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Amnesia

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

I feel fairly confident in stating that Thomas M. Disch trails only Robert Pinsky as the second most respected literary figure to turn his hand to the humble text adventure — speaking in terms of his literary prestige at the time of his game’s release, that is. The need for that last qualifier says much about his troubled and ultimately tragic life and career.

Disch burst to prominence alongside Roger Zelazny and the rest of science fiction’s New Wave in the mid-1960s. Yet Disch’s art was always even more uncompromising — and usually more uncompromisingly bleak — than that of his peers. His first novel bears the cheery name of The Genocides, and tells the story of the annihilation of humanity by an alien race who remake the Earth into a hyper-efficient nutrient farm, apparently without ever even recognizing humans as sentient. In its final scenes the remnants of the human race crawl naked through the innards of the aliens’ giant plants, stripped of even a veneer of civilization, reduced to feeding and fucking and waiting to be eradicated like the unwanted animal infestations they are. Camp Concentration — sensing a theme? — another early novel that is perhaps his most read and most acclaimed today, tells of another ignominious end to the human race, this time due to an intelligence-boosting super-drug that slowly drives its experimental recipients insane and then gets loose to spread through the general population as a contagion.

The protagonist of the latter novel is a pompous overweight intellectual who struggles with a self-loathing born of his homosexual and gastronomic lusts, a man who can feel uncomfortably close to Disch himself — or, more sadly, to the way Disch, a gay man who grew up in an era when that was a profoundly shameful thing to be, thought others must see him. Perhaps in compensation, he became a classic “difficult” artiste; his reputation as a notable pain in the ass for agents, editors, and even fellow writers was soon well-established throughout the world of publishing. He seemed to crave a validation from science fiction which he never quite achieved — he would never win a Hugo or Nebula for his fiction — while at the same time often dismissing and belittling the genre when not picking pointless fights within it with the likes Ursula Le Guin, whom he accused of being a fundamentally one-dimensional political writer concerned with advancing a “feminist agenda”; one suspects her real crime was that of selling far more books and collecting far more awards than Disch. Yet just when you might be tempted to dismiss him as an angry crank, Disch could write something extraordinary, like 334, an interwoven collection of vignettes and stories set in a rundown New York tenement of the near future that owes as much to James Joyce as it does to H.G. Wells; or On Wings of Song, both a sustained character study of a failed artist and a brutal work of satire in precise opposition to the rarefied promise of its title — these “Wings of Song,” it turns out, are a euphemism for a high-tech drug high. Disch wrote and wrote and wrote: high-brow criticism of theater and opera for periodicals like The New York Times and The Nation; reams of science-fiction commentary and criticism; copious amounts of poetry (always under the name “Tom Disch”), enough to fill several books; mainstream horror novels more accessible than most of his other efforts, which in 1991 yielded at last some of the commercial rewards that had eluded his science fiction and poetry when he published The M.D., his only bestseller; introductions and commentaries to the number of science-fiction anthologies he curated; two plays and an opera libretto; and, just to prove that the soul of this noted pessimist did house at least a modicum of sweetness and light, the children’s novel The Brave Little Toaster, later adapted into the cult classic of an animated film that is still the only Disch story ever to have made it to the screen.

The dawn of the brief bookware boom found Disch at something of a crossroads. On Wings of Song, published in 1979, would turn out to be his last major science-fiction novel, its poor commercial performance the final rejection that convinced him, the occasional short story or work of criticism aside, to write in other genres for the remaining quarter century of his life. He was just finishing his first horror novel, The Businessman, when his publisher Harper & Row came to him to ask if he might be interested in making his next novel interactive, in the form of the script for a computer game. Like just about every other book publisher in the United States, Harper & Row were in equal measure intrigued by the potential for interactive literature and terrified lest they be left out of a whole new field of literary endeavor. They were also, naturally, eager to leverage their existing stable of authors. Disch, a respected and established author of “literary” genre fiction who didn’t actually sell all that well as a rule, must have seemed an ideal choice; they’d get the cachet of his name without foregoing a bunch of guaranteed sales of a next traditional novel. For his part, Disch was intrigued, and jumped aboard with enthusiasm to write Amnesia.

We know quite a lot about Disch’s plans for the game thanks to a fellow historian named Stephane Racle, who in 2008 discovered his design script, an altogether fascinating document totaling almost 450 pages, along with a mock-up of Harper & Row’s planned packaging in a rare-books shop. The script evinces by its length and detail alone a major commitment to the project on Disch’s part. He later claimed to find it something of a philosophical revelation.

When you’re working on this kind of text, you’re operating in an entirely different mode from when you’re writing other forms of literature. You’re not writing in that trance state of entering a daydream and describing what’s to the left or right, marching forward, which is how most novels get written. Rather, you have to be always conscious of the ways the text can be deconstructed. In a very literal sense, any computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it’s always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden in fiction because, of course, you don’t normally show choices that are ruled out — though in every novel the choices that are not made are really half the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures, these unfollowed paths. It’s like a Diebenkorn painting, where you can see the lines that haven’t quite been covered over by a new layer of paint. There are elements of this same kind of structural candor in a good Youdunit.

Disch came to see the player’s need to figure out what to type next as a way to force her to engage more seriously with the text, to engage in deep reading and thereby come to better appreciate the nuances of language and style that were so important to him as a writer.

Readers who ordinarily skim past such graces wouldn’t be allowed to do that because they’d have to examine the text for clues as to how to respond; they’d have to read slowly and carefully. I thought that was theoretically appealing: a text whose form allowed me a measure of control over the readerly reponse in a way unavailable to a novelist or short-story writer. I’ve always been frustrated that genre readers are often addictive readers who will go through a novel in one night. I can’t read at that speed — and I don’t like to be read at that speed, either.

Philosophical flights aside, Disch didn’t shirk the nitty-gritty work that goes into crafting an interactive narrative. For instance, he painstakingly worked through how the protagonist should be described in the many possible states of dress he might assume. He even went so far as to author error messages to display if the player, say, tries to take off his pants without first removing his shoes. He also thought about ways to believably keep the story on track in the face of many possible player choices. One section of the story, for example, requires that the player be wearing a certain white tuxedo. Disch ensures this is the case by making sure the pair of jeans the player might otherwise choose to wear have a broken zipper which makes them untenable (this also offers an opportunity for some sly humor, an underrated part of Disch’s arsenal of writing talents). Even Douglas Adams, a much more technically aware writer who was very familiar with Infocom’s games before collaborating with Steve Meretzky on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, couldn’t be bothered with this kind of detail work; he essentially authored just the main path through his game and left all the side details up to Meretzky.

Amnesia‘s story is not, outside the presence of a drug capable of inducing sustained and ever-encroaching amnesia, science fiction. It’s rather a noirish mystery in which no character, including the amnesiac protagonist, is pure, everyone has multiple layers of secrets and motivations, and nothing is quite what it initially seems. Disch almost seems to have challenged himself to make use of every hoary old cliché he can think of from classic detective fiction, including not only the device of amnesia itself but also hayseed Texans who shoot first and ask questions later, multiple femme fatales, and even two men who look so alike they can pass as identical twins. It takes a very good writer to get away with such a rogues gallery of stereotypes. Luckily, Disch was a very good writer when he wanted to be. Amnesia is not, mind you, deserving of mention alongside Disch’s most important literary works. Nor, one senses, is it trying to be. But it is a cracker of a knotty detective story, far better constructed and written than the norm in adventure games then or now. Among its most striking features are frank and even moving depictions of physical love that are neither pornographic nor comedic, arguably the first such to appear in a major commercial game.

 

Cognetics -- Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg -- trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Benley, failing miserably at it.

Cognetics — Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg — trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Bentley, failing miserably at it.

To implement his script, Harper & Row chose a tiny New Jersey company called Cognetics who were engaged in two completely different lines of endeavor: developing the user interface for Citibank ATMs and developing edutainment software for Harper & Row, specifically a line of titles based on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television series. The owner of Cognetics, Charlie Kreitzberg, already had quite a long background in computing for both business and academia, having amongst other accomplishments authored a standard programming text called The Elements of FORTRAN Style a decade before. Working with some colleagues, Kreitzberg had developed an extendible version of the Forth programming language with a kernel of just 6 K or so to facilitate game development on the Apple II. He dubbed this micro-Forth “King Edward” for reasons known only to him. The actual programming of Amnesia he turned over to a local kid named Kevin Bentley; they had met through Kreitzberg’s wife, who shopped at the grocery store owned by Bentley’s family. And so it was poor young Kevin Bentley who had Disch’s doorstop of a script dropped on his desk — no one had apparently bothered to tell the untechnical Disch about the need to limit his text to fit into the computers of the time — with instructions to turn it into a working game. He had nothing to start with but the script itself and that 6 K implementation of Forth; he lacked even the luxury of an adventure-specific programming language like ZIL, SAL, AGI, or Comprehend.

