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Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Computer for Every Home?

On January 13, 1984, Commodore held their first board of directors meeting of the year. It should have been a relaxed, happy occasion, a time to make plans for the new year but also one last chance to reflect on a stellar 1983, a year in which they had sold more computers than any two of their rivals combined and truly joined the big boys of corporate America by reaching a billion dollars in gross sales. During the last quarter of 1983 alone they had ridden a spectacular Christmas buying season to more than $50 million in profits. Commodore had won the Home Computer Wars convincingly, driving rival Texas Instruments to unconditional surrender. To make the triumph even sweeter, rival Apple had publicly announced the goal of selling a billion dollars worth of their own computers that year, only to fall just short thanks to the failure of the Lisa. Atari, meanwhile, had imploded in the wake of the videogame crash, losing more than $500 million and laying off more than 2000 workers. Commodore had just the previous summer moved into a sprawling new 585,000 square-foot, two story headquarters in West Chester, Pennsylvania that befitted their new stature; some of the manufacturing spaces and warehouses in the place were so large that Commodore veterans insist today that they had their own weather. Yes, it should have been a happy time at Commodore. But instead there was doubt and trepidation in the air as executives filed into the boardroom on that Friday the 13th.

A day or two before, Jack Tramiel had had a heated argument with Irving Gould, Commodore’s largest shareholder and the man who controlled his purse strings, in the company’s private suite above their exhibit at the 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. That in itself wasn’t unusual; these two corrupt old bulldogs had had an adversarial relationship for almost two decades now. This time, however, observers remarked that Gould was shouting as much as Tramiel. That was unusual; Gould normally sat impassively until Tramiel exhausted himself, then quietly told him which demands he was and wasn’t willing to meet. When Tramiel stormed red-faced out of the meeting and sped away in the new sports car he’d just gotten for his 55th birthday, it was clear that this was not just the usual squabbling. Now observers outside the board-of-directors meeting, which was being chaired as usual by Gould, saw him depart halfway through in a similar huff. He would never darken Commodore’s doors again.

No one who was inside that boardroom has ever revealed exactly what transpired there. With Gould and Tramiel both now dead and the other former board members either dead or aged, it’s unlikely that anyone ever will. On the face of it, it seems hard to imagine. What could cause these two men who had managed to stay together through the toughest of times, during which Commodore had more than once teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, to irrevocably split now, when their company had just enjoyed the best year in its history? We can only speculate.

Commodore had ceased truly being Tramiel’s company in 1966, when Gould swooped in to bail him out from the Financial Acceptance Scandal of the previous year. Tramiel, however, never quite got the memo. He continued to run the company like a sole proprietor to whatever extent that Gould would let him. Tramiel micro-managed to an astonishing degree. He did not, for instance, believe in budgets, considering them a “license to steal,” a guarantee that the responsible manager, knowing he had X million available, would always spend at least X million. Instead he demanded that every expenditure of greater than $1000 be approved personally by him, with the result that much of the company ground to a halt any time he took a holiday. Even as Tramiel enjoyed his best year ever in business, Gould and others in the financial community were beginning to ask the very reasonable question of whether this was really a sustainable way to run a billion-dollar company.

Still, the specific cause of Tramiel’s departure seems likely to have involved his sons. Tramiel valued family above all else, and, like a typical small businessman, dreamed of leaving “his” company to his three sons. Whether by coincidence or something else, it even worked out that each son had an area of expertise that would be critical to running a company like Commodore. Sam, the eldest, had trained in business management at York University, while Gary, the youngest, was a financial analyst with a degree from Manlow Park College and experience as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. Leonard, the middle child, was the intellectual and the gearhead; he was finishing a PhD in astrophysics at Columbia, and was by all accounts quite an accomplished hardware and software hacker. Sam and Gary already worked for Commodore, while Leonard planned to start as soon as he finished his PhD in a few more months. Various witnesses have claimed that Tramiel the elder now wished to begin more actively grooming this three-headed monster to take more and more of his responsibilities, and someday to take his place. Feeling nothing good could come out of such blatant nepotism inside a publicly traded corporation that was trying to put its somewhat seedy history behind it, Gould refused absolutely to countenance such a plan. Given Tramiel’s devotion to his family and his attitude toward Commodore as his personal fiefdom, it does make a degree of sense that this particular rejection might have been more than he could stomach.

In any case, Tramiel was gone, and Gould, who had made his fortune in the unglamorous world of warehousing and shipping and was reportedly both a bit jealous of Tramiel’s high profile in an exciting, emerging industry and a bit embarrassed by his gruff, untutored ways, didn’t seem particularly distraught about it. The man he brought in to replace him could hardly have been more different. Marshall F. Smith was a blandly feckless veteran of boardrooms and country clubs who had spent his career in the steel industry. It’s hard to grasp just why Gould latched onto Smith of all people. Perhaps he was following the lead of Apple, who the previous year had brought in their own leader from outside the computer industry, John Sculley. Sculley, however, understood consumer marketing, having cut his teeth at Pepsi, where he was the mastermind behind the Pepsi Challenge, still one of the most iconic and effective advertising campaigns in the long history of the Cola Wars. The anonymous world of Big Steel offered no comparable experience. Smith’s appointment was the first of a long string of well-nigh incomprehensible mistakes Gould would make over the next decade. Engineers that were initially thrilled to have proper funding and actual budgets at last were soon watching with growing concern as Smith puttered about with a growing management bureaucracy and let the company drift without direction. Many were soon muttering that it’s often better to make a decision — even the wrong decision — than to just let things hang. Whatever else you could say about Jack Tramiel, he never lacked the courage of his convictions.

Commodore’s first significant new models, which reached stores at last in October of 1984, more than two years after the Commodore 64, hardly did much to inspire confidence in the new regime. Nothing about the Commodore 16 and the Plus/4 made any sense at all. The 16 was an ultra-low-end model with just 16 K of memory, long after the time for such a beast had passed. The trend in even inexpensive 8-bit computers was onward, toward the next magic number of 128 K, not backward to the late 1970s.

The Commodore Plus/4

The Commodore Plus/4

As for the Plus/4, which like the 64 was built around a variant of the 6502 CPU and had the same 64 K of memory but was nevertheless incompatible… well, it was the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It was billed as a more “serious” machine than the 64, a computer for “home and business applications” rather than gaming, and priced to match at about $300, more than $100 more than the 64. It featured four applications built right into its ROM (thus the machine’s name): a file manager, a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a graphing program. All were pathetically sub-rate even by the standards of Commodore 64 applications, hardly the gold standard in business computing. The Plus/4 lacked the 64’s sprites and SID sound chip, which made a degree of sense; for a dismaying number of years yet a lack of audiovisual capability would be taken as a signifier of serious intent in computing. But why did it offer more colors, 128 as opposed to the 64’s 16? And as an allegedly more serious computer, why didn’t it offer the 80-column display absolutely essential for comfortable word processing and other typical productive tasks? And as a more serious (and expensive) computer, why did it have a rubbery keyboard almost as awful to type on as the IBM PCjr’s Chiclet model? And would all those serious, more productive buyers really be doing a lot of BASIC programming? If not, why was one of the main selling points a much better BASIC than the bare-bones edition found in the 64? Info, a magazine that would soon built a reputation for saying the things about Commodore’s bizarre decisions that nobody else would, gave the Plus/4 a withering review:

The biggest problem with the Plus/4 is the fundamental concept: an 8-bit, 64 K, 40-column desktop personal computer. Commodore already makes the best 8-bit, 64 K, 40-column desktop personal computer you can buy, with literally thousands of products supporting it! Why should consumers want a “new” machine with no significant advances, several new limitations, and virtually no third-party product support? And why would a company with no competition in the under-$500 category bring out an incompatible [machine] that can’t compete with anybody’s machine except their own? It just doesn’t compute!

Info ran a wonderfully snarky contest in the same issue, giving away the Plus/4 they’d just reviewed. After all, it was “sure to become a collector’s item!” Even the more staid Compute!’s Gazette managed to flummox a poor Commodore representative with a single question: “Why buy a 264 [a pre-release name for the Plus/4] instead of a 64 that has a word processor and, say, a Simon’s BASIC? It would be the equivalent of the 264 for less money.” Commodore happily claimed that the Plus/4 had enough utility built right in for the “average small business” (maybe they meant one of the vast majority that fail within a year or two anyway), but in reality it seemed like it had been cobbled together from spare parts that Commodore happened to have lying around. In fact, that’s not far from what happened — and Tramiel actually bears as much responsibility for the whole fiasco as the clueless Marshall Smith.

Tramiel, you’ll remember, had driven away the heart of his engineering team in his usual hail of recriminations and lawsuits shortly after they had created the 64 for him. He did eventually find more talented young engineers, notably Bil Herd and Dave Haynie. (Commodore always preferred their engineers young and inexperienced because that way they didn’t have to pay them much — a strategy that sometimes backfired but was sometimes perversely successful, netting them brilliant, unconventional minds who would have been overlooked by other companies.) When Herd arrived at Commodore in early 1983, engineers had been tinkering for some time with a new video and audio chip, the TED (short for Text Display). With engineering straitened as ever by Tramiel’s aversion to spending money, the 23-year-old Herd soon found himself leading a project to make the TED the heart of a new computer, despite the fact that it was in some ways a step back, lacking the sprites of the 64’s VIC chip and the marvelous sound capabilities of its SID chip. Marketing came up with the dubious idea of including applications in ROM, which by all accounts delighted Tramiel.

Tramiel, who at some fundamental level still thought of the computers he now sold like the calculators he once had, failed to grasp that the whole value of a computer is the ability to do lots of different things with it, to have lots and lots of options its designers may never have anticipated, all through the magic of software. Locking applications into ROM, making them impossible to replace or update, was kind of missing the point of building a computer in the first place. Failing to understand that a computer is only as good to consumers as the quality and variety of its available software, Tramiel also saw no problem with making the new machine incompatible with the 64. It seems to have come as a complete surprise to him when the machine was announced at that fateful Winter CES and everyone’s first question was whether they could use it to run the Commodore 64 software they already had.

