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Zork Zero

Zork Zero

Zork Zero the idea was kicking around Infocom for quite a long time before Zork Zero the game was finally realized. Steve Meretzky first proposed making a prequel to the original Zork trilogy as far back as 1985, when he included it on a list of possible next games that he might write after finishing his personal passion project of A Mind Forever Voyaging. The Zork Zero he described at that time not only already had the name but the vast majority of the concept of the eventual finished game as well.

As the name implies, a prequel to the Zork trilogy. It would be set in the Great Underground Empire, and covering a long period of time, from the end of the reign of Dimwit Flathead in 789 through the fall of the GUE in 883, and possibly through 948 (the year of the Zork trilogy). It would almost certainly end “west of a white house.” There would be some story, probably about as much as Enchanter or Sorcerer. For the most part, though, it would be an intensely puzzle-oriented game with a huge geography.

The fact that Meretzky knew in what years Dimwit Flathead died, the Great Underground Empire fell, and Zork I began says much about his role as the unofficial keeper of Zorkian lore at Infocom. He had already filled a huge notebook with similarly nitpicky legends and lore. This endeavor was viewed by most of the other Imps, who thought of the likes of Dimwit Flathead as no more than spur-of-the-moment jokes, with bemused and gently mocking disinterest. Still, if Infocom was going to do a big, at least semi-earnest Zork game, his obsessiveness about the milieu made Meretzky the obvious candidate for the job.

But that big Zork game didn’t get made in 1985, partly because the other Imps remained very reluctant to sacrifice any real or perceived artistic credibility by trading on the old name and partly because the same list of possible next projects included a little something called Leather Goddesses of Phobos that everyone, from the Imps to the marketers to the businesspeople, absolutely loved. Brian Moriarty’s reaction was typical: “If you don’t do this, I will. But not as well as you could.”

After Meretzky completed Leather Goddesses the following year, Zork Zero turned up again on his next list of possible next projects. This time it was granted more serious consideration; Infocom’s clear and pressing need for hits by that point had done much to diminish the Imps’ artistic fickleness. At the same time, though, Brian Moriarty also was shopping a pretty good proposal for a Zork game, one that would include elements of the CRPGs that seemed to be replacing adventure games in some players’ hearts. Meanwhile Meretzky’s own list included something called Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved games in Infocom’s back catalog. While Moriarty seemed perfectly capable of pulling off a perfectly acceptable Zork, the universe of Planetfall, and particularly the lovable little robot Floyd, were obviously Meretzky’s babies and Meretzky’s alone. Given Infocom’s commercial plight, management’s choice between reviving two classic titles or just one was really no choice at all. Meretzky did Stationfall, and Moriarty did Beyond Zork — with, it should be noted, the invaluable assistance of Mereztky’s oft-mocked book of Zorkian lore.

And then it was 1987, Stationfall too was finished, and there was Zork Zero on yet another list of possible next projects. I’ll be honest in stating that plenty of the other project possibilities found on the 1987 list, some of which had been appearing on these lists as long as Zork Zero, sound much more interesting to this writer. There was, for instance, Superhero League of America, an idea for a comedic superhero game with “possible RPG elements” that would years later be dusted off by Meretzky to become the delightful Legend Entertainment release Superhero League of Hoboken. There was a serious historical epic taking place on the Titanic that begs to be described as Meretzky’s Trinity. And there was something with the working title of The Best of Stevo, a collection of interactive vignettes in the form if not the style of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Mind you, not all of the other projects were winners. A heavy-handed satire to be called The Interactive Bible, described by Meretzky as “part of my ongoing attempt to offend every person in the universe,” was eloquently and justifiably lacerated by Moriarty.

As you noted, this game is likely to offend many people, and not just frothing nutcakes either. A surprising number of reasonable people regard the Book with reverence. They are likely to regard your send-up as superficial and juvenile. They will wonder what qualifies you to poke fun at their (or anybody’s) faith. Why do you want to write this? Do you really think it will sell?

If Zork Zero wasn’t at the bottom of anyone’s list like The Interactive Bible, no one was exactly burning with passion to make it either. Few found the idea of going back to the well of Zork yet again all that interesting in creative terms, especially as Beyond Zork was itself still very much an ongoing project some weeks from release. The idea’s trump card, however, was the unique commercial appeal most still believed the Zork trademark to possess. Jon Palace’s faint praise was typical: “I’m sure this would sell very well. It’s certainly ‘safe.'” By 1987, the commercially safe route was increasingly being seen as the only viable route within Infocom, at least until they could manage to scare up a few hits. A final tally revealed that Zork Zero had scored an average of 7.2 among “next Meretzky project” voters on a scale of 1 to 10, edging out Superhero League of America by one tenth of a point, Titanic by two tenths, and The Best of Stevo by one full point; the last was very well-liked in the abstract, but its standing was damaged by the fact that, unusually for Meretzky, the exact form the vignettes would take wasn’t very well specified.

On August 7, 1987, it was decided provisionally to have Meretzky do Zork Zero next. In a demonstration of how tepid everyone’s enthusiasm remained for such a safe, unchallenging game, an addendum was included with the announcement: “I think it is fair to add that if Steve happens to have a flash of creativity in the next few days and thinks of some more ideas for his experimental story project (Best of Stevo), nearly everyone in this group would prefer that he do that product.” That flash apparently didn’t come; The Best of Stevo was never heard of again. Also forgotten in the rush to do Zork Zero was the idea, mooted in Beyond Zork, of Zork becoming a series of CRPG/text-adventure hybrids, with the player able to import the same character into each successive game. Zork Zero would instead be a simple standalone text adventure again.

While it’s doubtful whether many at Infocom ever warmed all that much to Zork Zero as a creative exercise, the cavalcade of commercial disappointments that was 1987 tempted many to see it as the latest and greatest of their Great White Hopes for a return to the bestseller charts. It was thus decided that it should become the first game to use Infocom’s new version 6 Z-Machine, usually called “YZIP” internally. Running on Macintosh II microcomputers rather than the faithful old DEC, the YZIP system would at last support proper bitmap illustrations and other graphics, along with support for mice, sound and music, far more flexible screen layouts, and yet bigger stories over even what the EZIP system (known publicly as Interactive Fiction Plus) had offered. With YZIP still in the early stages of development, Meretzky would first write Zork Zero the old way, on the DEC. Then, when YZIP was ready, the source code could be moved over and the new graphical bells and whistles added; the new version of ZIL was designed to be source-compatible with the old. In the meantime, Stu Galley was working on a ground-up rewrite of the parser, which was itself written in ZIL. At some magic moment, the three pieces would all come together, and just like that Infocom would be reborn with pictures and a friendlier parser and lots of other goodies, all attached to the legendary Zork name and written by Infocom’s most popular and recognizable author. That, anyway, was the theory.

Being at the confluence of so much that was new and different, Zork Zero became one of the more tortured projects in Infocom’s history, almost up there with the legendarily tortured Bureaucracy project. None of the problems, however, were down to Meretzky. Working quickly and efficiently as always, his progress on the core of the game proper far outstripped the technology enabling most of the ancillary bells and whistles. While Stu Galley’s new parser went in on November 1, 1987, it wasn’t until the following May 10 that a YZIP Zork Zero was compiled for the first time.

In sourcing graphics for Zork Zero, Infocom was on completely foreign territory. Following the lead of much of the computer-game industry, all of the graphics were to be created on Amigas, whose Deluxe Paint application was so much better than anything available on any other platform that plenty of artists simply refused to use anything else. Jon Palace found Jim Shook, the artist who would do most of the illustrations for Zork Zero, at a local Amiga users-group meeting. Reading some of the memos and meeting notes from this period, it’s hard to avoid the impression that — being painfully blunt here — nobody at Infocom entirely knew what they were doing when it came to graphics. As of February of 1988, they still hadn’t even figured out what resolution Shook should be working in. “We still don’t know whether images should be drawn in low-res, medium-res, interlace, or high-res mode on the Amiga in Deluxe Paint,” wrote Palace plaintively in one memo. “Joel claims Tim should know. Tim, do you know?”

Infocom wound up turning to Magnetic Scrolls, who had been putting pictures into their own text adventures for quite some time, for information on “graphics compression techniques,” a move that couldn’t have set very well with such a proud group of programmers. The graphics would continue to be a constant time sink and headache for many months to come. Steve Meretzky told me that he remembers the development of Zork Zero primarily as “heinous endless futzing with the graphics, mostly on an Amiga, to make them work with all the different screen resolutions, number of colors, pixel aspect ratios, etc. In my memory, it feels like I spent way more time doing that than actually designing puzzles or writing ZIL code.”

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

And yet in comparison to games like those of Magnetic Scrolls, the finished Zork Zero really wouldn’t have a lot of graphics. Instead of an illustration for each room, the graphics take the form of decorative borders, an illuminated onscreen map, some graphical puzzles (solvable using a mouse), and only a few illustrations for illustrations’ sake. Infocom would advertise that they wanted to use graphics in “a new way” for Zork Zero — read, more thoughtfully, giving them some actual purpose rather than just using them for atmosphere. All of which is fair enough, but one suspects that money was a factor as well; memos from the period show Infocom nickle-and-dimeing the whole process, fretting over artist fees of a handful of thousand dollars that a healthier developer wouldn’t have thought twice about.

The financial squeeze also spelled the end of Infocom’s hopes for a full soundtrack, to have been composed by Russell Lieblich at Mediagenic, who had earlier done the sound effects for The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. But the music never happened; when Zork Zero finally shipped, it would be entirely silent apart from a warning beep here or an acknowledging bloop there.

Hemorrhaging personnel as they were by this point, Infocom found themselves in a mad scramble to get all the pieces that did wind up making it into Zork Zero together in time for Christmas 1988, months after they had originally hoped to ship the game. Bruce Davis grew ever more frustrated and irate at the delays; a contemporary memo calls him a “looming personality” and notes how he is forever “threatening a tantrum.” A desperate-sounding “Proclamation” went out to the rank-and-file around the same time: “The one who can fix the bugs of Zork Zero, and save the schedule from destruction, shall be rewarded with half the wealth of the Empire.” Signed: “Wurb Flathead, King of Quendor.”

Like a number of Zork Zero's illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game.

Like a number of Zork Zero‘s illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game rather than being only for show.

Time constraints, the fact that the beta builds ran only on the Macintosh, and Infocom’s determination to test Zork Zero primarily using new testers unfamiliar with interactive fiction meant that it didn’t receive anywhere near the quantity or quality of outside feedback that had long been customary for their games. Many of the new testers seemed bemused if not confused by the experience, and few came anywhere close to finishing the game. I fancy that one can feel the relative lack of external feedback in the end result, as one can the loss of key voices from within Infocom like longtime producer Jon Palace and senior tester Liz Cyr-Jones.

Despite the corner-cutting, Infocom largely missed even the revised target of Christmas 1988. Only the Macintosh version shipped in time for the holiday buying season, the huge job of porting the complicated new YZIP interpreter to other platforms having barely begun by that time. Zork Zero was quite well-received by the Macintosh magazines, but that platform was far from the commercial sweet spot in gaming.

The decorative borders change as you enter difference regions -- a nice touch.

A nice touch: the decorative borders change as you enter different regions.

A sort of cognitive dissonance was a thoroughgoing theme of the Zork Zero project from beginning to end. It’s right there in marketing’s core pitch: “Zork Zero is the beginning of something old (the Zork trilogy) and something new (new format with graphics).” Unable to decide whether commercial success lay in looking forward or looking back, Infocom tried to have it both ways. Zork Zero‘s “target audience,” declared marketing, would be “primarily those who are not Infocom fans; either they have never tried interactive fiction or they have lost interest in Infocom.” The game would appeal to them thanks to “a mouse interface (enabling the player to move via compass rose), onscreen hints, a new parser (to help novices), and pretty pictures that will knock your socks off!”

Yet all the gilding around the edges couldn’t obscure the fact that Zork Zero was at heart the most old-school game Infocom had made since… well, since Zork I really. That, anyway, was the last game they had made that was so blatantly a treasure hunt and nothing more. Zork Zero‘s dynamic dozen-turn introduction lays out the reasons behind the static treasure hunt that will absorb the next several thousand turns. To thwart a 94-year-old curse that threatens to bring ruin to the Great Underground Empire, you must assemble 24 heirlooms that once belonged to 12 members of the Flathead dynasty and drop them in a cauldron. Zork Zero is, it must be emphasized, a big game, far bigger than any other that Infocom ever released, its sprawling geography of more than 200 rooms — more than 2200 if you count a certain building of 400 (nearly) identical floors —  housing scores of individual puzzles. The obvious point of comparison is not so much Infocom’s Zork trilogy as the original original Zork, the one put together by a bunch of hackers at MIT in response to the original Adventure back in the late 1970s, long before Infocom was so much as a gleam in anyone’s eye.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero's tired old chestnuts.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero‘s hoary old chestnuts.

The question — the answer to which must always to some extent be idiosyncratic to each player — is whether Zork Zero works for you on those terms. In my case, it doesn’t. The PDP-10 Zork is confusing and obscure and often deeply unfair, but it carries with it a certain joyous sense of possibility, of the discovery of a whole new creative medium, that we can enjoy vicariously with its creators. Zork Zero perhaps also echos the emotional circumstances of its creation: it just feels tired, and often cranky and mean-spirited to boot. Having agreed to make a huge game full of lots of puzzles, Meretzky dutifully provides, but the old magic is conspicuously absent.

Infocom always kept a library of puzzly resources around the office to inspire the Imps: books of paradoxes and mathematical conundrums, back issues of Games magazine, physical toys and puzzles of all descriptions. But for the first time with Zork Zero, Meretzky seems not so much inspired by these resources as simply cribbing from them. Lots of the puzzles in Zork Zero are slavish re-creations of the classics: riddles, a Tower of Hanoi puzzle, a peg game. Even the old chestnut about the river, the fox, the chicken, and the sack of grain makes an appearance. And even some of the better bits, like a pair of objects that let you teleport from the location of one to that of another, are derivative of older, better Infocom games like Starcross and Spellbreaker. One other, more hidden influence on Zork Zero‘s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to puzzle design — particularly on the occasional graphical puzzles — is likely Cliff Johnson’s puzzling classic The Fool’s Errand, which Meretzky was playing with some dedication at the very time he was designing his own latest game. The Fool’s Errand‘s puzzles, however, are both more compelling and more original than Zork Zero‘s. Meretzky’s later Hodj ‘n’ Podj would prove a far more worthy tribute.

Zork Zero is a difficult game, and too often difficult in ways that really aren’t that much fun. I’m a fan of big, complicated puzzlefests in the abstract, but Zork Zero‘s approach to the form doesn’t thrill me. After the brief introductory sequence, the game exposes almost the whole of its immense geography to you almost immediately; there’s nothing for it but to start wandering and trying to solve puzzles. The combinatorial explosion is enormous. And even when you begin to solve some of the puzzles, the process can be made weirdly unsatisfying by the treasure-hunt structure. Too much of the time, making what at first feels like a significant step forward only yields another object to throw into the cauldron for some more points. You know intellectually that you’re making progress, but it doesn’t really feel like it.

I much prefer the approach of later huge puzzlefests like Curses! and The Mulldoon Legacy, which start you in a constrained space and gradually expand in scope as you solve puzzles. By limiting their initial scope, these games ease you into their worlds and limit the sense of hopeless aimlessness that Zork Zero inspires, while a new set of rooms to explore provides a far more tangible and satisfying reward for solving a puzzle sequence than does another object chunked in the cauldron and another few points. The later games feel holistically designed, Zork Zero like something that was just added to until the author ran out of space. Even The Fool’s Errand restricts you to a handful of puzzles at the beginning, unfolding its mysteries and its grand interconnections only gradually as you burrow ever deeper. That Infocom of all people — Steve Meretzky of all people, whose Leather Goddess of Phobos and Stationfall are some of the most airtight designs in Infocom’s catalog — is suddenly embracing the design aesthetic of the 1970s is downright weird for a game that was supposed to herald a bright new future of more playable and player-friendly interactive fiction.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice if somewhat underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint system.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice but rather underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided more nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint menu, the use of which feels like giving up or even cheating.

The puzzles rely on the feelies more extensively than any other Infocom game, often requiring you to make connections with seemingly tossed-off anecdotes buried deep within “The Flathead Calendar.” I generally don’t mind this sort of thing overmuch, but, like so much else in Zork Zero, it feels overdone here. These puzzles feel like they have far more to do with copy protection than the player’s enjoyment — but then much of the time Zork Zero seems very little concerned with the player’s enjoyment.