It was of course a hopeless endeavor. Not only had Disch provided far, far too much text, but he’d provided it in a format that wasn’t very easy to work with. Disch, for understandable reasons, thought like a storyteller rather than a world builder. Therefore, and in the absence of other guidance, he’d written his story from the top down as essentially a hypertext narrative, a series of branching nodes, rather than from the bottom up, as a set of objects and rooms and people with descriptions of how they acted and reacted and how they could be manipulated by the player. Each part of his script begins with some text, followed by additional text passages to display if the player types this, that, or the other. Given the scope of possibility open to the player of a parser-driven game, that way lies madness. We’ve seen this phenomenon of text adventures that want to be hypertext narratives a surprising number of times already on this blog. Amnesia is perhaps the most painful victim of this fundamental confusion, born of an era when hypertext fiction didn’t yet exist outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books and any text- and story-driven game was assumed to necessarily be a parser-driven text adventure.

Harper & Row's original Amnesia box art

Harper & Row’s original Amnesia box art

In mid-1984, just as it was dawning on Cognetics what a mouthful of a project they’d bitten off, Harper & Row, the instigators of the whole thing, suddenly became the first of the big book publishers to realize that this software business was going to be more complicated than anticipated and, indeed, probably not worth the effort. (The depth of the blasé belief of which they were newly disabused that software publishing couldn’t be that hard is perhaps best measured by the fact that they had all of the box art for Amnesia prepared before Cognetics had really gotten started with the actual programming, evidently thinking that, what with Disch’s script delivered, it couldn’t be long now.) They abruptly pulled out, telling Kreitzberg he was welcome to do what he liked with Fraggle Rock and Amnesia. He found a home for the former with CBS, another old-media titan still making a go of software for the time being, and for the latter with Electronic Arts, eager to join many of their peers on the bookware bandwagon. EA producer Don Daglow was given the unenviable task of trying to mediate between Disch and Cognetics and come up with some sort of realizable design. He would have his hands full, to such an extent that EA must soon have started wondering why they’d signed the project at all.

In addition to being a noir mystery, Disch had conceived Amnesia as a sort of extended love letter to his adopted home of Manhattan. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451, when released in late 1984, would also include a reasonably correct piece of Manhattan. Disch, however, wanted to go far beyond that game’s inclusion of twenty blocks or so of Fifth Avenue. He wanted to include almost all of the island, from Battery Park to the Upper West and East Side, with a functioning subway system to get around it. The resulting grid of cross-streets must add up to thousands of in-game locations. It was problematic on multiple levels; not only could Disch not possibly write enough text to properly describe this many locations, but the game couldn’t possibly contain it. Yet Disch, entranced by the idea of roaming free through a virtual Manhattan, refused to be disabused of the notion. No, EA and Cognetics had to admit, such a thing wasn’t technically impossible. It was just that this incarnation of Manhattan would have to be 99 percent empty, a grid of locations described only by their cross-streets, with only the occasional famous landmark or plot-relevant area poking out of the sea of nothingness. That’s exactly what the finished game would end up being, rivaling Level 9’s Snowball for the title of worst ratio of relevant to irrelevant locations in the history of the text adventure.

The previous paragraph underlines the most fundamental problem that dogged the various Amnesia teams. Disch never developed with Cognetics and EA the mutual respect and understanding that led to more successful bookware collaborations like Amazon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mindwheel. Given the personality at the center of Amnesia, that’s perhaps not surprising. I described Disch as “difficult” earlier in this article, and, indeed, that’s exactly the word that Kevin Bentley used to describe him to me. His frustration with the collaboration was still palpable when I recently corresponded with him.

The conclusion I reached was that Tom wanted to write a book and have it turned into a game by creating a sort of screenplay adapted from a book. The trouble was that a screenplay to my mind was the wrong metaphor for an adventure game. The missing piece of the puzzle seemed to be that Tom didn’t grasp that an adventure game was a matrix of possibilities and it was up to the user to discover the route, and the point was not to cram the user toward the “conclusion.” Tom was very unhappy with the notion that the player might not experience the conclusion of the story the way that he intended in the script, so he insisted that the user be directed toward the conclusion.

Bentley and Kreitzberg met with Disch just a handful of times at his apartment near Union Square to try to iron out difficulties. The former remembers “lots of herbal tea being offered,” and being enlisted to fix problems with Disch’s computer and printer from time to time, but it’s safe to say that the sort of warm camaraderie that makes, say, the Mindwheel story such a pleasure to relate never developed. Before 1984 was out, frustrated with the endless circular feedback loop that the project had become and uninterested in the technical constraints being constantly raised as issues by his colleagues, Disch effectively washed his hands of the whole thing.

His exit did allow EA and Cognetics a freer hand, but that wouldn’t necessarily turn out for the better. Feeling that the game “was lacking in the standard sorts of gaming experience (like a score, sleep, food, etc.)” and looking for some purpose for that huge empty map of Manhattan, EA requested that Bentley shoehorn all that and more into the game; the player would now have to eat and sleep and earn money by taking odd jobs whilst trying to come to grips with the central mystery. The result was a shotgun marriage of the comparatively richly implemented plot-focused sections from Disch’s original script — albeit with more than half of the text and design excised for reasons of capacity — with a boring pseduo-CRPG that forces you to spend most of your time on logistics — earning money by begging or washing windows or doing other odd jobs, buying food and eating it, avoiding certain sections of the city after dark, finding a place to sleep and returning there regularly, dealing with the vagaries of the subway system — all implemented in little better than a Scott Adams level of detail. Daglow came up with an incomprehensible scoring system that tries to unify all this cognitive dissonance by giving you separate scores as a “detective,” a “character,” and a “survivor.” And as the cherry on top of this tedious sundae, EA added pedestrians who come up to you every handful of moves to ask you to look up numbers on a code wheel, one of the most irritating copy-protection measures ever implemented (and that, of course, is saying something).

All of this confusion fell to poor Kevin Bentley to program. He did a fine job, all things considered, even managing a parser that was, if not up to Infocom’s standards, also not worse than its other peers. Nevertheless growing frustrated and impatient with the game’s progress, EA put him up in an “artist apartment” near their San Mateo, California, headquarters in February of 1985 so that he could work on-site on a game that was now being haphazardly designed by whoever happened to shout the loudest. He spent some nine months there dutifully implementing — and often de-implementing — idea after idea to somehow make the game playable and fun. Bentley turned in the final set of code in November of 1985, by which time “everyone was over it,” enthusiasm long since having given way to a desire just to get something up to some minimal standard out there and be done with it. Certainly Bentley himself was under no illusions: “as a game I thought it sorta bombed.” Impressed with his dogged persistence, EA offered him a job on staff: “But I was 20 and far from home. I knew if I left immediately and drove back to New Jersey I could be home for Thanksgiving.” Unsurprisingly given the nature of the experience, Amnesia would mark the beginning and the end of his career as a game developer. He would go on to a successful and still ongoing career in other forms of programming and computer engineering. Charlie Kreitzberg and Cognetics similarly put games behind them, but are still in business today as a consulting firm, their brief time in games just a footnote on their website.

EA's released Amnesia package

EA’s released Amnesia package. Note that it’s simply called a “text adventure,” a sure sign that the bookware boom with its living literature and electronic novels has come and gone.

Amnesia, a deeply flawed effort released at last only during the sunset of the bookware boom, surprised absolutely no one at EA by failing to sell very well. It marks the only game EA would ever release to contain not a single graphic. Contemporary reviews were notably lukewarm, an anomaly for a trade press that usually saw very little wrong with much of anything. Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, admittedly never a big fan of overtly literary or experimental games, issued a pithy summary that details the gist of the game’s problems.

Overall, Amnesia is an unsatisfying game. You can run around here, and run around there, and work up your triple scores as a detective, a character, and a survivor, but so what? Much of what you actually do in the game doesn’t get you very far towards the ultimate solution. Boiled down to the essentials, there are only three things you need to do here: follow up on the clue from TTTT, get and read the disk, and meet Bette. There are auxiliary actions associated with them, but those are the key points. So when you think back on the game as a whole, you don’t see yourself as having done, really, a whole lot, as having been the main character. It’s more as though you came to certain places in a book, and turned a page to get on with the story.

Bottom line: terrific prose, nice maps, too much novel, not enough adventure.