After Tramiel’s abrupt departure, Commodore pushed ahead with the 16 and Plus/4 in the muddled way that would be their wont for the rest of the company’s life, despite a skeptical press and utterly indifferent consumers. It all made so little sense that some have darkly hinted of a conspiracy hatched by Tramiel amongst his remaining loyalists at Commodore to get the company to waste resources, time, and credibility on these obvious losers. (Tramiel recruited a substantial number of said loyalists to join him after he purchased Atari and got back in the home-computer game — exactly the sort of thing for which he so often sued others. But that’s a story for a later article.) Incredibly given the cobbled nature of the machine, it took nine more months after that CES to finally get the 16 and Plus/4 into production and watch them duly flop. Again, such a glacial pace would prove to be a consistent trait of the post-Tramiel Commodore.

By the time they did appear at last, the poor, benighted 16 and Plus/4 had more working against them than just their own failings, considerable as those may have been. The year as a whole was marked by failures in the home-computer segment of the market. Atari was reeling. Coleco was taking massive losses on their tardy entry into the home-computing field, the Adam. And of course I’ve already told you about the IBM PCjr.

Even Apple, who had enjoyed a splashy, successful launch of their new higher-end Macintosh (another story for a later date), had a somewhat disappointing new model amongst their bread-and-butter Apple II line. The “c” in the the Apple IIc’s name stood for “compact,” and it was indeed a much smaller version of Steve Wozniak’s old evergreen design. Like the Macintosh, it was a closed system designed for the end user who just wanted to get work (or play) done, not for the hackers who had adored the earlier editions of the II with their big cases and heaps of inviting expansion slots. The idea was that you would get everything you, the ordinary user, really needed built right in: all of the fundamental interface cards, a disk drive, a full 128 K of memory (as much as the Macintosh), etc. All you would really need to add to have a nice home-office setup was a monitor and a printer.

The Apple IIc

The Apple IIc

But the IIc was not envisioned just as a more practical machine: as the only II model after the first with which Steve Jobs played an important role, it evinced all of his famous obsession with design. Indeed, much of the external look and sensibility that we associate with Apple today begins as much here as with the just slightly older — and, truth be told, just slightly clunkier-looking — first Macintosh model. The Apple IIc was the first product of what would turn into a longstanding partnership with the German firm Frog Design. It marks the debut of what Apple referred to as the “Snow White” design language — slim, modern, sleek, and, yes, white. Everything about the IIc, including the packaging and the glossy manuals inside, oozed the same chic elegance.

Apple introduced the IIc at a lavish party and exhibition in San Francisco’s Moscone Center in April of 1984, just three months after a similar shindig to launch the Macintosh. The name was chosen to mollify restless Apple II owners who feared — rightly so, as it would turn out; even at “Apple II Forever” Jobs made time for a presentation on “The First 100 Days of Macintosh” — that Sculley, Jobs, and their associates had little further interest in them. Geniuses that they have always been for burnishing their own myths, Apple built a museum right there in the conference center, its centerpiece a replica of the garage where it had all begun. The IIc unveiling itself was an audiovisual extravaganza featuring three huge projection screens for the music video Apple had commissioned for the occasion. The most dramatic and theatrical moment came when Sculley held the tiny machine above him onstage for the first time. As the crowd strained to see, he asked if they’d like a closer look. Then the house lights suddenly came up and every fifth person in the audience stood up with an Apple IIc of her own to show and pass around.

Apple confidently predicted that they would soon be selling 100,000 IIcs every month on the strength of the launch buzz and a $15 million advertising campaign. In actuality the machine averaged just 100,000 sales per year over its four years in Apple’s product catalogs. The old, ugly IIe outsold its fairer sibling handily. This left Apple in a huge bind for a while, for they had all but stopped production of the IIe in anticipation of the IIc’s success while wildly overproducing IIcs for a rush that never materialized. Thus for some time stores were glutted with the IIcs that consumers didn’t want and couldn’t get their hands on the IIes that they did. (It’s interesting to consider that the PCjr almost certainly sold more units than the IIc, which has never been tarred with the label of outright flop, during each machine’s first year on the market. Narratives can be funny things.)

It remains even today somewhat unclear why the world never embraced the IIc as it had the three Apple II models that preceded it. There’s some evidence to suggest that consumers, not yet conditioned to expect each new generation of computing technology to be both smaller and more powerful than the previous, took the IIc’s small size to be a sign that it was not as serious or powerful as the IIe. Apple was actually aware of this danger before the IIc debuted. Thus the advertising campaign worked hard to explain that the IIc was more powerful than its size would imply, with the tagline, “Announcing a technological breakthrough of incredible proportions.” Yet it’s doubtful whether this message really got through. In addition, the IIc was, like the PCjr, an expensive proposition for the home-computer buyer: almost $1300, $300 more than a basic IIe. For that price you got twice the memory of the IIe as well as various other IIe add-on options built right in, but the value of all this may have been difficult for the novice buyer, the IIc’s main target, to grasp. She may just have seen that she was being asked to pay more for a smaller and thus presumably less capable machine, and gone with the bigger, more serious-looking IIe (if anything from Apple).

Then again, maybe the IIc was just born under a bad sign. As I’ve already noted, nobody was having much luck with their new home computers in 1984, almost regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses.

But why was this trend so universal? That’s what people inside the industry and computer evangelists outside it were asking themselves with increasing urgency as the year wore on. As 1984 drew toward a close, the inertia began to affect even the most established warhorses, the Commodore 64 and the Apple IIe. Both Commodore and Apple posted disappointing Christmas numbers, down at least 20% from the year before, and poor Commodore, now effectively a one-product company completely reliant on continuing sales of the 64, sank back well below that magic billion-dollar threshold again. In the grand scheme of things the Commodore 64 was still a ridiculously successful machine, by far the bestselling computer in the world and the preeminent gaming platform of its era. Yet there increasingly seemed to be something wrong with the home-computer revolution as a whole.

Commodore 64 startup screen

The fact was that a backlash had been steadily building almost from the moment that the spectacular Christmas 1983 buying season had ended. Consumers had begun to say, and not without considerable justification, that home computers promised far more than they delivered. Watching all those bright, happy faces in television and print advertising, people had bought computers expecting them to do the things that the computers there were doing. As Commodore’s advertising put it, “If you’re not pleased with what’s on your TV set tonight, simply turn on your Commodore 64.” Yet what did you get when you turned on your 64 — after you figured out how to connect it to your TV in the first place, that is? No bright fun, just something about 38,911 somethings, a READY prompt, and a cryptically blinking cursor. Everything about television was easy; everything about computers was hard. Computers had been sold to consumers like any other piece of consumer electronics, but they were not like any other piece of consumer electronics. For the vast majority of people — those who had no intrinsic fascination with the technology itself, who merely wanted to do the sorts of things those families on TV were doing — they were stubborn, frustrating, well-nigh intractable things. Ordinary consumer were dutifully buying computers, but computers were at some fundamental level not yet ready for ordinary consumers.

The computer industry was still unable to really answer the question which had dogged and thwarted it ever since Radio Shack had run the first ads showing a happy housewife sorting her recipes on a TRS-80 perched on the kitchen table: why do I, the ordinary man or woman with children to feed and a job to keep, need one? Commodore had cemented the industry’s go-to rhetoric with the help of William Shatner in their VIC-20 advertising campaign that first carved out a real market segment for home computers. You needed a computer for productivity tasks and for your children’s future, “Johnny can’t read BASIC” having replaced “Johnny can’t read” as the marker of a neglectful parent. Entertainment was relegated to an asterisk at the end: “Plays great games too!”

Yet, honestly, how productive could you really be with even the Commodore 64, much less the 5 K VIC-20? Some people did manage to do productive things with their 64s, but most of those who did forgot or decided not to ask themselves a simple question: is doing this on the computer really easier than the alternative? The answer was almost always no. Hobbyists chose to do things on the computer because it was cool, not because it was practical. Never mind if it took far more effort to keep one’s address book on the Commodore 64, what with its slow disk drive and quirky, unrefined software, than it would have to just have a paper card file. Never mind if it was much riskier as well, prone to deletion by an errant key swipe or a misbehaving disk drive. It was cooler, and that was all that mattered — to a technology buff. Most other people found it easier to address their Christmas cards by hand than to try to feed envelopes through a tractor-fed dot-matrix printer that made enough noise to wake the neighbors.

Perhaps the one possible compelling productive use of a machine like the Commodore 64 in the home was as a word processor. Kids today can’t imagine how students once despaired when their teachers told them that a report had to be typed back in the era of typewriters, can’t conceive how difficult it was to get anything on paper in typewritten form when every mistake made by untutored fingers meant trying to decide between pulling out the Liquid Paper or just starting all over again. But even word processing on the 64 was made so painful by the 40-column screen and manifold other compromises that there was room to debate whether the cure was worse than the disease. Specialized hardware-based word processors became hugely popular during this era for just this reason. These single-function, all-in-one devices were much more pleasant to use than a Commodore 64 equipped with a $30 program, and cheaper than buying a whole computer system, especially if you went with a higher priced and thus more productively useful model like the Apple II.

The idea that every child in America needed to learn to program, lest she be left behind to flip burgers while her friends had brilliant careers, was also absurd on the face of it. It was akin to declaring during the days of the Model T that every citizen needed to learn to strip down and rebuild one of these newfangled automobiles. Basic computer literacy was important (and remains so today); BASIC literacy was not. What a child really needed to know could largely be taught in school. Parents needn’t have fretted if Junior preferred reading, listening to music, playing sports, or practicing origami to learning the vagaries of PEEKs and POKEs in BASIC 2.0. There would be time enough for computing when computing and Junior had both grown up a bit.

So, everything had changed yet nothing had changed since the halcyon days of the trinity of 1977. Computers were transforming the face and in some cases the very nature of business, yet there remained just two compelling reasons to have one in the home: 1) for the sheer joy of hacking or 2) for playing games. Lots more computers were now being used for the latter than the former, thanks to the vastly more and vastly better games that were now available. But for many folks games just weren’t a compelling enough reason to own one. The Puritan ethic that makes people feel guilty of their pleasures was as strong in America then as it remains today. It certainly didn’t help that the media had been filled for several years now with hand-wringing about the effect videogames were having on the psyches of youngsters. (This prompted many computer publishers of this period to work hard, albeit likely with limited success, to label their computer games as something different, something more cerebral and rewarding and even, dare we say it, educational than their simplistic videogame cousins.)

