RSS

An Independent Interplay Takes on Tolkien

When Brian Fargo made the bold decision in 1988 to turn his company Interplay into a computer-game publisher as well as developer, he was simply steering onto the course that struck him as most likely to ensure Interplay’s survival. Interplay had created one of the more popular computer games of the 1980s in the form of the 400,000-plus-selling CRPG The Bard’s Tale, yet had remained a tiny company living hand-to-mouth while their publisher Electronic Arts sucked up the lion’s share of the profits. And rankling almost as much as that disparity was the fact that Electronic Arts sucked up the lion’s share of the credit as well; very few gamers even recognized the name of Interplay in 1988. If this was what it was like to be an indentured developer immediately after making the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s, what would it be like when The Bard’s Tale faded into ancient history? The odds of making it as an independent publisher may not have looked great, but from some angles at least they looked better than Interplay’s prospects if the status quo was allowed to continue.

Having taken their leave of Electronic Arts and signed on as an affiliated label with Mediagenic in order to piggyback on the latter’s distribution network, the newly independent Interplay made their public bow by releasing two games simultaneously. One of these was Neuromancer, a formally ambitious, long-in-the-works adaptation of the landmark William Gibson novel. The other was the less formally ambitious Battle Chess, an initially Commodore Amiga-based implementation of chess in which the pieces didn’t just slide into position each time a player made a move but rather walked around the board to do animated battle. Not a patch on hardcore computerized chess games like The Chessmaster 2000 in terms of artificial intelligence — its chess-playing engine actually had its origin in a simple chess implementation released in source-code form by Borland to demonstrate their Turbo Pascal programming language1Battle Chess sold far better than any of them. Owners of Amigas were always eager for opportunities to show off their machines’ spectacular audiovisual capabilities, and Battle Chess delivered on that in spades, becoming one of the Amiga’s iconic games; it even featured prominently in a Computer Chronicles television episode about the Amiga. Today, long after its graphics have lost their power to wow us, it may be a little hard to understand why so many people were so excited about this slow-playing, gussied-up version of chess. Battle Chess, in other words, is unusually of-its-time even by the standards of old computer games. In its time, though, it delivered exactly what Interplay most needed as they stepped out on their own: it joined The Bard’s Tale to become the second major hit of their history, allowing them to firmly establish their footing on this new frontier of software publishing.

The King takes out a Knight in Battle Chess by setting off a bomb. Terrorism being what it is, this would not, needless to say, appear in the game if it was released today.

The remarkable success of Battle Chess notwithstanding, Interplay was hardly ready to abandon CRPGs — not after the huge sales racked up by The Bard’s Tale and the somewhat fewer but still substantial sales enjoyed by The Bard’s Tale II, The Bard’s Tale III, and Wasteland. Unfortunately, leaving Electronic Arts behind had also meant leaving those franchises behind; as was typical of publisher/developer relationships of the time, those trademarks had been registered by Electronic Arts, not Interplay. Faced with this reality, Interplay embarked on the difficult challenge of interesting gamers in an entirely new name on the CRPG front. Which isn’t to say that the new game would have nothing in common with what they’d done before. On the contrary, Interplay’s next CRPG was conceived as a marriage of the fantasy setting of The Bard’s Tale, which remained far more popular with gamers than alternative settings, with the more sophisticated game play of the post-apocalyptic Wasteland, which had dared to go beyond mowing down hordes of monsters as its be-all end-all.

Following a precedent he had established with Wasteland, Fargo hired established veterans of the tabletop-RPG industry to design the new game. But in lieu of Michael Stackpole and Ken St. Andre, this time he went with Steve Peterson and Paul Ryan O’Connor. The former was best known as the designer of 1981’s Champions, one of the first superhero RPGs and by far the most popular prior to TSR entering the fray with the official Marvel Comics license in 1984. The latter was yet another of the old Flying Buffalo crowd who had done so much to create Wasteland; at Flying Buffalo, O’Connor had been best known as the originator of the much-loved and oft-hilarious Grimtooth’s Traps series of supplements. In contrast to Stackpole and St. Andre, the two men didn’t work on Interplay’s latest CRPG simultaneously but rather linearly, with Peterson handing the design off to O’Connor after creating its core mechanics but before fleshing out its plot and setting. Only quite late into O’Connor’s watch did the game, heretofore known only as “Project X,” finally pick up its rather generic-sounding name of Dragon Wars.

At a casual glance, Dragon Wars‘s cheesecake cover art looks like that of any number of CRPGs of its day. But for this game, Brian Fargo went straight to the wellspring of cheesecake fantasy art, commissioning Boris Vallejo himself to paint the cover. The end results set Interplay back $4000. You can judge for yourself whether it was money well-spent.

A list of Interplay’s goals for Dragon Wars reads as follows:

  • Deemphasis of “levels” — less of a difference in ability from one level to another.
  • Experience for something besides killing.
  • No random treasure — limit it such as Wasteland’s.
  • Ability to print maps (dump to printer).
  • Do something that has an effect — it does not necessarily have to be done to win (howitzer shell in Wasteland that blows up fast-food joint).
  • Characters should not begin as incompetents — thieves that disarm traps only 7 percent of the time, etc. Fantasy Hero/GURPS levels of competence at the start are more appropriate (50 percent or better success rate to start with).
  • Reduce bewildering array of slightly different spells.
  • If character “classes” are to be used, they should all be distinctive and different from each other and useful. None, however, should be absolutely vital.
  • Less linear puzzles — there should be a number of quests that can be done at any given time.

The finished game hews to these goals fairly well, and to fairly impressive effect. The skill-based — as opposed to class-based — character system of Wasteland is retained, and there are multiple approaches available at every turn. Dragon Wars still runs on 8-bit computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64 in addition to more advanced machines, but it’s obvious throughout that Interplay has taken steps to remedy the shortcomings of their previous CRPGs as much as possible within the limitations of 8-bit technology. For instance, there’s an auto-map system included which, limited though it is, shows that they were indeed trying. As with Wasteland, an obvious priority is to bring more of the tabletop experience to the computer. Another priority, though, is new: to throttle back the pace of character development, thus steering around the “Monty Haul” approach so typical of CRPGs. Characters do gain in levels and thus in power in Dragon Wars, but only very slowly, while the game is notably stingy with the gold and magic that fill most CRPGs from wall to wall. Since leveling up and finding neat loot is such a core part of the joy of CRPGs for so many of us, these choices inevitably lead to a game that’s a bit of an acquired taste. That reality, combined with the fact that the game does no hand-holding whatsoever when it comes to building your characters or anything else — it’s so tough to create a viable party of your own out of the bewildering list of possible skills that contemporary reviewers recommended just playing with the included sample party — make it a game best suited for hardened old-school CRPG veterans. That said, it should also be said that many in that select group consider Dragon Wars a classic.

Dragon Wars would mark the end of the line for Interplay games on 8-bit home computers. From now on, MS-DOS and consoles would dominate, with an occasional afterthought of an Amiga version.

The game didn’t do very well at retail, but that situation probably had more to do with external than intrinsic factors. It was introduced as yet another new name into a CRPG market that was drowning in more games than even the most hardcore fan could possibly play. And for all Interplay’s determination to advance the state of the art over The Bard’s Tale games and even Wasteland, Dragon Wars was all too obviously an 8-bit CRPG at a time when the 8-bit market was collapsing.

In the wake of Dragon Wars‘s underwhelming reception, Interplay was forced to accept that the basic technical approach they had used with such success in all three Bard’s Tale games and Wasteland had to give way to something else, just as the 8-bit machines that had brought them this far had to fall by the wayside. Sometimes called The Bard’s Tale IV by fans — it would doubtless have been given that name had Interplay stayed with Electronic Arts — Dragon Wars was indeed the ultimate evolution of what Interplay had begun with the original Bard’s Tale. It was also, however, the end of that particular evolutionary branch of the CRPG.

Luckily, the ever industrious Brian Fargo had something entirely new in the works in the realm of CRPGs. And, as had become par for the course, that something would involve a veteran of the tabletop world.

Paul Jaquays2 had discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1975 in his first year of art college and never looked back. After founding The Dungeoneer, one of the young industry’s most popular early fanzines, he kicked around as a free-lance writer, designer, and illustrator, coming to know most of the other tabletop veterans we’ve already met in the context of their work with Interplay. Then he spent the first half of the 1980s working on videogames for Coleco; he was brought on there by none other than Wasteland designer Michael Stackpole. Jaquays, however, remained at Coleco much longer than Stackpole, rising to head their design department. When Coleco gave up on their ColecoVision console and laid off their design staff in 1985, Jaquays went back to freelancing in both tabletop and digital gaming. Thus it came to pass that Brian Fargo signed him up to make Interplay’s next CRPG while Dragon Wars was still in production. The game was to be called Secrets of the Magi. While it was to have run on the 8-bit Commodore 64 among other platforms, it was planned as a fast-paced, real-time affair, in marked contrast to Interplay’s other CRPGs, with free-scrolling movement replacing their grid-based movement, action-oriented combat replacing their turn-based combat. But the combination of the commercial disappointment that had been Dragon Wars and the collapse of the 8-bit market which it signified combined with an entirely new development to change most of those plans. Jaquays was told one day by one of Magi‘s programmers that “we’re not doing this anymore. We’re doing a Lord of the Rings game.”

Fargo’s eyes had been opened to the possibilities for literary adaptations by his friendship with Timothy Leary, which had led directly to Interplay’s adaptation of Neuromancer and, more indirectly but more importantly in this context, taught him something about wheeling and dealing with the established powers of Old Media. At the time, the Tolkien estate, the holders of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary copyrights, were by tacit agreement with Tolkien Enterprises, holders of the film license, the people to talk to if you wanted to create a computer game based on Tolkien. The only publisher that had yet released such a beast was Australia’s Melbourne House, who over the course of the 1980s had published four text adventures and a grand-strategy game set in Middle-earth. But theirs wasn’t an ongoing licensing arrangement; it had been negotiated anew for each successive game. And they hadn’t managed to make a Tolkien game that became a notable critical or commercial success since their very first one, a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit from way back in 1982. In light of all this, there seemed ample reason to believe that the Tolkien estate might be amenable to changing horses. So, Brian Fargo called them up and asked if he could make a pitch.

Fargo told me recently that he believes it was his “passion” for the source material that sealed the deal. Fargo:

I had obsessed over the books when I was little, had the calendar and everything. And inside the front cover of The Fellowship of the Ring was a computer program I’d written down by hand when I was in seventh grade. I brought it to them and showed them: “This was my first computer program, written inside the cover of this book.” I don’t know if that’s what got them to agree, but they did. I think they knew they were dealing with people that were passionate about the license.

One has to suspect that Fargo’s honest desire to make a Lord of the Rings game for all the right reasons was indeed the determining factor. Christopher Tolkien, always the prime mover among J.R.R. Tolkien’s heirs, has always approached the question of adaptation with an eye to respecting and preserving the original literary works above all other considerations. And certainly the Tolkien estate must have seen little reason to remain loyal to Melbourne House, whose own adaptations had grown so increasingly lackluster since the glory days of their first Hobbit text adventure.

A bemused but more than willing Paul Jacquays thus saw his Secrets of the Magi transformed into a game with the long-winded title — licensing deals produce nothing if not long-winded titles — of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1. (For some reason known only to the legal staff, the name The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t used, even though the part of Tolkien’s story covered by the game dovetails almost perfectly with the part covered by that first book in the trilogy.) While some of the ideas that were to have gone into Jaquays’s original plan for Secrets of the Magi were retained, such as the real-time play and free-scrolling movement, the game would now be made for MS-DOS rather than the Commodore 64. Combined with the Tolkien license, which elevated the game at a stroke to the status of the most high-profile ongoing project at Interplay, the switch in platforms led to a dramatic up-scaling in ambition.

Thrilled though everyone had been to acquire the license, making The Lord of the Rings, by far the biggest thing Interplay had ever done in terms of sheer amount of content, turned into a difficult grind that was deeply affected by external events, starting with a certain crisis of identity and ending with a full-blown existential threat.

Like so many American computer-game executives at the time, Brian Fargo found the Nintendo Entertainment System and its tens of millions of active players hard to resist. While one piece of his company was busy making The Lord of the Rings into a game, he therefore set another piece to work churning out Interplay’s first three Nintendo games. Having no deal with the notoriously fickle Nintendo and thus no way to enter their walled garden as a publisher in their own right, Interplay was forced to publish two of these games through Mediagenic’s Activision label, the other through Acclaim Entertainment. Unfortunately, Fargo was also like many other computer-game executives in discovering to his dismay that there was far more artistry to Nintendo hits like Super Mario Bros. than their surface simplicity might imply — and that Nintendo gamers, young though they mostly were, were far from undiscerning. None of Interplay’s Nintendo games did very well at all, which in turn did no favors to Interplay’s bottom line.

Interplay sorely needed another big hit like Battle Chess, but it was proving damnably hard to find. Even the inevitable Battle Chess II: Chinese Chess performed only moderately. The downside of a zeitgeist-in-a-bottle product like Battle Chess was that it came with a built-in sell-by date. There just wasn’t that much to be done to build on the original game’s popularity other than re-skinning it with new graphics, and the brief-lived historical instant when animated chessmen were enough to sell a game was already passing.

Then, in the midst of these other struggles, Interplay was very nearly buried by the collapse of Mediagenic in 1990. I’ve already described the reasons for that collapse and much of the effect it had on Interplay and the rest of the industry in an earlier article, so I won’t retread that ground in detail here. Instead I’ll just reiterate that the effect was devastating for Interplay. With the exception only of the single Nintendo game published through Acclaim and the trickle of royalties still coming in from Electronic Arts for their old titles, Interplay’s entire revenue stream had come through Mediagenic. Now that stream had run dry as the Sahara. In the face of almost no income whatsoever, Brian Fargo struggled to keep Interplay’s doors open, to keep his extant projects on track, and to establish his own distribution channel to replace the one he had been renting from Mediagenic. His company mired in the most serious crisis it had ever faced, Fargo went to his shareholders — Interplay still being privately held, these consisted largely of friends, family, and colleagues — to ask for the money he needed to keep it alive. He managed to raise over $500,000 in short-term notes from them, along with almost $200,000 in bank loans, enough to get Interplay through 1990 and get the Lord of the Rings game finished. The Lord of the Rings game, in other words, had been elevated by the misfortunes of 1990 from an important project to a bet-the-company project. It was to be finished in time for the Christmas of 1990, and if it became a hit then Interplay might just live to make more games. And if not… it didn’t bear thinking about.

The Lord of the Rings‘s free-scrolling movement and overhead perspective were very different from what had come before, ironically resembling Origin’s Ultima games more than Interplay’s earlier CRPGs. But the decision to have the interface get out of the way when it wasn’t needed, thus giving more space to the world, was very welcome, especially in comparison to the cluttered Ultima VI engine. Interplay’s approach may well have influenced Ultima VII.

If a certain technical approach to the CRPG — a certain look and feel, if you will — can be seen as having been born with the first Bard’s Tale and died after Dragon Wars, a certain philosophical approach can be seen just as validly as having been born with Wasteland and still being alive and well at Interplay at the time of The Lord of the Rings. The design of the latter would once again emphasize character skills rather than character class, and much of the game play would once again revolve around applying your party’s suite of skills to the situations encountered. Wasteland‘s approach to experience and leveling up had been fairly traditional; characters increased in power relatively quickly, especially during the early stages of the game, and could become veritable demigods by the end. Dragon Wars, though, had departed from tradition by slowing this process dramatically, and now The Lord of the Rings would eliminate the concept of character level entirely; skills would still increase with use, but only slowly, and only quietly behind the scenes. These mechanical changes would make the game unlike virtually any CRPG that had come before it, to such an extent that some have argued over whether it quite manages to qualify as a CRPG at all. It radically de-emphasizes the character-building aspect of the genre — you don’t get to make your own characters at all, but start out in the Shire with only Frodo and assemble a party over the course of your travels — and with it the tactical min/maxing that is normally such a big part of old-school CRPGs. As I noted in my previous article, Middle-earth isn’t terribly well-suited to traditional RPG mechanics. The choice Interplay made to focus less on mechanics and more on story and exploration feels like a logical response, an attempt to make a game that does embody Tolkien’s ethos.

In addition to the unique challenges of adapting CRPG mechanics to reflect the spirit of Middle-earth, Interplay’s Lord of the Rings game faced all the more typical challenges of adapting a novel to interactive form. To simply walk the player through the events of the book would be uninteresting and, given the amount of texture and exposition that would be lost in the transition from novel to game, would yield far too short of an experience. Interplay’s solution was to tackle the novel in terms of geography rather than plot. They created seven large maps for you to progress through, covering the stages of Frodo and company’s journey in the novel: the Shire, the Old Forest, Bree, Rivendell, Moria, Lothlórien, and Dol Guldur. (The last reflects the game’s only complete deviation from the novel; for its climax, it replaces the psychological drama of Boromir’s betrayal of the Fellowship with a more ludically conventional climactic assault on the fortress of the Witch-King of Angmar — the Lord of the Nazgûl —  who has abducted Frodo.) Paul Jaquays scattered episodes from the novel over the maps in what seemed the most logical places. Then, he went further, adding all sorts of new content.

Interplay understood that reenacting the plot of the novel wasn’t really what players would find most appealing about a CRPG set in Middle-earth. The real appeal was that of simply wandering about in the most beloved landscapes in all of fantasy fiction. For all that the Fellowship was supposed to be on a desperate journey to rid the world of its greatest threat in many generations, with the forces of evil hot on their trail, it wouldn’t do to overemphasize that aspect of the book. Players would want to stop and smell the roses. Jaquays therefore stuffed each of the maps with content, almost all of it optional; there’s very little that you need to do to finish the game. While a player who takes the premise a bit too literally could presumably rush through the maps in a mere handful of hours, the game clearly wants you to linger over its geography, scouring it from end to end to see what you can turn up.

In crafting the maps, and especially in crafting the new content on them, Jaquays was hugely indebted to Iron Crown Enterprises’s Middle-earth Role Playing tabletop RPG and its many source books which filled in the many corners of Middle-earth in even greater detail than Tolkien had managed in his voluminous notes. For legal reasons — Interplay had bought a Fellowship of the Ring novel license, not a Middle-earth Role Playing game license — care had to be taken not to lift anything too blatantly, but anyone familiar with Iron Crown’s game and Interplay’s game can’t help but notice the similarities. The latter’s vision of Middle-earth is almost as indebted to the former as it is to Tolkien himself. One might say that it plays like an interactive version of one of those Iron Crown source books.

Conversation takes the Ultima “guess the keyword” approach. Sigh… at least you can usually identify topics by watching for capitalized words in the text.

Interplay finished development on the game in a mad frenzy, with the company in full crisis mode, trying to get it done in time for the Christmas of 1990. But in the end, they were forced to make the painful decision to miss that deadline, allowing the release date to slip to the beginning of 1991. Then, with it shipping at last, they waited to see whether their bet-the-company game would indeed save their skins. Early results were not encouraging.

