The Making Of…
How The Assembly Line constructed an unlikely puzzle winner in the midst of Tetris mania
How LucasArts was instrumental in The Assembly Line’s plumbing puzzle game, Pipe Mania
Astack of mismatched pipe fittings, a mostly blank ten-by-seven grid of tiles, and a sense that the square marked ‘S’ is where you’re expected to begin your stint of haphazard virtual DIY. A short, arcade-like jingle suggests a time limit – an inference quickly driven home by the steadily diminishing green gauge at the rightmost side of the screen. At this stage, it’s hard to say what will befall you when it empties. Flanking the left side of the screen is an omnipresent plumber mascot, anxiously eyeing your progress. Silently, his animated mouth gapes in anticipation. You set to work. This is Pipe Mania.
By the late 1980s, the term ‘puzzle game’ was synonymous with Tetris. After cornering the market by finding the elusive sweet spot between simple premise and stern challenge, and with each playthrough feeling a little different thanks to capricious tetromino distribution, Alexey Pajitnov’s game was everywhere, appearing on an array of home systems and even in arcades before the quintessential Game Boy adaptation. It would take something special to challenge it, but in 1989 The Assembly Line, a UK studio, set about creating a puzzle game that might square up to the Soviet giant, a game whose legacy remains powerful to this day. And it was all done in the space of a weekend.
Having bonded over a common love for Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum while studying at Bristol University in the early ’80s, Andy Beveridge,
John Dale, Adrian Stephens and Martin Day went on to form The Assembly Line, eventually working from an office in Bristol’s Stokes Croft, a short hop from the city centre. “There were kind of two stages, really,” Dale tells us. “We did some games in various groupings before The Assembly Line came together. Those games were mostly done from people’s homes – we’d go round to someone’s house and crank stuff out. When we decided we could actually make a go of this as a business, we set up The Assembly Line and rented some office space in Bristol [called] Nine Trees Studios, on a street that presumably had nine trees on it once upon a time.”
Today, The Assembly Line team has long since been disbanded, and Dale works as the deputy director of IT services at the University Of Warwick, where he’s been since the mid-’90s. Back then, however, Dale was studying for a law degree, and picked up most of his coding knowledge from Assembly Line colleagues. He recalls the “prodigious” standards his teammates worked to, and how even the vaguest of ideas could be almost instantly transformed into software. For Dale, it was this watch-and-learn philosophy that brought the team together, and although The Assembly Line banner marked the beginning of serious business, official job titles were never ascribed within the team, a testament to its sense of unity. Each member focused on what they were good at, be it coding, business, or design – whatever was required.
Following a string of shooter-inspired successes such as Interphase and Xenon 2
Megablast, The Assembly Line handling the latter project for The Bitmap Brothers, the studio turned its head towards the puzzle genre, and quickly found itself faced with a new problem. Instead of designing a handful of fixed levels, the team had to craft dozens of puzzles, and setting a suitable difficulty curve required more than just an increased enemy count firing more bullets.
“There wasn’t a real structure in the sense that the puzzles were predetermined,” Dale says. “We had two passes at this: the first was genuinely completely random, so the selection of pipes you could work with next was just randomly picked. We tried that, and concluded that it didn’t work very well, because you could essentially have long runs of ridiculously easy puzzles, and then long runs of genuinely impossible ones.
“So we switched from randomised runs to having little lists of eight or 16 pieces that seemed to make sense. Essentially, what [the] program would do was pick a list, work through that list and then pick another list; it was semi-random. That way we could make the lists get progressively harder as the game went on – for example, we might not give you as many cross pieces in higher levels as we did in lower ones.”
In its original state, Pipe Mania simply tasked players with sorting pipe fittings in a coherent order within the bounds of its time limit. Once the time was up, a green liquid – later called ‘flooz’, and later still ‘flooze’ – would start flowing from the starter square, and the player lost control of the board. From here, you were forced to passively watch in the hope that you’d covered enough of the level with functioning pipework to progress to the next stage, before the flooz reached the end of the track.
When UK publishing outfit Empire Interactive licensed Pipe Mania internationally to Lucasfilm, the American firm suggested some subtle, yet game-changing alterations. The underlying concept stood strong, but Lucasfilm felt that it would benefit from a little refinement. Dale travelled to Skywalker Ranch near San Francisco and spent a week combing over Pipe Mania’s logistics with the US team.
“Lucasfilm didn’t generally take on thirdparty things, so I guess that was kind of a reasonable sign in its own right that there was something there,” Dale says. “In hindsight, the changes they suggested were ones that lifted the game up from what we had to something significantly better. We had two [sets of] tubes, and the idea was that this was good for a twoplayer game – player one would use blue tubing, and player two would use red tubing. In the one player game, this meant you could pick from either tube.
“You would score more points with runs of either straight blue tubes, or straight red tubes, rather than intermingling them, but it gave you more chances. Lucasfilm, quite rightly, swept all that away and said, ‘No, it’s too complicated and fiddly. Ditch the second tube [set] and just
HE RECALLS HOW EVEN THE VAGUEST OF IDEAS COULD BE ALMOST INSTANTLY TRANSFORMED INTO SOFTWARE
go with a single one.’ They were right. It was much better like that.”