But, perhaps most of all, computers still remained quite expensive when you really dug into everything you needed for a workable system. Yes, you could get a Commodore 64 for less than $200 by the Christmas of 1983. But then you needed a disk drive ($220) if you wanted to do, well, much of anything with it; a monitor ($220) if you wanted a nice picture and didn’t want to tie up the family television all the time; a printer ($290) for word processing, if you wanted to take that fraught plunge; a modem ($60) to go online. It didn’t take long until you were approaching four digits, and that’s without even entering into a discussion of software. There was thus a certain note of false advertising in that sub-$200 Commodore 64. And because these machines were being sold through mass merchandisers rather than dealers, there was no one who really knew better, who could help buyers to put a proper system together at the point of sale. Consumers, conditioned by pretty much everything else that was sold to them not to expect the 64 on its own to be pretty much useless, were often baffled and frustrated when they realized they had bought an expensive doorstop. Many of the computers sold during that Christmas of 1983 were turned on a few times only, then consigned to the back of the closet or attic to gather dust. The bad taste they put in many people’s mouths would take years to go away. Meanwhile the more complete, useful machines, like the Apple IIc and the PCjr, were still more expensive than a complete Commodore 64 system — and the games on them weren’t as good to boot. Hackers and passionate gamers (or, perhaps more commonly, their generous parents) were willing to pay the price. Curious novices largely were not. Faced with no really good all-purpose options, many — most, actually — soon decided home computers just weren’t worth it. The real home-computer revolution, as it turned out, was still almost ten years away. About 15% of American homes had computers — at least ostensibly; many of them were, as just mentioned, buried in closets — by January 1, 1985, but that figure would rise with agonizing slowness for the rest of the decade. People could still live perfectly happy lives fully plugged into the cultural discourse around them and raise healthy, productive children in the process without owning a computer. Only much later, with the arrival of the World Wide Web and computers equipped with more intuitive graphical user interfaces for accessing it, would that change.

Which is not to say that the software and information industries that had exploded in and around the home-computer revolution during 1982 and 1983 died just like that. Many of its prominent members, however, did, as the financial gambles they had taken in anticipation of the home-computer revolution came back to haunt them. We’ve just seen how Sierra nearly went under during this period. Muse Software and Scott Adams’s Adventure International, to name two other old friends from this blog, weren’t so lucky; both folded in 1985. Electronic Arts survived, but steered their rhetoric and choice of titles somewhat away from Trip Hawkins’s original vision of “consumer software” toward titles tilted more toward the hardcore, in proven hardcore genres like the CRPG and the adventure game.

Magazines were even harder hit. By early 1984 there were more than 300 professionally published computing periodicals of one sort or another, many of them just founded during the boom of the previous year. Well over half of these died during 1984 and 1985. Mixed in with the dead Johnny-come-latelys were some cherished veteran voices, among them pioneers Creative Computing (1974), SoftSide (1978), and Softalk (1980). The latter’s demise, after exactly four years and 48 issues of sometimes superb people-focused journalism, came as a particular blow to the Apple II community; Apple historian Steven Weyhrich names this moment as nothing less than the end of the “golden age” of the Apple II. Those magazines that survived often did so in dramatically shrunken form. Compute!, for instance, went from 392 pages in December of 1983 to 160 ten months later.

Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, some software publishers still did quite well. Infocom, for example, had the best single year in their history in 1984 in terms of unit sales, selling almost 750,000 games. It seemed that, with more options than ever before, software buyers were becoming much more discerning. Those publishers like Infocom who could offer them fresh, quality products showing a distinctive sensibility could do very well. Those who could not, like Adventure International with their tired old two-word parsers and simplistic engines, suffered the consequences. That real or implied asterisk (“Plays great games too!”) at the end of the advertising copy remained the great guilty secret of the remaining home-computer industry, the real reason computers were in homes at all. Thankfully, the best games were getting ever more complex and compelling; otherwise the industry may have been in even more trouble than it actually was.

Indeed, with a staggering number of machines already out there and heaps still to be sold for years to come, the golden age for Commodore 64 users was just beginning. This year of chaos and uncertainty was the year that the 64 really came into its own as a games machine, as programmers came to understand how to make it sing. Companies who found these keyboard maestros would be able to make millions from them. The home-computer revolution may not have quite panned out as anticipated and the parent company may have looked increasingly clueless, but for gamers the Commodore 64 stood alone with its combination of audiovisual capability, its large and ever growing catalog of games, and its low price. What with game consoles effectively dead in the wake of Atari’s crash and burn, all the action was right here.

In that spirit, we’ll look next time at the strange transformation that led one of our stodgiest old friends from earlier articles to become the hip purveyor of some of the slickest games that would ever grace the 64.

(The indispensable resources on Commodore’s history remains Brian Bagnall’s On the Edge and its revised edition, Commodore: A Company on the Edge. Frank Rose’s West of Eden is the best chronicle I know of this period of Apple’s history. The editorial pages and columnists in Compute! and Compute!’s Gazette provided a great unfolding account of a chaotic year in home computing as it happened. Particular props must go to Fred D’Ignazio for pointing out all of the problems with the standard rhetoric of the home-computer revolution in Compute!‘s May 1984 issue — but he does lose points for naming the PCjr as the answer to all these woes in the next issue.)

 

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The Unmaking and Remaking of Sierra On-Line

King's Quest

What happened for Ken and Roberta Williams in less than three years would have gone to anyone’s head. As the 1980s dawned, their lives were utterly ordinary. Ken was a business programmer putting in long hours every day in Los Angeles, Roberta his pretty, quiet, vaguely dissatisfied stay-at-home wife. Six months later she was a published game designer (to the extent that description meant anything in 1980), and the couple was sitting at their kitchen table opening the mail in disbelief as orders poured in for their little homemade adventure game. A year later, Ken was head of a burgeoning software house in their dream setting, nestled in the heart of the California Redwoods, and Roberta was his star designer. A year after that, they and the company they had built were software superstars. Glossy magazines and television shows begged for access and interviews; entertainment moguls flew them to New York to wine and dine them at 21 Club; venture capitalists lined up to offer money and advice, telling them they were at the forefront of the next big thing in media; big corporations offered to buy their whole operation, with starting offers of $20 million or more. Big franchises approached to talk about licensing deals: Jim Henson Associates, Disney, the Family Circus comic strip. For Ken, two of whose greatest heroes were Jim Henson and Walt Disney, such offers were flabbergasting. Late in 1982 IBM, by at least some measures the biggest, most powerful company in the world, humbly came knocking at the Williams’ door to ask if they’d be willing to work with them to develop software for their new home computer.

Yes, it would have gone to anyone’s head. Ken said yes to just about everyone, with the exception only of the outright buyout offers; he was having far too much fun to entertain them. The pundits, advisers, and investors that surrounded Ken were all telling him that the new low-cost home computers were the wave of the future, destined to replace the old Atari VCS game console and its competitors in the hearts and minds of consumers. This was the new gravy train, and the key to riding it was to get lots and lots of product out there to feed customers hungry for games for their new Commodore VIC-20s, Texas Instruments 99/4As, and Coleco Adams. Don’t stress too much about any given title, they said; just get lots of them out there. Simpler games were actually better, because then you could port them more quickly from platform to platform and pack them onto cartridges for all those ultra-low-end users without even a cassette drive. Ken, with these words ringing in his ears, dutifully made plans to push out 100 separate products in 1983 alone. He amassed a fleet of programmers to churn out action games which could be easily ported from platform to platform. Sierra spelled out this new approach in their “strategy outline” for 1983:

We believe the home-computer market to be so explosive that “title saturation” is impossible. The number of new machines competing for the Apple/Atari segment in 1983 will create a perpetually new market hungry for winning 1982 titles. We will exploit this opportunity.

Mr. Cool advertisement VIC-20 advertisements

Housing his growing fleet of salaried, workaday programmers — Ken had decided that dealing with artistically-tempered programmers like John Harris of Jawbreaker fame just wasn’t worth the trouble, that programming really shouldn’t be considered a creative endeavor at all — was soon becoming a problem. Growing technical, clerical, marketing, and warehouse staffs were also pushing the company’s total head count rapidly toward 100. Thus when the developer who owned Sierra’s office facilities offered to build a brand new building to house the company, a lovely place which perfectly suited the company’s image (if not, increasingly, its reality) as a clan of computer artisans living in the woods, Ken happily acquiesced, accepting rent in the vicinity of $25,000 per month.

The Sierra "redwood" building, custom-built for them in 1982

The Sierra “redwood” building, custom-built for them in 1982

The new offices weren’t the only building contract Ken signed around this time. Figuring that if they were going to be entertainment moguls they needed to live the part, Ken and Roberta hired an architect to design a sprawling 10,000 square-foot, $800,000 house — huge money in this rural area — on the Fresno River, complete with racquetball and volleyball courts, full-length wet bar, and a mini-arcade with all the latest games.

But by the time Ken and Roberta moved on Labor Day weekend, 1983, the fantasy of their lavish housewarming party, which included a professional comedy troupe brought in from San Francisco for the occasion, was undercut by some slowly dawning realities. Sierra’s first big partnership with Big Media, on the Dark Crystal game, had been a major artistic and commercial disappointment, done in by the tired old Hi Res Adventure engine that powered it and a rote design by a Roberta Williams who seemed determined not to grow past what she had done for Mystery House. Their one real hit of the year, meanwhile, had not been any of the titles from Ken’s new programmers, but rather John Harris’s loving, officially licensed port of the arcade game Frogger, a port done so well that some said it surpassed its inspiration. Alas, Frogger was the last game Harris did for Sierra; he had left some time before, having signed on with Synapse Software, whom he considered more quality-oriented. It was already beginning to dawn at that party that they might actually make less this year than they had the last even as the new building and growing staff had increased their expenses enormously. Soon after, things really started to go south.

Much of the software that Sierra was now producing was on cartridges, which were both more expensive to produce than disks or tapes and took much longer to duplicate. With much of the industry following Sierra’s plan of churning out new games practically by the dozen, production capacity at the relatively limited number of facilities capable of making cartridges was at a premium. Sierra was forced to place huge orders in June or July for the games they hoped to be selling huge numbers of come Christmas. But a funny thing happened during the six months in between: the market for the VIC-20, the TI 99/4A, and the Coleco Adam, the machines for which most of these cartridges were produced, collapsed. Jack Tramiel, you see, had won the Home Computer Wars of 1983 by then, driving TI right out of the market. In the process, he had just about killed his own VIC-20 as well; the price of the vastly more desirable and capable Commodore 64 had dropped so low that there was little point in buying a VIC-20 instead. As for the Adam… well, it never had a chance; by the time it arrived the war was largely over and the victor already determined. The Commodore 64 rocketed out of that Christmas the new center of the gaming universe, a position it would hold for the next several years. Yet all Sierra had to sell Commodore 64 owners were a few simple games ported from the VIC-20. And they had tens of thousands of cartridges, millions of dollars of inventory which they couldn’t move for ten cents on the dollar, sitting in warehouses. Meanwhile their shiny licensing deals were also turning out to be of little benefit to the bottom line. Sierra felt that they were doing all the work on these and all the profits — what little there sometimes were — were going to the licensees. As 1984 ground on, it became clear that the company was in the most dire of straits, unable to even make their mortgage payments on their fancy new office building.

