December 3, 2003

Frozen-Bubbles: a bigger escape key

Author: Joe Barr

One thing that was missing from my newly migrated desktop is a big escape key. No, not the little Esc key on the keyboard. One bigger than that. A mind-rotting time waster that truly allows you to escape for a bit. On my Red Hat desktop, freecell was the big escape key. Now that I'm running Mandrake, I've found a new one. It's called "Frozen-Bubble."

What color is the sky on your planet?

I know what you're thinking. Where have I been? Frozen-Bubble has been winning every award in sight for free software games. Linux Journal's Editors Choice for best game? That would be Frozen-Bubble. Linux Journal's Readers Choice in the same category? That would be Frozen-Bubble, too. The most popular game in our own poll for favorite Linux game? Frozen-Bubble. So how in the world can I just be finding out how cool it is?

I have two excuses. One is that I am nearly color-blind. The other is, as several readers have noted over the years, I'm stupid. I admit that I have installed Frozen-Bubble in the past. I've even played it a time or two. But I never really figured out what I was supposed to do. I did notice that sometimes - if you held your mouth just right and struck a group of marbles at what seemed to be just the right angle - a group of marbles would break loose from the rest and come tumbling down. But that's as far as I got.

Without freecell to occupy my time the past few days, I decided out of desperation to take another look at Frozen-Bubble. One big break-through came when I discovered there was a Web site for the game. I scoured it looking for the docs, determined to learn at last the object of the game and how to achieve it. I was about to give up on finding the docs when I decided to Google the newsgroups. That's where I saw a reference to the man pages.

Give that man a hand!

What a novel concept! Using man pages for documentation! A few seconds later I finally learned what the game was about. It's not the angle at which you strike a clump of bubbles which causes them to fall, it's hitting two or more marbles with a marble in the same group so that at least three of them are touching that does it. Those are bubbles of a different color.

I also learned that I'm not the only player who has had problems playing the game because of my color vision. You can play the game with special bubbles designed to let even color blind players better distinguish the different groups of marbles from each other by adding "-cb" to the command to start the game.

Armed with this new knowledge, I immediately started playing the game again. I became almost hypnotized by the music and sound effects, and found myself playing on the 14th level on my first attempt. Now I began to appreciate the genius of the game. It is is fun, and addictive. I also began to understand why readers ranked it their first choice ahead of even the wildly popular Enemy Territory.

And now a word from Guillaume

Given the game's charm and very obvious popularity, I decided to see what I could learn about it from its creator, Guillaume Cottenceau. An exchange of email followed. When I asked how he came to create the game, Guillaume told me, "I remembered all the great hours of fun I had playing with a game on a proprietary OS I was using before, and I missed a similar game on my Linux machine. It was especially enjoyable because this game I could play with my sister, unlike many others. I like games which anyone can play, not only geeks."

I also asked how long it took to create. Besides pointing me at a certain page on the Web site, he replied "Roughly, it took us 3 months for a stable and mature release (I wanted to publish it to the world only when it's finished, not before). Of course, it was not 100% of our time, since we all had a daily job to do as well. Much efforts were spent working hand in hand with two fantastic artists, Ayo for graphics and Matths (Ed: aka Matthias Le Bidan) for sound and music - that also needs some time."

Did they expect their creation to be so popular? Guillaume wrote "Of course not :). Several contests and polls (, linuxjournal) tend to show that it's the most popular free software game in the Linux world, and that is something we're really proud of - but that is to say, we're also a bit surprised. And we want to stay in the real world, reminding ourselves that the game is not competing in the same group as the successful proprietary games."

When I asked Guillaume where he worked, he said "I'm a 'distribution developer' at MandrakeSoft, for nearly four years now. As the other developers, I share my time between packaging software (xmms, webmin and some others) and developing/maintaining/bugfixing MandrakeSoft applications - I'm the author of rpmdrake (the graphical frontend for installing/removing software packages with dependencies), I'm part of the graphical installation program team, and I also do a few more hacks. I could never have written a complete and mature 2000-line Perl program as is Frozen-Bubble, without what I've learnt at MandrakeSoft, especially from Pixel who's a highly talented developer."

If you haven't tried this escape yet, you should. Especially during the holiday season when stress levels are on the rise.


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