The Making Of: Columns
Sega’s answer to Tetris proved to be a good alternative on the platforms it landed on, but it almost didn’t make it to market. We talk to its original creator, Jay GEERTSEN, to learn more
Find out how Jay Geertson’s humble work project turned into a huge Sega series
Everyone has a retro title that meant the world to them. For some it may be the game they played the most throughout a machine’s life, for others it may be the one they could only play over the weekend after renting it from the video rental place down the road. When it comes to Sega’s Mega Drive, those games could be anything from Sonic and Streets
Of Rage through to Earthworm Jim or Road
Rash. Few games, however, have the complete, unanimous recognition of Columns, a game that every Mega Drive owner must’ve whiled away the hours on at one point or another. This is thanks in large part to the Mega Games 1 bundle – which came packed with Super Hang-on and World
Cup Italia ‘90 – and is arguably the reason that the Tetris clone became such a staple of the console.
But while the obvious comparison with Nintendo’s puzzler is there, the story of Columns is rather surprising, forgoing the typical tales of developer endurance or a determination to do something new with videogaming. In fact, Columns wasn’t even going to be released at all.
“Around 1989, my family and I were living in Colorado Springs where I was working for Hewlett-packard as a software engineer,” says Jay Geertsen, the brain behind the jewel-matching game. “The team I was on was developing a graphical application and I was given the assignment to port the application to the X11 Window System. I had found an X11 tutorial online and was plodding through it, but before long I became a bit bored with the exercises in the tutorial. I thought that programming a simple real-time game would be more interesting and fun.” Believe it or not, but that’s where the story of Columns begins, not with a desire to release an interesting product onto the games market, but rather as a way of practicing programming for a software engineer. “I don’t recall going through a long thought process about the initial concept.” says Jay, who admits that he just wanted to “transition from the X11 tutorial to a game”. From this came the concept of manipulating falling tiles into three or more rows. “Soon after that, I decided to use colours for the tiles and that aligning colours would be the objective.”
It’d be easy to make the Tetris comparison, of course. But while the landmark puzzler released in 1984 on various platforms, it wasn’t actually until
the same year that Jay started on the concept of
Columns that Tetris was released and it became the smash hit we know it is today. While Jay was aware of the game, however, he wasn’t really looking at videogames for inspiration. “Distinguishing the game from Tetris was never really a goal,” says Jay. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to mimic Tetris, but I never consciously thought, ‘Because Tetris does that, I’m going to do this.’”
As it happens, the initial inspiration behind
Columns was in fact Tic-tac-toe, he adds. “Back then I appreciated games with a relatively simple concept, and ‘three things in a row’ seemed like a simple concept.” Jay adds that he wanted the premise to be simple because “at the time my intent was simply to gain some experience programming with X11” rather than to create a marketable game.
However, this doesn’t mean that there was nothing of Tetris that had worked its way into
Columns, or rather had worked its way out. “One thing I didn’t like about Tetris was that the pieces dropped faster and faster as it was played until defeat was inevitable,” recalls Jay. “I never myself implemented a similar speedup in Columns. I wanted people to feel like they could play forever if they were just good enough.” His solution to allow for an increasing difficulty, then, was to instead alter the columns themselves. “Instead of the speedup, I implemented increasing levels of difficulty. At the easiest level, there were only three colours in play, and potentially all three of the tiles in a column could be the same colour. At the hardest level, all six colours were in play and available, and all three tiles in the column had to be distinct colours.” It was a different approach to how Tetris handled its difficulty but Jay explains that it was “enough of an ultimate challenge for me”. Though this would go on to be changed once the game left Jay’s hands, a similar function appeared in some versions of Columns that allowed the player to pick how many jewels would appear, controlling the difficulty for themselves.
It’s interesting that Jay had no grander vision for his game than merely to learn the intricacies of the HP-UX operating system. “I had no hopes for the game other than to learn X11 programming,” he says, adding that “when I shared it within
HP, I simply hoped that people would enjoy it.
