Archive for January, 2013

Gold Runner for iOS now an Open Source Project!

Monday, January 14th, 2013

In the past I have been accused of having a career based entirely on one game: Gold Runner. It might actually be true.

Gold Runner was a game written for the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1984. It bears a striking resemblance to a game called Lode Runner for the Apple 2 and other 8 bit computers of the time.

It also happens to be my favorite computer game of all time. I’ve always had an obsession with the game and it’s never been far from my mind when contemplating game development of my own.

So in 1994 I finished Gold Runner 2000, a version written for the MM/1 personal computer.

The MM/1 would most accurately be described as a hobbyist computer bought by a number of members of the Color Computer (CoCo) community after the Color Computer 3 had become dated, the rest of the computing world had moved on from 8 bit to 16 bit systems, and Tandy had failed to provide such an upgrade path for the CoCo.

Gold Runner 2000 maintained all of the play mechanics from the original, but increased the size of the graphics images such that a whole level took up the size of 9 screens. This means that Gold Runner 2000 was a 2D side-scrolling game.

Color Computer (and MM/1) enthusiasts used to gather periodically for conventions, or “Fests”. And I took Gold Runner 2000 to just such a Fest in Atlanta soon after it was done.

From that exposure, I met a number of people. A couple of them worked at a company called Microware. Microware developed the operating system (OS-9) that ran on the MM/1 and Color Computer 3. When Microware needed some new developers with OS-9 experience, one of my new friends, Boisy Pitre – Microware employee, thought of me from having known my work on Gold Runner 2000. He contacted me, and it just so happened that I had just graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Psychology. I worked for the credit card division of Chase Manhattan Bank, and prospects for a career with a basic liberal arts degree were pretty slim. So I took the job with Microware, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Almost two years later, I left Microware, moved back to Phoenix, and through a series of lucky occurrences and knowing the right people, continued working as a programmer despite not having the appropriate degree.

So yes, Gold Runner is responsible for me having a career in this field today.

Now, in 1997 I was moving on from the CoCo, fully entrenched in MM/1 development, and I missed my favorite game. So I decided to write a clone of the original CoCo Gold Runner for the MM/1. I played through every level of the original game, mapped each level out by hand on graph paper, digitized all of the sounds from the original, and re-created the (very simple) graphics from the original.

And, I must say, I did a damn good job. I recreated every aspect of the CoCo original. I copied the high score screen exactly, with the graphical effect of the line for the current high score alternating between white-on-black and black-on-white. I copied a graphical glitch from the original that, when a character was on the far-left edge of the screen, displayed the leftmost pixel of that character on the right side of the screen, one pixel lower than it would have been had it displayed properly on the left side. And finally, I recreated the oval-shaped fade-in feature of each level as it started.

High Score Screen

Game Screen with Oval fade-in

I decided that I didn’t just want to create a Gold Runner game, I wanted to create a Gold Runner “engine” – a codebase that could be moved to a different platform and easily modified to get the game running on that platform. Or, the code could be easily enhanced to make a new version of the game for the MM/1.

Eventually, this “Gold Runner Engine” was shelved without ever having powered another fully completed game.

Fast forward to 2008. I had recently started working as an iPhone developer, and had written a couple of simple indie iPhone apps, and I decided that I wanted to do an iPhone game. And then it hit me. I could resurrect the Gold Runner Engine, port it to the iPhone, and not only have my first iPhone game, but at the same time resurrect my favorite computer game of all time on the newest gaming platform in existence.

And I did just that. Impressively, for code that I wrote fairly early in my career, the Gold Runner Engine ported fairly easily to the iPhone and in pretty short order I had a perfectly functioning clone of Gold Runner for the TRS-80 Color Computer on the iPhone.

I polished it up, tested it, released it, and sat back to see what would come of it.

It sold a number of copies, I really don’t remember even a vague estimate of how many.

But, within a year of my releasing it, a company had bought the rights to the original Lode Runner game and began seeking out games on various platforms which they considered to be infringing on their newly acquired intellectual property. A number of games, including Gold Runner for iOS, were targeted and removed from sale.

Back in the late 90s when I was still working on the Gold Runner Engine, I had made some modifications to it for a new game I was intending to call “Gold Runner Plus”. I added in floating (roaming) gold bricks, teleporters and moving platforms. But I never quite finished those additions to make the new game.

When Gold runner for iOS was removed from sale, I decided the best thing to do would be to resurrect that almost-completed “new” code, port it over to iOS, and release a new game, one that would have play dynamics not found in Lode Runner, and thus would be immune (I thought) to claims of copyright infringement. But finding that codebase on old 3 1/2 floppies for a long-dead computer proved difficult. Indeed I still haven’t located it.

So now I have decided that the best thing to do is just release the iOS version of Gold Runner as open source.

The project can found on Github here.

I could end this entry here, but I want to use this opportunity to get something off my chest.

While Gold Runner for iOS was still on sale, there was one common criticism found in the reviews that it got. Every reviewer said the control scheme was terrible.

Now, we’re talking about a game with a main character sprite that was as small as 8 pixels by 9 pixels, moving around a tiny screen, and having to climb ladders that were 9 pixels by 9 pixels in size, and that used a touch screen for input.

There was no ideal control scheme for such a game.

Nevertheless, I offered three control methods: 1) on-screen buttons where the character only moves as you’re touching the button 2) on-screen buttons where touching a button starts the character in motion in the given direction until a different button is pushed 3) flicking the screen in a direction starts the character moving in that direction until another flick is performed or the screen is tapped.

Game screen with button controls

Horizontal game screen using "flick" control

It took some getting used to, but after playing several times, the controls – especially the flick method, were quite usable. But computer users have a tendency to give a program, be it a game or a productivity app, one chance, and if they don’t like the UI or the control scheme, they rant about it. I think it’s ridiculous, but it’s just the way things are. Nevertheless, bad wishes to those who ripped the control scheme on the App Store.

I would love to see someone come up with a better control scheme.

Ah. I feel better now.

One final thing. The original codebase was written in ‘C’ on a system that didn’t have what would be considered frameworks or even a reasonable set of APIs, by modern standards. It was shoehorned into classes to fit iOS design patterns. As such, it isn’t exactly the most sparkling set of code I’ve ever written, not to mention the fact that I wrote the original code just two years into my professional programming career, some 15 years ago. Nevertheless, it works, and shouldn’t be too difficult to understand.

All things considered, I’m pretty proud of the work I did on it, though I would never show the code off as an example of my best work.

So that’s it. I hope someone out there gets some use out of this code, and perhaps uses it to do something cool.

If you do, I’d love to hear about it.