Disch, despite having walked away from the hard work of trying to make the game better over a year before its release and despite having probably never even played the version of Amnesia which arrived in stores, took such reviews predictably personally. Amnesia, he pronounced, had been “one of the quickest disillusionments of my life.” He went on to blame the audience.

The real problem is that there’s simply no audience for this material, no one who would respond enthusiastically to what I do well. Those who buy it, who are aficionados of the form, are basically those who want trivial pursuits; and to offer them something, however entertaining, that involved reading and imaginative skills they did not care to exercise while playing with their computers was foolish. I felt like de Soto, who journeyed to Tennessee looking for the Fountain of Youth — an interesting enough trip, but neither of us found what we were looking for.

People who want to play this sort of game are looking, I suppose, for something like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker, where they can have their familiar experiences replayed. The computer-interactive games that have done well — like the Hitchhiker’s or Star Trek series — have been tied in with copyrighted materials that have already had success with the target audience in prior literary forms. I don’t think the quality of those scripts compares to what I did in Amnesia — Adams’s scripts, for example, are actually very good of a kind, but it’s a matter of one little joke after another. The notion of trying to superimpose over this structure a dramatic conception other than a puzzle was apparently too much for the audience. In the end, I just produced another literary curiosity.

There’s more than a grain of truth in all this if we can overlook the condescension toward Douglas Adams that would be more worthily applied to one of his derivatives like Space Quest. A computer-games audience more interested in the vital statistics of dragons and trolls than the emotional lives of the socially engaged humans around them undoubtedly did prove sadly unreceptive to games that tried to be about something. And reviewers like Scorpia did carry into their columns disconcertingly hidebound notions of what an “adventure game” could and should be, and seemed to lack even the language to talk about “a dramatic concept other than a puzzle,” to the extent that Scopia’s columns on Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary works, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, are little more than technical rundowns and catalogs of puzzle hints — not to mention her reaction to one of Infocom’s first bold literary experiments, the ending to Infidel and poor Brian Mortiarty found himself actively playing down the thematic message of Trinity in interviews in the hope of actually, you know, selling some copies of this supposedly “depressing” game. It’s just that Amnesia, being well-nigh unplayable, is an exceedingly poor choice to advance this argument, and for that Disch deserves his due share of the responsibility. At some level, having just served up — or having at least allowed his name to be attached to — a bad game, he’s not entitled to this argument.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch’s ultimate fate was an exceedingly sad one. After the millennium, his world crashed around him brick by brick. First there was the shock of witnessing the September 11 attack on his beloved New York, a shock that seemed to break a circuit somewhere deep inside him; often open to charges of nihilism, extreme pessimism, even misanthropy during his earlier career, it wasn’t until after September 11 that his hatred for the people who had done this made him begin to sound like a bigot. Then in 2005 Charles Naylor, his partner of three decades, died. In the aftermath came an effort by his landlord to evict him from the rent-controlled apartment the two had shared, an effort which appeared destined for success. With his writing career decidedly on the wane, his books dropping out of print one by one, and his income correspondingly diminishing, he did most of his writing after Naylor’s death in his LiveJournal blog. Amidst the poorly spelled and punctuated screeds against Muslim terrorists and organized religions of all stripes, depressingly similar to those of a million other angry bloggers, would come the occasional pearl of wisdom or poetry to remind everyone that somewhere inside this bitter, suffering man was the old Thomas M. Disch. And suffer he did, from sciatica, arthritis, diabetes, and ever-creeping obesity that left him all but housebound, trapped alone in his squalid apartment with only his computer for company. On July 4, 2008, he ended the suffering with a shotgun. In 1984, for Amnesia, a younger Disch had written from that same apartment that “suicide is always a dumb idea.” Obviously the pain of his later years changed his mind.

One of the writers with whom Disch seemed to feel the greatest connection was another brilliant, difficult man who always seemed to carry an aura of doom with him, and another who died in tragically pathetic circumstances: Edgar Allen Poe. Disch once wrote a lovely article about Poe’s “appalling life,” the last year of which “seems a headlong, hell-bent rush to suicide.”  Like Disch, Poe also died largely forgotten and unappreciated. Perhaps someday Disch will enjoy a revival akin to that of Poe. In the meantime that Amnesia script sits there tantalizingly, ripe as ever to become a modern work of interactive fiction that need not leave out a single word, that could give us Disch’s original vision undiluted by scores and copy protection and money problems and hunger and sleep timers. Maybe he’d forgive us for trimming some of that ridiculous Manhattan. And maybe, just maybe, his estate would be willing to give its blessing. Any takers?

(First and foremost, huge thanks to Kevin Bentley for sharing with me much of the history of Cognetics and Amnesia. Disch himself talked about Amnesia at greatest length in an interview published in Larry McCaffery’s Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Disch’s writings on science fiction are best collected in the Hugo-winning The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of and On SF. Scorpia’s review of Amnesia appeared in the January/February 1987 Computer Gaming World.

I’ve made Amnesia available here for download in its MS-DOS incarnation with a DOSBox configuration file that works well with it. Note that you’ll need to use the file “ACODES.TXT” in place of the code wheel when the irritating pedestrians start harassing you.)

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Bookware’s Sunset

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

So, bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistent quality-control problems; whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. One by one the bookware lines came to an end. Telarium never released another game after 1985’s Perry Mason and Nine Princes in Amber, although one last game, a mystery called The Scoop which dispensed with the parser entirely, was completed in 1986 but not belatedly released until 1989 under the generic Spinnaker Software label. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line of book and movie adaptations made it to eight before the plug was pulled following an Indiana Jones game that was as underwhelming as all of the titles that preceded it; other publishers like Epyx abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels were also not long for this world.

Breakers

Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding science-fiction names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telekinesis. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view; the opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventures” again, a circle closed in somewhat ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986, but it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

Completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them make for pretty good signifiers of the state of bookware circa 1986. Still, we have a bit more ground to cover before we say our goodbye to this strange era of gaming. Next time we’ll look at a final high-profile author/developer collaboration, the last of its kind and the end of an era. In the meantime feel free to download and give Breakers a try; this is the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Magnificent Penguin Hangs Up His Tuxedo

In April of 1984, Mark Pelczarski took a flight from Penguin Software’s home base of Chicago to San Francisco for the “Apple II Forever” event. Traveling with him were Steve Meuse, who had just written new extensions for Penguin’s graphics utilities to take advantage of the Apple IIe and IIc’s double-hi-res graphics mode, and Steve’s wife Marsha. Over the course of the flight, the three sketched out an idea for a series of computer games for “subversively” teaching geography, as had the old board game Game of the States and the perennial favorite Risk. By the time they made it to the Moscone Center to join the other Apple faithful, they had plans for no less than six games, one each for Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Each would have you traveling through its region of the world on the trail of a villain. Figuring out where your quarry was would require piecing together clues relating to the geography, culture, and history of the region. The Spy’s Adventures Around the World soon became one-third of Penguin’s grand strategic plan for the next few years, to stand alongside the graphics software and the new Comprehend series of adventure games.

Through that summer, at the same time that he was designing and implementing the Comprehend system with Jeffrey Jay, Mark worked with Marsha to put together a prototype. In the fall they refined it with the aid of some educational researchers, tested it out with actual classes of schoolchildren to see how well it held their interest, and hired artists to begin filling it with Penguin’s trademark colorful graphics. Meanwhile Mark developed a cross-platform database-driven engine to replace his original BASIC implementation.

As the work went on, and as has been documented in painful detail elsewhere in this blog, the software industry was becoming a more and more uncertain and dangerous place for a small company like Penguin. Mark therefore broached an idea to Doug Carlston of the larger and more diversified Brøderbund: would he be interested in acquiring Penguin, as he had recently acquired Synapse Software? It’s certainly not the sort of idea that any entrepreneur takes lightly, but Mark felt he had good reasons for approaching Doug — and only Doug: “Doug was by far the person in software publishing whom I most respected.”

The two went about as far back as colleagues possibly could in an industry as young as this one. Mark had first crossed paths with Doug before Penguin or Brøderbund existed, when he was working for SoftSide magazine and Doug was selling his first game through the magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange. Later, whilst they were visiting him at his home in San Rafael, California, Doug had introduced Mark and David Lubar to a hotshot programmer named Chris Jochumson who added animation to the Penguin graphical suite. Mark returned the favor at the West Coast Computer Faire of 1983 when an artist named Gini Shimabukuro approached him with a big collection of clip-art images. Not himself having any programs in the offing that could make use of them, he thought of Doug, who had just demonstrated for him an idea that would soon became famous under the name The Print Shop. Mark sent Gina over to the Brøderbund booth, and her art eventually became a big part of The Print Shop’s finished look. Working together, both men also played important behind-the-scenes roles in the founding of the Software Publishers Association to promote the industry, advocate for the rights of smaller players like Penguin, and rail against piracy.