The thought of commercial potential never
“at the time my intent was simply to gain some experience programming with X11” Jay Geertsen
crossed my mind.” The game at this point wasn’t quite the same as the one that would later make its way over to Sega’s console. Though the core idea of sets of tiles dropping from the top of the screen was there, it only used colours to differentiate between tiles and had no speedbased difficulty. Nor was there any of the music that many would nowadays associate with the game. It had fulfilled its purpose of helping Jay to understand programming on the X11 version of the operating system, sharing the end result with fellow Hewlett-packard employees. “I had a HP colleague in California who maintained a collection of HP-UX X11 apps and games and access to the collection was available to any employee in the company. After I created the game, I shared it with him and he posted it on his server.” This was the beginning of how Columns would come to gain wider visibility, with internal developers eventually picking up on the tile-stacking puzzle game. “Two HP colleagues later contacted me and expressed an interest in porting the game. One wanted to port it to the Mac and the other wanted to port it to DOS. They, in turn, shared their versions of the game with the public, which I was okay with.” These two ports were essentially identical to Jay’s original, though he admits that “one of them did implement a speedup to the game” despite his original idea preferring to avoid such a feature. The Mac version naturally had to forgo the colourful blocks, and instead used different patterns to help distinguish the different tiles from one another.
Jay ultimately didn’t pay much heed to the progress of the game at this point, since he had no aspirations for the game to go beyond his little work project. His task had been achieved and though the wider world could now have access to the title through shareware, it wasn’t something that Jay was especially interested in. “I had no interest [in becoming a
“i had no input into anything that Sega did” Jay Geertsen
game developer],” says Jay, “I was a pretty happy software developer and didn’t want to take time away from my career or family.”
But the game did manage to get some traction on DOS and Mac, and it was here that Sega – in a roundabout way – ended up getting involved. “A lawyer had learned about the game – presumably from having seen one of the two ports of it shared publicly – and tracked me down. The ported games gave me attribution as the originator.”
The lawyer was independent, but had seen the potential in the game and was looking to buy the rights to it. “I felt that because I had used corporate resources to create the game, I ought to let them know what was going on,” explains Jay, who adds that as a result he ended up taking the request further up the chain to his management and their higher-ups. “They seemed a little unsure of how to proceed and it took them about six months to decide what to do. As it turned out, HP sold non-exclusive rights to the fellow. The money he paid for it was donated to the Mile High United Way. HP retained the rights to distribute my X11 version of the game with HP-UX.” Admittedly this all seems a little anticlimactic for the game that Columns went on to become, though Jay at least acknowledges that he was awarded with a plaque by the X11 team within HP as praise for their contribution to their distribution. “I never intended to make a commercial endeavour of the game,” adds Jay. “Even if I had wanted to, I still would have felt compelled to consult with my HP management due to having used my work computer to create the game.”
Of course, the rest of the story comes down to Sega who, having lost its rights to publishing Tetris in the arcades, had set about looking for a puzzle game that could replace and maybe even compete with Nintendo’s hugely successful title. Sega managed to find out about Columns and tracked down the lawyer, buying the rights through him and turning it into a marketable product that gamers might want to pay for. Initially this meant a release in arcades in 1989, but inevitably it came over to Mega Drive and Game Gear by 1990. The core gameplay remained, though the overlay of jewels – rather than coloured blocks – gave the title a little more pizazz. “I had no input into anything that Sega did with the game,” says Jay of the process of the game officially releasing as a product. “They just ran with it as they chose. It was they who decided to replace the coloured column tiles with jewels and to invent the lore about the ancient Phoenicians.”
There were other additions, too, such as a two-player mode or magic jewels that could destroy all the gems of the same colour. Sega also reinstated the quickening of columns as the game got harder. “It was kind of gratifying to see the Sega implementations and packaging,” says Jay of witnessing his game turned into a fully realised product. “I thought the coloured jewels instead of just coloured squares was a good enhancement.” While he may not have meant for such popularity for his little work project, Columns went on to become a significant release for Sega, eventually leading to its own distinct breed of tile-based puzzling. It was a hit, unexpectedly so for Jay, but went on to become the de facto puzzle game for many Sega fans. “I took notice when the game started to appear in gaming stores,” recalls Jay.
“It did pump my ego a bit.” Despite its familiarity, there continues to be a humbleness about its original creator, even all these years later. “On occasion I thought it would be fun to go into a gaming store and proclaim myself as the creator of the game,” he admits, “but since I had no means of proving it, I figured it wouldn’t be a worthwhile nor rewarding endeavour.”