Once you got beyond the awful, unwieldy name, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1 seemingly had everything going for it: a developer with heaps of passion and heaps of experience making CRPGs, a state-of-the-art free-scrolling engine with full-screen graphics, and of course a license for the most universally known and beloved series of books in all of fantasy fiction. It ought to have been a sure thing, a guaranteed hit if ever there was one. All of which makes its reception and subsequent reputation all the more surprising. If it wasn’t quite greeted with a collective shrug, Interplay’s first Tolkien game was treated with far more skepticism than its pedigree might lead one to expect.

Some people were doubtful of the very idea of trying to adapt Tolkien, that most holy name in the field of fantasy, into a game in much the same way that some Christians might be doubtful of making Jesus Christ the star of a game. For those concerned above all else with preserving the integrity of the original novel, Interplay’s approach to the task of adaptation could only be aggravating. Paul Jaquays had many talents, but he wasn’t J.R.R. Tolkien, and the divisions between content drawn from the books and new content were never hard to spot. What right had a bunch of game developers to add on to Middle-earth? It’s a question, of course, with no good answer.

But even those who were more accepting of the idea of The Lord of the Rings in game form found a lot of reasons to complain about this particular implementation of the idea. The most immediately obvious issue was the welter of bugs. Bugs in general were becoming a more and more marked problem in the industry as a whole as developers strained to churn out ever bigger games capable of running on an ever more diverse collection of MS-DOS computing hardware. Still, even in comparison to its peers Interplay’s Lord of the Rings game is an outlier, being riddled with quests that can’t be completed, areas that can’t be accessed, dialog that doesn’t make sense. Its one saving grace is the generosity and flexibility that Jaquays baked into the design, which makes it possible to complete the game even though it can sometimes seem like at least half of it is broken in one way or another. A few more months all too obviously should have been appended to the project, even if it was already well behind schedule. Given the state of the game Interplay released in January of 1991, one shudders to think what they had seriously considered rushing to market during the holiday season.

You’ll spend a lot of time playing matchy-matchy with lists of potentially applicable skills. A mechanic directly imported from tabletop RPGs, it isn’t the best fit for a computer game, for reasons I explicated in my article on Wasteland.

Other issues aren’t quite bugs in the traditional sense, but do nevertheless feel like artifacts of the rushed development cycle. The pop-up interface which overlays the full-screen graphics was innovative in its day, but it’s also far more awkward to use than it needs to be, feeling more than a little unfinished. It’s often too difficult to translate actions into the terms of the interface, a problem that’s also present in Wasteland and Dragon Wars but is even more noticeable here. Good, logical responses to many situations — responses which are actually supported by the game — can fall by the wayside because you fail to translate them correctly into the terms of the tortured interface. Throwing some food to a band of wolves to make them go away rather than attack you early in the game, for instance, requires you divine that you need to “trade” the food to them. Few things are more frustrating than looking up the solution to a problem like this one and learning that you went awry because you “used” food on the wolves instead of “trading” it to them.

But perhaps the most annoying issue is that of simply finding your way around. Each of those seven maps is a big place, and no auto-map facility is provided;  Interplay had intended to include such a feature, but dropped it in the name of saving time. The manual does provide a map of the Shire, but after that you’re on your own. With paper-and-pencil mapping made damnably difficult by the free-scrolling movement that it makes it impossible to accurately judge distances, just figuring out where you are, where you’ve been, and where you need to go often turns into the most challenging aspect of the game.

Combat can be kind of excruciating, especially when you’re stuck with nothing but a bunch of hobbits.

It all adds up to something of a noble failure — a game which, despite the best intentions of everyone involved, just isn’t as magical as it ought to have been. The game sold in moderate numbers on the strength of the license, but, its commercial prospects damaged as much by missing the Christmas buying season as by the lukewarm reviews, it never became the major hit Interplay so desperately needed. That disappointment may very well have marked the end of Interplay, if not for a stroke of good fortune from a most unexpected quarter.

Shortly after electing to turn Interplay into an independent publisher, Brian Fargo had begun looking for more games to publish beyond those his small internal team could develop. He’d found some worthwhile titles, albeit titles reflective of the small size and relative lack of clout of his company: a classical chess game designed to appeal to those uninterested in Battle Chess‘s eye-candy approach; a series of typing tutors; a clever word game created by a couple of refugees from the now-defunct Cinemaware; a series of European imports sourced through France’s Delphine Software. None had set the world on fire, but then no one had really expected them to.

That all changed when Interplay agreed to publish a game called Castles, from a group of outside developers who called themselves Quicksilver Software. Drawing from King Edward I of England’s castle-building campaign in Wales for its historical antecedent, Castles at its core was essentially a Medieval take on SimCity. Onto this template, however, Quicksilver grafted the traditional game elements some had found lacking in Will Wright’s software toy. The player’s castles would be occasionally attacked by enemy armies, forcing her to defend them in simple tactical battles, and she would also have to deal with the oft-conflicting demands of the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry in embodied exchanges that gave the game a splash of narrative interest. Not a deathless classic by any means, it was a game that just about everyone could while away a few hours with. Castles was able to attract the building crowd who loved SimCity, the grognard crowd who found its historical scenario appealing, the adventure and CRPG crowd who liked the idea of playing the role of a castle’s chief steward, while finishing the mixture off with a salting of educational appeal. With some of the most striking cover art of any game released that year to serve as the finishing touch, its combination of appeals proved surprisingly potent. In fact, no one was more surprised by the game’s success than Interplay, who, upon releasing Castles just weeks after the Lord of the Rings game, found themselves with an unexpected but well-nigh life-saving hit on their hands. Every time you thought you understood gamers, Brian Fargo was continuing to learn, they’d turn around and surprise you.

So, thanks to this most fortuitous of saviors, Interplay got to live on. Almost in spite of himself, Fargo continued to pull a hit out of his sleeve every two or three years, always just when his company most needed one. He’d done it with The Bard’s Tale, he’d done it with Battle Chess, and now he’d done it with Castles.

Castles had rather stolen The Lord of the Rings‘s thunder, but Interplay pressed on with the second game in the trilogy, which was allowed the name The Two Towers to match that of its source novel. Released in August of 1992 after many delays, it’s very similar in form and execution to its predecessor — including, alas, lots more bugs — despite the replacement of Paul Jaquays with a team of designers that this time included Ed Greenwood, one of the more prominent creative figures of the post-Gary Gygax era of TSR. Interplay did try to address some of the complaints about the previous game by improving the interface, by making the discrete maps smaller and thus more manageable, and by including the auto-mapping feature that had been planned for but left out of its predecessor. But it still wasn’t enough. Reviewers were even more unkind to the sequel despite Interplay’s efforts, and it sold even worse. By this point, Interplay had scored another big hit with Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, the first officially licensed Star Trek game to be worthy of the name, and had other projects on the horizon that felt far more in keeping with the direction the industry was going than did yet another sprawling Middle-earth CRPG. Brian Fargo’s passion for Tolkien may have been genuine, but at some point in business passion has to give way to financial logic. Interplay’s vision of The Lord of the Rings was thus quietly abandoned at the two-thirds mark.

In a final bid to eke a bit more out of it, Interplay in 1993 repackaged the first Lord of the Rings game for CD-ROM, adding an orchestral soundtrack and interspersing the action, rather jarringly, with clips from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated Lord of the Rings film, which Fargo had also managed to license. But the most welcome improvement came in the form of a slightly more advanced game engine, including an auto-map. Despite the improvements, sales of this version were so poor that Interplay never bothered to give The Two Towers the CD-ROM treatment. A dire port/re-imagining of the first game for the Super Nintendo was the final nail in the coffin, marking the last gasp of Interplay’s take on Tolkien. Just as Bakshi had left his hobbits stranded on the way to Mordor when he failed to secure the financing to make his second Lord of the Rings movie, Interplay left theirs in limbo only a little closer to the Crack of Doom. The irony of this was by no means lost on so dedicated a Tolkien fan as Brian Fargo.

Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years. The company The Bard’s Tale had built could now make a lot more money in other genres. If there’s one thing the brief marriage of Interplay with Tolkien demonstrates, it’s that a sure thing is never a sure thing.

(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Brian Fargo donated to the Strong Museum of Play. Also, Questbusters of March 1989, December 1989, January 1991, June 1991, April 1992, and August 1992; Antic of July 1985; Commodore Magazine of October 1988; Creative Computing of September 1981; Computer Gaming World of December 1989 and September 1990. Online sources include a Jennell Jaquays Facebook posting and the Polygon article “There and Back Again: A History of The Lord of the Rings in Video Games.” Finally, my huge thanks to Brian Fargo for taking time from his busy schedule to discuss his memories of Interplay’s early days with me.

Neither of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have been available for purchase for a long, long time, a situation that is probably down to the fine print of the licensing deal that was made with the Tolkien estate all those years ago. I hesitate to host them here out of fear of angering either of the parties who signed that deal, but they aren’t hard to find elsewhere online with a little artful Googling.)


  1. The later Apple II and Commodore 64 ports of the game ironically played a much stronger game of chess despite running on much more limited hardware. For them, Interplay licensed a chess engine from Julio Kaplan, an International Chess Master and former World Junior Chess Champion who had had written the firmware for a number of custom chess-playing computers and served as an all-purpose computer-chess consultant for years. 

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 
25 Comments

Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Many Faces of Middle-earth, 1954-1989

The transformation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from an off-putting literary trilogy — full of archaic diction, lengthy appendixes, and poetry, for God’s sake — into some of the most bankable blockbuster fodder on the planet must be one of the most unlikely stories in the history of pop culture. Certainly Tolkien himself must be about the most unlikely mass-media mastermind imaginable. During his life, he was known to his peers mostly as a philologist, or historian of languages. The whole Lord of the Rings epic was, he once admitted, “primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background history” for the made-up languages it contained. On another occasion, he called the trilogy “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” That doesn’t exactly sound like popcorn-movie material, does it?

So, what would this pipe-smoking, deeply religious old Oxford don have made of our modern takes on his work, of CGI spellcraft and 3D-rendered hobbits mowing down videogame enemies by the dozen? No friend of modernity in any of its aspects, Tolkien would, one has to suspect, have been nonplussed at best, outraged at worst. But perhaps — just perhaps, if he could contort himself sufficiently — he might come to see all this sound and fury as at least as much validation as betrayal of his original vision. In writing The Lord of the Rings, he had explicitly set out to create a living epic in the spirit of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Malory. For better or for worse, the living epics of our time unspool on screens rather than on the page or in the chanted words of bards, and come with niceties like copyright and trademark attached.

And where those things exist, so exist also the corporations and the lawyers. It would be those entities rather than Tolkien or even any of his descendants who would control how his greatest literary work was adapted to screens large, small, and in between. Because far more people in this modern age of ours play games and watch movies than read books of any stripe  — much less daunting doorstops like The Lord of the Rings trilogy — this meant that Middle-earth as most people would come to know it wouldn’t be quite the same land of myth that Tolkien himself had created so laboriously over so many decades in his little tobacco-redolent office. Instead, it would be Big Media’s interpretations and extrapolations therefrom. In the first 48 years of its existence, The Lord of the Rings managed to sell a very impressive 100 million copies in book form. In only the first year of its existence, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy was seen by 150 million people.

To understand how The Lord of the Rings and its less daunting predecessor The Hobbit were transformed from books authored by a single man into a palimpsest of interpretations, we need to understand how J.R.R. Tolkien lost control of his creations in the first place. And to begin to do that, we need to cast our view back to the years immediately following the trilogy’s first issuance in 1954 and 1955 by George Allen and Unwin, who had already published The Hobbit with considerable success almost twenty years earlier.

During its own early years, The Lord of the Rings didn’t do anywhere near as well as The Hobbit had, but did do far better than its publisher or its author had anticipated. It sold at least 225,000 copies (this and all other sales figures given in this article refer to sales of the trilogy as a whole, not to sales of the individual volumes that made up the trilogy) in its first decade, the vast majority of them in its native Britain, despite being available only in expensive hardcover editions and despite being roundly condemned, when it was noticed at all, by the very intellectual and literary elites that made up its author’s peer group. In the face of their rejection by polite literary society, the books sold mostly to existing fans of fantasy and science fiction, creating some decided incongruities; Tolkien never quite seemed to know how to relate to this less mannered group of readers. In 1957, the trilogy won the only literary prize it would ever be awarded, becoming the last recipient of the brief-lived International Fantasy Award, which belied its hopeful name by being a largely British affair. Tolkien, looking alternately bemused and deeply uncomfortable, accepted the award, shook hands and signed autographs for his fans, smiled for the cameras, and got the hell out of there just as quickly as he could.

The books’ early success, such as it was, was centered very much in Britain; the trilogy only sold around 25,000 copies in North America during the entirety of its first decade. It enjoyed its first bloom of popularity there only in the latter half of the 1960s, ironically fueled by two developments deeply antithetical to its author. The first was a legally dubious mass-market paperback edition published in the United States by Ace Books in 1965; the second was the burgeoning hippie counterculture.

Donald Wollheim, senior editor at Ace Books, had discovered what he believed to be a legal loophole giving him the right to publish the trilogy, thanks to the failure of Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American hardcover publisher, to properly register their copyright to it in the United States. Never a man prone to hesitation, he declared that Houghton Mifflin’s negligence had effectively left The Lord of the Rings in the public domain, and proceeded to publish a paperback edition without consulting Tolkien or paying him anything at all. Condemned by the resolutely old-fashioned Tolkien for taking the “degenerate” form of the paperback as much as for the royalties he wasn’t paid, the Ace editions nevertheless sold in the hundreds of thousands in a matter of months. Elizabeth Wollheim, daughter of Donald and herself a noted science-fiction and fantasy editor, has characterized the instant of the appearance of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in October of 1965 as the “Big Bang” that led to the modern cottage industry in doorstop fantasy novels. Along with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which appeared the following year, they obliterated almost at a stroke the longstanding tradition in publishing of genre novels as concise works coming in at under 250 pages.

Even as these cheap Ace editions of Tolkien became a touchstone of what would come to be known as nerd culture, they were also seized on by a very different constituency. With the Summer of Love just around the corner, the counterculture came to see in the industrialized armies of Sauron and Saruman the modern American war machine they were protesting, in the pastoral peace of the Shire the life they saw as their naive ideal. The Lord of the Rings became one of the hippie movement’s literary totems, showing up in the songs of Led Zeppelin and Argent, and, as later memorably described by Peter S. Beagle in the most famous introduction to the trilogy ever written, even scrawled on the walls of New York City’s subways (“Frodo lives!”). Beagle’s final sentiments in that piece could stand in very well for the counterculture’s as a whole: “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

If Tolkien had been uncertain how to respond to the earnest young science-fiction fans who had started showing up at his doorstep seeking autographs in the late 1950s, he had no shared frame of reference whatsoever with these latest readers. He was a man at odds with his times if ever there was one. On the rare occasions when contemporary events make an appearance in his correspondence, it always reads as jarring. Tolkien comes across a little confused by it all, can’t even get the language quite right. For example, in a letter from 1964, he writes that “in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.” Whatever the merits of the particular musicians in question, one senses that the “noise” of the “Beatle group” music wouldn’t have suited Tolkien one bit in any scenario. And as for Beagle’s crack about “murderers carrying crosses,” it will perhaps suffice to note that his introduction was published only after Tolkien, the devout Catholic, had died. Like the libertarian conservative Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land became another of the counterculture’s totems, Tolkien suffered the supreme irony of being embraced as a pseudo-prophet by a group whose sociopolitical worldview was almost the diametrical opposite of his own. As the critic Leonard Jackson has noted, it’s decidedly odd that the hippies, who “lived in communes, were anti-racist, were in favour of Marxist revolution and free love” should choose as their favorite “a book about a largely racial war, favouring feudal politics, jam-full of father figures, and entirely devoid of sex.”

Note the pointed reference to these first Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings as the “authorized” editions.

To what extent Tolkien was even truly aware of his works’ status with the counterculture is something of an open question, although he certainly must have noticed the effect it had on his royalty checks after the Ace editions were forced off the market, to be replaced by duly authorized Ballantine paperbacks. In the first two years after issuing the paperbacks, Ballantine sold almost 1 million copies of the series in North America alone.

In October of 1969, smack dab in the midst of all this success, Tolkien, now 77 years old and facing the worry of a substantial tax bill in his declining years, made one of the most retrospectively infamous deals in the history of pop culture. He sold the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the Hollywood studio United Artists for £104,602 and a fixed cut of 7.5 percent of any profits that might result from cinematic adaptations. And along with film rights went “merchandising rights.” Specifically, United Artists was given rights to the “manufacture, sale, and distribution of any and all articles of tangible personal property other than novels, paperbacks, and other printed published matter.” All of these rights were granted “in perpetuity.”

What must have seemed fairly straightforward in 1969 would in decades to come turn into a Gordian Knot involving hundreds of lawyers, all trying to resolve once and for all just what part of Tolkien’s legacy he had retained and what part he had sold. In the media landscape of 1969, the merchandising rights to “tangible personal property” which Tolkien and United Artists had envisioned must have been limited to toys, trinkets, and souvenirs, probably associated with any films United Artists should choose to make based on Tolkien’s books. Should the law therefore limit the contract to its signers’ original intent, or should it be read literally? If the law chose the latter course, Tolkien had unknowingly sold off the videogame rights to his work before videogames even existed in anything but the most nascent form. Or did he really? Should videogames, being at their heart intangible code, really be lumped even by the literalists into the rights sold to United Artists? After all, the contract explicitly reserves “the right to utilize and/or dispose of all rights and/or interests not herein specifically granted” to Tolkien. This question of course only gets more fraught in our modern age of digital distribution, when games are often sold with no tangible component at all. And then what of tabletop games? They’re quite clearly neither novels nor paperbacks, but they might be, at least in part, “other printed published matter.” What precisely did that phrase mean? The contract doesn’t stipulate. In the absence of any clear pathways through this legal thicket, the history of Tolkien licensing would become that of a series of uneasy truces occasionally  erupting into open legal warfare. About the only things that were clear were that Tolkien — soon, his heirs — owned the rights to the original books and that United Artists — soon, the person who bought the contract from them — owned the rights to make movies out of them. Everything else was up for debate. And debated it would be, at mind-numbing length.

It would, however, be some time before the full ramifications of the document Tolkien had signed started to become clear. In the meantime, United Artists began moving forward with a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that was to have been placed in the hands of the director and screenwriter John Boorman. Boorman worked on the script for years, during which Tolkien died and his literary estate passed into the hands of his heirs, most notably his third son and self-appointed steward of his legacy Christopher Tolkien. The final draft of Boorman’s script compressed the entire trilogy into a single 150-minute film, and radically changed it in terms of theme, character, and plot to suit a Hollywood sensibility. For instance, Boorman added the element of sex that was so conspicuously absent from the books, having Frodo and Galadriel engage in a torrid affair after the Fellowship comes to Lothlórien. (Given the disparity in their sizes, one does have to wonder about the logistics, as it were, of such a thing.) But in the end, United Artists opted, probably for the best, not to let Boorman turn his script into a movie. (Many elements from the script would turn up later in Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.)

