Every few days, Veronika Megler gets email from a stranger.
Some thank her for teaching them English. Others acknowledge her role as an influence in their decision to pursue a career in computing.
Megler was never a teacher, nor a mentor, to those who send the messages.
But her correspondents remember her fondly as one of the authors of The Hobbit, a hit adventure game from the early-1980s golden age of microcomputers.
The Hobbit stood out from the adventure games of the day in three ways, the first of which was its use of graphics. Many scenes in the game included a colour image that may have drawn at painfully slow speed but still offered a far richer experience than the text-only adventures of the day.
The second key innovation was 'Inglish', a parsing system that went far beyond the verb/noun syntax most games at the time allowed. Inglish lets players enter whole sentences of text as they sought to complete a quest that paralleled the plot of Tolkien’s famous novel.
A third and less obvious innovation was the game engine Megler created.
The splash screen for The Hobbit, circa 1992
“I wrote the game to be very general and to not restrict people from doing things,” Megler recalls. “Everything was an object. If you killed a dwarf you could use it as a weapon – it was no different to other large heavy objects. That was something you could not do with other games of the time, they had fixed possibilities.” Those limited possibilities meant that if gamers could not find the right verb/noun combination, further progress would become impossible. By making it possible to try lots of verbs on lots of nouns, The Hobbit offered a better experience.
Megler designed the game this way after being asked by Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, one of the founders of developer and publisher Melbourne House, to “Write the greatest adventure game ever. Period.” Megler had no experience of writing such a game, nor of playing any other than Adventure, the interactive fiction classic later renamed Colossal Cave.
Megler had access to Adventure at the University of Melbourne, where in the late 1970s she enrolled to study statistics and pursue a career as an actuary.
“I took several computer classes because I thought knowing something about computers would be good for an actuary,” Megler recalls. “I discovered I was bad at statistics and good at computers.” A computer science degree soon beckoned.
That course meant a chance to program a machine that used “sense cards”, an IBM technology of the late 70s that required developers to mark cards with pencils to create a program.
“The card readers had a built-in mechanism that, after you ran the cards three or four times, would distribute the lead all over the card. You had to get your program running in three or four runs or you were toast,” Megler recalls.
In their second year of study, students were offered access to a Unix machine. That led Megler and fellow student Phillip Mitchell to Pascal, C, and assembly language.
The pair got into gaming after Megler answered newspaper advertisement seeking part time programmers. Megler got the job and recommended her friend Mitchell. The pair became employee number two and three at Melbourne House, and set about delivering on Migrom’s instructions to deliver a superlative game.