First off, thanks for accepting to do this interview and taking the time, Ian.
Happy to… Thank you for helping to keep these old games alive!
From what we’ve read, you coded Ishido along with Michael Sandige when you were only 17 years-old.
How and when did you first learn to code?
When I was nine years old. Two important things happened that year: our family got a computer (an Apple II+), and I left public school for homeschool. The Apple II came with Applesoft BASIC and not much else. I didn't have any money for games, so I learned to program so I could make my own.
Were you still in high school while creating the game? And did working on the game impact your scholastic career in any way?
My homeschool was pretty unstructured, so I was free to work on the game all day if I wanted. At 17 you're supposed to be applying to colleges, but here I was already getting paid to do what I loved… I never did end up going to college.
How did you originally get introduced to Brad Fregger, Michael Feinberg, Michael Sandige and the others on the team at such a young age?
I had written a Mac game on my own (a version of the Tron light cycles sequence) and wanted to find a publisher. Apple had a list of all Mac game publishers, and I sent a packet to every one of them. Brad was the only one who got back to me. We never did end up releasing the light cycles game, but it impressed him enough that he offered the Ishido job to me. I think he was a little shocked to learn my age, but he saw my potential… He's really the guy who gave me my break! He also introduced me to Michael Feinberg (who designed Ishido) and later Michael Sandige (who did the DOS port).
As the game originally launched on the Macintosh in 1989, were you a big Mac fan back in the day?
Definitely. I started with the Apple II before the Mac existed, and switched to Mac once it was released. Programming for it was a lot harder than the Apple II, but you could do so much more! I'm still on Mac today… I'm a little shocked they still exist; there were some dark times back in the 90s… What were your development tools, and how did you manage the code back in the 80’s while working with Michael Sandige, the other programmer credited on programming the game?
I used THINK C (a C compiler for the Mac). Everything was on floppies back then. Whenever I had a new version to share with Brad, I'd FedEx a disk to him (I was near Seattle and he was in the San Francisco Bay Area). I just did the original Mac version, and Michael did the DOS port… I assume he had a drop of my code, but he probably wrote most of his version fresh. Of course nowadays we'd all be on GitHub, but there was nothing like that back then.
As Epyx was originally slotted to be Isido’s publisher, but which went bankrupt in 1989, you write on your site
[W]e took the game and published it ourselves, going all out, with a signed limited edition in a Japanese-style handmade walnut slip box.
How did you get the funding to do this? And how many of those physical versions were made? Did you self-publish to the Macintosh platform or something else? Do you have one of the wooden-box versions we could see?
Brad's publishing company handled this. I believe it was 1000 units, just the Mac version. We signed all of them; I'd love to see my signature from unit one and compare it to unit 1000… I'm sure it changed dramatically from the repetition! I do have one, and I'll include some photos. I read somewhere that the backstory of this game - what sounds like an ancient Japanese puzzle game - was entirely invented by Michael Feinberg from the US in the 1980s. The mythology he developed was so convincing that, at the time, many thought it to be real - like the I Ching - and was indeed based on ancient knowledge. Is this true?
I don't know how many people took it to be ancient, but yes, it was put together by Michael. He's studied a number of Eastern religions, so it's really just a synthesis from a variety of sources. The Oracle in the game is based directly on the I Ching; Michael essentially wrote his own translation, and we (my father, actually) came up with a divination method that closely follows the I Ching yarrow stalk technique.
When Accolade decided to publish the game for DOS and other popular platforms of the time, were you involved in any of the ports?
I was not, though I did get to know Michael Sandige (unlike the programmers for any of the other ports).
It’s simply mind boggling how many ports and clones were made of the game. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Mah-Jong or Minesweeper. Did you or any of the people on the original team hold any kind of royalty licenses or copyrights on the core game itself?
Yeah, pretty wild to see our little game spread like that! And yes, Brad's company held the copyright… I don't know the details, though.
I’ve not played any of the other versions of Ishido, so I can’t easily compare them. But in the Amiga version your team included an incredible application that lets gamers either modify or create their own unique stone sets (my son loves this feature to no end). How did that feature come about? Was this a common feature for the Mac/DOS versions as well?
Michael Feinberg originally just came up with the game itself, but once we got rolling we just kept adding things. At first it was just different premade tile sets, but we were having so much fun making them we thought why not let the players in on the fun? So I built a simple tile editor, which grew into a pretty full-featured paint program by the time we were done. The Oracle was kind of an afterthought as well… "Wouldn't it be neat?" And before you know, there it was! I'm delighted that these extras we added for the Mac version were reproduced in various later versions. What was it like in 1989/1990 when Ishido hit store shelves (and flew off a few, too)? Were you able to experience the success of such an impactful game directly in any way? Conferences? Company Parties?
Well, I was still just a teenager in Seattle, so I wasn’t really hobnobbing with the SF tech crowd or anything. I did get a trip to the Computer Game Developers Conference (now just GDC) out of it. We got some great press as well… It was fun to see the glowing reviews. This was all pre-Internet, though, so there wasn't really any way to communicate directly with fans back then. I get fan mail now, which is delightful and kind of mind blowing considering it's been almost 30 years!
What did your friends and family think of your work at the time?
I dunno, it was just this thing I did while everyone else was off at school. Fortunately my parents were very supportive of it.
After the success of Ishido, what did you decide to do next?
I loved working with Brad, Michael, and Michael, and I think they felt the same, so Michael Feinberg concocted an even more ambitious game: Heaven & Earth. We were joined on that project by, among others, the extremely talented Scott Kim (puzzle designer) and Mark Ferrari (artist). I consider them all good friends to this day.
What are you doing these days? Are you still creating games?
Out of curiosity, have you beaten Ishido (emptied a pouch entirely)? Do you remember what the most 4-ways you’ve ever gotten in a single game was? Highest score?
Brad was the one on the team who got the best scores. I think maybe 11 was his highest 4-way count for a game? I don't remember what the score was. I'm sure I've emptied the pouch, and I know I could routinely get six 4-ways; my max may have been nine? We played the game a lot during development!
Ian, thank you so much for talking with us today. I hope we can get more people to experience this brilliant gaming treasure you helped to produce. It’s absolutely timeless. Cheers!
Thank you! I'm delighted it continues to find a new audience. We definitely put a lot of love and care into it… You could say I was naïve enough to think we were building something for the ages… It's flattering to think maybe I wasn't entirely wrong.
Read the full AmigaLove review for the Amiga port of Ishido: The Way of Stones.