Of course, it’s unlikely that literary purity was foremost on United Artists’s minds when they made their decision. As the 1960s had turned into the 1970s and the Woodstock generation had gotten jobs and started families, Tolkien’s works had lost some of their trendy appeal, retaining their iconic status only among fantasy fandom. Still, the books continued to sell well; they would never lose the status they had acquired almost from the moment the Ace editions had been published of being the bedrock of modern fantasy fiction, something everyone with even a casual interest in the genre had to at least attempt to read. Not being terribly easy books, they defeated plenty of these would-be readers, who went off in search of the more accessible, more contemporary-feeling epic-fantasy fare so many publishers were by now happily providing. Yet even among the readers it rebuffed The Lord of the Rings retained the status of an aspirational ideal.

In 1975, a maverick animator named Ralph Bakshi, who had heretofore been best known for Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to earn an X rating, came to United Artists with a proposal to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a trio of animated features that would be relatively inexpensive in comparison to Boorman’s plans for a live-action epic. United Artists didn’t bite, but did signify that they might be amenable to selling the rights they had purchased from Tolkien if Bakshi could put together a few million dollars to make it happen. In December of 1976, following a string of proposals and deals too complicated and imperfectly understood to describe here, a hard-driving music and movie mogul named Saul Zaentz wound up owning the whole package of Tolkien rights that had previously belonged to United Artists. He intended to use his purchase first to let Bakshi make his films and thereafter for whatever other opportunities might happen to come down the road.

Saul Zaentz, seated at far left, with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Saul Zaentz had first come to prominence back in 1967, when he’d put together a group of investors to buy a struggling little jazz label called Fantasy Records. His first signing as the new president of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rock group he had already been managing. Whether due to Zaentz’s skill as a talent spotter or sheer dumb luck, it was the sort of signing that makes a music mogul rich for life. Creedence promptly unleashed eleven top-ten singles and five top-ten albums over the course of the next three and a half years, the most concentrated run of hits of any 1960s band this side of the Beatles. And Zaentz got his fair share of all that filthy lucre — more than his fair share, his charges eventually came to believe. When the band fell apart in 1972, much of the cause was infighting over matters of business. The other members came to blame Creedence’s lead singer and principal songwriter John Fogerty for convincing them to sign a terrible contract with Zaentz that gave away rights to their songs to him for… well, in perpetuity, actually. And as for Fogerty, he of course blamed Zaentz for all the trouble. Decades of legal back and forth followed the breakup. At one point, Zaentz sued Fogerty on the novel legal theory of “self-plagarization”: the songs Fogerty was now writing as a solo artist, went the brief, were too similar to the ones he used to write for Creedence, all of whose copyrights Zaentz owned. While his lawyers pleaded his case in court, Fogerty vented his rage via songs like “Zanz Kant Danz,” the story of a pig who, indeed, can’t dance, but will happily “steal your money.”

I trust that this story gives a sufficient impression of just what a ruthless, litigious man now owned adaptation rights to the work of our recently deceased old Oxford don. But whatever else you could say about Saul Zaentz, he did know how to get things done. He secured financing for the first installment of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, albeit on the condition that he cut the planned three-film series down to two. Relying heavily on rotoscoping to give his cartoon figures an uncannily naturalistic look, Bakshi finished the film for release in November of 1978. Regarded as something of a cult classic among certain sectors of Tolkien fandom today, in its own day the film was greeted with mixed to poor reviews. The financial picture is equally muddled. While it’s been claimed, including by Bakshi himself, that the movie was a solid success, earning some $30 million on a budget of a little over $4 million, the fact remains that Zaentz was unable to secure funding for the sequel, leaving poor Frodo, Sam, and Gollum forever in limbo en route to Mount Doom. It is, needless to say, difficult to reconcile a successful first film with this refusal to back a second. But regardless of the financial particulars, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t make it back to the big screen for more than twenty years, until the enormous post-millennial Peter Jackson productions that well and truly, once and for all, broke Middle-earth into the mainstream.

Yet, although the Bakshi adaptation was the only Tolkien film to play in theaters during this period, it wasn’t actually the only Tolkien film on offer. In November of 1977, a year before the Bakshi Lord of the Rings made its bow, a decidedly less ambitious animated version of The Hobbit had played on American television. The force behind it was Rankin/Bass Productions, who had previously been known in television broadcasting for holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Their take on Tolkien was authorized not by Saul Zaentz but by the Tolkien estate. Being shot on video rather than film and then broadcast rather than shown in theaters, the Rankin/Bass Hobbit was not, legally speaking, a “movie” under the terms of the 1969 contract. Nor was it a “tangible” product, thus making it fair game for the Tolkien estate to authorize without involving Zaentz. That, anyway, was the legal theory under which the estate was operating. They even authorized a sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit in 1980, which rather oddly took the form of an adaptation of The Return of the King, the last book of The Lord of the Rings. A precedent of dueling licenses, authorizing different versions of what to casual eyes at least often seemed to be the very same things, was thus established.

But these flirtations with mainstream visibility came to an end along with the end of the 1970s. After the Ralph Baski and Rankin/Bass productions had all had their moments in the sun, The Lord of the Rings was cast back into its nerdy ghetto, where it remained more iconic than ever. Yet the times were changing in some very important ways. From the moment he had clear ownership of the rights Tolkien had once sold to United Artists, Saul Zaentz had taken to interpreting their compass in the broadest possible way, and had begun sending his lawyers after any real or alleged infringers who grew large enough to come to his attention. This marked a dramatic change from the earliest days of Tolkien fandom, when no one had taken any apparent notice of fannish appropriations of Middle-earth, to such an extent that fans had come to think of all use of Tolkien’s works as fair use. In that spirit, in 1975 a tiny game publisher called TSR, incubator of an inchoate revolution called Dungeons & Dragons, had started selling a non-Dungeons & Dragons strategy game called Battle of the Five Armies that was based on the climax of The Hobbit. In late 1977, Zaentz sent them a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the game be immediately taken off the market. And, far more significantly in the long run, he also demanded that all Tolkien references be excised from Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t really clear that Zanetz ought to have standing to sue, given that Battle of the Five Armies and especially Dungeons & Dragons consisted of so much of the “printed published matter” that was supposedly reserved to the Tolkien estate. But, hard charger that he was, Zaentz wasn’t about to let such niceties stop him. He was establishing legal precedent, and thereby cementing his position for the future.

The question of just how much influence Tolkien had on Dungeons & Dragons has been long obscured by this specter of legal action, which gave everyone on the TSR side ample reason to be less than entirely forthcoming. That said, certain elements of Dungeons & Dragons — most obviously the “hobbit” character class found in the original game — undeniably walked straight off the pages of Tolkien and into those of Gary Gygax’s rule books. At the same time, though, the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons had, as Gygax always strenuously asserted, much more to do with the pulpier fantasy stories of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard than they did with Tolkien. Ditto the game’s default personality, which hewed more to the “a group of adventurers meet in a bar and head out to bash monsters and collect treasure” modus operandi of the pulps than they did to Tolkien’s deeply serious, deeply moralistic, deeply tragic universe. You could play a more “serious” game of Dungeons & Dragons even in the early days, and some presumably did, but you had to bend the mechanics to make them fit. The more light-hearted tone of The Hobbit might seem better suited, but wound up being a bit too light-hearted, almost as much fairy tale as red-blooded adventure fiction. Some of the book’s episodes, like Bilbo and the dwarves’ antics with the trolls near the beginning of the story, verge on cartoon slapstick, with none of the swashbuckling swagger of Dungeons & Dragons. I love it dearly — far more, truth be told, than I love The Lord of the Rings — but not for nothing was The Hobbit conceived and marketed as a children’s novel.

Gygax’s most detailed description of the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine. There he explicated the dirty little secret of adapting Tolkien to gaming: that the former just wasn’t all that well-suited for the latter without lots of sweeping changes.

Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games. The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil’s power can enter the games either — for the selfsame reasons! The wicked Sauron is poorly developed, virtually depersonalized, and at the end blows away in a cloud of evil smoke… poof! Nothing usable there. The mighty Ring is nothing more than a standard ring of invisibility, found in the myths and legends of most cultures (albeit with a nasty curse upon it). No influence here, either…

What Gygax gestures toward here but doesn’t quite touch is that The Lord of the Rings is at bottom a spiritual if not overtly religious tale, Middle-earth a land of ineffable unknowables. It’s impossible to translate that ineffability into the mechanistic system of causes and effects required by a game like Dungeons & Dragons. For all that Gygax is so obviously missing the point of Tolkien’s work in the extract above — rather hilariously so, actually — it’s also true that no Dungeon Master could attempt something like, say, Gandalf’s transformation from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White without facing a justifiable mutiny from the players. Games — at least this kind of game — demand knowable universes.

Gygax claimed that Tolkien was ultimately far more important to the game’s commercial trajectory than he was to its rules. He noted, accurately, that the trilogy’s popularity from 1965 on had created an appetite for more fantasy, in the form of both books and things that weren’t quite books. It was largely out of a desire to ride this bandwagon, Gygax claimed, that Chainmail, the proto-Dungeons & Dragons which TSR released in 1971, promised players right there on the cover that they could use it to “refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers.” Gygax said that “the seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current ‘craze’ for Tolkien’s literature.” Questionable though it is how “studied” his efforts really were in this respect, it does seem fairly clear that the biggest leg-up Tolkien gave to Gygax and his early design partner Dave Arneson was in giving so many potential players a taste for epic fantasy in the first place.

At any rate, we can say for certain that, beyond prompting a grudge in Gary Gygax against all things Tolkien — which, like most Gygaxian grudges, would last the rest of its holder’s life — Zaentz’s legal threat had a relatively modest effect on the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Hobbits were hastily renamed “halflings,” a handful of other references were scrubbed away or obfuscated, and life went on.

More importantly for Zaentz, the case against TSR and a few other even smaller tabletop-game publishers had now established the precedent that this field was within his licensing purview. In 1982, Tolkien Enterprises, the umbrella corporation Zaentz had created to manage his portfolio, authorized a three-employee publisher called Iron Crown Enterprises, heretofore known for the would-be Dungeons & Dragons competitor Rolemaster, to adapt their system to Middle-earth. Having won the license by simple virtue of being the first publisher to work up the guts to ask for it, Iron Crown went on to create Middle-earth Role Playing. The system rather ran afoul of the problem we’ve just been discussing: that, inspiring though so many found the setting in the broad strokes, the mechanics — or perhaps lack thereof — of Middle-earth just didn’t lend themselves all that well to a game. Unsurprisingly in light of this, Middle-earth Role Playing acquired a reputation as a “game” that was more fun to read, in the form of its many lengthy and lovingly detailed supplements exploring the various corners of Middle-earth, than it was to actually play; some wags took to referring to the line as a whole as Encyclopedia Middle-earthia. Nevertheless, it lasted more than fifteen years, was translated into twelve languages, and sold over 250,000 copies in English alone, thereby becoming one of the most successful tabletop RPGs ever not named Dungeons & Dragons.

But by no means was it all smooth sailing for Iron Crown. During the game’s early years, which were also its most popular, they were very nearly undone by an episode that serves to illustrate just how dangerously confusing the world of Tolkien licensing could become. In 1985, Iron Crown decided to jump on the gamebook bandwagon with a line of paperbacks they initially called Tolkien Quest, but quickly renamed to Middle-earth Quest to tie it more closely to their extant tabletop RPG. Their take on the gamebook was very baroque in comparison to the likes of Choose Your Own Adventure or even Fighting Fantasy; the rules for “reading” their books took up thirty pages on their own, and some of the books included hex maps for plotting your movements around the world, thus rather blurring the line between gamebook and, well, game. Demian Katz, who operates the definitive Internet site devoted to gamebooks, calls the Middle-earth Quest line “among the most complex gamebooks ever published,” and he of all people certainly ought to know. Whether despite their complexity or because of it, the first three volumes in the line were fairly successful for Iron Crown — and then the legal troubles started.

The Tolkien estate decided that Iron Crown had crossed a line with their gamebooks, encroaching on the literary rights to Tolkien which belonged to them. Whether the gamebooks truly were more book or game is an interesting philosophical question to ponder — particularly so given that they were such unusually crunchy iterations on the gamebook concept. Questions of philosophical taxonomy aside, though, they certainly were “printed published matter” that looked for all the world like everyday books. Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t willing to involve themselves in a protracted legal showdown over something as low-stakes as a line of gamebooks. Iron Crown would be on their own in this battle, should they choose to wage it. Deciding the potential rewards weren’t worth the risks of trying to convince a judge who probably wouldn’t know Dungeons & Dragons from Maze & Monsters that these things which looked like conventional paperback books were actually something quite different, Iron Crown pulled the line off the market and destroyed all copies as part of a settlement agreement. The episode may have cost them as much as $2.5 million. A few years later, the ever dogged Iron Crown would attempt to resuscitate the line after negotiating a proper license with the Tolkien estate — no mean feat in itself; Christopher Tolkien in particular is famously protective of that portion of his father’s legacy which is his to protect — but by then the commercial moment of the gamebook in general had passed. The whole debacle would continue to haunt Iron Crown for a long, long time. In 2000, when they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they would state that the debt they had been carrying for almost fifteen years from the original gamebook settlement was a big part of the reason.

By that point, of course, the commercial heyday of the tabletop RPG was also long past. Indeed, already by the time that Iron Crown and Tolkien Enterprises had inked their first licensing deal back in 1982 computer-based fantasies, in the form of games like Zork, Ultima and Wizardry, were threatening to eclipse the tabletop varieties that had done so much to inspire them. Here, perhaps more so even than in tabletop RPGs, the influence of Tolkien was pervasive. Designers of early computer games often appropriated Middle-earth wholesale, writing what amounted to interactive Tolkien fan fiction. The British text-adventure house Level 9, for example, first made their name with Colossal Adventure, a re-implementation of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s original Adventure with a Middle-earth coda tacked onto the end, thus managing the neat trick of extensively plagiarizing two different works in a single game. There followed two more Level 9 games set in Middle-earth, completing what they were soon proudly advertising, in either ignorance or defiance of the concept of copyright, as their Middle-earth Trilogy.

But the most famous constant devotee and occasional plagiarist of Tolkien among the early computer-game designers was undoubtedly Richard Garriott, who had discovered The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, the two influences destined more than any other to shape the course of his life, within six months of one another during his teenage years. Garriott called his first published game Akalabeth, after Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the name of a chapter in The Silmarillion, a posthumously published book of Middle-earth legends. The word means “downfall” in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, but Garriott chose it simply because he thought it sounded cool; his game otherwise had little to no explicit connection to Middle-earth. Regardless, the computer-game industry wouldn’t remain small enough that folks could get away with this sort of thing for very long. Akalabeth soon fell out of print, superseded by Garriott’s more complex series of Ultima games that followed it, while Level 9 was compelled to scrub the erstwhile Middle-earth Trilogy free of Tolkien and re-release it as the Jewels of Darkness Trilogy.

In the long-run, the influence of Tolkien on digital games would prove subtler but also even more pervasive than these earliest forays into blatant plagiarism would imply. Richard Garriott may have dropped the Tolkien nomenclature from his subsequent games, but he remained thoroughly inspired by the example of Tolkien, that ultimate fantasy world-builder, when he built the world of Britannia for his Ultima series. Of course, there were obvious qualitative differences between Middle-earth and Britannia. How could there not be? One was the creation of an erudite Oxford don, steeped in a lifetime worth of study of classical and Medieval literature; the other was the creation of a self-described non-reader barely out of high school. Nowhere is the difference starker than in the area of language, Tolkien’s first love. Tolkien invented entire languages from scratch, complete with grammars and pronunciation charts; Garriott substituted a rune for each letter in the English alphabet and seemed to believe he had done something equivalent. Garriott’s clumsy mishandling of Elizabethan English, meanwhile, all “thees” and “thous” in places where the formal “you” should be used, is enough to make any philologist roll over in his grave. But his heart was in the right place, and despite its creator’s limitations Britannia did take on a life of its own over the course of many Ultima iterations. If there is a parallel in computer gaming to what The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth came to mean to fantasy literature, it must be Ultima and its world of Britannia.

In addition to the unlicensed knock-offs that were gradually driven off the market during the early 1980s and the more abstracted homages that replaced them, there was also a third category of Tolkien-derived computer games: that of licensed products. The first and only such licensee during the 1980s was Melbourne House, a book publisher turned game maker located in far-off Melbourne, Australia. Whether out of calculation or happenstance, Melbourne House approached the Tolkien estate rather than Tolkien Enterprises in 1982 to ask for a license. They were duly granted the right to make a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit, under certain conditions, very much in character for Christopher Tolkien, intended to ensure respect for The Hobbit‘s status as a literary work; most notably, they would be required to include a paperback copy of the novel with the game. In a decision he would later come to regret, Saul Zaentz elected to cede this ground to the Tolkien estate without a fight, apparently deeming a computer game intangible enough to be dangerous to quibble over. Another uneasy, tacit, yet surprisingly enduring precedent was thus set: Tolkien Enterprises would have control of Tolkien tabletop games, while the Tolkien estate would have control of Tolkien videogames. Zaentz’s cause for regret would come as he watched the digital-gaming market explode into tens and then hundreds of times the size of the tabletop market.

In fact, that first adaptation of The Hobbit played a role in that very process. The game became a sensation in Europe — playing it became a rite of passage for a generation of gamers there — and a substantial hit in the United States as well. It went on to become almost certainly the best-selling single text adventure ever made, with worldwide sales that may have exceeded half a million units. I’ve written at length about the Hobbit text adventure earlier, so I’ll refer you back to that article rather than describe its bold innovations and weird charm here. Otherwise, suffice to say that The Hobbit‘s success proved, if anyone was doubting, that licenses in computer games worked in commercial terms, no matter how much some might carp about the lack of originality they represented.

Still, Melbourne House appears to have had some trepidation about tackling the greater challenge of adapting The Lord of the Rings to the computer. The reasons are understandable: the simple quest narrative that was The Hobbit — the book is actually subtitled There and Back Again — read like a veritable blueprint for a text adventure, while the epic tale of spiritual, military, and political struggle that was The Lord of the Rings represented, to say the least, a more substantial challenge for its would-be adapters. Melbourne House’s first anointed successor to The Hobbit‘s thus became Sherlock, a text adventure based on another literary property entirely. They didn’t finally return to Middle-earth until 1986, four years after The Hobbit, when they made The Fellowship of the Ring into a text adventure. Superficially, the new game played much like The Hobbit, but much of the charm was gone, with quirks that had seemed delightful in the earlier game now just seeming annoying. Even had The Fellowship of the Ring been a better game, by 1986 it was getting late in the day for text adventures — even text adventures like this one with illustrations. Reviews were lukewarm at best. Nevertheless, Melbourne House kept doggedly at the task of completing the story of Frodo and the One Ring, releasing The Shadow of Mordor in 1987 and The Crack of Doom in 1989. All of these games went largely unloved in their day, and remain so in our own.

