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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Softporn

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, Softporn has to be among the most discussed and least played games of all time. The idea of it — and of course that iconic cover photo, and the stories behind that — is such an interesting jumping-off point that one can easily forget to even boot the simple text adventure at the root of it all. But I strive to give you more here at The Digital Antiquarian, so I played through the game in all its raunchy entirety. I expected that to be a bit of a chore, but turned out to be rather pleasantly surprised — and no, it wasn’t all down to the sex.

The game begins, as any good sex romp should, in a sleazy bar.

The screenshot above, with the screen divided into a window for the room description and a window for all other text, plainly shows Softporn‘s main influence, the Scott Adams adventures. The prose likewise trends more toward Adams’s lazy exuberance than, say, Infocom’s comparative polish. Still, Benton had the luxury of working with 48 K of memory to Adams’s 16 K, and also had a disk drive to fetch text from a file during play. These factors let him include far more text than Adams could ever manage, and thus to surpass his influence in crafting a more full-bodied (if still very comedic) virtual world.

As long as we’re making comparisons: if you’re familiar with the original Leisure Suit Larry, this scene, along with much else, will look somewhat familiar, what with Larry having been loosely modeled on Softporn. I don’t want to read Softporn entirely through the lens of Larry, but some comparison feels unavoidable. Larry was a very strongly characterized protagonist, a (lovable?) loser who couldn’t seem to unstick himself from the Age of Disco. Softporn is different, and not just because, in keeping with its era and inspirations, its hero is only cursorily characterized as the player’s “puppet” (a word lifted straight from Scott Adams). Softporn, you see, is itself a product of nightclub culture at the tail-end of the disco era. It does state in the manual that “the year is 2020 A.D.,” and the game makes the occasional halfhearted stab at reflecting a futuristic dystopia, most notably via a series of ultra-violent programs available for viewing on a television. But still, the mileau that is in Larry a cheesy obsession of the hopelessly unhip protagonist is here just everyday life. There was after all a time when the hip and beautiful people really did wear polyester leisure suits. Softporn is from that time, and something of a time capsule of the late disco era, best experienced with a little Chic playing in the background.

Chuck Benton says today that parts of the game were drawn straight from his own experiences, although he’s not telling exactly which parts. There’s almost always an element of real, if exaggerated, lived experience to its humor that makes at least some of us laugh and wince at the same time. For instance, every suburban boy’s worst nightmare plays out when you try to buy a condom in the drugstore.

This gag also got recycled for Leisure Suit Larry, but there it’s something that happens at Larry’s expense; here it feels like it’s really happening to us. (Or is that just the childhood trauma speaking?)

And here we come to something that really surprised me: I found Softporn really, genuinely funny. Yes, it’s all very much guy humor, and not exactly sophisticated stuff… but (and much to my wife’s dismay) I still find Beavis and Butthead about the funniest thing ever, so that kind of humor suits me just fine.

Softporn as a whole is much better than I expected it to be. It’s actually very fair. There are no absurd puzzles here, no parser games, not even any mazes or tangled geography. Yes, it’s written in BASIC and uses a two-word parser, with all the limitations those things imply, but Softporn does a shockingly good job of playing within its limitations and delivering a good time regardless. The puzzles stay simple, never straining the technology beyond its breaking point, and wherever the limited parser does necessitate an unusual syntax, the game bends over backward to make the player aware of it, even at the risk of spoiling puzzles. While it is very possible to die, even the deaths are usually clued in a way that just wasn’t normally done in this era.

Even many years later Leisure Suit Larry would not be so kind in warning about this danger and others. Anyone designing an old-school text adventure today using a limited engine — and for better or for worse, I know you’re out there — could do worse than to have a look at Softporn. I’m amazed to be saying this, but at least in design terms it’s the most fair, modern-feeling text adventure I’ve looked at for these history posts. Yes, more so even than Zork. Partly this is likely due to the development process Benton used; he would let a few of his buddies play the game every weekend or so, collecting their feedback and asking which puzzles worked — and were solvable — and which did not, a seemingly commonsensical step that the majority of old-school developers neglected entirely. And partly it was just down to a foward-looking design philosophy that held “100 simple puzzles better than 1 killer.” The biggest complaint one might level against Softporn‘s design in the context of its time is its brevity. Even approached completely cold as I did, sans prior knowledge, hints, or walkthrough, one is unlikely to get more than two or three hours out of the game. Today that’s of course fine; in 1981, after having paid $30 for the experience, one might be a bit upset. As I’ve pointed out before, commercial concerns often pulled against good design.

So, yes, Softporn is a very likable game. Which isn’t to say that its mind isn’t in the gutter. It soon becomes clear that the goal is to score with three different women in one night (which sounds like quite a tax on a man’s stamina, but then I’m not in my twenties anymore), ascending in desirability from a rough hooker to a girl-next-door type who — fantasy or nightmare, take your pick — turns out to be a dominatrix to an exotic goddess. Thus Ken Williams’s choice to feature three women in his cover photo, although presumably they weren’t told which woman represented which from the game…

As you can see above, the actual sex is pretty much left to the imagination; staying period specific, Softporn is very much Porky’s rather than Debbie Does Dallas. Most of the offensiveness, such as it is, rather comes from dirty words and lots and lots of innuendo, leaving the actual moments of truth as anticlimaxes. We get Biblical for the final (anti)climax.

But at least the game ends before the rest of the story of Eve and the apple (and children and a mortgage) set in.

Ken Williams published Softporn knowing full well it was likely to provoke some controversy, and he wasn’t disappointed. Many of the more conservative residents of Coarsegold and Oakhurst, who had been suspicious of this gang of newcomers from the start, now found all of their initial prejudices amply confirmed. Other sensitive souls from around the country expressed their opinions in hate mail — according to Steven Levy “some of it full of Bible scripture and prophecy of the damnation ahead.” But for the most part the controversy worked as Ken had hoped it would, getting On-Line and entertainment software in general noticed outside of the still tiny ghetto of active Apple II gamers. People in general might not have really understood the burgeoning PC revolution yet, but they all understood what sex was. A story went out over the UPI wire, and, best of all, the game and its cover photo were featured in a Time magazine story on this new concept of selling “Software for the Masses.” (The magazine felt it had to start with the very basics: “The programs, which are mainly recorded on vinyl discs about the size of a 45 r.p.m. record, are instructions written in a mathematical code the machine can ingest.”) With publicity like this, Softporn sold. It sold very well.

At the same time as it was getting such welcome mainstream exposure, though, Softporn is oddly absent from the computer press of the period. Most computer magazines, which were widely read by teens and preteens and whose editors had nightmares of outraged letters from parents, mentioned Softporn cursorily if at all. Computer retailers were also spooked. From Hackers:

Computer stores that wanted it would be reluctant to order just that one program. So, like the teenager who goes to the drugstore and says, “I’d like a comb, toothpaste, aspirin, suntan oil, stationary, and, oh, while I’m here I might as well pick up this Playboy,” the store owners would order a whole sampling of On-Line products… and some Softporn too.

