Author of '80s classic The Hobbit didn't know game was a hit
The Register meets gaming pioneer - now Big Data researcher - Veronika Megler
Every few days, Veronika Megler gets email from a stranger.
Some thank her for teaching them English. Others acknowledge her role as an influence in their decision to pursue a career in computing.
Megler was never a teacher, nor a mentor, to those who send the messages.
But her correspondents remember her fondly as one of the authors of The Hobbit, a hit adventure game from the early-1980s golden age of microcomputers.
The Hobbit stood out from the adventure games of the day in three ways, the first of which was its use of graphics. Many scenes in the game included a colour image that may have drawn at painfully slow speed but still offered a far richer experience than the text-only adventures of the day.
The second key innovation was 'Inglish', a parsing system that went far beyond the verb/noun syntax most games at the time allowed. Inglish lets players enter whole sentences of text as they sought to complete a quest that paralleled the plot of Tolkien’s famous novel.
A third and less obvious innovation was the game engine Megler created.
The splash screen for The Hobbit, circa 1992
“I wrote the game to be very general and to not restrict people from doing things,” Megler recalls. “Everything was an object. If you killed a dwarf you could use it as a weapon – it was no different to other large heavy objects. That was something you could not do with other games of the time, they had fixed possibilities.” Those limited possibilities meant that if gamers could not find the right verb/noun combination, further progress would become impossible. By making it possible to try lots of verbs on lots of nouns, The Hobbit offered a better experience.
Megler designed the game this way after being asked by Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, one of the founders of developer and publisher Melbourne House, to “Write the greatest adventure game ever. Period.” Megler had no experience of writing such a game, nor of playing any other than Adventure, the interactive fiction classic later renamed Colossal Cave.
Megler had access to Adventure at the University of Melbourne, where in the late 1970s she enrolled to study statistics and pursue a career as an actuary.
“I took several computer classes because I thought knowing something about computers would be good for an actuary,” Megler recalls. “I discovered I was bad at statistics and good at computers.” A computer science degree soon beckoned.
That course meant a chance to program a machine that used “sense cards”, an IBM technology of the late 70s that required developers to mark cards with pencils to create a program.
“The card readers had a built-in mechanism that, after you ran the cards three or four times, would distribute the lead all over the card. You had to get your program running in three or four runs or you were toast,” Megler recalls.
In their second year of study, students were offered access to a Unix machine. That led Megler and fellow student Phillip Mitchell to Pascal, C, and assembly language.
The pair got into gaming after Megler answered newspaper advertisement seeking part time programmers. Megler got the job and recommended her friend Mitchell. The pair became employee number two and three at Melbourne House, and set about delivering on Migrom’s instructions to deliver a superlative game.
The best student job of all time
The pair worked on The Hobbit for about a year, part-time.
“I think we worked 10-20 hours a week, averaging 15,” Megler says, but admits that’s a guess after 30 years.
One thing that remains clear is that writing games part-time was “the best student job, ever.”
“Fred had nice offices in South Melbourne. It was a large empty space and we had desks and computers all around. I brought in other friends, a couple of others who came and went.”
Megler worked in Z80 assembly language and a text editor.
“At the time it was not difficult,” she says. “We broke down the game into smaller pieces. These days functional programming is all the rage. We were using similar concepts of breaking things down into small pieces to do independently.”
The pair just went at the game, rather than relying on any particular methodology, an approach Megler puts down to “youthful exuberance.”
“We were doing our computer science degrees and applied the things we had learned. I used database style techniques and had everything parameterised, everything as abstractions.”
The game was originally targeted at the TRS-80 , the USA’s main contribution to the golden age of the microcomputer. But as the game progressed the emergence of low-priced British alternative, the ZX Spectrum  , which ran the same Z80 processor, meant a version for that computer also made sense.
When it emerged in 1982 the game became a smash, but Megler didn’t notice.
Instead, she graduated and “got myself a real job because it [writing games] was considered to be a part-time programming gig until we grew up.” That job was at IBM, where Megler says she was “hired at the same level as any other graduate,” despite having a global hit game to her name. “The attitude was very much that this was irrelevant, so having written it really had no impact whatsoever on my life.”
Megler more or less lost interest in the game, so as its fame spread beyond Britain and the sales started to stack up around the world she was largely oblivious to its success.
She was also enjoying a successful career at IBM Australia, where she worked for 10 years before a period spent travelling in South America. During that journey, Megler “had a dream of moving to the West Coast and asked Americans where they would live if they could choose.”
The answer, more often than not, was Portland, Oregon, where Megler intended to stay for three years but remains to this day.
Sixteen of those years were spent with IBM, often working on the VM operating system for mainframes, but she has recently left to become a PhD student at Portland State University.
“We are working with a set of scientists who have an ocean observatory that has gone from an environment where they could collect a small amount of information and investigate it intensively, to one where now they have terabytes and terabytes and can’t find what they need.”
“Sensors are now so cheap they can record lots of data.”
Megler’s doctorate is therefore focussed on Big Data, a term she’s happy to associate with as she hopes it will help find funding for her studies.
As she pursues the doctorate, there's still that steady stream of fan emails to deal with, and that stream is helping Megler to understand the success of the game she coded so long ago.
"I feel a bit sad"
While the messages of support are lovely, Megler says they also make her feel “a bit sad” because she had no idea the game was such a success.
“Only in the last five years have I realised what a hit it was,” she says. “It makes you wonder how my life would have been different had I known that.”
“One of the things I find still frustrating is that there is still an assumption that because I am a woman, Phil must have written most of the game and perhaps I just contributed to a few of the puzzles. I've also read things that leave my name off completely.”
Analysis of the game that attributes its success to Inglish also irritate just a little, as fans tell Megler that they didn't use much of the vocabulary it offered but did appreciate the ability to use different objects in imaginative ways that she into the game's engine.
Which is not to say that Megler is bitter, as she admits “I have a very low tolerance for doing the same thing over and over again.” By the time The Hobbit, (and Penetrator, the only other game she ever wrote) were complete, “I had been writing assemblers for years and I was tired of it.”
She was also tired of playing games and hardly touched another, bar Tetris, for 15 years.
Today she says The Hobbit has “Probably the most impact of anything I have done in my life until now.”
“It is odd to look back and think that from some perspectives the high point of my career came before I finished my bachelors degree! None of the my other jobs have had the same impact as writing that game did.”
But Megler is hopeful her PhD will top it, and is hard at work making that happen. On the day she was scheduled to chat to The Register, she was so immersed in debugging the project she was half an hour late for our call.
The interruption, and chance to reminisce, was welcome.
“Working on The Hobbit was a once in a lifetime gift,” she says.
The steady stream of emails thanking her for that gift surely show it's one that keeps on giving. ®