I love the headline of the single review of Zork Zero that’s to be found as of this writing on The Interactive Fiction Database: “Enough is enough!” That’s my own feeling when trying to get through this exhausting slog of a game. As if the sheer scope and aimlessness of the thing don’t frustrate enough, Meretzky actively goes out of his way to annoy you. There is, for instance, a magic wand with barely enough charges in it; waste a few charges in experimentation, and, boom, you’re locked out of victory. There’s that aforementioned building of 400 floors, all but one of them empty, which the diligent player will nevertheless feel the need to explore floor by floor, just in case there’s something else there; this is, after all, just the type of game to hide something essential on,say, floor 383. And then there’s the most annoying character in an Infocom game this side of Zork I‘s thief, a jester who teleports in every few dozen turns to do some random thing to you, like stick a clown nose over your own (you have to take it off within a certain number of turns or you’ll suffocate) or turn you into an alligator (you have to waste a few turns getting yourself turned back, then deal with picking up all of your possessions off the ground, putting those things you were wearing back on, etc.). Some of these gags are amusing the first time they happen, but they wear out their welcome quickly when they just keep wasting your time over a game that will already require thousands of moves to finish. The jester’s worst trick of all is to teleport you somewhere else in the game’s sprawling geography; you can be hopelessly trapped, locked out of victory through absolutely no fault of your own, if you’re unlucky and don’t have the right transportation handy. Hilariously, Infocom’s marketing people, looking always for an angle, hit upon selling the jester as Meretzky’s latest lovable sidekick, “every bit as enjoyable and memorable as Floyd of Planetfall fame.” Meretzky himself walked them back from that idea.

Some of the puzzles, probably even most of them, are fine enough in themselves, but there is a sprinkling of questionable ones, and all are made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that trying out a burst of inspiration can absorb 50 moves simply transiting from one side of the world to the other. Throw in a sharply limited inventory, which means you might need to make three or four round trips just to try out all the possible solutions you can think of, and things get even more fun. Graham Nelson among others has made much of the idea that the 128 K limitation of the original Z-Machine was actually a hidden benefit, forcing authors to hone their creations down to only what needed to be there and nothing that didn’t. I’ve generally been a little skeptical of that position; there are any number of good Infocom games that feel like they might have been still a little better with just a little more room to breathe. Zork Zero, however, makes as compelling a case as one can imagine for the idea that less is often more in interactive fiction, that constraints can lead to better designs.

The in-game mapping is handy from time to time, but, split into many different regions and viewable only by typing “MAP” from the main screen as it is, is not really ideal. A serious player is likely to be back to pencil and paper (or, these days, Trizbort) pretty quickly.

Which is actually not to say that Meretzky was operating totally unfettered by space constraints. While the YZIP format theoretically allowed a story size of up to 512 K not including graphics, the limitations of Infocom’s least-common-denominator platform, the Apple II, meant that the practical limit was around 340 K, a fairly modest expansion on the old 256 K EZIP and XZIP formats used for the Interactive Fiction Plus line. But still more restrictive was the limitation on the size of what Infocom called the “pre-load,” that part of the story data that could change as the player played, and that thus needed to always be in the host machine’s memory. The pre-load had to be held under about 55 K. Undoubtedly due in part to these restrictions, Zork Zero clearly sacrifices depth for breadth in comparison to many Infocom games that preceded it. The “examine” command suffers badly, some of the responses coming off like oxymorons: “totally ordinary looking writhing mass of snakes”; “totally ordinary looking herd of unicorns.” The sketchy implementation only adds to the throwback feel of the game as a whole.

The hints are certainly nice to have given the complexity and scope of the game, but they unfortunately aren’t context-sensitive. It’s all too easy to accidentally read the wrong one when trying to sort through this jumble.

Another subtle hidden enemy of Zork Zero as a design is the online hint system. Installed with the best of intentions in this as well as a few earlier Infocom games, it could easily lead to creeping laziness on the part of a game’s Implementor. “If the player really gets stuck, she can always turn to the hints,” ran the logic — thus no need to fret to quite the same extent over issues of solubility. The problem with that logic is that no one likes to turn to hints, whether found in the game itself, in a separate InvisiClues booklet, or in an online walkthrough. People play games like Zork Zero to solve them themselves, and the presence of a single bad puzzle remains ruinous to their experience as a whole even if they can look up the answer in the game itself. Infocom’s claim that “the onscreen hints help you through the rough spots without spoiling the story” doesn’t hold much water when one considers that Zork Zero doesn’t really have any story to speak of.

More puzzling is the impact — or rather lack thereof — of Stu Galley’s much-vaunted new parser. Despite being a ground-up rewrite using “an ATN algorithm with an LALR grammar and one-token look-ahead,” whatever that means, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from those found in earlier Infocom games. The only obvious addition is the alleged ability to notice when you’re having trouble getting your commands across, and to start offering sample commands and other suggestions. A nice idea in theory, but the parser mostly seems to decide to become helpful and start pestering you with questions when you’re typing random possible answers to one of the game’s inane riddles. Like your racist uncle who decides to help you clean up after regaling you with his anecdotes over the Thanksgiving dinner table, even when Zork Zero tries to be helpful it’s annoying. Nowhere is the cognitive dissonance of Zork Zero more plainly highlighted than in the juxtaposition of this overly helpful, newbie-friendly parser with the old-school player hostility of the actual game design. “Zork hates its player,” wrote Robb Sherwin once of the game that made Infocom. After spending years evolving interactive fiction into something more positive and interesting than that old-school player hostility, Infocom incomprehensibly decided to circle back to how it all began with Zork Zero.

The most rewarding moment comes right at the end — and no, not because you’re finally done with the thing, although that’s certainly a factor too. In the end, you wind up right where it all began for Zork and for Infocom, before the famous white house, about to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, the antagonist of the original trilogy. There’s a melancholy resonance to the ending given the history not just of the Great Underground Empire but of Infocom in our own world. Released on July 14, 1989, the MS-DOS version of Zork Zero — the version that most of its few buyers would opt for — was one of the last two Infocom games to ship. So, the very end for Infocom circles back to the very beginning in many ways. Whether getting there is worth the trouble is of course another question.

As the belated date of the MS-DOS release will attest, versions of Zork Zero for the more important game-playing platforms were very slow in coming. The Amiga version didn’t ship until March of 1989, the Apple II version in June, followed finally by that MS-DOS version — the most important of all, oddly left for last. By that time Bruce Davis had lost patience, and Infocom had ceased to exist as anything other than a Mediagenic brand. The story of Zork Zero‘s failure to save Infocom thus isn’t so much the story of its commercial failure — although, make no mistake, it was a commercial failure — as the story of Infocom’s failure to just get the thing finished in time to even give it a chance of making a difference. Already an orphaned afterthought by the time it appeared on the platform that mattered most, Zork Zero likely never managed to sell even 10,000 copies in total. So much for Infocom’s “new look, new challenge, new beginning.”

We have a few more such afterthoughts to discuss before we pull the curtain at last on the story of Infocom, that most detailed and extended of all the stories I’ve told so far on this blog. Now, however, it’s time to check in with Infocom’s counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, with the other two of the three remaining companies in the English-speaking world still trying to make a living out of text adventures in 1988. As you have probably guessed, things weren’t working out all that much better for either of them than they were for Infocom. Yet amidst the same old commercial problems, there are still some interesting and worthy games to discuss. So, we’ll start to do just that next time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Questbusters of March 1989, The Games Machine of October 1989, and the Spring 1989 issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter. Huge thanks also to Tim Anderson and Steve Meretzky for corresponding with me about some of the details of this period.

If you still want to play Zork Zero after the thrashing I’ve just given it — sorry, Steve and all Zork Zero fans! — you can purchase it from GOG.com as part of The Zork Anthology.)

 
 

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The Bruce Youth

On June 13, 1988, exactly two years to the day after Infocom officially became a subsidiary of Activision, a set of identical Federal Express packages appeared on the doorsteps of the old, independent Infocom’s former stockholders. This group, which included among its ranks such employees and contractors of the current Infocom as Joel Berez, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley, had been the direct beneficiaries of the $2.4 million in stock that Activision had paid along with the assumption of $6.8 million in debt to acquire the company. The bundles of legal documents the former stockholders now found inside the Federal Express envelopes were eye-opening to say the least: they said that the shareholders would have to pay Activision much of that money back.

As is standard practice in such deals, the shareholders had signed contracts agreeing to indemnify Activision if they were shown to have misrepresented the financial position of their company. In layperson’s terms, if they had cooked the books to get Activision to bite, they would be personally liable for the difference between fantasy and reality. Activision had two years to make such a claim, which makes the date of June 13, 1988 — literally the last possible instant to do so — very significant.

The exact reasoning behind Activision’s demand for recompense was vague at best, seemingly amounting to little more than an assertion that Infocom had turned out not to be worth as much as an ongoing subsidiary as both Activision and Infocom had thought it would back in 1986. The former shareholders viewed it as simply an attempt by Activision’s President Bruce Davis to extort money out of them, especially as the contract they had signed demanded that concrete data ground any indemnification claim. The deal to acquire Infocom had happened during the reign of Davis’s predecessor Jim Levy, allegedly over Davis’s strident objections. Now, the shareholders assumed, he meant to wring whatever money he could out of a money-losing subsidiary he had never wanted before he cast it aside. Incensed to be essentially accused of fraud and humiliated that the perceived value of their company, one of the leading lights in computer games just a few years before, had come down to this, the former shareholders vowed to fight Davis in court.

Shortly after igniting this powder keg, Davis made one of his infrequent visits to Infocom from Activision’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters. While there, he took marketing manager Mike Dornbrook out to dinner. Dornbrook shared with me his recollections of that evening.

Bruce wanted me to help him improve morale at Infocom and increase productivity. I told him that the lawsuit1 wasn’t helping. At that point I don’t think there were more than about 40 people at Infocom, and many of the top folks were being sued by Bruce and everyone knew it. While Marc Blank, JCR Licklider, and Al Vezza were no longer employees, they still had lots of connections and they, too, were being sued. All of us viewed the lawsuit as completely unfair.

I told Bruce that I was intimately involved with the finances of Infocom in Spring 1986 and I was sure that Joel and the rest of the team were honest. They not only believed all the financial numbers, they felt that Activision was getting a very good deal. How did he expect them to react to this lawsuit?

His response was that he didn’t care if the numbers were actually accurate and believed at that time. In retrospect, it was clear to him that Activision had overpaid and he was convinced that a jury would agree and reward him some of the money back. He felt it was his duty to the Activision shareholders to get as much back as he could. He expected the Infocom indemnifying shareholders to simply negotiate a settlement. When I told him that they would rather fight than give in to such blackmail, he indicated that I was being naive to think this.

Dornbrook was right; the shareholders did choose to fight. The costly legal battle that resulted would go on for years; Dornbrook claims that Activision’s demands for restitution eventually reached a well-nigh incomprehensible $16 million. The battle would continue even after a bankrupt Activision was acquired in a hostile takeover by a group of investors led by Bobby Kotick in 1991.2 The mess would finally be settled only well into the 1990s, when the shareholders agreed to pay a pittance to Activision — $10,000 or so in total — just to make an endless nightmare go away.

In the context of 1988, Activision’s claim made for one hell of a situation. Some of the most important people at Infocom, including their President Joel Berez, were now engaged in an open legal battle with the same people they were expected to work with and report to. Yes, it was one hell of a situation. For that matter, it was shaping up to be one hell of a year.

The heart of Infocom’s travails, the wellspring from which the indemnification claim as well as every other problem burst, was a steady decline in sales. Worrisome signs of the gaming public’s slacking interest in their text-only interactive fiction could be discerned as early as 1985, and by 1987 that reality was fairly pounding them in the face every day. Between January 1987 and January 1988, Infocom flooded the adventure-game market with nine new titles to average sales of only about 20,000 units per game, a fraction of what their games used to sell. Clearly releasing more games wasn’t helping their cause. All signs indicated that the flood of new releases only prompted their all too finite remaining base of fans to pick and choose more carefully among the few titles each tended to purchase each year. Thus in working harder Infocom most definitely wasn’t working smarter, but rather managing to get even less bang than before for their development buck.

But if more games didn’t help, what would? Drowning as they were, they cast about desperately, giving serious consideration to ideas at which the younger, prouder Infocom would have scoffed. Some seriously mooted suggestions were described even by those who did the suggesting as “schlock,” such as partnerships with Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, or the rather vague category of “Hollywood stars.” (The sad reality, of course, was that Infocom’s own star had now burned so low that they wouldn’t have had much chance of tempting even the lowest-wattage such fodder into working with them.) The most shocking and patently desperate suggestion of all was for a “serious XXX porn game,” although they wouldn’t put their own name on it. After all, one must have some dignity.

In this atmosphere of magic-bullet hunting, it was natural to turn back to the glory days, to the names that had once made Infocom one of the glories of their industry. Thus the Zork name, left unused since Zork III in 1982, was resurrected at last for Brian Moriarty’s Beyond Zork, begun in late 1986 and released a year later.

Yet there was another of their old games that Infocom looked back upon with if anything even more wistfulness than the original Zork trilogy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the very personification of Infocom’s glory days, selling well over 300,000 copies, attracting considerable mainstream-press coverage, and generally marking the high-water point of their commercial fortunes. The game itself hadn’t so much ended as stopped midstream, its final paragraphs explicitly promising a sequel. If only they could finally get that sequel made…

The problem with doing the Hitchhiker‘s sequel was it must entail trying to work yet again with the charmingly insufferable Douglas Adams, a black hole of procrastination who seemed to suck up the productivity of every Imp he came into contact with. Bureaucracy, first proposed by Adams as a sort of light palate cleanser between Hitchhiker’s and its sequel, had turned into the most tortured project in Infocom’s history, involving at one time or another most of the development staff and consuming fully two years in all (the average Infocom game required about six to nine months). Released at last in March of 1987 only thanks to a last-minute rescue mission mounted by Adams’s good friend and semi-regular ghostwriter Michael Bywater, the end result had left no one entirely happy.

Even as Bureaucracy was still lurching erratically toward completion, Stu Galley had taken a stab at outlining a possible plot for a Hitchhiker’s sequel, calling it Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Infocom hoped they could run Galley’s ideas by Adams to maybe, just maybe get his juices flowing and get him to want to get started properly. But little resulted other than a lot of internal discussion and a very sketchy beginning-of-a-demo that would be kicked around for a long time at Infocom and, later, around the modern Internet after it was leaked from an old backup by a blogger. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Adams continued to say all the right things in the abstract and to deliver absolutely no usable concrete feedback.

With this evidence to hand that Douglas Adams continued to be Douglas Adams, enthusiastic about proposing projects but completely disinterested in actually working on them, no one wanted to even think about starting on the Bureaucracy merry-go-round all over again. Infocom was in a weird position: everyone wanted a Hitchhiker’s sequel in the abstract, but no one wanted to try to work with Adams on one. And so, just as had happened with Bureaucracy, the project got passed around to whomever didn’t manage to look busy enough before any given planning session. It became the most energy- and morale-draining hot potato ever.

In the immediate wake of Bureaucracy‘s release, Infocom hoped they might be able to shepherd the Hitchhiker’s sequel to completion by once again turning the tasks that would normally be shouldered by Adams over to Michael Bywater. This time, however, his work didn’t go as smoothly. Whether stymied by the differences between writing a game from scratch and merely (re)writing all of the text for a game, as he had largely done for Bureaucracy and would later do for Magnetic Scroll’s Jinxter, or daunted by the prospect of playing with some of his old friend’s most beloved creations, he was slow to produce results, even when Infocom flew him to Cambridge and put him up in a nearby hotel so he could be closer to the action.

Despite little progress on a script having been made by year’s end, the project was foisted on Infocom’s Amy Briggs for implementation at the beginning of 1988. She felt herself to have been placed in an untenable position, caught between Infocom and a none-too-responsive British contingent consisting of Bywater and Adams — and, with Bywater currently dating Magnetic Scrolls’s head Anita Sinclair, an undefined role to quite possibly be played by that company as well. Unsure where her responsibilities on Restaurant began and ended and frustrated by management’s unwillingness to let her turn any of her own original ideas into a game, she announced that she would be leaving Infocom in June.

With Briggs bowing out, a new suggestion surfaced from Britain: just let Douglas and Michael and Anita do the whole thing over here, implementing it using Magnetic Scrolls’s in-house technology. Most at Infocom were left aghast by the idea. While they had been willing to publicly acknowledge Magnetic Scrolls as the worthiest of their direct competitors — conveniently leaving out the fact that they were, at least in North America, also largely their only remaining direct competitors — and while relations between the two companies were for the most part quite good, no one at Infocom truly regarded Magnetic Scrolls as their equals in craftsmanship. In this belief, it must be said, they were correct. Magnetic Scrolls’s engine did a few things better than Infocom’s, but it did a lot of other things worse, and their games in general remained well behind Infocom’s in terms of design and attention to detail. It had always been Magnetic Scrolls who were the disciples, who had filled their games with homages to Zork and Hitchhiker’s and gratefully accepted Infocom’s benevolent condescension. The idea of Magnetic Scrolls doing the next Hitchhiker’s — one of Infocom’s two biggest properties — was just too, too much, one more measure of how far they had fallen. It was hard not to take as a personal betrayal the fact that Adams was even proposing such a thing.