The only thing to do was to start cutting. In a matter of days the company shed the extra skin it had built up, going from 100 employees to an absolutely essential core of about 20. A desperate Ken went to Sierra’s landlord and offered him a 10% share in the company if he would just forgive them the rent for a few months, while they got back on their feet. Figuring that 10% of a dead company was worth less than the rent he might be able to get out of them now, he said no thanks. In the end Ken was able to negotiate only to give back some of the building for other tenants. He and Roberta and their closest associates paid some of the remaining rent for a while using second mortgages and personal credit cards. It looked like this dream they had been living was about to end less than four years after it had begun, that soon they might end up right back where they had started in the suburbs of Los Angeles. They might have packed it in but for one remaining hope: that contract they had signed with IBM back in the halcyon days.

Sierra’s relationship with IBM actually went back even further than that contract. IBM first partnered with Sierra during the run-up to the original IBM PC’s launch in 1981, when they hired them to port The Wizard and the Princess, one of the biggest Apple II titles of that year, to their new machine. Sierra first experienced the legendary IBM secrecy then. Prototypes would arrive in X-ray-resistant lead chests sealed with solder, and were expected to be stored and used in windowless rooms that were to be kept locked at all times. Despite being a relatively minor part of the PC’s launch, Sierra, and Ken in particular, got on well with IBM. For all the party-hearty persona Ken could put on (as well described in Hackers and elsewhere on this blog), he had spent his previous life working for big technology companies like IBM. He understood how they worked, knew what it meant to shake down a new computer system and find the bugs and flaws while also obeying the rules of corporate hierarchy. IBM likely found him a refreshing change from both the un-technical MBAs and the technically masterful but socially unsophisticated hackers that were most of his peers. At any rate, they came back to Sierra soon after initiating the PCjr project.

IBM flew Ken and Jeff Stephenson, the man who was quickly assuming Ken’s role as hacker in chief at Sierra as Ken got more and more absorbed with the business side, out to their offices in Boca Raton, Florida. After the NDAs and other legal niceties that were part and parcel of dealing with IBM, they explained what the PCjr was to be and asked them to pitch some software that might make a good fit. Ken and Jeff made a number of proposals that were accepted, including HomeWord, an easy-to-use, casual word processor with an early graphical user interface of sorts which Ken and Jeff were already working on; it would wind up IBM’s official word processor for the PCjr. But the most important proposal, the biggest in the history of Sierra On-Line and one which would change adventure gaming forever, was made up on the fly, drawn up on the back of a napkin during a pause in the proceedings.

Sierra was still known most of all for their Hi Res Adventure line of illustrated adventure games. Unsurprisingly, IBM very much wanted something along those lines for the PCjr. But they had some specific requests for changes from Sierra’s traditional approach, which if nothing else proved that not everyone at IBM was as blissfully ignorant of gaming as legend would have it. They asked for a game that could be replayable, that would be more dynamic and complex in its world modeling, sort of like Ultima and Wizardry (adventures and CRPGs were not yet clearly defined separate genres at this point). They specifically asked that puzzles have multiple solutions, that there be many different possible paths through the game.

Ken and Jeff sensed that they really wanted Sierra to push themselves, to get beyond the tried-and-true Hi Res Adventure model. And with good reason: as the sales for The Dark Crystal were about to show, Sierra desperately needed to raise their game if they wanted to keep their hand in adventures at all. Next to the games that Infocom was putting out, the Hi Res Adventure games were painfully primitive. Yet how should they try to compete? Most other publishers, witnessing Infocom’s success with pure text, were beginning to shift their emphasis back to the parsers and the writing, de-emphasizing their pictures or removing them entirely. Infocom, in others words, was replacing Sierra as the model to be emulated. Ken instinctively sensed that this was not the right bandwagon for Sierra to leap aboard, much as they respected the technical accomplishment in Infocom’s games. They were movie people rather than book people; as Ken later said, Sierra had a “mass-market” sensibility which contrasted with Infocom’s “cerebral” approach. Rather than try to ape Infocom like other publishers, why not zig while everyone else zagged, double down on graphics while de-emphasizing text? Besides, one of the main selling features of the PCjr was to be its bright 16-color graphics. Shouldn’t its showcase adventure take advantage of them?

King's Quest

When IBM joined them again in the conference room, Ken and Jeff made their pitch for a new type of adventure game. Most of the screen would be given over to the graphics, like in the Hi Res Adventures, but the interactivity would now also extend to this part of the display. The player’s avatar would be visible onscreen, with the player able to move him around within each room using a joystick or the arrow keys. The player would still have to type non-movement commands, but now positioning within each room would play an important role: you would have to move right up next to that old tree stump to peer inside, walk up to the kindly forest elf to talk to him, etc. Some text would still have to remain to explain some of what happened, but much of the experience would be entirely visual, more movie than book. Action sequences requiring precise timing and coordination could be introduced. The system also promised to introduce the kind of dynamism that IBM desired in other ways. Other characters and creatures could wander the world, to be dodged, fought, or befriended. What we would today call emergent behavior might arise: the player might hide behind a handy tree when the wicked witch suddenly popped onto the scene. It would be a showstopper, conforming to Ken’s ten-foot rule for software marketing while also introducing whole new tactical layers that had never been seen in adventure games before. IBM signed on happily.

The reaction in Oakhurst was not quite so enthusiastic. Some felt that Ken and Jeff had promised IBM the moon, that this was simply a leap too far. Perhaps remembering Sierra’s last two adventure games, both of which had gone through long, painful development cycles for little commercial reward, they pointedly suggested that Ken go back to IBM and explain that Sierra had bitten off more than they could chew, cut the proposal down dramatically to something more realistically achievable, and try to get IBM to accept it. Ken, realizing that any such action would destroy his credibility with IBM forever, absolutely refused. He pointed out that they had 128 K of memory to work with for this project, a huge figure in comparison to the 48 K they’d had for the Hi Res Adventure games. He found a critical ally in Roberta, the person who would have to actually design for the system. She simply asked questions until she felt she understood the system and what it would and would not be capable of, digested IBM’s desires for a more dynamic game than was her previous wont, then went to work. Eventually the grumbling mostly ceased and the rest of the staff followed her example.

What with Ken having a company to run, the heavy lifting of turning the proposal into a game engine largely fell to Jeff Stephenson. Just like the Hi Res Adventure engine, this one was designed to be reusable and extendible from the start. It was initially known as the Game Adaptation Language, or GAL. Ken, however, loathed the cutsiness of that acronym, and it was eventually renamed to the Adventure Game Interpreter, or AGI. (I’ll refer to the system as AGI from here on for the sake of consistency.) Soon the trucks bearing the familiar lead-lined crates began arriving in Oakhurst again, and development began in earnest on both the engine and the game it would run. The team chosen for the task consisted of Roberta and about half a dozen programmers and artists. The PCjr projects as a whole, which included the adventure game, HomeWord, and several others pieces of software, were given a top-secret code-name: Project Siesta. Still, it’s hard to keep anything a secret in a small town like Oakhurst. Word quickly spread around town: “The big fucking company is in town again.”

Some of the process of developing the first AGI game, eventually to be named King’s Quest, was not that far removed from the days of Hi Res Adventure. The artists still drew each scene on paper using colored pencils. These drawings were then traced using a graphics tablet connected to a computer, where they were stored using the vector-graphics techniques Ken had developed back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. (When playing King’s Quest on older, slower hardware you can see each new room being drawn in line by line. Fascinatingly, what you are actually seeing there are the motions of the stylus being guided by the person who first traced the image all those years ago. Early King’s Quest versions let you see the process more clearly via an undocumented “slow draw” mode that can be activated by pressing Control-V.) Thanks to this evergreen technique, the image of each room occupies only .5 to 2.5 K. The same data also tells the interpreter where Sir Grahame, the game’s protagonist, can and cannot walk. Boundaries, such as the castle walls you see in the screenshot above, were traced with a special flag activated and incorporated right into the image itself.

Perhaps the trickiest problem that Jeff Stephenson had to wrestle with stems from the fact that we view each room in the game from a parallel perspective. Thus the game needs to account for the z-axis in addition to the x- and y-axes to maintain the illusion of depth. Each object in each room is therefore given something Jeff called its “priority,” essentially its position on the Z-axis. An object’s priority can range from 1 to 15, and increases as it gets closer to the “back” of the room. In drawing a scene, the interpreter draws objects of lower priority after those of higher priority. Say that a tree is positioned on the screen at priority 9. If Graham moves vertically, “deeper” into the screen, to, say, priority 11, then moves horizontally “behind” the tree, the tree will conceal him as expected. Up to four moving characters can be in a single room, the interpreter constantly adjusting the onscreen image to account for their movements.

King's Quest

The game logic is described using a simple scripting language which is once again descended from the system Ken had developed for the Hi Res Adventure line. Let’s take a look one small piece of the scene shown above. In addition to our alter ego Grahame, it shows a goat — “object” number 14 — who wanders back and forth in his corral, which in turn spans two rooms, numbers 10 and 11; the room shown above, the leftmost, is room 10. The goat continues to wander unless and until he is tempted to join Grahame by a scrumptious-looking carrot. Here’s how the goat’s logic in room 10 is described in AGI:

IF HAS-GOAT 0 AND OBJHIT-EDGE 14 AND EDGE-OBJ-HIT 1 AND GOAT-GONE 0 AND SHOW-CARROT 0 THEN ASSIGN GOAT-ROOM 11, ERASE 10

So, and without getting too lost in the weeds here, if we do not “have” the goat and are not showing him the carrot, and the goat has hit the edge of the screen in his wanderings, remove (“erase”) him from room 10 and put him in room 11. Room 10 alone has 180 such lines of script to describe all of its interactive possibilities. Like most software, an AGI game is more complex than it looks. This is true from the standpoint of both the engine programmers and the scripters. In the context of its time, AGI is nothing less than a stunning technological tour de force — one which, like all the best software, looks easy.

