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The Making Of: Raiders Of The Lost Ark

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I was very interested in a movie licence, because for me that was the perfect middle ground

Legendary VCS coder Howard Scott Warshaw spill his guts on the first major video game film licence

Published on Jan 30, 2009

“When I was coding Raiders, I really tried to get into character,” begins Howard Scott Warshaw. “I wore the hat and had a real ten-foot-long leather bullwhip. Man, it was loud. Like a gunshot! I said it was for R&D – Research and Discipline. If people were snooping round the building, I’d sneak up behind them and crack that whip. They’d jump out of their suits and I’d be like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?”

Howard liked to make a lasting first impression and that’s exactly what he’d done with his first title for the VCS. Yars’ Revenge was a snazzy little shooter – fast, fun and with a fancy full-screen explosion, it remains the biggest-selling original title for the console. So when Atari bosses were looking for someone to adapt the box office hit of 1981, Howard enthusiastically volunteered.

“I was very interested in a movie licence, because for me that was the perfect middle ground. You get to do an original game and it has the boost of an actual movie property. Doing coin-op conversions always seemed an exercise in futility to me. And I loved Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Once I’d got the project, I didn’t really need to see it again – it was burned into my mind,” he says.

Remember, this was one of the earliest film-to-game conversions, long before ‘movie licence’ became a dirty phrase among gamers. It also had the added benefit of requiring Howard to visit Universal Studios to meet with Steven Spielberg. Over a game of Yars’, the pair talked about ideas for the Raiders videogame, though Howard couldn’t resist airing an idea of his own.

“I told him I had a theory that he was an alien,” he says. “I figured that contact with aliens was imminent and they needed to ‘prepare’ the earth, so they sent an advance team. You see, with Close Encounters and ET, it was really the first time aliens had been presented positively – friendly figures, not monsters. Spielberg was part of the alien marketing team…”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this insight, Howard returned with the director’s blessing and began work on the game in the summer of 1981. Specific design ideas were still vague at this point, but he quickly dismissed the notion of simply producing a one-screen arcade game, where whips and Nazis replaced the usual lasers and aliens.

“Man, that would be like the way pinball machines are themed, which always cracks me up,” he chuckles. “No, I knew it would be my first adventure game. To me, the idea of the movie was not action, action, action. It was about running around the globe to solve this huge puzzle. And when anyone thought about adventure games, they thought about Adventure. That was a genreestablishing work, a breakthrough title, and I thought there was no point doing something unless it made a contribution. Adventure showed, in a very simplistic way, how to present a larger world and I felt a lot of pressure to make the biggest game that existed on the machine at that time. I wanted a world that had more unique playable scenarios than any other and they all had to interact. A game bigger than people could imagine.”

With the genre decided upon and armed with a whole heap of ambition, Howard began coding his epic treasure hunt. He worked backwards, sticking closely to the plot of the film but not slavishly so. “Like when they make a movie of a book, I picked the things that I thought needed to be there,” he explains.

“The ultimate goal is finding the Ark, so I needed a Treasure Room. I have to hide that somewhere, which led to the Mesa Fields. There had to be a lot of options that I could randomise, so it’s difficult to find if you don’t know which one to go for. Then I needed a place where you learn about the Treasure Room – the Map Room! That room was a key element of the movie to me, where he gets it all together. That was huge! And of course, you’re going to need a key…” And so, the pieces of the puzzle began to take shape. The intrepid archaeologist Mr Jones begins his quest unarmed, but soon picks up his trademark whip and is battling snakes, detonating grenades and diligently scouring the Marketplace for handy items. Each new object or artefact discovered suggests fresh possibilities. Will the parachute stop me plummeting to the Valley of Poison? Will this flute let me charm the snake? And what the hell is the Chai for?

The array of items scattered across the game world allowed a level of problem solving deeper than the basic ‘red key opens red door’. Having to manipulate and combine objects made the challenge more complex for the player and similarly posed the first serious test for the programmer.

“I couldn’t make the game I wanted if you could only carry one object at a time, like in Adventure,” he says. “You’d constantly be traversing the map and you don’t want the situation where the player knows what they have to do, but faces a long, monotonous challenge to do it. I needed a way to give the player free movement and handle an inventory at the same time.’

Howard came up with an ingenious solution to the problem. As Raiders was a single-player game, he decided to use the second joystick to let the player manage the items Indy has picked up on his quest. Now our hero could out manoeuvre giant spiders, avaricious thieves and even the demented ‘Raving Lunatic’, while smoothly switching between weapons and collecting treasures without the interruption of an inventory screen.

“I liked to innovate and the two joystick control mechanic hadn’t been done before on the VCS,” he says proudly. “It also created a new kind of dexterity challenge. There were times when you had to operate them together, like opening the parachute and catching the branch. That’s not easy!” Indeed, trying to gauge the level of difficulty that the game’s many challenges would pose to a first-time player was an issue that dogged Howard throughout the development of the game. Make the puzzles too easy and the quest is over too soon, but make the puzzles too hard and you risk the angry gamer giving up in frustration.