The Hitchhiker’s sequel finally died on the vine during the middle months of 1988, abandoned due to dwindling resources — Magnetic Scrolls’s business wasn’t exactly booming by that point either — and sheer exhaustion with the subject on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as a potential Restaurant at the End of the Universe was puffed up to almost mythic proportions as a business-saver in its own day, the sequel-that-never-was has loomed large in fan dialogues over the years since — especially after that aforementioned leak, whose source didn’t do a great job of contextualizing Stu Galley’s brief demo and instead proclaimed it to be “the unreleased sequel to Hitchhiker’s,” full stop. In truth, the idea that a Restaurant game could have measurably altered Infocom’s trajectory seems doubtful at best. Despite sporting Douglas Adams’s name so prominently, Bureaucracy had sold less than 30,000 copies, only a tad better than the typical Infocom game of its period. While the Hitchhiker’s name could be expected to add appreciably to that total, the hard fact remained that it just wasn’t 1984 anymore. A Restaurant at the End of the Universe that sold 100,000, even a miraculous 200,000 copies would have done little to cure the underlying diseases ailing Infocom. To survive, Infocom needed to improve the sales of all of their games dramatically.

Looked at soberly, it was obvious even at the time that a far more sustainable cure than any one-off hit game must be a new game engine that would finally give the market what it had seemingly been demanding for quite some time now: Infocom games with real graphics, real pictures. The big DEC machine on which Infocom continued to develop their games, so much the source of their strength during the early years, had long since become their albatross in this area. With Beyond Zork, their so-called “illuminated text adventure,” they had pushed its limited display capabilities as far as they could possibly go — and that still wasn’t anywhere near far enough.

Accordingly, on May 4, 1987, Infocom went through a significant restructuring. The old Micro Group, responsible for deploying the games onto the many microcomputers Infocom supported, was merged with the Systems Group, previously responsible for maintaining the DEC and its ZIL compiler, along with all of the other development tools the DEC hosted. The newly combined entity would write entirely new versions of ZIL and the Z-Machine from scratch, inspired by the architectures of the old systems but not necessarily beholden to them. The new ZIL compiler would for the first time itself run on microcomputers, on a set of shiny new top-of-the-line Apple Macintosh IIs that had just been delivered, while the new version 6 Z-Machine would at last support proper graphics, at the cost of running on just a small subset of the huge variety of machines Infocom had once supported: the Apple Macintosh, the Apple II, the Commodore Amiga, and MS-DOS became the only survivors from a group that had once numbered almost 25. Ah, well… the list of viable consumer-computing platforms had been whittled down almost as markedly as the list of producers of textual interactive fiction in recent years.

I’ll pick up the thread of the first (and last) graphical Z-Machine’s development in somewhat more detail in my next article. For now, though, I’ll just note that adapting Infocom’s core competencies to new technology and to the addition of graphics proved, as one might expect, a challenging undertaking. The gap between the release of the last text-only game in January of 1988 and the first illustrated game in October was a long, tense one, during which the old catalog titles continued to sell worse than ever without even the modest kick of excitement provided by new releases. Even after October, the first of the new illustrated games was for months available for the Macintosh only, not a big gaming machine.

It was during 1988 that Infocom first began to take on the stink of not just a troubled business but a dying one. For the first time, many who worked there began to judge the pain of these trying times to outweigh the legendary fun and camaraderie that always marked life inside the company. And many also seemed caught out by the natural cycles of life. Old timers still refer to this period as Infocom’s “baby boom.” It seemed just about every one of these heretofore happy-go-lucky singles was suddenly getting married and/or starting families. Those life changes made spending uncounted evenings and weekends working and playing with their Infocom family less appealing, and made the stability of a good job working for a bigger company with a more certain future that much more appealing. Even if the new games succeeded, the heyday of the old Infocom, once characterized by my fellow historian Graham Nelson as “a happy, one-time thing, like a summer romance,” seemed to be inexorably coming to an end.

In short, then, people started to leave. Some were the rank-and-file, the behind-the-scenes secretaries and accountants and middle managers whose names you don’t often hear in histories like this one, but who fill out softball teams, gossip around water coolers, and are as essential as anyone else to running a business. Others, however, were bigger names. Some were disturbingly big names.

The first of the Imps to go was Jeff O’Neill, very early in the new year. His departure was followed by Amy Briggs’s announcement that she would be leaving in June. And that news was in turn followed by the departure of one of the really big dogs: none other than Brian Moriarty, tempted away by an offer to design point-and-click graphical adventures for Lucasfilm Games.

As they jumped off the sinking ship, the departing tried their best to put a brave face on things for those they left behind. “I am still excited by the computer-entertainment industry,” wrote Amy Briggs in her farewell memo, “and I honestly think that Infocom has a good chance to be at the top of the heap, as long as you don’t give up long-term quality and innovation for short-term bucks.” Gayle Syska, a long-time product manager, wrote upon her departure that “I truly believe that Infocom has the potential to do very well this year and into the future. I’m probably leaving Infocom just before the big pay-off comes for all of our hard work. I think interactive fiction is still alive and is soon to be doing well again. Infocom interactive fiction will experience a resurgence just like videogames.” Such encouragements read as forced now as they must have back in 1988. If the future is so rosy, why are you leaving?

In the aftermath of Bruce Davis’s June 13 indemnification bombshell, the stream of departures threatened to turn into a flood. Two of the losses that immediately followed that event were perhaps the most irrevocable of all. One was that of Jon Palace, the quiet advocate for quality and professionalism who had made every single one of Infocom’s games better than it needed to be since his arrival more than four years before: convincing this Imp to try to make his prose just a little more evocative, convincing packaging to find a way to include that expensive but essential feelie. Palace’s steadying influence would be sorely missed in the Infocom games still to come. With his departure, the highly systemized Infocom process of making quality adventure games, something I’ve made much of on this blog for (I believe) very justifiable reasons, finally began to break down under the sheer pressure of external events. Each of their final few games has moments that leave one thinking, “Gee, if only Jon Palace had still been there this part might have been been a little bit better…”

The other incalculable loss was that of President Joel Berez, who had led Infocom to their initial glory, dutifully stepped back to make way for Al Vezza and the misguided dream of Cornerstone, then returned to leading Infocom as a whole following the Activision acquisition. Through good times and bad, Berez had walked a fine diplomatic line, doing his best to negotiate for the resources his Imps needed without embarrassing or unduly agitating those above him in the hierarchy. Recently he had been working hard to put down rumors of a “rift” between Activision and Infocom that were for the first time starting to bubble into the trade press; as usual, Berez considered his words carefully and said all the diplomatically correct things. In the aftermath of the indemnification action, however, he felt he just couldn’t continue. After all, Berez was himself one of the former shareholders from whom Davis was demanding repayment. How could he launch a lawsuit against the guy to defend his reputation and continue at the same time to report to him, continue to interact with him on an almost daily basis and work with him to try to rebuild a reeling Infocom? He decided he couldn’t, and quit.

To replace Berez, Davis brought in his own man, newly poached from Electronic Arts: Joe Ybarra. Whatever else you could say about him, Ybarra wasn’t the soulless business lawyer that so many at Infocom would accuse Davis himself of being. As one of Electronic Arts’s first game producers, Ybarra had helped to invent on the fly the critical role that such folks play in game-making to this day. He loved games, and had a rich resume of classic titles to his credit — titles which he had not just managed but nurtured, advocated for, and contributed to creatively. Among them were such landmark designs as M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold, and most recently Wasteland. One thing Ybarra had yet to do in his career, however, was show any particular interest in or affinity for text adventures, making him on the surface at least an odd choice for this new role. The tightly knit group remaining at Infocom had never known life without Berez, and weren’t exactly open-minded about this new arrival from the hated corporate mothership. Ybarra was immediately pigeonholed as the company man sent by Davis to whip them into shape. It was an extremely uncomfortable situation for everyone.

But Infocom wasn’t the only part of Bruce Davis’s empire undergoing wrenching, vertigo-inducing change that year. Indeed, the hiring away of Ybarra from Electronic Arts was itself part and parcel of Davis’s increasingly aggressive approach to running Activision — a company which, just to add to the confusion, wasn’t actually called Activision anymore.

During the first eighteen months following the ouster of his predecessor Jim Levy, Davis had accomplished all he had promised Activision’s board back in January of 1987 and then some, returning an operation that had been losing money for years under Levy to solid profitability. He’d done so by re-focusing on safe, commercially proven game genres, avoiding the long shots and artistic flights of fancy that had characterized so many of Activision’s games under Levy. And, even more importantly, he’d done it by building a large stable of smaller “affiliated publishers” who paid for access to Activision’s extensive distribution network. Only Infocom, still losing hundreds of thousands almost every quarter, remained the stubborn outlier in Davis’s turnaround story. Now he felt emboldened to really put his stamp on Activision.

During that busy June of 1988, Davis announced to an incredulous world and an equally incredulous Infocom that Activision would henceforth be known as “Mediagenic.” The new name, he said, would be “more reflective of the total corporate personality”; the old “still causes potential investors to think of cartridge games.” The decision to abandon a storied name like Activision’s should never be taken lightly. Yet the decision to make this name change at this point in time is particularly inexplicable. Davis was choosing to actively dissociate his company with their heritage in cartridge games just as cartridge games were becoming red-hot again, thanks to the rise of Nintendo. And then the new name was just so patently terrible, sounding like something some marketer’s computer had spit out when asked to produce variations on the theme of “Activision.” Plenty would argue that it was indeed reflective of the new company’s emerging “total corporate personality” under Davis — more’s the pity. Jokes about the new name could be heard at every trade show and conference: “Mediagenic is a bio-engineering firm producing mutant couch potatoes”; “a mediagenic is a disease that infects television sets.” Within bare weeks, Davis was already backpedaling — one imagines one can almost hear him sobbing “What have I done?” between the lines of the press releases — saying that the cartridge-based titles that Mediagenic was now frantically trying to develop for the Nintendo would retain the old Activision name. Mediagenic would be the General Motors of videogames, dividing their product line into “brands” like Activision, Gamestar, Infocom, and a new productivity line with the even worse name of “TENpointO.” (“They must have gone through that many versions of a real name, then gave up,” went the joke.)

For Infocom, it marked one more step in a creeping transformation that had already been underway for quite some months. From a semi-independent development studio, they were being inexorably converted into a mere brand for any narrative-oriented games Mediagenic chose to publish, many of which might not involve the folks in Infocom’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, ostensible headquarters at all.

The first “Infocom” game that wasn’t quite an Infocom game had been something called Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth, a Macintosh CRPG originally self-published by a pair of programmers named Scott Schmitz and Ken Updike in 1987. After Activision (as they still were known at the time) picked up the rights to the game, they gave it to Infocom, their “Master Storytellers,” where it fit in relatively well with the new Macintosh-centric development direction. By all indications, the Infocom staffers found Quarterstaff genuinely intriguing, devoting quite some months to overhauling a somewhat rough-around-the-edges game filled with programmer text, programmer art, and an awkward programmer interface. Amy Briggs rewrote almost every word of the text in her own light-hearted style, and the testing department attacked the game with the same enthusiasm they showed toward any other. Released only for the Macintosh, the game’s sales were fairly minuscule, but Quarterstaff is certainly the outside creation of this period that feels most like the real Infocom put some real heart into it.

Far less well-liked — in fact, deeply, passionately loathed — were the so-called “Infocomics.” Back in 1986, Tom Snyder Productions, a name with a rich legacy in software for education and edutainment, had signed a contract with Jim Levy’s Activision to make a series of computerized comic books similar in conception to Accolade’s Comics, each selling for $12 or less. On the face of it, it wasn’t really a bad idea at all. While Accolade’s take on the idea proved charming enough to make my personal gaming Hall of Fame, however, things stubbornly refused to come together for the Tom Snyder versions: they were too slow, the graphics were too ugly, the player’s options for controlling the story too trivial, the whole experience too awkward. And, although development stretched on and on, they just never seemed to get much better. When Bruce Davis decided to dump responsibility for the creative side of the whole troubled project on Infocom, the Imps took it as a personal affront. Gritting their teeth all the while, Steve Meretzky and Amy Briggs cranked out the storyline and dialog for one Infocomic each, and another staffer named Elizabeth Langosy did two more.

It seems safe to say that nothing Bruce Davis imposed upon Infocom outside of the indemnification action enraged his subsidiary quite as much as Infocomics. Having always taken quality so seriously, to be associated with something so plainly substandard, so cheap in all definitions of the word, was anathema to Infocom. Upon the Infocomics’ release, their displeasure leaked out into the public sphere; Computer Gaming World came directly to Davis to demand he address “rumors” that “the Infocom division had become a dumping ground for unwanted Activision product.” “Nothing was shunted off on anybody,” Davis insisted. “Infocom is an A+ line, not a B line!” As far as the people inside Infocom were concerned, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

The final Infocom-game-in-name-only of this period, a licensed CRPG called BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, is a militaristic game about giant fighting robots whose aesthetics feel a million miles away from Infocom’s classic textual interactive fiction. But this time the real Infocom wasn’t asked to do much of anything with it other than plug it in their newsletter, and by the time of its release in November of 1988 everyone was feeling too demoralized to muster much further outrage anyway.

As their situation grew to feel more and more hopeless, open defiance at Infocom turned increasingly into passive aggression and gallows humor. One anonymous employee created a theme song for the age, sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.”

Well, we’re working here at Infocom,
And they’re shutting the DEC 20s down,
Out in Menlo Park they write a report,
Fill out a form, see you in court.
Well, our founders didn’t see it at all,
Had an office down at Faneuil Hall,
Thought they’d get rich selling Cornerstone,
Ed Reuteman, Tommy Smaldone.
And we’re living here at Infocom,
But our recent games were all a bomb,
And it’s getting very hard to pay.

And we’re waiting here at Infocom,
For the public offering we never found,
For the promises Al Vezza made,
If we worked hard, if we behaved.
So the Golden Floppies hang on the wall,
But they never really helped us at all.
No, they never taught us what was neat,
Graphics and sound, sizzling heat.
And we’re waiting here at Infocom,
For the latest Apple download from Tom,
And they’re supposed to ship today.

Every tester had a pretty good shot,
To become an Imp and earn a lot,
But that was all before those Mountain View crooks,
Started writing off good will on our books.
Well, I’m living here at Infocom,
Even the rotisserie standings are glum,
So I won’t be logging in today,
And it’s getting very hard to pay.
And we’re living here at Infocom.

But perhaps the bitterest single expression of the anger and pain being felt inside Infocom was the “Bruce Youth Informant’s Report” that was briefly circulated. A response to the constant corporate-speak hectorings to just be positive and productive that were always coming down from Mediagenic in California and now from Joe Ybarra right inside Infocom’s own walls, the memo went full Godwin on their not-so-respected supreme leader.

Of course, we can’t depend on the honor system alone to pry some from their negative niches. So during this week, accompanying our “No Negs” week, we will also have a little self-help program for those of us who can’t stop the black humor. The program, known as “Bruce Youth,” is modeled after the highly successful Hitler Youth program in Germany several years ago. Although we won’t have executions or imprisonments for offenders, you will be able to turn in fellow employees who utter negative comments. Just fill out the form below.

Bruce Youth

At year’s end, Fred, Infocom’s faithful old DECsystem 20, was shut down for the last time and decommissioned. Relieved of its duties of hosting the ZIL compiler and serving as the hub of Infocom’s game-development efforts already months before, the old machine had soldiered on as host to Infocom’s internal email system and other such workaday applications. Now, however, it was to be replaced entirely by a shiny new Sun server. A piece of exotic high technology when it had arrived at Infocom six years before, described in reverent tones in countless fawning magazine articles during the glory years that followed, the DEC was now just an obsolete dinosaur of an old computer, destined for the scrapheap. As they watched the workers haul its bits and pieces outside and throw them roughly into the back of a truck, it must have been hard for Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky, the last remnants of the once-thriving team of Imps who had created so many great games on the DEC, not to draw comparisons to their own work in interactive fiction. Once heralded in the New York Times and the Boston Globe as the dawning of a major new literary form, now nobody much seemed to care about Infocom or their games at all. It seemed that they too were obsolete, destined for the scrapheap of history.