Of course, the same scenario played out again with the customers who frequented those stores; they would sandwich Softporn in amongst other games or more “serious” software before making their way to the checkout stand, another scenario ironically reminiscent of the drugstore scene from within the game itself. Ken estimated Softporn and all the associated sales of “toothpaste” software that it generated to have doubled On-Line’s sales for a time, and some sources estimate Softporn alone to have topped 50,000 in sales over its commercial lifetime, an absolutely huge number for this period. There’s probably a nice discussion of shifting social mores between then and now to be had in all this, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Chuck Benton, a very modest, unassuming sort of fellow, became a celebrity of sorts within Apple II circles, with people even flagging him down to ask for autographs. His mother was left aghast by the Time article in particular, but such is the life of a purveyor of naughty software. And there were plenty of upsides in addition to the big royalty checks On-Line was soon sending him. He started to have more luck with women as a result of the game; after all, he had asked for it.

But always in videogames, as in any creative industry, the question quickly becomes what will you do next. A fair amount of customers had actually written in asking for a female version, which if nothing else proves that at least some women as well as men were buying Apple IIs by this point. However, Benton, for obvious reasons, didn’t feel quite up to the task. He hunted about for a female collaborator to help him get the tone right, and even told Time that a female version was forthcoming when interviewed for their article, but Benton never found the right person and never really got the project started. Another idea, for more of a straight-up sequel that took place at a university and was inspired by Animal House, likewise went nowhere. Benton rather worked for On-Line for a few years as a programmer for hire rather than a designer, doing action games such as Frogger, B.C.’s Quest for Tires, and Micky Mouse’s Space Adventure. Yet Benton, very much a New England boy, never quite fit in with the laid-back California culture of On-Line. Having gotten into all of this as something of a lark, Benton was never hugely passionate about games as a long-term career choice in the first place, and as time went on and marketing budgets increased in relation to development budgets, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the game industry in general. He dropped out circa 1985 to found Technology Systems, Inc., which does research and development work, often for the military, to this day.

If you’d like to play Softporn yourself, I’ve got sort of a special treat for you: the original Blue Sky software release and its accompanying documentation. Thanks go to Howard Feldman’s amazing Museum of Computer Adventure Game History for the latter.

Oh, and before we leave Benton and Softporn, here’s a final piece of trivia for all techno-thriller fans. Long before he published The Hunt for Red October and went from mild-mannered insurance salesman to bestselling author, Tom Clancy was acquainted with Chuck Benton. Jones, the quirky sonar operator from that book, “knew a few people from college who drew up game programs for personal computers; one of them was making good money with Sierra On-Line Systems…” Well, that anecdote was inspired by none other than Chuck Benton.

But next we’ll leave all this sex stuff behind and get back into the dungeon where nerds like us feel most comfortable. No, not that kind of dungeon. Sheesh…

 
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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Sex Comes to the Micros

If you asked the average man on the street circa 1981, he’d probably be hard put to imagine two nouns so divorced from one another as sex and computer. Most people still saw computers as dully esoteric tools maintained by a priesthood of little gnomes seeking refuge from the real world of playground bullies, gym teachers, and, most terrifying of all, women. Stereotypes generally being stereotypes for a reason, that description may arguably apply to plenty of folks we’ve met on this blog before, at least if we insist on casting these characters in their most unfavorable possible light. But still, gnomes have needs too — as do hackers. One had only to look at the chainmail bikinis on the covers of fantasy novels, Dungeons and Dragons boxes, and, soon enough, computer games to know that nerds were far from asexual, even if many of them weren’t actually getting much of it. Rather than being separate universes, sex and computers were at worst adjacent galaxies, which orbited into contact with one another more often than our man on the street would ever suspect.

During the mid-1960s, Ken Knowlton was working with computer graphics at the legendary Bell Labs, home of such diverse achievements as the development of the C programming language and the Unix operating system and the detection of the background radiation from the Big Bang among a thousand others. He had developed a primitive video digitizer, the forerunner of the digital cameras of today, which could scan a photograph, sorting it into a grid of light and dark pixels. However, Knowlton did not have access to a proper bitmapped display, only text-oriented teletypes. He therefore developed software to convert the scanned pixels into individual letters chosen for their relative brightness and similarity to the patterns in the photograph. One day in 1966 when their boss was away on holiday, Knowlton and a colleague, Leon Harmon, conspired to scan in a nude photo of dancer Deborah Hay, blow it up to truly mammoth proportions, and plaster their (apparently very easygoing) boss’s wall with it.

The picture was quickly retired after the boss’s return, but nevertheless propagated electronically through the computer industry. Finally it came to attention of The New York Times, who printed it along with an article on the bizarre new idea of “computer art” in October of 1967. It was allegedly the first nude image of any stripe that the famously decorous Gray Lady had ever printed. On the basis of that exposure, this elaborate practical joke found its way into The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, a 1968-69 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that featured some of the first examples of computer art to appear in a gallery setting. For the show it was given the appropriately pretentious moniker Studies in Perception #1. Today it resides in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In demonstrating that ordinary letters could be, well, sexy, Knowlton and Harmon kickstarted the practice of ASCII art, a practice that still has devoted adherents today.

Knowlton tells a story typical of many artists and engineers working in new mediums:

We did make similar pictures — of a gargoyle, of seagulls, of people sitting at computers — which have appeared here and there. But it was our Nude who would dolphin again and again into public view in dozens of books and magazines.

The earliest artwork produced on microcomputers was ASCII art — the PET and TRS-80 in particular were capable of little else — and much of it likewise featured nudes. These tiny files, traded about over the ARPANET, on disks, and through the first computerized bulletin-board systems, represent some of the first digital pornographic images.

Anyone who studies the history of technology comes to understand quickly that just about any new technology that can conceivably be applied to sex will be in pretty short order. Many subjects of early photographers were featured sans clothing; many of the earliest movies were peepshows; many or most early VCRs were bought to watch porn movies at home without the discomfort and embarrassment of visiting a theater. And porn drove the early growth of the Internet to an extent few are comfortable acknowledging, dwarfing everything else in profitability during those heady early days of the mid-1990s. The microcomputer itself was no real exception to the rule, even if the mixing of computers and sex was initially awkward and, like all those ASCII images of naked women, of decidedly limited fidelity.

The first commercial program I know of that dealt explicitly in sex appeared in early 1980 and was called Interlude: The Ultimate Experience. You may have heard of it before; one of its marvelously kitschy advertisements made PC World‘s “25 Funniest Vintage Tech Ads” list a few years ago, and got some general Internet exposure as a result.

As indicated by the female models in its ads, Interlude was marketed toward the males who were much more likely to own computers and buy software, yet it was at least ostensibly for couples. The idea here is that each partner tells the program what sort of mood he or she is in, and the program then directs the couple to a section of an accompanying booklet that contains the perfect experience to satisfy them both, delivered in instructions to one or both. The experiences are fairly typical sex-manual fantasies. This being a family blog, here’s one of the least explicit:

Surprise your lady with roses… but not in the usual way. Buy several dozen roses. While your lady is taking a bath, scatter the rose petals over the sheets. When she comes from her bath, lay her down in a bed of roses and make love amid the fragrance.