When Doug expressed tentative interest in the acquisition, Mark flew out to California once again in January of 1985 with a briefcase full of financial reports and details of Comprehend and the Spy’s Adventures series. He shared all of that and then some with Brøderbund, including Penguin’s three-pronged strategy for the future. Doug and Gary Carlston and Gene Portwood listened with apparent interest. While they didn’t share the status of their business to anywhere near the degree that Mark did, they did show a few demos of ideas in development whilst also, Mark claims, expressing a certain level of concern about a lack of really compelling products in their pipeline. A few days later Doug called Mark to say they had decided “not to go forward with” the acquisition, and that was that. Mark, for whom the burden of complete responsibility for Penguin and everyone who worked there was becoming heavy indeed, remembers feeling “disappointed.”

But there was nothing to be done about it and no one else to whom he was inclined to entrust Penguin, so he went back to tweaking and refining the Spy’s Adventures series that was increasingly starting to look like the best thing Penguin had going as the air rushed out of the bookware bubble and the Apple II, The Graphics Magician’s bread-and-butter platform, got older in the tooth. Mark and his colleagues made it possible to play the Spy’s Adventures single- or multi-player, the latter in either a competitive or a unique cooperative mode. They produced guides and supplemental software for teachers looking to integrate the games into a curriculum. And they tested, tested, tested. They took their time, wanting to make sure the series was perfect. If they could get the first three games out by the end of the year, it should be more than early enough, given that schools traditionally budgeted and purchased for the next school year in the spring.

Then came the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June. “Have you seen the Brøderbund booth?” a colleague asked Mark. No. “Well, you need to.”

Brøderbund was showing a demo of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a game you probably already thought of some time ago, when I first described Penguin’s take on the educational geographical adventure game. Livid, Mark tracked Doug down and confronted him right there on the show floor. The latter refused to engage in any discussion, other than to say that he “knew nothing” about Carmen Sandiego at the time of the January meeting and that he always did his best to exchange information with others to to avoid this sort of thing. Their friendship effectively ended right there. Mark:

My contacts with Doug after that were short. He either did not reply, or replied tersely. He was a lawyer. I don’t know if he felt he had to watch his words, thus the fewer the better?

At this point we want to be just a little bit careful. There was a period of time when Mark believed the most sensationalistic and dastardly interpretation of these events to likely be true: that Brøderbund blatantly stole his idea for a geographical educational adventure and rushed it out as Carmen Sandiego before Penguin could get the Spy’s Adventures out. Today he no longer believes that interpretation to be terribly likely. Nor do I. To believe it requires one to believe in a thirty-year conspiracy of silence amongst the considerable number of people who were involved in the creation of Carmen Sandiego, not all of whom proved to be all that committed to the Carlstons or Brøderbund in even the short term; Dane Bigham, for instance, architect and programmer of Carmen Sandiego‘s cross-platform game engine, left the company as something less than a happy camper just months after the game’s release when he was informed that he would have to start taking a fixed salary rather than royalties. It’s also difficult to believe that Brøderbund could have come up with the character of Carmen herself and the idea of the included almanac, neither of which were in Penguin’s version, and managed to design and program a demo featuring it all in the bare handful of months between January and June. Nor does it seem at all in keeping with Doug Carlston’s apparently well-earned reputation as one of the nicest, fairest people in software.

The real significance of this incident for Mark and for Penguin is more subtle, but perhaps all the more poignant for it. When he told the story to me in detail for the first time, I replied with a ham-handed array of practical questions. Did you not have Brøderbund sign some sort of NDA or other agreement before you told them pretty much everything there was to know about the state of your business? Once you gifted him with the information that you had such a similar project, what was Doug to do, potentially torpedo his own project by telling you? When you approached him with aggressive questions implying he had stolen your idea, can you really blame him so much for doing the lawyerly thing, limiting his liability by saying as little as possible and keeping away from you as much as possible from then on? Wasn’t Doug, in addition to being a nice guy, also a businessman with the livelihood of many others (including most of his own family) depending on the continued existence of his company, and doesn’t that sometimes have to trump friendship?

Mark replied that I “don’t really understand how magical those early years were, and how this was such a dramatic departure.” Doug should have told him that Brøderbund had something so similar in development, and they would somehow have worked something out. Even the mild bit of dishonesty that it’s quite hard to absolve Doug of — that he somehow hadn’t known that Carmen Sandiego was in development at the time of the January 1985 meeting, a claim he himself has refuted in many interviews since — seemed totally out of character for the straight shooter Mark thought he knew. Clearly Doug found himself on the horns of a difficult and ethically ambiguous dilemma. You can judge his behavior for yourself. For Mark, though, these events served as a canary in a coalmine telling him that the days of the software brotherhood were gone and the industry that had replaced it may not be someplace he wanted to be. If this tormented business could bring a nice guy like Doug to behave this way, what might it force Mark himself into doing? If Doug’s behavior represented simply “good business,” did he really want to be in business?

Penguin did publish the first three Spy’s Adventures games as planned, but by then Carmen Sandiego had already been out for a couple of months. Mark continues to believe that the Penguin games are better than their Brøderbund counterparts, noting that they contain all of the information the player needs to play them in-game rather than relying on an outside resource. The multiplayer possibilities, he notes correctly, also give them a whole additional dimension. Personally, I acknowledge the latter point in particular as well taken, but remember that big old almanac as a huge part of Carmen Sandiego‘s appeal, most definitely a feature rather than a bug. Whatever, there just wasn’t room for two lines of educational geographic adventure games, and Brøderbund cornered the space for themselves by releasing first and doing a masterful job of promotion; as Mark himself wryly acknowledges, just the names Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Spy’s Adventures in North America tell you everything you need to know about the relative promotional flairs of the two companies. The Spy made it to North America, South America, and Europe, but no further, while Carmen eventually conquered time and space and even the PBS airwaves.

Whilst Mark was still reeling from seeing Carmen Sandiego at that CES show, there came another disillusioning moment: he was forced to change the ground of Penguin’s very identity, its name. A couple of years before, when the world of book publishing was beginning to eye that of software publishing with greedy eyes, the Penguin Group had legally objected to the Penguin Software trademark. His lawyers informed Mark that he had a reasonable chance of winning on the merits of the case — his company had been in software first, after all — but the other Penguin had the money and legal resources to make any victory so expensive and time-consuming that it couldn’t help but bury his little company — which was, one suspects, exactly what the Penguin Group, hundreds of times bigger than Penguin Software, was relying on. Mark played for time by dragging out the discovery process and subsequent negotiations as long as he possibly could. But at last as 1985 drew to a close Penguin Software began the difficult process of educating the public about their new identity as “Polarware,” a name that never quite fit and always rankled. A final agreement severing Polarware from the old Penguin name forever was signed in 1986. The bullying tactics of the Penguin Group are doubly dispiriting in light of the imprint’s noble history as the first to bring affordable paperback editions of great literature to the masses. (And, astonishingly, the tactics were still continuing a decade after Polarware closed up shop; see the threatening letter Mark has published on his own site, which leaves one thinking that surely their lawyers must have something better to be doing than policing collections of long-obsolete software for long-obsolete computers.)

With the Spy’s Adventures a bust, the newly minted Polarware must rely entirely upon the other two legs of that strategic triangle, the graphics software and the Comprehend line of adventure games. They released two more Comprehend games in 1986 to join Antonio Antiochia’s Comprehend-revamped Transylvania and its sequel of the previous year. Both 1986 games were also remakes, signs of a maturing industry now able to mine the “classics” of its own past.

Oo-Topos

One of them we’ve met before on this blog: Oo-Topos, one of the two science-fiction adventures Mike Berlyn had written during his early days with Sentient Software. Mark had known Mike for some years already by 1986, having first met him when Mike was working on an arcade game that Sentient would eventually release as Congo and called Penguin with some questions about how to use The Graphics Magician. As the Comprehend line was getting underway, Mark proposed to Mike, who was still at Infocom at the time, that Penguin/Polarware be allowed to remake Oo-Topos using the Comprehend engine. It sounded fine to Mike, but for two problems: his position at Infocom made it difficult for him to directly involve himself with the remake; and the actual rights to the game resided not with Mike but with his erstwhile partner at Sentient, Alan Garber, from whom he had split on less than amicable terms. Mark was able to work out a deal with Garber instead. Mike received no royalties, but gave his blessing to a remake which smoothed away most of the rough edges of the original and of course added graphics. The result was a very enjoyable adventure game.

