Laura Nikolich

Laura Nikolich made Spiderman – she did the game play, the design, and wrote all the code. Spiderman is Laura Nikolich’s game.

“Spiderman is written on 4K (RAM) which is nothing compare with todays standards. So you had to do tight programming – which is also why the games were so primitive back then compared with today.”

Laura Nikolich

Laura Nikolich fell accidentally into game development. Working as a business manager at a financial company, she was a attending a business meeting at a large convention center. Destiny had it, that a job fair for technology was taken place simultaneously. She saw the job fair in the lobby and went to take a look – and people were like: “Are you lost?” It was 1980 and discrimination and expectations of what a women could do or not was evident. People did not expect women to do technical jobs. Laura Nikolich replied: “no, I am interested and I can do real time programming”. Everybody looked chocked, but she got talking with Parker Brothers and found their work really interesting. They gave her a job offer which she accepted and became the first woman programmer at Parker Brothers, hired to write video games for the Atari 2600.

Laura Nikolich graduated in 1976 (as 1 out of 3 women that year) with a bachelor degree in engineering technology (today computer engineering) under the department of electrical engineering at University of South Florida. She was always good in science and math, and she remembers taking a class where we had to play with a computer. The computer did not have a monitor feedback back then, instead feedback was printed on a telefax. Laura Nikolich typed in her command and voila it types a response on the telefax: “And I was like, ‘its talking to me’ oh my – I was just so thrilled that I changed majors”. During her bachelor she learning assembly programming as well as Fortran and Basic. She was recruited right out of college by Motorola, where she worked as a programmer writing assembler programming for the Motorola pager-system.

At Parker Brothers, Laura Nikolich made Spiderman – she did the game play, the design, and wrote all the code. Spiderman is Laura Nikolich’s game. Each design decision had to consider the gameplay as well as the technical limitations of the system. One example was the decision on how to design the scrolling feature in Spiderman. The marketing department wanted her to copy the horizontal scrolling from the recently released and successful Star Wars game. Horizontal scrolling on the Atari2600 can only be done in 4 bit incremental, which might look ok for the big walkers in Star Wars, but not for a small Spiderman figure. Here it would look like Spiderman was jumping across the screen. Laura made sure that Spiderman has vertical scrolling. Creating video games identifying and fixing bugs was a huge part of the work, and Laura Nikolich remembers when Spiderman was in beta-testing and they brought in kids to play the game: “And this one little kid – he is supposed to get Spiderman to climb up the building, and all of the sudden the kid decided that he want Spiderman to climb up on the sky. And I went: He can’t climb on the sky, it never occurred to any of us – climbing in the sky. So we immediately put hit detective on the sky – so the Spiderman character would fall down if anyone tried to climb the sky”. When Spiderman was released, Parker Brother throwed a party and she was thrilled to see that her game had reached the billboard top 10: “I was like wow that’s amazing – and they were all yeah that’s amazing”.

Laura Nikolich worked for Parker Brothers during the birth of her first child in 83. Parker Brothers put up an Internet connection in her basement. Here she continued her work with a baby on her lap until her son decided that he would type on the computer as well.

Of all the work which Laura Nikolish did when she was at Parker Brothers, she was most proud of the technical challenging work she did on Care Bear – a game which was never released. Carebears have TV screens on their tummy, and at first the TV monitors on the bears looked very primitive. However, Laura Nikolich was able to combining two set of sprites and by carefully calculating the correct time and the exact right circle, she was able to make the images more lively and when people saw her design they went wow. When Care Bear was getting ready for beta-testing Parker Brothers decided not release the game, but since it was close to finished, Laura Nikolich received her bonus anyway. Laura Nikolich continues: “The marked for gaming was declining and Care bear was a game for little kids – it wasn’t geared towards 14 year old boys, which was the primary marked”.

When her former colleagues at Motorola learned how she went into game development they would be critical and say that game development isn’t serious programming. This is not true, Laura explained, game development is serious programming which require highly skilled technical expertise. 

After the big crash in the gaming industry everybody got laid off, and Laura Nikolich went to work for different software companies, including working as a contractor for Wang Computers. Here she was able to combine her knowledge on software and hardware. She remembers having a technical problem with the program she was creating, and how she went to the Wang engineering department and said: ”Do you have a book on the computer – this Wang computer – and they said yeah – what do you need and I said, well I need to see the pin layer on the inside on the circuit board”. The person working in hardware was astounded by the question because Laura was in the software department and he was in the hardware department, and software people were not supposed to know hardware stuff. Laura Nikolich education and expertise combining an engineering degree and then working at the machine level professionally made her able to cross those boundaries.

Today, Laura Nikolich is the mother of four children, and have two sons who works in the game development industry. Her oldest son works for Bungee Games in Seattle, where he was level designer for Destiny, and her second son works for Dice in LA as a technical artist. One day, her youngest son told his colleagues that his mom wrote Spiderman, and when they refused to believe him, he took out his phone and showed them. Their response were: ”No way, did your mom really do that – YOUR MOM!”. He later called her up and said how everybody had been amazed about her achievement – they just couldn’t believe that his mother had written a video game”.