Looking back at Pitfall! 36 years later, what parts of the game are you most proud of?
One of the hardest technical challenges in Pitfall! was coming up with a way to define more than 200 game screens in the very limited ROM space we had to work with. I created a mathematical algorithm that could generate the next screen to the right, specifying the location and types of terrain, obstacles and pickups for that screen rather than storing that information in the ROM. A complementary algorithm was needed to redefine the previous screen if you turned around and went back to the left. With those two algorithms I computed the world layout in about 20 bytes of program. I don’t think that had ever been done, nor has it been done since.
Was there a defining moment where you realized that Pitfall was going to be something special?
There was no doubt during development that Pitfall! was going to open up a whole new genre of games - the genre that came to be known as “platformers.” With screen-to-screen game play, the next screen could be the start of a completely different environment. If ROM allowed (which it didn’t for many years), you could theoretically run from the jungle to the city, from the city to a ship docked on the ocean, etc. I just had to make Pitfall! good enough to achieve that promise and it would lead the way into the future.
Were there unused concepts, e.g. features, levels, or items, that you could not add to Pitfall! due to system limitations?
I was pretty happy with the completeness of the game. When limited by ROM size, the goal is to cram everything into the available program space and hope that you end up with enough game play for a fun game. (I had several projects that reached that point and were not fun, and those games got shelved.) With Pitfall!, by the time the ROM was filled I felt that there was enough challenge, game play, and enjoyment that I could publish the game and be proud of it. So I really didn’t leave anything on the table.
Are there any interesting/funny stories to share about the development of Pitfall?
About a week before the development of Pitfall! was complete, it had only one life. I was thinking of creating a “pure” game that asked the question “how far can you get on one life?” The other designers in the lab at Activision convinced me that the world was not ready for that, and badgered me until I put in three lives. In hindsight it was a good decision. I still hear from people that the game seemed very hard for younger players, but most agree that the challenging game play made for a more rewarding experience once mastered.
Have you ever wanted to develop a new Pitfall in its original look/feel?
A few years ago I did a Kickstarter project to make an updated jungle adventure, but it failed to fund. So yes, I have shown interest in doing something like that. But I would only do it if the project was funded with enough budget to achieve the promise of what Pitfall! could become, and that isn’t likely to happen. (And, of course, unless Activision was involved it couldn’t be called Pitfall!.)
What is your take on the lasting interest in classic games, including Atari 2600 titles, even with all of the modern entertainment options out there?
When we made games in the classic era we couldn’t fall back on beautiful graphics, so the games had to be fun to play. Classic Gaming enthusiasts tell me that many early games are still more fun to play than modern games, and gaming is about fun game play so the resurgence can be explained. On a purely selfish personal note, I am proud that Pitfall! still made a recent list of the top 100 games of all time (barely holding on at #99), even after many hundreds of thousands of games had been published since Pitfall!