Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Story of Ribbit

Around 1980 for fun in New Jersey we would go visit the electronic video arcades to play various games like Asteroids, Pac-Man, Tempest, Missile Command and many others. I was not much of a player but I was fascinated by the games themselves and wondering what it was like to program them. Between high school and college in the summer of 1981, a high school friend Chris Eisnaugle and I tried programming up a few games on his Apple II. I remember getting a passable version of Asteroids working in a couple of days.
We talked with a computer magazine writer who said we could legally sell a game based on an arcade game as long as we changed the name and slightly changed the user interface. We focused on the game Frogger which was not yet available for the Apple and created Ribbit written mostly over winter break. That spring we sold the program through a local computer store before we got a cease-and-desist order from Sierra Online, who had bought the personal computer rights to Frogger. So we ceased and desisted but not before 1200 copies of the program got sold. I made about $2000 from the program, not bad for a college freshman in 1982. Also a computer magazine review of Frogger liked our program better!
"Sierra Online's Frogger is even worse than the game named after the sound a frog makes."
In the summer of 1982 I worked as a instructor/counselor at the Original Computer Camp, Inc. in Los Olivos, California, which had a series of two-week sessions. Early in the summer none of the campers had heard about Ribbit but later on quite a few did. Not because of the 1200 legal copies but because pirated versions of the game were widespread. At first I was quite upset at the piracy, even deleting the game from the disks of the campers who had the game with them ("There is no honor among thieves" one such camper complained referring to the fact that we had stolen the idea of the game from Frogger). But soon I realized that we weren't selling any more legal copies anyway and the game lived on through its pirated versions. Still it wasn't long before Ribbit was mostly forgotten. On the webpage I set up for Ribbit I posted a pirated version of the game I found on the web. To get the original version I would have to find the disks buried somewhere in my mother's house and then find a machine that can read floppy disks from a time when disks were floppy.


  1. Interesting... I wonder what percentage of theoretical computer scientists have a hacker past, and what percentage are woolly-minded Platonists who can't figure out Latex and in different circumstances might have been classicists or theologians?

  2. I got my start programming by writing video games. I mostly did minor things until my sophomore year when my friends and I got together and made a game for the Macintosh. It was an adventure game similar to the Legend of Zelda. We distributed it as freeware. (Had we any idea what the GPL was, we might have made it free software, but that was not a popular idea for the Macintoshes then.) It was pretty rewarding to then go to college and find people who actually heard of and played the game.

    Anyway, I became less interested in games and more interested in programming languages as I went on. Hmm, I should stop this post now, however, because it is beginning to sound too much like a Personal Statement.

  3. Now, in the age of huge game software companies, its amazing to think that, not long ago, individuals could write games that would sell. The most famous example, I think, is that of Prince of Persia, which was an extremely popular game in its time. It was apparently entirely created by one recent college grad (http://princeofpersia3d.com/html/leg/leg_body_1.html).

  4. I graduated from Nintendo to CS when I was 11. For me, learning how videogames are made was a life-changing revelation, comparable to learning how human beings are made.

  5. Lance, is your post intended as a statement for the value of piracy in software preservation? Or, to put it another way, a reflection about the suitability of current copyright laws in software.

  6. No, I was just trying to tell a story. It's hard to argue that the world is better served because you can play a pirated version of my ancient Ribbit game.

  7. But your post does bring up the rather important issue of data preservation. All my old college stuff is on some very old (hard) Mac disks. I think I have an old Mac computer in the attic that, if I could get it to turn on, could possibly read those disks. But even then I'm not sure I could get the files onto a network somewhere.

    I'd like to think these hardware incompatibility problems are now gone, given how connected we are to the network.

  8. Dr. Fortnow,

    I'm a little late to this post, but I didn't realize that you were the co-author of Ribbit. I and my fellow developers loved that game. I don't recall whether that game was in double-hires (but the photo makes me believe by the color scheme that it was).

    I was a "hack" game developer at that period in history originally on the Apple ][. You are right, the Sierra On-Line version was horrible. The "good" assembler of the day was Merlin and you were no one if you didn't have the hi-res card that gave you 80 columns. Wow, branches that cannot span more than a range of 256 bytes (-127, +128) and other limitations of the 6502 made life difficult. Self modifying code was a must for performance in most games. I might even have an old copy of SoftTalk magazine with a review of your game.

    (sigh) Your post brings back fond memories of a time when computing was fun and less {complex}. What I wouldn't give for a simple session of Karateka on an old Apple ][e.

    Ok, enough sentimental rubbish.


  9. Huh.... I was born in the CS world through programming a 4 players TRON game in GFA Basic on Atari ST, because at this time no game was allowing us to play all together with my 3 brothers. After that came the programming of some stereovision, and artificial intelligence of AI players, which pushed to read more.

    A whole generation of Computer Scientists were created by video-games, but that this is not true anymore, as the standard for games went up and beginners can not cope. It is a loss, barely compensated by programming contests organized at the undergraduate and high-school levels. I wonder if we could find a similar "hook" for younger generations?

  10. Wow... thats cool... On the flip side of Computer Camp... I attended one in Moodist Ct. back maybe in 1982. I went there with my Apple 2+ and had NO IDEA you could copy games! For two weeks it was a game copying fiasico. It was the worst kept secret there. From what I remember all the campers said not to say anything in front of the counslers, but at the end of my two weeks there I heard someone say that all the games we had were cracked by one of them. Everything I came home with said Mr. Xerox. Weird.

    Anyhow... I totally remember Ribbit... don't remember Frogger by Sierra Online though. :)

  11. Ah Ribbit, how much I remember coding that game and all the insanity of dealing with 6502, but I wouldn't trade those memories for anything. I still remember other games like our version of Scramble that had full screen scrolling which was unheard of at that point.

    I agree with one of the other comments, the days of simplicity seem all but gone and along with it went the creativity and drive in that industry. Seems most things are EA games these days or clones of one another. Not all, but many.

    How is everything Lance, haven't talked to you in quite a while, hope all is goin well with you.

  12. I tried desperately, at age 10, to reproduce my favorite video games via my first great birthday present, a Timex-Sinclair 1000. The (presumably expensive) later gift of a 16K memory pack overheated frequently enough to make it mostly a lost cause. You could save your programs to audio cassette, but only if the main ram didn't overheat beforehand. Zork on the Apple II later turned me on to CS, because I realized that you didn't need graphics, or even anything really complicated to make a game fun, even though graphics rapidly became the most important feature of a good game (does anyone remember the first cheesy turn-based 3d adventure game in the arcades? 'dirk someone' i think was the hero, and the inter-scene delay made it obvious that it was loading new scenes from some kind of slow medium). Through all the fog of my past reminiscing, however, I can state distinctly that I remember ribbit, and I remember that frogger blew in comparison. karateka, prince of persia, summer games... ah, the memories. i certainly don't think that 'kids these days' can't find that same inspiration -- they clearly can. games are a great inspiration for learning how to really 'use' a computer.

  13. Hey. Is this Christopher. This is Mitchell. Todd halperns nephew. I solid like to speak to you privately. I also like computer programming. My email is mrmitch100@aol.com. Thanks