It was, then, in this ever more despairing and poisonous atmosphere that Infocom’s last few adventure games were developed and released. To imagine that the circumstances of their creation could somehow not affect them would be very naive. And indeed, all are badly flawed works in their own ways, falling far short of the standards of earlier years. For that reason, I don’t expect my articles about these final games to be among the most pleasant I’ve ever written; this article certainly hasn’t been. But I’ve come this far, and I owe it to you and to this bigger history we’re in the midst of to complete Infocom’s story in the same detail with which I began it. So, next time we’ll turn our attention to the first of those final works, and see what we can see there.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Computer Gaming World of April 1988, July 1988, November 1988, and November 1991; Questbusters of September 1988 and February 1989; InfoWorld of November 28 1988; Amazing Computing of August 1988 and October 1988. Also Down From the Top of Its Game, a business study of Infocom. And, last but certainly not least, my thanks go to Mike Dornbrook and my fellow historian Alex Smith for their correspondence.)


  1. Note that “lawsuit” probably isn’t quite the correct terminology. Activision’s demand for recompense wasn’t technically a lawsuit; it would actually be the former shareholders who would first sue Activision for allegedly making a false indemnification claim. Still, I trust that the gist of Dornbrook’s sentiment is clear and accurate enough. 

  2. Ironically, an unexpectedly popular Infocom shovelware package called The Lost Treasures of Infocom is widely credited with turning around the financial fortunes of the new Kotick-led Activision, while the first big new hit of same was something called Return to Zork. Kotick would thus still be trying to extract money from the old Infocom shareholders for allegedly overvaluing their company even as the fruits of the Infocom acquisition were saving his own. 

 
 

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Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels

Sherlock

Bob Bates, the last person in history to author an all-text Infocom adventure game, came to that achievement by as circuitous a path as anyone in a 1980s computer-game industry that was positively brimming with unlikely game designers.

Born in suburban Maryland in 1953, the fourth of the eventual eight children of James and Frances Bates, Bob entered Georgetown University on a partial scholarship in 1971 to pursue a dual major in Philosophy and Psychology. He was interested in people in the abstract, and this seemed the perfect combination of majors to pursue that interest. He imagined himself becoming a teacher. But as it turned out, the combination served equally well to prepare the unwitting Bob for a future in game design. At Georgetown, a Philosophy degree was a Bachelor of Arts, Psychology a Bachelor of Science, meaning he found himself taking a very unusual (and demanding) mixture of  liberal-arts and hard-science courses. What better preparation can there be for the art and science of game design?

Unlike the majority of Georgetown students, Bob didn’t have a great deal of familial wealth at his disposal; it was only thanks to the scholarship that he could attend at all. Thus he was forced to take odd jobs throughout his time there just to meet the many demands of daily life that the scholarship didn’t cover. Early on in his time at university, he got a job in Georgetown’s Sports Information Department that carried with it a wonderful perk: he could attend sporting events for free. When that job ended after about a year, Bob, a big sports fan, was left trying to scheme another way to get into the events. The solution he hit upon was working as a reporter for the sports department of the university newspaper. Access restored and problem solved.

The idea of becoming a writer had never resonated with Bob prior to coming to the newspaper, but he quickly found that he not only enjoyed it but was, at least by the accounts of the newspaper’s editors and readers, quite good at it. “That’s the point at which my aspiration switched,” says Bob, “from being a teacher to being a writer.” Soon he became sports editor, then the managing editor of the newspaper as a whole as well as the pseudonymous author of a humor column. His senior year found him editor-in-chief of the university’s yearbook.

Upon graduating from Georgetown in 1975, he still needed to earn money. On a job board — a literal job board in those days — he saw a posting for a tour guide for the Washington, D.C., area. The job entailed managing every aspect of group tours that were made up  of folks from various clubs and organizations, from schoolchildren to senior citizens. Bob would be responsible for their entire experience: meeting them at the airport, making sure all went well at the hotel, shepherding them from sight to sight, answering all of their questions and dealing with all of their individual problems. Just as his experience at the newspaper had taught him to love the act of writing, Bob found that working as a tour guide uncovered another heretofore unknown pleasure and talent that would mark his future career: “explaining places and history to people, explaining what happened and where it happened.” “These places were interesting to me, and therefore I tried to make them interesting for other people,” he told me — an explanation that applies equally to his later career as an adventure-game designer, crafting games that more often than not took place in existing settings drawn from the pages of history or fiction.

For Bob the aspiring writer, the working schedule of a tour guide seemed ideal. While he would have to remain constantly on the clock and on-hand for his clients during each tour of anywhere from three to seven days, he could then often take up to two weeks off before the next. The freedom of having so many days off could give him, or so he thought, the thing that every writer most craves: the freedom to write, undisturbed by other responsibilities.

Still, the call of the real world can be as hard for a writer as it can for anyone else to resist. Bob found himself getting more and more involved in the day-to-day business of the company; soon he was working in the office instead of in the field, striking up his own network of contacts with clients. At last, feeling overworked and under-compensated for his efforts, he founded a tour company of his own, one that he built in a very short period of time into the largest of its type in Washington, D.C.

By 1983, now married and with his thirtieth birthday fast approaching, Bob felt himself to be at something of a crossroads in life. Plenty of others — probably the vast majority — would have accepted the thriving tour company and the more than comfortable lifestyle that came with it, would have put away those old dreams of writing alongside other childish things. Bob, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t all he wanted from life. He sold the company to one its employees when he was still a few weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday in order to write The Great American Novel — or, at any rate, an American novel.

The novel was to have been a work of contemporary fiction called One Nation Under God, an examination of the fraught topic, then and now, of prayer in American public schools, along with the more general mixing of politics and religion in American society — of which mixing Bob, then and now, is “extremely not in favor.” The story would involve a group of schoolchildren who came to Washington, D.C., on a tour — “that would be the write what you know part of the exercise,” notes Bob wryly — and got caught up in the issue.

But nearly two years into the writing, the novel still wasn’t even half done, and he still didn’t even have a contract to get it published. He reluctantly began to consider that, while he was certainly a writer, he might not be a novelist. “I need to find a different way to make money from this writing business,” he thought to himself. And then one day he booted up Zork, and the wheels started turning.

The edition of Zork in question ran on an old Radio Shack TRS-80 which Bob’s dad had given him to use as a replacement for the typewriter on which he’d been writing thus far. Bob had not heretofore had any experience with or interest in computers — he gave up his beloved old Selectric typewriter only very reluctantly — but he found Zork surprisingly intriguing. The more he played of it, the more he thought that this medium might give him an alternative way of becoming a writer, one with a much lower barrier to entry than trying to convince a New York literary agent to take a chance on a first-time novelist.

A lifelong fan and practitioner of barbershop harmony, Bob was singing at the time with a well-known group called the Alexandria Harmonizers. Another member, with whom Bob had been friends for some time, was a successful businessman named Dave Wilt, owner of a consulting firm. An odd remark that Dave had once made to him kept coming back to Bob now: “If you’re ever interested in starting a business, we should talk.” When Bob screwed up his courage and proposed to Dave that they start a company together to compete with Infocom, the latter’s response was both positive and immediate: “Yes! Let’s do that!”

While he had little personal interest in the field of computer gaming, Dave Wilt did have a better technical understanding of computers than Bob. Most importantly, he had access to systems and programmers, both through his own consulting firm and in the person of his brother Frederick, a professional programmer. A three-man team came together in some excess office space belonging to the Wilts: Dave Wilt as manager and all-around business guy, Frederick Wilt as programmer and all-around technical guy, and Bob as writer and designer.

They decided to call their little company Challenge, Inc. Ironically in light of Bob’s later reputation as a designer of painstakingly fair, relatively straightforward adventure games, the name was carefully chosen. “If you think an Infocom game is hard,” went their motto, “wait until you try a Challenge game!” A connoisseur of such hardcore puzzles as the cryptic crosswords popular in Britain, Bob wanted to make their text-adventure equivalent. In commercial terms, “it was exactly the wrong idea at the wrong time,” admits Bob. It was also an idea that could and very likely would have gone horribly, disastrously wrong in terms of game design. If there’s a better recipe for an unplayable, insoluble game than a first-time designer setting out to make a self-consciously difficult adventure, I certainly don’t know what it is. Thankfully, Infocom would start walking Bob back from his Challenging manifesto almost from the instant he began working with them.

The deal that brought Challenge, Infocom’s would-be competitor, into their arms came down to a combination of audacity and simple dumb luck. It was the Wilts who first suggested to Bob that, rather than trying to write their own adventuring engine from scratch, they should simply buy or license a good one from someone else. When Dave Wilt asked Bob who might have such a thing to offer, Bob replied that only one company could offer Challenge an engine good enough to compete with Infocom’s games: Infocom themselves. “Well, then, just call them up and tell them you want to license their engine,” said Dave. Bob thought it was a crazy idea. Why would Infocom license their engine to a direct competitor? “Just call them!” insisted Dave. So, Bob called them up.

He soon was on the phone with Joel Berez, recently re-installed as head of Infocom following Al Vezza’s unlamented departure. Berez’s first question had doubtless proved his last in many earlier such conversations: did Bob have access to a DEC minicomputer to run the development system? Thanks to the Wilts’ connections, however, Bob knew that they could arrange to rent time on exactly such a system. That hurdle cleared, Berez’s first offer was to license the engine in perpetuity for a one-time fee of $1 million, an obvious attempt, depending on how the cards fell, to either drive off an unserious negotiator or to raise some quick cash for a desperately cash-strapped Infocom. With nowhere near that kind of capital to hand, Bob countered with a proposal to license the engine on a pay-as-you-go basis for $100,000 per game. Berez said the proposal was “interesting,” said he’d be back in touch soon.

Shortly thereafter, Berez called to drop a bombshell: Infocom had just been bought by Activision, so any potential deal was no longer entirely in his hands. Jim Levy, president of Activision, would be passing through Dulles Airport next Friday. Could Bob meet with him personally there? “I can do that,” said Bob.

Levy came into the meeting in full-on tough-negotiator mode. “Why should we license our engine to you?” he asked. “You’ve never written a game. What makes you think you can do this?” But Bob had also come prepared. He pulled out a list of all of the games that Infocom had published. With no access to any inside information whatsoever, he had marked on the list the games he thought had sold the most and those he thought had sold the least, along with the reasons he believed that to be the case for each. Then he outlined a plan for Challenge’s games that he believed could place them among the bestsellers.

Bob’s plan set a strong precedent for his long career to come in game development, in which he would spend a lot of his time adapting existing literary properties to interactive mediums. Under the banner of Challenge, Inc., he wanted to make text-adventure adaptations of literary properties possessed of two critical criteria: a) that they feature iconic characters well-known to just about every person in the United States if not the world; and b) that they be out of copyright, thus eliminating the need to pay for licenses that Challenge was in no position to afford. He already had the subjects of his first three games picked out: Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood, in that order — all characters that Bob himself had grown up with and continued to find fascinating. All were, as Bob puts it, “interesting people in interesting places doing interesting things.” How could a budding game designer go wrong?

Levy was noncommittal throughout the meeting, but on Monday Bob got another call from Joel Berez: “Let’s forget this licensing deal. Why don’t you write games for Infocom?” Both Activision and Infocom loved Bob’s plan for making adventurous literary adaptations, even coming up with a brand name for a whole new subset of Infocom interactive fiction: “Immortal Legends.” The idea would only grow more appealing to the powers that were following Jim Levy’s ouster as head of Activision in January of 1987; his successor, Bruce Davis, brought with him a positive mania for licenses and adaptations.

We should take a moment here to make sure we fully appreciate the series of fortuitous circumstances that brought Bob Bates to write games for Infocom. Given their undisputed position of leadership in the realm of text adventures, Bob’s inquiry could hardly have been the first of its nature that Infocom had received. Yet Infocom had for years absolutely rejected the idea of working with outside developers. What made them suddenly more receptive was the desperate financial position they found themselves in following the Cornerstone debacle, a position that made it foolhardy to reject any possible life preserver, even one cast out by a rank unknown quantity like Bob Bates. Then there was the happenstance that gave Bob and the Wilts access to a DECsystem-20, a now aging piece of kit that had been cancelled by DEC a couple of years before and was becoming more and more uncommon. And finally there came the Activision purchase, and with it immediate pressure on Infocom from their new parent to produce many more games than they had ever produced before. All of these factors added up to a yes for Challenge after so many others had received only a resounding no.

In telling the many remarkable stories that I do on this blog, I’m often given cause to think about the humbling role that sheer luck, alongside talent and motivation and all the other things we more commonly celebrate, really does play in life. In light of his unique story, I couldn’t help but ask Bob about the same subject. I found his response enlightening.

In the course of my subsequent career, I ended up rubbing shoulders with lots of very, very well-known authors. Sitting with them informally at dinners and various events and listening to their stories, every single one of them would talk about “that stroke of luck” or “those strokes of luck” that plucked them from the pool of equally talented — or better talented — writers. Their manuscript landed on an editor’s desk at a certain day at a certain time. Or they bumped into somebody, or there was a chance encounter, etc. Every successful writer that I know will tell you that luck played a huge part in their success.

And I am no different. I have been extremely fortunate… but you know, that word “fortunate” doesn’t convey the same sense that “luck” does. I’ve been LUCKY.

With Infocom’s ZIL development system duly installed on the time-shared DEC to which Challenge had access — this marks the only instance of the ZIL system ever making it out of Massachusetts — Bob needed programmers to help him write his games, for Frederick Wilt just didn’t have enough time to do the job himself. Through the once timeless expedient of looking in the Yellow Pages, he found a little contract-programming company called Paragon Systems. They sent over a senior and a junior programmer, named respectively Mark Poesch and Duane Beck. Both would wind up programming in ZIL for Challenge effectively full-time.

Most of the expanded Challenge traveled up to Cambridge for an introduction to ZIL and the general Infocom way of game development. There they fell into the able hands of Stu Galley, the soft-spoken Imp so respected and so quietly relied upon by all of his colleagues. Stu, as Bob puts it, “took us under his wing,” a bemused Bob watching over his shoulder while he patiently walked the more technical types from Challenge through the ins and outs of ZIL.

Infocom continued to give Bob and his colleagues much support throughout the development of the game that would become known as Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. It was for instance Infocom themselves who suggested that Sherlock become the second Infocom text adventure (after The Lurking Horror) to include sound effects, and who then arranged to have Russell Lieblich at Activision record and digitize them. Present only on the Amiga and Macintosh versions of the game, the sounds, ranging from Sherlock’s violin playing to the clip-clop of a hansom cab, are admittedly little more than inessential novelities even in comparison to those of The Lurking Horror.

More essential was the support Infocom gave Bob and company in the more traditional aspects of the art and science of crafting quality adventure games. As I’ve occasionally noted before, the triumph of Infocom was not so much the triumph of individual design genius, although there were certainly flashes of that from time to time, as it was a systemic triumph. Well before the arrival of Challenge, Infocom had developed a sort of text-adventure assembly line that came complete with quality control that was the envy of the industry. Important as it was to all the games, Infocom’s dedication to the process was especially invaluable to first-time Imps like Bob. The disembodied genius of the process guided them gently away from the typical amateur mistakes found in the games of virtually all of Infocom’s peers — such as Bob’s early fixation on making a game that was gleefully, cruelly hard — and gave them the feedback they needed at every step to craft solid adventures. Sherlock was certainly an unusual game in some respects for Infocom, being the first to be written by outsiders, but in the most important ways it was treated just the same as all the others — not least the many rounds of testing and player feedback it went through. Even today, when quality control is taken much more seriously by game makers in general than it was in Infocom’s day, Infocom’s committed, passionate network of inside and outside testers stands out. Bob:

There’s something that distinguished Infocom from most other game companies that I’ve worked with — and I’ve since worked with a lot. The idea of the role of the tester in today’s game-development world is that a tester is somebody who finds bugs. Testing is in fact often outsourced. What people are looking for are situations where the game doesn’t work.

But testing at Infocom was a far more collaborative process between tester and designer, in terms of things that should be in the game and perhaps weren’t: “I tried to do this and it should have worked”; “This way of phrasing an input should work, but it didn’t.” GET THE ROCK should work just as well as PICK UP THE ROCK or TAKE THE ROCK or ACQUIRE THE ROCK or whatever. That applied not just to syntax, but to things like “It seems like this should be possible” or “You know, if you’ve got the player in this situation, they may well try to do X or Y.” We would look at transcripts at Infocom from testers. And we’d solicit qualitative comments as well as mechanical comments. If the machine crashed somewhere or kicked out an error message, of course I’m interested in that, but the Infocom testers would also offer qualitative input about the design of the game. That was special, and is not often the case today. I think that’s something that contributed greatly to the quality of Infocom’s games.

