Recently I wrote about a classic game I love called Spaceward Ho! You can read my thoughts about the game here:

For quite some time I have been wanting to do an interview with the developers responsible for such an amazing classic. As luck would have it, I was able to talk to Peter Commons the original developer of Spaceward Ho! I found it awesome to be able to bat around questions with Peter about a game so close to my gamer DNA. If you are not familiar with Spaceward Ho! it is available now on the iPad, iPhone and Mac.

jdodson: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions today. Spaceward Ho! is one of the coolest games I remember from my childhood. I played it for the first time at my friends house and being in awe at how cool it was as I tried to conquer the universe. Thank you for being part of such a classically awesome game!

You were the developer of Spaceward Ho! and as such I wonder if you could describe how you fit into the project and what your duties were?

Peter: I was the programmer for the first 5 versions of the game for the Mac. I of course contributed lots of ideas for the game as well and even am the source of a couple of the original sounds like "Let's get outta here!" Joe Williams was the primary designer. Howard Vives did the graphics. And Mark Madeley most of the sounds.

jdodson: Delta Tao Software were the publishers of Spaceward Ho! How did you first meet up with them and Joe Williams?

Peter: A friend of mine was interested in their first paint program, Color MacCheese, and brought me along to meet them as they lived in Sunnyvale, not far from where we lived.

jdodson: About how long did it take from you being introduced to the project to you guys shipping the final version?

Peter: About 6-9 months, if I recall. It was a long time ago - 1990, to be exact.

jdodson: After the game launched was there anything that your remember or were surprised with from peoples reactions to the game?

Peter: One of the most fun parts about "The Ho!" as we called it that I didn't expect was it's strong appeal as a multi-player game. Back then, multi-player was hard to set up. The original Ho! relied on a common AppleShare file server (it actually traded info by writing to different parts of a shared file - this was a much more guaranteed and easy-to-set up option than trying to get computers directly networked at the time). People would bring their Macs over and we'd set up a network of them at someone's house - I remember many "Ho! Downs" as we called them that had more than a dozen people (Ho! allowed up to 20 shared players in the original versions).

jdodson: Spaceward Ho! was released in 1990 and still lives on most recently being ported to the iPhone and iPad. I wonder how you look back at the game now having such a long lifespan?

Peter: It's pretty cool, to be honest. Joe used to always say that if it's a good game, it doesn't have to have the best graphics or anything else. Clearly Spaceward Ho! has passed the test of time to prove it's just fun to play.

jdodson: It's interesting that you say that because Spaceward Ho! has some of the most memorable graphics and sound from most games I played at the time. I really liked the way the ships change as you improvedthem and thought the planets always looked totally awesome. Playing it now on the iPhone with a Retina screen I see some artifacts but I still love the graphics. Its like coming back to a classic book, they still work very well.

Peter: Point taken - we tried to make the graphics and sounds cool, but we didn't have a studio creating them nor were they at the cutting edge in terms of use of the best rendering technologies (e.g. 3D) of the time. Just like the game, we tried to make it simple, yet elegant. Building on my previous comments, simple and elegant and functional and fun - just enough to make it good. (And yes, I love the graphics and the sounds, too to be clear).

jdodson: How involved are you with the more recent ports of Spaceward Ho?

Peter: I provided the source code, asked lots of clarifying quesitons ("what the heck does this line of code do?"), and helped beta test/suggest improvements.

jdodson: Another game that was around at the time of Spaceward Ho! was the old BBS Door game Tradewars. Was there anything that inspired Spaceward Ho! from the Tradewars itself? As a child they seemed like different takes on how to take over the universe yet I loved both. I guess I had an affinity for Galactic rule from a young age.

Peter: There were lots of similar games - Tradewars, Masters of Orion, and others. Other than setting it in space, which suggested certain commonalities with other space games, we didn't use any other game as a basis, no.

jdodson: One thing I love about Spaceward Ho! is its simplicity. The game allows you to dominate the entire universe and you accomplish that goal with very simple game mechanics. I wonder what you removed from early versions of the game to pair it down to what we have now?

Peter: From the very beginning, we had the mantra "sacrifice realism at every turn for a good game" - this meant that we didn't have a lot in there extra ever because we tried to keep it simple from day one. Money, for example, is the "renewable" resource and metal the "non-renewable" one. Unless something felt like it added new value (a different strategic dimension), we kept it out from the beginning.

Peter: As far as changes from v1, there were some additions over time where we saw a need for something extra:
- armageddon and biologicals to help eliminate stalemates later in games when everyone is out of metal but not dead
- tankers to save stranded ships without requiring you to send a whole colony ship there
- satellites IIRC weren't in v1 (or maybe just early beta versions - can't remember)
- radical tech as a whole came later
- so did the idea of savings
- and the various levels of starting planet (outpost - abundant)

jdodson: The game I remember always had Satellites but I wasn't sure what that version I first played was. Good thing they were present too, I find them integral to a good strategy. Its interesting because I notice the new types of ships added in the iPhone version with Dreadnauts & Tankers. It's interesting because I see why they were added but so far have stuck to the Fighters, Colony Ships, Scouts & Satellites. I am looking forward to trying out the new ships in some future games but I have been making smaller galaxies and "trying" to win in 20 minutes or less. Keeping to a simple formula helps :D I think my best time at this point is 45 minutes as I still like to take my time :D

Peter: A ship parked around a planet is a satellite; it just costs more :-)
There were no new items added to the iPhone version - everything (including dreadnaughts and tankers) started in a previous version. DNs are fun but dangerous to use - great until you see one wiped out and all the metal gone in one fell swoop!