The technical virtuosity on display here made it rather easy for reviewers of the time to lose sight of the actual game it enabled, a painfully common phenomenon in the field of videogames. Indeed, I was anticipating reviewing King’s Quest more as a piece of technology than an adventure game, particularly given that I frankly don’t think very highly of Roberta’s work on the Hi Res Adventure line. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by her work here. King’s Quest‘s plot is almost as basic as that of the original Adventure: the kingdom of Daventry is in some sort of vaguely defined trouble, and the aging King Edward needs you, the brave knight Sir Grahame, to find three magic items that can save it. Since he conveniently has no heirs, do that and “the throne will be yours.” King’s Quest is another treasure hunt, nothing more or less.

Still, and making allowances for the newness of the technology, Roberta does a pretty good job with it. Many of the characters and situations you encounter as you roam Daventry are drawn, and not without a certain charm, from classic fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin. The latter is at the core of the one howlingly awful puzzle in the game, which starts out dodgy and just keeps layering on the complications until it’s well-nigh impossible.

King's Quest

(For the record: you meet an old gnome-looking sort of fellow who gives you three chances to guess his name. If you’re familiar with your Brothers Grimm, you might divine that he’s Rumpelstiltskin given the fairy-tale characters everywhere else in the game. But, no, “That is very close but not quite right.” Okay, you do have a note you found elsewhere which says, “Sometimes it is wise to think backwards.” So, “nikstlitslepmur.” No — “You have the right idea, but your thinking is just a little bit off.” It turns out you have to write the name using a backwards alphabet.)

But even here the IBM design brief saves Roberta from her worst instincts. There is, thank God, an alternate way to proceed without solving this puzzle, even if it does cost you some points. And most of the other puzzles are… not that bad, actually. Some are even pretty clever. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but given some of the absurdities of Time Zone it’s nevertheless praise indeed. There are a huge number of ways to go through King’s Quest, what with all of the alternate solutions on offer, and the game feels consciously designed in a holistic sense in a way that no previous Roberta Williams game did.

King’s Quest also makes use of most of the new possibilities afforded by the AGI system. There are enemies to be dodged and eventually dispatched — the witch out of Hansel and Gretel is particularly harrowing — and tricky action sequences to be navigated. King’s Quest is mostly a competent, enjoyable game even when divorced from its place in history as the first use of the revolutionary technology that powers it. It’s also reasonably solvable, at least if you aren’t too fixated on getting the maximum possible points. Realistically, it needed to be no more than a technological proof of concept to be a bestseller, but it manages to be considerably more than that. It acquits itself very well overall as the herald of a new paradigm for adventure gaming.

As development continued and Sierra’s financial position began to look more precarious, stress began to mount. Ken’s wish to just find average and uncreative but reliable programmers was perhaps amplified more than ever by some of the characters he ended up having to assign to the King’s Quest project. Whether because of its location near the old hippie meccas of northern California or just something in the water, Sierra always seemed to be filled with eccentrics despite Ken’s best efforts to run a more buttoned-down operation. One fellow was particularly noted for his acid consumption and his fascination with Fozzy Bear, and looked freakish enough that (in John Williams’s words) “when he went into a restaurant, everyone looked at him.” Another, similarly “off” programmer acted like a cross between a mad scientist and Zaphod Beeblebrox of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Near the end of the project one developer, angry at the long hours he had been working, held a critical piece of code ransom until Sierra paid him for dozens of hours of overtime to which he felt entitled. They agreed to pay, got the code, and promptly reneged, citing a clause in American contract law which says that a contract is null and void if one of the parties signs under duress.

When IBM officially unveiled the PCjr and its horrid Chiclet keyboard in November of 1983, Sierra was as surprised as anyone. For all their involvement in the machine’s development, they never had access to a real production model. Ken had to go down to ComputerLand and buy his own, just like everyone else, when the PCjr shipped at last in March of 1984. His first machine didn’t remain in his possession for very long. He went to the movies on his way home, leaving it in his car, only to find it stolen when he returned. That must have seemed like a bad omen coming to fruition as it became more and more clear that the PCjr, seemingly Sierra’s last hope, was flopping in the marketplace.

King's Quest

And that must have seemed a double shame because — and I know I may seem to be belaboring the point, but I can hardly emphasize this enough — King’s Quest was amazing in its time. Even magazines devoted to other platforms felt compelled to talk about it; it was just that revolutionary. King’s Quest, marketed under IBM’s official imprint with cover art apparently drawn by someone who had never seen the game, did sell pretty well by the standards of IBM PCjr software, but there just weren’t enough PCjrs being sold to save Sierra. Similarly, a version for the PCjr’s bigger brother, the IBM PC, sold well by the standards of games for that platform, but the entertainment market for such a business-computing stalwart wasn’t up to much. Although the AGI system had been designed to be portable, it had also been designed to run in 128 K of memory. This locked it out of the typical unexpanded Apple IIe (64 K) and the biggest gaming platform in the country, the Commodore 64. Sierra had exactly the right game on exactly the wrong platform. It seemed Ken had backed the wrong horse, a final bad decision that looked to have doomed his company. The situation just got more and more desperate. John Williams, Sierra’s marketing director, recalls placing media buys around this time with no idea how he was going to pay for them when the invoices came due: “This is either going to help, in which case we can deal with the cost of these and maybe negotiate payment on it — or it won’t work and we’ll be gone” anyway.

Two new machines played a big role in saving Sierra. Just a month after the PCjr finally shipped to stores, Apple announced and shipped the fourth incarnation of the Apple II, the IIc. We’ll talk a bit more about it in a future article, but for now suffice to say that the IIc was designed to be a semi-portable, closed appliance computer, in contrast to the hacker’s laboratories that had been previous Apple II models. Most critically for our purposes today, the IIc shipped with 128 K of memory. Its commercial performance would ultimately be rather lukewarm, but it did prompt many users of the older IIe model to upgrade to (at least) 128 K to match its capabilities. In time there were enough 128 K Apple IIs to justify porting the AGI interpreter to the platform.

But it was the Tandy 1000 that really saved Sierra in the most immediate sense, that gave that critical mass of 128 K Apple II users time to amass. It was introduced just as 1984, the most difficult year in Sierra’s history, was winding down. In many ways it was what the PCjr should have been, with the same graphics and sound capabilities and IBM PC compatibility in a smarter, more usable and expandable package. And it was sold in Radio Shack stores all over the country. In some areas the local Radio Shack was the only place within 200 miles to buy a computer. Sierra smartly developed a strong relationship with Radio Shack in the wake of the Tandy 1000’s announcement. Few other software publishers bothered, meaning that King’s Quest and other Sierra games stood almost alone on the shelves in many of these captive markets. The Tandy 1000, combined with the slowly increasing user base of expanded Apple IIs, gave King’s Quest the opportunity to slowly pull Sierra back from the edge of the abyss, particularly since much of the game’s $850,000 development cost had been funded by IBM. It would take time, but by the end of 1985, with King’s Quest II now already out and doing very well, the company was paying off debts and beginning to grow again.

Ken, Roberta, John, Jeff, and their closest associates had, much to their credit, stuck to their guns and not made the perfectly reasonable decision to pack it in. But they had also, as Ken well realized, gotten very, very lucky. Without the Tandy 1000 and few other lucky breaks, Sierra could easily have gone the way of Adventure International, Muse, and other big software houses who were flying high in 1982 and dead in 1985. As he recently said, it had all been “fun and games” for the first few years. Now he understood how quickly things could go bad with a few wrong decisions, understood what a fragile entity Sierra really was. Most of all, he never wanted to go through another year like 1984 again. The Ken Williams that emerged from that period was, like his company, changed. From now on he would do a remarkable job of balancing ambition with caution. This capacity to change and learn from his mistakes, much rarer than it seems it ought to be, was perhaps ultimately the most important quality he brought to Sierra. He reoriented his company to stop chasing fast bucks and to focus on a smaller number of quality titles for a modest number of proven platforms, and accumulated a stable of designers, programmers, and artists whom he treated with respect. They in turn did good, occasionally great work for him. Sierra Mark II, leaner, humbler, and wiser, was off and running.

(My huge thanks once again go to John Williams for contributing so many of his memories to this article. Hackers by Steven Levy was also invaluable for what I believe will be the last time at last, as we’ve now moved beyond the period it covers. An article in the February 1985 Compute! breaks down the AGI system in unusual detail for a contemporary source. If you want to know more about its technical side, it’s been documented in exhaustive detail since. If you just would like to play King’s Quest, it’s available in a pack with King’s Quest II and III at Good Old Games.)

 

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Popcorn and Peanuts

IBM PCjr

By the time the IBM PC was a year old in late 1982, it was clear that the machine was a huge success. IBM had sold some 150,000 PCs during that first year, and demand continued to increase almost exponentially. As the PC blew right through sales forecast after sales forecast, IBM scrambled desperately just to meet demand. An interview with Don Estridge, head of IBM’s Entry Systems Division that was responsible for the PC, in the November 1983 Byte describes the chaos of those heady first couple of years:

Each quarter, IBM asks everyone who is selling the PC for a projection of purchases for two periods: the next quarter and the three quarters following it. In October 1982, for example, the division asked customers how many systems they expected to buy for the period from January through March 1983. Then IBM asked these customers what they expected to buy for April through December 1983.

When customers returned in January of this year [1983], ostensibly to talk about their system needs for April 1983 and beyond, they wanted to talk about January through March all over again. They doubled their orders for that first quarter.

“Then the same darn thing happened again in March, when we were talking about July through September. We can only handle so many factors of two,” Estridge says. “We’ve upped our production rate three times this year; production is very high. We’re extremely pleased that we can build a quality product at that rate, but it’s not enough. If the demand keeps on going at these rates,” Estridge warns, “at some point there won’t be any more parts.”

