Interview with Tony Ginko

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Ginko, creator of Caverns of Gink. He shared with me his personal background, and shed some light on the genesis and aftermath of his classic game.

Tony Ginko Profile

Tony Ginko, creator of Caverns of Gink

Caverns of Gink

How did you get started in game programming?

My father was a computer programmer and he explained how writing code is just a series of instructions. There were not a lot of games out there in the early 80’s, I was just seeing if I could make a playable game.  The language BASIC made sense for me, learning the FOR-NEXT loops, GOSUBs, defining variables.  If only the technology was 10 years further down the road, this game may have been a better one.  Not a whole lot you can do with 4 colors.  I suppose it was a step up from our first monochrome Zenith desktop.

What interests do you have besides making games?

Music. I was a double major at college, Music and Computer Science. I played trombone in band since I was a kid, then learned piano, guitar, and bass.  I still play in a band and I like sitting and jamming with friends.

What games did you enjoy playing?

Pickaxe Pete Screen

Pickaxe Pete

I’ve had the pleasure of watching the home gaming systems go from ATARI to Xbox 1/PS4. Remember when Mario went 3D? Games like Skyrim and Battlefield 4 are just amazing to look at.  On our first computer, I played a RPG-style monochrome game called Oubliette.  And I bought every Infocom game they made.  Zork was a lot fun, and that game had NO graphics.  At the arcades as a child, I would put my quarters into Dig Dug, Defender, & Donkey Kong (pardon the alliteration…) and vector classics like Star Wars, Battlezone, and Tempest. When I got into home systems, we had the Oddessy 2 console, and I played for hours. Pickaxe Pete may have been an influence on COG.


After college I bought the SNES system, a definite upgrade but still low res from today’s standards.  I liked F-Zero and Star Fox.  Then I bought my first computer and started buying PC games, since the resolution and speed were just as good as the consoles of that time.  I enjoyed the game called Myst, kind of a fantasy puzzle game set in a strange 3D land.

DM Wombo (a map for Unreal Tournament ’99)

Other PC games I played include Flight Simulator, Quake, Team Fortress, and finally Unreal Tournament.  That game shipped with a level editor, and I decided that is what I wanted to do with my free time.  Getting around the interface took a bit of learning, but if you like FPS games and had an idea for a great place to shoot bad guys, you just make it happen.  I’ve made some interesting maps over the years. CTF-IncaManned is probably my most popular, other were DM-40ozPain, CTF-Wrednex, and my latest DM-Wombo.  I think I liked building maps more than playing the game.  Then the Wii and Xbox came into my life. I got hooked on Rock Band, Call of Duty, Portal, and Battlefield 4.  My kids turned me on to Minecraft, they have since stopped playing (I guess they grew up) … but I still play it (I guess I didn’t).


How did the idea for COG come to you?

Really it was “Lets see if I can make something as good as what was out there.” A lot of my friends would come over and play it and give me pointers on what to change… “The arrow is too fast” was the most common one.  Pretty simple thing, explore the entire room and move on to the next one.

How did you distribute it?


In the days before the WWW, to get “online” you would dial in to a Bulletin Board System (BBS). From there you can browse files, upload or download. We had Compuserve, and I remember sneaking into my dad’s office to play after everyone went to sleep. I uploaded my game to a single BBS in Chicago. I didn’t do any personal distribution, other than handing a few copies to my friends .. on 5.25″ Floppys!

When did you first realize it had gone viral?

After the player would complete the game, I asked them to write me, send me the secret word, and they can be part of the I Beat The Ginkians Club. Letters started showing up, first from the Chicago area, then around the Midwest, New York, Florida, & California. Then I started receiving letters from overseas, Paris, UK, Germany … when I got a letter from Saudi Arabia even my dad was freaking out. “This is 1/2 way across the globe!” I don’t think it really hit me this was a viral game, these were the people who completed it, there must have been countless others playing it. (Right? At least dozens of them)

Is there a hidden word in the first level?

Possible hidden word?

Lol … it’s really just a random pattern for level one.  I know my name is pretty obvious on level 2, but this was simply a READ DATA (X,Y) and place and 20 pixel wide bar. Then there was a total number of pixels that needed to change color.  As you moved around painting, a running total would compare to see if you’ve searched everywhere.  Looking back I wish I would have put a little more thought into the progression and level design. I suppose it is what it is.


Does the secret word “turtle” have any special significance?

That was one of my many nicknames in grade school, Tony Turtle. This nickname was given to me by Gary the Guinea Pig.

What about the game do you wish you had done differently?

There is a lot I would have done differently … simpler levels to start, MORE levels, more thought into the layout of each level, better death scene, maybe some power ups that could give you an edge. And the 3 questions at the end .. I imagine that some kids out there who missed one question to have to go back and do it all over were a little upset about that. Maybe the questions should have gone away. I am glad I put my address in there, seeing the letters roll in all the way through college has been a real treat. I guess I should call that old post office and see if they’re still arriving there and if they could forward them to me.

What happened to Ginkware Inc?

This is the only Ginkware Inc title.  I remember a lot of software companies with the “ware” suffix, so it seemed like the logical choice.   I supposed COG2 should be released as a Ginkware title, or In Conjunction With.  It does sound like a set of cookware, now that I think about it …

What advice do you have for young programmers who want to make games?

Every game that anyone has ever played started as an idea. This generation has the benefit of the web and YouTube for instruction on just about any topic. If you want it bad enough, all it takes is work, research, work, testing, debugging, more research, more testing, more work (…and repeat). If someone tells you “That Can’t Be Done” they’re wrong — anything is possible with video games. Writing code is simply learning another language, you just have to want it bad enough and work though the bugs. Use the forums, they work.

Creating a game is like painting a picture, it’s hard to tell when it’s really done, you could always go back and add more detail, but make it fit, make it right, but most importantly… Make It.