Interview with Everett Kaser - 6 January 2008
I interviewed Everett Kaser in January 2008, but I needed more time to research his Windows games, so I asked for more time to do the second half of the interview. At long last, the Everett Kaser interview is finally being published.
I like to start interviews with a short autobiography. Who is Everett Kaser, and how did you get your start?
I got started in gaming in a round-about way. :-) When I was in college, around 1975-76 sometime, there was a Scientific American issue with a Mathematical Games column about John Conway's "Game of Life." I was fascinated by the idea of cellular automata and the (to me) beautiful patterns that would grow from such a simple process. I spent many hours 'calculating', by hand on graph paper, generation after generation of dots. Slow and painful, to say the least. So I started designing an electrical circuit, using discrete logic ICs, to automatically calculate the generations, and display them with LEDs. I never got too far, because the cost and the labor to build a large enough array to be very useful was daunting. However, at JUST that same time, microprocessors were JUST being introduced, and two issues of Popular Electronics (around Sept 1976, I believe) had a 'kit' project to build an RCA Cosmac Elf microcomputer with 256 BYTES!!! of memory, 9 toggle switches, an 'enter' button, and two hex digit output displays. WOW! TOO cool!!! :-) I bought the kit, built the computer, eventually added a CRT 'monitor' output, then designed and build a 16 Kbyte dynamic RAM board. One of the first programs I wrote for it was The Game of Life. About the same time (actually a few years before) Pong and other arcade games were invented and were being sold in home units for your TV. So, naturally being the red-blooded American boy that I was, primitive arcade games were the next thing I started programming for this microcomputer (no high-level language, no low-level assembly language, all written directly in CPU opcodes machine code).
In late 1976, I was hired by Hewlett-Packard, and the story of my sojourn there is long, twisty, and documented elsewhere. But the division I was working at was developing the HP-85, a small self-contained (keyboard, monitor, tape drive, printer all built in) computer. I started writing many games on it, all arcade games of one sort or another. You can read more about that, and actually play some of those old games, via the HP-85 emulator that I wrote a few years ago, and which is available on my website at: www.kaser.com/hp85.html
Then the IBM PC was introduced, and it quickly became apparent what direction "microcomputers" were headed in, so I bought one for myself and started learning to program it. (I'm a totally self-taught programmer, I studied Art and Custom Designed Jewelry in college. :-) I wrote many different programs for the PC for my own pleasure and use, then during a two-week vacation in early 1988, I wrote the first version of Snarf. At the time, I didn't feel like 'finishing' it (polishing it up for official release), and besides, I had to get back to work. So I released it as freeware along with the source code. That was the last of my game programming before I became a 'professional' by writing and releasing Solitile as shareware.
In 1989 you developed Solitile, which is a Mah Jongg game, but the layout is customizable and the tileset has been Westernized. Was that to set it apart from other Mah Jongg games? When did you become interested in the game, and what made you decide to make your own?
In late 1988 or early 1989, I and another fellow I worked with discovered Nels Anderson's Mahjongg. It was a GREAT game, but it lacked a little (in my estimation). I didn't care for the 'classic' Mahjongg tile graphics, which were difficult for many American eyes to come to grips with, and the mouse interface didn't please me. There were a few other details about the user interface that I didn't care too much for. Nels' game supported loadable tile sets, so you could change those, but it only had the one layout (or basic arrangement of tiles). It seemed to me that an obvious (and very nice) extension of the game would be to allow the loading of other basic tile arrangements (what I chose to call 'layouts'). So, I started programming in spare time, and in 5 or 6 months had what I considered the 1.0 version of Solitile. The original version supported up to 10 different layouts, which the user could edit/create themselves, and used 'westernized' images for the tiles.
I waffled over whether to release it as freeware, or as shareware. At the time, I was a little nervous about running afoul of HP's "conflict of interest" rules, since I was working as a programmer at HP. But since HP wasn't in the games business, I decided to take the chance and released it as shareware. It didn't make me instantly rich (still hasn't :-) , but it did bring in enough "pocket change" to encourage me to try more. Since I had Snarf sitting around, I rewrote it, polished it up, and released the 2.0 version as shareware.
Now Snarf is an interesting game. How did that come about?
