The Complete History of Lemmings

Mike Dailly
(revision 13)

The Lemmings Animation

Lemmings started life as a simple animation back in August 1989 when DMA Design had just moved into their first office (which only consisted of 2 small rooms), and were beginning a new game called Walker (based on the walker that was used in Blood Money).

Scott Johnson (author of Hired Guns on the Amiga) had just been hired as a freelance artist  after being rescued from a 2 week stretch behind the counter at McDonalds, and assigned the task of creating the graphics for Walker.After building the walkers head, he set about drawing little men for the walker to shoot at in a 16 by 16 pixel box.

The Original Lemmings Demo

I however maintained that they could be done in less; 8 by 8 – or so I thought. One lunchtime I borrowed some one’s Amiga (probably Gary’s, although it might have been a spare), and set about trying to prove him wrong. The resulting  image is shown above, which only took an hour or so to make. I created the men at the bottom, the gun, and the 10 ton weight. Once everyone had seen it had a good old laugh, Gary Timmons added the mouth, the clapping hand and the rotating thing – and everyone had another chuckle.

Gary also made significant improvements to the character, and you can see Gary’s almost complete lemming, just right of the chewing mouth. My one, is a bit “stiff”, while Gary’s is clearly the one that was used in the game.

My Walker on the left, and Gary’s improved one on the right.

It was actually Russell Kay (author of PC lemmings), that first laughed “There’s a game in that!” rather than Dave Jones, he’s also the one that did the first demo which was shown to Psygnosis in late September of 1989 at the PCW show. It was also Russell that coined the phrase “Lemmings” when talking about these little guys.

The Original Demo Disk

The demo itself came about for a couple of reasons; first I had just done the animation, and Russell was keen to use the little guys in something, but the second reason is probably the more interesting.

Russell and Dave were having a discussion about weapons in Blood Money, and Dave was thinking of adding “salamander” style missiles that followed the landscape, but didn’t really know how best to implement it. Russell however, had figured out a way, and used the Lemmings to demonstrate it. Dave decided against it though, and added the bombs that are in there today.

There’s been much debate over the choice of colours as well, but the colours were selected, not because they were the easiest to choose, but because of the PC EGA palette. With the limited choice, it was decided the green hair was nicer than blue, and with that, the final Lemming was born.

I was actually the next person to code up a demo on the Commodore 64, but I only got so far as having a single Lemming walking over the landscape before Dave put me onto another project.

Lemmings Editor
The Lemmings Editor

Dave was now at a lose end after just losing the race to build the first Amiga Action Replay cartridge, and so decided he now had time to start another game, and finally picked Lemmings – which is probably the best decision he ever made.

After coding the defender style explosion, Brian Watson ( who wrote most of the Atari ST version – I started it… he did most of it), almost fell backwards off his chair laughing!

Gary did all the animations, and Scott drew all the background. This was mainly because Gary insisted that he couldn’t draw backgrounds, so Scott produced the first earth and rock style, and Dave decided to let him do them all. Gary meanwhile, set about creating the animations the game needed.

Deliuxe Paint

The level editor was built around the Deluxe Paint interface; a program everyone at DMA was very familiar with. It was incredibly easy to use, and being built directly into the game it allowed for a very quick turn around on level creation. Dave needed floppy disk routines for his editor, so dragooned Brian into writing them, however there were reliability problems, so Dave took it over and DMA Dos was born. This was a full set of disk routines, controlled from a command line program to read/write etc. I wish I stull had this command line program!

Gary, Scot and myself were the ones that did the bulk of the levels, But Dave did manage to sneak a couple in as well; although it was probably because he told us too and we couldn’t really argue with him.

Having said that, it did take him ages to get any that were even worth while considering! He used to try and beat us, and after proudly stabbing a finger at the screen and saying “There! Beat that!”, we’d calmly point out a totally new way of getting around all his traps, and doing it in a much simpler method. “Oh…”, he’d mutter, and scramble off to try and fix it.

Of course, this was the beauty of Lemmings; there were so many ways of completing a level. I can’t remember if anyone else managed to get levels into the final game, Steve tried hard but just couldn’t get to grips with it, so failed to get any levels in. He did manage to get some levels into later version though

We all actually had great fun doing levels, and were always trying to beat each other by doing the most fiendish design we could. This never happened of course, and by the end of Lemmings we were all so good at the game, it would only be a matter of seconds before we figured out how to complete a new level.

