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Author of '80s classic The Hobbit didn't know game was a hit

The Register meets gaming pioneer - now Big Data researcher - Veronika Megler

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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.

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