Way back when...in January 1988, I was on vacation from HP for a couple of weeks, and spent much of it writing an action/arcade game called Snarf. It was inspired by a video arcade game called Tutankham. I got it fairly functional, very close to done, but didn't feel like finishing it, so I released it as "freeware". I retained the copyright, but it was freely distributable. Then, after releasing the original Solitile in mid-1989 as my first shareware product, I was casting about for another product and decided to re-write Snarf, finish it, and release it as shareware. I thus proceeded to do so, releasing it in November 1990 (if memory serves...) It was a complete re-write (very little of the original code was retained), and the game did ok in sales even thought that was at the very end of such "primitive graphics" for arcade games. A number of people created new levels for it and sent them in to me, and I added the levels to the game, which now contains 52 I think (although I could well be off by a bunch...it's been a LONG time since I've looked at it. :-)
All of my other DOS games (Solitile, Sherlock, Hero's Hearts) I eventually ported to Windows (rewrote), but by that time I was solidy in the "puzzle game" arena, and had left my arcade-game past behind me, so I've never had any 'itch' to port Snarf to Windows. Because of that, I'm willing to let you distribute the full (last) version of Snarf from the Classic DOS Games web site, but please include a note that YOU have permission, but no OTHER sites or persons may redistribute the full licensed version (for what good such a statement will do :-) . Consider this a 'special' just for you. Here's the link where you can get it: Snarf
In 1991 you created an original game called Sherlock. I play a lot of Sudoku and cryptograms and Chess puzzles, so it was the first Everett Kaser game I ever played. It's a challenging and very rewarding game. I was trying to find some games for my mother to play and I introduced her to Sherlock a few weeks ago. Now she plays it every day. I think she owes you some money. Anyway, this is a fantastic game! It's basically Sudoku, in that only one of each item can appear in each row, but you get hints to help you solve the puzzle. Where did the idea for Sherlock come from?
After Solitile and Snarf, I started thinking about what to do for my next project. I thought about what actually made Solitile SO much fun to play. What I came up with was that it was:
- Lots of things on the display (complexity).
- Very simple rules (simplicity).
- Lots of relatively quick easy 'deductions' (actions that you spot) which leads to continuous mouse clicking here and there (interactivity).
That sounds simple, but it's important to note that (as in every game) you have to achieve a "sweet spot" of BALANCE between (and within) all of those. ANYONE (well, almost :-) can sit down and write a game that uses those elements, but hitting the "sweet spot" of balance in the game is devilishly difficult (and I've certainly had varying luck with doing it myself over the years, no one can bat a thousand...)
So, in casting about for another game idea that satisfied those elements (I tried many different ideas), I remembered a puzzle that was given to us in high school geometry class. It was a single sheet of mimeographed paper, and was the first (that I know of) logic puzzle, as they're known today, the classic "Who Drinks Water and Who Owns The Zebra?" which was published many places, but became most widespread after it was printed in Reader's Digest in the early 1960's I believe. You can find that puzzle in the Help screens for the Windows version of Sherlock. From start to finish, the original 1.1 version (1.0 was never released, it came close, but had a bug that needed to be fixed) took about 5 weeks of evenings and weekends to program. Ah, the days of youth, when working all day, then coming home and programming until midnight or one in the morning was no problem! :-)
The story I've been most interested in hearing about is Kosynka. It's a Russian solitaire game that was programmed by Sergey Ryzhkov in Moscow, Russia, but published by Everertt Kaser Software. How did you come into contact with each other and why did he choose Everett Kaser Software?
Sergey became familiar with my shareware games, and contacted me via email. This was in the early 1990's before the creation of the web, when Usenet and email and ftp were about all there was. This was JUST after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and sending money to Russia was just about impossible, because pretty much anything from the U.S. would be opened by SOMEONE for SOME reason, and any money would disappear before the letter/article was delivered (if it ever was). He'd written the Kosynka game, and asked if I'd be willing to handle it for him. I reluctantly agreed (I'm really a "go it myself" kind of individual). It's the only game I've ever handled that I didn't write entirely myself. I also got the impression, reading between the lines, that he was concerned that he might get in trouble for some reason, with some authorities. Maybe I was imagining it, but that was the impression I got.
So did you wire him money electronically? I notice that you no longer sell Kosynka. Did Sergey eventually start distributing the game himself, or how did that arrangement end?
Actually, I never sold all that many copies of it, and I never got his share of royalties to him. I kept asking how/when he wanted me to send the money, and he kept saying "wait" (because of theft problems) and in other ways avoiding the question (which is part of what made me think he might feel like he'd get in trouble some how). It was just kind of weird. No, I'm not aware that Sergey ever distributed it himself, and to the best of my knowledge he never wrote a Windows version of it or wrote any other games. We kept in contact for quite a few years, then just ran out of conversation, so to speak. He'd moved on to other pursuits.