It’s Hero Time!

We did manage to fox Psygnosis now and then, and I can lay claim that it took John White an hour to figure out “It’s hero time“. When ever Psygnosis did some testing, we’d get back a fax with the level name, time taken to complete, and some comments and a difficulty rating. These were usually around 3-6 minutes, and some general comments on how they found it.

Every now and again though, the fax would be covered in scribbles with the time and comment’s crossed out again and again; this is what we were striving for while we were designing the levels, and it gave us all a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Hunt the Nessy – I loved how this looked in the mini map at the bottom

You could always tell the levels Gary did, as they were very minimal, a few blocks and that was about it. My own (and Scott’s to some degree) tended to look like pictures, or at the very least pretty. Scott’s levels tended to be packed together better than mine, but I liked drawing huge levels; “Hunt the Nessy” and “The Steel Mines of Kessel” were mine for example.

I also loved making the user do multiple things at once. “The Fast Food Kitchen” was one of mine, and required the player to jump back and forth to complete the level.

The Fast Food Kitchen

After I created the “The Art Gallery” Dave did in fact tell Gary to go and make them a bit more pretty, as he could now see what was possible, and couldn’t imagine people  paying for bland looking levels, and 3 blocks on screen was just that. So Gary went off and put lots of  fluff around the edges to make them more appealing, but nothing that interfered with the playing of his level.

The Art Gallery

You can see examples of this in levels like “ Lemmingology , “We all fall down” and “All or Nothing”. All of these have very simple play areas, while the surrounding detail is meaning-less to the level itself. Still, it didn’t stop Gary from producing some great levels.

I also liked to give small clue’s in the name( “It’s Hero Time” referring to a single Lemming going ‘over the top’ as it were), while Gary used to try and make clever references to things (“I have a cunning plan” – Black Adder), where as Scott just tended to make up nice sounding names. Of course we all did a bit of everything, my “The Island of the Wicker people” being a reference to a line from Batman.

All of Nothing

I should also mention here, that Gary did push the engine quite a bit with one of this levels “All of Nothing”. Lemmings would fall into a single pixel space, and would all stack up on top of each other, and you’d have to click the right one, going in the right direction to solve the level. Most would end up solving this level by pure chance, but Dave refused to put in any level that could only be solved by chance.

Gary however, had discovered, that if you place the cursor on the opposite side of the way you were wanting to click, the cursor would “flash” briefly when a lemming was under it, and if you clicked at that exact moment, it would select that lemming “just” as he turned around. Using this method, Gary showed the level could be done perfectly – every time, so Dave let the level in. In retrospect, I suspect it probably shouldn’t have gone in, as 99.999999% of people would have solved this level through pure luck and frustration.

I was also the one responsible for creating all the “custom” levels for the game. We picked games that used the Amiga’s dual-playfield system as they only used 16 colours, this ruled out games like Blood Money which was a full 32 colours. We did a test with a Menace level since we already had all the graphics to that, and once we saw how this looked, we went hunting for others. 

Fun: A Beast of a Level
A Beast II of a Level

We were then lucky enough to get some graphics from Psygnosis and Reflections for BeastBeast II and Awesome which then made up the rest of these levels. The special levels were very basic, as they couldn’t have traps of any kind (due partly to the change in colour palette), which meant I had to try and make hard levels using only the skills and backgrounds only; never an easy thing to do.

As we started to close in on a final version, Dave said he’d pay us £10 for every level that got in – splashing the big bucks! I got 16 levels in so got a whopping £160. Most levels were used at least twice – once for hard, and then by adding more skills, a simpler version was then made. Interestingly…. I can’t remember getting any kind of bonus for lemmings like I did for Ballistix and Blood Money, perhaps Gary did…..

Just Dig level
Just Dig

The problem was now that we had all these really hard levels, but no easy ones. So, Gary then set about making simple ones; either by making easier versions of hard ones, or brand new levels. Levels like “Just Dig” (Lemmings level 1) were example of the new, simple levels. Designed to ease the player in, these levels were so simple, that some under 5’s managed to play the first few levels unaided.

This I believe is where many games fall down today, they don’t spend the time making a good learning curve. Its also one of the reasons why I think the game did so well, everyone could do at least a few levels.