Bob remembers the relationship with everyone at Infocom, which he visited frequently throughout the development of Sherlock and the Challenge game that would follow it, as “really good — we liked each other, we liked talking with each other, I enjoyed visiting their offices and wanted to feel like a part of their culture. They accepted me as one of their own.” The lessons in professionalism and craft that Bob learned from Infocom would follow him through the rest of an impressive and varied career in making games. Bob:

They had the same persnicketiness to get things right that I had. For example, in Sherlock there was a puzzle that involved the tides in the Thames; the Thames goes up quite a bit, like six or seven feet in its tidal variation. In the Times newspaper included with the game, for which they got permission from the London Times to include excerpts from that day, we put in tide tables, and I remember huge arguments over whether they should be the actual tide tables from that day or whether we could bend them to suit the player — to have it work out so the player could solve this puzzle at a time that was convenient for the player, as opposed to when it was convenient for nature. Right now I don’t recall the resolution to that. I don’t remember who won.

My own amateurish investigations would seem to indicate that the tide tables were altered by several hours, although I’m far from completely confident in my findings. But the really important thing, of course, is that such a “persnickety” debate happened at all — a measure of all parties’ willingness to think deeply about the game they were making.

Like many of Bob Bates’s games, Sherlock isn’t one that lends itself overmuch to high-flown analysis, and this can in turn lead some critics to underestimate it. As in a surprising number of ludic Sherlock Holmes adaptations, you the player are cast in the role of the faithful Dr. Watson rather than the great detective himself — perhaps a wise choice given that Sherlock is so often little more than a walking, talking deus ex machina in the original stories, his intellectual leaps more leaps of pure fancy on Arthur Conan Doyle’s part than identifiable leaps of deduction. Sherlock effectively reverses the roles of Watson and Sherlock, rendering the latter little more than a sidekick and occasional source of clues and nudges in the game that bears his name.

It seems that Professor Moriarty has struck again, stealing nothing less than the Crown Jewels of England this time. He’s hidden them somewhere in London, leaving his old nemesis Sherlock a series of clues as to their location in the form of verse. To complete this highly unlikely edifice of artificial plotting, Sherlock decides to turn the investigation over to you, Watson, because Moriarty “will have tried to anticipate the sequence of my actions, and I’m sure he has laid his trap accordingly. But if you were to guide the course of our investigations, he will certainly be thrown off the scent. Therefore, let us take surprise onto our side and rely on your instincts as the man of action I know you to be — despite your frequent modest assertions to the contrary.” The real purpose of it all, of course, is to send you off on a merry scavenger hunt through Victorian London. This is not a game that rewards thinking too much about its plot.

The more compelling aspect of Sherlock is its attention to the details of its setting. It marks the third and final Infocom game, after Trinity and The Lurking Horror, to base its geography on a real place. Bob worked hard to evoke what he calls “the wonderful Victorian era, with the gas lamps and the horse-drawn carriages and the fog,” and succeeded admirably. The newspaper included with the game is a particularly nice touch, both in its own right as one of the more impressive feelies to appear in a late-period Infocom game and as a nice little throwback/homage to the earlier tabletop classic Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

At the same time that it evokes the Victorian era, however, Sherlock gives a view of London that will be immediately recognizable to any tourist who has ever, as another Infocom game once put it, enjoyed a “$599 London Getaway Package” and “soaked up as much of that authentic English ambiance as you can.” There’s a certain “What I did on my London vacation” quality to Sherlock that’s actually a strength rather than a weakness. Appropriately for a former tour guide who was himself a semi-regular London tourist, Bob made sure to fill his version of Victorian London with the big sights his audience would recognize: Big Ben, Madame Tussaud’s, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, all right where they ought to be on the map. (The game includes a taxi service to shuttle you around among the sights.) Bob lavished particular love on Westminster Abbey, taking pains to duplicate its layout as closely as space constraints allowed from a huge, glossy book he’d purchased in the Abbey’s gift shop on one of his own visits to London.

This map of the real Westminster Abbey matches up very well with...

This map of the real Westminster Abbey matches up very well with…

...the one found in Sherlock.

…the one found in Sherlock.

The time limit in Sherlock — you have just 48 hours to recover the Jewels — may raise some eyebrows, but it’s quite generous as such things go, allowing you more than enough time to poke into everything and savor all of the sights. You’re much more likely to find yourself waiting around for certain things that happen at certain times than trying to optimize every move. If there is a design flaw in the game, then it must be, as Bob himself admits, the very beginning: you need to solve one of the most difficult puzzles in the game right off to get properly started. Because it isn’t initially clear where or what this puzzle is, you’re likely to spend quite some time wandering around at loose ends, unsure what the game expects from you. As soon as you cross that initial hurdle, however, Sherlock settles down into a nicely woven ribbon of clues, not too trivial but also not too horribly taxing, leading to an exciting climax that’s actually worthy of the word.

Sherlock was released in January of 1988, becoming the last of an unprecedented spurt of nine Infocom games in twelve months and, as I mentioned in introducing this article, the last all-text Infocom adventure game ever. It also marked Infocom’s last release for the Commodore 64, the third and last of the “LZIP” line of slightly larger-than-usual games (like its predecessors, Sherlock uses some of the extra space for an in-game hint system), and the end of the line for the original Z-Machine that had been conceived by Marc Blank and Joel Berez back in 1979; Infocom’s new version 6 graphical Z-Machine would retain the name and much of the design philosophy, but would for the first time be the result of a complete ground-up rewrite. Finally, Sherlock was the 31st and final Infocom adventure game to be developed on a DEC, even if the particular DEC in question this time didn’t happen to be Infocom’s own legendary “fleet of red refrigerators.”

Whatever the virtues of the built-in name recognition that came with releasing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, this Sherlock Holmes adventure didn’t do notably well, as will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following my ongoing series of Infocom articles and with it the sales travails of this late period in their history. Released at a time of chaotic transition within Infocom, just after the company had made the decision to abandon the text-only games that had heretofore been their sole claim to fame, Sherlock became yet one more member of Infocom’s 20,000 Club, managing to sell a little over 21,000 copies in all. Bob and his colleagues at Challenge were not happy. They had spent far more time and money creating the game than anticipated, what with all the heavy lifting of getting ZIL up and running in their new environment and learning to use it properly, and the financial return was hardly commensurate. In the end, though, they decided to stay the course, to make the King Arthur game they had always planned to do next using the new development system that Infocom was creating, which would at long last add the ability to include pictures in the games. Surely that would boost sales. Wouldn’t it?

The melancholia that comes attached to Sherlock, the epoch-ending final all-text adventure game from Infocom, is, as is usual for epoch-ending events, easier to feel in retrospect than it was at the time. Bob, being somewhat removed from the Infocom core, didn’t even realize at the time that there were no more all-text games in the offing. Not that it would have mattered if he had; he preferred to think about the new engine with which Infocom was tempting him. With everyone so inclined to look forward rather than behind, the passing away of the commercial text-only adventure game into history was barely remarked.

Looked at today, however, Sherlock certainly wasn’t a bad note to go out on. Being built on the sturdy foundation of everything Infocom had learned about making text adventures to date, it’s not notably, obviously innovative, but, impressively given that it is a first-timer’s game, it evinces heaps of simple good craftsmanship. We may celebrate the occasional titles like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity that aspire to the mantle of Literature, but the vast majority of Infocom’s works are, just like this one, sturdily constructed games first and foremost. Explore an interesting place, solve some satisfying puzzles — the core appeals of a good text adventure are eternal. And, hey, this one has the added bonus that it might just make you want to visit the real London. If you do, you’ll already have a notion where things are, thanks to Bob Bates, lifelong tour guide to worlds real and virtual.

(Sources: Most of the detail in this article is drawn from an interview with Bob Bates, who was kind enough to submit to more than two hours of my nit-picky questions.)

 
 

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Generation Nintendo

Nintendo

In the final months of World War II, when the United States was trying to burn out the will of a starving Japan via the most sustained campaign of aerial incendiary bombardment in history, a handful of obvious targets remained strangely untouched. Among those targets was Kyoto: population 1 million plus, founded in the year 793, capital of the nation and home of the Emperor for most of the intervening centuries, home to more national shrines and other historic sites than any other city in Japan, world famous for its silk and cloisonné. If a single city can be said to embody the very soul of the Japanese people, it must be this one.

If the citizens of Kyoto believed that their city was being left untouched by the bombs raining down on the rest of the country out of respect for the special place it occupied in the Japanese psyche, they were partially correct. Yet the full motivation behind their seeming good fortune was cold-blooded rather than humanitarian. American Air Force planners were indeed aware of Kyoto’s symbolic importance, but they hardly saw that importance as grounds for sparing the city. Far from it. Kyoto was being reserved as a target for a special new weapon, one which was referred to only obliquely in Air Force internal memoranda as “the gadget.” Today we know the gadget as the atomic bomb. Entirely destroying Kyoto with one bomb would deliver a shock to the rest of Japan unequaled by the destruction of any other possible target: “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” Kyoto must be left untouched while the gadget was made ready for service so that mission planners and scientists could properly evaluate the bomb’s effect on an undamaged clean slate of a target.

Hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents would wind up owing their lives to Henry L. Stimson, a humane man tortured daily by the orders he had to issue as the American Secretary of War; never was there a Secretary of War who hated war more. In response to Stimson’s demand after the successful first test of the gadget in New Mexico, General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, reluctantly presented the Air Force’s list of planned targets to him, with Kyoto at the top. Stimson was horrified. Citing the proposed destruction of Kyoto as an unforgivable act from which Japan would never recover, Stimson, 77 years old and in poor health, faced down virtually the entire entrenched bureaucracy of the American military to demand that the first atomic bomb to be used in anger be dropped somewhere, anywhere else: “This is one time I’m going to be the final deciding authority. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do on this.” His stubborn stance resulted at last in Kyoto being stricken from the list by grumbling generals who would have been perfectly happy if its destruction really had been a death blow to the culture it symbolized, thank you very much. Of course, in saving hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents Stimson was also consigning to death hundreds of thousands of others in Hiroshima. Such are the wages of war.

The decision to spare Kyoto had another unintended consequence, one which may seem trivial — even disrespectful — to mention in parallel with such immense tolls in human lives saved and lost, but one which in its own way illustrates the interconnectness of all things. Hidden away within Kyoto’s blissfully undamaged warren of ancient streets was a little family-owned company called Nintendo, maker of ornate playing cards and other games and collectibles. Absolutely dedicated to the war effort, as all good Japanese were expected to be at the time, they had lately taken to giving their products jingoist themes, such as a backgammon board illustrated by cartoon animals dressed up as soldiers, with Japanese flags flying proudly above them and British and American flags lying crumpled in the dust at their feet.

More than four decades later, Stimson’s determination to spare Kyoto and with it Nintendo boomeranged back on his country in a way that no one could have seen coming. Many contemporary commentators, conditioned by the Reagan Revolution to cast all things in terms of nationalism and patriotism, saw in the arrival of Nintendo on American shores the opening of the latest front in a new war, economic rather than military this time, between the United States and Japan. And this time it seemed that Japan was winning the war handily. They had come for our steel, and we had done nothing. They had come for our auto industry, and we had done nothing. They had come for our televisions and stereos, and we had done nothing. Now they were coming for our videogame consoles. How long would it be until the PC industry, arguably the biggest economic success story of the 1980s, was threatened as well?

Given the subject of this article, I should take a moment to clarify right now that this blog has not been and will never become a history of console-based videogames. This blog is rather a history of computer games, a culture possessed of plenty of interconnections and collisions with the larger, more mainstream culture of the consoles, but one which has nevertheless remained largely its own thing ever since the first popular videogame console and the first three pre-assembled PCs were all launched during the single fecund year of 1977. In addition to reasons of pure personal preference, I justify this focus by noting that a fair number of people are doing great, rigorous history in the realm of videogames, while the realm of computer games has been comparatively neglected.

Still, we can’t really understand the history of computer games without reckoning with those aforementioned interconnections and collisions with the world of the consoles. And one of the biggest and most obvious collisions of all was that crazy time at the tail end of the 1980s when Nintendo arrived to sweep the rug out from under a computer-game industry which had spent the last few years convinced that it was destined to become the next great movement in mainstream American entertainment — i.e., destined to hold exactly the position that this Japanese upstart had just swept in and taken over with breathtaking speed. Small wonder that coded allusions to the dark days of World War II, accompanied by thinly veiled (or blatantly unveiled) racism, became the order of the day in many sectors of American culture, industry, and government alike. Meanwhile the bewildered computer-game executives were trying to figure out what the hell had just hit them and what they should do about it. Let’s join them now in asking the first of those questions.

Hiroshi Yamauchi

Hiroshi Yamauchi

The history of the company known as Nintendo — the name can be very roughly translated as an admonition to work hard but also to accept that one’s ultimate success is in the hands of greater powers — dates all the way back to 1889, when it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi as a maker of intricately painted playing cards, known as “hanafuda” in Japanese. Nintendo managed to survive and grow modestly amid many changes in Japanese life over the course of the next half-century and beyond. The company’s modern history, however, begins in 1949, when Hiroshi Yamauchi, latest scion of the family-owned business, took over as president. Far more ambitious than his forebears, this latest Yamauchi was inspired by the entrepreneurial ferment of the rebuilding postwar Japan to expand Nintendo beyond playing cards and collectibles. The results of his efforts were decidedly mixed in the early years. Among his less successful initiatives were a line of instant-rice meals — a sort of ricey Ramen Noodles before Ramen Noodles were cool — and a chain of “love motels” offering busy executives the convenience of paying for their trysts by the hour. (Ironic as they might seem in light of Nintendo’s later rigorously enforced family-friendly image, at the time the love motels seemed to everyone around him a natural innovation for Yamauchi to have dreamed up; he was a notorious philanderer.) More successful, for a while, was a Nintendo taxi service. Yet even it was hardly a world-beater. Throughout the first two decades of Yamauchi’s lengthy reign he continued to cast restlessly about for the Big One, the idea that would finally take Nintendo to the next level.

In 1969, he made a big step in the direction of finding his company’s life’s purpose when he founded a new division called simply “Toys.” Employing a number of young gadget freaks as inventors, Toys began to churn out a series of strange contraptions straight out of Rube Goldberg, such as the Ultra Hand, a scissor-like reach extender that was more whimsical than practical; the Ultra Machine, an indoor mechanical baseball pitcher; and the Ultra Scope, a periscope for peeking around corners and over fences. (Parents were not terribly fond of this last one in particular.) All were quite successful, opening at last the sustainable new business front for Nintendo that Yamauchi had been dreaming of for so long.

With electronic components getting smaller and cheaper by the year, Nintendo’s innovative toys inevitably began to take on more and more of an electronic character as time wore on. The first big success in the realm of electronic gadgets was something called the Nintendo Beam Gun, which combined a light gun with a set of targets equipped with the appropriate photoelectric sensors; more than 1 million of them were sold. Nintendo built on the Beam Gun’s success with a chain of Laser Clay Ranges — think “clay pigeons” — that spread across Japan during the mid-1970s, re-purposed bowling alleys where patrons could engage in gunfights with cowboys and “homicidal maniacs” projected onto the far wall.

With Atari now going strong in the United States, videogames were a natural next step for Nintendo. They first made a series of Color TV Games, each a home videogame capable of playing a few variants of a single simple game when hooked up to the family television set; they sold at least 2.5 million of them in the late 1970s. The Nintendo Game & Watch, a whole line of handheld gadgets capable of playing a single game each, did even better; Nintendo is estimated to have sold over 40 million of them during the 1980s. Meanwhile they were also moving into the standup arcade; Donkey Kong, released in 1981, became a worldwide smash, introducing the Nintendo name to many in the United States for the first time. The designer of that cute, colorful, relatively non-violent game, a virtual blueprint for the eventual Nintendo aesthetic as a whole, was one Shigeru Miyamoto. He would become not only Nintendo’s own most famous designer and public figure, but the most famous Japanese videogame designer of all time, full stop. The protagonist of Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, a little leaping Italian plumber named Mario, was also destined for greatness as one of if not the most famous videogame characters of all time (his only serious rival is likely Pac-Man, another contemporaneous Japanese creation).

All of this success, however, was only laying the groundwork for Nintendo’s masterstroke. Moving on from the single-game units that had so far been Nintendo’s sole output, Yamauchi tasked his engineers with creating a proper videogame console capable of playing many games that could be sold separately in the form of cartridges, just like the Atari VCS. The device they came up with was hardly state of the art even at the time of its debut. It was built around a clone of the venerable old 8-bit MOS 6502, the same chip found in the Atari VCS as well as American home computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64, with those circuits that were protected by patents excised. It offered graphics a little better than the likes of the 64, sound a little worse. The new machine was being readied at seemingly the worst possible time: just as the Great Videogame Crash was underway in the United States, and just as the worldwide conventional wisdom was saying that home computers were the future, videogame consoles a brief-lived fad of the past. Yet Nintendo freely, even gleefully defied the conventional wisdom. The Nintendo Family Computer (“Famicom”) was deliberately designed to be as non-computer-like as possible. Instead it was patterned after Nintendo’s successful toys and gadgets — all bright, garish plastic, with as few switches and plugs as possible, certainly with nothing as complicated as a keyboard or disk drive. It looked like a toy because Nintendo designed it to look like a toy.

