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Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 1: Don’t Copy That Floppy!

Piracy

February 3, 1976

An Open Letter to Hobbyists

To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books, and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving, and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4 K, 8 K, Extended, ROM, and Disk BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however: 1) most of these “users” never bought BASIC (less than 10 percent of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) the amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 per hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don’t do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn’t make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape, and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all the bugs, documenting his product, and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobbyist software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

What about the guys who resell Altair BASIC, aren’t they making money on hobbyist software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

I would appreciate letters from anyone who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write me. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.

Bill Gates
General Partner, Micro-Soft

The “open letter” above, written by a 20-year-old Bill Gates, was printed in early 1976 in a number of the publications that served the nascent PC industry, centered at the time on the MITS Altair kit computer. Some of the soldering-iron-wielding visionaries who read it were enraged, a few supportive. Most, however, were merely confused. Sharing, of software the same as all other sorts of information, was simply what they did, the rock upon which their little hacker community was founded. For many the letter marked the first time they had ever confronted the notion of a program being owned by a single entity.

The PC industry was barely a year old, but already its age of innocence was passing. Bill Gates, the man who brought knowledge of the good and evil of copyright to this hacking Eden, was, plenty would soon be arguing, perfectly suited to play the role of the serpent. The change in thinking he set in motion with this open letter of his would soon prove more significant than even his own company’s outsized influence on the industry. From 1976 right up to the present day — and doubtless for many years to come — the PC industry and all of its many offshoots have been tying themselves into knots over the question of copyright, of where the ethical and legal rights of digital-content creators and users begin and end.

Both sides of the debate as it rages today could stand to glance back at copyright as it was once understood. Those who claim that modern copyright law merely applies an eternal principle to a new medium should note that, on the contrary, our notions of copyright have changed in some very fundamental ways in recent decades. And those who see laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well-nigh fascistic overreaching might do well to remember that even in the pre-DMCA days one could be prosecuted for merely photocopying the pages of a book. At the first conference on “software protection” in Britain in 1981, the first speaker opened with an old joke about an Englishman who asks an Irishman how to get to County Derry. “If I wanted to get to County Derry,” replies the Irishman, “I wouldn’t start from here.” The decades after Bill Gates fired the opening salvo of the digital-copyright wars would be marked by the law’s struggle to get to there from here — from the analog, materialist culture of creation that was to the digital, virtual culture that must now be.

When thinking about any big, overarching concept like that of copyright, it’s often helpful to return to first principles, to think about what the words or phrases themselves literally mean. In those literal meanings we can usually find the meaning of the concept as its originators understood it. Just as, say, “science fiction” once literally meant fiction about science, “copyright” once meant simply the right to copy. As enshrined in the American Copyright Right Act of 1909, the latest iteration at the time that Bill Gates wrote his open letter of the original Act of 1790, only the author had the right “to print, reprint, publish, copy, and vend the copyrighted work.” The original sin that must come before any printing, reprinting, publishing, or vending by someone who wasn’t the author must be the simple act of copying itself, which was in and of itself illegal. If you purchased a book at your local bookstore and copied its contents — whether on a photocopier, on a typewriter, or freehand on paper — you had already committed an actionable legal offense, even if your purpose in doing so was simply to have a “backup” copy for your own personal use. In the materialist world of arts and letters that held sway prior to the digital revolution, this approach to copyright as a literal right to copy made perfect sense.

Many of the conflicts and controversies that have plagued the idea of copyright in the years since have stemmed from the fact that a right to copy is a prerequisite to making any use at all of digital content. Thus rights-holders have needed to make the act of unauthorized distribution, not that of unauthorized copying, the original sin of the infringer. Much of the story of recent copyright legislation has been the story of how that shift was made.

On this blog, we’ve heretofore largely avoided that long, fraught societal debate and negotiation, but the specter of copyright and its violation in the form of software piracy loomed too large over the games industry of the 1980s to neglect it any more. This, then, is the story of what Gates’s letter wrought for the people who were making the games, the people who were playing them, and, in due time, an underground culture which dedicated itself to defying the legal system and keeping games — all games — available for free.

Pirates

The first programmer ever to attach a notice of copyright to her program, and thus quite likely the first programmer ever to conceive of her program as a potentially marketable creative work, was Betty Holberton, one of the original programmers of the ENIAC, by some definitions the world’s first true computer. In 1951, she was proud enough of a sorting program she had written to attach her name to a copyright notice included therein. It wasn’t until 1964, however, that a programmer made the next step of attempting to actually secure registration through the Copyright Office. That year a Columbia University law student and MIT electrical-engineering graduate named John F. Banzhaff III applied for the registration of two programs he’d written to aid his studies: one to help with the indexing of old court cases and one to compute automobile braking distances. His request was at first rejected, but he put his legal training in progress to good use to lobby for reconsideration. At last a Copyright Office functionary decided that “we could, under the law, make the registration.” The whole transaction was novel enough that the New York Times printed a rather bemused sidebar about it.

Despite Banzhaff’s success, few followed his lead in using copyright as a means of protecting their investment in software. IBM and the other companies who made the big-iron systems that kept the books for corporate America saw their programs not so much as independent entities as components of an entire ecosystem which included both hardware and software. They offered the whole enchilada to their customers as a leased package, complete with lengthy, heavily restrictive licensing agreements that can be seen as the forefathers to all the legalese we click through so impatiently today every time we install a new piece of software. If those contracts, many of which had never been tested in court, should fail, there were always patents, of which IBM in particular had quite a massive portfolio covering most of their systems’ operations.

Meanwhile the smaller systems with their scruffier, more independent-minded hacker culture were so immersed in the ethos of sharing ideas and code alike that copyright was a veritable foreign concept to them. Anyway, what would be the point of copyright really? Nothing like commercial software as we know it today existed prior to the mid-1970s. You either got your software along with your hardware from a big vendor like IBM, you wrote it yourself, or you pulled it off the hacker grapevine. You certainly didn’t walk into a store and buy it.

It was probably a good thing that the copyrighting of software felt a little pointless because, Banzhaff’s success with the Copyright Office aside, it wasn’t at all clear that the current copyright law could even be applied to much or all software due to two serious concerns.

The first was the stipulation, stated in the text of the 1909 Act, that copyright applied only to the “writings of an author.” The body of amendments and case law that followed had determined that “writings” encompassed not just traditional literary works but also such creative miscellany as musical compositions and recordings, statues, films, photographs, scientific models, and maps. Multifarious as they were, these forms all had one trait in common: they could all be easily “read” by a human being with the right knowledge or training. Program source code should also qualify under this standard.

But the proprietary software that was most likely to need the protection afforded by copyright wasn’t always distributed as source code. The sequences of ones and zeroes that made up binary code could be read only slowly and laboriously — anything but “easily” — by even the most talented hackers. One might be tempted to make a comparison to film, which like computer programs did require a technological intermediary to be “read” by people but which clearly was covered by copyright thanks to a 1912 amendment to the Act of 1909. Yet the comparison broke down in the question of just what it was that the author was really seeking to copyright. In the case of a film, that was the presentation layer, if you will, the actual imagery being projected onto the screen. In the case of something like Bill Gate’s BASIC, it was the code that generated what appeared on the screen. A comparison with recorded music broke down similarly. Yes, with computer displays so primitive as to make it difficult to distinguish one program from another, it was the code that mattered to companies like the young “Micro-Soft” — and, indeed, that would remain the main if not the exclusive nexus of their attention for many years to come.

The best hope for dodging the requirement of human readability lay in the fact that the copyright to an original work also reserved to its author the exclusive right “to translate the copyrighted work into other languages or dialects, or to make any other version thereof.” Without too much tortured thinking, one could imagine a compiler as “translating” source code into another version, a derivative work — albeit one not human-readable — also covered by the copyright to the original source. Unfortunately, case law seemed to point against such an interpretation. In 1908, the Supreme Court had decided in the case of White-Smith Music Publishing v. Apollo that a player-piano roll, which one might see as analogous to binary code, was not eligible for the same copyright protection as the sheet-music “source code” that had produced it.

And that was if anything the easier legal question. The other concerned the fundamental idea of copyright itself as it was still understood by the law in 1976 — that of it constituting a literal “right to copy.” The thing was, a program was copied every single time it was run — copied from disk or tape or, in the case of Altair BASIC, a spool of punched paper into the memory of the computer. This act would seem to be according to the established law clearly illegal, just as much so as buying a book and photocopying its pages. Thus every legitimate purchaser of Altair BASIC who chose to actually use it immediately became a pirate.

Now, this loophole was at some level fairly ridiculous, sounding more like a gotcha! for a raging pedant than a serious argument for those of good faith. Yet, ridiculous as it was, it was also extremely dangerous. How could a company like Microsoft claim the right to ask people to ignore this part of the law, but not these other parts? A slippery-slope scenario could be all too easily imagined. Even worse, as long as it existed, as long as a law hadn’t been written to explicitly close it, the loophole remained as a legal land mine for any company contemplating the ultimate remedy against piracy, that of hauling the pirates into court; a clever defendant could point to it and collapse the whole concept of copyright as applicable to software at a stroke.

Piracy

Even as Bill Gates was drafting his letter, Congress was in the process of overhauling American copyright law for the first time in well over half a century. Yet the end result directly answered few of the burgeoning software industry’s concerns. In addition to dramatically extending the term of copyright protection from a maximum of 56 years to “the lifetime of the author plus 50 years,” the Copyright Act of 1976, which actually went into effect on January 1, 1978, further broadened the applicability of copyright to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” While the Act still failed to cite software among its many examples of same, it seemed more clear than ever that source code at least ought to fit this definition of a copyright-eligible work, while the door for binary code now also seemed, at worst, to have been opened considerably wider. But an unresolved question still remained in the form of the negative legal precedent of White Smith v. Apollo. And the copying that was a necessary part of actually running a computer program remained unaddressed as well.

The software industry therefore started working on solving the problem through technical rather than legal means. Here Bill Gates’s Microsoft was once again at the fore. When Microsoft shipped their version of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s perennial Adventure for the TRS-80 in 1979, they included on the disk one of the first instances of physical copy protection, on the theory that if buyers couldn’t copy the disk in the first place they wouldn’t be tempted to share the game with their friends. Ironically, Microsoft’s own ethical if not legal right to sell Crowther and Wood’s game was far from clear, a classic example of the moral murkiness that always seems to surround issues of piracy and intellectual property in the digital age as soon as you drill beneath the surface.

Only in 1980, with the PC industry beginning to enter the public consciousness as a much-needed American economic-success story and Apple, whose origins in a suburban garage were already becoming the stuff of legend, gearing up for the first big silicon IPO, did Congress at last directly address the question of copyright as it applied to software. The Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 created an exception in the case of software to the idea of copyright as fundamentally constituting an author’s exclusive right to copy. Henceforward, said the Act, “it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy” if such a copy is “an essential step in the utilization of the computer program” — thus securing the owner’s right to actually run the software she purchased — or is “for archival purposes only” — thus securing the owner’s right to make backup copies of her purchase. Making the act of distribution rather than the act of copying itself the original sin of software piracy represented a huge development in the evolution of copyright law that went as unremarked by the Act’s own drafters as it remains today. The law’s oft-tardy, clunky, and controversial negotiation with the brave new world of digital content begins here, in a modest little change that even most Congresspeople barely even noticed.

That same year, the question of whether the presentation layer of a program can be afforded copyright protection in its own right was settled in the affirmative in a landmark court case involving Midway, a producer of standup-arcade games, and Dirkschneider, a cloner of same. Atari in particular immediately started applying that precedent with gusto to squash the practice of cloning their standup-arcade and home-console games on computers.

