by Jeanne DeVoe2
From the Stone Age to the Mobile Age: An Interview with John Gaby
Thirty-five years ago three college students developed the dungeon crawler Oubliette on the PLATO Learning System, a mainframe computer that took up an entire room. One of those students, software developer John Gaby, recently created a version of that same game for mobile systems, Android and iOS. Hardcore Droid’s, Jeanne DeVoe, caught up with Mr Gaby the other day to ask him about the role he played in video game history, the development of Oubliette from a mainframe dungeon crawler to a PC classic, as well as its present iteration as a mobile game. ~ed.
In a gaming world dominated by youngsters, John Gaby, 59, one of the creators of the classic dungeon crawler Oubliette, stands out as one of the old-timers of gaming – a game designer whose roots go way back to the birth of computer games in the 1970s.
Gaby was a graduate student in physics at the University of Illinois in the 1970s when he met undergraduate Jim Schwaiger, who shared his passionate interest in programming. Schwaiger had played the popular “Dungeons and Dragons” board game in the 70s but was impatient with the long set-up for the game. Players were forced to wait hours, while they all rolled dice to determine what kind of character they would play and what their traits would be. Schwaiger’s solution was to build a computer game based on “Dungeons and Dragons” that would have the same complex characters and story lines minus the tedious preparation and he launched Oubliette in 1977.
Schwaiger and Gaby and another graduate student friend, Bacherd “Mike” DeLong, were fortunate to have access to the PLATO mainframe computer system based at the University of Illinois that powered educational programs for the college and at sites throughout the country. The massive computer had the power and the memory to support a complex game with three-dimensional graphics in black and orange that would seem rudimentary today but were unheard of at the time. When PLATO wasn’t being used during the day, they took over at night to work on the game. The players, most of whom were based at Illinois, were hooked and often stayed up all night to play. But it was difficult to launch a game as a business in those early days. Schwaiger launched his own early computer versions of the game including one version on the Commodore 64, while Gaby went off to work on various attempts at the Internet at the General Instrument Co. and Bell Telephone Laboratory and IBM. Schwaiger eventually became a radiologist and ended up in South Dakota but he kept up his interest in programming and the two former partners remained friends over the decades.
Flash forward to 2010 when Gaby returned to his roots as a game programmer and began his own company GabySoft Inc. to do just that. He remembered Oubliette fondly and hit on the idea of reviving the game for iPhones and Android. Remarkably, Schwaiger still had the original programs he had used for the DOS Oubliette version, which still had hundreds of die-hard fans. Gaby worked to retrofit the game to become a single-player game in an earlier iPhone edition and later, Oubliette for Android was born.
True to its name (an oubliette is a dungeon that is only accessible from a hatch in a high ceiling), Oubliette is a tough game even in its current, easier incarnation. That’s been both a drawback and a draw of the game, which has received high marks from hardcore gamers but has also gotten its share of complaints about its difficulty.
We spoke with Gaby from his home in San Diego about the early days of computer gaming, the birth of Oubliette, the challenges of starting a gaming company, his views of current games and what he sees in Oubliette’s future. We found Gaby isn’t afraid to call them as he sees them, whether he’s taking aim at current computer games or giving an honest assessment of his own product. But underlying the crusty attitude of this gaming pioneer is a passion for the game that has literally withstood the test of time.
Hardcore Droid: Can you tell us about your company GabySoft?
John Gaby: I write apps for mobile devices (phones and tablets) and work from home right now. When you sell apps for a few bucks apiece you have to sell a lot to make any money at all. It’s a very tough business.
HD: When you began playing and working on Oubliette, as a college student back in 1977, video games were mostly arcade-style games. Can you discuss its links to the popular game “Dungeons and Dragons?”
JG: Oubliette began way back in the 1970s. It evolved from the board game ‘Dungeons and Dragons which we used to call it “Paper D&D” back then. Dungeons and Dragons involved much rolling of dice and such, and Schwaiger wanted to create a computer version that would do all of it for you and so Oubliette was born. Each person ran one character and you played with six or seven people. It was a very social game like paper D&D was.
HD: Did you ever play (the traditional) Dungeons and Dragons?
I only ever played paper D&D one time and it was so boring I said I’m not going to do this again. I’d worked on Oubliette for some period of time before I ever even played the board game.
HD: Tell us about what you were doing when you and Schwaiger developed the game.
JG: I was a graduate student in physics and, believe it or not, Schwaiger was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, which had a computer system called PLATO, a very early attempt at computer education. From the gaming point of view, this was the 70s, there were all these terminals, all these graphic terminals. The terminals had 512 by 512 pixel displays. In the 70s that was huge, and we had hundreds of terminals attached to this computer. There were terminals all over the country.
HD: What were the system specs on that thing? How big was it?
Gaby: It was a cyber computer, it was a powerful computer. Today, your phone probably has more power than it had but in its day it was very powerful.
The computer itself was a huge computer, it was a ‘mainframe’ which took up a whole room, but the terminal could sit on a desk, and was about the size of an old CRT monitor with a keyboard. It was just a dumb terminal, however, and all the commands were sent to it from a central computer via telephone line. The games ran on the central computer at the University of Illinois. Later, there may have been other mainframes set up that ran PLATO, but when I was there I’m pretty sure that was the only mainframe there was. People from around the world were all connected to that computer which back then was very fast.
HD. How did it work playing on the PLATO system?
JG: PLATO was a timeshare system and everyone had their own terminal and character. They were all connected via hard wire to the central computer. The terminals were pretty much dumb graphics terminals and were all black and white (orange and black actually). The technology was really kind of unique back then. Memory was very expensive so you couldn’t have the amount of RAM necessary to back up a 512 by 512 display. The display itself was a plasma panel and it had some built-in memory which made it possible to support what was then a fairly high resolution display. The most important thing was that all of the terminals were the same which meant that we could count on having one specific display available for every user of our game. The terminals were scattered all over the campus — physics had 30, other locations might have 20 or 30 and there were single ones all over the country, all connected via phone lines. People were playing on terminals from other campuses all over the country.
More of Jeanne DeVoe’s interview with John Gaby…