The Nintendo Famicom

The Nintendo Famicom

Yamauchi realized that a successful videogame console was at least as much a question of perception — i.e., of marketing — as it was of technology. In the imploding Atari, he had the one great counterexample he needed, a perfect model of what not to do. Atari’s biggest sin in Yamauchi’s eyes had been to fail to properly lock down the VCS. It had never occurred to them that third parties could start making games for “their” machine, until Activision started doing just that in 1980, to be followed by hundreds more. Not only had all of those third-party cartridges cost Atari hundreds of millions in the games of their own that they didn’t sell and the potential licensing fees that they didn’t collect, they had also gravely damaged the image of their platform: many or most Atari VCS games were just plain bad, and some were in devastatingly terrible taste to boot. The public at large, Yamauchi realized, didn’t parse fine distinctions between a game console and the games it played. He was determined not to lose control of his brand as Atari had done theirs.

For better and for worse, that determination led to Nintendo becoming the first of the great walled gardens in consumer software. The “better” from the standpoint of consumers was a measure of quality control, an assurance that any game they bought for their console would be a pretty good, polished, playable game. And from the standpoint of Yamauchi the “better” was of course that Nintendo got a cut of every single one of those games’ earnings, enough to let him think of the console itself as little more than a loss leader for the real business of making and licensing cartridges: “Forgo the big profits on the hardware because it is really just a tool to sell software. That is where we shall make our money.” The “worse” was far less diversity in theme, content, and mechanics, and a complete void of games willing to actually say almost anything at all about the world, lest they say something that some potential customer somewhere might possibly construe as offensive. The result would be an infantilization of the nascent medium in the eyes of mainstream consumers, an infantilization from which it has arguably never entirely escaped.

Whatever the reservations of curmudgeons like me, however, the walled-garden model of software distribution proved successful even beyond Yamauchi’s wildest dreams. After releasing their new console to Japanese consumers on July 15, 1983, Nintendo sold more than 2.5 million of them in the first eighteen months alone. Sales only increased as the years went by, even as the hardware continued to grow more and more technically obsolete. Consumers didn’t care about that. They cared about all those cute, colorful, addictive games, some produced by an ever-widening circle of outside licensees, others — including many or most of the best and best-remembered — by Nintendo’s own crack in-house development team, with that indefatigable fount of creativity named Shigeru Miyamoto leading the way. Just as Yamauchi had predicted, the real money in the Famicom was in the software that was sold for it.

Minoru Arakawa

Minoru Arakawa

With the Famicom a huge success in Japan, there now beckoned that ultimate market for any ambitious up-and-comer: the United States. Yamauchi had already set up a subsidiary there called Nintendo of America back in 1980, under the stewardship of his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa. Concerns about nepotism aside — no matter how big it got, Nintendo would always remain the Yamauchi family business — Arakawa was ideal for the job: an MIT-educated fluent English-speaker who had traveled extensively around the country and grown to understand and love its people and their way of life. Under his stewardship, Nintendo of America did very well in the early years on the back of Donkey Kong and other standup-arcade games.

Yet Nintendo as a whole hesitated for quite some time at the prospect of introducing the Famicom to North America. When Arakawa canvased toy stores, the hostility he encountered to the very idea of another videogame console was palpable. Atari had damaged or destroyed many a business and many a life on the way down, and few drew much of a distinction between Atari and the videogame market as a whole. According to one executive, “it would be easier to sell Popsicles in the Arctic” than to convince the toy stores to take a flyer on another console.

But Arakawa, working in tandem with two American executive recruits who would become known as “the two Howards” — Howard Lincoln and Howard Philips — wouldn’t let go of the idea. Responding to focus-group surveys that said the Japanese Famicom was too toy-like and too, well, foreign-looking to succeed in the United States, he got Nintendo’s engineers to redesign the externals to be less bulbous, less garish, and less shiny. He also gave the Famicom a new, less cutsy name: the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. The only significant technical update Nintendo made for North America was a new state-of-the-art handshaking system for making sure that every cartridge was a legitimate, licensed Nintendo game; black-market cartridges duplicated by tiny companies who hoped to fly under the radar of Nintendo’s stringent licensing regime had become a real problem on the Famicom. Tellingly, the lockout system was by far the most technically advanced aspect of the NES.

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The new NES made its public debut at last at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1985. Few in the home-computer trade press — the videogame trade press didn’t really exist anymore — paid it any real attention. The big news of the show was rather the new Jack Tramiel-led Atari’s 16-bit ST computer. Computer Gaming World was typical, mentioning the NES only as a passing bit of trivia at the end of a long CES feature article: “Nintendo even offered an entirely new game system.” Clearly Arakawa and company had an uphill climb before them.

They deliberately started small. They would sell the NES first in New York City only — chosen because Arakawa considered it the most cynical and challenging place to market a new gadget in the country, and, as the old song says, “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” Starting with a warehouse full of the first 100,000 NESs to arrive from Japan and a $50 million war chest, Arakawa and the two Howards personally visited virtually every toy and electronics store in the five boroughs to press flesh and demonstrate the NES to skeptical managers and proprietors — and (hopefully) to take orders when they were finished. Meanwhile Nintendo blitzed the airwaves with advertising. They managed to sell 50,000 NESs in New York alone that Christmas season — not bad for an unknown gadget in a field that everyone, from the most rarefied pundit to the most ordinary Joe or Jane on the street, considered to be yesterday’s fad.

From that promising start they steadily expanded: first to that other taste-maker capital Los Angeles, then to Chicago, to San Francisco, to Dallas and Houston, and finally nationwide. Sales hit the magic 1 million mark well before the end of 1986. Cheap and cheerful and effortless in its lack of fiddly disk drives and keyboards, the NES was selling by that point as well as the Commodore 64, and far better than any other home computer. In the NES’s second year on the market it eclipsed them all to such an extent as to make continued comparison almost pointless: 3 million NESs were sold during those twelve months alone. And, astonishingly, it was still just getting started. During 1988, 7 million NESs were sold, to go with 33 million cartridges, each of which represented yet more profit for Nintendo. Lifetime NES sales topped 30 million in 1990, by which time one out of every three American homes could boast one of these unassuming gray boxes perched underneath the television. Total NES and Famicom lifetime sales reached a staggering 75 million in 1992; as many Nintendos were by then in the world as all PCs, whether found in homes or businesses or schools, combined. Even the Atari VCS in the heyday of the first videogame fad had never been able to boast of numbers like this.

Because Nintendo had come into the console market when it was universally considered dead, they had been able to reinvent it entirely in their own image. Just as “Atari” had once been a synonym for videogames in general, now “Nintendo” threatened to become the same for a new generation of players. Savvy about branding and marketing in a way that Atari had never quite managed to be, Nintendo felt compelled to actively push against this trend by aggressively protecting and limiting the use of their trademarks; they didn’t want people buying a new “Nintendo” that happened to have the name of Sega, Sony, or 3DO stamped on its case.

Nintendo’s penetration of the North American market could (and doubtless has) serve as the basis of an MBA course in marketing and brand-building. Starting from the less than nothing of a dead industry replete with consumer ill-will, coming from a foreign nation that was viewed with fear and mistrust by many Americans, Nintendo of America built one of the largest and most insanely loyal customer bases the American economy has ever known. They did it by tying their own brand to brands their target demographic was known to already love, like Pepsi and McDonald’s. They did it by building Nintendo stores within stores in major chains from Macy’s to Toys “R” Us, where kids could browse and play under the benevolent gaze of Mario while their parents shopped. (By 1991, Nintendo alone represented 20 percent of Toys “R” Us’s total revenues, and seven of their ten best-selling single products.) They did it by building a massive mailing list from the warranty cards that their young customers sent in, then using contests and giveaways to make every single one of them feel like a valued member of the new Generation Nintendo. They did it by publishing a glossy magazine, Nintendo Power, full of hints and tips on the latest games and all the latest news on what was coming next from Nintendo (and nothing on what was coming from their competitors). They did it by setting up a hotline of “Nintendo Game Counselors,” hundreds of them working at any one time to answer youngsters’ questions about how to get through this tricky level or kill that monster. They did it by relentlessly data-mining to find out what their customers liked about their games and what they didn’t, and crafting new releases to hit as many players as possible precisely in their sweet spots. They did it by spending up to $5 million on a single 30-second television commercial, four or five times the typical going rate, making the new commercials for a new Nintendo game an event in themselves. They did it by making sure that Mario and Zelda and their other iconic characters were everywhere, from televisions shows to records, from lunch boxes to bed sheets. And they did it by never worrying their customers with the sorts of metrics that the home-computer makers loved: kilobytes and megabytes and colors and resolutions and clock speeds and bit counts. The NES was so thoroughly locked down that it was years before there was any published information available at all on what was really contained within those ubiquitous gray plastic shells.

If it can all sound a little soulless when laid out like that, well, few in business would argue with the end results. Nintendo seemed to be becoming more American than most Americana. “A boy between 8 and 15 without a Nintendo is like a boy without a baseball glove,” wrote Hobby World magazine in 1988. In 1990 a survey found Mario to be more recognizable to American children than that most American of all cartoon icons — Mickey Mouse.

And where did all of this leave the established American computer-game industry? That was a question that plenty in said industry itself were asking with ever-increasing frustration and even desperation. Total sales of computer games published on all platforms in 1989 totaled about $300 million; total sales for Nintendo cartridges, $1 billion. It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this. No one in computer games had seen anything like Nintendo coming. They, the computer-game industry, were supposed to have been the next big wave in American home entertainment — a chicken in every pot and a home computer in every living room. Instead this Japanese upstart had stolen their thunder to such an extent as to render their entire industry an afterthought, a veritable non-entity in the eyes of most financial analysts and venture capitalists. Just to add insult to the injury, they were being smothered by thoroughly obsolete 8-bit technology when they could offer consumers audiovisual feasts played on Amigas and Atari STs and IBM PS/2s with VGA graphics. A computer-game designer with Electronic Arts saw unnerving parallels between his own industry and another American industry that had been devastated by Japan in the previous decade:

The best companies and the best programmers were making computer games. But the Nintendo player didn’t care about the sophisticated leaps we were making on computers — the frame rate of the images or incredible sound. They just wanted fun. It was like we were making gas guzzlers and the Japanese were making subcompacts.

At street level the situation didn’t look much better. Fred D’Ignazio, a columnist for Compute!’s Gazette, shares a typical story:

My kids and I used to play games on our home computer — games like Epyx’s The Legend of Blacksilver, SSI’s Questron II, EA’s Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One, Gamestar’s Take Down, Arcadia’s Aaargh!, and, of course gobs and gobs of good educational games.

Then the Nintendo landed, and things haven’t been the same since. The Nintendo runs day and night. (We’re not even allowed to shut off the machine when we go to bed because there’s always a game in progress — and there’s no disk drive to back it up.) Meanwhile, I don’t think our little home computer has been fired up in weeks.

The computer that was most damaged by Nintendo’s invasion of North America was undoubtedly the Commodore 64. It was very cheap in computer terms, but once you added in the cost of the essential disk drive it was nowhere near as cheap as the NES. And it was still a computer, even if a computer that had long been used primarily for playing games. You had to type in arcane commands to get a game started, had to wait for the game to load, often had to shuffle disks in and out of the drive and do a lot more waiting as you actually played. A Compute!’s Gazette reader shares the story of her attempt to introduce her Nintendo-loving eight-year-old nephew to the joys of Commodore 64 gaming:

As he looked through my 64 software to pick out a game, I started to give directions on how to handle the software and disk drive. Before I could finish he said, “I just want to use a cartridge and start playing.” After about fifteen minutes into a game he said, “This is great, but how come it takes so long to start the game again and why do I have to keep turning the disk over and over all the time?” Shortly after, he started complaining that his hand was too small for the joystick. He tried three other joysticks, but he either had the same problem or the joystick didn’t have the dexterity needed to play the game. He then said, “I wish I could use my Nintendo controls on your Commodore.” Soon after, he quit and went right to his Nintendo.

The Commodore 64 was in a very difficult position, squeezed from below by Nintendo and squeezed from above by the Amiga and Atari ST and, most of all, by ever more consumer-friendly MS-DOS-based machines from companies like Tandy, which were beginning to sport hard disks, crisp VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice. There wasn’t much that Commodore’s aged little breadbox could offer in response to a feature set like that. In the battle versus Nintendo for the low end, meanwhile, all of the immense force of playground public opinion was arrayed against the Commodore 64. The 64 was clunky and slow and ugly. It was the machine your big brother used to play games on, the one your parents kept pushing you toward to learn programming or to play educational (blech!) games. The Nintendo was the machine that all your friends played on — the same friends who would look on you as a freak if you tried to get them to play a computer game with you.

If you think that hardcore Commodore 64 users accepted this changing world order peacefully, you don’t have much experience with the fanatic platform loyalties of the 1980s. Their heated opinions on the 64’s Nintendo crisis spilled much ink on the pages of the remaining 64-centric magazines, moving through spasms of denial (“If Nintendo has the ability to keep its users captured, why do my two nephews keep pestering me to let them play the games that I have for my 64?”), advice (“Commodore could bring out some new peripherals like a light gun to play shooting games or a keyboard to make use of the superior sound of the 64”), and justification (“This letter was typed on a 64. Let’s see any Nintendo do that!”). When all else failed, there was always good-old-fashioned name-calling: “The word-processing capability of the 64 is a pointless feature to most Ninnies, since the majority of them don’t seem to be able to read and write anyway. Most of the Ninny chic was built on the fact that a baboon could operate it.”

None of this raging against the dying of the light could make any difference. The Commodore 64 went into an undeniable decline in 1988. That decline became a free fall in 1989, and in 1990 the 64 was effectively declared dead by the American software industry, with virtually every publisher terminating support. The other great 8-bit survivor, the Apple II, hung on a little longer thanks to an entrenched user base in schools and small businesses, but when Apple finally discontinued all production of the line in 1993 the news was greeted by most publishers with a shrug: “I didn’t know those old things were still being made!”

The computer-game publishers’ reactions to Nintendo were complicated, ofttimes uncertain, occasionally downright contradictory. With Nintendo rapidly taking over what used to be the low end of the computer-game market, many publishers felt emboldened to refocus their energies on the still slowly growing higher end, particularly on all those new consumer-oriented clones from Tandy and others. Plenty of publishers, it must be said, weren’t really all that sad to the 64 go. The platform had always been tricky to develop for, and its parent company was still widely loathed for heaps of very good reasons; everyone in the industry seemed to have at least one Commodore horror story to tell. Many had come to see the 64 during its years of dominance as an albatross holding back ambitions that would have been realizable on the bigger, more powerful platforms. Now they were at last free to pursue those grander schemes.

At the same time, though, the Commodore 64 had been their cash cow for years, and there remained the question of whether and how soon all those bigger machines would make up for its loss. Certainly they failed resoundingly to take up the slack in 1989, a bad year for the computer-game industry and a great one for Nintendo. Electronic Arts, the closest thing the industry as a whole had to a bellwether, had their worst year ever that year, leaving some investors openly calling for the resignation of founder Trip Hawkins.

As unhappy as the majority of industry old-timers remained with the Nintendo-dominated state of affairs in digital games in general, that $1 billion in annual cartridge revenue and massive mainstream penetration was awfully tempting. As early as 1988, it seemed that just about everyone was discussing adapting their computer games to the NES, and a fair number were swallowing their pride to approach Nintendo with hat in hand, asking for a coveted license to make NES games. In addition to the sheer size of the Nintendo market, it also had the advantage that piracy, which many in the computer-game industry continued to believe was costing them at least half of the revenues they would otherwise be enjoying, was nonexistent there thanks to those uncopyable cartridges and the NES’s elaborate lockout system.

Activision,1 who had enjoyed their greatest success by far in the old glory days of the Atari VCS, jumped onto the Nintendo bandwagon with perhaps the most enthusiasm of all. Activision’s head, the supremely unsentimental Bruce Davis, often sounded as if he would be perfectly happy to abandon computers altogether, to make Activision exclusively a publisher of videogame cartridges again: “If hardware companies are designing a machine for one purpose, they will do a better job than on a multi-function machine.”