All told, it had been a pretty good year for those on the side of strong software-copyright protection. But still hanging out there at its end, unresolved and dangerous and with case-law precedent still seemingly against it, was the question of copyright protection for binary code.

Piracy

For a long time the question continued to go unresolved, even as IBM entered the PC fray and the software industry went from being a curiosity to one of the biggest stories in the world of business, with names like WordStar and VisiCorp — and, yes, Microsoft — now on every stockbroker and venture capitalist’s lips. But then in 1982 along came a company called Franklin Computer which wished to produce a clone of the Apple II. By far the most difficult part of such a task must be the the production of a ROM-based operating system that performed exactly like Apple’s own; the slightest deviation would mean that a subset of the Apple II’s huge software library must fail to work on Franklin’s model. Franklin responded to the challenge through the simple expedient of copying Apple’s ROM verbatim, whereupon Apple responded to Franklin’s solution by suing them in federal court. Franklin didn’t even try to deny that they’d copied Apple’s own ROM — but, they claimed, they were within their rights to have done so. At the root of their complicated defense was the old claim that copyright could not be applied to binary code. The industry held its collective breath; the moment they had half wished for and half dreaded for so long was here. At last the long-standing question was about to be settled in court.

Things didn’t go so well at first. The district court refused an injunction by Apple to force Franklin to take their machines off the market, and then ruled for Franklin in open court, accepting their argument that binary code could not by its nature be subject to copyright — exactly the result the industry had feared. But Apple appealed, and finally, on August 30, 1983, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Franklin had indeed violated Apple’s copyright, at the same time definitively settling in the affirmative the question of whether binary code could be copyrighted. Citing the 1976 Act’s stipulation that copyright could also be applied to works readable only “with the aid of a machine or device,” the Court stated that “it is clear from the language of the 1976 Act and its legislative history that it was intended to obliterate distinctions engendered by White-Smith.” Franklin was forced to withdraw their machine from the market until they had written for it a unique ROM of its own. The question of the copyright eligibility of binary code would never be seriously challenged again.

Relatively little remembered today, Apple v. Franklin was, in terms of its impact on the industry at large, easily one of the most significant court cases with which Apple has ever been involved. It had taken more than seven years to get from Bill Gates’s open letter to this point, but the American software industry could at last feel entirely free to zealously guard their intellectual property and sue offenders, with both law and precedent on their side. The rest of the Western world gradually followed the American legal system’s lead. In 1985, for instance, the British Parliament passed the Copyright (Computer Software) Amendment Act, securing once and for all the same strong copyright protection for companies selling their software on British soil.

Piracy

Yet, even with the legalities finally settled, it made little sense to attempt to prosecute most software pirates. Civil or criminal court cases involving software piracy, both in the United States and outside it, remained a relative rarity, reserved for large-scale bootlegging rings and blatant corporate violators like Franklin. Game publishers in particular, a small fraction of the software industry as a whole, lacked the time, money, and energy to legally pursue on any serious scale the mostly teenage pirates who passed games among themselves in school lunch rooms and via the BBS networks. While the threat of legal action always made a good rhetorical tool — “It could happen to you!” — game publishers, following the lead of Microsoft Adventure, came to rely on technical rather than legal remedies to minimize the damage. Their methods encompassed various sorts of manual-look-up schemes — photocopying was still fairly expensive in the 1980s — as well as code wheels, hardware dongles, and bizarre Rube Goldberg contraptions like the British Lenslok. But the bedrock for most publishers remained the protection they applied to the disk or tape itself to make it physically impossible to copy. Virtually all publishers understood that their protection schemes, whatever form they took, were bound to be broken. One hope was that the protection would hold up for at least a little while under the onslaught of the hardcore crackers; another was that it would be enough in and of itself to deter the more casual pirates. The former hope was usually forlorn, while the latter stood on moderately firmer ground.

Meanwhile the larger debate about the rights of software buyers and sellers that had been touched off by Bill Gates’s letter was far from over. Indeed, it continued to rage more violently than ever at users group meetings, in computer stores, and in the magazines, pitting the software industry against a substantial percentage of their theoretical customer base. In 1983 a new Apple II magazine called Hardcore Computist chose to begin publishing information on copy-protection schemes and how to crack many of the most popular games. The response from the software industry was a shitstorm that forced the magazine off of computer-store racks and drove it underground. As a largely subscription-only publication, the editors chose to double down on their stance that a right of users to make backup copies of their expensive software ought to be as fundamental as the right of publishers not to have their programs given away for free. Hardcore Computist quickly became a go-to source for Apple II crackers, both those wanting simply to make the personal backups the law so plainly allowed and those with more nefarious agendas.

That magazine was, however, very much the exception. The others, knowing who buttered their bread, duly toed the industry hard line against any and all forms of copying, with very few exceptions. To do otherwise risked becoming a pariah like Hardcore Computist, cut off from the advertisements, early review copies, and insider scoops on which they depended. Few editors dared to push back in more than the most tepid ways against the industry’s stance. The articles they published on the subject usually weren’t all that different in tone or content from Bill Gates’s original entry in the genre, complete with questionable data (“Industry estimates claim that between four and ten illegally copied programs are circulating for every one sold.”); dire predictions for the future (“Software piracy, which was the casual crime of the 1980s, could actually threaten the survival of the software industry in the 1990s.”); conflations of piracy with shoplifting (“It seems that the same person who would never dream of walking out of a K-mart with a stolen watch hidden in his jacket doesn’t think twice about stealing software.”); fear-mongering (“Those who dip into the questionable waters of pirated software risk virus infection each time their disk drive whirs.”); and a little good old-fashioned name-calling (“Those computerists who copy software are the lowest form of animal life on the planet.”). A more candid debate was allowed to rage only in the letters sections, where the pirates, usually in response to a hand-wringing anti-piracy editorial or feature article, got a chance to state their side of the case.

The core of their argument, one which carried with it a certain practical if not always a legal or moral force, was that games were ridiculously overpriced, and that most of them were terrible to boot. Both assertions were largely correct. The price you pay today per man-hour of game-developer effort is almost invariably well over one if not two orders of magnitude less than it was in the 1980s even without adjusting for inflation. This reality applies almost equally to the good games of yore, the games I’ve praised here, as the bad. Even the typical Infocom game gave you about a novella’s worth of text, various “you can’t do that!” messages included, in return for $30 to $50 in 1980s money. The nostalgic stories of the old days that abound in places like the Get Lamp documentary claim that players routinely got 50 or 100 hours out of such thin gruel, but it’s honestly hard for me to imagine how. And, again, those are the good games. Many others were all but unplayable, insoluble, or missing vital clues due to the fact that most publishers’ testing methodology consisted of “let the developers play it for a few days if there’s time, otherwise just put it in a box and ship it.” Games routinely shipped with flaws serious enough almost to smack of outright fraud, flaws that not even the most mercenary publisher of today would dare allow to go unaddressed. And the magazines, in thrall as they were to the publishers for advertising dollars, were hardly a reliable means of sorting the wheat from all that chaff. The economics of gaming being so hopelessly out of whack, many pirates claimed that they copied games only to test them out and see if they were really worth the money, that they then bought those few that they did indeed judge worthy. Assuming they were telling the complete truth — admittedly a doubtful proposition — this seems to me quite a reasonable response to the situation.

Which is not to say that game publishers were deliberately shafting their customers. Staying in business carries plenty of fixed costs, and requires much larger profit margins when selling 50,000 copies of a successful game rather than 5 million or more. Everyone was doing the best they could, but everyone was feeling their way through, without any precedents to guide them. It was hard for a gamer, eager to play all the latest games highlighted in the magazines, to take too seriously the moral hectoring of the editors of same who were themselves drowning in free review copies.

Underlying the whole debate, conducted though it often was in such strident fashion on both sides, was an uneasy settlement. Publishers recognized that their software was going to be copied and traded, but, through physical copy protection and other means, hoped to keep it to a manageable level. Meanwhile users settled into whatever approach best seemed to balance ethics and practicalities: set up a collective with a few friends to buy a pool of games and trade them with each other; buy every third Infocom game and pirate the others from the BBS network; buy a game if and only if you wound up spending more than a few hours with the pirated version; etc.

But of course there were also the hardcore pirates, the people who wanted to have every game released, who tied their self-worth to the number of “hot warez” in their collection. For them the act of collecting games, not that of playing them, was the real draw. Many would say that the greatest game of all was the one played between the crackers, the elite members of the piracy “scene” who knew how to break copy protection, and the publishers, who were constantly dreaming up nastier and trickier schemes to protect their disks. The scene’s shadowy existence was barely hinted at by the bright, wholesome magazines chronicling the overground of computing. But, existing in a zone between the casual pirates who traded games with their friends and the big for-profit bootlegging rings, the scene was responsible for virtually all of the cracks that gradually trickled down to even many of the least-connected gamers, making it the root of all the evils of piracy in the view of the publishers. And yet, decentralized and anonymous as it was, it was impossible for them to stamp out. Described by historian Anders Carlsson as nothing less than “the first digital global subculture,” the scene was, among other things, a cesspool of adolescent nihilism, teenage posturing, and crude social Darwinism, teeming with racism, sexism, and homophobia. It was, in other words, much like many other gatherings of unsupervised teenage boys. Nevertheless, it’s thanks only to the efforts of the scene’s crackers that many of the games I write about still exist at all for an historian like me to study — one more ironic aspect of an intellectual-property debate that’s never quite as ethically clear as either side would have it. We’ll look more closely at this mysterious scene, at where it came from and what it meant to 1980s gaming, next time.

(Sources: ACM Computing Surveys of March 1975; New York Times of May 8 1964; Byte of September 1976, January 1977, May 1981, September 1981, October 1981, December 1981, January 1982, and May 1982; PC Magazine of October 1982 and November 1982; Computer World of December 5 1983; 80 Microcomputing of November 1982, February 1983 and April 1983; Ahoy! of August 1985, November 1985, and March 1986; Color Computer Magazine of August 1983, November 1983, January 1984, and July 1984; Commodore Magazine of April 1989; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Games Machine of September 1988; Transactor 5.3 and 5.5; Computer Gaming World of September/October 1982; Acorn User of September 1984; Amazing Computing of September 1987; A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1984; Computer and Video Games of April 1984, May 1984, and June 1984; Creative Computing of November 1984; Electronic Games of January 1985; Enter of April 1984; Hardcore Computist #2; New Zealand Bits and Bytes of September 1982; Popular Computing Weekly of June 7 1984; Sinclair User of September 1984 and November 1984; The Rainbow of March 1984; Your Spectrum of December 1983/January 1984; Zzap! of June 1987. Also the book From Pac-Man to Pop Music, including “Chip Music: Low-Tech Data Music Sharing” by Anders Carlsson. The pictures are all drawn from the magazines’ various anti-piracy articles, which always seem to bring out the fanciful best in their artists. Really, aren’t they great?)

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

A Little Christmas Gift

This being the time of year for such things, I have a little surprise that I hope some of you might really enjoy.

I get asked on a fairly regular basis whether this blog will ever become a book — or, more likely, a series of books. While I do have aspirations in that direction, producing even one proper book is a big task that’s hard to turn to now when I’m so focused on this chronological journey we’re on. In the meantime, I can now at least offer you a series of ebooks that simply compile my older articles. Their existence is entirely down to the efforts of reader Richard Lindner, who developed all of the tools to automatically convert the blog’s articles.