Peter:The other thing we did was to simplify the money mechanics. For example, in early versions, the sliders for the planets had a bar which was the "minimum spend" required to keep the planet afloat. When you dragged the sliders for each planet, you had to make sure the bars stayed above the lines - leaving it below the line was the way to abandon the planet. But it was a pain to keep all those bars to the right when you were in fast expansion mode. So we changed it later such that the "min spend" was at the left edge (0) and you had the "abandon planet" option in a menu.

jdodson: What was the most challenging part about working on Spaceward Ho?

Peter: Most definitely the AI. I spend probably half my time creating the AI across multiple versions.

jdodson: Spaceward Ho! was one of the first games I remember having awesome sound effects for a computer game beyond the garbled beeping of a PC speaker. Hearing that "YAAAH" sound effect as you direct your ship blew me away! I wonder what feature you are particularly proud of that comes to mind?

Peter: The sounds were great - I was in a singing group in college @ Stanford called "Mixed Company" and one of the guys in the group named Mark Madeley was awesome at sound effects (and from Texas) so he was the obvious choice to ask to do most of the sounds.

Peter: I also loved the planet themes and the graphics and their style (done by Howard Vives).

jdodson: The planet art is fantastic. I really tried hard to terraform my planets part in to see how beautiful they could all look and get a "sea of blue planets". Its a form of incentive to the player to provide awesome art for the highest form of terraformed planet. Plus seeing the holiday themed planet hats is always awesome :D

Peter: :-) We loved doing easter eggs. Have you ever played on any birthdays?

Peter: Personally, I was proud of:

- the dragging of ship paths - always felt really clean and fun
- the AI, as noted above. Not sure if you know this, but Spaceward Ho! doesn't ever cheat - many games make themselves "hard" by giving the computer faster production/cheaper ships, etc. This is not true. The best computers may start out with the best options (e.g. abundant planets), but they never get anything you as a player can't also have.

jdodson:I think this made Spaceward Ho! challenging but never impossible. At a young age if I sort of applied myself, I could often win. Choking out a player or starving them of metal was a viable strategy and it makes sense why because if the computer cheated that wouldn't be possible.

jdodson:Thank you for making the AI not cheat, it wasn't popular to do that at the time and just now companies like Blizzard are doing it in games like Starcraft 2. Its odd as its a pretty big feature they tout that Ho! had back in 90!

Peter: :-)

jdodson: I was always curious how the undefended Planet mechanic worked. How does the attack and defense of the Planet scale VS an attacking force?

Peter: They get one shock per 50,000 inhabitants at your current weapon tech level, IIRC.

jdodson: So if you attacked a planet with 500,000 inhabitants with one fighter the planet would "shoot first" with 10 shots? Sorry, I am slow and must work this out with words until I understand it. :D

Peter: Yeah

jdodson: I was wondering though why the choice was made to not be able to terraform the "rock" planets even if it took forever? I remember as a kid trying to do this and kept sinking money into it like I could do it even if the game said it wasn't possible :D

Peter: This is still one of those either/or things to make strategic interest. You are aware that each race has a different opinion of what perfect gravity and temperature are?

jdodson: I was not aware of that.

Peter: Yeah - absolute ranges for planets go from .5 to 4.0 but "perfect gravity" for each race is between 1.0 and 2.0 - thus all players will have an equal (based on luck at least) percentage of planets in the good (.5 of perfect to 2.0 of perfect) range.

jdodson: I recently played a Spaceward Ho! game a few days ago where my starting planet was called Hobbiton. Over the years I have seen Yavin and other names I recognize from geekdom. Since I am a programmer BUT can't troll the game source I was wondering if the game picks planet names from a static list only or is it from a part static and procedurally generated list?

Peter: It's a static list that we populated with every name we could think of, from every star name to geekdom references - as long as it was not too long. The old Mac versions also let you name a planet if you won, which it would then throw into the list to pick randomly from going forward.

jdodson: What strategy do you use to conquer the universe on the highest difficulty? I am curious because find the game quite challening and havent been able to crack it playing at the highest IQ setting yet.

Peter: The hardest computers attack hard and fast and as noted above start with the maximum planetary benefits. They're also very good at leveraging all the info they have (legally acquired) of your tech levels and ship locations. Until you get far ahead in tech and/or metal/ships, you need to keep the computer guessing about what you have and where you have it. Never let the computer have an easy win where the computer gets lots of metal. And, FYI, Joe's better than I am. I've never been able to defeat multiple of the smartest computer players (although I can pretty easily 1:1).

jdodson: That makes sense, thanks for the tip. I will try to integrate that with my current strategy which is quick expand out and try to not accumulate too many planets that will never be terraformed or if I do, mine them as quick as I can. I have been realizing if I get out to too many unsustainable planets too quickly the metal yield is good but the constant cash drain is not sustainable.

Peter: Yes, it's as much a game of economy as it is ship power.

jdodson: Has there been any talk or movement on Spaceward Ho! 2?

Peter: Well the last Mac version (launched around 2000) was v5. As for the iOS versions, I know Ariton is looking at newer graphics, multiplayer, and other options, which I guess could be considered 2.0. Although note, even from v1-v5, we never really changed the game - we added things that made it easier to do what people already were doing (e.g. tanker to refuel an attack fleet vs. using a colony ship but abandoning each colony as you went) and we did plenty of things to make it look nicer (e.g. rotating planets in v3 or net server in v5), but rarely added much to change the core game play.