But it’s the more unlikely NES converts that provide the best evidence of just how far Nintendo had come and just how much pressure the traditional computer-game industry was feeling. The NES began to get quite a number of ports of computer-game fare that no one would ever have imagined trying to put on a machine like this just a year or two earlier. Origin, for instance, put out NES versions of Ultima III and Ultima IV, and Lucasfilm Games ported Maniac Mansion. (See Douglas Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for a description of the hoops publishers like Lucasfilm had to jump through to meet Nintendo’s stringent content restrictions.) Even SSI, whose traditional stock-in-trade of turn-based, cerebral, complicated strategy games was about as far from the whimsy of Mario and Zelda as you could get, moved Pool of Radiance over to the NES. Computer Gaming World, the journal of choice for those same cerebral strategy gamers, tried to rope in Mario fans with a new magazine-within-a-magazine they dubbed “Video Gaming World.”

Few of these initiatives bore all that much fruit. The publishers may have found a way to get their games onto the NES, but said games remained far from the sort of fare most Nintendo players were interested in; suffice to say that Nintendo never had to worry about any of these titles eclipsing Mario. Still, the fact that so many computer-game publishers were making such an effort shows how scary and uncertain Nintendo was making their world. Perhaps the most telling moment of all came in August of 1990, when an embattled Trip Hawkins announced that Electronic Arts would be jumping into the console space as well. This was the same Trip Hawkins who had written a commitment to “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only” into Electronic Arts’s first business plan, who had preached the gospel of home computers as successors to videogame consoles as loudly and proudly as anyone in his industry. Now he and his company were singing a very different tune. Bing Gordon, Hawkin’s right-hand man at Electronic Arts, compared home computers to of all unflattering things steam engines. James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, had imagined one in every home, with a bunch of assorted pulleys and gears to make it do different things. Instead modern homes had a bunch of more specialized machines: washing machines, food processors… and now Nintendos. Soon Hawkins would leave Electronic Arts to found 3DO, a company to make… you guessed it, a new videogame console.

Some, however, chose a more belligerent path than these can’t-beat’em joiners. Nintendo’s rigorous control of the NES’s walled garden rankled everyone in the older software industry; this just wasn’t how their business was done. They believed that Nintendo was guilty of restraint of trade, antitrust violations, you name it. Particularly enraging was Nintendo’s complete control of the manufacturing pipeline for NES cartridges. Leveraging those data-mining systems of theirs, more sophisticated than anyone had heretofore ever dreamed of, Nintendo made sure that the supply of new games was always slightly less than the demand for them, thereby creating a hype for each new title as a hot, desirable status symbol among the Nintendo Generation and, most of all, avoiding the glut of games piled up in warehouses — and, eventually, landfills — that had marked the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. But when American publishers saw their games produced in insufficient quantities to become the hits they believed they might otherwise have been, they cried foul. The Software Publishers Association served as the disgruntled voice of the American software industry as a whole in what became a full-scale public-relations war against Nintendo.

The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.

American publishers felt certain that Nintendo was playing favorites, favoring their own games and those of their favorite third-party publishers — generally the ones from Japan — by manipulating production numbers and manipulating the sentiments of Generation Nintendo through the coverage they gave (or didn’t give) each game in Nintendo Power. “If I pissed Nintendo off,” runs a typical complaint, “I would get less product. My games would get hit in Nintendo Power and they’d get low ratings.” And the most surefire way to piss Nintendo off, at least according to this complainer, was to release a game for the NES’s first serious competitor, the Sega Genesis console that entered the United States in 1989.

There was plenty of tinder already lying about the public sphere, just waiting to be ignited by such rhetoric. All of the concerns about videogames that had been voiced by parents, educators, and politicians during the heyday of Generation Atari were now being dusted off and applied to Generation Nintendo. Now, however, they were given additional force by Nintendo’s very foreignness. Plenty of Americans, many of whom had still not completely forgiven Japan for Pearl Harbor, saw a nefarious agenda behind it all, a fifth column of Mario-obsessed youngsters who might come to undermine the very nation. “Notice the way Super Mario is drawn,” wrote one in a letter to a magazine. “He has the eyes of someone who has been brainwashed.” Lurking just below the surface of such complaints, unstated but by no means unconveyed, were old attitudes toward the Japanese as shifty characters who could never be trusted to follow the rules, whether in war or business. It all came down to “cultural” differences, they muttered disingenuously: “There’s more of a sharing of the pie by American companies. In Japan, it’s different: winners win big and losers lose.”

Hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning anti-Nintendo sentiment, in December of 1988 Tengen Games, a spinoff of Atari Games (which was itself the successor to the standup-arcade portion of the original Atari’s business), sued Nintendo in federal court for antitrust violations and monopolistic practices: “The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” Having found a way to defeat the much-vaunted lockout system through a combination of industrial espionage, reverse engineering, and good old social engineering — this is one of the few occasions in Nintendo’s history where one might accuse them of having been naive — Tengen simultaneously launched a few of their own unauthorized games for the NES.

Nintendo’s counterattack against Tengen was massive and comprehensive. Not only did they launch the expected blizzard of legal actions, but they made it clear to all of the stores that handled their products that there would be grave consequences if they chose to sell the Tengen games as well. Such threats ironically represented a far more clear-cut antitrust violation than anything found in Tengen’s original suit. When Tengen got the court to order Nintendo to cease and desist from such behavior, Nintendo allegedly only became more subtle. “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product,” a rep might say. “By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter? How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses,” remembers one retailer. “The truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.”

Tengen was determined to try their case against Nintendo first and foremost in the court of American public opinion. “Who gave Nintendo the power to decide what software the American public can buy?” they asked. The New York Times, for one, agreed with them: “A verdict in favor of Nintendo would probably have a spillover effect into the personal-computer industry, where it could have a chilling effect on the free flow of ideas and innovations that have characterized that market since its inception.” An opportunistic Congressman named Dennis Eckart launched a high-profile crusade against Nintendo that led to lots of heated rhetoric amid Congressional hearings and the involvement of several state Attorneys General and the Federal Trade Commission. Jack Tramiel of the other Atari (the one currently making the Atari ST computer), who had always viewed lawsuits as healthy business competition by other means, piled on with a suit of his own, claiming that by monopolizing the market Nintendo was keeping his own company from getting good software for its machines. “Nintendo has demonstrated its disregard for free and fair competition in America,” said Jack’s son and anointed successor Sam Tramiel.

Yet the anti-Nintendo sentiment in the country didn’t ultimately do much to help either of the two Ataris’ legal cases; the courts proved willing to buck that rising tide. In a landmark ruling against Tengen in March of 1991, Judge Fern Smith stated that Nintendo had the right to “exclude others” from the NES if they so chose, thus providing the legal soil on which many more walled gardens would be tilled in the years to come. Similarly, the Tramiels’ suit against Nintendo was definitively rejected in 1992, after having cost their company a great deal of time, energy, and most of all money it could ill afford. The other various and multifarious investigations into Nintendo’s business, of which there were far too many to summarize here, resulted in a mixed bag of vindications and modest slaps on the wrist that did nothing to alter Nintendo’s overall trajectory. Perhaps the best argument against Nintendo as a monopoly was the arrival of the company’s first competitors in the console space, beginning with Sega, who proved that it actually was still possible to carve out a non-Nintendo place of one’s own in the game-console industry that Nintendo had so recently resurrected.

Nintendo, then, was here to stay, as were Sega and other competitors still to come. The computer-game industry would just have to accept that and reckon with it as best they could. In the end, the threat from Japan proved not quite as apocalyptic as it had seemed during the darkest days of 1989. In 1990 computers could start to boast of a modest new buzz of their own, thanks to the new so-called “multimedia PCs” and a bunch of new games that took advantage of their capabilities. Having ceded the low ground to the consoles, computers had retained the high ground, a loyal constituency of slightly older, more affluent gamers who still had plenty of room in their hearts for the sort of big, high-concept strategy, adventure, and CRPG games that weren’t all that realizable on the more limited consoles. The computer-game industry grew again already in 1990, and by a double-digit percentage at that. The vibrant jungle of PC gaming would continue to bloom in a thousand ways at once, some of them productive, some of them dead ends, some of them inspiring, some of them kind of repugnant. And through it all, the jungle of PC gaming would remain interesting in ways that, at least for this humble writer, the fussily manicured walled garden of Nintendo has never quite managed to be. But whichever mode of distribution you personally favored, one thing became clear as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s: neither Generation Nintendo nor the emerging Generation Wintel would be going anywhere anytime soon.

(Sources: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes; Game Over by David Sheff; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1988, March 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989; Computer Gaming World of September/October 1985 and June 1988; Amazing Computing of January 1989; materials in the SSI and Brøderbund collections at the Strong Museum of Play.)


  1. Activision changed their name to Mediagenic midstream in these events. Because I haven’t told the story behind that change yet, and in order to just generally avoid confusion, I simply refer to the company as “Activision” in this article. 

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance is one of the most important CRPGs of all time in terms of both design and the genre’s commercial history. Coming as it did near the end of the line for an 8-bit CRPG tradition that began in earnest with the original Ultima and Wizardry games back in 1981, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of that tradition, blending the ideas and approaches of its predecessors with its own brand new commercial trump card, the Dungeons & Dragons license. The latter was more than enough to move Pool of Radiance and the Gold Box line it spawned into place as the 1B to the Ultima series’s perennial 1A, replacing the Bard’s Tale games, whose own shooting star was now in the descendant. As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.

My wife Dorte and I recently played through Pool of Radiance as the first stage in a grander project of trying to take the same party of characters through the entire four-game series that it begins. This article describes what we found therein.

Being the first game in a series that would spawn three direct sequels, Pool of Radiance limits your characters to somewhere between level 6 and 9, depending on class; this is strictly a low- to mid-level adventure, reserving the real power-gaming for its sequels. Still, there’s a big difference between level 1 and level 6, and the thrill of seeing your characters advance and grow in power, so much at the heart of an RPG’s appeal, is the greatest at the lower levels.

The story is appropriate to the characters’ somewhat limited powers. It’s surprisingly modest in scale and scope, at least within the over-the-top context of ludic fantasy in general. Instead of saving the world, you’re “only” out to save a little town called Phlan that’s been largely overrun with monsters in recent years. Like so much about Pool of Radiance, the scenario harks back to the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, to iconic low-level adventures like Gary Gygax’s own The Keep on the Borderlands and the classic British module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In these, as in Pool of Radiance, the stakes for the campaign world are relatively low but the stakes for the players’ party couldn’t be higher. There are, thank God, no “Chosen Ones” or existential universal threats in Pool of Radiance, a welcome distinction that largely holds true throughout the Gold Box line.

In addition to the decidedly modest heights to which characters are allowed to rise in Pool of Radiance specifically, the need to fit the Gold Box games in general into TSR’s existing milieus tended to rein in such excesses. You can’t have every party saving the world when said world needs to be shared by hundreds of adventure modules, source books, computer games, and novels. Those who are invested in the Forgotten Realms as a setting will be able to situate Phlan on a map of the Realms and enjoy the lengthy explication of the region’s history and geography included with the game. Those like me who couldn’t really care less how Phlan fits into the greater Realms don’t have to worry about it.

More interesting to me is the game’s method of telling the more immediate story of your own party of adventurers. As in the contemporaneous Wasteland, much of that story is moved into an accompanying booklet of paragraphs. To my mind, though, Pool of Radiance‘s paragraph book is richer and more interesting that that of Wasteland. In addition to flavor text, you’ll also find maps, diagrams, and illustrations inside the paragraph book to further enrich the experience. And, while I wouldn’t accuse the writing of being precisely good, it is knowing and entertaining in its pulpy cheesiness — and really, how much more can one expect out of such an artificial narrative experience as a traditional monster-bashing CRPG? Dorte and I laughed at the writing a lot, but, hey, it was good-natured laughter; we didn’t go in expecting Shakespeare.

Pool of Radiance

When starting Pool of Radiance, the first order of business — after getting past the irritating code-wheel-based copy protection, that is — must be to create your six-character adventuring party. As was remarked often by disappointed purists back in the day, Pool of Radiance offers nothing close to a full implementation of the byzantine collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers. You can, for instance, choose among only the four core, archetypal character classes of fighter, cleric, magic user, and thief, combining them with the six races of human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling. Personally, I don’t consider such simplifications a negative at all really. Trust me, what’s here is more than (over)complicated enough. More on that later.

Don't you just love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

Don’t you love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

As usual for games of this tradition, Pool of Radiance lets you re-roll a character’s statistics as many times as you like to get someone you consider viable. Or, if you like, the game lets you bypass all of the virtual dice-rolling and just input starting ability scores of your choice for your characters. Implemented in the service of some ill-defined scheme to let you move your favorite tabletop characters into the computer game, the feature was promptly used by legions of cheaters to make parties full of super characters with the maximum score of 18 in every attribute. But the final joke was on them: Pool of Radiance punishes such players by scaling some of the fights to the overall power of the party, leading to some long, drawn-out combats for the cheaters that those who play fair will breeze through. As we’re beginning to see already, this game does have a way of proving itself more cleverly designed than one initially wants to give it credit for.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI's programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI’s programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics.

Pool of Radiance

Once you’ve put your party together, you can finally begin the game proper. It opens with your arrival by boat at the last remaining human enclave in the once-thriving village, and a brief guided tour thereof by a representative of the town. The screen layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale game. I would say, however, that just the guide’s introduction alone already contains more text and story content than either of those games.

After the guide is finished, you can start to explore. The opening area is devoid of monsters and completely safe (well, almost; stay out of taverns for a while). It contains all the expected accoutrements of a CRPG home base: shops of various sorts, temples for healing, a training hall for leveling up.

Pool of Radiance

It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) Players of course always ignore all the Gallic gibberish and just pick out a trusty long sword, axe, or mace. None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hordes, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.

Pool of Radiance

Another nod to the classic tabletop experience is the table of “tavern tales” found in the paragraph book, just like the ones found in Keep on the Borderlands and all those other early Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. (How many modules start with the party meeting in a tavern and overhearing rumors about that nearby castle/dungeon/graveyard/monastery?)

Pool of Radiance

Your goals in Pool of Radiance are delivered in the form of commissions found at the city clerk’s office. Several are usually available at any one time, giving the game a welcome non-linearity. As you carry out commissions, you return to the clerk to check them off your to-do list and to receive rewards in the form of experience and money. The whole process is immensely satisfying. As you build up your party, you venture further and further afield, claiming back more and more of Phlan from the monsters. This modest exercise in urban renewal feels far more rewarding than the elaborate save-the-world plots found in most CRPGs.

Another thing that happens as you complete commissions is that you gain a better and better overview of Phlan and its environs as a whole, learning how it all fits together. As usual in such old-school CRPGs as this one, each area is a fixed size, of 16 by 16 squares in this case. Yet SSI made the effort to make them fit together in logical, even intriguing ways to build a larger environment. If you can manage to get yourself in the right frame of mind, mapping really does become one of Pool of Radiance‘s pleasures. Dorte, a spatial-puzzle-loving fan of Carcassonne and Blokus in all the ways I am not, is the cartographer when we play Gold Box games. (I’m the driver; she wants nothing to do with that quirky interface.) I caught her from time to time when we weren’t playing redrawing and repositioning and even taping together her level maps to create a grand plan of Phlan: “This is fun!”

Making mapping far more fun in Pool of Radiance is the game’s complete disinterest in all of the nonsense that’s usually associated with it. There are no spinners or teleports or other artificial time-extenders and frustration-inducers. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance has enough real content that it doesn’t need that stuff. Indeed, the designers bent over backward to make mapping as painless as possible. Your grid location on the current map is usually shown right there onscreen, as is the direction you’re currently facing; note the “5, 5” and the “E” respectively on the screenshot above. There’s even an overhead auto-map of sorts. It’s not quite ideal — doors don’t show up on it, nor for that matter anything else other than walls and corridors — but, hey, it shows that they were trying. It’s all part of a thoroughgoing theme of Pool of Radiance, that of duplicating most of the gameplay of its predecessors in the broadest strokes, but doing it all just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and most of all with a little bit more mercy on you, the long-suffering player.

For instance, consider the case of the wandering monster. In Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, entering a new area always brings a little thrill of excitement as you get to see what types of new critters now come after you. That excitement dissipates, however, as the same handful of monsters just keep coming at you. Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map without being attacked by endless hordes of the same old same old.

Pool of Radiance fixes this problem, simply and ingeniously and without requiring much technical innovation at all. When you enter a new area, you do indeed find it populated with the expected horde of wandering monsters. Once you’ve fought and won a certain number of combats, though, they simply stop coming. Your overarching goal being to clear the monsters out of Phlan, this makes a great deal of thematic sense for this particular game. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense as good game design in general. Combined with lots of interesting fixed encounters, far more than the one or two typical of a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale dungeon level, it keeps the game from ever descending into a dull grindfest. Just when you’re starting to get tired of a stream of samey encounters, they stop. I can’t overemphasize what a difference this one simple act of mercy makes for my own enjoyment of Pool of Radiance. Suddenly an entire genre of gaming that used to bore me becomes a pleasure. The older I get and the more loathe I become to waste my time on anything if I can help it, the more my first rule of game design becomes a match for my first rule of writing: don’t be boring.

