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Interview with Chuck Sommerville,
Designer of Chip's Challenge

MS: Chip's Challenge is one of the first games to use elements of the classic Sokoban puzzle and expand the idea with many new game elements. How did the idea for Chip's Challenge originate?

Chuck Sommerville: Chip's Challenge was originally written to expand the initial product release for the Atari Lynx hand held game system. I was on the development team at Epyx when the hand held games were being designed. I was working on a tank game for the Lynx that was canceled. I then wrote support code and did level design for some of the other initial Lynx games. Since I had some free time, I decided to propose a map based puzzle game. It really was a throwback to the first game I ever published called Snake Byte for the Apple II, also a simple map based action/puzzle game. Since Epyx was desperate for more games for the Lynx launch, I was given the go-ahead. So, I got to do the game I always wanted to play myself, free from the restraints of the marketing people who thought they knew what would sell.

Inspired by Sokoban, Boulder Dash, Crystal Caverns, and Lode Runner, I wrote the basic game engine in just a few weeks. I also spent a lot of time working at home after hours on it. Luckily for me, many of the programmers for the other Lynx titles were finished with their products and just helping them through test. I got to use their talent for level design (you can see their names in the credits of the Lynx version). I also hired a good friend Bill Darrah, who designs puzzles for the world's top elite puzzle collectors, to design levels for Chip's Challenge. He was happy to get paid a decent fee to do what he was born to do. He designed about 1/3 of the original levels, I designed about 1/3 of them, and the remainder were designed by the rest of the team. I also had an army of testers coming off other products to prove that all the levels were solvable and to report on how fun and how difficult the levels were. I was given the editorial control of which levels went into the game, and in what order.

MS: You created many of the original levels of the game. What were your sources of inspiration, and what design tips would you give our Return To Wonderland players who enjoy creating their own levels?

Chuck Sommerville: The levels I designed were inspired by random thoughts, and the possibilities of the game elements themselves. One way to come up with a new idea is to think of ways to use an element in a manner that you have never seen it used before. As an example from Chip's Challenge, monsters, buttons and doors could be used to build a simple counter that would determine the time when the access to a particular part of the maze would close. So the solution had to involve getting to that access point before the monster machine timer finished counting down.

Another way to make a good level design is to come up with an idea inspired by a real life process and try to model it in the level. One of the designers, Peter Englebright, came up with a most interesting level, "Perfect Match", which was inspired by a description of bubble memory. Bubble memory was an experimental form of computer memory with a string of bits that were continuously rotating around on a circuit. He built a level that did a simple simulation of this process. You could add a bit with a clone machine or delete a bit by diverting a monster to drown. It was an imaginative design.

Another good tip for level design is to avoid levels that are designed to be tedious, doing the same thing over and over again. It is much more interesting to make a level have many solution, and make searching for the optimal solution part of the goal. The designer may not even know what the optimal solution is. The way to design a level like this is to give the player lots of trade off decisions to make, like "Do I get more points going after that bonus point, or does the time it takes to collect it make it cost more than it's worth?" A handful of decisions like this can make the combinational possibilities large, and the search difficult. Optimal block pushing puzzles can also work this way.

MS: Do you have plans for the future of Chip or other puzzle games?

Chuck Sommerville: I always have plans. Actually doing it is another thing. Remember, that game writing is no longer a full time job for me. I have a real day job that pays my bills. For a few years now I have been working on a game I call "Puzzle Studio." I have almost nothing to show for it though, because I keep restarting the project and re-defining it. The plan is for the game to not only include the ability to design levels, but also for programmers to be able to easily add new game elements. As far as Chip is concerned, I know people are awaiting CC2. Keep up hope, I do. The prospect is never dead as long as CC1 is still popular. CC2 may someday see the light of day.

MS: Chuck, thank you very much for your time!

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