Interview: John Calhoun on the Origins of Glider (Part 2)
John Calhoun's Glider games hold a special place in the history of Mac gaming, acting almost as an icon of the platform through much of the 1990s. They spawned a hugely dedicated fan base, which produced a ridiculous amount of original content both for and about Glider -- especially Glider 4 and Glider PRO, the later versions.
I caught up with Calhoun over email recently, and quizzed him on the origins and development of the series. This is the second (and final) part of that interview. Read on to discover how Glider grew from a shareware to commercial product, what inspired the new features of Glider 4 and Glider PRO, how the game's community shaped its development, what Calhoun thinks of the Mac indie scene, and more.
You can catch the first part of the interview here. And also be sure to check out Dreaming of a Thousand-Room House: The History and Making of Glider, which provides context and a narrative for this interview.
Richard Moss: Glider 4 didn't just add more rooms, though. How did it come to be scenario-based, with the possibility to create and add new rooms or houses? That move sparked quite a large following, too. Were you surprised about the community of fans and modders? And what did you learn from them?
John Calhoun: Well, when Casady & Greene asked for more rooms, it occurred to me I might want to write a "house editor" or "room editor" to make the creation of the house easier. In the shareware version it was extremely tedious having to tweak a value for the width of a shelf (for example), and then play through to that point and test it. Initially too when I was laying out the room I was completely doing it blindly when I was just typing in numbers for x and y values — trying to visualize where the object would land in the room. So the editor was a real nice thing to have.
At the same time, the editor ended up being probably more work than the Glider game itself. Coding all the custom dialog boxes where you adjusted various parameters of the objects; all the sanity checks to keep a player from, for example, making a candle's lift negative instead of positive. If I had intended the editor only for my own use, I could have left off all the fancy UI and sanity checks, but once you intend a tool for mass consumption there is a level of polish that people expect. The polish was a lot of work.
I got lucky with the timing of Glider 4.0 (the first commercial Casady & Greene version) because AOL (America On-Line) had come around just about that time. It turned out Glider houses that user's had created were small and quick to upload and download from AOL at dial-up speeds. Plenty of people, as you note, got busy making Glider houses and posting them on-line. Once on AOL, there were thousands of people that then had access to them.
As you say, a sort of community grew up around Glider. I didn't expect this, no. I had hoped for sharing of Glider houses but expected it to be more casual. There had been a commercial game for the Macintosh called "World Builder" that similarly allowed you to create your own levels or games. I found these out in the wild on various FTP sites from time to time, so I got the concept of allowing people to create and share their own content. It was certainly something I enjoyed doing with games that allowed for it.
I tried initially to pull down all the Glider houses I found so I could amass a large collection. In fact some of them were so impressive that I would later contact the authors and ask them to help design the house for Glider PRO: the follow-on to Glider 4.0.
I can describe one of them in particular to you, called "Hands-Off House." The idea was that you started out in this house and, without touching a single key on the keyboard, your paper glider would be carried through the entire house for you. As you fell to the floor, for example, you might pass in front of a fan and the little gust from the fan was enough to nudge your glider out over a floor duct that would suck you in. Then you might be deposited from a duct in the ceiling where you would then pass by a staircase and head down into the basement of the house. You get the idea: clever placement of objects in the room kept your glider alive through to the completion of the house. And as clever as that was to watch, from time to time your glider would revisit a previous room you had passed though but be escorted through it in a different manner this second time. The whole house was like one of those elaborate Rube Goldberg machines. I think it was one of those times when someone does something you had never intended for the game and you're blown away by it.
The author's name was Ward Hartenstein and he was one of the guys I got a hold of and asked to work on the house for Glider PRO.
RM: I'm also curious about the change in tone with Glider 4.0. It took something of a darker, edgier tone -- like the house secretly had it in for you, and all was not well in the magical Glider-land. Suddenly, you had foil that could harden your glider for protection, and could shoot rubber bands at enemy gliders. The rooms were more claustrophobic, fraught with danger. It seemed like you were leaving the playground and entering a war-zone.
How did it come to be that way? Was it just a natural consequence of adding color support and evolving the features, or a necessary component of expanding the game's size and scope for commercial release?
JC: Now that you describe it that way I see what you mean, but it wasn't intentional. The things like foil and rubber bands were an attempt on my part to add more interesting power-ups and to try and differentiate the commercial Glider from the shareware version. I wanted someone to feel they got their money's worth: that they were playing a far more involved game than the shareware version.