When I first read that one of the inspirations for Hero's Heart was Boulder Dash, I was expecting a "rock and diamond" game, but there's not much tunneling and strategically dropping rocks to collect the hearts. The levels are usually open and there isn't much dirt, and there are just as many things that move up (balloons) as fall down. Throw in arrows, rafts, Worms and Creepers, and it starts to remind me of games like Crusher and God of Thunder. Unlike those other games, Hero is turn-based, like Sokoban. By eliminating reflexes and the ability to outrun the falling rocks, was that to create a pure puzzle game with an optimum solution, or was it a technical limitation you ran into?
Actually, the direct inspiration was "PC Wanderer", which was a PC version of "Wanderer", which (to quote from the CREDITS file of the game) "was created by Steven Shipway, a first year mathematics student at Warwick University, England. The idea for it came from games such as Boulderdash, Xor, and especially the Repton games from Superior Software." The game was ported to X-Windows, and then the official PC port for Wanderer was done by Greg Margo. Whether that's the basis for "PC Wanderer", the same thing, or what, I don't know.
Anyway, like with Solitile, I thought it was a great game idea, but it left a little to be desired, particularly in the user interface and general program control. PC Wanderer was very awkward to configure and use, having been written on a Unix system, ported several times by several people, etc. For one thing, some of the levels took MANY moves to solve (sometimes hundreds and hundreds), and there was no way to replay except to completely restart the level and make all of those tedious moves by hand, over and over. It wasn't the eye-hand coordination that was needed that I liked, it was the "puzzle solving" aspect of it. HOW do I get from here to there? WHAT do I have to do to achieve THAT? So, initially, I wrote a TSR (Terminate Stay Resident) program called WLOG (for Wanderer Log) that would log all keystrokes to a file, AND allow me to replay the keystrokes from the file. That way, when I had to restart a level, I could have my WLOG TSR replay it as far as I wanted, then resume trying to solve the level. That worked well, but there were still other things I didn't like about the implementation, AND I had some ideas for other kinds of objects that I thought would add to the game. Thus was born Hero's Hearts...
You can download the PC Wanderer version that I had, along with my WLOG program, from: www.kaser.com/msdos/wanderer.zip
Around 1994 you worked on a very interesting piece of technology called the HP 200LX. It's a palmtop PDA that uses an Intel 80186 CPU, instead of a low-power Motorola or ARM processor. Using an x86 processor made the 200LX one of the few palmtop computers in history that could run DOS. It had a copy of MS-DOS 5.0 in ROM and could run software that didn't require protected mode with CGA graphics. It even had a built-in game called Lair of the Squid. Did you have anything to do with Lair of the Squid?
No (other than test playing and giving a little advice maybe), that was written by Andy Gryc (pronounced Grits). I wrote two games for the HP Palmtops, TigerFox and Hearts & Bones. TigerFox was a PacMan-like game, and Hearts & Bones was a Minefield type game. You can find a version of TigerFox that will run on a regular MS-DOS PC at: TigerFox
Hearts & Bones was written more on "HP time", and the copyright is "muddled", so I don't distribute a version of it.
It looks like TigerFox was ported in 1990. Did you ever distribute the DOS version, or was porting it just a personal project?
Actually, the PC version of TigerFox (originally) occurred pretty much at the same time as the HP Portable version, in the very early 1980s. But it was a 640x400 B&W version. I later modified it to use a different set of graphics routines that I'd written, resulting in the 'current' version that you've downloaded. The original 640x400 version was ugly, being stretched vertically, because the game was designed for the HP 100's 'widescreen' display. This current version gives the correct aspect ratio. No, the DOS version was never distributed, just the HP Portable and HP 95/100/200LX versions. The PC version was just a personal project.
By the way, did you ever play Ron Balewski's Mah Jongg -V-G-A-? I always found the interface much easier to use, and I love the fact that it used high resolution VGA graphics instead of EGA. It's the same color depth (16 colors), but the 640x480 resolution allowed for much more detailed tiles.
Yes, I did try it out (have to keep an eye on the competition :-) . By the time I would have felt comfortable going to VGA res (ie, felt enough people had that instead of EGA), I was getting into Windows, and none too soon, as the requests for Windows versions started climbing rapidly just as I was getting it ported. So I never did a VGA version of the DOS game.
Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with your future projects!
All of Everett Kaser's games can be purchased from his website at www.kaser.com.
Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.