Despite his talents, the ebooks are inevitably a little rough around the edges. In particular, multimedia elements — pictures, screenshots, movies, audio — may display imperfectly or not at all on many e-readers. Nevertheless, I hope some of you will find them handy for reading in bed or taking to the beach without bullies kicking sand in your laptop. Richard and I couldn’t quite decide whether to include readers comments or not — they’re a huge and hugely appreciated part of the online experience, but arguably ruin the flow of the ebook versions — so we decided to let you decide, by offering versions both with and without them. You can also choose between Kindle and epub versions, whichever suits your device or software. More ebooks will be appearing as I finish writing about each historical year. I just have a few articles to go to finish up 1987, so you can expect that volume to be joining the others quite soon.

Thanks for being such amazing readers! Your support means the world to me. If you are a regular reader who’s made this blog a part of your weekly routine and you haven’t yet pitched in, please do think about starting the new year with a Patreon pledge or a one-time PayPal donation — assuming, of course, that your personal circumstances permit. For the price of a good cup of coffee each month you can support this ongoing serious, nuanced examination of the history of gaming, and contribute to my own slow crawl toward earning a living wage from what’s long since become as time-consuming as any other full-time job.

To the 160 of you (as of this writing) who have signed up through Patreon and the many others who have donated through PayPal:an extra special thank you! It warms my writerly heart to know that so many of you like what I do enough to voluntarily pay for it. I’ll continue to strive to be worthy of your support.

I wish you all a great Christmas or winter holiday of your choice, and a happy New Year to boot. And I’ll see you all again in a couple of days, with a proper article this time.

 

Dungeon Master, Part 2: The Playing of

Dungeon Master

Like any cagey revolutionary, Dungeon Master doesn’t lay all its cards on the table when we first meet it. When the curtain goes up — or, rather, when the iron gate opens — on its first level, we might think we’re just in for a Wizardry with better graphics and the luxury of a mouse-driven interface. Because this first level is entirely deserted, it’s not immediately obvious that the game is even running in real time, much less what a huge difference that quality is ultimately going to make to the experience. And because we can’t do anything at this point other than move around, it’s also not immediately obvious just what an interactive sort of dungeon we’ve just entered.

Dungeon Master

Still, there are already oddities, not least of which is the fact that we’ve been dropped into the game proper so very abruptly, without going through any of the usual rigmarole of rolling up characters or answering an old gypsy’s questions. Dungeon Master‘s fictional conceit has it that we are a sort of wandering spirit, whose first task must be to take charge of — possess? — up to 4 of the 24 characters found frozen in amber here in the first level’s so-called “Hall of Champions.” The characters in the Hall, supposedly adventurers who earlier tried to penetrate the dungeon and were rewarded with death for their efforts, provide a rare opportunity for FTL to let their hair down and toss a little pop culture into an otherwise almost aggressively austere game. In naming and drawing the characters we can choose from, FTL drew them from fictions like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and their own previous game Sundog. They also included real-world figures like the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and, because they were mostly young men with young men’s interests, 1975 Playboy Playmate Azizi Johari. Andy Jaros went fairly crazy with these portraits, making a whole “construction kit” for different combinations of bodies, facial features, and clothing. “Every female character,” remembers tools programmer Mike Newton wryly, “had a number of brassieres she could wear.”

Dungeon Master

The team was tempted to include Jaros’s construction kit along with a much more traditional character-creation process in the game itself. Wayne Holder remembers a “big schism” in his team between people “who just wanted to pick a character and get going” and those who wanted to laboriously roll their own, customizing every detail to their liking as in the CRPGs of yore. But, more than just being an inconvenience to new or impatient players, a character-creation process that took place outside of the dungeon would have worked against the sense of “you are there” immersion that was always the guiding philosophy of the game as a whole. Thus this casting of us as a wandering spirit in a Hall of Champions, an embodied part of the game’s world from the very first instant.

Dungeon Master

As a sop to those players that demanded more control, FTL made it possible to either “resurrect” or “reincarnate” each character. The former preserves the champion’s name and vital attributes, including a few levels in one or more of the disciplines (more on them momentarily); the latter preserves only her portrait, letting us rename her and develop her as we like from scratch. We’ll resurrect today, both because it’s easier and because it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the game, but the choice is up to each player. (Sorry, classic Playboy connoisseurs, but Azizi won’t make the cut today.)

Dungeon Master

With our party formed, the bits and pieces of the user interface get filled in. Running along the top we now see each of the members of our party along with what he’s carrying in his right and left hands, which doesn’t amount to much of anything at the moment. Three bar graphs show each character’s current hit points, stamina, and mana.

While the first of these is a very traditional metric, the second provides a good example of how Dungeon Master so often yet so subtly transcends the tabletop roots of previous CRPGs. When a character exerts himself — by fighting or by running about quickly, and especially by doing either whilst carrying a heavy load — his stamina drops, diminishing his effectiveness in combat and slowing him down. He can regain stamina only by resting or through magical means. Weaker characters naturally fatigue more quickly than stronger ones. This mechanic would be impossible to replicate on the tabletop; the amount of bookkeeping required would have defied even the most pedantic of human Dungeon Masters. On the computer, however, it works a treat.

As for the last graph, showing mana… let’s hold off on that for right now, as we will the panel of spell runes found to the right, just below the draggable icons representing the party’s current walking arrangement. Below the spell-casting panel are the buttons we press to make each character take a swing or a throw or a shot, as the case may be, at a monster, and below them the buttons we press to move about.

Now let’s right-click on one of the characters along the top of the screen to see some more of Dungeon Master‘s new ideas…

Dungeon Master

Here we see the debut of the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper-doll” approach to character inventory in CRPGs. We can just drag what we like onto the body, into the hands, into the various packs and pockets. (Apparently old Wuuf, like Donald Duck, is a let-it-all-hang-out, pants-free kind of guy.) Once again, all of this would be a nightmare for players of a tabletop RPG to keep track of, but it’s easy, intuitive, and natural for the player of a computer game. The most literally embodying aspect of Dungeon Master the first embodied CRPG, paper-doll inventories would go on to become one of the most obvious and omnipresent of all its legacies.

Dungeon Master

Clicking on the eye — note how it shifts its gaze when we do so, one of Dungeon Master‘s many subtle graphical touches — shows us the vital statistics of this character. The designers have tinkered a bit with the traditional core ability scores, removing useless stuff like Charisma to arrive at a set that hones in with relentless precision on Dungeon Master‘s priorities of killing monsters and mapping dungeons. This is not so surprising; games like the original Wizardry, which insisted on implementing a Dungeons and Dragons-style alignment system it had no idea what to do with, were already becoming the rarity of the field by 1987.

The big surprise that is revealed here is Dungeon Master‘s approach to character class — or, rather, its rejection of the very concept. Instead of each character having a single class which he shall hold forevermore, complete with associated arbitrary restrictions of Dungeons and Dragons like a cleric’s inability to use edged weapons and a magic user’s inability to wear armor, Dungeon Master offers four skill disciplines in which any character can advance at any time: fighter, ninja, wizard, and priest. Like in the real world, he just has to practice to get better at any of them. The old Dungeons and Dragons system, absurd as it was in so many ways, had long been a comfort blanket for CRPG players. In sweeping it all away, Dungeon Master must have felt shocking, perhaps uncomfortably so. But, soon enough, it felt bracing. Why should this computer game adhere to a system set up for an old tabletop game? Dungeon Master‘s system isn’t a universal framework of rules, as Dungeons and Dragons strives to be. It’s simply the best system of rules that FTL could devise for this particular game of dungeon delving and monster slaying. Discarding so much accumulated tradition and doing what was right for their game took boldness, even bravery. It took, in short, a willingness to look at Dungeons and Dragons and ask why.

Dungeon Master

We move on to the exit from the Hall of Champions, where we see the first of many pressure plates, usually visible but occasionally hidden, that litter the levels below. Stepping forward produces a click!, and the gate goes up in front of us. This serves as our introduction to the dungeon as a real, tactile place, a far cry from the wire-frame abstractions of Wizardry or even the full-color but static mazes of The Bard’s Tale. In addition to fighting monsters, much of our time will soon be spent tripping pressure plates, flipping switches, and pushing buttons to solve puzzles, avoid traps, and make progress. While dungeon crawls had had puzzles before, they had usually come in the form of set-piece riddles or abstract mapping challenges like spinners and teleports (all of which, never fear, Dungeon Master does have as well). This level of interaction, however, was unprecedented. It was largely inspired by, of all things, the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones dashes through a subterranean complex not all that far removed from this one, complete with many of the same sorts of very physical, very mechanical traps. (We can breathe a sigh of relief that giant rolling boulders were beyond even FTL’s abilities to implement.)

Dungeon Master

A couple of steps further we learn a yet greater appreciation for this dungeon as an embodied, interactive place. There’s an apple sitting on the ground before us. We can reach right into the scene to pick it up and drag it to one of our characters’ inventory — or, if we like, right to his mouth. CRPGs like Ultima — although, interestingly, not Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale — had been requiring characters to eat for many years by 1987, but their version of food had always been an abstract quantity to be gained and lost, little different from hit points. In Dungeon Master, food is — stop me if you’ve heard this word before — an embodied resource. We carry around apples, wedges of cheese, drumsticks to feed to our characters when they get hungry. We’ll also find that some monsters are edible, leaving behind neat “screamer slices,” “worm rounds,” or “dragon steaks” after we kill them. The different foodstuffs naturally fill us differently; a drumstick fills more than an apple. The idea that our characters can kill a monster and immediately start to chow down on it doesn’t make any sense, of course (at least if the character isn’t a dog like old Wuuf). Neither does finding a perfectly preserved apple sitting incongruously in the middle of a dungeon, or for that matter the dozens of monsters populating each level below this one with no identifiable food source of their own. Realistic this game is not. But Dungeon Master is a more immersive sort of artificial experience, and that makes all the difference — the difference between a scary campfire story and a visit to a haunted house.

Dungeon Master

A few steps further we find a torch we can pull off the wall and take. We’d best do so because light, whether generated by torches or magic, is a precious resource in every level after the first. Thanks to the comparatively generous color palettes of the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga, Dungeon Master is able to dim the environment gradually and realistically as a torch begins to sputter or a spell begins to run out, rather than making vision an all-or-nothing affair as in earlier games.

There’s also a water skin lying on the floor waiting to be filled as soon as we can find a fountain; water is yet another precious resource that we need to manage carefully. And there’s something else lying on the floor in front of us: our first spell scroll.

Dungeon Master

This, then, brings us to Dungeon Master‘s hugely original and hugely influential magic system, what has come to be called “rune-based” magic. Rather than being chosen from lists or entered via code names that also serve as thinly veiled copy protection, spells in Dungeon Master are built from combinations of runes, from two to four of them depending on the spell’s complexity. The first always dictates the spell’s power; those that follow can include an “elemental influence” (like water, air, or fire); a “form” (like a spider, a wing, or a spear); and a “class” or “alignment” (like a fighter or a wizard, or good or evil). We cause our characters to cast spells by entering their runes using the panel at the right of the screen. We need the manual to figure out that the rune “FUL” described in the scroll corresponds to the one representing fire — a natural choice for a light spell. (Did someone say something about thinly veiled copy protection?)

At the beginning of the game we don’t know a single spell, but as we work our way through the dungeon our repertoire will steadily increase as we find scrolls like this one. We can play through the entire game quite successfully just using the spells that we find on scrolls. Yet the real genius of the system is that it also lets us experiment on our own to find new spells before we find their scrolls — possibly even to find spells that are never described via scrolls. It’s a great example of one of Dungeon Master‘s more underrated qualities: its combination of mercy and possibility. It will give us all the spells we really need, but at the same time it doesn’t keep us from experimenting on our own.

Casting each rune demands mana, which increases as our characters gain levels. Each new spell also demands practice. When we first learn a new spell, we should expect each character to be able to cast it only at the lowest power levels, and even then we’re often told that a character “needs more practice.” Work with it a while, let our character get comfortable with it, and he can start to cast it in more potent forms.