For contrary sorts like me, some of the best fun is to be had by playing both male and female, telling the program they are in wildly incompatible moods, and watching it desperately struggle to come up with something — as in, saying the man wants to cuddle and talk and the woman wants to act out a rape fantasy. (“One of the most common female fantasies is rape — being taken by force against her will,” the booklet helpfully tells us. “She doesn’t really want to be raped,” it continues; good to know.) The dirty little secret about Interlude is that its simple computer component is not really doing anything a printed questionnaire couldn’t do. In the end, it’s an ordinary couple’s manual with an accompanying computer program that’s really just a convenience; the whole project could have been implemented using nothing more high-tech than print without too much difficulty.

A year or so after Interlude, Scott Adams’s Adventure International unveiled a pair of real sex games, at least of sorts: Strip Dice and Concentration. The catalog says that they “vaguely resemble the time-tested games on which they are based.” Actually there’s no “vaguely” about it; each is a simple BASIC implementation of an old party game which occasionally tells the loser(s) to remove articles of clothing. A prominent disclaimer on the package states, “NOTE: CONTAINS EXPLICIT SEXUAL DIALOGE [sic] WHICH MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO SOME USERS!!!!” That’s not really true either; I don’t think terms like “tush” were considered X-rated even in 1981. Again, one has to ask just what the computer really adds to the equation. Presumably most couples or libertine partygoers are capable of keeping track of what articles of clothing are still in play, as it were, and which should be removed next. Visual evidence alone should allow for that. Isn’t that sort of the whole point of the endeavor?

Another potential problem with both Interlude and the AI games is that they are aimed at couples who will presumably use them to have real sex. Plenty of computer owners inevitably lacked a better half, and were perhaps looking for more, shall we say, solo pursuits. Unfortunately, that was a problematic proposition. It was very difficult to portray an image even remotely arousing using the microcomputer display technology of the early 1980s; even ASCII art, for all the dedication of its practitioners, had its limitations. Thus visual representations of sex in gaming were limited to the most cartoonlike of portrayals that played for adolescent giggles rather than attempting the hopeless task of actually arousing anyone — stuff like the famously awful and utterly tasteless Atari 2600 game Custer’s Revenge, in which the player’s goal is to rape a Native American woman. (The company behind Custer’s Revenge, Mystique, actually published a whole line of “adult” games, each of which strives in its own way to be just as offensive.)

But what about text adventures? Certainly textual erotica had been a thriving literary genre for centuries. What looked promising on the surface was, however, much more problematic when examined in depth. Even presuming the existence of authors with the skill to make their subject matter come to life, the technology of 1981 did not permit anything like a realistic, erotic interactive sexual encounter. Sex after all involves people, and text adventures — even the very best ones, such as Zork — necessarily built deserted virtual worlds filled with inanimate objects and, perhaps here and there, people that behaved like inanimate objects. (Which does I guess give the phrase “objectification of women” a whole new meaning…) The author of the first widely distributed text adventure to deal in sex therefore wisely decided to play it for laughs. And even that, like so much else in the young industry, happened sort of by accident.

Chuck Benton was living in a small town near Boston and working as a field engineer for a New England flight-simulator manufacturer when he, like increasing numbers of other young tech-savvy people with disposable income, purchased an Apple II in 1980. Also like so many others, Benton quickly found himself entranced with his new toy. Amongst his favorite games were the Scott Adams adventures.

As he grew more familiar with his home computer’s capabilities, Benton started to notice how laborious many of the administrative processes at his job currently were, especially those used to schedule and track the field-engineering group of which he was a member. He began to evangelize the Apple II with his superiors as a way to save huge amounts of time and drudgery. In the end he perhaps got more than he bargained for: not only did management decide to buy their own Apple II for the business, but they offered Benton the chance to program a customized scheduling application to run on it. Being an ambitious sort, Benton agreed — and then wondered just what he had gotten himself into. He was an engineer by trade, with little background in programming. Now he needed to learn BASIC as quickly as possible. He decided that learning by doing is best, and that the best approach would therefore be to create a more modest learning program that would nevertheless require many of the skills his company’s application would require. After a bit more thought, he decided that a text adventure would be just about ideal. He would design it in such a way that it would require extensive file access, just like his company’s application, and make his design large enough to require him to write and structure quite a few lines of code without being so large as to be uncompletable in the few months he allocated for the project. Besides, he liked playing text adventures, and liked the idea of creating one of his own.

Benton was hardly unique in proceeding through this thought process to arrive at a text-adventure project. You may remember that Scott Adams, the reigning king of microcomputer adventure games at the time, had originally started on Adventureland as an exercise in learning BASIC and learning how to manipulate strings. A whole generation of books and articles that followed advertised text-adventure programming as a fun way to learn the art and science of programming in general. What was unique was the subject matter that Benton chose for his learning game. Instead of writing about dungeons and dragons or even rockets and rayguns, he decided to write about his own experiences as a single guy in his late 20s trying to navigate the Boston night life, have a good time, and, yes, hopefully get laid every once in a while. Why not? He was just writing the game for fun and for education. Maybe he would share it with a few buddies, but that was it.

After working on the game for a couple of months, though, Benton couldn’t help but notice that said buddies really, really liked the game. They found it hilarious, and were always asking how it was coming along and whether they could play the latest version. Benton was well aware of others, like the Williams and for that matter Scott Adams himself, who were making real money selling text adventures. And certainly he had a game with what could only be described as its own unique appeal. The wheels turned, until Benton made the decision to forget about the idea of the game as a modest training exercise and develop it into a complete, polished work he could try to sell. He abandoned the current, patched-together version and started over from scratch with a more rigorous approach.

As he cleaned up the game’s underlying technology, he also cleaned up the content somewhat in the realization that, while he might be able to market a risque game, as a self-described “conservative New Englander” there were limits to how far he wanted to push the envelope. Benton excised almost entirely one part of the plot, involving drugs and and a drug dealer; only a relatively innocuous magic mushroom was allowed to stay. And what had started out with the working title of Super Stud Adventure was given the gentler — and much more clever — title of Softporn Adventure. The former part of the title was a play on the habit of working “Soft” into the title of anything and everything computer-related in those days: Microsoft, DataSoft, CompuSoft, Applesoft, Softalk, Softline, etc. Why not Softporn? As for the Adventure, well, this was still a time when Benton’s major model, Scott Adams’s Adventure International, appended that word to every adventure game as a matter of course: Pirate Adventure, Mission Impossible Adventure, etc.

With this revised version of the game complete after about four or five months of work, it was now time to consider how to go about selling it. Benton guessed that few or no publishers would want to touch the game due to its content, so he decided to try to sell it himself, adopting for the purpose the company name Blue Sky Software. Like so many before him, he improvised packaging using Ziploc baggies, colored paper, and a mimeograph machine, and just like that he was in business. However, Benton’s efforts were not rewarded with the immediate success that had greeted Adams or the Williams. Part of his problem was unique to Softporn: the obvious way to advertise a new piece of software was to take out advertisements in magazines, but virtually all of them were too spooked by the content (not to mention the title) of Softporn to take Benton’s money. But in addition, the road Benton had chosen was becoming a much harder one by this point, early 1981. In establishing the first proper software distributor, Ken Williams had, even as he made it easier for established publishers to get their products into stores, made it much harder for lone wolves like Benton, who lacked connections and distribution agreements with the likes of Softsel, to get their software noticed and available in the rapidly expanding retail-computer ecosystem. Ken had in other words made it much harder for others to do what he had done with Mystery House; an historic window of opportunity was slowly closing as business-as-usual moved in. Luckily, it was also Ken that rode to Benton’s rescue.