In a belated attempt to address the formal mismatch between the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings and the granular approach of the text adventure, Melbourne House released War in Middle-earth in 1988. Partially designed by Mike Singleton, and drawing obvious inspiration from his older classic The Lords of Midnight, it was a strategy game which let the player refight the entirety of the War of the Ring, on the level of both armies and individual heroes. The Lords of Midnight had been largely inspired by Singleton’s desire to capture the sweep and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings in a game, so in a sense this new project had him coming full circle. But, just as Melbourne House’s Lord of the Rings text adventures had lacked the weird fascination of The Hobbit, War in Middle-earth failed to rise to the heights of The Lords of Midnight, despite enjoying the official license the latter had lacked.

As the 1980s came to a close, then, the Tolkien license was beginning to rival the similarly demographically perfect Star Trek license for the title of the most misused and/or underused — take your pick — in computer gaming. Tolkien Enterprises, normally the more commercially savvy and aggressive of the two Tolkien licensers, had ceded that market to the Tolkien estate, who seemed content to let Melbourne House doddle along with an underwhelming and little-noticed game every year or two. At this point, though, another computer-game developer would pick up the mantle from Melbourne House and see if they could manage to do something less underwhelming with it. We’ll continue with that story next time.

Before we get to that, though, we might take a moment to think about how different things might have been had the copyrights to Tolkien’s works been allowed to expire with their creator. There is some evidence that Tolkien himself held to this as the fairest course. In the late 1950s, in a letter to one of the first people to approach him about making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings, he expressed his wish that any movie made during his lifetime not deviate too far from the books, citing as an example of what he didn’t want to see the 1950 movie of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventure novel King’s Solomon’s Mines and the many liberties it took with its source material. “I am not Rider Haggard,” he wrote. “I am not comparing myself with that master of Romance, except in this: I am not dead yet. When the film of King’s Solomon’s Mines was made, it had already passed, one might say, into the public property of the imagination. The Lord of Rings is still the vivid concern of a living person, and is nobody’s toy to play with.” Can we read into this an implicit assumption that The Lord of the Rings would become part of “the public property of the imagination” after its own creator’s death? If so, things turned out a little differently than he thought they would. A “property of the imagination” Middle-earth has most certainly become. It’s the “public” part that remains problematic.

(Sources: the books Designers & Dragons Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson, Playing at the World by Jon Peterson, and Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Dragon Magazine of March 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of December 30 1982; The Times of December 15 2002. Online sources include Janet Brennan Croft’s essay “Three Rings for Hollywood” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s archive of a 2012 court case involving Tolkien’s intellectual property.)

 

Tags: , , , ,

The View from the Trenches (or, Some Deadly Sins of CRPG Design)

From the beginning of this project, I’ve worked to remove the nostalgia factor from my writing about old games, to evaluate each game strictly on its own merits and demerits. I like to think that this approach has made my blog a uniquely enlightening window into gaming history. Still, one thing my years as a digital antiquarian have taught me is that you tread on people’s nostalgia at your peril. Some of what I’ve written here over the years has certainly generated its share of heat as well as light, not so much among those of you who are regular readers and commenters — you remain the most polite, thoughtful, insightful, and just plain nice readers any writer could hope to have — as among the ones who fire off nasty emails from anonymous addresses, who post screeds on less polite sites to which I’m occasionally pointed, or who offer up their drive-by comments right here every once in a while.

A common theme of these responses is that I’m not worthy of writing about this stuff, whether because I wasn’t there at the time — actually, I was, but whatever — or because I’m just not man enough to take my lumps and power through the really evil, unfair games. This rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion is all too symptomatic of the uglier sides of gaming culture. Just why so many angry, intolerant personalities are so attracted to computer games is a fascinating question, but must remain a question for another day. For today I will just say that, even aside from their ugliness, I find such sentiments strange. As far as I know, there’s zero street cred to be gained in the wider culture from being good at playing weird old videogames — or for that matter from being good at playing videogames of any stripe. What an odd thing to construct a public persona around. I’ve made a job out of analyzing old games, and even I sometimes want to say, “Dude, they’re just old games! Really, truly, they’re not worth getting so worked up over.”

That said, there do remain some rays of light amidst all this heat. It’s true that my experience of these games today — of playing them in a window on this giant monitor screen of mine, or playing them on the go on a laptop — must be in some fairly fundamental ways different from the way the same games were experienced all those years ago. One thing that gets obviously lost is the tactile, analog side of the vintage experience: handling the physical maps and manuals and packages (I now reference that stuff as PDF files, which isn’t quite the same); drawing maps and taking notes using real pen and paper (I now keep programs open in separate windows on that aforementioned giant monitor for those purposes); listening to the chuck-a-chunk of disk drives loading in the next bit of text or scenery (replacing the joy of anticipation is the instant response of my modern supercomputer). When I allow myself to put on my own nostalgia hat, just for a little while, I recognize that all these things are intimately bound up with my own memories of playing games back in the day.

And I also recognize that the discrepancies between the way I play now and the way I played back then go even further. Some of the most treasured of vintage games weren’t so much single works to be played and completed as veritable lifestyle choices. Ultima IV, to name a classic example, was huge enough and complicated enough that a kid who got it for Christmas in 1985 might very well still be playing it by the time Ultima V arrived in 1988; rinse and repeat for the next few entries in the series. From my jaded perspective, I wouldn’t brand any of these massive CRPGs as overly well-designed in the sense of being a reasonably soluble game to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, but then that wasn’t quite what most of the people who played them way back when were looking for in them. Actually solving the games became almost irrelevant for a kid who wanted to live in the world of Britannia.

I get that. I really do. No matter how deep a traveler in virtual time delves into the details of any era of history, there are some things he can never truly recapture. Were I to try, I would have to go away to spend a year or two disconnected from the Web and playing no other game — or at least no other CRPG — than the Ultima I planned to write about next. That, as I hope you can all appreciate, wouldn’t be a very good model for a blog like this one.

When I think in the abstract about this journey through gaming history I’ve been on for so long now, I realize that I’ve been trying to tell at least three intertwining stories.

One story is a critical design history of games. When I come to a game I judge worthy of taking the time to write about in depth — a judgment call that only becomes harder with every passing year, let me tell you — I play it and offer you my thoughts on it, trying to judge it not only in the context of our times but also in the context of its own times, and in the context of its peers.

A second story is that of the people who made these games, and how they went about doing so — the inevitable postmortems, as it were.

Doing these first two things is relatively easy. What’s harder is the third leg of the stool: what was it like to be a player of computer games all those years ago? Sometimes I stumble upon great anecdotes in this area. For instance, did you know about Clancy Shaffer?

In impersonal terms, Shaffer was one of the slightly dimmer stars among the constellation of adventure-game superfans — think Roe Adams III, Shay Addams, Computer Gaming World‘s indomitable Scorpia — who parlayed their love of the genre and their talent for solving games quickly into profitable sidelines if not full-on careers as columnists, commentators, play-testers, occasionally even design consultants; for his part, Shaffer contributed his long experience as a player to the much-loved Sir-Tech title Jagged Alliance.

Most of the many people who talked with Shaffer via post, via email, or via telephone assumed he was pretty much like them, an enthusiastic gamer and technology geek in his twenties or thirties. One of these folks, Rich Heimlich, has told of a time when a phone conversation turned to the future of computer technology in the longer view. “Frankly,” said Shaffer, “I’m not sure I’ll even be here to see it.” He was, he explained to his stunned interlocutor, 84 years old. He credited his hobby for the mental dexterity that caused so many to assume he was in his thirties at the oldest. Shaffer believed he had remained mentally sharp through puzzling his way through so many games, while he needed only look at the schedule of upcoming releases in a magazine to have something to which to look forward in life.  Many of his friends who, like him, had retired twenty years ago were dead or senile, a situation Shaffer blamed on their having failed to find anything to do with themselves after leaving the working world behind.

Shaffer died in 2010 at age 99. Only after his passing, after reading his obituary, did Heimlich and other old computer-game buddies realize what an extraordinary life Shaffer had actually led, encompassing an education from Harvard University, a long career in construction and building management, 18 patents in construction engineering, an active leadership role in the Republican party, a Golden Glove championship in heavyweight boxing, and a long and successful run as a yacht racer and sailor of the world’s oceans. And yes, he had also loved to play computer games, parlaying that passion into more than 500 published articles.

But great anecdotes like this one from the consumption side of the gaming equation are the exception rather than the rule, not because they aren’t out there in spades in theory — I’m sure there have been plenty of other fascinating characters like Clancy Shaffer who have also made a passion for games a part of their lives — but because they rarely get publicized. The story of the players of vintage computer games is that of a huge, diffuse mass of millions of people whose individual stories almost never stretch beyond their immediate families and friends.

The situation becomes especially fraught when we try to zero in on the nitty-gritty details of how games were played and judged in their day. Am I as completely out of line as some have accused me of being in harping so relentlessly on the real or alleged design problems of so many games that others consider to be classics? Or did people back in the day, at least some of them, also get frustrated and downright angry at betrayals of their trust in the form of illogical puzzles and boring busywork? I know that I certainly did, but I’m only one data point.

One would think that the magazines, that primary link between the people who made games and those who played them, would be the best way of finding out what players were really thinking. In truth, though, the magazines rarely provided skeptical coverage of the games industry. The companies whose games they were reviewing were of course the very same companies that were helping to pay their bills by buying advertising — an obvious conflict of interest if ever there was one. More abstractly but no less significantly, there was a sense among those who worked for the magazines and those who worked for the game publishers that they were all in this together, living as they all were off the same hobby. Criticizing individual games too harshly, much less entire genres, could damage that hobby, ultimately damaging the magazines as much as the publishers. Thus when the latest heavily hyped King’s Quest came down the pipe, littered with that series’s usual design flaws, there was little incentive for the magazines to note that this monarch had no clothes.

So, we must look elsewhere to find out what average players were really thinking. But where? Most of the day-to-day discussions among gamers back in the day took place over the telephone, on school playgrounds, on computer bulletin boards, or on the early commercial online services that preceded the World Wide Web. While Jason Scott has done great work snarfing up a tiny piece of the online world of the 1980s and early 1990s, most of it is lost, presumably forever. (In this sense at least, historians of later eras of gaming history will have an easier time of it, thanks to archive.org and the relative permanence of the Internet.) The problem of capturing gaming as gamers knew it thus remains one without a comprehensive solution. I must confess that this is one reason I’m always happy when you, my readers, share your experiences with this or that game in the comments section — even, or perhaps especially, when you disagree with my own judgments on a game.

Still, relying exclusively on first-hand accounts from decades later to capture what it was like to be a gamer in the old days can be problematic in the same way that it can be problematic to rely exclusively on interviews with game developers to capture how and why games were made all those years ago: memories can fade, personal agendas can intrude, and those rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can be hard to take off. Pretty soon we’re calling every game from our adolescence a masterpiece and dumping on the brain-dead games played by all those stupid kids today — and get off my lawn while you’re at it. The golden age of gaming, like the golden age of science fiction, will always be twelve or somewhere thereabouts. All that’s fine for hoisting a beer with the other old-timers, but it can be worse than useless for doing serious history.

Thankfully, every once in a while I stumble upon another sort of cracked window into this aspect of gaming’s past. As many of you know, I’ve spent a couple of weeks over the last couple of years trolling through the voluminous (and growing) game-history archives of the Strong Museum of Play. Most of this material, hugely valuable to me though it’s been and will doubtless continue to be, focuses on the game-making side of the equation. Some of the archives, though, contain letters from actual players, giving that unvarnished glimpse into their world that I so crave. Indeed, these letters are among my favorite things in the archives. They are, first of all, great fun. The ones from the youngsters are often absurdly cute; it’s amazing how many liked to draw pictures to accompany their missives.

But it’s when I turn to the letters from older writers that I’m gratified and, yes, made to feel a little validated when I read that people were in fact noticing that games weren’t always playing fair with them. I’d like to share a couple of the more interesting letters of this type with you today.

We’ll begin with a letter from one Wes Irby of Plano, Texas, describing what he does and especially what he doesn’t enjoy in CRPGs. At the time he sent it to the Questbusters adventure-game newsletter in October of 1988, Irby was a self-described “grizzled computer adventurer” of age 43. Shay Addams, Questbusters’s editor, found the letter worthy enough to spread around among publishers of CRPGs. (Perhaps tellingly, he didn’t choose to publish it in his newsletter.)

Irby titles his missive “Things I Hate in a Fantasy-Role-Playing Game.” Taken on its own, it serves very well as a companion piece to a similar article I once wrote about graphic adventures. But because I just can’t shut up, and because I can’t resist taking the opportunity to point out places where Irby is unusually prescient or insightful, I’ve inserted my own comments into the piece; they appear in italics in the text that follows. Otherwise, I’ve only cleaned up the punctuation and spelling a bit here and there. The rest is Irby’s original letter from 1988.


I hate rat killing!!! In Shard of Spring, I had to kill dozens of rats, snakes, kobolds, and bats before I could get back to the tower after a Wind Walk to safety. In Wizardry, the rats were Murphy’s ghosts, which I pummeled for hours when developing a new character. Ultima IV was perhaps the ultimate rat-killing game of all time; hour upon hour was spent in tedious little battles that I could not possibly lose and that offered little reward for victory. Give me a good battle to test my mettle, but don’t sentence me to rat killing!

Amen. The CRPG genre became the victim of an expectation which took hold early on that the games needed to be really, really long, needed to consume dozens if not hundreds of hours, in order for players to get their money’s worth. With disk space precious and memory space even more so on the computers of the era, developers had to pad out their games with a constant stream of cheap low-stakes random encounters to reach that goal. Amidst the other Interplay materials hosted at the Strong archive are several mentions of a version of Wasteland, prepared specially for testers in a hurry, in which the random encounters were left out entirely. That’s the version of Wasteland I’d like to play.

I hate being stuck!!! I enjoy the puzzles, riddles, and quests as a way to give some story line to the real heart of the game, which is killing bad guys. Just don’t give me any puzzles I can’t solve in a couple of hours. I solved Rubik’s Cube in about thirty hours, and that was nothing compared to some of the puzzles in The Destiny Knight. The last riddle in Knight of Diamonds delayed my completion (and purchase of the sequel) for nearly six months, until I made a call to Sir-Tech.

I haven’t discussed the issue of bad puzzle design in CRPGs to the same extent as I have the same issue in adventure games, but suffice to say that just about everything I’ve written in the one context applies equally in the other. Certainly riddles remain among the laziest — they require almost no programming effort to implement — and most problematic — they rely by definition on intuition and external cultural knowledge — forms of puzzle in either genre. Riddles aren’t puzzles at all really; the answer either pops into your head right away or it doesn’t, meaning the riddle turns into either a triviality or a brick wall. A good puzzle, by contrast, is one you can experiment with on your way to the correct solution. And as for the puzzles in The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight… much more on them a little later.

Perhaps the worst aspect of being stuck is the clue-book dilemma. Buying a clue book is demeaning. In addition, buying clue books could encourage impossible puzzles to boost the aftermarket for clue books. I am a reformed game pirate (that is how I got hooked), and I feel it is just as unfair for a company to charge me to finish the game I bought as it was for me to play the games (years ago) without paying for them. Multiple solutions, a la Might and Magic, are very nice. That game also had the desirable feature of allowing you to work on several things simultaneously so that being stuck on one didn’t bring the whole game to a standstill.

Here Irby brings up an idea I’ve also touched on once or twice: that the very worst examples of bad design can be read as not just good-faith disappointments but actual ethical lapses on the part of developers and publishers. Does selling consumers a game with puzzles that are insoluble except through hacking or the most tedious sort of brute-force approaches equate to breaching good faith by knowingly selling them a defective product? I tend to feel that it does.

As part of the same debate, the omnipresent clue books became a locus of much dark speculation and conspiracy theorizing back in the day. Did publishers, as Irby suggests, intentionally release games that couldn’t be solved without buying the clue book, thereby to pick up additional sales? The profit margins on clue books, not incidentally, tended to be much higher than that enjoyed by the games themselves. Still, the answer is more complicated than the question may first appear. Based on my research into the industry of the time, I don’t believe that any publishers or developers made insoluble games with the articulated motive of driving clue-book sales. To the extent that there was an ulterior motive surrounding the subject of clue books, it was that the clue books would allow them to make money off some of the people who pirated their games. (Rumors — almost certainly false, but telling by their very presence — occasionally swirled around the industry about this or that popular title whose clue-book sales had allegedly outstripped the number of copies of the actual game which had been sold.) Yet the fact does remain that even the hope of using clue books as a way of getting money out of pirates required games that would be difficult enough to cause many pirates to go out and buy the book. The human mind is a funny place, and the clue-book business likely did create certain almost unconscious pressures on game designers to design less soluble games.

I hate no-fault life insurance! If there is no penalty, there is no risk, there is no fear — translate that to no excitement. The adrenaline actually surged a few times during play of the Wizardry series when I encountered a group of monsters that might defeat me. In Bard’s Tale II, death was so painless that I committed suicide several times because it was the most expedient way to return to the Adventurer’s Guild.

When you take the risk of loss out of the game, it might as well be a crossword puzzle. The loss of possessions in Ultima IV and the loss of constitution in Might and Magic were tolerable compromises. The undead status in Phantasie was very nice. Your character was unharmed except for the fact that no further advancement was possible. Penalties can be too severe, of course. In Shard of Spring, loss of one battle means all characters are permanently lost. Too tough.

Here Irby hits on one of the most fraught debates in CRPG design, stretching from the days of the original Wizardry to today: what should be the penalty for failure? There’s no question that the fact that you couldn’t save in the dungeon was one of the defining aspects of Wizardry, the game that did more than any other to popularize the budding genre in the very early 1980s. Exultant stories of escaping the dreaded Total Party Loss by the skin of one’s teeth come up again and again when you read about the game. Andrew Greenberg and Bob Woodhead, the designers of Wizardry, took a hard-line stance on the issue, insisting that the lack of an in-dungeon save function was fundamental to an experience they had carefully crafted. They went so far as to issue legal threats against third-party utilities designed to mitigate the danger.

Over time, though, the mainstream CRPG industry moved toward the save-often, save-anywhere model, leaving Wizardry’s approach only to a hardcore sub-genre known as roguelikes. It seems clear that the change had some negative effects on encounter design; designers, assuming that players were indeed saving often and saving everywhere, felt they could afford to worry less about hitting players with impossible fights. Yet it also seems clear that many or most players, given the choice, would prefer to avoid the exhilaration of escaping near-disasters in Wizardry in favor of avoiding the consequences of unescaped disasters. The best solution, it seems to me, is to make limited or unlimited saving a player-selectable option. Failing that, it strikes me as better to err on the side of generosity; after all, hardcore players can still capture the exhilaration and anguish of an iron-man mode by simply imposing their own rules for when they allow themselves to save. All that said, the debate will doubtless continue to rage.

I hate being victimized. Loss of life, liberty, etc., in a situation I could have avoided through skillful play is quite different from a capricious, unavoidable loss. The Amulet of Skill in Knight of Diamonds was one such situation. It was not reasonable to expect me to fail to try the artifacts I found — a fact I soon remedied with my backup disk!!! The surprise attacks of the mages in Wizardry was another such example. Each of the Wizardry series seems to have one of these, but the worst was the teleportation trap on the top level of Wizardry III, which permanently encased my best party in stone.