The IBM PC wasn’t just a commercial success; it was a transformative landmark for the PC industry as a whole. The vast majority were purchased not by the hackers, hobbyists, and early adopters who had heretofore driven the PC industry, but rather by the mainstream of corporate America, conservative businesses who were as nonplussed by its relatively high price as they were soothed by the legitimizing imprimatur of IBM. Both were taken as signs that the IBM PC was a serious machine, qualitatively different from the scruffy likes of Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and even Apple. Big Business placed huge orders that could reach into the multi-millions at a single pop. Merrill Lynch, for instance, went overnight from being dismissive of computerized trading to ordering a machine for the desk of every single broker in the company — 12,000 computers. Such was the power and mystique of IBM, the number-one company in the world in after-tax profits, a company whose gross sales exceeded the budget of the state of California.

And all of that was starting to happen even before the IBM PC got its killer app, the second such to hit the PC industry as a whole: Lotus 1-2-3. Introduced in January of 1983, 1-2-3 was, like the first killer app VisiCalc, a spreadsheet program. But 1-2-3 was clearly better in just about every possible way, to the extent that it made VisiCalc a has-been virtually overnight. Mitch Kapor, head of Lotus, had made the decision to throw in his lot entirely with relative newcomer IBM, not bothering to make a version of 1-2-3 for the Apple II or the CP/M machines or anything other than the IBM PC running Microsoft’s MS-DOS. Just as the Apple II had gotten a huge boost from being the first machine to run VisiCalc, that first clearly useful piece of PC software for the everyday businessperson, the IBM PC soared on the back of Lotus 1-2-3. For CP/M and the vendors still supporting it with hardware and software, meanwhile, Kapor’s decision marked the definitive beginning of the end. By 1985 CP/M would effectively be a dead operating system. Businesspeople simply had no use for a computer that couldn’t run 1-2-3.

An interesting and too little remarked aspect of the transformation wrought by the IBM PC is that IBM themselves never planned it or saw it coming. They themselves, in what amounted to a rare display of corporate humility, underestimated the impact that the IBM name would have on the industry. Instead of arrogantly going their own way and defining their own standards, which had always been their wont with their bigger computer systems, with the PC they made an apparently sincere effort to fit into the existing ecosystem. They even dutifully tried to license and adopt CP/M as their standard operating system until losing faith in Gary Kildall and Digital Research and going with Microsoft’s CP/M lookalike MS-DOS. A quick glance at a sales brochure for the original IBM PC reveals a plethora of features that had little relevance to the workaday world of business computing: an optional color graphics card (not a great one, but notable for existing at all); sound (ditto); a joystick interface card; a BASIC environment built into ROM, which would could be used in lieu of a disk-based operating system; a cassette-drive port; the possibility of connecting the machine to an ordinary television in lieu of a monitor; and the possibility of buying it configured with as little as 16 K of memory. Far from being a honed weapon for business-computing domination, the IBM PC was designed to be generalized and flexible, adaptable to many different roles in the same way as, say, the Apple II. When Big Business jumped all over it, it seems to have surprised IBM as much as anyone.

Which is of course not to say that they were complaining about it when it happened. As it became clear how the IBM PC was perceived and where it fit, IBM initiated development of a next model that excised many of the aforementioned phantom limbs while giving business users more of what they had liked about the original. The PC/XT, introduced in March of 1983, came with a still slightly exotic (and expensive) 10 MB hard drive as standard equipment, and was an all-around bigger, beefier contraption with eight expansion slots rather than five, more standard memory, and a larger power supply to fuel it all. Another model in development, code-named “Popcorn” and due to be introduced early in 1984, was a portable — today we would say (at best) “luggable” — version for the businessperson on the road. Having served Big Business’s computing needs for years with their larger machines, IBM was in their element here as well, at least once they figured out what was happening and where their machines fit.

And yet, despite all of this success, the failure of the PC to really make a dent in other areas did rankle a bit. While the IBM PC had created a whole new market category for microcomputers, said category wasn’t the only new one. Shortly before the PC arrived, Commodore had introduced the VIC-20, an inexpensive machine pushed not as a tool for hackers or hobbyists but as a friendly machine to be used in the home by casual users for education, light productivity applications, and of course entertainment. The VIC-20 was a huge success, redefining Commodore’s corporate image forever (both for better and for worse in the long run), and opening the category of the “home computer” as a mass-market phenomenon. This in turn brought the venture capitalists and the would-be computer-entertainment moguls, not to mention a torrent of competitors and the Home Computer Wars of 1983. Suddenly the base of hackers and early adopters who had both built and been the customers of the microcomputer industry prior to 1982 or so were a minor factor, almost irrelevant, as everyone raced either upward to the business PC (where the big winner was of course IBM) or downward to the home computer (where the big winner was Commodore). Only Apple was left perched, not entirely comfortably, somewhere in the middle; the Apple II intersected the high end of the home-computer sector along with the low end of the business market, while also remaining the computer of choice in schools and a great favorite of the hackers who had built the industry.

The home-computer market was both much more price sensitive and much more crowded than the business market, and thus couldn’t hope to match the business market in sheer moneymaking potential. Commodore sold many more machines than even IBM in 1983, but didn’t make more than a fraction as much from the effort despite edging out Apple in total earnings for what would turn out to be the last time in their history. (This disparity in earning potential explains why Apple was so desperate to find a way to fully penetrate the business market with the Apple III, the Lisa, and finally the Macintosh.) Given this reality, it may seem odd that IBM concerned themselves with home computers at all. I believe we can point to a couple of factors here. First of all, home computers were simply an opportunity — perhaps not as big or juicy an opportunity as business computers, but who said a huge company like IBM couldn’t own both markets? All of the pundits were predicting that the home-computer market was only going to continue to grow, that in just a few years a computer would be as much a fixture in every home as a television and a stereo. That led directly to what we might call the public-relations motivation. If at all possible, all of those kids who would be growing up with computers in their homes should grow up with IBM computers. That way they would be inculcated into “the IBM way,” would be comfortable with IBM technology when they grew up and entered the business world, would seek it out when they got still older and were placed in charge of purchasing at their companies. One hand, as they say, would wash the other, realizing the goal of making IBM as synonymous with little computers as they were with the big ones.

This, then, was the reasoning that led to the machine code-named “Peanut,” IBM’s dedicated home computer. Development was well underway by the time of the PC/XT’s launch, and the project’s existence was, intentionally or unintentionally, something of an open secret with the press throughout 1983. The specter of IBM’s eventual arrival loomed over the chaos of the Home Computer Wars, over annual reports and long-term planning throughout the industry. Why shouldn’t the Peanut come to dominate the low end, said the conventional wisdom, just as its bigger siblings did the high end? Apple and Commodore and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief when the rumor mill revealed that Peanut, originally scheduled to appear just in time for Christmas, had been pushed back to early in the following year. At least they would get one more Christmas sales season — one which would actually turn out to be the biggest of all for some time to come, although they certainly didn’t know that — free of the IBM juggernaut. Then, in November of 1983, the Peanut was officially announced at last and prototypes shown to the press, in the hopes, some suspected, of making some of those would-be Christmas buyers hold off until they could have an IBM the following year. Journalists weren’t quite sure what to write about the machine they flocked to see at a special reception inside IBM’s Manhattan headquarters.

Much about the Peanut, now officially named the PCjr, was about what everyone had expected (feared?). While definitely, as its name would imply, a scaled-back version of IBM’s business machines, its available configurations of 64 K or 128 K of memory and 16-bit processor made it more than competitive with the Commodore 64 or Apple II in terms of sheer horsepower. It could boot to BASIC or, if you bought the optional floppy drive, MS-DOS, in which mode it could run a subset of IBM PC software that wasn’t too memory hungry. It offered 16-color graphics that were comparable to the Commodore 64 in some ways, although it lacked that machine’s sprites. It also had a pretty good three-voice sound chip, although, once again, not quite the equal of the Commodore 64’s SID. On the flip side, it could, like the newer Apple II models, display 80 columns of text compared to the 64’s 40, a feature that made it much more suitable than the 64 for word processing and other productive tasks. And it had one feature that really was ahead of its time: a wireless keyboard that let you kick back or sit wherever you wanted when you played the games that IBM hoped would soon be flooding the market. All in all, it all looked like a pretty reasonable effort, with the fit and finish and utility of the Apple II and most if not all of the audiovisual panache of the Commodore 64. It even had two — two! — cartridge ports for easy gaming. Coupled with the reputation and marketing resources of IBM, it looked like a very dangerous machine. And then you tried to actually type on the thing.

The PCjr's infamous original "Chiclet" keyboard

The PCjr’s infamous original “Chiclet” keyboard

IBM, you see, had gone with a rubber “Chiclet” keyboard, like that of a cheap calculator — or the sub-$200 Radio Shack Color Computer. Its presence was all but incomprehensible. Contrary to what Apple zealots then and now might prefer to believe, IBM was not normally oblivious to ergonomics or aesthetics. While their machines were not sexy, they were generally functional and comfortable over many hours of use, and always had that reassuring feeling of “IBM quality.” IBM put considerable thought and research into what they called “human factors” when putting together the original PC. Indeed, they maintained in Boca Raton an entire laboratory devoted to ergonomics.

He [Estridge] points out that various human-factors considerations are reflected in the overall PC design that he says make the machine comfortable to use. The keyboard can be tilted, for example, to assume a flat-surface angle or a tilted-up angle. Estridge says both are standard angles that make users feel comfortable.

He also cites studies of eye-pupil dilation that influenced the PC’s design. He says these studies have shown that there’s a direct relationship between pupil dilation and fatigue; the more a user’s pupil dilates, the more fatigued he may become.

“If you can cut down on contrast changes as people use the equipment, you reduce the likelihood of frequent pupil dilation.”

How has this principle been applied to the IBM PC? Estridge explains it this way: “Imagine that the center of the machine is a high-contrast area and the outside of the machine — the background — is a low-contrast area. The machine has grades of contrast as you move from the screen outward. Its highest contrast is on the display tube. Immediately around the tube is a lower-contrast border, and then the cabinet curls round to form an even lower-contrast frame.

“The eye then progresses from seeing dark gray to light gray to medium white, and, beyond that, essentially a noise background. As the eye moves across those boundaries, it doesn’t experience much contrast change, and the viewer doesn’t get tired.”

Much about the PCjr has that same sense of attention to detail and quality. The cartridges, for example, have a foam lining that lets them slide gently but snugly into place with a feel that is, as one YouTube commentator puts it, “awesome.” IBM also added special tabs to the keyboard to lock an overlay into place. Their idea was that many — most? — PCjr programs would ship with one of these little cardboard cheat sheets that explained the purpose of every key on the keyboard, right above the key itself.

