A History of Dandy Dungeon

by Jack Palevich

People have been asking me for a history of the Dandy Dungeon video game. Here's what I remember.

Thesis of Terror

Dandy was originally written in the fall of 1982 as "Thesis of Terror", my MIT bachelor's thesis. Dandy Dungeon was actually my back-up thesis proposal. My thesis advisor laughed at my orignal thesis proposal, which was to write an Atari 800 emulator for the MIT Lisp Machine. (He laughed at the economic absurdity of using a $100,000 Lisp machine to emulate a $800 home computer.) In retrospect it's too bad that he laughed -- it would have been cool to have written one of the first personal computer emulators.

The original "Thesis of Terror" concept was a two-computer, five-person game, consisting of four "adventure party" players sharing a collaborative view of the game on an Atari 800 home computer, and a fifth player acting as dungeon master controlling the action from a separate computer. In my mind the fifth player would act like a paper-and-pencil game DM, moving the story along and triggering events like attack-waves of monsters.

The two machines communicated using serial ports. However, time constraints meant that the interactive dungeon master role was never implemented. The dungeon-master's machine, a Hewlett-Packard Pascal Workstation, was used solely as a file server, sending new maps to the Atari on demand.

Cellular Automita

The game engine was inspired by John Conway's Game of Life. Life is a cellular automata. Each "turn" the game examines each cell of the grid that makes up the playfield, and decides whether or not that cell should be "live" or "dead". In Dandy this same basic mechanism is used, but the rules are more complicated. For example the rule that provided monster AI was: "if the cell has a monster, and there is an empty cell adjacent to the monster in the direction of the closest player, erase the monster in the current cell, and draw it in the empty cell."

This algorithm was easy to implement using the limited resources of the Atari 800. It took the same time to run no matter how many monsters were currently on the map. It also had the desirable property that any dungeon that could be drawn in the editor would run correctly and efficiently. The level designer did not have to worry about "correct" placement of the monsters or generators to ensure that the map would work.

Design Influences

The gameplay design of Thesis of Terror was influenced by the Tolkein "Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" books and the fantasy pencil-and-paper game Dungeons and Dragons. However, I have a confession to make: I have never actually played D&D. My excuse was that I was living out of the USA from '73 to '76, which was the height of D&D's popularity among my friends. When I returned to the US, they were all tired of it, and didn't want to play. I bought a set of the game manuals, and read thru them, but never had a chance to actually play.

Later, at my college dorm (MIT's New House II), I saw some dorm-mates play D&D campaigns in the lounge. But I was too busy playing and writing computer games to play D&D for myself.

The original name of my game was "Thesis of Terror". There was no actual terror involved, except perhaps for my own terror at having to write a thesis. When I commercialized the game I changed the name to "Dandy", as a play on the phonetic pronunciation of "D and D", which at the time was a generic term for dungeon adventure role-playing games.

Video Game Inspirations

There were several video games that served as inspiration for Dandy.

Never Heard of Rogue

Contrary to what you might expect, Dandy was not influenced by any of the Roguelike games, because I was unaware of Rogue at the time Dandy was designed. I had of course played the famous text adventure games "Adventure" and "Zork", but had not yet seen a rogue-like game.

You can tell that I hadn't had any experience with Rogue-likes because Dandy has just one kind of monster, in three levels of strength. If I had played Rogue I think I would have borrowed the idea of many different kinds of monsters, as well as the idea of randomized dungeons.

Co-designer Joel Gluck

Thesis of Terror's gameplay was designed with help from Joel Gluck, who was a freshman at MIT at the time. Gluck designed several of the levels in the game. He also invented some of the common idioms of Dandy-style games. For example, he designed the "funnel trap", where treasure was placed in such a way that the players would run to the treasure, causing a wall of monsters placed just off screen to activate and charge on the party.

Joel designed many other video games, both before and after helping me with Dandy. He's a remarkably clever game designer, and his games deserve to be more famous.

Playtesting

I was lucky to be developing Dandy while living in a dorm. I was assured of a steady stream of dorm-mates to help playtest my game.

Several changes were made to the gameplay as a result of playtesting:

Dandy

After graduating from MIT in January of '83, I got a dream job working for Atari in the Atari Research division. I was hired to help design an operating system for the unreleased Atari Rainbow personal computer. Besides helping with the OS, I also wrote device drivers for the GPU and audio chips that were being developed for that computer.

While working at Atari, I continued developing the game. I cleaned up the code during the period from February to May 1983. The major changes were:

Dandy vs. Gauntlet

Gauntlet is an Atari arcade game that looks a lot like a polished and expanded version of Dandy dungeon. As far as I know, it was developed by Atari Coin-op developers who had seen my game and decied to make their own version.

When Gauntlet was released, it caught me by surprise. By that time I had left Atari and left the video game industry. I contacted Atari and took legal steps to ensure that my rights to sell and further develop the original Dandy game were protected. I also requested that my name appear in the Gauntlet credits as the original game designer. Atari demurred on the later point, claiming that it would be too expensive to update the ROMs.

I foolishly agreed with that. In retrospect I should have insisted that I be credited on updated versions of the ROM (of which there were probably several) and on sequels and ports (of which there were many).

As a consolation prize I did negotiate a full-sized Gauntlet arcade game, which I kept and enjoyed for many years.

Stuck in a Rut

I've ported Dandy to a bunch of different environments over the years. I have collected some of the implementations on github: Dandy Dungeon Source Code It's not that I'm obsessed with Dandy, it's just that it's easy for me to dash off an implementation in a few days. Other people might implement "Pong" or "Asteroids" for similar reasons.