Beyond rather putting the lie to some of Greenberg and Woodhead’s claims of having exhaustively balanced the Wizardry games, these criticisms again echo those I’ve made in the context of adventure games. Irby’s examples are the CRPG equivalents of the dreaded adventure-game Room of Sudden Death — except that in CRPGs like Wizardry with perma-death, their consequences are much more dire than just having to go back to your last save.

I hate extraordinary characters! If everyone is extraordinary then extraordinary becomes extra (extremely) ordinary and uninteresting. The characters in Ultima III and IV and Bard’s Tale I and II all had the maximum ratings for all stats before the end of the game. They lose their personalities that way.

This is one of Irby’s subtler complaints, but also I think one of his most insightful. Characters in CRPGs are made interesting, as he points out, through a combination of strengths and weaknesses. I spent considerable time in a recent article describing how the design standards of SSI’s “Gold Box” series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs declined over time, but couldn’t find a place for the example of Pools of Darkness, the fourth and last game in the series that began with Pool of Radiance. Most of the fights in Pools of Darkness are effectively unwinnable if you don’t have “extraordinary” characters, in that they come down to quick-draw contests to find out whether your party or the monsters can fire off devastating area-effect magic first. Your entire party needs to have a maxed-out dexterity score of 18 to hope to consistently survive these battles. Pools of Darkness thus rewards cheaters and punishes honest players; it represents a cruel betrayal of players who had played through the entire series honestly to that point, without availing themselves of character editors or the like. CRPGs should strive not to make the extraordinary ordinary, and they should certainly not demand extraordinary characters that the player can only come by through cheating.

There are several more features which I find undesirable, but are not sufficiently irritating to put them in the “I hate” category. One such feature is the inability to save the game in certain places or situations. It is miserable to find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of (or don’t want to leave because of the difficulty in returning) at midnight (real time). I have continued through the wee hours on occasion, much to my regret the next day. At other times it has gotten so bad I have dozed off at the keyboard. The trek from the surface to the final set of riddles in Ultima IV takes nearly four hours. Without the ability to save along the way, this doesn’t make for good after-dinner entertainment. Some of the forays in the Phantasie series are also long and difficult, with no provision to save. This problem is compounded when you have an old machine like mine that locks up periodically. Depending on the weather and the phase of the moon, sometimes I can’t rely on sessions that average over half an hour.

There’s an interesting conflict here, which I sense that the usually insightful Irby may not have fully grasped, between his demand that death have consequences in CRPGs and his belief that he should be able to save anywhere. At the same time, though, it’s not an irreconcilable conflict. Roguelikes have traditionally made it possible to save anywhere by quitting the game, but immediately delete the save when you start to play again, thus making it impossible to use later on as a fallback position.

Still, it should always raise a red flag when a given game’s designers claim something which just happens to have been the easier choice from a technical perspective to have been a considered design choice. This skepticism should definitely be applied to Wizardry. Were the no-save dungeons that were such an integral part of the Wizardry experience really a considered design choice or a (happy?) accident arising from technical affordances? It’s very difficult to say this many years on. What is clear is that saving state in any sort of comprehensive way was a daunting challenge for 8-bit CRPGs spread over multiple disk sides. Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale didn’t really even bother to try; literally the only persistent data in these games and many others like them is the state of your characters, meaning not only that the dungeons are completely reset every time you enter them but that it’s possible to “win” them over and over again by killing the miraculously resurrected big baddie again and again. The 8-bit Ultima games did a little better, saving the state of the world map but not that of the cities or the dungeons. (I’ve nitpicked the extreme cruelty of Ultima IV’s ending, which Irby also references, enough on earlier occasions that I won’t belabor it any more here.) Only quite late in the day for the 8-bit CRPG did games like Wasteland work out ways to create truly, comprehensively persistent environments — in the case of Wasteland, by rewriting all of the data on each disk side on the fly as the player travels around the world (a very slow process, particularly in the case of the Commodore 64 and its legendarily slow disk drive).

Tedium is a killer. In Bard’s Tale there was one battle with 297 bersekers that always took fifteen or twenty minutes with the same results (this wasn’t rat-killing because the reward was significant and I could lose, maybe). The process of healing the party in the dungeon in Wizardry and the process of identifying discovered items in Shard of Spring are laborious. How boring it was in Ultima IV to stand around waiting for a pirate ship to happen along so I could capture it. The same can be said of sitting there holding down a key in Wasteland or Wrath of Denethenor while waiting for healing to occur. At least give me a wait command so I can read a book until something interesting happens.

I’m sort of ambivalent toward most aspects of mapping. A good map is satisfying and a good way to be sure nothing has been missed. Sometimes my son will use my maps (he hates mapping) in a game and find he is ready to go to the next level before his characters are. Mapping is a useful way to pace the game. The one irritating aspect of mapping is running off the edge of the paper. In Realms of Darkness mapping was very difficult because there was no “locater” or “direction” spell. More bothersome to me, though, was the fact that I never knew where to start on my paper. I had the same problem with Shard of Spring, but in retrospect that game didn’t require mapping.

Mapping is another area where the technical affordances of the earliest games had a major effect on their designs. The dungeon levels in most 8-bit CRPGs were laid out on grids of a consistent number of squares across and down; such a template minimized memory usage and simplified the programmer’s task enormously. Unrealistic though it was, it was also a blessing for mappers. Wizardry, a game that was oddly adept at turning its technical limitations into player positives, even included sheets of graph paper of exactly the right size in the box. Later games like Dungeon Master, whose levels sprawl everywhere, run badly afoul of the problem Irby describes above — that of maps “running off the edge of the paper.” In the case of Dungeon Master, it’s the one glaring flaw in what could otherwise serve as a masterclass in designing a challenging yet playable dungeon crawl.

I don’t like it when a program doesn’t take advantage of my second disk drive, and I would feel that way about my printer if I had one. I don’t like junk magic (spells you never use), and I don’t like being stuck forever with the names I pick on the spur of the moment. A name that struck my fancy one day may not on another.

Another problem similar to “junk magic” that only really began to surface around the time that Irby was writing this letter is junk skills. Wasteland is loaded with skills that are rarely or never useful, along with others that are essential, and there’s no way for the new player to identify which are which. It’s a more significant problem than junk magic usually is because you invest precious points into learning and advancing your skills; there’s a well-nigh irreversible opportunity cost to your choices. All of what we might call the second generation of Interplay CRPGs, which began with Wasteland, suffer at least somewhat from this syndrome. Like the sprawling dungeon levels in Dungeon Master, it’s an example of the higher ambitions and more sophisticated programming of later games impacting the end result in ways that are, at best, mixed in terms of playability.

I suppose you are wondering why I play these stupid games if there is so much about them I don’t like. Actually, there are more things I do like, particularly when compared to watching Gilligan’s Island or whatever the current TV fare is. I suppose it would be appropriate to mention a few of the things I do like.

In discussing the unavoidably anachronistic experience we have of old games today, we often note how many other games are at our fingertips — a luxury a kid who might hope to get one new game every birthday and Christmas most definitely didn’t enjoy. What we perhaps don’t address as much as we should is how much the entertainment landscape in general has changed. It can be a little tough even for those of us who lived through the 1980s to remember what a desert television was back then. I remember a television commercial — and from the following decade at that — in which a man checked into a hotel of the future, and was told that every movie ever made was available for viewing at the click of a remote control. Back then, this was outlandish science fiction. Today, it’s reality.

I like variety and surprises. Give me a cast of thousands over a fixed party anytime. Of course, the game designer has to force the need for multiple parties on me, or I will stick with the same group throughout because that is the best way to “win” the game. The Minotaur Temple in Phantasie I and the problems men had in Portsmouth in Might and Magic and the evil and good areas of Wizardry III were nice. More attractive are party changes for strategic reasons. What good are magic users in no-magic areas or a bard in a silent room? A rescue mission doesn’t need a thief and repetitive battles with many small opponents don’t require a fighter that deals heavy damage to one bad guy.

I like variety and surprises in the items found, the map, the specials encountered, in short in every aspect of the game. I like figuring out what things are and how they work. What a delight the thief’s dagger in Wizardry was! The maps in Wasteland are wonderful because any map may contain a map. The countryside contains towns and villages, the towns contain buildings, some buildings contain floors or secret passages. What fun!!!

I like missions and quests to pursue as I proceed. Some of these games are so large that intermediate goals are necessary to keep you on track. Might and Magic, Phantasie, and Bard’s Tale do a good job of creating a path with the “missions.” I like self-contained clues about the puzzles. In The Return of Heracles the sage was always there to provide an assist (for money, of course)  if you got stuck. The multiple solutions or sources of vital information in Might and Magic greatly enhanced the probability of completing the missions and kept the game moving.

I like the idea of recruiting new characters, as opposed to starting over from scratch. In Galactic Adventurers your crew could be augmented by recruiting survivors of a battle, provided they were less experienced than your leader. Charisma (little used in most games) could impact recruiting. Wasteland provides for recruiting of certain predetermined characters you encounter. These NPCs can be controlled almost like your characters and will advance with experience. Destiny Knight allows you to recruit (with a magic spell) any of the monsters you encounter, and requires that some specific characters be recruited to solve some of the puzzles, but these NPCs can’t be controlled and will not advance in level, so they are temporary members. They will occasionally turn on you, an interesting twist!!!

I like various skills, improved by practice or training for various characters. This makes the characters unique individuals, adding to the variety. This was implemented nicely in both Galactic Adventurers and Wasteland.

Eternal growth for my characters makes every session a little different and intriguing. If the characters “top out” too soon that aspect of the game loses its fascination. Wizardry was the best at providing continual growth opportunities because of the opportunity to change class and retain some of the abilities of the previous class. The Phantasie series seemed nicely balanced, with the end of the quest coming just before/as my characters topped out.

Speaking of eternal, I have never in all of my various adventures had a character retire because of age. Wizardry tried, but it never came into play because it was cheaper to heal at the foot of the stairs while identifying loot (same trip or short run to the dungeon for that purpose). Phantasie kept up with age, but it never affected play. I thought Might and Magic might, but I found the Fountain of Youth. The only FRPG I have played where you had to beat the clock is Tunnels of Doom, a simple hack-and-slash on my TI 99/4A that takes about ten hours for a game. Of course, it is quite different to spend ten hours and fail because the king died than it is to spend three months and fail by a few minutes. I like for time to be a factor to prevent me from being too conservative.

This matter of time affecting play really doesn’t fit into the “like” or the “don’t like” because I’ve never seen it effectively implemented. There are a couple of other items like that on my wish list. For example, training of new characters by older characters should take the place of slugging it out with Murphy’s ghost while the newcomers watch from the safety of the back row.

The placing of time limits on a game sounds to me like a very dangerous proposal. It was tried in 1989, the year after Irby wrote this letter, by The Magic Candle, a game that I haven’t played but that is quite well-regarded by the CRPG cognoscenti. That game was, however, kind enough to offer three difficulty levels, each with its own time limit, and the easiest level was generous enough that most players report that time never became a major factor. I don’t know of any game, even from this much crueler era of game design in general, that was cruel enough to let you play 100 hours or more and then tell you you’d lost because the evil wizard had finished conquering the world, thank you very much. Such an approach might have been more realistic than the alternative, where the evil wizard cackles and threatens occasionally but doesn’t seem to actually do much, but, as Sid Meier puts it, fun ought to trump realism every time in game design.

A very useful feature would be the ability to create my own macro consisting of a dozen or so keystrokes. Set up Control-1 through Control-9 and give me a simple way to specify the keystrokes to be executed when one is pressed.

Interestingly, this exact feature showed up in Interplay’s CRPGs very shortly after Irby wrote this letter, beginning with the MS-DOS version of Wasteland in March of 1989. And we do know that Interplay was one of the companies to which Shay Addams sent the letter. Is this a case of a single gamer’s correspondence being responsible for a significant feature in later games? The answer is likely lost forever to the vagaries of time and the inexactitude of memory.

A record of sorts of what has happened during the game would be nice. The chevron in Wizardry and the origin in Phantasie is the most I’ve ever seen done with this. How about a screen that told me I had 93 sessions, 4 divine interventions (restore backup), completed 12 quests, raised characters from the dead 47 times, and killed 23,472 monsters? Cute, huh?

Another crazily prescient proposal. These sorts of meta-textual status screens would become commonplace in CRPGs in later years. In this case, though, “later years” means much later. Thus, rather than speculating on whether he actively drove the genre’s future innovations, we can credit Irby this time merely with predicting them.

One last suggestion for the manufacturers: if you want that little card you put in each box back, offer me something I want. For example, give me a list of all the other nuts in my area code who have purchased this game and returned their little cards.

Enough of this, Wasteland is waiting.


With some exceptions — the last suggestion, for instance, would be a privacy violation that would make even the NSA raise an eyebrow — I agree with most of Irby’s positive suggestions, just as I do his complaints. It strikes me as I read through his letter that my own personal favorite among 8-bit CRPGs, Pool of Radiance, manages to avoid most of Irby’s pitfalls while implementing much from his list of desirable features — further confirmation of just what a remarkable piece of work that game, and to an only slightly lesser extent its sequel Curse of the Azure Bonds, really were. I hope Wes Irby got a chance to play them.

I have less to say about the second letter I’d like to share with you, and will thus present it without in-line commentary. This undated letter was sent directly to Interplay by its writer: Thomas G. Gutheil, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, on whose letterhead it’s written. Its topic is The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, a game I’ve written about only in passing but one with some serious design problems in the form of well-nigh insoluble puzzles. Self-serving though it may be, I present Gutheil’s letter to you today as one more proof that players did notice the things that were wrong with games back in the day — and that my perspective on them today therefore isn’t an entirely anachronistic one. More importantly, Gutheil’s speculations are still some of the most cogent I’ve ever seen on how bad puzzles make their way into games in the first place. For this reason alone, it’s eminently worthy of being preserved for posterity.


I am writing you a combination fan letter and critique in regard to the two volumes of The Bard’s Tale, of which I am a regular and fanatic user.

First, the good news: this is a TERRIFIC game, and I play it with addictive intensity, approximately an hour almost every day. The richness of the graphics, the cute depictions of the various characters, monsters, etc., and rich complexity and color of the mazes, tasks, issues, as well as the dry wit that pervades the program, make it a superb piece and probably the best maze-type adventure product on the market today. I congratulate you on this achievement.

Now, the bad news: the one thing I feel represents a defect in your program (and I only take your time to comment on it because it is so central) and one which is perhaps the only area where the Wizardry series (of which I am also an avid player and expert) is superior, is the notion of the so-called puzzles, a problem which becomes particularly noticeable in the “snares of death” in the second scenario. In all candor, speaking as an old puzzle taker and as a four-time grand master of the Boston Phoenix Puzzle Contest, I must say that these puzzles are simply too personal and idiosyncratic to be fair to the player. I would imagine you are doing a booming business in clue books since many of the puzzles are simply not accomplishable otherwise without hours of frustrating work, most of it highly speculative.

Permit me to try to clarify this point, since I am aware of the sensitive nature of these comments, given that I would imagine you regard the puzzles as being the “high art” of the game design. There should be an organic connection between the clues and the puzzles. For example, in Wizardry (sorry to plug the competition), there is a symbolic connection between the clue and its function. As one simplistic example, at the simplest level a bear statuette get you through a gate guarded by a bear, a key opens a particular door, and a ship-in-a-bottle item gets you across an open expanse of water.

Let me try to contrast this with some of the situations in your scenarios. You may recall that in one of the scenarios the presence of a “winged one” in the party was necessary to get across a particular chasm. The Winged One introduces himself to the party as one of almost a thousand individual wandering creatures that come and offer to join the party, to be attacked, or to be left in peace. This level of dilution and the failure to separate out the Winged One in some way makes it practically unrecallable much later on when you need it, particularly since there are several levels of dungeon (and in real life perhaps many interposing days and weeks) between the time you meet the Winged One (who does not stand out among the other wandering characters in any particular way) and the time you actually need him. Even if (as I do) you keep notes, there would be no particular reason to record this creature out of all. Moreover, to have this added character stuck in your party for long periods of time, when you could instead have the many-times more effective demons, Kringles, and salamanders, etc., would seem strategically self-defeating and therefore counter-intuitive for the normal strategy of game play AS IT IS ACTUALLY PLAYED.

This is my point: in many ways your puzzles in the scenarios seem to have been designed by someone who is not playing the in the usual sequence, but designed as it were from the viewpoint of the programmer, who looks at the scenario “from above” — that is, from omniscient knowledge. In many situations the maze fails to take into account the fact that parties will not necessarily explore the maze in the predictable direct sequence you have imagined. The flow of doors and corridors do not appropriately guide a player so that they will take the puzzles in a meaningful sequence. Thus, when one gets a second clue before a first clue, only confusion results, and it is rarely resolved as the play advances.

Every once in a while you do catch on, and that is when something like the rock-scissors-paper game is invoked in your second scenario. That’s generally playing fair, although not everyone has played that game or would recognize it in the somewhat cryptic form in which it is presented. Thus the player does not gain the satisfaction of use of intellect in problem solving; instead, it’s the frustration of playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the author.

Despite all of the above criticism, the excitement and the challenge of playing the game still make it uniquely attractive; as you have no doubt caught on, I write because I care. I have had to actively fight the temptation to simply hack my way through the “snares of death” by direct cribbing from the clue books, so that I could get on to the real interest of the game, which is working one’s way through the dungeons and encountering the different items, monsters, and challenges. I believe that this impatience with the idiosyncratic (thus fundamentally unfair) design of these puzzles represents an impediment, and I would be interested to know if others have commented on this. Note that it doesn’t take any more work for the programmer, but merely a shift of viewpoint to make the puzzles relevant and fair to the reader and also proof against being taken “out of order,” which largely confuses the meaning. A puzzle that is challenging and tricky is fair; a puzzle that is idiosyncratically cryptic may not be.

Thank you for your attention to this somewhat long-winded letter; it was important to me to write. Given how much I care for this game and how devoted I am to playing it and to awaiting future scenarios, I wanted to call your attention to this issue. You need not respond personally, but I would of course be interested in any of your thoughts on this.


I conclude this article as a whole by echoing Gutheil’s closing sentiments; your feedback is the best part of writing this blog. I hope you didn’t find my musings on the process of doing history too digressive, and most of all I hope you found Wes Irby and Thomas Gutheil’s all too rare views from the trenches as fascinating as I did.

 

Tags: , ,

From Wingleader to Wing Commander

No one at Origin had much time to bask in the rapturous reception accorded to Wingleader at the 1990 Summer Consumer Electronics Show. Their end-of-September deadline for shipping the game was now barely three months away, and there remained a daunting amount of work to be done.

At the beginning of July, executive producer Dallas Snell called the troops together to tell them that crunch time was beginning in earnest; everyone would need to work at least 55 hours per week from now on. Most of the people on the project only smiled bemusedly at the alleged news flash. They were already working those kinds of hours, and knew all too well that a 55-hour work week would probably seem like a part-timer’s schedule before all was said and done.