2 player lemmings

I’ve since met many people that were around 6 or 7 years old at the time, who have told me they used to play it. There have been very few games with such a cross section of players; Mario games are the only other ones I can think of since not even the Sonic games are played by such a wide cross section of ages.

The music and particularly the sound effects have to get a mention, so crucial to were they to the game. Both were created by Brian Johnson (Scott’s younger brother), and the reason the tunes were, well – basic, was to avoid any copyright problems.

2 player status bar

This was around the time when games first started to worry about such things, where as before they would have just happily ripped them off, but not now. This is why were were stuck with such timeless classics as “How much was that doggie in the window?” etc. However, I do seem to recall that Gary Timmons did the intro music, for some reason. Speaking of that tune however…. it turned out this one is still in copyright! Who knew! Well, the owners did! They sued Psygnosis and they had to settle with them for the use of the song. I don’t think it was that much in the grand scheme of things, but no one realised so….

The sound effects were superb however and deserve a special mention, since the game wouldn’t have been the same without them. Scott’s mum Carol, was the first voice of the lemmings, and while they got sped up a little, they were pretty much unchanged. Years later a DMA Employee (and another Uni friend of Dave’s), Alastair Houston, managed to a pretty fair impersonation of a Lemming.

The other great thing with the original lemmings was the 2 player option. This came about because of games like Populous and Stunt Car Racer. These were the games we were playing in the office at the time, and they were the first to use Null-Modem cables for multi-player action. Gary created all 20 two player levels used in the game, these had different goals from the single player levels, so required a bit more thought.

We tried this as well, and I actually coded up a Null-Modem cable routine up on my Amiga, and even managed to get a mouse moving around on Dave’s A2000 machine, being controlled by me on mine. However, since the Amiga could have 2 mice plugged in, Dave decided to go with the split screen option instead.

LEMMINGS [ST] - Atari ST () rom download | WoWroms.com
Atari ST Lemmings

This was a great addition, and one I’ve been very sorry not to see again since. On the PC however, all mice were controlled by DOS drivers and they were hardwired to a single port. This meant PC had simply couldn’t control more than once mouse at all, so it was dropped from that version, but the Atari ST version did managed to retain it.

Speaking of the Atart ST version, after doing the front end and coms test, Dave set me doing the ST version. I really didn’t have much experience with the ST, just doing some basic demos when Brian had loaned me his machine, but I knew enough 68000 to get going, and Wayne Smithson of WJS Design was good enough to help me out getting interrupt driven mouse and keyboard working.

The Arcade version of Lemmings

After that, I spent some time writing an ST replacement for Dave’s “Blit” function, which was his blitter code. That way I could take the Amiga 68000 code directly, and it should “just work”. I got the levels being loaded and drawn and finally got a Lemming walking over the background when Dave pulled me from this to work on Shadow of the Beast on the PC Engine, and this port was given over to Brian. He pretty much rewrote everything I think, but it gave him a good start

When the Arcade machine was being written, the CEO of Data East apparently wouldn’t start a meeting without challenging the person to a 2 player version of lemmings (according to Dave that is). 

I’ve never been quite sure why no one has ever done a proper multiplayer Lemmings game since, and these days with and internet connection, it would be a great game to play.

The arcade version is also where the fast forward of Lemmings 2 came from, once we saw it in the Arcade version, we realised we just had to have it. It’s now very hard to play the original Lemmings without the fast forward. The arcade version was controlled with the joystick or a trackball and was still in the very early stages when it was cancelled. I still have the original prototype here, rescued from the skip when DMA moved from Dundee to Edinburgh.

Another little known fact, was that Psygnosis also did a book of solutions, written by Mark Tsai (current owner of Lemmings.com), and A.J. Aranyosi, it included 16 new levels from the “oh no, More lemmings” level set. This book is now well out of print, but is ISBN:1-55958-188-3 in case you want to look for it. It was printed in black and white pages, and gave detailed descriptions on how to complete each level from Lemmings and  the new bonus levels.

FrontEnd Lemming

The Lemmings front end was also going to look very different initially. We came up with the idea of lemmings holding up cards, like in stadiums to spell stuff out. The rest of the lemmings were going to be doing lots of other funny animations. So I set about doing this. I had a screen full of lemmings, all animating differently, and some holding up cards. This was neat, but confusing… so it was eventually dropped.