Now we start down the stairs to Level 2 — the first “real” level with real monsters, where things really start to get interesting…

Dungeon Master

Down here, where we are no longer alone, Dungeon Master‘s innovative use of sound becomes clear for the first time. We can hear through walls and doors the other creatures that populate the level moving about. If we’re playing on an Amiga, the sounds they make are positioned in a realistic stereo soundscape. It’s as creepily unnerving as it is, we’ll soon learn, tactically useful. But it’s also a sign of hidden depths to Dungeon Master that set it apart from the dungeon crawls that came before in ways that may not be so immediately obvious. As Wayne Holder puts it, “Everything, everywhere, was being simulated all the time.” (“Because we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to do it any other way!” deadpans Doug Bell in response.) That level-encompassing simulation is the source of the sounds. Contrast this with the approach of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. Their dungeons are static places consisting of perhaps a few set encounters that are activated when the party steps on the right square, and lots and lots of random encounters that occur according to the old “wandering monster” rules of tabletop Dungeon and Dragons: each step brings a percentage chance of encountering a randomized group of monsters, leading to such twistings of the fabric of space as a fight with 396 berserkers in The Bard’s Tale in a room the size of a closet. Dungeon Master, a computer game that respects its computerness, doesn’t need to fall back on old tabletop techniques.

Reinforcing the strange disconnect in games like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale between the mazes you map and the monsters you fight is the fact that these are heavily modal programs: there’s a travel mode where you explore and map the mazes, a combat mode where you fight monsters, other modes for resting and training and shopping. One could describe these games as not holistic programs at all, but rather a collection of specialized applications glued together, passing data back and forth to one another as needed. Modal software was explicitly rejected by the new paradigm of computing that was ushered in at Xerox PARC and later embraced so wholeheartedly by the Apple Macintosh and its 68000-based rivals the ST and Amiga. Separate modes, so the thinking went, were distancing and confusing, making it too easy to get “lost” inside a program. Better to have one consistent window on an application, with everything available all the time and all commands always working the same: one program, one user, one unified experience.

Dungeon Master shows what that kind of thinking can mean when applied to a game. There is no separation between walking around in the dungeon and fighting monsters; it all takes place there in the same view, through the same interface. Not only does this closing of the software’s seams add more immediacy, it also adds oceans more tactical depth to the whole experience. Groups of monsters can sneak up behind us, can trap us, can be cut off using doors or pits while we rest our characters and let their precious mana recharge. And thanks to the fact that “everything, everywhere, is being simulated,” we can actually clear a level of all monsters (if it doesn’t contain a magical portal that spawns them infinitely, that is) and know that it’s a safe haven to return to forevermore. In their ways these innovations represent as big a leap over what had come before as does Dungeon Master‘s more celebrated real-time nature. Because of them, and despite the artificiality of so many of the game’s mechanics, every level feels like a real space.

Dungeon Master

So, we turn right after coming down the stairs and open the gate there to meet and fight our first monster at last — a mummy. It always comes as a moment of revelation to the new Dungeon Master player when she realizes, whether here or later on, that she can use the dungeon itself to aid her cause by slamming a gate down on a monster’s head even as her characters bash away at it. If you’ve been playing lots of older CRPGs — or, for that matter, plenty of newer ones — it requires a real adjustment in thinking to understand that this dungeon is a thoroughly interactive, manipulable place, and that that reality places countless new tools at your disposal.

Dungeon Master

Combat in Dungeon Master is nerve-wracking in a way that it had never really been before, right from the moment that that first mummy unexpectedly screams at you. In addition to fighting whatever is in front of you, you’re constantly worried about what might be sneaking up behind, trying to avoid getting crushed between two groups of monsters, looking always to spot tactical deathtraps and safe havens alike. The first time you take refuge in a closed room only to be surprised by a monster that can open doors for itself is a terrifying experience in its own right. Just the scurrying noises coming through the walls are enough to fill you with dread when your party is weak and cut off from safety.

Monsters have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, move at different speeds, pursue different tactics. While you can go toe to toe with some, others can only be bested by striking quickly and backing away, again and again — just don’t back into a dead-end corridor! Or you can dispatch them by luring them over trap doors and pulling the rug out from under them by means of a nearby switch, or by using other tricks; the possibilities offered by this mechanistic dungeon can seem almost endless.

There’s much more to be said about combat in Dungeon Master and its many tactical possibilities, but there are plenty of other places on the Internet to learn those things. Even better, you could play for yourself with no more preconceptions, and in the process develop your own techniques.

I do, however, want to say something more about the flip side to Dungeon Master‘s countless formal and technical innovations: its superb level design. I’m tempted to label this as the most remarkable single aspect of the game, simply because it never needed to be anything like this good for Dungeon Master to become a massive hit. Yet it’s key to the continued fascination the game still holds for so many today, long after all of the shiny innovations have become commonplace or been superseded entirely. If you were thinking that that mummy that’s positioned just inside a door that’s just waiting to come down on its head looks like more than coincidence, looks almost like the designers are consciously trying to teach you, organically and wordlessly… well, you’d be right. A couple more examples from the second level, the game’s training ground…

Dungeon Master

We come to lock a with the key lying just below, our introduction to the idea of finding keys and the locks in which they fit in order to open up ever more areas of the dungeon.

Dungeon Master

And above is our introduction to the idea of pressure-plate puzzles. Right now we’re standing on one that just opened the gate ahead; stepping on the one just in front of us will close it again. We obviously need to make a little detour to the right to avoid closing the door. These sorts of puzzles will get much, much more complicated as we work our way downward, but Dungeon Master makes sure we understand the general idea before it hits us with the rough stuff.

And so it goes as we explore the second level. Dungeon Master patiently and enjoyably teaches us the mechanics that will serve as the raw materials for all of the puzzles and challenges to come: buttons, levers, secret doors, teleports, pits. There’s even a door with no key that we need to physically bash through to remind us again that this dungeon is a tactile, embodied, interactive place. In a game of today, this would be smart, progressive design. In a game of 1987… well, this is amazing. Nobody was designing games like this at that time. Visionary as Dungeon Master is in so many ways, it was the enlightened, player-focused level design that stunned me most when I recently played it again, more than 25 years removed from my first encounter.

But if you think that means that Dungeon Master is an easy or trivial game, think again. The difficulty ramps up steadily, level by level. I’ve often heard Dungeon Master characterized as a two-part experience, the first half gradually teaching you the survival skills you’ll need by the time you get to the hardcore later levels.

Still, all of the levels remain masterfully designed in their own ways. Most of them have a theme or a personality all their own. Few Dungeon Master veterans ever forget the theme-park level with its six mockingly titled subsections; the level full of re-spawning giant worms; the level you have to backtrack through half the dungeon to actually enter; the level that’s largely a single huge cavern full of wandering ghosts. The contrast with The Bard’s Tale, whose dungeons felt not so much designed as thrown together by some automated algorithm, could hardly be more stark. The early games of the Wizardry series generally did better in this department, but Dungeon Master nevertheless offers the best level design yet seen in a CRPG. As hardcore as it can get, it continues at the same time to stay away from the really petty stuff that sinks so many old-school games. There are usually more of those precious keys than you actually need, meaning it’s possible to miss a few and still finish the game. And, while there are plenty of secret areas, those that you’re least likely to find are also those least likely to be essential. A commenter to my earlier article about The Faery Tale Adventure, responding to my criticism that it’s too hard to find your way around and know what to do in that game, noted — and rightly so — how rewarding the secret areas feel when you do find them, simply because they are so secret. Dungeon Master understands this, and fills its levels with Easter eggs for the lucky and the methodical. But, unlike The Faery Tale Adventure, it also understands the danger of making its pathways to victory too obscure. Let people win, then let them play again if they like and see what new things they can discover.

Indeed, Dungeon Master must be one of the most replayable CRPGs ever that’s not a roguelike, with a thriving cult of players who even today play again and again, setting new challenges for themselves: play with only one character; play with the weakest characters in the Hall of Champions; advance each character in only one discipline; use only spells in combat; use no spells in combat. There’s no story to be impatiently clicked through, no cut scenes to wait for, just the game. Long after they know all of the levels by heart, many continue to find them almost infinitely rewarding to revisit. Dungeon Master remains one of the most-played games of its vintage, thanks not least to lots of loving ports and remakes that make it widely and easily accessible to anyone with access to a computer.

That said, by far its most off-putting aspect for the modern player must be the need to map. This area is one where Dungeon Master is notably not so merciful. Most of its levels are huge, rambling places, especially by contrast with the compact layouts of blessedly regular size that characterized Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. They present a huge challenge for the would-be pencil-and-graph-paper mapper; you never know where you begin a level or how far it’s likely to run in any given direction, meaning you find your map constantly running off one side or another of the paper and yourself starting all over again. Drawing and redrawing maps doubtless consumed a big chunk of the tens or even hundreds of hours so many people spent on Dungeon Master back in the day. A complete collection, a fully mapped 14-level dungeon, represented a major achievement in itself, a prize to be treasured — and sometimes to be sold as part of the rich cottage industry that sprang up around the game. Nowadays, of course, you can find maps of all the levels all over the Internet. I recommend that those of you not ready to devote hours to mapping by hand download a set — preferably without any other hints — and use them rather than foregoing Dungeon Master entirely. It’s an anachronistic way to play, one that unavoidably diminishes some of the mystery and thus some of the experience, but the game is rich enough that it still has plenty to offer.

Others, both now and even back then, will likely be put off by the aesthetic minimalism that is such a defining trait of Dungeon Master. It’s a game that focuses all its energy relentlessly toward its one goal of being the best, most immersive tactical dungeon crawl possible, and excises absolutely everything else. That can, even for a fan like me, make it feel a little sterile. Tellingly, most of Dungeon Master‘s successors chose to build on it not by improving on any of its own priorities, but by adding layers of lore and story. Something like Eye of the Beholder, which clutters up the template with the same awkward Dungeons and Dragons mechanics that Dungeon Master so proudly rejects, could never be called a better pure game design than its predecessor. But, depending on your own priorities, such a lovably shaggy shamble, bursting at the seams with the lore of the Forgotten Realms, might very well offer a better game experience. For my own part, I must confess that the tactical dungeon crawl itself isn’t really my favorite cuppa, which may do much to explain why Dungeon Master is pretty much the only game of its type I’ve ever felt the need of.

While everyone must decide for herself whether she loves it, Dungeon Master can only be respected as one of the most innovative and influential CRPGs of all time. Real-time play; mode-less play; the paper-doll inventory system; rune-based magic; granular lighting; the replacement of character class by disciplines… the list just goes on. Every CRPG of today has a little Dungeon Master in it. And, outside its own genre’s ghetto, Dungeon Master‘s influence on gaming at large has also been enormous. We’ll be continuing to chart that influence, and thus to pay this progenitor of so much its due homage, as we continue to work our way through history.


 

(If you’re interested in experiencing this blend of shocking innovation and shockingly good design today, you need only visit the home page of the game’s still-thriving fan community. There you can download something called CSBwin, a cycle-perfect port of Dungeon Master and its less welcoming sequel Chaos Strikes Back to Windows, OS X, and Linux. The only problem with this version is that bugaboo of so much retro-gaming, the aspect ratio. CSBwin maps the oblong pixels of the ST and Amiga directly onto the square pixels of modern machines, meaning the display appears horizontally stretched in comparison with the original. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but something to be aware of.

You can also experience the game via emulator. I recommend the Amiga version 3.6 of the game, a later re-release that stripped away the legendarily gnarly copy protection that continues to be a problem to this day; there are still lots of incomplete cracks floating around out there. You can download a whole swathe of Amiga versions and versions for other platforms as well from the same site.