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance‘s adherence to that maxim extends to the times when you do have to fight; combat in this game is a magnificent experience. I think most fans of Pool of Radiance and the other Gold Box games would agree with me that their beating heart is the best combat engine yet devised for a CRPG at the time of their release. Indeed, some would argue that these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if your definition of good CRPG combat is a cerebral, tactical, turn-based affair. (Granted, such a thing is not particularly in step with mainstream tastes these days.) There’s a welcome logic at play here that’s painfully absent from virtually all of the Gold Box series’s rivals. Because combat is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in these old CRPGs, the designers of this one decided to take the time to make it really, really great.

And, like so much about the Gold Box games, the focus on intricate combat is also a perfect fit for the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons license. Many have accused that game of not being a role-playing game at all, rather a 1:1-scale wargame focusing on combat almost to the exclusion of all else. Whether you consider that description to be a criticism or not — one suspects that that’s exactly what many if not most players really wanted from the game anyway — Pool of Radiance does its inspiration proud. Just as combat is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is the essence of the Gold Box games.

Take, for instance, the inevitable mass-damage Fireball spell, a staple of just about every fantasy CRPG ever made. When your magic user gains access to Fireball in the latter stages of Pool of Radiance, it’s a big moment. Yet it’s still not something you can use quite as mindlessly as you can in other games. This Fireball spell has a set area of effect, and doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. Therefore you need to place it very, very carefully to avoid nuking your own party. You also have to reckon with range, line of sight, and even the spell’s casting time when doing so; if your magic user gets hit while she’s busy casting a spell, she loses it. None of which is to say that a spell like Fireball isn’t wonderful. Quite the opposite: it’s all the more satisfying when a well-placed explosion takes out an entire rank of orcs. And then there’s Lightning Bolt, another spell you’ll acquire at about the same time as Fireball that’s even more tricky to set up just perfectly, and even more satisfying when it works. There are many layers to the onion of Gold Box combat, and they only multiply as you climb the ranks and build more powerful characters — and of course find yourself fighting more powerful monsters as you do so, often with special attacks of their own to go with unique immunities and vulnerabilities that demand you adjust your tactics constantly.

In fact, one might argue that when it comes to combat Pool of Radiance actually betters the typical tabletop experience as most real players knew it. Gary Gygax’s elaborate rules for combat presumed a lot of knowledge about where all of the various combatants were standing in relation to one another and the environment, but it was never entirely clear how to plot and keep track of all that without infinite time to draw up floor plans or construct scale models of the environment. But the computerized Dungeons & Dragons has no problem coming up with such plans on the fly, presenting each battle using wargamey “miniatures” that would have warmed Gygax’s heart and keeping track of all of the other complications that usually led to fudging, simplifying, and house-ruling the tabletop game. One might say that all those fiddly rules were just waiting all along for SSI to come along and make them actually playable. Gold Box combat rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s so wonderful that I’m willing to forgive a lot about the rest of the game that surrounds it.

And that’s good because, almost paradoxically given how progressive Pool of Radiance is in many ways, there really is quite a lot to forgive here. The game’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: almost every one of its numerous frustrating, infuriating qualities stems from an overzealous faithfulness to the fiddly rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

To begin with, there’s the racial level limits, which arbitrarily cap the maximum advancement in all classes except thief for all races except humans. The levels limits are something of a hidden poison pill whose effect won’t hit you until you import your old party with all of their hard-won experience into Pool of Radiance‘s sequel. It comes as a hard blow indeed when you realize that some of your stalwarts are going to be untenable because they can’t keep pace with the escalating power of the opponents they will be facing in that game and the ones that follow. All you can do is cast your old non-human characters aside and roll up new, human characters to replace them. This is terrible game design, all courtesy of our old friend Gary Gygax. Here’s his justification:

The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or elven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

Like so many of Gygax’s justifications, this one is patent nonsense. (I do, however, treasure the smirking reference to what’s “in vogue” — classic Gygax through and through.) The way to ensure that humans stay viable and desirable, if that’s a design goal, isn’t to cripple all of the other races so badly that they become pointless, but to offer some similar off-setting advantage to humans. Humans in TSR’s own Star Frontiers tabletop RPG, for instance, get to add some bonus points to the ability scores of their players’ choice, justified with a paean to humanity’s sheer jack-of-all-trades adaptability in contrast to the more specialized powers of the other races.

Pool of Radiance

We also have Gygax to thank for Pool of Radiance‘s convoluted method of handling spells. Unlike virtually every other CRPG but like tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition. Because you usually don’t know precisely what kind of monsters you’ll be fighting in the course of said expedition, you’re continually being caught out with the wrong selection of spells. Run into a pack of disease-causing undead without having memorized Cure Disease? Too bad; reload back at camp and try a different spell arsenal. Run into the rare locked door that your fighters can’t bash in, and you don’t have Knock memorized? Take the long walk back to a safe area to rest and memorize it. There’s no strategy to any of this, just rote trial and error. The system is actively damaging to the pleasure induced by that magnificent combat engine. Because so many of the more specialized spells are useful only in specific situations, you end up treating every encounter as a nail and always having lots of Fireball hammers memorized to bash it with. How much better would it be to feel the thrill of satisfaction that comes with a well-timed Animate Dead, Blink, or Invisibility 10′ Radius?

One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement the tabletop rules’ requirement that characters collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells. (Interestingly, a similar system did show up in Ultima, with its system of “reagents.”) Presumably it was just too much to fit into a program that needed to run on a Commodore 64 — and thank God for that.

The most initially baffling of all the design choices in Pool of Radiance — baffling, that is, if you aren’t familiar with the tabletop game — is its handling of money. First of all, the game insists on dividing your funds into different types of coins — platinum, gold, electrum, ad nauseam — and keeping rigorous track of exactly how many of each coin your characters carry. It would be like a game with a contemporary setting telling you that you have 2 five-dollar bills, 2 one-dollar bills, 3 quarters, 1 dime, 1 nickel, and 7 pennies instead of just telling you you have $12.97. All because, once again, that’s how Gygax says you should do it. The Gold Box games are quite possibly the only CRPGs in history where your quest can hinge on whether you have the correct change for something. How’s that for heroic fantasy?

Pool of Radiance

And then there’s just so much money. Phlan and its environs are drowning in wealth. Because the weight of all of those individualized coins is meticulously tracked, you can’t carry it all; never have Dorte and I wished more for a bank than during our time in Phlan. Within a few hours, you’ll be leaving mountains of coins behind after encounters as a matter of course, dropping coins in the street, leaving shopkeepers 1000-platinum-piece tips after spending 10 gold pieces on a few arrows. Forget trying to reclaim the village from the monsters; there’s enough money in Phlan to buy each and every citizen a mansion in whatever is the Forgotten Realms’s equivalent of Beverly Hills. What on earth is going on here? Why would anyone design a game this way?

Well, what’s going on here is a vicious conflict between the needs of Pool of Radiance the computer game and the tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Those rules are as persnickety about experience points as they are about most things, allowing Dungeon Masters to award them for exactly two things: killing monsters and finding treasure. A tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign is — or was meant to be — a slow-paced affair, with characters spending many months at each level. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide and elsewhere, Dungeon Masters are continually cautioned not to let their campaigns devolve into “Monty Haul” affairs where magic items and experience points are passed out like candy. Yet a CRPG like Pool of Radiance is in fact by necessity a Monty Haul affair. People don’t want to spend months waiting for their computer characters to level up. People want to see them move through the ranks in relatively short order, want a more concentrated dose of the RPG experience. So, SSI needed to increase the pace. The obvious way to do that was to hand out more experience more quickly. Yet they were bound to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that coupled experience awards strictly to monsters killed and hordes looted. And now we begin to understand the broken economy: all that money is flying around strictly as a way of passing experience to characters without violating the letter of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules; the spirit of the rules is, of course, another matter entirely.

The natural next question is to ask why SSI felt themselves bound so strictly to the tabletop rules, even when it proved so damaging to the finished product. The obvious supposition is that TSR, fiercely protective of Dungeons & Dragons as they always were both before and after the era of Gary Gygax, told them they were so bound. The contemporary adventure-game reviewer and columnist Shay Addams, who may or may not have been reporting information gleamed from contacts at SSI, claimed that “TSR insisted that SSI stick by the original rules, and they had final say on the finished product.” While the latter assertion is certainly true, the idea of an overly pedantic, nitpicky TSR is somewhat cast into doubt by the fact that people who were associated with the Gold Box project at SSI don’t tend to describe the relationship in those terms today. Instead we hear always of a genuinely collaborative relationship filled with lots of give and take, a relationship so warm that it spawned cross-company friendships that persisted in some cases long after both companies ceased to exist. Further, one has to presume that the folks SSI was working with at TSR were all too aware themselves of what a confusing muddle Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could be, for they were hard at work on a second edition of the rules that was meant to untangle some of their Gygaxian knots at the very time that SSI was developing Pool of Radiance.

But, whether the compulsion to so literally translate so many rules from tabletop to desktop arose from within TSR or SSI, Addams is right about its effect: “That restriction must have been creatively inhibiting, for it means ignoring much of what game designers have learned about writing RPGs designed to be played on a computer — which are decidedly different from face-to-face games.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved a double-edged sword for Pool of Radiance, the source of much of what is good in it and most of what is bad. I’m not sure that I’ve ever reviewed another game that so freely mixes really good ideas with really bad ones. Too often Pool of Radiance feels like playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with the most humorlessly pedantic Dungeon Master ever.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad — which I must say kind of surprises me, given that there’s so very much I love to complain about in this game. One big difference-maker is certainly that the thing that Pool of Radiance does best, tactical combat, it does so insanely well. And then when we get out of the weeds of the irritating minutiae of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and look at Pool of Radiance in a more holistic sense, those shocking progressive tendencies do overshadow the pedanticism in the final reckoning. Unlike so many of its contemporary CRPGs, there’s a sense about this one that its designers actually tried to walk a mile in their players’ shoes. Pool of Radiance is very solvable in comparison to an Ultima with its fragile string-of-pearls approach to plotting, and doesn’t wear out its welcome like a Bard’s Tale with its boring empty mazes and boring endless combats. If you told me that you only planned to play one 1980s-vintage CRPG in your life, I’d tell you to make it this one.

Thankfully, it’s recently become much easier to do just that. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are now available on GOG.com along with all the other Gold Box games, ready to run on modern computers. These versions emulate the MS-DOS versions, which are faster, prettier (relatively speaking), and easier to play than the Commodore 64 originals. (Trust me, you don’t want to play 8-bit CRPGs in their 8-bit incarnations, unless you really, really enjoying swapping mounds of disks and waiting, waiting, waiting at every turn.)

I won’t lie to you: the learning curve can be a little steep with these games. To try to alleviate that just a bit, I’ll close today by offering some hard-won tips Dorte and I assembled after our own recent play-through. Crude and ugly and opaque though it may appear in the beginning, stick with it for an hour or two and you may be surprised at just how compelling Pool of Radiance can become. Sure, you might find yourself complaining the whole time you play; it’s just that kind of game. But give it a fair chance and soon you might not want to quit playing either. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?


 

A Few Tips On How to Best Enjoy Your Time in Phlan (and Beyond)

  • Take the time (and paper and ink) to print out the paragraph book rather than relying on a digital copy. There’s something to be said for the old-school physicality of flipping through actual pages to find notes and clues. And of course if you have a physical copy it’s easy to put a tick next to the entries you’ve read. Don’t peek at entries you haven’t been asked to read, and certainly don’t just read the paragraph book straight through. This game deserves to be played fair, on its own terms.
  • Plenty of modern players will want to bail as soon as they get a look at Pool of Radiance‘s bizarre-by-modern-standards keyboard-only interface. But have faith: yes, the interface is bizarre, but it’s consistent in its bizarreness. In general, you move up and down through vertical menus of nouns by using the 7 and 1 key on the numeric keypad, and select from horizontal menus of verbs by pressing the first letter of your choice. Every option available to you at any given time is always displayed onscreen, showing that SSI was by no means totally ignorant of the principles of good interface design. You can move your party about the world and move the cursor about the scene of combat using the numeric keypad as well. Within a few hours the interface will start to feel like a comfortable old shoe. No, really. Trust me.
  • Especially if you’re planning to take the grand tour through all three of Pool of Radiance‘s sequels, you’ll want to think carefully about the party you put together. All of the non-human races are pretty much right out, despite their ability to multi-class and other special abilities, because they come with crippling level limits that you will likely hit well before the end of the second game. As for classes, Dorte and I did quite well with a party made up of three fighters, two clerics, and one magic user. (I’m not a big fan of thieves, although their back-stabbing ability can be fun.) Having an extra cleric on-hand to heal and fight alongside your fighters can really come in handy at the lower levels, and having two clerics to turn undead in the graveyard, one of the toughest parts of Pool of Radiance, can be a lifesaver in many combats. In the second game you get the chance to turn one of your clerics and perhaps one of your fighters into magic users by doing something called dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing. Use it to build an offensive-magic-heavy party for the later games, where spells count for more and more and swords for less and less.
  • You’ll want to take your time making each individual character, re-rolling as many times as necessary to get one that will be viable in the long term; attribute scores, if not quite set in stone, can be increased only very rarely throughout the series. I recommend that each character should have a score of at least 17 in her class’s core attribute (Strength for fighters, Intelligence for magic users, Wisdom for clerics, Dexterity for thieves). Every character should have at least a 15 in Dexterity and Constitution, respectively to be able to move quickly in combat and to get bonus hit points with every level gain. And even the less critical ability scores shouldn’t be too awful; I would set 12 as an absolute floor. In order to dual-class in a later game, a character has to have at least a 15 in the core attribute of her old class and at least a 17 in that of her new; keep that in mind when planning your party and rolling your characters.
  • Buy a hand mirror for each character in one of the general stores in Phlan right away. No, it’s not vanity (although some of the hairstyles in Pool of Radiance might make you think otherwise). Trust me, you’ll thank me when the time comes.
  • Buy a bow and arrows for each of your fighters to go with their melee weapons. Thanks to the turn-based combat, you can switch back and forth at will on the fly, and it’s great to be able to cut down enemies at a distance.
  • Stay out of taverns early in the game to avoid the classic first-time Pool of Radiance experience of getting your new party embroiled in a massive, baffling free-for-all of a bar fight that leaves them all dead and you wondering what the hell just happened. I suspect that more players have bailed permanently on the game right there than at any other point.
  • Maps of all of Pool of Radiance are available in many places, including the official clue book that comes with the game if you buy it from GOG.com. Use them if you must. Before you do, though, at least take a stab at mapping the old-fashioned way. Again, the physicality of mapping on graph paper adds an ineffable something to the experience.
  • When pursuing commissions, remember that you don’t need to do them in the order they’re presented to you. If one is proving too difficult, save it for later and try another.
  • Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, either kill them with fire — tricky to do at the lower levels — or keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.
  • Early in your travels, you’ll encounter a notoriously difficult room full of trolls. Don’t feel like you have to defeat them right there and then. Go on and build up your strength a bit more, then come back for them.
  • To tackle the graveyard, your entire party needs to be equipped with silver or (preferably) magical weapons. Remember to use your cleric(s) to turn undead at the beginning of every fight involving undead monsters!
  • Dead, in the sense of 0 hit points, is not usually dead in Pool of Radiance. Unless the character was hit very hard, you can usually keep her alive but unconscious for the rest of the fight by bandaging her or casting Cure Light Wounds on her. You’ll definitely want to do so, given that…
  • Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are. Think long and hard about whether that’s a price you’re willing to pay, or whether you should just try that last fight again.
  • You can convert your lower-denomination coins to platinum by “Pooling” your money inside a shop, then picking it up — or some portion of it — before you leave. This gives you more buying power for less weight carried. Even better, you can store your wealth yet more efficiently as gems and jewelry that you can sell whenever you have need of a little walking-around money.
  • If you have a set of the old first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers lying around, or are willing to spring for digital copies, it’s a good idea to consult them when you aren’t sure what something does or is. Some of the more obscure magic items and spells in Pool of Radiance aren’t properly explained anywhere else. Dorte thought these musty old books with the cheesy covers were hilarious when I dug them out — she persisted in calling them “the nerd books” — but she did keep asking me to look stuff up in them. Which brings me to…
  • Play with a partner, one of you mapping and one of you driving. Like all good things in life, a good game becomes even better when it’s shared. And wouldn’t you like to have someone to high-five when you use all your (combined) wits to win a tough fight?

(Sources: Shay Addams’s review of Pool of Radiance is found in the October 1988  Questbusters, and the Gary Gygax quote in the September 1979 Dragon.)

 
 

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