Dallas Snell

At the beginning of August, Snell unceremoniously booted Chris Roberts, the project’s founder, from his role as co-producer, leaving him with only the title of director. Manifesting a tendency anyone familiar with his more recent projects will immediately recognize, Roberts had been causing chaos on the team by approving seemingly every suggested addition or enhancement that crossed his desk. Snell, the brutal pragmatist in this company full of dreamers, appointed himself as Warren Spector’s new co-producer. His first action was to place a freeze on new features in favor of getting the game that currently existed finished and out the door. Snell:

The individuals in Product Development are an extremely passionate group of people, and I love that. Everyone is here because, for the most part, they love what they’re doing. This is what they want to do with their lives, and they’re very intense about it and very sensitive to your messing around with what they’re trying to accomplish. They don’t live for getting it done on time or having it make money. They live to see this effect or that effect, their visions, accomplished.

It’s always a continual antagonistic relationship between the executive producer and the development teams. I’m always the ice man, the ogre, or something. It’s not fun, but it gets the products done and out. I guess that’s why I have the room with the view. Anyway, at the end of the project, all of Product Development asked me not to get that involved again.

One problem complicating Origin’s life enormously was the open architecture of MS-DOS, this brave new world they’d leaped into the previous year. Back in the Apple II days, they’d been able to write their games for a relatively static set of hardware requirements, give or take an Apple IIGS running in fast mode or a Mockingboard sound card. The world of MS-DOS, by contrast, encompassed a bewildering array of potential hardware configurations: different processors, different graphics and sound cards, different mice and game controllers, different amounts and types of memory, different floppy-disk formats, different hard-disk capacities. For a game like Wingleader, surfing the bleeding edge of all this technology but trying at the same time to offer at least a modicum of playability on older setups, all of this variance was the stuff of nightmares. Origin’s testing department was working 80-hour weeks by the end, and, as we’ll soon see, the final result would still leave plenty to be desired from a quality-control perspective.

As the clock was ticking down toward release, Origin’s legal team delivered the news that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea after all to call the game Wingleader — already the company’s second choice for a name — thanks to a number of existing trademarks on the similar “Wingman.” With little time to devote to yet another naming debate, Origin went with their consensus third choice of Wing Commander, which had lost only narrowly to Wingleader in the last vote. This name finally stuck. Indeed, today it’s hard to imagine Wing Commander under any other name.

The game was finished in a mad frenzy that stretched right up to the end; the “installation guide” telling how to get it running was written and typeset from scratch in literally the last five hours before the whole project had to be packed into a box and shipped off for duplication. That accomplished, everyone donned their new Wing Commander baseball caps and headed out to the front lawn for Origin’s traditional ship-day beer bash. There Robert Garriott climbed onto a picnic table to announce that all of Chris Roberts’s efforts in creating by far the most elaborate multimedia production Origin had ever released had been enough to secure him, at long last, an actual fast job at the company. “As of 5 P.M. this afternoon,” said Garriott, “Chris is Origin’s Director of New Technologies. Congratulations, Chris, and welcome to the Origin team.” The welcome was, everyone had to agree, more than a little belated.

We’ll turn back to Roberts’s later career at Origin in future articles. At this point, though, this history of the original Wing Commander must become the story of the people who played it rather than that of the people who created it. And, make no mistake, play it the people did. Gamers rushed to embrace what had ever since that Summer CES show been the most anticipated title in the industry. Roberts has claimed that Wing Commander sold 100,000 copies in its first month, a figure that would stand as ridiculous if applied to just about any other computer game of the era, but which might just be ridiculous enough to be true in the case of Wing Commander. While hard sales figures for the game or the franchise it would spawn have never to my knowledge been made public, I can feel confident enough in saying that sales of the first Wing Commander soared into the many, many hundreds of thousands of units. The curse of Ultima was broken; Origin now had a game which had not just become a hit in spite of Ultima‘s long shadow, they had a game which threatened to do the unthinkable — to overshadow Ultima in their product catalog. Certainly all indications are that Wing Commander massively outsold Ultima VI, possibly by a factor of two to one or more. It would take a few years, until the release of Doom in 1993, for any other name to begin to challenge that of Wing Commander as the most consistent money spinner in American computer gaming.

But why should that have been? Why should this particular game of all others have become such a sensation? Part of the reason must be serendipitous timing. During the 1990s as in no decade before or since, the latest developments in hardware would drive sales of games that could show them off to best effect, and Wing Commander set the stage for this trend. Released at a time when 80386-based machines with expanded memory, sound cards, and VGA graphics were just beginning to enter American homes in numbers, Wing Commander took advantage of all those things like no other game on the market. It benefited enormously from this singularity among those who already owned the latest hardware setups, while causing yet many more jealous gamers who hadn’t heretofore seen a need to upgrade to invest in hot machines of their own — the kind of virtuous circle to warm any capitalist’s heart.

Yet there was also something more going on with Wing Commander than just a cool-looking game for showing off the latest hardware, else it would have suffered the fate of the slightly later bestseller Myst: that of being widely purchased, but very rarely actually, seriously played. Unlike the coolly cerebral Myst, Wing Commander was a crowd-pleaser from top to bottom, with huge appeal, even beyond its spectacular audiovisuals, to anyone who had ever thrilled to the likes of a Star Wars film. It was, in other words, computerized entertainment for the mainstream rather than for a select cognoscenti. Just as all but the most incorrigible snobs could have a good time at a Star Wars showing, few gamers of any stripe could resist the call of Wing Commander. In an era when the lines of genre were being drawn more and more indelibly, one of the most remarkable aspects of Wing Commander‘s reception is the number of genre lines it was able to cross. Whether they normally preferred strategy games or flight simulators, CRPGs or adventures, everybody wanted to play Wing Commander.

At a glance, Chris Roberts’s gung-ho action movie of a game would seem to be rather unsuited for the readership of Computer Gaming World, a magazine that had been born out of the ashes of the tabletop-wargaming culture of the 1970s and was still beholden most of all to computer games in the old slow-paced, strategic grognard tradition. Yet the magazine and its readers loved Wing Commander. In fact, they loved Wing Commander as they had never loved any other game before. After reaching the number-one position in Computer Gaming World‘s readers’ poll in February of 1991, it remained there for an unprecedented eleven straight months, attaining already in its second month on top the highest aggregate score ever recorded for a game. When it was finally replaced at number one in January of 1992, the replacement was none other than the new Wing Commander IIWing Commander I then remained planted right there behind its successor at number two until April, when the magazine’s editors, needing to make room for other games, felt compelled to “retire” it to their Hall of Fame.

In other places, the huge genre-blurring success of Wing Commander prompted an identity crisis. Shay Addams, adventure-game solver extraordinaire, publisher of the Questbusters newsletter and the Quest for Clues series of books, received so many requests to cover Wing Commander that he reported he had been “on the verge of scheduling a brief look” at it. But in the end, he had decided a little petulantly, it “is just a shoot-em-up-in-space game in which the skills necessary are vastly different from those required for completing a quest. (Then again, there is always the possibility of publishing Simulationbusters.)” The parenthetical may have sounded like a joke, but Addams apparently meant it seriously – or, at least, came to mean it seriously. The following year, he started publishing a sister newsletter to Questbusters called Simulations!. It’s hard to imagine him making such a decision absent the phenomenon that was Wing Commander.

So, there was obviously much more to Wing Commander than a glorified tech demo. If we hope to understand what its secret sauce might have been, we need to look at the game itself again, this time from the perspective of a player rather than a developer.

One possibility can be excised immediately. The “space combat simulation” part of the game — i.e., the game part of the game — is fun today and was graphically spectacular back in 1990, but it’s possessed of neither huge complexity nor the sort of tactical or strategic interest that would seem to be required of a title that hoped to spend eleven months at the top of the Computer Gaming World readers’ charts. Better graphics and embodied approach aside, it’s a fairly commonsense evolution of Elite‘s combat engine, complete with inertia and sounds in the vacuum of space and all the other space-fantasy trappings of Star Wars. If we hope to find the real heart of the game’s appeal, it isn’t here that we should look, but rather to the game’s fiction — to the movie Origin Systems built around Chris Roberts’s little shoot-em-up-in-space game.

Wing Commander casts you as an unnamed young pilot, square-jawed and patriotic, who has just been assigned to the strike carrier Tiger’s Claw, out on the front lines of humanity’s war against the vicious Kilrathi, a race of space-faring felines. (Cat lovers should approach this game with caution!) Over the course of the game, you fly a variety of missions in a variety of star systems, affecting the course of the wider war as you do so in very simple, hard-branching ways. Each mission is introduced via a briefing scene, and concluded, if you make it back alive, with a debriefing. (If you don’t make it back alive, you at least get the rare pleasure of watching your own funeral.) Between missions, you can chat with your fellow pilots and a friendly bartender in the Tiger’s Claw‘s officers lounge, play on a simulator in the lounge that serves as the game’s training mode, and keep track of your kill count along with that of the other pilots on the squadron blackboard. As you fly missions and your kill count piles up, you rise through the Tiger’s Claw‘s hierarchy from an untested rookie to the steely-eyed veteran on which everyone else in your squadron depends. You also get the chance to fly several models of space-borne fighters, each with its own flight characteristics and weapons loadouts.

A mission briefing.

The inspirations for Wing Commander as a piece of fiction aren’t hard to find in either the game itself or the many interviews Chris Roberts has given about it over the years. Leaving aside the obvious influence of Star Wars on the game’s cinematic visuals, Wing Commander fits most comfortably into the largely book-bound sub-genre of so-called “military science fiction.” A tradition which has Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers as its arguable urtext, military science fiction is less interested in the exploration of strange new worlds, etc., than it is in the exploration of possible futures of warfare in space.

There isn’t much doubt where Wing Commander‘s historical inspiration lies.

Because worldbuilding is hard and extrapolating the nitty-gritty details of future modes of warfare is even harder, much military science fiction is built out of thinly veiled stand-ins for the military and political history of our own little planet. So, for example, David Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series transports the Napoleonic Wars into space, while Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War — probably the sub-genre’s best claim to a work of real, lasting literary merit — is based largely on the author’s own experiences in Vietnam. Hewing to this tradition, Wing Commander presents a space-borne version of the grand carrier battles which took place in the Pacific during World War II — entirely unique events in the history of human warfare and, as this author can well attest, sheer catnip to any young fellow with a love of ships and airplanes and heroic deeds and things that go boom. Wing Commander shares this historical inspiration with another of its obvious fictional inspirations, the fun if terminally cheesy 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica. (Come to think of it, much the same description can be applied to Wing Commander.)

Sparkling conversationalists these folks aren’t.

Wing Commander is also like Battlestar Galactica in another respect: it’s not so much interested in constructing a detailed technological and tactical framework for its vision of futuristic warfare — leave that stuff to the books! — as it is in choosing whatever thing seems coolest at any given juncture. We know nothing really about how or why any of the stuff in the game works, just that’s it’s our job to go out and blow stuff up with it. Nowhere is that failing, if failing it be, more evident than in the very name of the game. “Wing Commander” is a rank in the Royal Air Force and those of Commonwealth nations denoting an officer in charge of several squadrons of aircraft. It’s certainly not an appropriate designation for the role you play here, that of a rookie fighter pilot who commands only a single wingman. This Wing Commander is called Wing Commander strictly because it sounds cool.

In time, Origin’s decision to start hiring people to serve specifically in the role of writer would have a profound effect on the company’s games, but few would accuse this game, one of Origin’s first with an actual, dedicated “lead writer,” of being deathless fiction. To be fair to David George, it does appear that he spent the majority of his time drawing up the game’s 40 missions, serving in a role that would probably be dubbed “scenario designer” or “level designer” today rather than “writer.” And  it’s not as if Chris Roberts’s original brief gave him a whole lot to work with. This is, after all, a game where you’re going to war against a bunch of anthropomorphic house cats. (Our cat told me she thought about conquering the galaxy once or twice, but she wasn’t sure she could fit it into the three hours per day she spends awake.) The Kilrathi are kind of… well, there’s just no getting around it, is there? The whole Kilrathi thing is pretty stupid, although it does allow your fellow pilots to pile on epithets like “fur balls,” “fleabags,” and, my personal favorite, “Killie-cats.”

Said fellow pilots are themselves a collection of ethnic stereotypes so over-the-top as to verge on the offensive if it wasn’t so obvious that Origin just didn’t have a clue. Spirit is Japanese, so of course she suffixes every name with “-san” or “-sama” even when speaking English, right? And Angel is French, so of course she says “bonjour” a lot, right? Right?

My second favorite Wing Commander picture comes from the manual rather than the game proper. Our cat would look precisely this bitchy if I shoved her into a spacesuit.

Despite Chris Roberts’s obvious and oft-stated desire to put you into an interactive movie, there’s little coherent narrative arc to Wing Commander, even by action-movie standards. Every two to four missions, the Tiger’s Claw jumps to some other star system and some vague allusion is made to the latest offensive or defensive operation, but there’s nothing to really hang your hat on in terms of a clear unfolding narrative of the war. A couple of cut scenes do show good or bad events taking place elsewhere, based on your performance in battle — who knew one fighter pilot could have so much effect on the course of a war? — but, again, there’s just not enough detail to give a sense of the strategic situation. One has to suspect that Origin didn’t know what was really going on any better than the rest of us.

My favorite Wing Commander pictures, bar none. What I love best about these and the picture above is the ears on the helmets. And what I love best about the ears on the helmets is that there’s no apparent attempt to be cheeky or funny in placing them there. (One thing this game is totally devoid of is deliberate humor. Luckily, there’s plenty of non-deliberate humor to enjoy.) Someone at Origin said, “Well, they’re cats, so they have to have space in their helmets for their ears, right?” and everyone just nodded solemnly and went with it. If you ask me, nothing illustrates Wing Commander‘s charming naivete better than this.

In its day, Wing Commander was hugely impressive as a technological tour de force, but it’s not hard to spot the places where it really suffered from the compressed development schedule. There’s at least one place, for example, where your fellow pilots talk about an event that hasn’t actually happened yet, presumably due to last minute juggling of the mission order. More serious are the many and varied glitches that occur during combat, from sound drop-outs to the occasional complete lock-up. Most bizarrely of all to our modern sensibilities, Origin didn’t take the time to account for the speed of the computer running the game. Wing Commander simply runs flat-out all the time, as fast as the hosting computer can manage. This delivered a speed that was just about perfect on a top-of-the-line 80386-based machine of 1990, but that made it effectively unplayable on the next generation of 80486-based machines that started becoming popular just a couple of years later; this game was definitely not built with any eye to posterity. Wing Commander would wind up driving the development of so-called “slowdown” programs that throttled back later hardware to keep games like this one playable.

Still, even today Wing Commander remains a weirdly hard nut to crack in this respect. For some reason, presumably involving subtle differences between real and emulated hardware, it’s impossible to find an entirely satisfactory speed setting for the game in the DOSBox emulator. A setting which seems perfect when flying in open space slows down to a crawl in a dogfight; a setting which delivers a good frame rate in a dogfight is absurdly fast when fewer other ships surround you. The only apparent solution to the problem is to adjust the DOSBox speed settings on the fly as you’re trying not to get shot out of space by the Kilrathi — or, perhaps more practically, to just find something close to a happy medium and live with it. One quickly notices when reading about Wing Commander the wide variety of opinions about its overall difficulty, from those who say it’s too easy to those who say it’s way too hard to those who say it’s just right. I wonder whether this disparity is down to the fact that, thanks to the lack of built-in throttling, everyone is playing a slightly different version of the game.

The only thing worse than being a cat lover in this game is being a pacifist. And everyone knows cats don’t like water, Shotglass… sheesh.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that the missions are only of a few broad types, encompassing patrols, seek-and-destroy missions, and escort missions (the worst!), but the context provided by the briefings keeps things more interesting than they might otherwise be, as do the variety of spacecraft you get to fly and fight against. The mission design is pretty good, although the difficulty does ebb and spike a bit more than it ideally might. In particular, one mission found right in the middle of the game — the second Kurosawa mission, for those who know the game already — is notorious for being all but impossible. Chris Roberts has bragged that the missions in the finished game “were exactly the ones that Jeff George designed on paper — we didn’t need to do any balancing at all!” In truth, I’m not sure the lack of balancing isn’t a bug rather than a feature.

Um, yes. I’m standing here, aren’t I? Should this really be a judgment call?

Roberts’s decision to allow you to take your lumps and go on even when you fail at a mission was groundbreaking at the time. Yet, having made this very progressive decision, he then proceeded to implement it in the most regressive way imaginable. When you fail in Wing Commander, the war as a whole goes badly, thanks again to that outsize effect you have upon it, and you get punished by being forced to fly against even more overwhelming odds in inferior fighters. Imagine, then, what it’s like to play Wing Commander honestly, without recourse to save games, as a brand new player. Still trying to get your bearings as a rookie pilot, you don’t perform terribly well in the first two or three missions. In response, your commanding officer delivers a constant drumbeat of negative feedback, while the missions just keep getting harder and harder at what feels like an almost exponential pace, ensuring that you continue to suck every time you fly. By the time you’ve failed at 30 missions and your ineptitude has led to the Tiger’s Claw being chased out of the sector with its (striped?) tail between its legs, you might just need therapy to recover from the experience.

What ought to happen, of course, is that failing at the early missions should see you assigned to easier rather than harder ones — no matter the excuse; Origin could make something up on the fly, as they so obviously did so much of the game’s fiction — that give you a chance to practice your skills. Experienced, hardcore players could still have their fun by trying to complete the game in as few missions as possible, while newcomers wouldn’t have to feel like battered spouses. Or, if such an elegant solution wasn’t possible, Origin could at least have given us player-selectable difficulty levels.

As it is, the only practical way to play as a newcomer is to ignore all of Origin’s exhortations to play honestly and just keep reloading until you successfully complete each mission; only in this way can you keep the escalating difficulty manageable. (The one place where I would recommend that you take your lumps and continue is in the aforementioned second Kurosawa mission. Losing here will throw you briefly off-track, but the missions that follow aren’t too difficult, and it’s easier to play your way to victory through them than to try to beat Mission Impossible.) This approach, it should be noted, drove Chris Roberts crazy; he considered it nothing less than a betrayal of the entire premise around which he’d designed his game. Yet he had only himself to blame. Like much in Wing Commander, the discrepancy between the game Roberts wants to have designed and the one he’s actually designed speaks to the lack of time to play it extensively before its release, and thereby to shake all these problems out.

And yet. And yet…

Having complained at such length about Wing Commander, I find myself at something of an impasse, in that my overall verdict on the game is nowhere near as negative as these complaints would imply. It’s not even a case of Wing Commander being, like, say, most of the Ultima games, a groundbreaking work in its day that’s a hard sell today. No, Wing Commander is a game I continue to genuinely enjoy despite all its obvious problems.