On June 6, 1981, the first computer show devoted exclusively to Apple products, AppleFest, took place in Boston. Figuring that at least here no prudish press could get between him and potential customers, Benton rented space to try to drum up some attention and sales for Softporn. Also there, in much more prominent fashion, were Ken Williams and his rapidly growing company On-Line Systems. Wandering the show floor, Ken came across Benton’s little display, chatted briefly with its owner, and bought a copy of Softporn to take back to California with him. The game became a huge hit amongst Ken and his staffers; they thought it a “riot.” Ken of course knew that any attempt to market the game would lead to mass controversy, but he also understood well the old maxim that any publicity is good publicity, particularly when trying to get an empire off the ground. Besides, he thought the controversy would be “fun,” in a time when On-Line Systems was still young and freewheeling enough that that counted as a valid argument. And with major and growing clout in the software industry, Ken felt On-Line would be able to overcome the qualms of magazines and retailers where Benton had failed, and thereby get the game noticed and get it onto shelves. Within days Ken called Benton to ask him if he would let On-Line Systems publish his game. For Benton, just about ready to give up on the idea of making anything at all from Softporn, Ken’s call out of the blue was like an answered prayer. He of course said yes, and On-Line set to work to make it happen.

Ken toyed with the idea of revising the game to fit into On-Line’s Hi-Res Adventures line with the addition of graphics, but that would take considerable time, and would of course also open the whole new can of worms of trying to decide just what level of visual explicitness would be appropriate. So he shelved the idea of a graphical Softporn, although, as those familiar with later history know, never quite abandoned it. For now, he decided, the game was fine as-is.

Ken may have been happy with the game itself, but he wasn’t impressed with Benton’s simple homemade packaging. He felt it needed artwork that made a… bolder statement of intent. The endgame of Softporn involves a beautiful woman and a hot tub, and that gave the jacuzzi-loving Ken all the inspiration he needed. He convinced three women at the company to come to his house for a topless photo shoot in his hot tub. This being On-Line Systems, where nepotism ruled, all were married to men also working at the company. There was Dianne Siegel, a technician and eventual production manager who was married to head accountant Larry Bain; the wife of Bob Davis of Ulysses and the Golden Fleece fame, who worked in accounting; and, most famously, Roberta Williams herself. Ken hired to join them a waiter from the only decent restaurant in town, a steakhouse with a name ironically appropriate for the local economy On-Line was rapidly transforming: The Golden Bit. This fellow was flamboyantly gay and thus considered an acceptable risk to join the three topless wives in the hot tub. The final touch of kitsch came from an Apple II presumably acting as master of ceremonies to the sexy proceedings.

As a generation of teenage boys would soon discover, the photo promised much, much more than the actual game delivered. But then that was already becoming something of a tradition in computer-game packaging, where countless luridly drawn dragons battled knights in armor in scenes that showed little obvious connection to the sparsely rendered virtual worlds found inside the boxes. In the long run this particular picture became more famous than anything in the game it promoted, the enduring icon of this wild early era in On-Line’s history.

With the photo taken, Ken put it and Benton’s game out there within weeks of that initial phone call. He then settled back and waited for the controversy to ensue. We’ll get to that, and have a look at the contents of the game itself (something that oddly almost always goes undone in discussions of Softporn), next time.

(Along with John Williams and the gift that just keeps on giving, Steven Levy’s Hackers, Jason Scott’s interview with Chuck Benton for Get Lamp provided much of the material on Softporn for this article and the next.)

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Summer Camp

When we left Ken and Roberta they were flush with more money than they’d ever had thanks to the huge success of Mystery House and especially The Wizard and the Princess, and they’d decided to go all-in on a new industry. They pulled up stakes and moved with their two young sons from smoggy Los Angeles to a town of perhaps 1300 called Coarsegold, situated on the periphery of Yosemite National Park, close to the home of Roberta’s parents. They purchased on the outskirts of Coarsegold a wooden mountain cabin connected via a dirt driveway to a twisting mountain road and pronounced it the new “headquarters” of On-Line Systems. It’s about the unlikeliest location imaginable for a major software publisher; neither Coarsegold nor its only slightly less sleepy neighbor Oakhurst had a proper supermarket, restaurant, or even a traffic light when the Williams moved there. Both towns were going through tough times. A local saw mill that provided much of the employment was closing down, leaving only the the trade with Yosemite tourists to support the economy. Many of the young were going off to bigger cities for university or work, leaving behind an aging community, many of them already retirees. Yet over the next decade On-Line Systems would remake much of Coarsegold and Oakhurst in its own image.

In December of 1980 Ken and Roberta got started on that by leasing their first office space, a 10 foot by 10 foot room above a print shop in Oakhurst’s tiny downtown. They hired Ken’s little brother John as their first official employee to come work with them in it. Some of that work was the sort of thing you might expect. Ken helped Roberta to implement a third entry in the flagship line of “Hi-Res Adventures.” Mission Asteroid, a science-fiction scenario, was numbered Hi-Res Adventure #0 because it was for “beginners”; in other words, its puzzles were somewhat less flagrantly ridiculous than the norm. It hit the market just as the new year began, and turned into yet another solid hit.

Profitable as his and Roberta’s own programming efforts were, however, Ken had bigger ambitions. He saw an industry emerging, and he intended to grab a share of it. On-Line Systems began advertising almost as heavily to game programmers as it did to game players, as Ken worked to put together a stable of programmers to provide more, more, more for the company — more games, more software in general — to feed a rapidly growing microcomputer market that was positively starving for it. These advertisements promoted On-Line Systems as an alternative to the hassles of doing what Ken and Roberta had decided to do, going it alone. From the company’s first newsletter:

Should On-Line Systems market your product we will provide a tech-writer for the documentation, provide all packaging materials, copy protect the software, advertise the product, and help you find any hidden bugs. After you turn over a product to us you do nothing but wait for royalty checks.

Best of all, On-Line Systems offered what it claimed were the “highest royalties in the industry,” 16% of list price, and the chance for “financial independence! No need to ever work anyone else’s hours again…”

Ken also foraged around the trade-show circuit. At the West Coast Computer Faire in April of 1981, he found one of his stars, a gawky 19-year-old named John Harris with a love for Atari’s line of 8-bit machines equaled only by his loathing of all things Apple. (Platform jingoism was an even bigger deal in those days than it is today.) Ken may have had a burgeoning reputation as an Apple II wizard, but he was also a pragmatist. Eager to expand beyond the Apple II market, Ken asked John, “How would you like to program amongst the trees?” A few months later John delivered On-Line Systems’s first big hit on a platform other than the Apple II, Jawbreaker for the Atari 400 and 800. (Jawbreaker will also figure significantly in the story of On-Line Systems for another reason, but we’ll get to that down the road a bit.)

