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Boulder Dash: An Interview with First Star Software

Boulder Dash Vol. 1 is a classic game that was developed by First Star Software and published by Chillingo.  Unlike many other classic games, Boulder Dash provides both updated and retro graphics.  It also brings a good level of polish that matches the best developers in the app store.  Even though all of you have probably played boulder dash at some point, the iPhone version is worth a look because it gets addicting very quickly!  I had a chance to interview the President of First Star Software, Richard M. Spitalny, about his company’s game Boulder Dash Vol. 1.  I have played through the game and love it.  I will post a full review shortly.

No DPad: What prompted you to bring Boulder Dash to the iDevice Platform?

First Star Software: You mean besides the obvious desire to generate revenue? :-) Actually there were quite a few. Key was to have as many significant releases for the brand in 2009, as this the 25th anniversary of Boulder Dash; and, the iDevices would let us do ‘special’ things, not possible before. e.g. letting players use the pinch zoom for example. Also, we had a lot of requests for the original game after the great success recently of new mobile versions: Boulder Dash-M.E. Volumes 1 and 2. (M.E. for Mobile Edition). We sold close to 800,000 units across the recent mobile version; but, except of the Hiptop/Sidekick, none of these games included the original caves from Boulder Dash Vol. 1. So we felt it was about time for a mobile version of the original game.

ND: Did you face any challenges while developing this title to a new platform without any physical buttons?  What prompted you to release  the game with three control schemes?

FSS: Indeed! The need to implement virtual controls was perhaps the most significant challenge. Unlike when using a real joystick, when using a virtual control… that can NOT be ‘physically felt’ by the player… the issue immediately rises: How can one play while looking elsewhere on the screen? Part of the fun/challenge of Boulder Dash is executing moves that require very precise movements and exact timing. Being able to react quickly is also very important. This is not easy to do if the controls are not intuitive, easy to remember and easy to use. The decision to include 3 different sets of controls: (1) a split d-pad with up/down on one side and left/right on the other side of the display; (2) a cluster of the 4 directional controls in the center of the bottom portion of the screen; and, (3) touch/swipe…and letting players mirror the controls for types 1 and 2… was implemented based on the results of focus group testing. It became very clear, very quickly, that ‘one size did NOT fit all.’ So we decided to leave in all 3 of the control methods.

We also animated Rockford(TM) and all other in-game characters with very smooth (8 frame) animations, unlike how they moved in the original game. In the original game, on say the Commodore 64 or the Atari 400/800 or Apple II, characters ‘jumped’ from tile to tile. e.g. Rockford was two tiles away from a diamond to his left, then suddenly he was only one tile away….you did not see him walk slowly/smoothly to adjacent tiles. We did this to help slow the game down a bit to compensate a bit for the lack of physical controls and to help make the game feel a bit less frantic that the original, thinking it would be nice to expand the game’s appeal to what today are often referred to as more ‘casual’ players.

As an important aside I should mention that immediately upon the game’s initial release, May 16th, there was a lot of chatter on the forums that many wanted the game to feel/play exactly like the original.  They felt that the game was ‘too slow’. So, of course we immediately recoded the movements/animations in the ‘retro’ mode, providing both the original graphics as well as the original speed/movements for Rockford and friends! This will be part of the first update that is currently pending review by Apple. I think we submitted it to Apple May 21st.

ND: Any interesting stories on the beginnings of Boulder Dash? Also, where did the design come from, and what gave it the ability to stand the test of time?

FSS: Boulder Dash was submitted to us, as well as many other publishers, before it was finished. As it happens I was the person that opened the package with the disk and I was the first person at First Star Software to play the game.  The graphics were not as good as we were ‘used to’ (we had published Astro Chase for example that won numerous awards for best graphics of the year and our other games didn’t look as ‘blocky’)…but…the gameplay was so new and different. The combination of ‘mental gymnastics’ needed to figure out the solutions. (“Come on…how can I collect 36 diamonds? There aren’t any diamonds in this cave!!!”) combined with the need for quick reflexes and precise movements was very exciting and addictive. It quickly got us all very excited. As it so happened, the editors  (Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz) of Electronic Games Magazine were visiting us that day, interviewing my then partner and co-founder, Fernando Herrera. When they were done with the interview, we showed them Boulder Dash before they left ..mind you it was not even a finished game…and well …let’s just say they too were hooked!

The game play and cave designs all came basically from Peter Liepa (with some help from Chris Gray). We at FSS decided that we wanted the game, despite it’s somewhat ‘blocky’ look and we acquired the game outright and then worked with Peter in finalizing the game. e.g. we suggested the rotation of the different color palettes and the inclusion of the 4 non-scrolling bonus caves, small, subtle things like that.

I think the game has withstood the test of time for a few reasons: the game is, as they say “easy to learn but difficult to master’. This is partly why the game appeals to such a large cross section of people: gamers and non-gamers, young and old, male and female. Also, things do not speed up. If you lose it’s not because things started to move too quickly; or they ‘got smarter’; but rather, you always blame yourself. Another reason is that, as alluded to, it’s not the graphics or the look that makes the game great, rather, it’s the core gameplay and its physics. There’s something universal and timeless about collecting pretty/valuable things; avoiding enemies and trying to beat the clock.

ND: Why did you feel the need to include the retro graphics along with the updated graphics?  Do you think your fan base is mostly retro gamers or new (and young) puzzle fans?

FSS: As alluded to earlier. We did get a lot of feedback on the forums. We had planned to perhaps include the ‘retro’ graphics as an ‘Easter Egg’. However as soon as preview screenshots were posted, there was a very vocal group that made it blatantly clear that, for them, if the game did not have the original Rockford …and all the other original graphic elements …then as far as they were concerned the game simply was not Boulder Dash. So, we of course decide to add a ‘retro’ mode and feature it equally with the ‘updated’ mode.

Since the game is now 25 years old and based on the sales of the other mobile version released in the past few years, we feel that it’s very clear that there is indeed a new and thus younger, growing fan base in addition to the well established, loyal fans who have played the game for many years now.

ND: Should fans expect any updates such as new caves or new gameplay modes in the future?

FSS: Well, as mentioned the first update, pending now with Apple, changes the speed/movements in (only) ‘retro’ mode. We’ll continue to support the OpenFeint social network and of course Apple’s OS 3.0, etc. but there are no firm plans at this point in time to add caves or new modes to the game.

ND: Do you plan to bring any other titles to the app store in the future?

FSS: YES! Indeed we do. Unfortunately…I know people hate it when they read things like this…I can not say more than that, at this time, due to the confidential nature of that information. Please forgive me; but, we take non-disclosure agreements very seriously…as we must.

I must say that it was very pleasant working with Richard, and I hope to see many more titles from First Star Software in the future.

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