And yet, inexplicably, there were those dead rubber keys that seemed to invalidate all positive impressions and make the PCjr feel like a toy. Typing on the machine was, as one journalist put it, “a hateful experience.”

The other obvious concern was the price. The 64 K model with cassette drive would cost you almost $700; the far more useful and desirable 128 K model with floppy-disk drive $1250. Everyone agreed that IBM could likely get a surcharge for their name, but would their reputation stretch that far considering that a Commodore 64 with disk drive would set you back less than $500 with a bit of shopping around?

Even as they questioned the keyboard, the press’s answer to this question was an almost universal “yes.” Such was the mystique of the IBM name that they seemed to have a hard time even conceiving of the PCjr as anything but a spectacular success. Compute!, the biggest, fastest growing, and arguably most influential magazine catering to the home-computer market, was so confident that they prepared the first three issues of their second platform-specific spin-off magazine (after one for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64) before the PCjr itself was even available for purchase. Two other new magazines were also in the offing; Spinnaker, reigning kings of educational software, had a warehouse full of cartridges; Sierra On-Line had games and productivity software of their own ready to go; publishers scrambled to sign authors to write shelves full of PCjr books. When IBM kicked off the PCjr’s advertising campaign with another of their award-winning “Charlie Chaplin” television spots during Super Bowl XVIII, it attracted at least as much attention amongst the low-end crowd as Apple’s now famous 1984 advertisement for the new Macintosh which aired a few commercial breaks later. The conventional wisdom held that the PCjr couldn’t help but succeed, and few had the fortitude to buck it. Only the sober-minded Byte sounded an ominous note of caution: “Should the PCjr fail to attract a market, a lot of folks will be crushed by the resulting fall.”

A couple of months after the Super Bowl, PCjrs started shipping at last. And then… crickets. Stores that had pre-ordered dozens of units in anticipation of mad rushes and shortages watched them languish on the shelves. IBM couldn’t seem to escape their reputation as the makers of tools for big business. It turned out that many of the most interested customers were not computer neophytes looking to take the plunge for the first time, but rather businesspeople looking for something compatible with the machine on their desk at work, only smaller and cheaper, something they could use to get a bit of work done at home. They kicked the tires, but once they touched the horrid keyboard and learned that much business software — including, critically, Lotus 1-2-3 — wouldn’t run on this cut-down edition of the PC, their interest quickly faded. As for everyone else… well, they seemed perfectly happy to buy Apples and Commodores, both of which ran a hell of a lot more and better games. Compute!‘s new PCjr magazine was gone after just half a dozen issues.

Never known for giving up easily on a product, IBM bowed to the criticisms at last in the summer of 1984 and replaced the Chiclet keyboard with a proper model. In one of those moves that made IBM IBM, they offered one of the new keyboards to every single person who had already bought a PCjr. (Skeptics couldn’t help but note that, while generous, this policy wasn’t really all that expensive, since IBM had sold so few of the things in the first place.) They offered a new memory expansion that could take the machine to 256 K and, combined with the new keyboard, make it a practical possibility for the businessperson looking for a cheaper, simpler home version of her office PC. They even convinced Lotus to make a version of 1-2-3 that could run in 128 K on the PCjr. It seemed that IBM was now listening to what their potential customers said they wanted from the PCjr rather than dictating who was allowed to buy the machine and how they were allowed to use it.

A PCjr in a typical home-office configuration

Best of all, IBM started slashing the price. By the 1984 Christmas season you could buy the 128 K PCjr with floppy drive and monitor for $750. It was now very competitive with its most obvious point of comparison, the Apple II line; Consumer Reports pronounced it a “slightly better” buy than the new Apple IIc in their November issue. And — and this is the part of the PCjr story that always seems to go forgotten in articles that pronounce it “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing” or “the Edsel of the computer industry” — it actually started to sell pretty well, and had a pretty good Christmas. As the new year dawned the PCjr seemed to be gaining momentum and carving a niche for itself, even if it wasn’t quite the niche that IBM had anticipated.

IBM PCjr

It was therefore doubly surprising when IBM suddenly pulled the plug in March, cancelling the whole line with no ceremony or concrete explanation other than saying their expectations had been “overly optimistic.” It was a very un-IBM-like move from a company normally known and feared for their steady, Borg-like inexorability, their willingness to methodically iterate through failure after failure until they got a thing right — a luxury allowed them by their enormous corporate resources but denied to most of their competitors. With the Christmas sales over and the PCjr now pushing past $1000 again for a basic system, sales had once again begun to flatline. IBM apparently realized that they couldn’t make a profit on the PCjr by selling it at the only prices the market would bear. They decided the home-computer market wasn’t worth the trouble after all, not when their new $5000-plus PC/AT was again selling beyond expectations to their bread-and-butter customers in Big Business.

In an important sense, however, the PCjr didn’t die with IBM’s cancellation announcement. Radio Shack, uncertain as ever exactly what to do with their fading line of TRS-80 computers, decided in 1984 that the thing to do was to effectively give up on the Trash 80 and hitch their wagon to the IBM train. In November they released the Tandy 1000, a rather nice, robust reimagining — saying simply “clone” may be too unkind — of the PCjr that had the same graphics and sound capabilities. It became popular enough that the Tandy 1000, together with the not inconsiderable installed base of “real” PCjrs, prompted some publishers to build improved graphics and sounds into their games for these computers, thus offering some relief to an MS-DOS world that would otherwise remain a depressingly ugly place to play games for several more years.

The PCjr, then, while certainly a failure in any big-picture reckoning, wasn’t quite the hopeless case it’s so often portrayed to be. This is borne out by the sales figures, which ended up in the vicinity of 325,000 units between March 1984 and March 1985, with another 100,000 or so likely being sold during the post-cancellation fire sale. (To put those figures in perspective, consider that the admittedly much more expensive Apple Macintosh sold 275,000 units during its first year.) That said, the PCjr is significant as the first moment that IBM, who had looked infallible and inexorable from the moment they first deigned to enter the microcomputer game, got their nose bloodied. True, their ego suffered more than their bottom line; the huge profits they were continuing to rake in from their business machines dwarfed what they might have made from the PCjr even had it been a raging success. If they were going to fail somewhere, this was the place to do it. Still, this failure was a warning, or, if you like, a sign that things wouldn’t always be as easy as they had been thus far.

I’m no MBA, but the business lessons we can take away from the PCjr story seem fairly obvious. IBM ignored reasonable concerns raised when their product was still at the prototype stage, then tried to dictate to their customers rather than listen to their needs once the PCjr was on the market. They also arrogantly assumed that they could ignore their competition, that their name and reputation alone would ensure success — in other words, they took exactly the opposite approach to the one they had taken with the original IBM PC. They did, to their credit, change course eventually, but by then it was, at least in the apparent view of some powerful people in management, not worth the trouble to see the turnaround through.

Yet there is also one more element that shouldn’t go unremarked here: that of timing. Had the PCjr been introduced early in 1983 rather than 1984 its story may have been very different. While 1983 was a year of unrestrained growth and unrestrained optimism for the potential of the new home-computer industry, 1984 was a much more uncertain year, a year of failures and half-successes and uncertainty and no small amount of blowback after the ebullient promises made the previous year. The PCjr was only one part of the story of that important year. I’ll get to the rest soon. But first we have to talk about one last enduring legacy of the PCjr. We’ll do next time.

(Byte dedicated its November 1983 issue to IBM and the PC line, and explored the PCjr in depth in the March 1984 issue. Computer Entertainment published a great postmortem of the PCjr in the July 1985 issue. Also very useful were the books Hard Drive, West of Eden, and Apple Confidential. The great pictures I’ve used here are from that July 1985 Computer Entertainment.)

 

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The Quill

The Quill

Let’s begin today by stepping back in time to the dawn of the PC era (and the early days of this blog): 1978. The debut of Scott Adams’s Adventureland that year also marked the debut of the world’s first reuseable adventure-gaming engine, in which a single interpreter program runs a variety of different games by being fed different databases. And reuse the system Adams did, to the tune of six titles released in 1979 alone, while the rest of the computing world set to work figuring out how the system was put together. Two TRS-80 hackers, Allan Moluf and Bruce Hanson, were particularly dedicated. By January of 1980 they were distributing to select buddies a text file which described Adams’s database format in careful detail along with a set of utilities for examining existing games. By 1981 they had written the Adventure Executor, a new interpreter capable of playing any of Adams’s games; just provide it with the database file. And their efforts culminated in early 1982 in The Adventure System, a complete authoring package that let you create new games in the Scott Adams database format as well as dissect existing ones to your heart’s content for the low, low price of $40.

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

For various reasons, starting with the TRS-80 platform on which it ran being rather isolated from the rest of the computing world and ending with the small print that demanded a $200 license fee to use The Adventure System to create commercial adventures, it never caught on. Moluf and Hanson, however, were not alone in their inquisitiveness. Others across the pond were also looking hard at the Scott Adams games. Their efforts would have much more lasting repercussions.

During the earliest days of personal computing in Britain, when practitioners consisted of just a few tens of thousands of soldering-iron-wielding dreamers, one Ken Reed managed to get hold of an imported TRS-80 along with some of the Scott Adams games. Like Moluf and Hanson, Reed was as interested in figuring out how they worked as he was in playing them. He doggedly pulled the system apart, and published his findings in the August 1980 Practical Computing magazine, the nearest equivalent British hobbyists had to the American hackers’ favorite Byte. Reed’s article wasn’t so obviously practical as the work of Moluf and Hanson. It didn’t provide exact specifications of the Scott Adams database format, nor tools for hacking on the games, nor even a complete original game or a complete interpreter for running a game. No, it provided something that in the long run would prove to be much more empowering: a detailed proposal for making an engine similar to Adams’s for yourself, complete with pseudo-code listings that could be applied to virtually any platform you had handy and knew how to program.

The impact the article had on British gaming over the following decade can hardly be overstated. Richard Turner and Chris Thornton, two university students, formed Artic Computing and used the article as the basis for their own line of Adams-like adventures that began with Planet of Death, likely the first commercial text adventure written in Britain, in June of 1981. Many variations on the article’s approach were soon appearing in other games. But its most important descendent was not a standalone game at all but a complete adventure-writing system similar in spirit to The Adventure System. This system, however, got several things right that the older system had gotten so wrong. It was called The Quill, and it was the brainchild of a Welshman in his late twenties named Graeme Yeandle.

