aAs a teenager, Veronica Migler was bent on becoming a statistician. She signed up for a computer science course at the University of Melbourne, considering it would help her in her chosen career. “I think there were four women in a class of about 220, and it was misogynistic,” she recalls. Megler has already built her own house computerBuy your motherboard, chips, capacitors and diodes from an electronics store in Melbourne. “At the store they were saying ‘Tell your friend we don’t have these,'” she recalls.
Realizing the stats didn’t work for her, Migler answered an advertisement in a newspaper for a part-time programming job at a local software company called Melbourne House. It was 1980, and she was in the middle of a course that focused on designing operating systems and developing programming languages. She recalls, “On the day I was hired, the first thing my boss said to me was ‘Write the best adventure game ever’.” The end result of this instructable was The Hobbit, a 1982 text adventure game that is fondly remembered to this day. .
Although the 20-year-old didn’t have much experience with video games, she did enjoy one in particular. “I found Colossal Cave Adventure addictive until the point I drew and solved the game. Then it immediately became boring, and I never played it again. So I thought about why this game would stop caring, and I designed a game that didn’t have any of the these problems.”
Migler enlisted fellow student Philip Mitchell to help with a game analyst—the code that helps the game and the player understand each other, converting words into commands and vice versa. The story was originally a general fantasy adventure. However, as fans of Tolkien’s work, Migler and Mitchell suggested using one of his works as a base for the game. The sprawling and epic stories of the Lord of the Rings were the most famous; The programmers suggested that a less complex and more compact plot for The Hobbit would be a better fit.
Fred Milgrom, president of Melbourne House, liked the idea, and Migler began adapting the book. “I went through it and identified the locations, characters, puzzles, and main events,” she says. “Then I tried to relate that to the game. It seemed possible. But it was an extension. And maybe it’s a little too ambitious.” By the time Melbourne House acquired the Hobbit license, Megler had already built much of the game engine.
In most text adventures at the time, the player typed in commands – check the sword, go north – and the program reacted according to a predefined set of responses. But writing code on a decommissioned TRS-80 computer from Australian manufacturer Dick Smith Electronics, Megler created an innovative system that allowed the player to experiment with different commands and things. “The classic example was ‘turn on the lamp.’ The lamp is turned on, right? But turn on the angry dwarf, and turn him into a dwarf Randy constantly proposes to you,” laughs Migler. (Unfortunately, this specific interaction has been removed from the final match.)
In an age when most textual adventures can be reduced to a game of “guess the right verb,” The Hobbit has allowed adverbs and the use of items, eliminating the issues that bothered it in Colossal Cave Adventure. The game also allowed the passage of time: if you dipped for a long time in the wrong place, Bilbo quickly became a controversial snack.
“I saw it as an interesting puzzle to solve—and saw the potential for what could be done—so I just did it,” says Migler. “There were basically letter templates and a word dictionary, and much of the game’s power comes from the fact that there are only three or four basic ideas that interact with a fair amount of randomness to create what you might call emergent behavior.” At a time when most home video games were still coded In basic language, this was remarkably progressive work.
Migler had the foresight to organize her system so that it could be cleaned up and used as a basis for more games. “I designed [The Hobbit] So it has pluggable parts: you can take on the same basis as the game and then change and assign character rosters and sell them as a different game.” Unfortunately, apart from a follow-up about Sherlock Holmes, Melbourne House failed to capitalize. It seems the world wasn’t ready for an adaptable game engine.
About halfway through writing The Hobbit, Megler and Mitchell were called up to work on another game called Penetrator – Melbourne House Transparent Knockout from Konami’s scrolling game. They have created an excellent clone with an innovative feature: Level Designer. “After we wrote the Penetrator, the idea of adding a graphic element to The Hobbit came up,” Migler recalls. Artist Kent Reese painted the famous images, expertly rendered by Mitchell in the game using as little precious memory as possible.
If there’s one thing anyone who played The Hobbit in the ’80s remembers with a smile – or a grimace – it’s that pesky dwarf king in exile, and his spirited singing. “One of the special things about Thorin in the book is that he often sits and sings about gold,” Migler smiles. “So, I chose that as something that was intrinsic to him… The problem with Thorin was that the sequence was too short! So he ended up sitting and singing about more gold than he did in the book.”
Released in the UK and Australia in 1982, The Hobbit has garnered glowing reviews and awards in the press. The ambition, skill, and determination of these two part-time students, tasked with making “the best adventure game ever”, have influenced an entire generation of gamers and programmers. “I think solving a problem under strict constraints – which is where we’ve been – unleashes an entirely different kind of creativity,” Mugler concludes. “And that in itself can be very powerful.”
Why did the hobbit make such an impression? Forty years later, why is it still being talked about? “I think that’s because it was revolutionary compared to other games available at the time,” Migler reflects. “I mean, I got letters from people who talked about how their lives had changed; others who became interested in relationships and people rather than just shooting games. And people who had a PhD in linguistics because they found the parser to be so cool.”