Ken tried to lure the best of his stable of freelancers out to Oakhurst to work for On-Line System full-time, even going so far as to purchase houses around the area which he rented out at cost to his programmers, who were often still in their teens, away from home for the first time, and not exactly savvy about basic life skills like negotiating a lease. A snowball effect began. As more money came in each month Ken signed more freelancers and hired more employees, whose work in turn brought in more revenue; only the real epics like Ultima, Zork, or Wizardry generally took more than a single programmer and two or three months in those days. This new revenue allowed him to sign yet more contracts. With the always aggressive Ken pushing hard all the time, On-Line Systems grew rapidly indeed. They absorbed the other offices on their floor one by one, then moved into a brand new building that the owner of the print shop built just for them. Oddly, the company retained Ken and Roberta’s house on Mudge Ranch Road as their official mailing address throughout these changes. The address had become synonymous with On-Line Systems, and in John Williams’s words created a certain image of the company as “a bunch of artisans living up in the woods — kind of a high tech artists commune — and in many ways that wasn’t far from wrong.”

While there were some stereotypically nerdy sorts to be found at On-Line Systems, not least among them the aforementioned John Harris, the company as a whole hewed to the standard set by its garrulous work-hard-play-hard founder Ken. Like any growing company On-Line Systems had to employ plenty of support personal in addition to the technical staff: secretaries, warehouse workers, couriers, call-center personal, etc. And anyway, this was the California of the early 1980s, a place where the embers of the hippie era were still being stoked by dedicated diehards who were rather disproportionately represented in the technology sector. There were plenty of parties (many hosted by Ken himself, and held in the On-Line Systems offices), and plenty of drinking and other forms of chemical indulgence. From Steven Levy’s Hackers:

Tuesday night was “Men’s Night,” with Ken out on a drinking excursion. Every Wednesday, most of the staff would take the day off to go skiing at Badger Pass in Yosemite. On Fridays at noon, On-Line would enact a ritual entitled “Breaking Out the Steel.” “Steel” was the clear but potent Steel’s peppermint schnapps which was On-Line Systems’s beverage of choice. In company vernacular, a lot of steel would get you “sledged.”

The townsfolk around them were not always so pleased by such carryings on. John Williams:

Our neighbors in this small town were not always so enthralled with us. We were young in a town of mostly retirees, and we were pretty prosperous in a town of fixed incomes. We drove sports cars not pick-up trucks, and didn’t have “real jobs like real people.” (Someone actually said that to me once.) Amongst the families that did live in town, we were seen as a corrupting influence.

With ever growing numbers of young employees of both sexes and few outside social opportunities, fraternization was not just permitted but the norm. At one point it was determined during a staff meeting that over 50% of the workforce was in a relationship with someone else at the company, a situation that could cause complications when the time came to let someone go. Even those inept in the ways of love were given hope; Hackers records in amusing detail the lengths Ken went to to get the shy and awkward John Harris laid, lengths that included arranging blind dates, taking him on a trip to Club Med, and finally, out of desperation, just paying a stripper to have sex with him already. (None of it — not even paying the stripper — worked). Levy calls this period of On-Line Systems’s history “summer camp,” a time when everyone loved what they were doing on and off the job and when the money just kept rolling in, in ever bigger amounts with each passing month.

At the head of it all, Ken seemed like he had been born for this moment. With the boundless energy and ambition that had always characterized him, he seemed to be involved in everything. In addition to all the day-to-day decisions involved in running a company, he continued to do much of the programming on the Hi-Res Adventure line that remained the company’s biggest moneymakers, while, as one of the most respected Apple II hackers in the industry, also serving as teacher and technical consultant to any and all of his stable of employees and freelancers. When advertising to prospective programmers, On-Line Systems even listed privileged access to Ken as one of its best perks: “I (Ken) will personally be available at any time for technical discussions, helping to debug, brainstorming, etc.”

Despite the reservations of the more conservative residents, Ken, head of a company that was becoming a bigger and bigger part of the economies of Coarsegold and Oakhurst, became an increasingly big man about town — soon enough, the big man. Ken threw himself into the role of “town father” wish his usual abandon, splashing money liberally around town for causes such as the rebuilding of the needy local fire brigade. He also hired frequently from the local population, partly for the most practical of reasons: personnel like phone operators could be had for a third of what it would have cost in a big city. Still, he also offered ambitious locals the opportunity to build genuine careers for themselves. A boat sander eventually became a vice president in charge of product development; a hotel maid head of the accounting department; a plumber head of product acquisition. Ken hired Bob Davis out of a local liquor store. Soon Bob, a 27-year-old frustrated musician who had spent all of his previous working life as a cook or a cashier, had a Hi-Res Adventure of his own in stores, Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, built using the tools Ken had developed for Roberta’s early efforts.

Yet for all that, Ken made his most significant contributions outside of his own company and outside of the tiny society of Coarsegold and Oakhurst, to the industry at large. In fact, this figure, so known to a whole generation of gamers as the yin to Roberta’s adventure-gaming yang, is paradoxically under-credited for the role he played in shaping the software industry. Amongst the software industry at large, his contribution is perhaps exceeded only by that of Bill Gates, and when we talk about games… well, I’m not sure he has an equal. Faced with an emerging market of well-nigh limitless potential, this die-hard capitalist decided that a rising tide lifts all boats, and did much that aided his competitors as much as it did On-Line Systems.

I’ve already mentioned the most important of these initiatives: the founding of the first true software distributor, which Ken spun off to his friend Robert Leff for just $1300. Without a distribution network to get software easily and efficiently into stores across the country, publishers like On-Line Systems and its competitors could not have thrived as they did; nor, for that matter, could the computer industry as a whole. Distribution was in fact a constant obsession with Ken. During that hectic year of 1981 when he was building his own company from virtually nothing, he also found time to co-found Calsoft with an old colleague from his previous life as a computer consultant, Jay Sullivan. Calsoft was a mail-order software store, the first of its kind. While many early publishers, among them Adventure International and California Pacific, did much of their business via mail order, Calsoft became the first to offer a full selection of software from many different publishers, all sales-tax-free thanks to the peculiarities of interstate commerce in the U.S. and usually generously discounted from typical in-store prices. Calsoft was largely run by Sullivan out of Agoura, California, but On-Line Systems’s phone operators helped with order fulfillment and its art department with the design of the catalog and advertising materials. It was another way of giving buyers, especially those in rural areas or otherwise unable to make it into a brick-and-mortar store, easy access to the products of not only On-Line Systems but also their competitors. Soon the magazines were full of other mail-order firms that sprung up in Calsoft’s wake.

Moves like these were prompted by contrary currents moving through the computer industry in general. VisiCalc, along with other early business applications such as WordStar, had finally managed to establish microcomputers as tools possessed of real, practical usefulness. In general, that was of course a good thing, driving sales of both software and hardware and growing the industry. Problem was, most of the people buying Apple IIs and CP/M machines for their offices were not interested in superficial amusements like playing games or even hacking code. Many, in fact, wanted a machine of serious intent, one that did not want to play; being No Fun was an essential feature. Therefore many dealers, even of the Apple II, the machine that Steve Wozniak had partially designed around the features that would let it play a good game of Breakout, began to shy sharply away from any association with the gaming industry. ComputerLand, the largest computer retail chain and the place where Richard Garriott had begun his career by selling Akalabeth, tried to institute for a time a policy of not stocking games on its shelves. Even Apple themselves were ambivalent about games; they didn’t go out of their way to discourage them, and certainly played plenty of them internally, but preferred to promote the Apple II as a serious tool of business and education. (Ironically, and more foolishly, other manufacturers went in the opposite direction; Atari told companies that proposed developing business applications for its really very impressive computers that these machines were fundamentally “game machines,” and not a suitable market for such products.) Ken felt genuine fear that a new generation of be-suited bandwagon jumpers would succeed in squeezing games off of the Apple II and other machines, relegating them to much less capable game consoles like the Atari 2600. Thus initiatives like Calsoft, to bring his message directly to the people, as it were. He began another project, Softline magazine, for similar reasons.