In writing about all these old games over the years, I’ve noticed that those titles I’d broadly brand as classics and gladly recommend to contemporary players tend to fall into two categories. There are games like, say, The Secret of Monkey Island that know exactly what they’re trying to do and proceed to do it all almost perfectly, making all the right choices; it’s hard to imagine how to improve these games in any but the tiniest of ways within the context of the technology available to their developers. And then there are games like Wing Commander that are riddled with flaws, yet still manage to be hugely engaging, hugely fun, almost in spite of themselves. Who knows, perhaps trying to correct all the problems I’ve spent so many words detailing would kill something ineffably important in the game. Certainly the many sequels and spinoffs to the original Wing Commander correct many of the failings I’ve described in this article, yet I’m not sure any of them manage to be a comprehensively better game. Like so many creative endeavors, game design isn’t a zero-sum game. Much as I loathe the lazy critic’s cliche “more than the sum of its parts,” it feels hard to avoid it here.

It’s true that many of my specific criticisms have an upside to serve as a counterpoint. The fiction may be giddy and ridiculous, but it winds up being fun precisely because it’s so giddy and ridiculous. This isn’t a self-conscious homage to comic-book storytelling of the sort we see so often in more recent games from this Age of Irony of ours. No, this game really does think this stuff it’s got to share with you is the coolest stuff in the world, and it can’t wait to get on with it; it lacks any form of guile just as much as it does any self-awareness. In this as in so many other senses, Wing Commander exudes the personality of its creator, helps you to understand why it was that everyone at Origin Systems so liked to have this high-strung, enthusiastic kid around them. There’s an innocence about the game that leaves one feeling happy that Chris Roberts was steered away from his original plans for a “gritty” story full of moral ambivalence; one senses that he wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere near as well as he does this. Even the Kilrathi enemies, silly as they are, take some of the sting out of war; speciesist though the sentiment may be, at least it isn’t people you’re killing out there. Darned if the fiction doesn’t win me over in the end with its sheer exuberance, all bright primary emotions to match the bright primary colors of the VGA palette. Sometimes you’re cheering along with it, sometimes you’re laughing at it, but you’re always having a good time. The whole thing is just too gosh-darned earnest to annoy me like most bad writing does.

Even the rogue’s gallery of ethnic stereotypes that is your fellow pilots doesn’t grate as much as it might. Indeed, Origin’s decision to include lots of strong, capable women and people of color among the pilots should be applauded. Whatever else you can say about Wing Commander, its heart is almost always in the right place.

Winning a Golden Sun for “surviving the destruction of my ship.” I’m not sure, though, that “sacrificing my vessel” was really an act of bravery, under the circumstances. Oh, well, I’ll take whatever hardware they care to give me.

One thing Wing Commander understands very well is the value of positive reinforcement — the importance of, as Sid Meier puts it, making sure the player is always the star of the show. In that spirit, the kill count of even the most average player will always advance much faster on the squadron’s leader board than that of anyone else in the squadron. As you play through the missions, you’re given promotions and occasionally medals, the latter delivered amidst the deafening applause of your peers in a scene lifted straight from the end of the first Star Wars film (which was in turn aping the Nuremberg Rally shown in Triumph of the Will, but no need to think too much about that in this giddy context). You know at some level that you’re being manipulated, just as you know the story is ridiculous, but you don’t really care. Isn’t this feeling of achievement a substantial part of the reason that we play games?

Another thing Wing Commander understands — or perhaps stumbled into accidentally thanks to the compressed development schedule — is the value of brevity. Thanks to the tree structure that makes it impossible to play all 40 missions on any given run-through, a typical Wing Commander career spans no more than 25 or 30 missions, most of which can be completed in half an hour or so, especially if you use the handy auto-pilot function to skip past all the point-to-point flying and just get to the places where the shooting starts. (Personally, I prefer the more organic feel of doing all the flying myself, but I suspect I’m a weirdo in this as in so many other respects.) The relative shortness of the campaign means that the game never threatens to run into the ground the flight engine’s rather limited box of tricks. It winds up leaving you wanting more rather than trying your patience. For all these reasons, and even with all its obvious problems technical and otherwise, Wing Commander remains good fun today.

Which doesn’t of course mean that any self-respecting digital antiquarian can afford to neglect its importance to gaming history. The first blockbuster of the 1990s and the most commercially dominant franchise in computer gaming until the arrival of Doom in 1993 shook everything up yet again, Wing Commander can be read as cause or symptom of the changing times. There was a sense even in 1990 that Wing Commander‘s arrival, coming so appropriately at the beginning of a new decade, marked a watershed moment, and time has only strengthened that impression. Chris Crawford, this medium’s eternal curmudgeon — every creative field needs one of them to serve as a corrective to the hype-merchants — has accused Wing Commander of nothing less than ruining the culture of gaming for all time. By raising the bar so high on ludic audiovisuals, runs his argument, Wing Commander dramatically raised the financial investment necessary to produce a competitive game. This in turn made publishers, reluctant to risk all that capital on anything but a sure bet, more conservative in the sorts of projects they were willing to approve, causing more experimental games with only niche appeal to disappear from the market. “It became a hit-driven industry,” Crawford says. “The whole marketing strategy, economics, and everything changed, in my opinion, much for the worse.”

There’s some truth to this assertion, but it’s also true that publishers had been growing more conservative and budgets had been creeping upward for years before Wing Commander. By 1990, Infocom’s literary peak was years in the past, as were Activison’s experimental period and Electronic Arts’s speculations on whether computers could make you cry. In this sense, then, Wing Commander can be seen as just one more point on a trend line, not the dramatic break which Crawford would claim it to be. Had it not come along when it did to raise the audiovisual bar, something else would have.

Where Wing Commander does feel like a cleaner break with the past is in its popularizing of the use of narrative in a traditionally non-narrative-driven genre. This, I would assert, is the real source of the game’s appeal, then and now. The shock and awe of seeing the graphics and hearing the sound and music for the first time inevitably faded even back in the day, and today of course the whole thing looks garish and a little kitschy with those absurdly big pixels. And certainly the space-combat game alone wasn’t enough to sustain obsessive devotion back in the day, while today the speed issues can at times make it more than a little exasperating to actually play Wing Commander at all. But the appeal of, to borrow from Infocom’s old catch-phrase, waking up inside a story — waking up inside a Star Wars movie, if you like — and being swept along on a rollicking, semi-interactive ride is, it would seem, eternal. It may not have been the reason most people bought Wing Commander in the early 1990s — that had everything to do with those aforementioned spectacular audiovisuals — but it was the reason they kept playing it, the reason it remained the best single computer game in the country according to Computer Gaming World‘s readers for all those months. Come for the graphics and sound, stay for the story. The ironic aspect of all this is that, as I’ve already noted, Wing Commander‘s story barely qualified as a story at all by the standards of conventional fiction. Yet, underwhelming though it was on its own merits, it worked more than well enough in providing structure and motivation for the individual missions.

The clearest historical antecedent to Wing Commander must be the interactive movies of Cinemaware, which had struggled to combine cinematic storytelling with modes of play that departed from traditional adventure-game norms throughout the second half of the 1980s, albeit with somewhat mixed success. John Cutter, a designer at Cinemaware, has described how Bob Jacob, the company’s founder and president, reacted to his first glimpse of Wing Commander: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so sad.” With his company beginning to fall apart around him, Jacob had good reason to feel sad. He least of all would have imagined Origin Systems — they of the aesthetically indifferent CRPG epics — as the company that would carry the flag of cinematic computer gaming forward into the new decade, but the proof was right there on the screen in front of him.

There are two accounts, both of them true in their way, to explain how the adventure game, a genre that in the early 1990s was perhaps the most vibrant and popular in computer gaming, ended the decade an irrelevancy to gamers and publishers alike. One explanation, which I’ve gone into a number of times already on this blog, focuses on a lack of innovation and, most of all, a lack of good design practices among far too many adventures developers; these lacks left the genre identified primarily with unfun pixel hunts and illogical puzzles in the minds of far too many players. But another, more positive take on the subject says that adventure games never really went away at all: their best attributes were rather merged into other genres. Did adventure games disappear or did they take over the world? As in so many cases, the answer depends on your perspective. If you focus on the traditional mechanics of adventure games — exploring landscapes and solving puzzles, usually non-violently — as their defining attributes, the genre did indeed go from thriving to all but dying in the course of about five years. If, on the other hand, you choose to see adventure games more broadly as games where you wake up inside a story, it can sometimes seem like almost every game out there today has become, whatever else it is, an adventure game.

Wing Commander was the first great proof that many more players than just adventure-game fans love story. Players love the way a story can make them feel a part of something bigger as they play, and, more prosaically but no less importantly, they love the structure it can give to their play. One of the dominant themes of games in the 1990s would be the injection of story into genres which had never had much use for it before: the unfolding narrative of discovery built into the grand-strategy game X-Com, the campaign modes of the real-time-strategy pioneers Warcraft and Starcraft, the plot that gave meaning to all the shooting in Half-Life. All of these are among the most beloved titles of the decade, spawning franchises that remain more than viable to this day. One has to assume this isn’t a coincidence. “The games I made were always about narrative because I felt that was missing for me,” says Chris Roberts. “I wanted that sense of story and progression. I felt like I wasn’t getting that in games. That was one of my bigger drives when I was making games, was to get that, that I felt like I really wanted and liked from other media.” Clearly many others agreed.

(Sources: the books Wing Commander I and II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison and Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Retro Gamer 59 and 123; Questbusters of July 1989, August 1990, and April 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1989 and November 1992; Amiga Computing of December 1988. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and Matt Barton’s interview with George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

From Squadron to Wingleader

Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott, 1988

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989, Origin Systems and Brøderbund Software announced that they wouldn’t be renewing the distribution contract the former had signed with the latter two years before. It was about as amicable a divorce as has ever been seen in the history of business; in this respect, it could hardly have stood in greater contrast to the dust-up that had ended Origin’s relationship with Electronic Arts, their previous distributor, in 1987. Each company was full of rosy praise and warm wishes for the other at a special “graduation party” Brøderbund threw for Origin at the show. “Brøderbund has been one of the few affiliated-label programs that truly helps a small company grow to a size where it can stand on its own and enter the real world,” said Origin’s Robert Garriott, making oblique reference to the more predatory approach of Electronic Arts. In response, Brøderbund’s Gary Carlston toasted that “it’s been rewarding to have helped Origin pursue its growth, and it’s exciting to see the company take this step,” confirming yet one more time Brøderbund’s well-earned reputation as the nice guys of their industry who somehow kept managing to finish first. And so, with a last slap on the rump and a final chorus of “Kumbaya,” Brøderbund sent Origin off to face the scary “world of full-service software publishing” alone.

It was a bold step for Origin, especially given that they still hadn’t solved a serious problem that had dogged them since their founding in the Garriott brothers’ family garage six years earlier. The first two games released by the young company back in 1983 had been Ultima III, the latest installment in Richard Garriott’s genre-defining CRPG series, and Caverns of Callisto, an action game written by Richard’s high-school buddy Chuck Bueche. Setting the frustrating pattern for what was to come, Ultima III soared up the bestseller charts, while Caverns of Callisto disappeared without a trace. In the years that followed, Origin released some non-Ultima games that were moderately successful, but never came close to managing a full-on hit outside of their signature franchise. This failure left them entirely dependent for their survival on Richard Garriott coming up with a new and groundbreaking Ultima game every couple of years, and on that game then proceeding to sell over 200,000 copies. Robert Garriott, as shrewd a businessman as any in his industry, knew that staking his company’s entire future on a single game every two years was at best a risky way to run things. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t seem to break the pattern.

Origin had a number of factors working against them in their efforts to diversify, but the first and most ironic among them must be the very outsize success of Ultima itself. The company had become so identified with Ultima that many gamers barely realized that they did anything else. As for other folks working in the industry, they had long jokingly referred to Origin Systems as “Ultima Systems.” Everyone knew that the creator of Ultima was also the co-founder of Origin, and the brother of the man who directed its day-to-day operations. In such a situation, there must be a real question of whether any other game project, even a potentially great one, could avoid being overshadowed by the signature franchise, could find enough oxygen to thrive. Added to these concerns, which would be applicable to any company in such a situation, must be the unique nature of the cast of characters at Origin. Richard Garriott’s habit of marching around trade-show floors in full Lord British regalia, his entourage in tow, didn’t always endear him to the rest of the industry. There were, it sometimes seemed, grounds to question whether Richard himself knew that he wasn’t actually a monarch, just a talented kid from suburban Houston with nary a drop of royal blood coursing through his veins. At times, Origin Systems could feel perilously close to a cult of personality. Throw in the company’s out-of-the-way location in Austin, Texas, and attracting really top-flight projects became quite a challenge for them.

So, when it came to games that weren’t Ultima Origin had had to content themselves with projects one notch down from the top tier — projects which, whether because they weren’t flashy enough or were just too nichey, weren’t of huge interest to the bigger publishers. Those brought in enough revenue to justify their existence but not much more, and thus Robert Garriott continued to bet the company every two years on his brother’s latest Ultima. It was a nerve-wracking way to live.

And then, in 1990, all that changed practically overnight. This article and the one that follows will tell the story of how the house that Ultima built found itself with an even bigger franchise on its hands.


Chris Roberts

By the end of the 1980s, the North American and European computer-game industries, which had heretofore existed in almost total isolation from one another, were becoming slowly but steadily more interconnected. The major American publishers were setting up distribution arms in Europe, and the smaller ones were often distributing their wares through the British importer U.S. Gold. Likewise, the British Firebird and Rainbird labels had set up offices in the United States, and American publishers like Cinemaware were doing good business importing British games for American owners of the Commodore Amiga, a platform that was a bit neglected by domestic developers. But despite these changes, the industry as a whole remained a stubbornly bifurcated place. European developers remained European, American developers remained American, and the days of a truly globalized games industry remained far in the future. The exceptions to these rules stand out all the more thanks to their rarity. And one of these notable exceptions was Chris Roberts, the young man who would change Origin Systems forever.

With a British father and an American mother, Chris Roberts had been a trans-Atlantic sort of fellow right from the start. His father, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, went with his wife to Guatemala to do research shortly after marrying, and it was there that Chris was conceived in 1967. The mother-to-be elected to give birth near her family in Silicon Valley. (From the first, it seems, computers were in the baby’s blood.) After returning for a time to Guatemala, where Chris’s father was finishing his research, the little Roberts clan settled back in Manchester, England. A second son arrived to round out the family in 1970.

His first international adventure behind him, Chris Roberts grew up as a native son of Manchester, developing the distinct Mancunian intonation he retains to this day along with his love of Manchester United football. When first exposed to computers thanks to his father’s position at Manchester University, the boy was immediately smitten. In 1982, when Chris was 14, his father signed him up for his first class in BASIC programming and bought a BBC Micro for him to practice on at home. As it happened, the teacher of that first programming class became a founding editor of the new magazine BBC Micro User. Hungry for content, the magazine bought two of young Chris’s first simple BASIC games to publish as type-in listings. Just like that, he was a published game developer.

Britain at the time was going absolutely crazy for computers and computer games, and many of the new industry’s rising stars were as young or younger than Roberts. It thus wasn’t overly difficult for him to make the leap to designing and coding boxed games to be sold in stores. Imagine Software published his first such, a platformer called Wizadore, in 1985; Superior Software published a second, a side-scrolling shooter called Stryker’s Run, in 1986. But the commercial success these titles could hope to enjoy was limited by the fact that they ran on the BBC Micro, a platform which was virtually unknown outside of Britain and even inside of its home country was much less popular than the Sinclair Spectrum as a gaming machine. Being amply possessed of the contempt most BBC Micro owners felt toward the cheap and toy-like “Speccy,” Roberts decided to shift his attention instead to the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform in the world at the time. This decision, combined with another major decision made by his parents, set him on his unlikely collision course with Origin Systems in far-off Austin, Texas.

In early 1986, Roberts’s father got an offer he couldn’t refuse in the form of a tenured professorship at the University of Texas. After finishing the spring semester that year, he, his wife, and his younger son thus traded the gray skies of Manchester for the sunnier climes of Austin. Chris was just finishing his A-Levels at the time. Proud Mancunian that he was, he declared that he had no intention of leaving England — and certainly not for a hick town in the middle of Texas. But he had been planning all along to take a year off before starting at the University of Manchester, and his parents convinced him to at least join the rest of the family in Austin for the summer. He agreed, figuring that it would give him a chance to work free of distractions on a new action/adventure game he had planned as his first project for the Commodore 64. Yet what he actually found in Austin was lots of distractions — eye-opening distractions to warm any young man’s heart. Roberts:

The weather was a little nicer in Austin. The American girls seemed to like the English accent, which wasn’t bad, and there was definitely a lot… everything seemed like it was cheaper and there was more of it, especially back then. Now, the world’s become more homogenized so there’s not things you can only get in America that you don’t get in England as well. Back then it was like, the big American movies would come out in America and then they would come out in England a year later and stuff. So I came over and was like, “Ah, you know, this is pretty cool.”

There were also the American computers to consider; these tended to be much more advanced than their British counterparts, sporting disk drives as universal standard equipment at a time when most British games — including both of Roberts’s previous games — were still published on cassette tapes. In light of all these attractions, it seems doubtful whether Roberts would have kept his resolution to return to Manchester in any circumstances. But there soon came along the craziest of coincidences to seal the deal.

Roberts had decided that he really needed to find an artist to help him with his Commodore 64 game-in-progress. Entering an Austin tabletop-gaming shop one day, he saw a beautiful picture of a gladiator hanging on the wall. The owner of the shop told him the picture had been drawn by a local artist, and offered to call the artist for him right then and there if Roberts was really interested in working with him. Roberts said yes, please do. The artist in question was none other than Denis Loubet, whose professional association with Richard Garriott stretched back to well before Origin Systems had existed, to when he’d drawn the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth in 1980.

Denis Loubet

After years of working as a contractor, Loubet was just about to be hired as Origin’s first regular in-house artist. Nevertheless, he liked Roberts and thought his game had potential, and agreed to do the art for it as a moonlighting venture. Loubet soon showed what he was working on to Richard Garriott and Dallas Snell, the latter of whom tended to serve as a sort of liaison between the business side of the company, in the person of Robert Garriott, and the creative side, in the person of Richard. All three parties were as impressed by the work-in-progress as Loubet had been, and they invited Chris to Origin’s offices to ask if he’d be interested in publishing it through them. Prior to this point, Roberts had never even heard of Origin Systems or the Ultima series; he’d grown up immersed in the British gaming scene, where neither had any presence whatsoever. But he liked the people at Origin, liked the atmosphere around the place, and perhaps wasn’t aware enough of what the company represented to be leery of it in the way of other developers who were peddling promising projects around the industry. “After my experiences in England, which is like swimming in a big pool of sharks,” he remembers, “I felt comfortable dealing with Origin.”

Times of Lore

All thoughts of returning to England had now disappeared. Working from Origin’s offices, albeit still as a contracted outside developer rather than an employee, Roberts finished his game, which came to be called Times of Lore. In the course of its development, the game grew considerably in scope and ambition, and, as seemed only appropriate given the company that was to publish it, took on some light CRPG elements as well. In much of this, Roberts was inspired by David Joiner’s 1987 action/CRPG The Faery Tale Adventure. American influences aside, though, Times of Lore still fit best of all into the grand British tradition of free-scrolling, free-roaming 8-bit action/adventures, a sub-genre that verged on completely unknown to American computer gamers. Roberts made sure the whole game could fit into the Commodore 64’s memory at once to facilitate a cassette-based version for the European market.