Adding color though may have contributed somewhat to the feel. I limited the use of color within the game to 16 colors (yeah, no kidding — back then, though, 16 colors required less RAM and was perhaps a bit faster than 256 colors). The Macintosh had a 16-color palette that consisted of a handful of grays and then the primary and secondary colors you would expect (plus brown, and a few other color variations). To get the most out of this small palette I used a lot of dithering. The most common pattern of dithering I used consisted of two colors alternating in a checkerboard-style pattern. I liked dithering gray with a primary or secondary color. So green dithered with gray gave you a muted, desaturated green color. And there were several shades of gray so you could dither different shades with green and get some nice variations of your muted green color. Using red and gray, orange and gray, etc. gave me a much broader palette, but it tended to have a lot of desaturated colors.
The palette I think lent itself to a frumpy and dinghy looking house. That was sort of deliberate since I took inspiration from the hand-me-down furniture and college slum conditions I found myself living in at the time. The exposed galvanized pipes running floor to ceiling, the ancient rusty radiators, the cracks in the plaster walls — these were all deliberate and what I saw around me in Lawrence, Kansas.
RM: Did Casady & Greene have much input on the game?
JC: Surprisingly little that I can recall. I think they may have genuinely been pleased with it. They tested it and played it around the office. If they found a bug they let me know, but I don't remember a lot of artistic direction from them.
RM: I always wondered what gave you the idea to add bouncing basketballs, jumping fish, balloons rising from the floor, and bread/toast hopping in and out of toasters as hazards for the glider to avoid. Was this just another case of needing something (in this case, a dynamic obstacle) and grabbing inspiration from your surrounding environment?
JC: Somewhat. Having static obstacles like shelves and tables had limited entertainment value. The dynamic objects like balloons meant that there wasn't a repeatable way through a room -- an object could appear suddenly that throws you for a loop (so to speak). The toaster turned out to be particularly interesting, though, with the addition of electrical switches that you could toggle. Having a dynamic object with on or off state made for some memorable rooms.
RM: Why was the option to choose between glider and dart removed?
JC: In the shareware Glider you could choose between the two types of glider. To my mind it was reminiscent of games where you could choose from among different race cars, for example — perhaps one car is fastest at acceleration but limited in its top speed while another car has a much higher top speed but slow acceleration. The dart, as I recall, moved quite a bit faster and so had a flatter glide slope. Unfortunately, the nature of the game made it difficult to design a room that would challenge both types of glider. You could spend a good deal of time making it difficult for the standard glider and then find that dart could easily breeze through the room.
I had entertained the notion of a power-up that might refold your paper airplane into the dart — at least temporarily. The artwork/animation would have been challenging. In the end, the battery was a simpler means to arrive at the same result.
RM: At what point did you give up trying to download every house made by the community?
JC: I don't know. I kept up with it for quite a while. It got to where I couldn't possibly play through all of them of course. I tried to sample each of them though. There were plenty of pleasant surprises as I've already mentioned.
RM: Did the community have much influence on Glider PRO?
JC: I suppose. That the community took to creating houses so fervently no doubt made me focus on adding a lot of obstacles and background artwork for Glider Pro. Eventually, you could load your own artwork and more or less make any sort of themed house that you wanted. That work was to enable the "house authors" to knock themselves out.
RM: What was the synthesis for the decision to port Glider 4 to Windows, which, as has been noted elsewhere, seemed at odds with the philosophy shared by Glider and the Mac? Do you know why it did not come out until 1994, around the same time that Glider PRO arrived on the Mac? It would seem as though the more full-featured and graphically detailed Glider PRO might have met a greater success on Windows at that time.
JC: Casady and Greene recognized that Glider was a somewhat unique game, I think. I think the decision to port Glider to Windows was to sort of dabble in the Windows market for them. Jeff Robbin (eventually of SoundJam/iTunes fame) was in C&G's stable of developers and had suggested a friend of his from back home (Chicago) to do the Glider port to Windows. I may be wrong on the spelling, but his name was I believe Greg Beasley. He did a very good job I think. Especially since Glider was written in Pascal and made very exclusive use of Macintosh toolbox and Quickdraw calls. No doubt he had to translate nearly every line of code to something more Windows-specific. It's too bad too that it never really took off. If it had, perhaps Greg would have happily ported Glider Pro to Windows as well.