In an effort to build customer loyalty as well as “build a base of gamers” in general, On-Line Systems had sent its first newsletter to every registered purchaser of their games in June of 1981. However, Ken, feeling far more threatened by those interests that would turn the Apple II into a boring business machine than by his own competitors in the games industry, dreamed of a way of reaching all gamers via a more generalized gaming and “casual computing” magazine. The need for such an organ seemed clear enough to Ken; even traditional hacker’s favorite Byte magazine was starting to focus more and more on business by this point. (I trust I need not belabor the irony of Ken, a guy who had founded On-Line Systems to create a FORTRAN compiler and who had been as dismissive of games as those ComputerLand executives barely a year before, becoming a computer-games evangelist.) Ken had already established a relationship with Margot and Al Tommervik, publishers of the most beloved of the early Apple II magazines, Softalk. Margot in particular was quite enamored with games. Even before founding Softalk, she had come to the attention of the Williams when she won a contest to become the first to solve Mystery House. Once Softalk had begun, Ken had supported it with generous ad buys, and encouraged others in the industry to do the same.

It was to Margot and Al that Ken turned with his idea for a new magazine that would concern itself mostly with games, that hidden driver of computer sales and dirty little secret of countless folks who ostensibly bought their machines for word processing or accounting. He felt the need for such a magazine so intensely that he was willing to underwrite it at a loss; the magazine would be entirely free, with the audacious if forlorn hope that it would at some point become self-sustaining through ad buys. Softline did not openly proclaim its association with On-Line Systems, appearing by all obvious evidence to be a spinoff of Softalk. Yet, and while Margot and Al served as editors and handled most of the day-to-day business, Ken’s fingerprints were everywhere. Ten of the 18 ads in the first issue — dated September 1981 — were from On-Line Systems, while the initial subscription roll consisted of the mailing list to which On-Line had been sending their in-house newsletter. On-Line Systems often penned reviews for the magazine, and Ken himself wrote a series of in-depth articles on graphics programming for the Apple II, the content of which was not too far removed from the lessons he gave inside On-Line Systems. Of course, even by the rather lackadaisical professional standards of modern videogame journalism it would be considered an outrage for a publisher to get so involved financially and editorially with an avowedly independent magazine today. However, as John Williams says: “Like a lot of things we did in the beginning, we did them because they needed to be done and stopped doing them when the industry grew up enough to develop the business.”

As it happened, some of Softline‘s thunder was stolen by another magazine that debuted a couple of months later, Computer Gaming World. CGW had links with wargame publisher Strategic Simulations that went almost as deep as those of Softline to On-Line Systems, leading to a somewhat stodgy publication that had a profound interest in military strategy games and often gave short shrift to just about everything else. Over time, however, its editorial interests broadened, and it went on to become a 25-year institution in gaming. With the success of CGW perhaps signalling that Softline no longer “needed to be done,” On-Line Systems gradually disentangled themselves from Softline, which in late 1982 went to a more traditional paid-subscription model like that of CGW. A couple of years later Softalk and Softline went out of business, but Softline‘s pioneering role should not be forgotten — nor Ken’s having been the one who got it all started.

One remarkable aspect of the early American software industry is how geographically dispersed it was. In 1981, Scott Adams was running Adventure International from a bedroom community near Miami; Muse had established their office and storefront in downtown Baltimore; Infocom was just leasing its first office space and beginning to look like a real company in Boston; Richard Garriott was coding his games from a bedroom in Houston and a dorm room in Austin; the folks working at The Computer Emporium in Des Moines had decided to stop just selling other people’s software and start making some of their own to sell; and from a suburb of Seattle Microsoft were adopting an earlier operating system called 86-DOS to suit the needs of IBM’s new PC, the project that would make the company, make history, and make just about everyone involved millionaires or billionaires. Still, a disproportionate part of the industry was concentrated, as you might expect, in California. In addition to companies we’ve already met — On-Line Systems, Edu-Ware, Automated Simulations, California Pacific, Personal Software — there were also plenty of others, such as Sirius Software, known for its series of fast-action games churned out by resident genius Nasir Gebelli on virtually a monthly basis. With all of his industry-wide initiatives and his outsized personality, Ken became the de facto leader and social guidance counselor of the entire California entertainment-software industry. With the market growing month-by-month, alleged competitors could, at least for the time being, afford to be friends.

Ken and Roberta hosted a Western-themed coming-out party of sorts for On-Line Systems on May 16, 1981, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Mystery House‘s release. (What a difference a year had made!) Coarsegold and Oakhurst offered only a handful of hotel rooms at the time, so — shades of the California computer industry’s hippie heritage — some guests drove up with camper vans or trailers, while others sacked out on whatever couches Ken could find for them amongst On-Line Systems’s employees. In the photo below, that’s Ken in the center, with Phil Knopp of Sirius Software to his left.

Al Remmers of California Pacific, the man who introduced Lord British and Ultima to the world, came with his wife.

As did plenty of others; Sherwin Steffin of Edu-Ware peeks out from the back right corner of the table in the photo below.

A good time was had by all, and a precedent was set. On-Line Systems’s parties became “must-attend” events for the California industry. That summer Ken’s brother John, On-Line’s marketing director at the tender age of 19, organized a river rafting trip for a big chunk of the industry, among them David Mullich, creator of The Prisoner for Edu-Ware. An article from, naturally, the first issue of Softline describes the results wrought by this combination of water, sun, camaraderie, and of course alcohol:

The party got rowdy near the trip’s end as paddlers prepared for one final brawl. Ken Williams took the last rapid standing up on the front rail of his craft, and Randy Hyde followed suit. With Ken perched on the rail’s edge like a kamikaze waterskier, his crew rammed and boarded the unsuspecting craft, throwing half of the surprised occupants overboard. Bob Christiansen (Quality Software) got a chance to test out his underwater camera when it wound up in the drink with him. Rafters who wound up in the water struggled to pull others overboard, while those still on board fended off the attackers with paddles. Water from paddles and buckets flew over the ten rafts.

Market consultant Diane Ascher was also on the trip, and spoke a bit about how it felt to be alive in this historical moment:

“This is a group of people that is always looking for an excuse to party. The river just provided us with a scenic backdrop. Basically we have a lot in common. We sort of feel like we beat the system: we got to microcomputers before IBM did.”

That last sentence reads as almost chilling today. Summer camp can’t last forever; Big Blue was in fact about to arrive on the scene at last, along with plenty of other new pressures. Most of the companies represented on the trip, so flush with cash and success, would be out of business within a few years.

But we’ll come to that soon enough. For now, let’s enjoy the halcyon days a bit more. Next time: the most controversial computer game of 1981, and one of the most successful.

(My huge thanks to John Williams, whose detailed recollections of these days informed much of this post.)