And, regardless of how you play, you’ll need the manual.)

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dungeon Master, Part 1: The Making of

FTL

After the first Ultima and Wizardry games debuted within months of one another in 1981, dizzying formal or technical leaps were few and far between in the realm of the CRPG for the next half-decade. Richard Garriott steadily expanded on Ultima I‘s decidedly limited scope of possibility with each new iteration of his series, but never came close to abandoning the basic structure that made an Ultima an Ultima. In terms of technology and interface — theme and content were a different matter — the Ultima series was all evolution, not revolution; anyone who’s played any of Ultima II through Ultima V will immediately recognize Ultima I as an earlier, rougher swathe cut from the same cloth. Sir-Tech, meanwhile, did far less work than Garriott on their own defining classic Wizardry, content to simply pump out iteration after iteration of the same game.

If Sir-Tech’s particular brand of sloth was almost incomprehensible, in the broader strokes the Ultima and Wizardry developers’ decision to stick with their provably enjoyable, commercially successful approaches is hardly surprising. What’s much more so is how slavishly most other CRPGs chose to model themselves after one or the other. One only had to glance at mid-1980s hits like Questron or The Bard’s Tale to know where their ideas were coming from (for the record, Ultima and Wizardry respectively). Those games that did try to go their own way, like Shadowkeep with its unholy union of Wizardry-style dungeon delving to a Zork-style parser interface, made you wonder why they bothered, served only to make you appreciate the two proven CRPG templates all the more. It was as if those two pivotal early efforts had gotten so much right that there just wasn’t much innovation left to be done beyond tinkering at the margins. Questron and The Bard’s Tale were better games in some ways than their inspirations, offering better graphics and more to see and do, but they were, once again, evolutions, not revolutions. Where were the really bold and exciting new ideas?

They began to arrive only in the latter half of the decade, firstly in the form of The Faery Tale Adventure, the game I wrote about in my last article, and shortly thereafter in that of Dungeon Master, the one I want to write about today. Even in them, one can still see the old templates in the broad strokes. The Faery Tale Adventure, a free-roaming game of open-world exploration, quite clearly draws from the Ultima games with its selection of magical gems and totems, its overhead perspective, and its system of magical gates for traveling around its sprawling world. But just as much about it is entirely new: its day-to-night cycles (a year before Garriott nicked the idea for his own Ultima V); its free-scrolling movement; its action-based combat. Likewise, Dungeon Master is very much a tactical dungeon crawl in the best tradition of Wizardry.

But what a dungeon crawl it is! Having agreed to work from that very traditional premise, its developers gave themselves permission to innovate wildly within it and to question every assumption of its forefather. The result is as dramatic a leap beyond Wizardry as that game had been beyond the earliest proto-CRPGs like Temple of Apshai. Wizardry had brought with it a feeling that its developers had finally figured something out that the rest of the software world had been groping toward for some time — had gotten something fundamentally right at last. More than six years later, Dungeon Master arrived carrying much the same aura.

Indeed, Dungeon Master would prove to be almost too good at what it did, would have the same almost stultifying effect as earlier had Wizardry on the dungeon crawls that followed. It would seldom if ever be even equaled in the years immediately following its release, and wouldn’t be clearly bettered until something called Ultima Underworld dropped five long years further on. The dungeon crawl, it seemed, was just a quantum sort of genre.

Dungeon Master is such an important game that I feel I need two articles to do it justice. This first one will tell the story of its long gestation and birth and the huge rewards its parents finally reaped for their efforts. The second will delve into the game itself, to properly explain why it’s such an important entry in its field and why I consider it one of the most remarkable feats of its era.


 

The road to Dungeon Master begins more than six years before its eventual release, with, appropriately enough, those original Ultima and Wizardry games. Doug Bell and Andy Jaros were already good friends as well as undergraduates in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, when Jaros was given an Apple II by his parents just in time for those seminal releases. The pair played them obsessively, and soon decided, much like thousands of others, that they could create a dungeon crawl just as good as Wizardry for themselves. They decided to call it Crystal Dragon; in a move that must have seemed hilariously clever to a couple of young chemists, they named the company they would form “PVC Dragon” to match. Bell would be the programmer, Jaros the artist, and they would share the role of designer.

The pair had big ambitions, incorporating themselves from the beginning and even managing to attract some investors. Emulating their hero, Wizardry programmer Robert Woodhead, they programmed their would-be Wizardry killer in Apple Pascal. They worked doggedly on it through their mutual graduation in 1983 and beyond. But, as Jaros puts it, “the money was always running out.” The pair had to accept that they couldn’t make the game all by themselves. “We sent six letters out to some software companies in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas,” remembers Jaros. “One of them got us in touch with Wayne Holder at FTL Games. The rest, as they say, is history.” In short, Bell and Jaros found themselves in Software Heaven.

Software Heaven was the name of the little company of several years standing that was owned and operated by Holder, a programmer a generation removed from the PVC Dragon boys. Holder and his company, known in its earliest years as Oasis Systems, had made their first money in the young software industry in 1981 through a program he called simply The Word, a spellchecker he had first developed to help his wife Nancy, an author of romantic fantasy and horror novels and an ever-helpful supporter of his own projects, in her work. Oasis/Software Heaven made quite a number of similar tools for writers in the years that followed. But already in 1982 conversations with an old college buddy named Bruce Webster, a dedicated player and amateur designer of games of both the analog and digital varieties, led Holder to diversify, to start a new division of his company to make games under Webster’s guidance. He named it “FTL Games” — FTL for “Faster Than Light.” It would, as we’ll soon see, prove to be a very ironic title.

The first and, as it would transpire, last game that Webster wrote for the new FTL has become something of a cult classic in its own right. Inspired by Webster’s Mormon faith, Sundog: Frozen Legacy is the story of a small group of space colonists adrift on the galactic frontier, whom you, a pilot with a little star freighter, must succor by trading for the goods they need to survive and expand. It was released in March of 1984 on the Apple II, whereupon its mixture of trading, space combat, and CRPG-type character mechanics yielded stellar reviews and respectable sales. Webster, however, had found the process of coding 80 to 90 percent of such a complex game all by himself unbelievably draining. Unable to face the prospect of another such project, he left FTL that fall, shortly after completing a version 2.0 of Sundog that fixed some bugs and added some new features.

Webster’s abrupt departure left Holder high and dry, with a successful game but no programmers to make a follow-up. Meanwhile the writing seemed to be on the wall for the other part of his business. His writing aids had done very well for him for a couple of years, but the serious productivity market was getting to be a tougher and tougher one for a small company, dominated as it now was by big names like Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, and Lotus, with big marketing budgets to match. While he would keep his hand in as a spellchecking expert for several years to come, often by writing pieces of the firmware for dedicated hardware word processors from companies like Magnavox, he was already coming to see his company’s long-term future as necessarily a games-oriented one if it was to have a long-term future at all. It was for this reason that he found these two bright young sparks Doug Bell and Andy Jaros, along with their CRPG in progress, so appealing. Their game was even coded in Pascal, the same language as Sundog. He signed PVC Dragon to not so much a development as a devouring deal, bringing Bell and Jaros in-house to become the nucleus of a new version of FTL. The initial plan was to finish up Crystal Dragon and get it out as quickly as possible, then move on to the next game. But very, very few things at FTL ever happened in quite such a tidy — or timely — way as that.

Crystal Dragon almost immediately proved a more complicated proposition than Holder had anticipated. Bell and Jaros had lots of ideas, but not all of them were practical on the little Apple II. For all the cockiness with which they had embarked on their Wizardry killer, they found themselves facing a problem well known to all too many other 8-bit CRPG developers: it just wasn’t clear how to dramatically improve on the Wizardry formula on such limited hardware.

When Jack Tramiel, newly installed owner of the post-videogame-crash Atari Computer, announced the 68000-based Atari ST line in dramatic fashion at the January 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Holder decided that they might just be able to dispense with said limited hardware. Like plenty of other pundits and industry figures, he felt sure that the ST, which in the terms of 1985 offered a staggering amount of computing power for the price, must become the mass-market successor to Tramiel’s earlier masterstroke the Commodore 64. Sundog had done quite well in the crowded, uncertain Apple II market. How well might the same game, with improved graphics and sound and a mousefied interface, do in the virgin territory of the ST? Determined to find out, Holder pulled Bell and Jaros off of their game and set them to work porting Sundog to the ST just as soon as he could get his hands on actual ST hardware.

Released in time for Christmas 1985 thanks to herculean efforts on everyone’s part, the re-imagined Sundog arrived to a still tiny base of ST users, but one that was absolutely starving for quality games for their new toys. It did very well, even better than the Apple II version despite the tiny fraction of potential customers the ST offered in comparison. The small-pond theory had worked brilliantly, cementing a loyalty to the ST that would lead them to create this oft-overlooked platform’s best-selling game of all time.

FTL turned back to Crystal Dragon, which they soon renamed to Dungeon Master — a name so obvious it was amazing that no one had yet claimed it. Now, however, it was to be rewritten from scratch on the ST. Thanks to the power of the ST, FTL should at last be able to explode the old Wizardry template without being slowly pulled back to the status quo by the limitations of the hardware. Key to the re-imagined Crystal Dragon from the beginning was that it should be a real-time experience, giving it a very different personality from the cool tactical challenge that is Wizardry. “The games at that point had all been turn-based and you could take as long as you wanted to think about what you were going to do next,” says Bell. “We knew we wanted to put the player under the pressure of time.” Wizardry‘s tiny window on its dungeons would be blown up to a view that filled at least half the screen. The player would no longer be isolated from the environment; she would be able to click directly on the world view to interact with the things — and creatures — in it. These new ideas, and the many more that would continue to spiral out from them for months to come, were part of an overarching determination to create an embodied CRPG experience. “How do you go from being a player to being ‘in’ a game?” asked Nancy Holder. Almost every new aspect of Dungeon Master exists as an answer to that question.

Dungeon Master the embodied experience: I've just reached directly into the world to hit the button and lower the door, which is no crushing the Blue Meanies beneath it.

Dungeon Master the embodied experience: I’ve just reached directly into the world to hit the button and lower the door, which is now crushing the Blue Meanies beneath it as it tries to close.

Dungeon Master on the ST first came to life before the ST Sundog had even made it into shops, as a proof of concept created by Bell to see whether the large pseudo-3D, first-person view would be possible. Bell used what’s known in graphics theory as a “painter’s algorithm” to draw each screen. The background was first pieced together jigsaw-style from separate sprites depicting walls, floor, ceiling, doors, etc. Objects and monsters that should appear over it were then sorted in order from farthest to nearest, and finally drawn in one by one, thus ensuring that those closer obscured those farther away. It worked, but the performance of the demo, which was still coded in Pascal, left something to be desired, even on the mighty ST. Bell therefore “spent three weeks learning C,” the native language of the ST’s operating system. The performance of the re-coded demo proved “better than expected.” Dungeon Master was a go.

Most of the FTL crew. The men are, from left: Mike Newton,

Some of the FTL crew. From left: Joe Holt, Deirdre Poelter, Mike Newton, Russ Boelhauf, Wayne Holder, and Andy Jaros. The woman at far right is unidentified.