As you mention, perhaps too the timing had something to do with it. Porting Glider Pro, though, no doubt would have been even more challenging. I don't think C&G really knew how to market to Windows in any event. It wasn't something they were real experienced with.
RM: Glider PRO took the tone in the opposite direction to Glider 4, with a more open, laid-back, summer days vibe, and brighter environments. Was this driven by a combination of technology and the need to differentiate it from its predecessors, much like with Glider 4? How do you feel now about the broader scope -- particularly the use of outdoor environments and seemingly odd locales (like Nemo's Market and The Museum)?
JC: Well, I view the differences now as a sort of mixed bag.
Making Glider Pro more open (allowing you to for example fly outdoors) was intentional, and a response to a feeling of claustrophobia that the original Glider was giving me. The original Glider was beginning to feel restrictive. I was beginning to feel perhaps like someone who has been cooped up too long watching TV or otherwise wasting their life away and starting to get stir crazy. So I literally threw the windows open and had to then add the "stars" as the sort of achievement to signal the completion of the game (or completion of the house).
So there were tree houses, graveyards, sewers, castles, etc.
In hindsight, though, it feels a bit like Glider may have lost its way in those times. Glider became perhaps too open-ended and may have lost a quiet domesticity that gave it a sort of charm in the original incarnation. It may have become another Mario Brothers game.
You mentioned the museum, though. That could have been done in the original Glider series, I suppose. With that house I was experimenting with the ability to add custom artwork to the game. Obviously, all the famous paintings in the museum were custom as was the elevator, museum guard, marble backgrounds, etc. I was also experimenting with very large rooms — very large spaces. The museum very definitely has a different feel to it than the other houses that came with Glider.
RM: Was Glider PRO meant to be the definitive version of Glider? Do you think it turned out that way?
JC: Yes, I suppose it was supposed to be that. Maybe as I hinted above though, I don't know that it in fact is the definitive version of the game. I think Glider 4.0 probably would have to get that title. Or perhaps something somewhere in between — a Glider that never existed. I think you could cherry-pick from Glider Pro and find some gems worth keeping. Add those to Glider 4.0 and you might have the definitive Glider.
RM: I have to ask the obligatory question -- will you ever try to make this hypothetically perfect version of Glider?
JC: It could happen. Working at Apple doesn't allow me to work on Glider — even in my spare time. If I ever leave programming full-time, I may well write the ultimate Glider.
RM: Has anyone contacted you about a possible iPhone or iPad Glider? It seems like it would fit well with tilt controls, and is certainly the right kind of game to play anywhere, anytime. (Plus the iDevices have that whole "magical" thing going for them that Glider always drew from with the Mac.)
JC: Yes, I've had a few people but they often are new to programming and not likely to have a lot of success with Glider as their first big project. And to be honest, I want any version of Glider to be done well. I have had programmer friends I respect make initial attempts at an iPhone version of Glider, but it's a big investment in time and they -- each one of them -- eventually lost interest. If a bigger iPhone game company contacted me, though, we could definitely work something out. I definitely have a lot of ideas for an iOS Glider.
RM: Do you remember when the e-zines started up around the game? I find it amazing that a little Mac game could develop such an impressive cult following, and am a little sad the scene had mostly petered out by the time I knew it existed (I didn't get any online access until the late 90s). Looking around the few hangouts that survive today, I noticed that a dedicated few kept making houses and building fansites right up until two or three years ago. What do you make of the game's legacy and lasting appeal?
JC: It's cool. It surprises me of course. At the same time, Glider isn't well known in wider circles. So I keep it in perspective of course, but I am fascinated by the people that have really promoted the game selflessly and were apparently drawn to it. As you mention though, the house creation aspect of it I think was a big draw. Many people are naturally creative. Likely the appeal to them of creating a house in Glider resonates with my own initial desire learn to program in order to write games. Games are an interactive sort of way to express your creativity. They are not static like paintings or drawings. Programming a whole game is obviously more difficult and more tedious than creating a house in Glider. But in a way, by making a fairly simple house "editor" in Glider, I enabled a lot of people to create a game of sorts of their own making. You know what I mean?
RM: I think I do. There are a lot of people that are incredibly creative and would love to craft an interesting or meaningful experience, but lack the technical skills or training to get past the first hurdle. Giving them an editor is like saying, "here, I've done the hard part. Now see what you can do with this." I think the limitations actually help, in a way, because they make the act of learning the toolset seem much less intimidating.