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ultima, Part 3

You may have noticed that I haven’t heretofore said much about what the ultimate goal of Ultima is, beyond collecting gems and statistics. That’s because for the most part the game hasn’t said much about it either; all we know is that it’s something to do with a time machine. After drinking in a pub, it all finally comes out in an infodump that is downright epic by this game’s standards, as well as amusing for the way that Garriott gradually drops the fiction of the bartender entirely to just tell us directly how it is.

BUB, YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT OVER 1000 YEARS AGO MONDAIN THE WIZARD CREATED AN EVIL GEM. WITH THIS GEM, HE IS IMMORTAL AND CANNOT BE DEFEATED. THE QUEST OF ULTIMA IS TO TRAVERSE THE LANDS IN SEARCH OF A TIME MACHINE. UPON FINDING SUCH A DEVICE, YOU SHOULD GO BACK IN TIME TO THE DAYS BEFORE MONDAIN CREATED THE EVIL GEM AND DESTROY HIM BEFORE IT’S [sic] CREATION. IF YOU DO THIS, YOU WILL SAVE THE UNIVERSE AND WIN THE GAME!!!

Doing this would of course introduce a veritable moebius strip of paradoxes. Nor does the land feel particularly oppressed at the moment. Granted, there are roving bands of monsters everywhere, but, hey, I’m in a CRPG, and anyway they’re mostly bears and giant squids and that sort of thing, not really your typical evil minions. I’ve yet to see Mondain or his minions at all, and the kings all seem benevolent enough if we are willing to overlook the princesses they have locked up in their dungeons. And hey, who hasn’t had a princess or two locked up in their dungeon at one time or another? Still, we have our quest. Time to get on with it.

We also learn some other things in the pub:

BUB, YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SPACE TRAVEL! AND THAT YOU MUST DESTROY AT LEAST 20 ENEMY VESSELS TO BECOME AN ACE!

BUB, YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT THE PRINCESS WILL GIVE GREAT REWARD TO THE ONE WHO SAVES HER, AND AN EXTRA GIFT IF THE PLAYER IS 8TH LEVEL OR GREATER!

Reading between the lines here, we need to reach 8th level (already done), become a space ace (?), and then rescue yet another princess. So, what the hell… we buy a space shuttle, and park it next to the “air car” we’ve had for a while now, a vehicle that looks suspiciously like Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder.

Okay, what is going on here? In Garriott’s own words:

The earliest Ultimas really were an amalgamation of everything I thought was cool in the few books that I’d read, the many movies I’d seen, and the few other games that I’d played — all thrown into one game. It was pretty much anything goes.

So, D&D and fantasy in general were cool. In they went. Star Wars was cool. In it went. Garriott’s astronaut father was soon to fly into space again aboard the space shuttle, and that was really cool. In it went. In addition to all of the pop-culture influences, these early Ultima games are filled with Garriott’s family, friends, and acquantances — and of course Garriott himself in the person of not only Lord British but also his normal SCA character, the more understated ranger Shamino. When some scholar of the future studying this pioneer of ludic narrative creates an Annotated Ultima, she’ll have a goldmine of references to illuminate.

But as for us, we’re going into space now to try to become a space ace. The space parts of Ultima introduce a whole new sub-game, added by Richard out of a self-proclaimed desire to pack as much onto its two disk sides as he possibly could. Obviously editing was not, at this stage at least, Garriott’s strong suit. That said, the space game is more complex and satisfying than one might expect, if as limited in its potential for fast action as one might expect given its BASIC implementation. Our first task is to safely dock our shuttle — which for some reason no longer looks quite so much like the NASA space shuttle as it did on the ground — to a space station.

With that accomplished, we can choose a more combat-appropriate vessel and begin to hyperjump from sector to sector on the trail of enemy ships. We do need to keep an eye on our fuel supplies whilst doing so, returning from time to time to a station to top off. And exactly how does this relate to Mondain? Sigh… I really don’t know. I suppose it’s possible that the enemy ships belong to his forces — although they look, inevitably, like TIE fighters.

So, we finally shoot down our 20th TIE fighter and return to Sosaria as a space ace, primed for the climax. We dutifully rescue our umpteenth princess. This time she tells us about a time machine “far to the northwest.”

We go there in our trusty landspeeder…

We activate the time machine, a process described with another unusually long string of text:

UPON ENTERING THE CRAFT, YOU FIND FOUR HOLES MARKED R, G, B, AND W. YOU PLACE THE PROPER GEMS IN EACH. YOU SEE A BUTTON MARKED LAUNCH. FURTHER EXAMINATION LEADS YOU TO NOTICE THAT YOU ARE LOCKED IN… NOTHING TO DO BUT LAUNCH?!?!

AFTER ONLY A FEW MOMENTS, YOU FEEL A STRONG MAGIC PULLING YOU FROM THE CRAFT. A MOMENT LATER…

…YOU FIND YOURSELF FACE TO FACE WITH MONDAIN HIMSELF. GOOD LUCK, THIS IS IT!

And the final showdown begins…

There’s actually a somewhat unfair trick to this final battle, the only such in the entire game. We can pound on Mondain endlessly — by this point he’s really not that dangerous to us — but he will keep coming back to life on us. We need to move over to that little ball sitting next to him, which represents his “EVIL GEM,” and pick it up using a command, G for “Get,” that we’ve never had occasion to use in the entire game to his point. This is all somewhat at odds with what Garriott — I mean, the bartender — told us was supposed to be happening here. We were supposed to be traveling back to a time before Mondain made the gem, not taking it from him and destroying it. Ah, well. We finally figure out what the game expects of us, and prevail at last. It all ends with a message that would become another of the Ultima series’s trademarks, albeit later games would ask us to report our victory to Lord British directly rather than his flunkies at California Pacific.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in these posts poking fun at Ultima. At times it’s kind of hard not to; the game plays like exactly what it is, a catalog of one particularly bright nerd’s rather typically nerdy interests, circa 1981. Yet that’s also exactly what gives the game its charm as well as its time-capsule quality. I’m sure a few of us were similar kids once upon a time, and hopefully we won’t ever completely outgrow our sensawunda. There’s an openhearted quality about Ultima; it wouldn’t know irony if it walked up and bashed it for 1000 hit points. Yes, that makes it easy to make fun of, but that also makes it kind of lovable. And I’d be remiss not to point out that, in an era rife with horribly designed adventure games, Ultima is, that one misstep at the end aside, remarkably fair. If Zork hates its player, Ultima just wants us to have a good time, and it’s willing to throw in everything up to and including the proverbial kitchen sink to make sure that happens. “And hey, there’s a princess to rescue, and a spaceship to fly, and these really cool monsters to fight, and the dungeons are in, like, 3D…” God bless its innocence.

Ultima‘s charms were rewarded with some very impressive sales by the standards of the still small entertainment software market: 20,000 copies sold in its first year. Still, Garriott, who had led a charmed existence thus far, was about to run into his first real complications.

But next time: something a bit less innocent than Ultima.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ultima, Part 2

As anyone who’s ever played an Ultima can tell you, our first step upon beginning a new game must be to seek out the castle of the in-game version of Lord British. Unlike in Akalabeth, shown to the left above, castles in Ultima are implemented as little navigable worlds of their own, complete with king, guards, jesters, and even a handy princess awaiting rescue; in the image below I’m standing at the bottom right, just outside her cell.

