From multiplayer Pac-Man to a twenty year old company

This blog post does not contain big insights. It’s just the story of the very first days of our company which happens to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month. And because most stories begins a lot earlier than when the narrator begins to tell them, I’ll try to tell this one from the start.

It starts with an eight-year old boy that has access to his very first personal computer, a Tandon 8088 with 8 MHz. Just to put this glorified pocket calculator in today’s perspective: A basic arduino board has more power. But back in the days, this personal computer was a magical tool that could act as all kinds of things, including a gaming machine. One of the first games on this machine was Pac-Man, in 80×25 character ASCII “graphics” and without any scoreboard or competitive element. It was strictly single player and the computer-controlled ghosts acted strictly by their algorithms, so it became a repetitive chore rather soon. The boy would play the usual route, add some new steps at the end and watch the ghosts react. After some time, the boy could predict the ghosts’ reactions and plan the new steps with accuracy, clearing level after level. The ghosts never adapted.

By the age of twelve, the boy knew that he would become a “computer engineer”. Every occupational counselor (two in total) advised against this decision, not because it was bad, but because the counselors didn’t know anything about the profession. But the boy sticked to his decision and began his studies in computer science immediately after school was over. This was in 1997, when the internet still made sounds and you could ruin an hour-long download just by picking up the phone.

The boy, now a young man far from home, studied basic computer science for six month until the semester break arrived. Most other students returned home, but he stayed and teamed up with other students still on campus. They planned to program a computer game. A pac-man game, but with multiplayer abilities. One team would be “the players” or “pac-men”, the other team would be “the ghosts”. If somehow there wouldn’t be a dozen human players in front of the keyboard, the computer would control the remaining avatars. Game controls worked with split keyboard and – planned for later versions – over the network.

The only way the students knew how to organize the project was to transform one room into a computer-ridden workshop and hack away. Every horizontal platform in the room became a desk. The project should happen in a span of 24 hours. Today, this would be called a “game jam“. After 24 hours, all we had was a map. No game, no players, nothing exciting – just the future game’s map. But we agreed to continue working until the game is finished.

It took the three students a whole week. A week without much sleep, slippy food and lots of source code. Because we didn’t know about version control yet (nobody told us and we didn’t set up a local network, anyway), we had to structure the code in way that would allow us to work on different parts without collisions and transfer them from computer to computer using floppy disks. We had to maintain a list of files that were modified and did so on a central whiteboard that the young man had bought at the beginning of his studies. This whiteboard became the planning area where we would keep track of our modifications, tasks and concepts, including the stereotypical post-it notes. In hindsight, you could call it a chaotic story board. Without the whiteboard, we probably would have failed.

But after the week, the game was finished. We had developed a multiplayer pac-man in Java, complete with graphics, sounds and multi-threading. It was playable! We named it “Hubert 2D”, a reference to both “Duke Nukem 3D”, a very 90s game, and to one of our most famous fellow students. The game was blazingly fast – so fast, in fact, that you often lost track of your avatar. The unofficial motto of the game turned out to be “where am i?”. It was crammed with features. Just a Pac-Man where you could gobble up little pills and evade the ghosts was not enough for us. First, there was Hubert, the boss ghost. He appeared randomly and could not be player-controlled. He had a rocket launcher. If you defeated Hubert, you could grab the rocket launcher and, well, launch rockets. How can you defeat a rocket-launching ghost in Pac-Man? With your chainsaw, evidently. Players could pick up chainsaws to defend themselves against the ghosts. Ghosts could pick up energy shields to defend themselves against the chainsaws. Players could place mines to blow up ghosts that didn’t pay attention. Ghosts could place bombs to create new passageways to evade the mines or blow up the players. Sheep wandered around cluelessly, being blown up by mines, bombs, chainsaws or rockets and generally acting like a mobile roadblock. Teleporters added to the confusion by instantly teleporting you to either another teleporter or a random place on the map (leading to the infamous “where am i?”). But above all, you could poison and heal other avatars with various potions. Taking everything into account, this wasn’t Pac-Man anymore. This was team deathmatch that lasted until all the pills on the map were gobbled up accidentally.

Two funny moments during development and testing (aka playing) will always stay in my memory:

  • You could poison an avatar, but also heal it with medicine. Being healed was indicated by an “hallelujah” sound effect. But, because every new avatar on the map would be created in the “healed” state, we had a serious “hallelujah” epidemic going on. It took us way longer than it should have to connect the dots and eliminate the sound effect during creation.
  • Every avatar on the map moved with the same speed. Some avatars like bombs or mines decided not to move at all, others like sheep and Hubert only moved sometimes, but rockets flew twice as fast. So it was not possible to outrun a rocket. Because of this imbalance in power, we deemed the Hubert boss to be invincible in close combat. You could not walk up to him without facing a rocket that reached you at least a tile before you could employ your chainsaw. We were proven wrong, when one player used an energy shield in combination with a chainsaw and a hallway corner to sneak up on Hubert, neutralize the first rocket with the energy shield and defeat Hubert with the chainsaw before the second rocket could be fired. Because we thought that Hubert would be invincible, this move didn’t gain any in-game points. But the moment turned legendary immediately.

This week of intensive teamwork, combined with the result of an actual game, provided us with the trust and groundworks for future collaboration. So it was no wonder that, just a few semesters later, we came up with the idea of selling this collaboration ability in the form of a software development company. We were more knowledgeable, better equipped and had trained working together multiple times. What better times than now?

So we founded our company, the Softwareschneiderei (“software tailoring”) in late 2000, twenty years ago. Because we really meant it to be earnest, we invested the money to create a limited liability company and had to learn all the topics and obligations that follow such a creation in a very short time. We were still studying at university, but working for our own company, in a rented office, in every free minute. Our primary goal was to finish our studies with a degree. Our secondary goal was to let the company survive long enough to make it the primary goal after graduation. The plan worked out and here we are, twenty years later.

The statistics says that only one out of ten companies survives their first five years. Even after that, keeping a company afloat is not sunshine sailing. Somehow, we made it. Despite all our mistakes and misconceptions (and there were many, most on a more serious level than deeming Hubert to be invincible), we developed our company in a way that provides benefit for our customers and profit for our employees.

And in a corner of my desk drawer, there is still a 3,5″ floppy disk labelled “Hubert 2D”. Because that’s the source code that got this company started, 23 years ago.