I also remember Will Wright talking about the way game communities take on a pyramid structure, with a small minority creating or improving the tools for content generation, which get used by a group of content creators, whose work is showcased on websites and downloaded by another (larger) group, and so on down to the people who don't even know an editor or player-created content exists. For each group, the game takes on a different meaning, and for the creators that game might be competing to see who can make the best house/level/art/whatever.
There's also this idea that permeates through the Glider games, which a lot of the fans picked up on, that a world of incredible magic and mystery lies just beneath all mundane objects and places. It's something that you find in movies like Toy Story or stories like Peter Pan. And it fits well with the Macintosh, which exuded a certain magic and charm of its own. But were you ever thinking about this when you made the games? Was Glider ever intended to make you stop and think about the world as though a child projecting scenes of wonder onto their surroundings (like how a cardboard box becomes a spaceship or car, for instance)?
JC: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the two things that might reinforce this idea I may have already mentioned: the ways I tried to entertain myself indoors with mundane things around the house, and the dreams I used to have of a house or building with thousands of rooms. Now that I say it though, I don't think I mentioned the dream.
Anyway, to the first point, making paper airplanes and flying them around inside the house was a pastime of sort for me growing up. Besides the mundane sheet of notebook paper that the plane came from, I would often try to construct launch catapults from thread and paper clips and hanging weights to try and accelerate the glider without any assistance. Sort of like how they use long strands of rubber and a towline to launch R/C sailplanes. That all speaks to the mundane setting and creativity, I suppose.
And there was a kind of dream I had often (they may have started in college) that would in some way feature a building of some sort that had seemingly an infinite number of halls, passageways, and rooms in it. Often it was old and of rich walnut hardwoods and such. And the sense always was that thousands lived and went about their business in this building without ever going outside. There were never any windows to the outside — it was as though you were so deep in the structure that you were never near any room with an exterior view. By the time of Glider PRO and the house, "Slumberland," I was thinking consciously of that huge house and wanting in some way to capture at least a small essence of it with Slumberland.
RM: Do you have a favourite Glider house (across all/any versions of the game)? If so, why that one?
JC: I don't know. As I've mentioned, Ward Hartenstein surprised me on many occasions with clever houses that went beyond what I thought Glider could do. There were plenty of other houses that impressed me for their scale or creativity as well. Since I just mentioned it though, I guess I have to say Slumberland was the real icing on the cake -- so to speak. Four of us worked on it -- there were several houses, a sewer, graveyard, indoors, outdoors, basements, attics, along the rooftops, large rooms with high ceilings, plenty of puzzles with multiple switches in various rooms you had to get set correct in order to complete the house. With no overarching theme except scale, it may not have the charm or evenness of some of the other houses, but if you could get all the way to the end of that one you really accomplished something.
The beginning of Slumberland, which is both the default house in Glider PRO and John Calhoun's favourite.
I believe I actually completed it at least once. I don't recall off hand but it may well have taken over an hour -- or very near.
I should mention that, in developing the house, I might add a cheat such that I start in room 130 or wherever. This allowed me to test and work on a specific part of the house.
RM: Do you pay any attention to the state of Mac gaming today? There's a lot less going on in the Mac-specific indie scene than back in the 90s, and while there are people from the Windows or Linux side filling the void with some fantastically original and creative games, the Mac gaming scene seems to be losing its identity. Even the big shareware companies -- Ambrosia, Freeverse, Pangea -- are moving away from Mac games to focus on productivity software and iOS games.
How do you feel about this shift, as one of the innovators and -- some would say -- heroes of the first 10-15 years of games on the Mac?
JC: That's understandable. No doubt i'd be writing iOS games if I weren't at Apple. You have to go where the market and audience are. To be sure, though, it was a different and an exciting time back in those earlier days of the Macintosh. MacWorld Expo was more exciting. You'd see indie games and apps every year on the showroom floor. At some point it seemed like the trade shows more or less became one iPod skin company next to another. The apps were coming from the big guns like Adobe, etc.
While the indie scene (shareware I suppose) may have got a second life with the Internet and PayPal, they weren't at the trade shows.
Magazines, too, like MacWorld and Mac User, became less relevant when you could get your news online, and then the community around Mac sort of disappeared. If there were great indie games there was no central place to go to find out about them.
How's that for a nostalgic rant of sorts? Now is when I guess I curse about young people these days. :-)