The official drawings were done by Gary, however they were done well after the game was underway. They had to be drawn since Psygnosis kept asking us what they really looked like for boxes and adverts, and we couldn’t tell them. So Gary knocked up these sketches to give them the basic idea.

Original Lemmings Concept Drawings by Gary Timmons
All the 6’s….

We also received various comments back from the public, one of which sent our eyes rolling! The level 666 was received very badly in places, since many thought this was a direct effort to put the devil over as being “cool” or whatever.

However, it all started out as me trying to get a level full of “fives”, but while I could get 55 of each skill, 5min, 55 seconds for the timer, I couldn’t get 55% of lemmings to save; only 66% (it has since been pointed out that if I’d change the number of lemmings, I could have easily gotten 55%). So it changed to 6. Then since it was in the hell level, I though of 666.

I never thought it would cause quite the stir it did, although I still say your helping them escaping from hell it to a far better land

Lastly the DMA Design logo used in this game was created by Geoff Gunning – a school friend of mine, who drew on Dave’s request. Dave had this idea about animating it later on so wanted these 2 characters facing each other “ready to fight”.

Geoff never really liked it, but Dave was paying him so…. Geoff never put it on the computer, that was done by Scott, I then spent days anti-aliasing it all and smoothing it out.

Lemmings Intro

On launch day, Psygnosis would phone almost every hour telling Dave the latest sales figures. 10,000! 20,000! 30,000! 35,00045,000! In the end, the game would ship over 55,000 copies of the Amiga version in the first day alone. To put this into some sort of perspective, Dave’s first game Menace sold a whopping 20,000 copies, while Blood Money sold double that at 40,000. This was the full life of the product, and not first day sales!

It has since been estimated that the sales of the original Lemmings, after all the conversions had been done would have topped a whopping 15,000,000 copies worldwide. Very few games, even in today’s mass market climate, sell anywhere near this amount.

My original Lemming art

When you finished, you were presented with the picture below. We had received a load of shop PR material up, and I had been drawing some it. Dave then came up with the idea of using the Amiga’s GenLock to composite a “well done” screen. Scot game me the lemming logo to add on, and then Dave Loaded the Lemming onto the GenLock screen and we’d sit in front of the camera, and we’d get told to lift our hands higher… lower… etc. Gary then composited the picture together. If you look really closely, you can see my initials on the Lemming at the bottom.

He then got everyone to clap and cheer and he played this back with the message below. End sequences weren’t huge back then, but this was still pretty poor really – although it was really nice seeing the devs for a chance, we’re always hidden from the final product.

Everybody here at DMA Design salutes you
as a MASTER Lemmings player. Not many
people will complete the Mayhem levels,
you are definitely one of the elite

Now prepare to receive rapturous
applause from all here.

Lemmings End Screen

The number of people that claim to have been involved in the original Lemmings, is huge. The actual number isn’t.

The main folk were Dave Jones (Amiga), Russell Kay (PC), Gary Timmons (Animations), Scott Johnston(Backgrounds), Me (Mike Dailly), Brian Watson(ST), Brian Johnson (Music+SFX) and Steve Hammond (PC EGA/CGA Graphics conversion), Jon Dye (Spectrum version and Amiga/PC work). Adrian Powell did the box cover art, Tim Write (Amiga music), Tony Williams (PC Music), oh and Carol Johnston (Scott’s Mum, who did the original Lemmings Voice!)

If I’ve missed anyone and you think you know some one else who should be on this list, then please let me know – but I reserve the right to laugh at you.

This list obviously doesn’t include any Psygnosis staff, since during the first lemmings game, they only really gave feedback, and tested – although John Whyte’s level feedback was excellent. He used to draw up a lovely grid with level names and then rated them and gave some comments back. I also haven’t included Geoff Gunning, as although he did the logo, it wasn’t specifically for Lemmings, and he never actually touch a computer doing it… Geoff would however end up doing a lot of Lemmings work with Visual Sciences in years to come!

And so there we have it – the full story of Lemmings. I’m sure that this will be added to as the others read it and remember little stories of their own, or correct some small points listed here, but this is pretty close.

Hope you enjoyed it!

Here are some more Lemmings images….

(c) Copyright Mike Dailly 2006 By Mike Dailly. All rights reserved.