With its founder and head himself a fine programmer, FTL was nothing if not a classic example of a purely technology-driven company. That can create a danger in the form of a tendency to continue iterating endlessly over the same project instead of just getting things finished and out the door. FTL would hardly be immune to that danger — in some fourteen years of existence they would manage to release exactly three original games and two sequels — but their obsessive perfectionism in executing all of their bold new ideas would nevertheless come to define Dungeon Master almost as much as the ideas themselves. Bell had chafed at the way that Sundog had been coded on the Apple II, and the form in which, pressed for time, he’d had to recreate it on the ST: as a big pile of hand-crafted, machine-specific code. Resources at FTL being limited, this approach would prevent them from ever porting it beyond those two platforms, despite the success it enjoyed there. Better, thought Bell and Wayne Holder alike, to first write a set of tools for writing Dungeon Master, along with an engine that could run the tools’ output on both current computers and those still to come. They could be loyal to the ST, but not to the point of stupidity. And the same tools could later, of course, be used to make more games as well as ports. “We knew,” says Wayne Holder, “that there was absolutely no chance of getting our money back with just one version of Dungeon Master. We had to set up a system that would serve as a foundation for later games.”

It was far from a new idea in game development, but few others of FTL’s era would take it quite as far as they did. A new programmer, Mike Newton, was hired just to work on the design tools. Applications like the Dungeon Construction Set, which let one design and populate an entire dungeon level from a unified GUI interface, grew into impressive feats in their own right. Equally impressive was the compression technology that FTL developed from scratch, which allowed them not only to run the game on Atari’s low-end 512 K 520 ST model but to ship it on a single single-sided disk; the entire game, code and graphics included, consumed less than 400 K on disk. Helping the cause greatly was the fact that the game, being virtually story-less until you arrive at the final showdown, needed contain very little text, a greedy eater of disk space.

The Dungeon Editor

The Dungeon Construction Set

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have already remarked certain parallels between the approach of Infocom and that of FTL — namely, the idea that the best tools are necessary to craft the best games. The comparison was not at all lost on Wayne Holder, who set out with the explicit goal of making his company the Infocom of the CRPG world, a comparison that also extended to heavily emphasizing testing and player feedback.

We set a high goal. We want to become in the field of role-playing games the counterpart to what Infocom has achieved in the field of text adventures: the best technically, who also have the best game designs and — contrary to Infocom — also the best graphics. Therefore we spent several months just working on polishing and improving/detailing the interaction for Dungeon Master. We let dozens of folks playtest, from complete pros to people who had never seen a computer nor dungeon before. We listened to every proposal and modified the user interface several times. We did think about things that do not appear in Dungeon Master at all, which we however will need in other RPGs, and have programmed them along the line, too. Now we have a complex development system that enables us to program relatively quickly RPGs with a user interface similar to Dungeon Master’s. And it won’t stop at fantasy titles alone. We are thinking about science-fiction games, detective stories, and about a couple of new things nobody has yet done.

The tricky, performance-sensitive code of the engine itself was created by Bell and another new hire, Dennis Walker, while Jaros continued in the role of artist, drawing his images on the ST using Activision’s Paintworks. Rounding out the little team was Wayne Holder, who oversaw the whole thing and also served as the de facto sound programmer, coaxing out of the machine’s limited sound chip some of the first examples of sampled audio to appear in an ST game. Far from a typical executive, he remained always intimately involved with the process of creation. “I think some of the biggest conceptual contributions were made by Wayne,” notes Bell, “particularly with regard to the user interface.” Nancy Holder was also on-hand to offer occasional insight and to write the accompanying fiction, something about a Grey Lord and a Firestaff that can be safely ignored until the climax, when you suddenly have to ask yourself what the hell just happened. To offer more story would have been to go against one of the guiding philosophies of the game. “I wanted people to have a lot of tall tales to tell when they’d finished the game,” says Wayne Holder. “And I wanted those tales to be unique. We are working toward the point where the story is scripted entirely by the player. We take you to the starting point, but from then on it’s up to you.” Perhaps more valuable than Nancy Holder’s story-making were her insights into the psychology of horror that lent the game tension and texture: “We tried to make it scary so that the player could feel engaged. We tried with background noises and all kinds of other things to make it creepy.”

FTL's greatest trade secret: Dungeon Master's C source code

FTL’s greatest trade secret: Dungeon Master‘s C source code.

The further the design progressed, the further it moved away from the structure of Wizardry, and with it from Wizardry‘s own inspiration of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of having a set class, characters can advance simultaneously in all four disciplines of fighter, wizard, ninja, and priest. Experience is earned not through killing monsters or accomplishing goals, but simply by practicing the skills in each discipline and thus getting better at them. Combat, taking place now in real time, is a much more frenzied, hectic affair, dependent as much on the player’s reflexes as the characters’ skills. I’ll have much more to say about these new ideas and many others in my next article, but suffice for now to say that, if Wizardry is Dungeons and Dragons adapted to the computer, Dungeon Master is a clean-slate re-imagining that takes only a handful of fundamental concepts — a dungeon to be delved, monsters to be fought, treasure to be collected, characters to be improved — as sacrosanct. Everything else is up for renegotiation. Bell sets great store by the fact that, while he and Jaros were hardcore aficionados of Dungeons and Dragons and previous CRPGs, the others at FTL had little to no experience with the genre. They continually asked why their game needed to abide by this or that more or less arbitrary tradition; such constant questioning “saved the game from being an extension of what had already been done.” Dungeon Master is a computer game through and through, its tabletop roots left far behind. Tellingly, it’s just as obviously a progenitor of Doom as it is a successor to Wizardry.


Of course, innovation on such a scale would take time even without FTL’s perfectionist tendencies. Dungeon Master was first discussed publicly at the Summer CES in June of 1986, to which FTL brought a very limited, non-interactive demo that’s mostly devoted to a lengthy text scroll full of purple prose. The brief glimpse we get of the game itself in action shows that, while the basic concept is in place, much of what’s been done needs further refinement. And there’s still more that would be seen in the finished game that’s yet to be even begun. The interface, for instance, is more cluttered than what we’d seen in the final game, the mouse pointer that in the shape of a disembodied hand would be your means of poking and prodding at the environment not there at all. And there’s not a single actual monster to be seen.

FTL’s original plan to make the game available in time for Christmas 1986 slipped and slipped. To keep the buzz alive, they regularly demonstrated the work in progress for ST user groups. “That was my method of knowing we were on the right track,” says Wayne Holder. “When we started showing the game, it was always invariably quiet, then the users would ask a ton of questions.” Dungeon Master was the most hotly anticipated piece of vaporware in ST circles for months on end.

Andy Jaros at his drafting table making art for Dungeon Master.

Andy Jaros at his drafting table making art for Dungeon Master.

In the end, Dungeon Master spent more than two years in active development. All that time was spent doing many of the things you might expect, adding features and puzzles and new types of monsters, but much was also spent paring back the design, honing in on what really mattered. Like most elegant designs, Dungeon Master is marked as much or more by the surface complexities it lacks as those it contains. For good reason has it long been a truism in software design that the best programs are usually those that appear the simplest on the surface. Wayne Holder proved to be the group’s Steve Jobs, with a knack for slicing through the cruft to arrive at what mattered. He demanded a game as easy and instinctive to use as a “screwdriver.” Doug Bell:

I was working on this complex system where you could look down at the floor and you could pick up things around you, and Wayne says, “Well, it’s right there, why can’t I just reach in and pick it up?” That was sort of a “well, yeah” moment. And Wayne was actually responsible for a lot of those moments. He would just come in and say, “Why don’t you do it that way?”

With Sundog out and doing well, FTL had a sustaining source of income through all the experimentation and refinement. The fourteen dungeon levels that make up the game, whose design was a joint effort on the part of the entire team, were refined just as obsessively as the technology and user interface. Dungeon Master got played constantly for months, first by the team themselves and their close friends, and then, near the end of the process, through a serious outside beta test, all in the name of getting that elusive balance between fun and frustration just right. (That said, you can never please everybody: one tester reportedly sent back a broken disk accompanied by the message, “Take this aggravating piece of shit and shove it up your ass.”)

The work paid off. As impressive as Dungeon Master is for its technical and formal innovations, it’s at least as impressive as a piece of pure design craft. It is, simply put, one superbly crafted CRPG, rivaled only by the first couple of Wizardry games among its predecessors in its sheer attention to detail. I will, once again, have much more to say on this front in my next article, but it’s important to note even here how rare it is to see such attention to design in a technical game-changer like Dungeon Master. Normally bold new gaming concepts are attached to somewhat wonky designs, to be shaped and refined by succeeding efforts; even Infocom’s early games had their share of lousy puzzles. But FTL, like Sir-Tech before them, hit a home run in their first at-bat.

David Darrow's Dungeon Master cover art became one of the most iconic of the 1980s. It was painted from photographics he took in his studio, with his wife playing the candelabra-holding spellcaster, Andy Jaros the thiefy character pulling on the torch, and a "really huge guy" from a local gym the barbarian fighter. It wasn't necessary to find a model for the fourth member of this party, whose bones lie neatly stacked at front left.

David Darrow’s Dungeon Master cover art has become some of the most iconic of its era. It was painted from photographs he took in his studio, with his wife playing the candelabra-holding spellcaster, Andy Jaros the squirrely fellow pulling on the torch, and a “really huge guy” from a local gym the barbarian fighter.

Dungeon Master slipped quietly into American stores on December 15, 1987, far too late to take advantage of the Christmas rush. Nor was it all that lavishly advertised. FTL seemed to have a certain sense of austerity baked into their very DNA, reflected equally by the modest advertising campaign as it was by the aesthetic minimalism of the game itself, which offered no music or other extraneous flashiness, just those things that really needed to be there.

But it didn’t matter. If ever a game was sellable by word of mouth, it was this one. Already in the February 1988 issue, the Michigan Atari Magazine was noting that “messages asking question and giving playing hints are appearing in unprecedented numbers on CompuServe and other information services, as well as local BBS systems.” Dungeon Master did staggeringly well right out of the gate, especially considering how small the installed based of STs really was. That same magazine noted that “Dungeon Master has become so popular, it took me several weeks to locate it in stock anywhere” — and this just two months after a very quiet release. FTL was positively overwhelmed by the demand, fighting for months a losing battle to ship games fast enough. They printed a sign to send to software dealers, saying “Yes! We have Dungeon Master!,” which they could hang in the window during those usually brief periods when that was indeed the case.

Wayne Holder personally copies Dungeon Master disks. FTL's state-of-the-art disk duplicator was key to their state-of-the-art copy protection...

Wayne Holder personally copies Dungeon Master disks. FTL’s state-of-the-art in-house disk duplicator, capable of copying 100 disks at a time, was key to their state-of-the-art copy protection.

Yes, the ST community went crazy for Dungeon Master, first in North America, soon enough in Europe, where it was packaged and distributed by the big British publisher Mirrorsoft. With the ST itself so much more popular overseas, more than two-thirds of Dungeon Master‘s eventual sales would be made through Mirrorsoft. To help them along, FTL funded full translations into German and French, still a relatively rarity in the industry at that time. Doug Bell would have it that Dungeon Master sales at at least one point reached more than 50 percent of the total installed base of Atari STs — in other words, that more than one out of every two people with an ST had purchased Dungeon Master to play on it. While that seems a little unbelievable — especially given that, thanks to Jack Tramiels’s tight-lipped business practices, no one was ever quite sure how many STs were actually out there anyway — it’s a marker of Dungeon Master‘s insane popularity that it is indeed only a little unbelievable. During 1988 it really did seem that everyone who owned or had access to an ST was playing Dungeon Master. Its effect on their ranks can perhaps be compared only to the original Adventure, the game that famously stopped the institutional world of the PDP-10 dead for two weeks while everyone tried to solve it.