Lucasfilm also felt that Pipe Mania needed more charm and character, suggesting that levels include themes and avatars, such as the dazed cartoon plumber mascot who would represent the game on a host of platforms. It was one particular suggestion, though, that would help Pipe Mania become such a fondly remembered puzzler.
“I can’t believe we got this so wrong – they were absolutely right to call us on it,” Dale tells us. “Lucasfilm stepped in again and said, ‘You should be able to carry on laying pipes while the flooz is flowing.’ This meant you got this kind of race against time to get enough pieces down. It’s one of those things where in hindsight you say, ‘Well, of course it should work like that. What kind of fool would suggest otherwise?’” With Lucasfilm’s tweaks in place, Pipe
Mania (renamed Pipe Dream for the publisher’s home-soil release) soon became one of the most widely known puzzle games of all time. It has been remade across several different hardware generations, appearing on Apple II and the App Store, The Assembly Line’s beloved ZX Spectrum, and also Xbox Live.
In 1990, Pipe Dream jumped from console and home computers to arcade cabinets – an inversion of a then-standard porting process. Players were faced with a familiar setup, but this time the ‘start’ tile was matched with an ‘end’ drain (something later versions of Pipe Mania would include from level 31 onwards, but present from the beginning here). This tightened the game’s focus, meaning players now had a far more direct way of progressing through levels. Across the multitude of Pipe Mania variations that circulate the market today, the start/end level structure seems to be the most favoured. Perhaps the most famous slant on this is the hacking minigame featured in 2007’s BioShock. Contrary to what you might expect, however,
BioShock’s lead designer, Paul Hellquist, tells us he didn’t base his pipe-fitting minigame on Pipe Mania. In fact, he claims he hadn’t even heard of
Pipe Mania, and instead drew inspiration from the rewiring in Sid Meier’s Covert Action. Wires never felt suited to the underwater backdrop of Rapture, however; deep below the surface, pipes and flowing water made more sense.
“I took three-by-five-inch index cards and cut them up, drawing the pipe shapes on them,” Hellquist says. “I would then deal them out face down and grab a coworker. My colleague would play the game and I would do the work of the computer, which mostly consisted of moving a penny from tile to tile to represent the realtime movement of the flow. This process allowed me to quickly iterate things like how fast the flow should move and how big the board should be. I vividly remember the day that it went live and everyone [at Irrational] was playing the hacking minigame locally at their desks.
“It is by far the most successful iterative development cycle of my career. That thing was well understood and got more tweaks and attention than anything I’ve ever worked on, simply because so much of it could be resolved without programming and art.”
Even if it isn’t the template for BioShock’s hacking, Pipe Mania’s legacy is an enduring one. A quick search on the App Store or Google Play returns hundreds of variations on the theme, which is something Dale suggests could be down to the ease with which the game can be coded as well as the design’s suitability for touchscreen input. And Hellquist states he feels the BioShock series has since lost a sense of “getting your hands dirty” as subsequent series entries have oversimplified the hacking procedure and moved it away from The Assembly Line’s formative work, leaving less scope for systemic depth and manipulation of the world around you.
Regardless of Pipe Mania’s successes, The Assembly Line closed its doors in 1993. Some of its members would go on to work independently or join bigger firms, such as SN Systems, now a division of Sony Computer Entertainment. Dale, however, went on to become part of the University Of Warwick, and has stayed there ever since. He says he doesn’t miss game development, believing that it eventually became less about small teams working on fresh ideas and more about conglomerates swallowing up talent, creative energy dulled by corporate agendas.
“As time went by, the idea that you could just be a group of developers and just do all the stuff yourself and make a decent living out of it went away,” he says. “If we’d carried on doing it, we’d have been sucked up by a big company and become part of a giant team. Everything I heard about that time in the ’90s and early 2000s, when it was all giant teams in big companies, made me think, ‘Thank God I missed that – that sounds miserable.’ So there’s definitely part of me that thinks I got out just in time.”
The resurgence of independently developed games over recent years has returned a portion of the industry to the kind of team sizes and spirit of unbound creativity that Dale remembers fondly; those hundreds-strong productions still grab the lion’s share of attention, but small, lean teams are very much able to compete again. Yet these days, even the little guys think big, crafting huge worlds and mapping out entire galaxies, taking on the big guns at their own game. A quarter of a century ago, a tiled grid and a free weekend was all four friends needed to make a game that would survive one hardware transition after another, holding firm in the face of changing trends, flowing across the decades like water.
Format Coin-op, Game Boy, NES, PC
Publisher Empire Interactive (EU), Lucasfilm Games (NA), Video System (coin-op) Developer The Assembly Line Origin UK Debut 1989
When Lucasfilm licensed the game, aesthetic changes were put in place, adding both a mascot and background variety