The Coveted Mirror

The other game, a charming little fantasy called The Coveted Mirror, was of more recent vintage. The erstwhile Penguin Software had published the original, written and illustrated by freelance illustrator Holly Thomason and programmed by a Stanford systems programmer named Eagle Berns, in 1983. (Berns would go on to quite a career inside Silicon Valley, working most notably for Apple and Oracle.) The new version removed the several surprisingly good arcade-action sequences from the original, but added some additional locations and puzzles in compensation.

The Comprehend adventures are not innovative in the least, and indeed were already feeling like throwbacks in their own time, the last holdouts from the old Hi-Res Adventure approach to adventuring that Sierra had birthed with Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess and long since abandoned along with most of the rest of the industry. For all that, though, I have a huge soft spot for the line. They are, mark you, full of the sort of old-school attributes that will drive most of you crazy: mazes, inventory limits, limited light sources and other sorts of timers, vital information hidden in the graphics, parsers that don’t understand simple constructions like “DROP ALL.” Yet there’s a certain sense of design craft to them that’s lacking in so many of their competitors, and most of all a welcome sense that their authors want you to solve them, want you to have fun with them. Excluding only a few misbegotten riddles in The Crimson Crown, there are no stupid guess-the-word parser puzzles, no cheap tricks meant to send you scurrying with cash-in-hand for the hint book. If you can accept the different standards of a different era, they’re just about the most consistently playable line of parser-driven adventures of the 1980s, excepting only Infocom. Others may have reached further and occasionally soared higher, but their literary aspirations much more frequently only led them to create games that didn’t really work that well as, well, games. Despite their branding as “Interactive Novels,” a mode of phraseology very much in vogue at the time of their conception, the Comprehend titles are content to just be fun text adventures, an impressively nonlinear web of locations and puzzles to explore and solve in the service of just enough plot to get you started and provide an ending.

In addition to five released Comprehend games, Polarware signed contracts for and storyboarded two licensed games that would never get made, one to be based on the Frank and Ernest newspaper comic strip, the other on Jimmy Buffett’s anthem “Margaritaville.” The latter makes a particularly interesting story, one that once again begins with Mike Berlyn.

One year Mark and Mike had found themselves on the same flight from Chicago to Las Vegas for the Winter CES, and arranged to sit together. The conversation came around to music, whereupon Mark mentioned his love for Jimmy Buffett. Long before the Parrothead circus began, Mark had seen him as a struggling singer/songwriter who passed through the University of Illinois student union to sing his poignant early songs of alcohol-addled losers and dreamers adrift on the Florida Keys. Mike mentioned that he had actually lived quite close to Buffett during his tenure in Aspen, Colorado, with Sentient, and that he believed Buffett still had a house there. Knowing only that Buffett lived (according to Mike) in the “Red Mountain subdivision” of Aspen, on a lark Mark sent a letter off to just that: “Jimmy Buffett, Red Mountain subdivision, Aspen, Colorado.” Four months later one of his employees came to him to to tell him that “there’s this guy who says he’s Jimmy Buffett on the phone for you.” There were plans in the works to make a movie out of “Margaritaville,” and it seems Buffett and his associates thought a computer game might make a nice companion (even given that it was somewhat, um, debatable how much of a cross-section there really was between computer gamers and Jimmy Buffett fans). But the movie plans fell through in the end, and neither movie nor game got made.

Penguin/Polarware had managed to stay afloat and even modestly profitable through 1985, but as the mass-market distributors gained more and more power they were increasingly able to impose their will on a small publisher, stretching the time between the shipment of an order and receipt of payment to thirty, sixty, ninety days or longer. Distributors came to dictate terms to such an extent that Polarware might ship them a $30,000 order only to have the distributor announce a few months later that they’d only sold $12,000 of it and thus would only pay for that, while, what with sales having been so slow, they wouldn’t even bother trying to move the rest — but no, they wouldn’t be paying for or returning the leftovers either. Bigger players might impose their own will on the distributors or set up their own distribution systems (as Electronic Arts did from the beginning), but there was very little that Polarware could do. While they did try forming a distributor, which they called SoftRack, to handle their own wares and those of a few other small publishers, it never penetrated much beyond some small independent retailers in the Midwest. For the rest, they must rely upon the established big boys, many of whom lived fast and close to the edge. At the beginning of 1986 what Mark had been dreading finally happened: a few distributors went bankrupt while owing Polarware a lot of money. With accounts suddenly deeply in the red, he was forced to embark on the heartbreaking process of laying off lots of employees he had long since come to regard as friends.

The frantic down-sizing and cost-cutting was enough to let Polarware weather this crisis, but Mark had decided by the end of the year that he’d had enough. The future looked decidedly uncertain. The Spy’s Adventures were a bust, while the Comprehend games had proved only modestly successful. And now the graphics utilities, always the company’s financial bedrock, also faced a doubtful (at best) future. The 8-bit platforms they ran on were now aged, with the press beginning to speculate on how much longer they could possibly remain viable, and Polarware had nothing in the works for and no real expertise with the next generation of 16-bit graphical powerhouses. The Comprehend line also desperately needed a facelift for the new machines, one that the down-sized Polarware wasn’t really in a position to provide. Meanwhile the stress of running Polarware was keeping Mark up at night and starting to affect his health. It was time to quit. Mark walked away, selling Polarware to a group of employees who still thought they could make a go of it. They would manage to release one more Comprehend game, an original with the awkward title of Talisman: Challenging the Sands of Time, in 1987 before accepting the inevitable and selling out to Merit Software.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

For his part, Mark pursued a growing fascination with the then-new computerized music-making technology of MIDI. That led to an early MIDI software package, MIDI OnStage, and combined with the Jimmy Buffett connection he’d established at Polarware took him to Key West to help set up Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound recording studio; his worked rated a mention in the liner notes of the first album Buffett recorded there, Hot Water. Since then Mark has filled his time with quite a variety of activities: setting up another studio for Dan Fogelberg; playing steel drums in a band; developing the mapping technology for early travel-planning CD-ROMs; teaching one of the first online courses ever offered and developing much of the technology that allowed him to do so; developing early web-forum software; teaching programming for twenty years at Elgin Community College. He’s now retired from that last gig, but remains busy and industrious as ever; when I first contacted him to ask him to help me tell the Penguin/Polarware story, I was surprised to find him volunteering as a technology architect for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Mark escaped the chaos with little apparent psychic damage, something not necessarily true of all of his contemporaries.

When I put Penguin behind me, I felt like I’d already had a lifetime of experiences, much more than most people could hope for, imagine, or dream. And I kind of treated what came after as another lifetime. I joke, but only half so, about how “in a past life…’ I did this and that, when talking about things like Penguin Software. But it really does kind of feel like that, and that probably helped keep me sane in living another, more normal life.

(You can download the Comprehend versions of Oo-Topos and The Coveted Mirror for the Apple II, including manuals and all the other goodies, from here if you like.

For another and presumably final time, my thanks to Mark Pelczarski. His memories, which he shared with me in careful detail even though this period of Penguin/Polarware’s history is not his favorite to remember, were just about all I needed to write this article.)

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Leader Board

Leader Board

Like just about every other sport, golf made it to computer screens quite early. A textual version was passed around in BASIC circles even before the arrival of the trinity of 1977, and was included in the landmark 1978 book BASIC Computer Games. Two years later, Atari released their blandly if descriptively named Golf cartridge for the VCS. Yet neither of these crude efforts, nor the ones which followed over the next few years, did the sport much justice. Those that had graphics at all were all played from a disembodied overhead perspective that could make them feel more like pinball than golf, and no one came close to computerizing the mix of science, art, and exquisite terror that is the golf swing. Then, as these things so often happen, a whole field of golf games appeared in 1986 which showed their courses from an actual golfer’s perspective and put the player’s focus squarely where it belongs, on the swing itself.

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

Atari's Golf cartridge for the VCS

Atari’s Golf cartridge for the VCS

Of this suddenly crowded field the two most popular turned out to be Accolade’s Mean 18 and Access’s Leader Board. If you try them both out today, you’re likely to be more impressed, at least initially, by the former than the latter. Mean 18 is a much more complete simulation of the real game, including trees, sand traps, water hazards, varying elevations, re-creations of actual courses, even the chance to make more courses of your own with an included editor. Leader Board, on the other hand, turns you loose in a surreally minimalist environment of empty land and water and absolutely nothing else. On a bullet list of features, there’s no comparison. Yet if you play them both a bit you might just find that Leader Board, for all that it lacks, nevertheless feels better. For me anyway, it’s just somehow more fun. But even if you still prefer Mean 18, Leader Board deserves respect, as well as the chance to be graded on something of a curve. While Mean 18, you see, ran only on the bigger 16-bit machines, Leader Board was born and bred on the humble Commodore 64.