Helping Dungeon Master‘s commercial cause greatly was the game’s copy protection, which like just about everything else about it was innovative and technically state of the art, such that it would take months rather than the usual hours for a completely cracked version to emerge — an eternity on the calendar of the most notorious piracy demographic, the adolescent boy. Throughout those long months, the only way to play Dungeon Master was to buy a copy. A Dungeon Master original therefore became the only original game in quite a number of otherwise ill-gotten collections. The release of Dungeon Master marks one of the few occasions in the history of the software industry when copy protection clearly and incontrovertibly did do its job, generating tens if not hundreds of thousands of sales that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

The 68000 Wars hadn’t been going all that well for the ST following the release of the Commodore Amiga 500, superior in most technical respects to a similarly low-end ST and for the first time much too close for comfort in price. Amiga owners loved to taunt ST owners about the latter platform’s inferior graphics and sound and lack of multitasking and, now, its inferior sales as well. Hard as it may seem to believe that a single game could serve as a viable riposte to such comprehensive taunts, this one was so impressive that it made exactly that: “Yes, well, we have Dungeon Master!” There wasn’t much to be said by Amiga owners in response; everyone knew they wanted it, lusted after it, were jealous as hell.

But, soon enough, they got it, and ST owners lost their bragging rights again. FTL had designed their game engine to be portable from the beginning, and the Amiga, by far the computer most technically similar to the ST, was the obvious first target. The biggest stumbling block proved to be memory. The vast majority of Amigas out there at the time still had only 512 K, the same as the low-end ST for which Dungeon Master had originally been designed, but thanks to a more memory-hungry operating system FTL just couldn’t find a way to get the game running in that space. They made the painful decision to require a full 1 MB of memory, becoming the first prominent Amiga game to do so. The decision doubtless hurt sales to some extent, but such was Dungeon Master‘s burgeoning cult that it likely did just as much to drive sales of Amiga memory expansions. Just as Commodore’s own European subsidiaries had taken to packaging Amiga 500s with the latest hit games, at least one maker of RAM expansions, Tecno, acknowledged why their customers were really interested in their product by selling a sort of Dungeon Master playing kit that included the game in the same box as the memory expansion needed to play it. Many more games began to follow Dungeon Master‘s lead in demanding 1 MB, and by 1990 it had become the effective standard minimum.

Tecno AmiRAM

In return for their patience and their indulgence in expanded memory, Amiga owners were rewarded with bragging rights of their own over their ST rivals. While the graphics in the Amiga Dungeon Master remained unchanged, FTL had taken advantage of the Amiga’s superior sound hardware to enhance the experience: monsters moving about the rooms and corridors near your party were now heard in realistic stereo. Far from just a gimmick, the subtle stereo soundscape was a real boon to situational awareness, making Dungeon Master the first of the great headphone games.

Additional ports to the Apple IIGS and MS-DOS followed. Ever the tech-driven company, FTL designed their own “sound adapter” to package with Dungeon Master on the latter platform; it replaced the beeps and squeaks that were the only noises that PC clones could normally make with sampled digital sound effects, just like all the other platforms got to enjoy.

Dungeon Master

An entire cottage industry sprang up around this single game and its single fourteen-level dungeon that’s perhaps comparable only to the one that came to surround the original Wizardry. Companies sprouted like weeds out of garages and back offices to offer character editors, map editors, and, most of all, information: tactical hints on how best to combat the various monsters, maps of the dungeon levels and solutions to the many puzzles and traps found therein. At one time there were a dozen or so alternative hint books and hint disks duking it out with FTL’s own official volume. FTL themselves released the ultimate Dungeon Master lifestyle accessory, a CD — Dungeon Master: The Album — containing tunes inspired by the game, with tracks bearing titles like “Hall of Champions,” “The Adventure Begins,” and “Riddle Room.” The music had originated as embellishments to yet more ports, this time to various Japanese consoles and computers. Dungeon Master soon became a big hit in the Land of the Rising Sun as well, making it as close to a truly global phenomenon as it was realistically possible for a computer game to be in those days.

All this success prompted the inevitable legion of copycats hoping to get a piece of the same action. Some of them, like Westwood Associates’s Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore series, did indeed do very well for themselves, and are still remembered with considerable fondness today. To my mind, though, none ever quite matched the taut, minimalist elegance of the original. The first game of its kind, Dungeon Master is also probably the last that a student of gaming history really needs to play, until we get to Ultima Underworld, which replaces Dungeon Master‘s step-wise movement and pseudo-3D with a smoothly scrolling truly three-dimensional view and thereby revolutionizes the genre yet again. As Wayne Holder said a few years after Dungeon Master‘s release:

I haven’t really seen anything where they have done much more than follow in our footsteps. We expected to be imitated, and we figured that people would advance the state of the art, but it was amazing how many of the things we did got completely borrowed. The movement arrows on the screen, for example. We must have experimented with dozens of different combinations before arranging them the way we did. That’s really where your investment of time is, working out what works and what doesn’t. It’s amazing how many games I look at and see those same movement arrows.

Unfortunately, FTL proved to be like their competitors in that their own later efforts also pale in comparison to the first Dungeon Master. Making the game had been an exhilarating experience, but as draining as any other difficult artistic birthing. Comparisons to the world of film abound among the FTL alumni. Nancy Holder learned a new sympathy for movie directors, who, after finishing a movie, “sometimes take years before they direct another,” while Wayne Holder recalls “Robert Rodriguez’s comment that all he wanted to do when he made El Mariachi was to make enough money to make another film. He was not prepared for it to be successful, and I felt exactly like that.” Given FTL’s focus on technology almost for its own sake, and given that they already had a proven, hugely successful design on their hands, it was easy — perhaps a little too easy — to just focus on making all of the ports as good as they could be, on engineering gadgety distractions like that MS-DOS sound adapter. Wayne Holder’s claim in 1988 that the technology they’d developed for Dungeon Master would soon allow FTL to pump out four to six games every year sounded hugely overoptimistic even then, but FTL’s failure to serve up anything new at all for long, long stretches of time is nevertheless a little shocking. He often claimed that FTL had “several” titles in development using the Dungeon Master technology, among them an intriguing-sounding horror game that comes up in a number of interviews; it might just have marked the beginning of the survival-horror genre several years before Alone in the Dark. We also heard regularly of a science-fiction scenario, possibly a sequel to Sundog. Neither ever materialized; it appears there was quite a lot of wheel-spinning going on at FTL. Wayne Holder’s dream of making FTL the Infocom of CRPGs petered out in the face of their failure to actually, you know, make games. FTL became an Infocom that could never quite get past Zork.

Doug Bell notes the failure to build on Dungeon Master in a timely way as his greatest regret from his days with FTL: “We got so busy doing ports of the game that we didn’t end up creating enough scenarios.” Wayne Holder believes FTL’s single biggest mistake to have been not to have sold their in-house Dungeon Construction Set, quite a polished creation in its own right, and “let people create their own stuff. I was afraid it would dilute the whole cachet, and people would come up with tacky stuff, but people like to author stuff.” One can imagine an alternate timeline where FTL did what they so obviously most loved to do — work on technology — and let others make games with it. Ironically, some of the more ambitious Dungeon Master obsessives reverse engineered the data format and essentially did just that; as already mentioned, a number of dungeon editors of various degrees of utility were among the products of the third-party cottage industry spawned by Dungeon Master. None, however, had anything like the polish or clout to create a community for entirely new games running in the Dungeon Master engine. An official FTL Dungeon Construction Set might just have had both.

When it did arrive on the Atari ST two years after the original, the first semi-sequel felt a little anticlimactic and a little disappointing. Originally planned as a mere expansion pack and turned into a standalone game only at the last minute, Chaos Strikes Back ran under almost exactly the same engine as its predecessor, yet was considerably smaller. Even its box art featured the same picture as the original, cementing a difficult-to-avoid impression that FTL hadn’t exactly gone all-out to make it everything it could be. Perhaps worse, Chaos Strikes Back catered strictly to hardcore Dungeon Master veterans. It implemented nothing like the masterful learning curve of its predecessor, and stands today alongside Wizardry IV as one of the toughest, most nasty-for-the-sake-of-it CRPGs of its era. There are hardcore players that love it; I’ve seen the original Dungeon Master gleefully described as nothing more than an extended training ground for the real fun of Chaos Strikes Back. But, while making a hard-as-nails game may not be an illegitimate design choice on its own terms, it was a commercially problematic one. In being so off-putting to newcomers who might wish to jump aboard midstream, Dungeon Master was all but ensuring that every successive title in the series would sell worse than its predecessors. This marks the one unfortunate place where FTL blindly followed the lead of Sir-Tech and Wizardry instead of blazing their own trail.

What FTL themselves came to consider the first proper sequel, Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep, arrived only in 1994, almost seven years after the original. By now the Dungeon Master mania had long since died away, and FTL, for all those years a one-product company, was in increasingly dire straits as a result. The situation gave this belated release something of the feel of a final Hail Mary. And like most such, it didn’t work out. Rather astonishingly for a company that had built its reputation around technical innovation, Dungeon Master II was painfully outdated, still wedded to the old step-wise movement long after everyone else had gone to smooth-scrolling 3D environments in the wake of Ultima Underworld and Doom, the very titles the original Dungeon Master had done so much to inspire. It garnered lukewarm reviews and worse sales, and FTL went out of business in 1996.

The sun sets on FTL...

The sun sets on Software Heaven…

That, then, is that for the commercial history of FTL and Dungeon Master. Yet it doesn’t begin to do justice to the game itself as a work of enormous technical innovation, and as a great piece of game design on anyone’s terms. We’ll try to correct that failing next time, when we’ll do a little real-time dungeon delving together to hopefully see why everyone was making such a fuss back in 1988 — and, for that matter, why I’m continuing to do so today.

(Sources: Michigan Atari Magazine of February 1988;  Retro Gamer 10, 34, and 105; Power Play of April 1988 and March 1990; St Action of November 1989 and June 1990; ACE of April 1990; Byte of November 1981 and July 1982; interview with Wayne Holder in Dungeon Master II: The Official Strategy Guide by Zach Meston and J. Douglas Arnold. The go-to place on the Internet for all things Dungeon Master is The Dungeon Master Encyclopedia, a rather staggering assemblage of technical and historical information, while Maury Markowitz’s interview with Bruce Webster fills in the story of FTL before Dungeon Master.)

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Faery Tale Life of MicroIllusions

MicroIllusions

With the notable exception of Electronic Arts, the established American software industry was uncertain what to make of the Amiga in the wake of its initial release. Impressive as the machine was, it was also an expensive proposition from a parent company best known for much cheaper computers — and a parent company that was in a financial freefall to boot. Thus most publishers confined their support to inexpensive ports of existing titles that wouldn’t break the bank if, as so many expected, neither Commodore nor their Amiga were still around in a year or so.

Disappointing as this situation was to many early Amiga adopters, it spelled Opportunity for many an ambitious would-be Amiga entrepreneur. Just as early issues of Amazing Computing, the Amiga’s most respected technical magazine, carry with them some of the spirit of the original Byte magazine, of smart people joining together to figure out what this new thing is and what they can do with it, the early Amiga software scene represents the last great flowering of the Spirit of ’76 that had birthed the modern software industry. Like their peers of a decade before, the early Amiga developers were motivated more by love and passion than by money, and often operated more as a collective of friends and colleagues working toward a shared purpose than as competitors — i.e., as what Doug Carlston had once dubbed a “brotherhood” of software. Cinemaware became the breakout star of this group who committed themselves to the Amiga quickly and completely; that company was soon known to plenty of people who had never actually touched an Amiga for themselves. But there were plenty of others whose distinctly non-focus-group-tested names speak to their scruffy origins: companies like Aegis, Byte by Byte, and the one destined to be the great survivor of this pioneering era, NewTek. That NewTek would be just about the only one of these companies still in business in six or seven years does say something about the trajectory of the Amiga in North America, but perhaps says just as much about the nature of the companies themselves. Once again like their peers in the early 8-bit software industry, these early Amiga publishers carried along with their commitment to relentless innovation an often shocking ineptitude at executing fundamentals of running a business like writing marketing copy, keeping books, drawing up contracts, and paying taxes.

