My Obsession with Pyramids

By now, you've probably noticed that I kind of have a thing about pyramids. And if you have, you're probably wondered why.

It all started in 1987. I wanted to write a short story that captured the mood of what was going on at a certain point in my life, namely the summer between high school and college, when me and several buddies were old enough to stay out late but didn't have cars, when we were all interested in girls but never had dates, and when we all had nothing better to do than get together and play Hearts, which we did incessantly.

In my story, though, I didn't want my characters to play cards, since that seemed so normal and boring. So I concocted an imaginary game, which I called Icehouse, and had my characters play that incessantly instead. I chose pyramids for the playing pieces, but said that no game board was required, thus allowing my characters to carry the game around and play it wherever they went. And I made the game turnless, so that it would be exciting and unusual. I described Icehouse in fairly great detail, but not quite in enough detail to actually play it, since I hadn't quite worked out the real rules in my head.

People who read my story (which became the core of my novel, The Empty City) immediately expressed interest in playing it. So I created a game set (using lead fishing weights, which I think may have been the original inspiration for the playing pieces I described) and tried to create a working set of rules. I failed. But my good friend John Cooper did manage cook up a set of rules that was faithful to my original conceptual design. And in 1989, he and I and a fabulous babe named Kristin Wunderlich (whom I would later marry) and a dude named Charles Dickson started manufacturing and selling Icehouse sets. Here's a picture of Kristin surrounded by the pieces from our first run of game sets. We've been selling sets in our free time ever since. In 1993, Icehouse was listed as one of the best 100 games on the market by Games magazine.

Icehouse is so unique, in fact, that it is patented. I prosecuted the patent myself. It's US patent #4,936,585, "Method of Manipulating and Interpreting Playing Pieces."

This brings us to ICEBREAKER. In June of 1994, shortly after taking a job at Magnet Interactive Studios, I was learning to write graphics handling software for the 3DO home videogame machine. I was assigned to a team that was doing pre-production for a Battletech style game that was to be called Rise of the Phoenix, and I was developing test software that would allow me to display a tiled landscape on which a character could move around.

At this point, I needed some art to put up on the screen and experiment with. Since no artist was available to create it for me, I had to use "programmer art," i.e. whatever art I could come up with on my own. I wasn't skilled enough to draw a giant Battletech robot, so I looked around for something simpler to draw.

On the top of my workstation I had a selection of Icehouse pieces. Since a pyramid is easy to draw, I decided to use that. I drew a blue piece and created a landscape filled with blue pyramids. Then I needed something to represent the player, so I drew another pyramid lying on its side. (In the game of Icehouse, a pyramid standing upright is considered to be a defensive piece, while a pyramid lying on its side is an attacking piece. Thus, this seemed perfectly natural.)

To test collision detection, I wrote code and created animations that would cause the blue piece to shatter if the attack piece touched it. Then, to test the ability to shoot at stuff, I wrote code that would let you shoot a fireball from the tip of your attack piece. It didn't make sense for a pyramid to shatter when shot by a fireball, so I added red pyramids and created an animation of the red piece vaporizing. Then, to test out having enemies that chase you, I created an animation of a yellow piece moving and set it up so that it would chase you around. Lastly, since I'd used 3 of the 4 colors in a normal Icehouse set, I added green pyramids, which I decided could only be destroyed by your enemy.

And suddenly, I discovered that I had created a game. My co-workers started hanging around my cubicle, keen to try their luck at this strange little game I'd cooked up. At first I was calling it "Pyramid Bash," but since it was a game in which you went around smashing Icehouse pieces, Keith Baker suggested that I call it Icebreaker.

And not long after that, my managers realized that if so many people were into playing the rough demo version of this game, then a fully developed product based on this demo had a good chance of being a big success. So they authorized the development of ICEBREAKER into a real project, and I added lots of other kinds of pyramids, and we got real artists to create really cool looking pyramids (instead of the crude ones I'd done), and we added 149 more levels. It was released for the 3DO in August '95, and was later ported it to the PC and the Mac.

If you'd like to try out the crude prototype that started the whole thing, and you own the 3DO version, check out the list of easter eggs in the game.


My obsession with pyramids has expanded since I wrote this, and now includes a weekly comic strip I draw called Iceland, that stars a bunch of talking pyramids. Perhaps I should update this document at some point...


Copyright © 1996 by Andrew Looney.