Mean 18

Mean 18

Leader Board

Leader Board

Given the technical and conceptual achievement it represents, I thought we’d do something we haven’t done in quite a while: look at Leader Board as the Carver brothers would have seen it, from the perspective of designers and programmers putting it together piece by piece. I will get just a bit technical in some of what follows, so you might want to review my earlier articles on the Commodore 64 and its capabilities, as well as the parts of my Elite history that dealt with the fraught transition from 2D to 3D graphics.

So, the Carver brothers wanted to create a golf simulation from a 3D perspective on a computer with a 1 MHz processor and 64 K of memory. Where to start? Well, the first thing to do was to simplify the bounds of the simulation brutally, out of the knowledge that anything you abstract away today represents the best kind of work, the kind that you don’t have to do at all. Any simulation is a simplification of reality. The art of the science is figuring out just how much detail is necessary. Suffice to say that the Carver brothers drew that line much farther along than anyone could get away with today. Maybe they could add some complications back in later, once they had an initial working version. In the meantime, much of what we think of when we think of the game of golf got tossed out the window, not without the occasional groan of regret: trees, sand traps, any notion of fairways as opposed to roughs, any notion of a putting green as anything other than a perfectly circular area around the hole with a radius of 64 feet, any concept of elevation when not on the green. Wind made the cut, but with the odd yet simplifying quality that it will always blow in the same direction relative to the golfer no matter which way he faces.

Despite all the editing, the Carvers still needed to map a 3D landscape, simplified though it may be, into the Commodore 64’s memory and be able to display the scenery in proper perspective from any location, facing in any direction, as the player hacked her away toward the hole. Additionally, given the success their earlier games had enjoyed in Europe it was critical to them that this one also be playable from cassette, meaning the whole program — including the four separate 18-hole courses they wanted to include — should reside in memory at once. This was hardly playing to the natural strengths of the 64, whose graphics had been designed with 2D sprite-based games in mind. The solution they arrived at was to first design and store about 30 different polygons, each of which could be used to represent an “island” on the course, which was otherwise assumed to be pure water. Each hole of each course could then be built by arranging these islands, up to seven of them per hole, in different, often overlapping configurations. Just as his tile-graphics system allowed Richard Garriott to build huge worlds by mixing and matching reusable chunks of landscape, these reusable polygons saved the Carvers gobs of precious memory. The views of the course must be drawn using the Commodore 64’s multicolor bitmap mode; they were too irregular for character graphics. Thus every bit of memory saved was doubly precious, as a multicolor bitmap display consumes a full 10 K of the 64’s 64 K. If you look at the diagrams of the holes, you can see how they’re all built from the same pile of interchangeable parts.

Leader Board course diagrams

By applying the mathematics of 3D perspective, it was now possible to display views from any arbitrary location and facing for every hole — the first necessary step for a 3D golf game. As you can see from the video clip a bit further down the page, when playing the game you can actually watch each polygon/island being drawn in outline form and then filled in with color as each new perspective of the course is generated.

Next must come the golfer himself. It was hugely important to the Carvers that he should make a correct, believable swing. Bruce therefore filmed Roger taking swings under carefully controlled conditions using a high-quality video camera. About every fourth frame of the swing was developed as a slide and projected onto a glass screen, from which Roger could trace it onto graph paper using colored pencils, to be translated from there into the grid of bits that makes up each frame of each sprite in the Commodore 64’s memory. Or rather, six different areas of the image were each individually translated: the actual golfer, club included, is built from no fewer than six of the 64’s eight available sprites, each of a single color and carefully placed in relation to its siblings; thus the golfer’s white shirt and hat are made from one sprite, his brown pants from another, his black club from yet another, etc. (Although Bruce Carver first made his reputation through his mastery of multicolor sprites, Leader Board actually makes no use of them.) As the golfer goes through his swing, each sprite steps through its own sequence of bitmaps to recreate as closely as possible the smooth swing that had been originally captured on video.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Now how to have the player actually control the swing? After much experimentation, the Carvers hit upon a system that didn’t try to duplicate the actual motions of a swing via complicated joystick jerks of the sort Epyx tended to favor in their Games series, but somehow just felt better than anything else. (The developers of Mean 18 came up with an almost identical system simultaneously but apparently independently.) This so-called “three-click” system has persisted with only modest variations for decades as the go-to control scheme for computerized golf; any new game that deviates from it always provokes intense debate, and those that opt for something other than this by now traditional approach often all but define themselves by their rejection of the golf-swing status quo.

In Leader Board, then, you first aim the shot horizontally with a small targeting cursor, then press and hold the joystick button to begin your back swing. You release it when you’re ready to end the back swing — more back swing will hit the ball farther — but must be careful not to wait too long. The golfer now begins his forward swing. Hit the button again just as the club strikes the ball to “snap” it straight, or slightly before or after to deliberately — or, more likely, accidentally — hook or slice it to the left or right. Timing being so critical in this, the very heart of the game of golf whether played in the real world or on a computer, the simulation here had to be absolutely smooth, consistent, and precise. As in many other places in Leader Board, the Carvers took advantage of the Commodore 64’s timer-interrupt system to be sure of this. (Timer interrupts work similarly to the raster interrupts I discussed in an earlier article, except that they are triggered not by the movements of the electron gun which paints the screen but rather can be set to occur at a precise interval of microseconds.)

After the ball is struck, its X, Y, and Z vectors are calculated, taking into account the swing itself, gravity and air resistance, and, if you’re playing at “Professional” level, the wind. The ball is represented by a seventh sprite, which can have a number of possible sizes depending on its distance from you. In a nice touch that adds a welcome note of verisimilitude, the eighth sprite is employed as the shadow of the ball in flight; before the ball is struck, when it’s lying on the ground before you, this sprite is used to represent the targeting cursor. The movement of the ball and its shadow are again tied to the 64’s interrupt timer to assure that they are absolutely smooth and believable. If the sprite lands in the water, you have to try again; likewise, in yet another simplification, if you send it off the screen to left or right. Otherwise another view is generated from where the ball landed, and the hole continues. It is possible to hit the ball directly into the hole from the fairway, even to score a hole in one on some of the shorter holes, but it’s very, very difficult; in the couple of dozen complete games I’ve played recently (we got a bit obsessed with Leader Board around here for a while), I’ve managed it exactly once.

More commonly, you’ll eventually end up on the putting green, defined in Leader Board as simply an arbitrary circle 64 feet in radius around the hole. With no need for the concept of a snap, the control scheme is here simplified: just aim with the targeting cursor, then hold down the button until the power meter reaches the desired level, keeping in mind that a ball that’s traveling too fast when it reaches the hole will bounce right over it.

In order to make putting any real challenge, the Carvers were forced to add back in the concept of elevation they had excised from the rest of the simulation. The problem became how to portray slope on the relatively small surface of the green given a screen resolution of just 160 X 200. The ideal method would have been to add color shading to visually indicate contour, but they already needed to keep available four colors — the maximum permitted by the Commodore 64’s VIC-II graphics chip in any 4 X 8-pixel region — for drawing the other elements of the landscape. The somewhat kludgy and not entirely intuitive solution became a visual indicator, conveniently drawn in two of the available colors, to the left of the golfer. The vertical line represents the magnitude of the slope; the other represents its direction. The same system is used to represent wind intensity and direction when not on the green.

With that, plus a small battery of sound effects which are often cleverly reused — for instance, the splash when a ball strikes water is always the same waveform played at one of four volumes depending on the distance of the ball — the Carvers had something quite special, if also something that was, like any game, full of sacrifices and compromises. They had always seen this minimalist world of green land and blue water as a mere jumping-off point. Now, however, their planned shipping date loomed, and Access wasn’t in a financial position to miss it. Therefore Leader Board went out the door as-is very early in 1986. When it proved a hit, the Carvers happily returned to the Leader Board well again and again: via Leader Board Tournament, a bare-bones sequel featuring four new courses but the same engine; via Executive Leader Board later in 1986, which added sand traps and trees; and finally via World Class Leader Board and three course expansion disks (Famous Courses of the World) in 1987 and 1988. By this time, the Carvers had something that approached a real game of golf, with real-world golf courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, fairways and roughs and a whole variety of trees and other hazards, and variably shaped and sized greens. They had also largely remade Access in the eyes of gamers, from the Beach-Head company to the Leader Board company. Having accomplished all they felt they could on the Commodore 64 and seeing which way the industry winds were blowing, the Carvers now turned to bigger MS-DOS machines and what would become the most successful golf franchise of all, Links — a story for another time.