“There’s a fundamental difference between making an adventure game and a regular action game,” says Howard. “If you do a good action game, the maker of the game should have the same experience as the players. With an adventure, where there are puzzles to solve, he cannot possibly have the same experience. Trying to tune a puzzle so it’s tough, but not too tough. How do you do that? How can you get the perspective of not knowing what the answer is when you know the answer? It’s all about guessing and projecting and field testing those concepts.”

Trying to find that satisfying balance in gameplay that lies in the narrow strip between difficult and impossible is something game developers still wrestle with today. It was a uniquely demanding task for Howard as he was introducing so many new ideas to the medium. In Raiders, he pioneered the concept of time passing in the game world. Wait patiently and check those baskets in the market again for fresh bounty. Revisit the Room of Shining Light to see what secrets it might offer up this time. And most poignantly, watch the sun rise in the Map Room to be truly enlightened.

“There’s a time of day in Raiders and it means something,” says Howard. “To have a cyclical aspect in the game adds another layer of texture. It’s like how many variables does your puzzle have? Here’s a lock, here’s a key and here’s a timepiece. You need to come back at the right time. A lot of games have used that idea since, but I think it was one of the first. It had a sense of time, of real life.”

The thrill of witnessing dawn break and seeing your medallion illuminate the location of the Lost Ark is a defining moment in a game of surprises. Hidden exits and shortcuts abound as new areas are stumbled upon through exploration.

“I don’t want to restrict people in a game,” he states. “I want to give them freedom. Anything you can do to give the player the sense of more space and opportunities to explore, you do it.” And explore you must as Raiders seldom signposted the way ahead. Progress required experimenting with each new object, trading stolen gold with sheikhs on the black market in the hope of some fresh revelation and a steely determination to battle on, even when you felt utterly lost. In the days before players had recourse to the cheating internet, many were left baffled. Thankfully, the marketing men insisted on including numerous helpful pointers in the manual, against Howard’s wishes.

“I didn’t see the point of having this elaborate game if people could just open the manual and run through it. In retrospect, I realise we should’ve given people more, not less. I’ve learned that people want a road map and then they can choose whether to use it or not. They put in more tips than I wanted and I just asked that they had lots of warnings. Spoiler warnings! We have a vernacular for talking about this now, but when it was happening, nobody had done this kind of thing before.” Even with the handy hints, it seems inconceivable that players could have worked out how to complete the game with the special ending that sees ‘HSW2’ appear on screen (Howard’s initials, with the ‘2’ signifying it was his second game) unaided. A spoiler warning of our own here – it involves dropping the Chai while in free fall in the split second before you need to open your parachute, snag the innocuous looking branch and enter the Well of Souls.

“Yes that’s ridiculously obscure, absurdly so,” laughs Howard. “But these were things I intended to get out through word of mouth. That’s the second life of the game – the lore about the game, the conversations about it. The meta game. I had a real strong sense that was important. A game that doesn’t generate that secondary aspect… where’s that?” Another example of Howard’s prescient thinking. He even had the foresight to produce the first recorded example of another modern gaming commonplace – the video walk-through.

In June 1982, just prior to its official release, he previewed Raiders at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago by screening a specially filmed demo of himself completing the game and providing a running commentary as he went. It particularly impressed one member of the audience. “I played the tape to Spielberg and at the end he turned to me and said, ‘Wow, that was really great. It’s just like a movie!’ It was one of the most gratifying moments of my entire life.”

Spielberg was not alone in his admiration. The game went on to be another million-seller for Howard, but its success was a double-edged sword. Spielberg asked for Howard to handle the ET film licence, but this time, instead of ten months to work on the game, he was given a minuscule five weeks.

“I was still trying to innovate with ET, doing this 3D world, but that was silly and unrealistic in the time I had. I’d learned so much doing Raiders and I didn’t get the chance to pour it into ET.” And sadly, the collapse of Atari in the mid Eighties (which many blamed on the commercial failure of ET, but that’s another story…) denied Howard the opportunity to build on the creative ambition and technical wizardry (see the Balling Stella boxout) that shines through Raiders.

But this tale may yet have a happy ending. After years outside the industry, Howard has rejoined the fold and is now employed as a software manager at Blueshift, Inc. “We’re a games software contractor who put the guts in games you are used to playing. I’m back – behind the scenes, but in the action!” So with the fourth Indiana Jones film finally in production, we wonder whether he’d fancy a crack at the inevitable game spin-off. “Oh, I woody, woody would!” he cackles. “Am I just dreaming? Put it this way – sometimes dreams do come true.”

 

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