blue Builders and explain that missing piece. Malvineous shows up later in the game. That's all the information I'm willing to give out at this time.

Cool! I look forward to trying them out.

Do you still play DOS games and, if so, what are your favorites?

I still play DOS games. My absolute favorite is "Xargon." What an amazing game that is. Okay, I'm being silly but I really do enjoy it. I still play "One Must Fall 2097," "King's Quest 5-7," and enjoy Everett Kaser's "Sherlock." On a side note I've been to Everett's house and made some of the levels for "Snarf." I notice you did an interview with him. He's a great guy. "Tyrian" is another really fun game. Sometimes I'll pull out "Raptor" which was an Apogee title. "Duke Nukem" and "Commander Keen," which are also from Apogee, are ones I like to pull out at times as they are still a lot of fun. As a side note they provided inspiration for "Xargon" as did "Sonic the Hedgehog."

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Dog person! I absolutely love dogs. My favorites are bigger dogs like Samoyeds and Rottweilers. I also love Golden Retrievers and Labs. I actually love animals in general and we've owned goats and llamas over the years. Horses are one of my favorite animals.

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

My son is an up-and-coming YouTuber. I had suggested he do a retro game for Throwback Thursdays and he said he liked the idea and wanted to start with Xargon. He told me it wasn't just because I was his dad but because he really loves the game. Here's his "totally unbiased" review:

You might find it interesting that I am a magician and escape artist. I have produced and performed in some big shows. I also perform for various groups and even in people's homes and on their decks. Take a look at this video I put together:

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

You're welcome. It was a pleasure doing this and an honor to even be asked. I wish you the very best in all you do.

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