Executive Leader Board

Executive Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

Before we say goodbye to Leader Board, I want to take a moment here to say just how ridiculously entertaining it is, even in its most minimalist configuration. There’s something elegant and classic about those bifurcated, abstract landscapes of the first Leader Board — enough so that, while the later Leader Boards are certainly more impressive as golfing simulations, I’m not entirely sure they’re all that much better as computer games. Leader Board is an engaging little diversion played alone against the course, trying to come in under par (there is no computer opponent available). But get some friends together and it’s absolute magic, like so many of the best Commodore 64 games and so many of my personal favorites. Find yourself an open-minded friend or two or three who are willing to overlook 8-bit-era graphics and give it a shot; I’ve prepared a download that includes the original Leader Board, Executive Leader Board, and World Class Leader Board — which I think I can without causing a great deal of controversy call the definitive 8-bit golf game — with all the course disks also included courtesy of some ingenious hackers from the days of yore. Fire up a Commodore 64 emulator and try it even if you wouldn’t be caught dead on a real golf course. Golf just works on a computer, as millions of players with no interest whatsoever in the real game have discovered over the years. A grand tradition begins in earnest right here.

(Sources this time out are the same as for the last article.)

 
 

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Access Software

Bruce and Roger Carver,  1985

Bruce and Roger Carver, 1985

The canon of Access Software is crazily varied in light of its relatively modest size. It begins with a utility and then proceeds through a series of frenetic action games of sometimes questionable taste, only to do an abrupt about-face and embrace that most staid of sports, golf. That long-line line of simulations is then joined by a series of gloriously cheesy full-motion-video adventure games. The variety is even more remarkable when you consider that the output of this modest company is largely derived from the minds of just three men: brothers Bruce and Roger Carver and one Chris Jones, instantly recognizable to adventure-game fans as the trench-coated future-noir detective Tex Murphy. The Access story begins in 1982, long before the technology that enabled Tex was more than a dream, when Bruce Carver took home one of the first Commodore 64s to be sold in Salt Lake City.

Bruce was hardly your stereotypical computer whiz kid. Reared in the conservative bosom of Mormonism, he was a settled 34-year-old family man, more than ten years into a career in industrial engineering, when he bought his 64. He’d been introduced to programming some fifteen years earlier at university, then gotten a baptism by fire in his first job after, in the San Francisco offices of the Pacific Fruit Express Company.

They had a computer that no one knew how to work. One day the boss dropped a pile of manuals on my desk and, “Learn how to work this thing — I see you’ve taken Fortran in college.”

I dug through the books until I figured out how it worked and programmed a lot of it myself. By that time, I was working in machine language, something I had never done before — I was used to working with high-level languages. At that point, I fell in love with computers.

After “talking his wife into” the idea years later, he bought a Commodore 64 system from Steve Witzel, owner of a local store called Computers Plus. Bruce found the 64 captivating, rediscovering a passion for hacking that had been lying dormant all these years. Soon he was devoting all the time he could spare to figuring out how the little machine in his basement worked.

That could be a more difficult proposition than you might think. In years to come the 64 would see its humble innards plumbed and charted and exploited to a degree matched by few other platforms in computing history. Those first machines, however, preceded the foundation for most of the vast literature to follow, Commodore’s official Programmer’s Reference Guide, by almost a year. The only source early buyers had for understanding the machine was the sketchy outline provided in the manual in the form of yet another BASIC programming primer. And the 64 was an unusually inscrutable machine at that. Its BASIC was of little use for divining or exploiting the 64’s true capabilities, given that it was the exact same BASIC that Jack Tramiel had purchased from Bill Gates for the Commodore PET back in 1977. It thus lacked any support whatsoever for most of what made the 64 special, like colors and sprites and the SID sound chip. The only way to access these capabilities in BASIC was to POKE values into memory locations and to PEEK at others to see what was inside. Problem was, you had to know what these memory locations were in the first place, for which the manual was of only limited help at best. And so thousands of early adopters like Bruce Carver set out to divine them for themselves, to construct a map of the machine and its capabilities, by methodically POKEing each of the 65,535 addresses and seeing what happened. It was madness, but it was a delightful sort of madness for the right sort of mind.

Bruce’s personal obsession became the 64’s sprite system, particularly a little-understood, semi-mythical something called a “multicolor” sprite that was mentioned in passing in two tables inside the manual but otherwise went completely unremarked. As I wrote in an earlier article about the 64’s technical capabilities, and as Bruce now discovered after a “long systematic search” just to find the video chip, a multicolored sprite let you use up to three colors rather than just one to construct it, at the expense of half the object’s horizontal detail. Bruce’s discoveries led to his first real Commodore 64 project, an editor which let him design single- or multicolor sprites interactively, then save them in a format easy to incorporate into either BASIC or assembly-language. He took it to Computers Plus to show Witzel, who told him that, if he applied just a bit more polish and wrote a manual for it, he’d have a perfectly salable product. This encouragement led to the founding of Access Software just four feverish months after Bruce had first set up his Commodore 64. Witzel, who would become a lifelong friend, knew very well how software distribution and sales worked, and was thus able to help Bruce get a foot in the door of the software industry.

Spritemaster Spritemaster

Both Access’s first product and the first 64 product of its type, Spritemaster proved to be quite successful. It also led to an unexpected windfall of another sort. Bruce:

In December of 1982, I decided to attend a small Commodore dealer show in San Francisco. It was the perfect stage to introduce my new program to the public. The Commodore representative who was running the show came over and asked me if that was multicolored sprites I was displaying on the screen. I replied, yes, it was. He was so impressed with my work that he offered me a Xerox of a Commodore folder containing 64 technical information. He also warned me not to tell anyone else that I had it. So I returned home with a valuable prize that would save me many long hours of playing around with the computer.

Neutral Zone

The first Access game, Neutral Zone, arose directly out of Bruce’s latest technical explorations. It placed the player in charge of a missile battery defending a space station from hordes of aliens. The big gimmick was the way that the player could pan her weapon — and with it the screen — horizontally through a full 360 degrees to target aliens who flew in from everywhere. This was accomplished by taking advantage of scrolling registers that were not even hinted at by the Commodore 64’s manual and whose existence was thus completely unknown to most programmers. Aided by that precious notebook, Bruce was developing a reputation as one of the machine’s programming gurus. While he himself would later admit that Neutral Zone “isn’t a terrific game,” it was one hell of a technical tour de force for early 1983. At another trade show, this time in Florida, the same Commodore representative approached Bruce again to praise it, apparently without recognizing the fellow for whom his own help had been so instrumental.

Neutral Zone did well enough that Bruce decided to quit his day job at Redd Engineering, managing the neat trick of convincing some of Redd’s owners to invest in Access in the process; he would soon set up Access’s first office on the top floor of Redd’s own building. At this point Chris Jones enters the stage, in the uniform not of a roguish detective but rather a mild-mannered accountant — specifically, the Redd Engineering colleague Bruce had hired to do Access’s taxes. In the midst of that, Chris became entranced with the work Bruce was doing. Never of a technical bent himself, Chris was full of creative ideas for the application of Bruce’s ever-growing mastery of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. The two now agreed to do a game together, the first “real game” from Access that had been “planned in depth ahead of time, before any programming.”

Beach-Head Beach-Head

Beach-Head was inspired by the pair’s love for old World War II movies of the gung-ho John Wayne stripe. It charges you with recapturing an island that has been occupied by an enemy known only as “the Dictator.” Doing so requires the successful completion of no less than five individual action games. You must guide the invasion fleet toward the island whilst avoiding mines and torpedo attacks; fend off an enemy air attack on your fleet, followed by a surface attack; and finally storm the beaches and complete the final assault on the island’s central fortress. While hardly a cerebral exercise, it’s interesting for the amount of narrative it grafts onto its action-game template, and for being more sophisticated in some ways than you might expect. Far from being just five separate games packaged together, actions and, most importantly, casualties sustained in earlier phases actually affect later ones, leaving you with a tidy, unique little story at the end about your invasion (or invasion attempt).

Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown

Soon after Beach-Head‘s late 1983 American release, opportunity walked through the door in the form of the slick and stylish Englishman Geoff Brown, a former rock musician who owned and ran a major British software distributor called Centresoft. (In an interesting coincidence, “Center Soft” was one of the names Bruce had rejected for what became Access Software.) Brown now had the idea of starting his own software line called U.S. Gold, which would, as the name would imply, license the best games from the United States, repackage them for Europe — which would generally involve adapting them to work on cassette — and promote the living hell out of them; if there was one thing Brown was good at, it was promotion. For American publishers, U.S. Gold would be a cheap, painless way to maximize their markets, while for Geoff Brown it would turn into gold of another stripe; he would soon be driving one of only twenty Ferrari Testarossas on the roads of Britain. U.S. Gold’s client list would soon include a major swathe of the American games industry: Adventure International, Microprose, Epyx, Datasoft, SSI, Accolade, Sierra On-Line. Within a year they would own 25 percent of the British games industry, while Brown collected plenty of hate from domestic publishers for his blunt claim that American software was just better than European software as well as for an advertising budget that ran to five times the size of his nearest competitor. Yet it all started when Brown convinced Bruce Carver and his tiny company Access to let him bring Beach-Head to Europe as the very first U.S. Gold game.

Beach-Head was a perfect template for Brown’s vision for U.S. Gold: flashy, fast-paced, not very dependent on text, and thanks to its modular design very playable off cassette. “I couldn’t believe how fantastic it looked, with smooth animation and very realistic graphics,” Brown would later say. “The gameplay was like nothing I had ever seen in the UK, streets ahead of the competing UK product.” With Brown’s promotional savvy behind it, it became huge in Europe, selling in the vicinity of 150,000 units in its first year there and making of Bruce Carver a programming hero for countless European kids. Brown claims that it prompted home-grown British developers to “scrap everything they were working on” and start over to try to reach the bar set by Beach-Head. He also claims today that he shipped 1 million copies of Beach-Head through U.S. Gold, but it should be said that he is a bit prone to hyperbole and this number sounds extreme. Regardless, the game went on to become not just the most successful by far of Access’s early efforts but one of the seminal Commodore 64 titles, one that absolutely every kid with a 64 knew, owned, and played, whether legally or (as was much more the norm) illegally acquired.

Raid Over Moscow Raid Over Moscow

Bruce came up with the title of Access’s next game, Raid Over Moscow, whilst driving home from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1984 with some friends. The game, another multi-stage “arcade adventure,” was designed around the name. But this time Bruce and Chris walked, by their account naively, into controversy. In place of the abstractly fictional Dictator of Beach-Head, Raid Over Moscow posits a sneak nuclear attack by the very real Soviet Union, which you must defend against using an SDI-like system. It climaxes with the eponymous assault on Moscow itself; if you succeed here you leave behind a smoking nuclear crater. In questionable taste though it was, the game attracted little concern in the United States, where its jingoism felt sadly in step with those times when Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric was reaching a peak, the real SDI program was all over the news, and the superpowers were closer to the brink of nuclear war than they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Europe, much closer to Moscow and much more aware of the horrors of war thanks to recent history, it was a different story: Raid Over Moscow caused the proverbial shitstorm upon its release through U.S. Gold. The magazine letter pages in Britain erupted with condemnations: “nuclear war is not a subject for fantasy”; “another sick episode of this American hang-up with the people of Russia”; “provocative, insulting, and harmful”; “a nasty little number”; “vicious propaganda”; “a load of American rubbish.” Others were equally strident in declaring Raid Over Moscow harmless, “just a game,” as the controversy spread from gaming circles to television newscasts, radio shows, and of course the always overheated London tabloids. In France and West Germany the game was released as simply Raid!!!, but that didn’t help in the latter country, whose government promptly banned it — and Beach-Head for good measure — from being advertised, sold to minors at all, or even displayed on store shelves. But the most extreme reaction of all happened in Finland, where the controversy made it to the halls of Parliament and prompted an official protest from the Soviet Union to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, calling the game “military propaganda” amongst other choice epithets. Naturally, Raid Over Moscow spent the several months that followed as the top-selling Commodore 64 game in Finland.

Even as he publicly dismissed the controversy by taking the “just a game” angle, Geoff Brown rubbed his hands in glee in deference to the old maxim that no press is bad press. Bruce Carver and Chris Jones, who whatever their personal politics did seem genuinely bewildered and at least somewhat bothered by it all, later claimed that Brown deliberately sparked the flames by contacting known “hawks” and “doves” in London political circles to tell them about the game and get them squawking at each other before it even came out. Later Brown supposedly stoked them by paying people to picket the Soviet Embassy in Raid Over Moscow tee-shirts, until Bruce finally told him to please just cool it.

Meanwhile back in Nevada, the last piece of the Access puzzle had fallen into place in the form of Bruce’s younger brother Roger, who had spent the last nine years in the Navy programming mainframe-based flight simulators. Intrigued by his brother’s programming exploits, he bought a Commodore 64 of his own, and quickly made a poker game that was quite playable. Impressed, Bruce convinced Roger not to reenlist but rather to come work with him instead in June of 1984; by this time Access was turning at last into a real company, with real offices and real employees. The two brothers worked along with Chris Jones on the inevitable Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back, yet another episodic military action game but one which did stretch the formula considerably by making it possible for two players to play against each other, one in the role of the Dictator and the other in that of the hero.

Beach-Head II Beach-Head II

Beach-Head II‘s other obvious innovation marked the onset of another of the Carvers’ longstanding technical obsessions. Inspired by the digitized speech snippet in Epyx’s Impossible Mission, they started looking for a way to incorporate speech into their own game. They caught up with Doug Mosser, whose company Electronic Speech Systems had been responsible for that snippet, at the January 1985 CES. Together the two companies were able to shoehorn quite a variety of spoken exclamations — all performed by Access’s package artist, Doug Vandergrift — into Beach-Head II, no mean feat given the limited speed and memory of the Commodore 64; just playing back one of these samples required about half of the 6502 CPU’s cycles, leaving precious little for everything else going on. While they didn’t come up with anything quite as indelible as Impossible Mission‘s “Stay a while! Stay forever!,” wounded soldiers in Beach-Head II scream for a “Medic!”; hostages whine, “Hey, don’t shoot me!”; the Dictator himself cackles and issues appropriate Evil Mastermindish threats. The Carvers would continue to relentlessly push the (often rudimentary) sound capabilities of the computers on which they worked, culminating in a patented system, which they dubbed RealSound, for getting, well, real sound and speech out of the IBM PC’s primitive bleeper of a speaker. It would be licensed to a number of other companies, until the arrival of ubiquitous sound cards made it moot.

Beach-Head II foreshadowed Access’s future in still another way. The opening sequence sees your forces parachuting into the Dictator’s stronghold from helicopters, then mounting an initial assault on the defensive perimeter. Trying to make the soldiers’ movements as realistic as possible, the three Access principals went out to a local park and filmed themselves running and scaling walls on a new video camera Roger had recently acquired. They then traced still frames of their figures to make the sprites in the game. This interest in the incorporation of live-action video footage — Roger and Chris were both to one degree or another frustrated filmmakers — would mark virtually every project Access would undertake for the next fifteen years.

For all its small-scale innovations, Beach-Head II, Access’s third episodic military action game, could be read as too much of a good thing. Sales certainly bore that out: Beach-Head had been a massive hit, Raid Over Moscow, despite all of the controversy and the attendant publicity, slightly less of one, while Beach-Head II sold yet worse. Access thus decided on a major change in direction: to make a multi-event sports simulation, a genre in which their developing motion-capture techniques might give them a big edge over the competition. From a commercial standpoint if nothing else, it made a lot of sense; Summer Games I and II from Epyx were absolutely huge in both North America and Europe (where they were released, naturally, under the U.S. Gold imprint).

The original conception for what would become Leader Board hewed very closely indeed to the Epyx model. Access imagined a game that consisted of four separate events: a baseball home-run derby, a soccer penalty kick, a “closest to the pin” golf challenge (meaning each player got three shots to get as close to a single hole as possible), and something else to be determined in the fullness of time. Roger being an excellent golfer, with a handicap that had been known to get as low as 3, they decided to make the golf challenge first. By the time they were done, it seemed obvious that they had something special, worthy of being expanded into a full-fledged 18-hole golf simulation. The other three events were forgotten, and Leader Board was born.

(The longest and most detailed accounts of Access’s early history are found in the July 1987 and August 1987 Commodore Magazine, the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play, and Retro Gamer #120. Geoff Brown and U.S. Gold are profiled in the June 1985 ZZap!, the July 1986 Commodore User, and the October 1986 Your Computer. A sampling of reactions to Road to Moscow can be found in the October 1984, December 1984, February 1985, and March 1985 Computer and Video Games, and the April 1985 Sinclair User. And finally, not reading Finnish, I must admit that I sourced the Raid Over Moscow controversy in Finland straight from good old Wikipedia.)

 
 

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