Every castle, like every town, is identical except for its name and the king we find there. Like in Akalabeth these kings provide us with direction for the bulk of the game in the form of quests, a welcome design choice that helps Ultima, again like Akalabeth, avoid the sense of aimless needle-in-a-haystack wandering that plagues so many other early adventure games. In Ultima, we can also opt for “gold” instead of “service” when speaking to a king, meaning we can trade cash for hit points.

Here I have to take a moment to talk about this game’s, um, unusual approach to character building. Hit points here are a collectable resource awarded by the game or bought from kings, with no relation to anything else about your character. There is, in other words, no maximum total of hit points to which you can be healed and, indeed, no real concept of healing at all. You simply earn hit points questing or buy them from kings, and spend them fighting monsters. And that’s just the beginning of the strangeness. The game provides a running total of experience points, but I haven’t been able to actually determine what they do for you. In a Republican’s fever dream of a socialist dystopia, leveling up is simply a function of hours spent on the job; every 1000 turns earns you another level. (There’s actually no variable at all in the code assigned to your character’s level; the game just divides time by 1000 every time it needs to print your level.) And then there’s the game’s oft-remarked obsession with food: you consume a little bit with every move, and if you ever run out you die — instantly. I kind of like what one Ophidian Dragon said about Akalabeth‘s food system, which worked the same way: “It’s like you have a gigantic bag of potato chips on your back, and are constantly munching on them, and when the bag is empty you instantly die!” Such absurdities are sometimes necessary to make of a piece of ludic narrative a playable game, but the mechanics of this and later Ultimas are often suspect not just from a narrative but also from a game-design perspective. The joy of Ultima is more in exploration and discovery than in strategizing. In other words, Ultima is no Wizardry (and vice versa — and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, we’ll be getting to Wizardry soon).

After leaving Lord British, we head for the nearest town — Britain, natch — to stock up on supplies. Like the castles, the towns are now implemented as navigable environments of their own, albeit once again all identical. There’s an unusually off-color element here in this otherwise asexual world: if we drink too much at one time in a pub (in best D&D fashion, a necessary source of hints and tips about goings-on), we get seduced by the local wench, who gives us a “long night” but takes all our money in return. I suppose you get what you pay for. (And apparently our character is a heterosexual man. Good to know.)

More productively, we need can pick up some new armor and weapons. Trouble is, we’re not exactly flush with cash. Luckily, there’s the handy “Steal” command. But if we get caught, the whole town goes apeshit and comes after us. So we do what Ultima players have been doing for time immemorial: save our game outside town (the only place saving is allowed), then enter and try our luck. With a bit of patience if not much fidelity to the game’s fiction, we eventually equip ourselves with plate armor and a blaster. “Wait,” I hear you say, “a blaster? Like a Star Wars blaster?” Just hold off; we’ll get to that.

Incidentally: in one of those user-interface choices that make these early games such a delight, we steal by pressing “S.” We’re thus pretty much guaranteed to do lots of accidental stealing when we really want to “sell,” at least until we’ve gotten it pounded into our little heads that the command for selling is actually “Transact.” And don’t even get me started on “Klimb,” or the immortal “Ztatistics” command.

Journeying onward, we spend some time killing monsters outdoors to build up our cash reserves and test out our ill-gotten hardware. Then we visit the Castle of the Lost King and accept our first quest: to kill a gelantinous cube. Doing so requires venturing into a dungeon. And doing that in turn brings on a case of deja vu: the dungeon-delving part of Ultima has been left unchanged from Akalabeth.

Well, I say unchanged, but it sure feels like it’s gotten even slower. Most of one’s time underground is spent watching the screen lugubriously redraw itself. A few of Mr. Arnold’s assembly-language routines would have been welcome here. In between redraws, we fight a mixed bag of monsters, many of them, like the gelantinous cube we’re after for this first quest, drawn straight from the D&D Monster Manual. (A quick way to guess whether a given monster is drawn from some mythology or fiction or original to D&D: the more ridiculous it is, the greater the chance of the latter.) The gelantinous cube is kind of annoying in that it’s really, really hard to see against the walls of the dungeon itself.

It’s also kind of annoying in that it eats our armor when it hits us successfully. We could carry nine or ten suits of plate mail with us for occasions just like this (no sniggering on how ridiculous that is!), but, thanks to a bug or Garriott’s just never having gotten around to it, it’s actually impossible to equip new armor while in a dungeon. Sigh.

So, by this point the structure of the game begins to become clear. There are eight castles to be visited, arranged, in that symmetric way so common to made-up worlds, two to a continent. Four of the kings — you guessed it, one per continent — send us on quests to kill progressively more dangerous monsters at progressively lower dungeon levels. When we complete each of these quests, each king gives us a gem, and also babbles something or other about a time machine.

The other four send us to seek out above-ground landmarks, but only raise our strength score in return. (The landmarks themselves raise our other statistics.) Of course, all is not as easy as it sounds. Unlike the later games, Ultima shipped with no map of its world, meaning just finding all of the castles and landmarks requires quite a bit of patient, methodical exploration. At least our searching expends the turns needed to gain levels, a good thing considering we need to get to at least level 8 to finish the game.

One thing we can do to speed our development is to rescue princesses. Note the plural; there’s one in every castle, and since each castle is reset as soon as we leave it we’ve got an effectively infinite supply of damsels in distress. Exactly why these presumably benevolent kings are keeping the poor princesses under lock and key is never adequately explained. Indeed, Sosaria is not so much a world as a shadowy projection of the possibility of a world, onto which we can graft our own fictions and justifications. Or not: as we’ll soon see in the context of the princess as well as other things, there are plenty of signs that Garriott doesn’t take it all that seriously himself.

Rescuing a princess first involves killing — yes, killing, in cold blood — the jester who is helpfully yelling, “I’ve got the key!” every few turns. After that the castle guards go predictably apeshit, while we check our “Ztats” to see whether we got the key to Cell #1 or Cell #2. In the former case, we can only run for it — or restore a saved game — and try again. In the latter case, we can effect our rescue. In the screenshot below I’m at the extreme left edge, just making my escape with the princess and most of the castle guards hot on my heels. My reward is 3000 hit points, 3000 gold pieces, and 3000 experience points. Not bad.

Now, there’s so much about this game that it so ridiculous that’s it’s hardly worth flying into a rage about the moral shadiness of all this. I do want to be sure to point it out, however, because Garriott would later have something of an epiphany after taking a hard look at the many situations like this in his own works and decide to stand up for morality. But that’s a story for another time.

We eventually acquire the fourth and final gem by killing a “balron,” a creature that in Akalabeth was named after the balrog of Gandalf-killing fame. As the game industry grew in size and public exposure, Garriott and other designers slowly found themselves having to be more careful about the niceties of copyright law. He even made some efforts in Ultima to rename some of the obviously D&D-inspired monsters; the carrion crawler, for instance, becomes the “carrion creeper.” Anyway, Garriott’s balron looks more like a kid in an angel costume than Gandalf’s “foe beyond any of you.”

Notice in the screenshot above the ridiculous number of hit points we’ve bought by this point.

With the balron dispatched, we’re about to move past the mushy middle toward the climax. And things are about to get weird. We’ll try to finish up next time, if we can manage to find a plot. I’m pretty sure there’s one around here somewhere.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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