When Yeandle analyzed those early Artic games and found them to be put together in a way suspiciously similar to Reed’s system, his first reaction was to think that he could do that just as well as Turner and Thornton. He went so far as to write to Artic to offer his services, but never got a reply to his letter. Whilst messing about with adventure-game databases and interpreters on his new Spectrum, he noticed an advertisement for a local publisher called Gilsoft, located just twelve miles from his Cardiff home — in fact, in the town where he had been born, Barry. He decided to pay their office a visit. On doing so, he learned that “they” were a single teenager named Tim Gilberts, and the “office” was Gilberts’s bedroom in the family home. Still, Gilberts was bright and ambitious, and the two hit it off. (Gilberts thought Yeandle “looked just like Clive Sinclair.”) When Yeandle told him about his adventure-game experiments, Gilberts encouraged him to make a real game for him to market. He ended up writing two, Time-Line and Magic Castle, which Gilberts sold through modest classified ads in the magazines for £5 each (the former, the smaller and simpler of the pair, as the companion to another game on the same tape).

About this time Yeandle realized, like many a programmer before him, that he could save a great deal of time in the long run if he spent some time now improving his development tools. While he was using a variation of the design scheme from Reed’s article, he was still constructing the database files laboriously by hand. He discussed with Gilberts his idea for a menu-driven data-entry system to automate the process. If it worked out it could become a sort of house adventure-authoring system which Gilberts could share with other prospective authors. Gilberts enthusiastically agreed, and Yeandle spent most of his nights and weekends during 1983 — this was still very much a sideline; he was employed full-time as a systems analyst — working on what would become The Quill. As the program grew more refined, Gilberts made a new proposal: instead of just using it in-house to make more adventures, why not sell it as a product in its own right, and open adventure authorship to anyone with a Speccy? And so was the adventure-game scene in Britain changed forever.

The Quill was greeted rapturously when it debuted just in time for the 1983 Christmas season. Micro-Adventurer magazine, which appropriately enough debuted at almost the same instant, called it a “revolution” in their very first issue: “Once in a while, a product comes along to revolutionize the whole microcomputer scene. The Quill is one such, and will change the face of the microcomputer adventure.” The Quill sold for just £15, and — and this is absolutely key to everything that followed — Gilsoft asked for no cash royalty for commercial works created with it, only that you insert a little “Made with The Quill!” blurb somewhere in the final work. Most other commercial systems for creating adventure and CRPG games, both before and after The Quill, didn’t offer such convenient terms, sharply limiting their appeal.

Sales were so brisk that Gilsoft soon gave up bothering to sell much of anything else; Gilberts was more than content to run the house that The Quill had built. Within weeks of its release so-called “Quilled adventures” were everywhere. By a year or so after that at least half of the adventures on the British market were Quilled — and that’s not even considering all of the less ambitious creators who just toyed around making games for family and friends, or released their games for free into public-domain channels.

About a year after The Quill, Gilsoft released The Illustrator, which let users add graphics to their games. It ended up selling almost as well as The Quill itself, and soon the requisite illustrated Quilled games were flooding the market. Gilsoft also funded ports of the system to most of the other viable British platforms, although sadly there was no easy way of moving an adventure database created on, say, a Spectrum to the BBC Micro or Commodore 64 short of reentering the whole by hand. As the system spread across Europe, now catching onto the PC revolution at last, countless souls used it to create games in their native languages.

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Many of the earliest adventures in German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and the Scandinavian and Eastern European languages were Quilled. An attempt was also made to market The Quill in North America as The Adventure Writer, but without much success. It was entrusted there to a tiny company called Codewriter who lacked the resources to make it known and widely distributed in that more intimidating and elitist marketplace. And so, like so much else in the bifurcated computing culture of the 1980s, The Quill remained an exclusively European phenomenon.

The Quill's menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

The Quill’s menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

Given the sorts of tools available to adventure writers today, The Quill is bound to seem underwhelming when we load it up on our Speccy emulator. One doesn’t really program a game at all using The Quill; one simply enters its data, menu by menu, filling in its rooms, its objects, its text. The logic available to the author is hard-coded into the interpreter, and not very complex at that. Nor is the process of creation a very intuitive one. It’s very difficult to get any sense of the big picture from all of these granular menu views. One is best served by planning one’s game out entirely on paper, using The Quill itself very much as the simple data-entry front-end it was originally conceived as. Even on those terms many trivial tasks are painfully tedious. The parser doesn’t really parse at all. There’s just a simple pattern matcher, which the author must micro-manage to the finest detail. One cannot simply define an object as takeable, for example, but must hand-enter the command that will allow it to be taken and dropped — and must do this separately for every single takeable object in the game. (Much of this tedium was removed in later versions of The Quill. See John Elliott’s comment below.)

Amidst all of the excitement following the system’s debut, some did voice a concern that it would lead to a rash of games that were not only primitive but all primitive in the same idiosyncratic way. Such fears were by no means entirely baseless. To some extent this is problem with any authoring system; I wouldn’t be the first to note that Graham Nelson’s droll English diction has become the voice of contemporary interactive fiction thanks to the default messages of Inform, the mostly widely used development system today. The Quill’s limitations and lack of flexibility merely make it even more immediately obvious to any experienced adventurer that she is playing a Quilled game. That said, The Quill’s relatively long life gave plenty of people plenty of time to dig deep, to learn to push it and to learn to hack it. Much better, more complex works could be created with it than you might expect after a few minutes of fiddling around in its menus. Given the limitations of the 48 K Spectrum on which it runs, The Quill is put together in a very smart way. The average Quilled game is not only easier to create but more pleasant to play than (at the least) the average BASIC game. Tellingly, no one managed to come up with a system notably better for the Spectrum and equivalent machines despite the obvious commercial potential of such a beast.

Until Yeandle himself, that is: in late 1986 GilSoft released his second-generation system, the Professional Adventure Writer (PAW). Arriving fairly late in the day for text adventures as a mainstream gaming staple, at least in Britain, it didn’t become quite the phenomenon that The Quill had been, but did power many more games throughout Europe well into the 1990s.

Indeed, it’s for that legacy of empowerment that PAW and (especially) The Quill deserve to be remembered today. It’s not that established software houses didn’t use The Quill; they did, to a surprising degree. Even Artic Computing, who had ignored Yeandle earlier, started using the Quill to create some of their new adventures. So did no less a light than Melbourne House of The Hobbit fame. But it’s mostly for all the little guys that The Quill seemed a minor miracle. North America had nothing comparable, and, presumably in consequence, far fewer independent voices making and selling text adventures. Europe, by contrast, was blessed in having not only The Quill but a marketplace willing to accept and buy works by the inspired amateurs who used it. Gilberts himself was well aware of the democratizing effect of The Quill:

Anyone who wants to write can produce a novel without technical knowledge. You may not create great art but there’s nothing to stop you trying. The Quill has opened up the same kind of opportunity to those who enjoy adventuring. We’ve tried to provide the computer equivalent of pen and paper.

No, most Quilled adventures are not great art or even great games, and they’re not likely to get as much attention on this blog as they may deserve given that I have so many other titles that qualify at least as the latter to sort through. Yet many are personal, idiosyncratic works of the sort gaming could always use more of. The best of them have a real writerly personality, another thing always in short supply in gaming fictions. Some of the most fun, and arguably the most culturally useful, Quilled adventures are the ones that satirize the solemn pretensions (especially of the high-fantasy stripe) of mainstream gaming culture then and now — titles like Bored of the Rings, The Boggit, Loads of Midnight, The Big Sleaze, or the immortal Dildo and the Dark Lord (did I mention that Quilled adventures were also more liable to traffic in sex than the titles from bigger publishers?).

The person with the most amazing Quill story of all might just be John Wilson, the founder of Zenobi Software. After publishing a few of his own Quilled games on the label in the mid-1980s and seeing them do fairly well, Wilson began soliciting games from outside authors. Even as the bigger publishers gradually got out of text adventures, Wilson built a successful if modest business out of selling the games via mail order, communicating with customers via a newsletter and whatever magazine advertising he could afford that month. Zenobi alone published almost 250 games, the vast majority of them created with The Quill or PAW, before hanging it up at last in the shockingly late year of 1997, by which time Gilsoft and the rest of the gaming milieu that had birthed Zenobi were long gone. All of which is enough to qualify Zenobi as the most prolific of commercial text-adventure publishers, the most long-lived, and the last to give it up, and all by a wide margin.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, The Quill and PAW were easily the most widely used adventure-creation systems of the 1980s. In the whole of computing history they’re rivaled only by Graham Nelson’s various Inform incarnations, which may have powered a comparable number of games by now but have taken some twenty years to do it. The architect of this creative explosion, Graeme Yaendle, never gave up his day job and never made as much money from it as you might expect. He recalls that in the wake of The Quill’s first gush of popularity in 1984 his royalty checks from Gilsoft actually amounted to more than his regular pay check — but “that didn’t last long.” The Quill was, even more so than most software, widely pirated. It’s safe to say that many of those Quilled games being sold in magazine adverts were themselves made with pirated copies; GilSoft didn’t have any practical way to keep tabs on who had bought and who hadn’t. Even their modest request that users include a mention of The Quill in their Quilled games also went unenforced and widely ignored. And consumers will always outnumber creators in any time and place, meaning that even an insanely popular engine of creation like The Quill will never sell more than a fraction of the copies of a hit game. Gilsoft and Yeandle could probably have made considerably more money from The Quill by pricing it higher and being more aggressive about asserting their rights in various areas. But Gilsoft wasn’t Microsoft and young Gilberts was no Bill Gates; he was happy if the business just paid for “my beer and a car.” Anyway, The Quill was so successful precisely because it was so cheap and easy; changes to Gilsoft’s business model could likely only have diminished its impact.

As a consolation prize for fame and fortune, Yeandle and Gilberts got to see their creation getting used all around them, the most satisfying validation any programmer or engineer (or artist?) can enjoy. And they got to know that their work was allowing people to be creative in a medium that would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. At least in retrospect, that seems like more than enough.

(Much of this article was sourced from an old interview with Yaendle from The Solution Archive. Yeandle’s now-defunct home page was also invaluable. And see also the Gilsoft features in Sinclair User #28 and #37. I discovered much of Moluf and Hanson’s work while digging through old TRS-80 file archives, an often productive if exhausting way of researching.)

 

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