Unfortunately, his game got to enjoy only a middling level of sales success in return for all his efforts. As if determined to confirm the conventional wisdom that had caused so many developers to steer clear of them, Origin released Times of Lore almost simultaneously with the Commodore 64 port of Ultima V in 1988, leaving Roberts’s game overshadowed by Lord British’s latest. And in addition to all the baggage that came with the Origin logo in the United States, Times of Lore suffered all the disadvantages of being a pioneer of sorts in Europe, the first Origin title to be pushed aggressively there via a new European distribution contract with MicroProse. While that market would undoubtedly have understood the game much better had they given it a chance, no one there yet knew what to make of the company whose logo was on the box. Despite its strengths, Times of Lore thus failed to break the pattern that had held true for Origin for so long. It turned into yet another non-Ultima that was also a non-hit.

Times of Lore

But whatever the relative disappointments, Times of Lore at least wasn’t a flop, and Chris Roberts stayed around as a valued member of the little Origin family. Part of the reason the Origin people wanted to keep him around was simply because they liked him so much. He nursed the same passions for fantasy and science fiction as most of them, with just enough of a skew provided by his British upbringing to make him interesting. And he positively radiated energy and enthusiasm. He’s never hard to find in Origin group shots of the time. His face stands out like that of a nerdy cherub — he had never lost his facial baby fat, making him look pudgier in pictures than he was in real life — as he beams his thousand-kilowatt smile at all and sundry. Still, it was hardly his personality alone that made him such a valued colleague; the folks at Origin also came to have a healthy respect for his abilities. Indeed, and as we’ve already seen in an earlier article, the interface of Times of Lore had a huge influence on that of no less vital an Origin game than Ultima VI.

Alas, Roberts’s own next game for Origin would be far less influential. After flirting for a while with the idea of doing a straightforward sequel to Times of Lore, he decided to adapt the engine to an even more action-oriented post-apocalyptic scenario. Roberts’s first game for MS-DOS, Bad Blood was created in desultory fits and starts, one of those projects that limps to completion more out of inertia than passion. Released at last in 1990, it was an ugly flop on both sides of the Atlantic. Roberts blames marketplace confusion at least partially for its failure: “People who liked arcade-style games didn’t buy it because they thought Bad Blood would be another fantasy-role-play-style game. It was the worst of both worlds, a combination of factors that contributed to its lack of success.” In reality, though, the most telling factor of said combination was just that Bad Blood wasn’t very good, evincing little of the care that so obviously went into Times of Lore. Reviewers roundly panned it, and buyers gave it a wide berth. Thankfully for Chris Roberts’s future in the industry, the game that would make his name was already well along at Origin by the time Bad Blood finally trickled out the door.

Bad Blood

Had it come to fruition in its original form, Roberts’s third game for Origin would have marked even more of a departure for him than the actual end result would wind up being. Perhaps trying to fit in better with Origin’s established image, he had the idea of doing, as he puts it, “a space-conquest game where you take over star systems, move battleships around, and invade planets. It was going to be more strategic than my earlier games.” But Roberts always craved a little more adrenaline in his designs than such a description would imply, and it didn’t take him long to start tinkering with the formula. The game moved gradually from strategic battles between slow-moving dreadnoughts in space to manic dogfights between fighter planes in space. In other words, to frame the shift the way the science-fiction-obsessed Roberts might well have chosen, his inspiration for his space battles changed from Star Trek to Star Wars. He decided “it would be more fun flying around in a fighter than moving battleships around the screen”; note the (unconscious?) shift in this statement from the player as a disembodied hand “moving” battleships around to the player as an embodied direct participant “flying around” herself in fighters. Roberts took to calling his work-in-progress Squadron.

To bring off his idea for an embodied space-combat experience, Roberts would have to abandon the overhead views used by all his games to date in favor of a first-person out-the-cockpit view, like that used by a game he and every other BBC Micro veteran knew well, Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite. “It was the first space game in which I piloted a ship in combat,” says Roberts of Elite, “and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of where it could go.” On the plus side, Roberts knew that this and any other prospective future games he might make for Origin would be developed on an MS-DOS machine with many times the processing power of the little BBC Micro (or, for that matter, the Commodore 64). On the negative side, Roberts wasn’t a veritable mathematics genius like Ian Bell, the mastermind behind Elite‘s 3D graphics. Nor could he get away in the current marketplace with the wire-frame graphics of Elite. So, he decided to cheat a bit, both to simplify his life and to up the graphics ante. Inspired by the graphics of the Lucasfilm Games flight simulator Battlehawks 1942, he used pre-rendered bitmap images showing ships from several different sides and angles, which could then be scaled to suit the player’s out-the-cockpit view, rather than making a proper, mathematically rigorous 3D engine built out of polygons. As becomes clear all too quickly to anyone who plays the finished game, the results could be a little wonky, with views of the ships suddenly popping into place rather than smoothly rotating. Nevertheless, the ships themselves looked far better than anything Roberts could possibly have hoped to achieve on the technology of the time using a more honest 3D engine.

Denis Loubet, Roberts’s old partner in crime from the early days of Times of Lore, agreed to draw a cockpit as part of what must become yet another moonlighting gig for both of them; Roberts was officially still supposed to be spending his days at Origin on Bad Blood, while Loubet was up to his eyebrows in Ultima VI. Even at this stage, they were incorporating little visceral touches into Squadron, like the pilot’s hand moving the joystick around in time with what the player was doing with her own joystick in front of the computer screen. As the player’s ship got shot up, the damage was depicted visually there in the cockpit. Like the sparks and smoke that used to burst from the bridge controls on the old Star Trek episodes, it might not have made much logical sense — haven’t any of these space-faring societies invented fuses? — but it served the purpose of creating an embodied, visceral experience. Roberts:

It really comes from wanting to put the player in the game. I don’t want you to think you’re playing a simulation, I want you to think you’re really in that cockpit. When I visualized what it would be like to sit in a cockpit, those are the things I thought of.

I took the approach that I didn’t want to sacrifice that reality due to the game dynamics. If you would see wires hanging down after an explosion, then I wanted to include it, even if it would make it harder to figure out how to include all the instruments and readouts. I want what’s taking place inside the cockpit to be as real as what I’m trying to show outside it, in space. I’d rather show you damage as if you were there than just display something like “damage = 20 percent.” That’s abstract. I want to see it.

Squadron, then, was already becoming an unusually cinematic space-combat “simulation.” Because every action-movie hero needs a sidekick, Roberts added a wingman to the game, another pilot who would fly and fight at the player’s side. The player could communicate with the wingman in the midst of battle, passing him orders, and the wingman in turn would communicate back, showing his own personality; he might even refuse to obey orders on occasion.

As a cinematic experience, Squadron felt very much in tune with the way things in general were trending at Origin, to such an extent that one might well ask who was influencing whom. Like so many publishers in this era in which CD-ROM and full-motion video hovered alluringly just out of view on the horizon, Origin had begun thinking of themselves more and more in the terms of Hollywood. The official “product development structure” that was put in place around this time by Dallas Snell demanded an executive producer, a producer, an assistant producer, a director, an assistant director, and a lead writer for every game; of all the positions on the upper rungs of the chart, only that of lead artist and lead programmer wouldn’t have been listed in the credits of a typical Hollywood film. Meanwhile Origin’s recent hire Warren Spector, who came to them with a Masters in film studies, brought his own ideas about games as interactive dramas that were less literal than Snell’s, but that would if anything prove even more of an influence on his colleagues’ developing views of just what it was Origin Systems really ought to be about. Just the previous year, Origin had released a game called Space Rogue, another of that long line of non-Ultima middling sellers, that had preceded Squadron in attempting to do Elite one better. A free-form player-directed game of space combat and trading, Space Rogue was in some ways much more ambitious than the more railroaded experience Roberts was now proposing. Yet there was little question of which game fit better with the current zeitgeist at Origin.

All of which does much to explain the warm reception accorded to Squadron when Chris Roberts, with Bad Blood finally off his plate, pitched it to Origin’s management formally in very early 1990. Thanks to all those moonlighting hours — as well as, one suspects, more than a few regular working hours — Roberts already had a 3D space-combat game that looked and played pretty great. A year or two earlier, that likely would have been that; Origin would have simply polished it up a little and shipped it. But now Roberts had the vision of building a movie around the game. Between flying a series of scripted missions, you would get to know your fellow pilots and follow the progress of a larger war between humanity and the Kilrathi, a race of savage cats in space.

Having finally made the hard decision to abandon the 8-bit market at the beginning of 1989, Origin was now pushing aggressively in the opposite direction from their old technological conservatism, being determined to create games that showed what the very latest MS-DOS machines could really do. Like Sierra before them, they had decided that if the only way to advance the technological state of the art among ordinary consumers was to release games whose hardware requirements were ahead of the curve — a reversal of the usual approach among game publishers, who had heretofore almost universally gone where the largest existing user base already was — then that’s what they would do. Squadron could become the first full expression of this new philosophy, being unapologetically designed to run well only on a cutting-edge 80386-based machine. In what would be a first for the industry, Chris Roberts even proposed demanding expanded memory beyond the traditional 640 K for the full audiovisual experience. For Roberts, stepping up from a Commodore 64, it was a major philosophical shift indeed. “Sod this, trying to make it work for the lowest common denominator—I’m just going to try and push it,” he said, and Origin was happy to hear it.

Ultima VI had just been completed, freeing personnel for another major project. Suspecting that Squadron might be the marketplace game changer he had sought for so long for Origin, Robert Garriott ordered a full-court press in March of 1990. He wanted his people to help Chris Roberts build his movie around his game, and he wanted them to do it in less than three months. They should have a preview ready to go for the Summer Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of June, with the final product to ship very shortly thereafter.

Jeff George

Responsibility for the movie’s script was handed to Jeff George, one of the first of a number of fellow alumni of the Austin tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games who followed Warren Spector to Origin. George was the first Origin employee hired explicitly to fill the role of “writer.” This development, also attributable largely to the influence of Spector, would have a major impact on Origin’s future games.

Obviously inspired by the ethical quandaries the Ultima series had become so known for over its last few installments, Chris Roberts had imagined a similarly gray-shaded world for his game, with scenarios that would cause the player to question whether the human empire she was fighting for was really any better than that of the Kilrathi. But George, to once again frame the issue in terms Roberts would have appreciated, pushed the game’s fiction toward the clear-cut good guys and bad guys of Star Wars, away from the more complicated moral universe of Star Trek. All talk of a human “empire,” for one thing, would have to go; everyone at Origin knew what their players thought of first when they thought of empires in space. Jeff George:

In the context of a space opera, empire had a bad connotation that would make people think they were fighting for the bad guys. The biggest influence I had on the story was to make it a little more black and white, where Chris had envisioned something grittier, with more shades of gray. I didn’t want people to worry about moral dilemmas while they were flying missions. That’s part of why it worked so well. You knew what you were doing, and knew why you were doing it. The good guys were really good, the bad guys were really bad.

The decision to simplify the political situation and sand away the thorny moral dilemmas demonstrates, paradoxical though it may first seem, a more sophisticated approach to narrative rather than the opposite. Some interactive narratives, like some non-interactive ones, are suited to exploring moral ambiguity. In others, though, the player just wants to fight the bad guys. While one can certainly argue that gaming has historically had far too many of the latter type and far too few of the former, there nevertheless remains an art to deciding which games are best suited for which.

Glen Johnson

Five more programmers and four more artists would eventually join what had been Chris Roberts and Denis Loubet’s little two-man band. With the timetable so tight, the artists were left to improvise large chunks of the narrative along with the game’s visuals. By imagining and drawing the “talking head” portraits of the various other pilots with which the player would interact, artist Glen Johnson wound up playing almost as big a role as Jeff George in crafting the fictional context for the game’s dogfights in space. Johnson:

I worked on paper first, producing eleven black-and-white illustrations. In most games, I would work from a written description of the character’s likes, dislikes, and personality. In this case, I just came up with the characters out of thin air, although I realized they wanted a mixture of men and women pilots. I assigned a call sign to each portrait.

Despite the lack of time at their disposal, the artists were determined to fit the movements of the characters’ mouths to the words of dialog that appeared on the screen, using techniques dating back to classic Disney animation. Said techniques demanded that all dialog be translated into its phonetic equivalent, something that could only be done by hand. Soon seemingly half the company was doing these translations during snatches of free time. Given that many or most players never even noticed the synchronized speech in the finished game, whether it was all worth it is perhaps a valid question, but the determination to go that extra mile in this regard does say much about the project’s priorities.

The music wound up being farmed out to a tiny studio specializing in videogame audio, one of vanishingly few of its kind at the time, which was run by a garrulous fellow named George Sanger, better known as “The Fat Man.” (No, he wasn’t terribly corpulent; that was sort of the joke.) Ever true to his influences, Chris Roberts’s brief to Sanger was to deliver something “between Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Sanger and his deputy Dave Govett delivered in spades. Hugely derivative of John Williams’s work though the soundtrack was — at times it threatens to segue right into Williams’s famous Star Wars theme — it contributed hugely to the cinematic feel of the game. Origin was particularly proud of the music that played in the background when the player was actually flying in space; the various themes ebbed and swelled dynamically in response to the events taking place on the computer screen. It wasn’t quite the first time anyone had done something like this in a game, but no one had ever managed to do it in quite this sophisticated a way.

The guiding theme of the project remained the determination to create an embodied experience for the player. Chris Roberts cites the interactive movies of Cinemaware, which could be seen as the prototypes for the sort of game he was now trying to perfect, as huge influences in this respect as in many others. Roberts:

I didn’t want anything that made you sort of… pulled you out of being in this world. I didn’t want that typical game UI, or “Here’s how many lives you’ve got, here’s what high score you’ve got.” I always felt that broke the immersion. If you wanted to save the game you’d go to the barracks and you’d click on the bunk. If you wanted to exit, you’d click on the airlock. It was all meant to be in that world and so that was what the drive was. I love story and narrative and I think you can use that story and narrative to tie your action together and that will give your action meaning and context in a game. That was my idea and that was what really drove what I was doing.

The approach extended to the game’s manual. Harking back to the beloved scene-setting packaging of Infocom, the manual, which was written by freelancer Aaron Allston, took the form of Claw Marks, “The Onboard Magazine of TCS Tiger’s Claw” — the Tiger’s Claw being the name of the spaceborne aircraft carrier from which the player would be flying all of the missions. Like the artists, Allston would wind up almost inadvertently creating vital pieces of the game as a byproduct of the compressed schedule. “I couldn’t really determine everything at that point in development,” he remembers, “so, in some cases, specifically for the tactics information, we made some of it up and then retrofitted it and adjusted the code in the game to make it work.”

Once again in the spirit of creating a cohesive, embodied experience for the player, Roberts wanted to get away from the save-and-restore dance that was so typical of ludic narratives of the era. Therefore, instead of structuring the game’s 40 missions as a win-or-go-home linear stream, he created a branching mission tree in which the player’s course through the narrative would be dictated by her own performance. There would, in other words, be no way to definitively lose other than by getting killed. Roberts would always beg players to play the game “honestly,” beg them not to reload and replay each mission until they flew it perfectly. Only in this way would they get the experience he had intended for them to have.

Warren Spector

As the man responsible for tying all of the elements together to create the final experience, Roberts bore the titles of director and producer under Origin’s new cinematic nomenclature. He worked under the watchful eye of Squadron‘s co-producer Warren Spector, who, being older and in certain respects wiser, was equipped to handle the day-to-day administrative tasks that Roberts wasn’t. Spector:

When I came on as producer, Chris was really focused on the direction he wanted to take with the game. He knew exactly where he was going, and it would have been hard to deflect him from that course. It would have been crazy to even want to, so Chris and I co-produced the game. Where his talent dropped out, mine started, and vice versa. We did a task breakdown, and I ended up updating, adjusting, and tracking scheduling and preparing all the documentation. He handled the creative and qualitative issues. We both juggled the resources.

In implying that his own talent “dropped out” when it came to creative issues, Spector is selling himself about a million dollars short. He was a whirling dervish of creative energy throughout the seven years he spent with Origin, if anything even more responsible than Richard Garriott for the work that came out of the company under the Ultima label during this, the franchise’s most prolific period. But another of the virtues which allowed him to leave such a mark on the company was an ability to back off, to defer to the creative visions of others when it was appropriate. Recognizing that no one knew Chris Roberts’s vision like Chris Roberts, he was content in the case of Squadron to act strictly as the facilitator of that vision. In other words, he wasn’t too proud to just play the role of organizer when it was appropriate.

Still, it became clear early on that no combination of good organization and long hours would allow Squadron to ship in June. The timetable slipped to an end-of-September ship date, perfect to capitalize on the Christmas rush.

Although Squadron wouldn’t ship in June, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show loomed with as much importance as ever as a chance to show off the game-to-be and to drum up excitement that might finally end the sniggering about Ultima Systems. Just before the big show, Origin’s lawyers delivered the sad news that calling the game Squadron would be a bad idea thanks to some existing trademarks on the name. After several meetings, Wingleader emerged as the consensus choice for a new name, narrowly beating out Wing Commander. It was thus under the former title that the world at large got its first glimpse of what would turn into one of computer gaming’s most iconic franchises. Martin Davies, Origin’s Vice President of Sales:

I kicked hard to have a demo completed for the show. It was just a gut reaction, but I knew I needed to flood retail and distribution channels with the demo. Before the release of the game, I wanted the excitement to grow so that the confidence level would be extremely high. If we could get consumers beating a path in and out of the door, asking whether the game was out, distribution would respond.

With Wingleader still just a bunch of art and sound assets not yet wired up to the core game they were meant to complement, an interactive demo was impossible. Instead Chris Roberts put together a demo on videotape, alternating clips of the battles in space with clips of whatever other audiovisual elements he could assemble from what the artists and composers had managed to complete. Origin brought a big screen and a booming sound system out to Chicago for the show; the latter prompted constant complaints from other exhibitors. The noise pollution was perfect for showing the world that there was now more to Origin Systems than intricate quests and ethical dilemmas — that they could do aesthetic maximalism as well as anyone in their industry, pushing all of the latest hardware to its absolute limit in the process. It was a remarkable transformation for a company that just eighteen months before had been doing all development on the humble little 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64. Cobbled together though it was, the Wingleader demo created a sensation at CES.

Indeed, one can hardly imagine a better demonstration of how the computer-game industry as a whole was changing than the game that had once been known as Squadron, was now known as Wingleader, and would soon go onto fame as Wing Commander. In my next article, I’ll tell the story of how the game would come to be finished and sold, along with the even more important story of what it would mean for the future of digital entertainment.

(Sources: the books Wing Commander I and II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison and Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Retro Gamer 59 and 123; Questbusters of July 1989, August 1990, and April 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1989 and November 1992; Amiga Computing of December 1988. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and Matt Barton’s interview with George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)

 
 

Tags: , ,