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


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

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