The story of our company of choice for today, MicroIllusions, is typical enough to almost stand in for that of the early Amiga software industry as a whole. At the same time, though, “typical” in this time of rampant innovation meant some extraordinarily original software. That’s particularly true of the works of MicroIllusions’s highest profile programmer, David Joiner (or, as he was better known by his friends then and still today, “Talin,” his online handle). Joiner, who describes his view of the universe as of “some giant art project,” has dedicated his life to being “compulsively creative,” in both the digital and analog worlds. His vacuum-forming costumes, which transform him into alien space-bugs or knights in armor, have been the hit of many a science-fiction convention. He’s also an enthusiastic painter — “for a long time I thought my career was going to be in art” — as well as a musician and composer.

Joiner was first exposed to computers during the four years he spent at the end of the 1970s in the Air Force, programming the big mainframes of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha. He spent the several years following his discharge kicking around the margins of the burgeoning PC industry, writing amateur and semi-professional games for the Radio Shack Color Computer among other models and working briefly for DataSoft before they went bankrupt in the industry’s great mid-decade shakeout. That left him in the state in which a Los Angeles-area computer-store owner named Jim Steinert first met him: 27 years old, sleeping on friends’ couches, picking up contract programming work when he could get it, and spending much of the rest of his time hanging out at Steinert’s store — KJ Computer, located in the suburb of Granada Hills — drooling over their new Amigas.

The seeds of MicroIllusions were planted during one day’s idle conversation when Steinert complained to Joiner that, while the Amiga supposedly had speech synthesis built into its operating system, he had never actually heard his machines talk; in the first releases of AmigaOS, the ability was hidden within the operating system’s libraries, accessible only to programmers who knew how to make the right system calls. Seeing an interesting challenge, not to mention a chance to get more time in front of one of Steinert’s precious Amigas, Joiner said that he could easily write a program to make the Amiga talk for anyone. He proved as good as his word within a few hours. Impressed, Steinert asked if he could sell the new program in his store for a straight 50/50 split. Given his circumstances, Joiner was hardly in a position to quibble. When the program sold well, Steinert decided to get into Amiga software development in earnest with the help of his wunderkind.

He leased an office for his new venture MicroIllusions a few blocks from his store, and also picked up the lease on a small house to form a little software-development commune consisting of Joiner and three of his friends, talented artists and/or programmers all. Joiner describes the first year or two he spent creating inside that little house as “probably the best time of my life. We really felt like we were building the future.”

In these heady days when the Amiga was fondly imagined by its zealots as likely to become the new face of mainstream family-friendly computing, Steinert pushed Joiner to make as his first project an edutainment title similar to a Commodore 64 hit called Cave of the Word Wizard, in which the player must explore a cave whilst answering occasional spelling questions to proceed. Joiner’s response was Discovery, which replaced the cave with a spaceship and allowed for the creation of many additional data disks covering subjects from math to history to science to simple trivia for adult players. Setting a pattern that would hold for the remainder of his time with MicroIllusions, Joiner brought all his creative skills to bear on the one-man project, drawing all of the art himself in Deluxe Paint and also writing a music soundtrack in addition to the game’s code — and all in just four months. Because the Amiga would never quite conquer North America as Steinert had anticipated, the market for the Discovery line would always be a limited one, but it would prove a consistent if modest seller for MicroIllusions for years to come.

Having proved himself with Discovery, Joiner was allowed to embark on his dream project: a hybrid game — part action, part adventure, part CRPG — that would harness the Amiga’s capabilities in the service of something different from anything that had come before. He wanted to incorporate two key ideas, one involving the game’s fiction, the other its presentation. In the case of the former, he wanted to push past the oh-so-earnest high-fantasy pastiches typical of CRPG fictions in favor of something more whimsical, more Brothers Grimm than J.R.R. Tolkien. This territory was hardly completely unexplored in gaming — Roberta Williams in particular had built a career around her love of fairy tales — but it was unusual to see in a game that owed as much to action games and CRPGs as it did to the adventure games for which she was known. Joiner’s other big idea, meanwhile, really was something entirely new under the sun: he wanted to create a world that the player would traverse not in discrete steps or even screens but as a single scrolling, contiguous landscape of open-ended, real-time possibility.

The Faery Tale Adventure

The Faery Tale Adventure is the story of three brothers who set out to save their village of Tambry from an evil necromancer. Their quest will require one or more of them — if you get one of them killed, you automatically take the reins of another — to traverse the vast world of Holm from end to end, a process that by itself could take you the player hours of real time if journeying entirely on foot. Whilst traveling, you must also fight monsters and assemble the clues necessary to complete your quest.

It’s difficult to convey using words just how lovely and lyrical your journeys around Holm can be. Even screenshots don’t do The Faery Tale Adventure justice; this is a game that really must be seen and heard in action. Here, then, is just a little taste, in which I take a magical ride on the back of a giant turtle to visit a sorceress in her crystalline lair.


If it’s difficult to fully describe the experience of playing The Faery Tale Adventure using words, it’s doubly difficult to explain just how stunning it was in its day. Note the depth-giving isometric perspective, still a rarity in games of the mid-1980s. Note the way that characters and things cast subtle shadows. And note how the entirety of the world is presented at the same scale. Gone is the wilderness/town dichotomy of the Ultima games, in which the latter blow up from tiny spots on the map to self-contained worlds of their own when you step into them. In The Faery Tale Adventure, if it’s small (or big) on the outside, it’s small (or big) on the inside. I’d also tell you to note the wonderful music, except that I’m quite sure you already have (assuming you have the sound turned on, of course). Seldom has music made a game what it is to quite the extent it does this one.

Leaving aside the goal of actually solving the game, which is kind of hopeless — we’ll get to that in a moment — The Faery Tale Adventure is all about the rhythm of wandering, following roadways and peeking into hidden corners as the music plays and day turns to night and back again. Like another early Amiga landmark, Defender of the Crown, and unlike far too many other games on this platform and others, it has a textured aesthetic all its own that’s much more memorable than the bloody action-movie pyrotechnics so typical of games then and now. Play it just a little, and you’ll never, ever forget it.

That every bit of this vast world and all that makes it up — code, art, and music alike — was created virtually unaided by David Joiner in about seven months never ceases to amaze me. This Leonardo had found his niche at last:

It’s ironic because when I was growing up I was never able to focus on one single creative outlet and ignore the others — and this was considered a disadvantage. People would tell me that I had to learn to focus on one thing. Otherwise I would never be successful, just be a dilettante. I struggled to find a profession which would use all of my skills, not just some of them.

Still, stunning technical and aesthetic achievement that it is, there’s no denying that The Faery Tale Adventure is kind of a mess as a piece of game design. Its problem are all too typical of a game designed and implemented by a single idiosyncratic individual with, at best, limited external input. Some of the mechanical wonkiness I can live with. For instance, I’m not too bothered by the fact that, if you don’t get killed in one of the first few extremely difficult fights, you level up enough inside of an hour or so to the point that fighting becomes little more than a trivial annoyance for the rest of the game. The broken character-building aspect is forgivable in light of the fact that that doesn’t feel like what the game really wants to be about anyway. (That said, CRPG addicts should certainly approach this one with caution.)

But we can’t so easily wave aside the broken main spine of the game, the fact that it’s all but insoluble on its own terms. The Faery Tale Adventure presents itself as a breadcrumb-following game like the Ultimas, but its breadcrumbs are so scattered at some stages, so literally nonexistent at others, that it’s all but impossible to piece together where to go or what to do. After exploring Holm for a while, the charm of the music and the colorful graphics begins to fade and you begin to realize what a dismayingly empty place it really is. Almost every building is vacant, virtually every hotly anticipated new voyage of discovery proves ultimately underwhelming. Moments of wonder, like the first time you hitch a ride on that turtle you see above — or, even better, on a majestic swan — do crop up from time to time, but far too infrequently. The final impression is of nothing so much as a beautiful world running inside a marvelous engine that’s now just waiting for a designer to come along and, you know, write an actual game for it all. You can see contemporaneous reviewers struggling with this impression whilst giving the game the benefit of every possible doubt; The Faery Tale Adventure is nothing if not a game that makes you want to love it. Computer Gaming World‘s Roy Wagner, for instance, felt compelled to attach a rough walkthrough to try to make it actually playable to his very positive critical take on the game. Later, when the game was ported to the Sega Genesis, Sega found its design so intractable that they demanded that a similar walkthrough be included in the very manual. (One could wish that they had demanded that the design be properly fixed instead.) Joiner notes that his approach was to “start with a basic engine and then add detail like crazy,” which does rather sound like code for “write a game engine and then try to shoehorn an actual semblance of game in there at the last minute, when you realize your deadline is looming.”

David Joiner all dressed up in his armor for the Faery Tale Adventure package.

David Joiner all dressed up in his armor for the Faery Tale Adventure package.

Yet the fact remains that technical game-changers and audiovisual charmers like The Fairy Tale Adventure can usually get away with a multitude of design sins in the face of the gaming public’s insatiable appetite for the new. Knowing he had a potential hit on his hands, Steinert determined to make a veritable Electronic Arts-style rock star out of its creator. Joiner strapped himself into his knightly armor for a inadvertently hilarious photo shoot; the end results look tacky and painfully nerdy in exactly the way that the game itself doesn’t. But no matter: The Faery Tale Adventure became a hit on the Amiga after its release in early 1987 — just in time for a new influx of unabashed Amiga gamers in the form of new Amiga 500 owners — whereupon Steinert took advantage of his favored platform’s halo effect by selling less compelling ports for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS and, years later, that rather more impressive Sega Genesis translation. The game’s success led to Activision signing MicroIllusions on as an “affiliated publisher,” a real shot at the big time.

For better or for worse, though, Steinert just couldn’t bring himself to leave behind his scruffy roots in the Amiga hacking community. Games remained only one aspect of MicroIllusions, who also developed and published such only-Amiga-makes-it-possible software as Photon Paint, the first program to let one draw and edit pictures directly in the Amiga’s 4096-color HAM mode, and Cel Animator, a classical animation package crafted with the aid of Heidi Turnipseed, a veteran of Disney and Don Bluth Productions. The high-water point for MicroIllusions unsurprisingly corresponded with that of the Amiga itself in North America: 1988, when sales were trending upward and the big breakthrough seemed just around the corner. MicroIllusions was known during this period for their lavish trade-show displays — in truth, probably more lavish than they could realistically afford even then — that made them among the most prominent of the Amiga-centric software houses not named Cinemaware. That summer MicroIllusions products took up almost half of a Computer Chronicles television feature on the Amiga scene.

The MicroIllusions booth at the January 1988 AmiExpo show in Los Angeles, which filled half on one wall inside the Westin Bonaventure's convention space.

The MicroIllusions booth at the January 1988 AmiExpo show in Los Angeles, which filled half of one wall inside the Westin Bonaventure’s convention space.

David Joiner demonstrated his latest project-in-progress on-air on that program: Music-X, a MIDI music sequencer that he’d created largely out of concern that the hated Atari ST was getting ahead of the Amiga when it came to music software (never underestimate the motivation provided by good old platform jingoism). By the time that Music-X appeared at last to rave reviews at the tail end of 1989, MicroIllusions was already in dire straits, their phones perpetually coming on- and off-line and rumors swirling about their alleged demise. That situation would remain largely unchanged for another two desperate years. Their plight must to some extent be linked to that of the Amiga itself, which had failed to ever take off as Steinert had confidently expected when purchasing all that lavish trade-show floor space. It also didn’t help that, while they released a number of other modestly well-reviewed games, they never managed another transformative hit to come close to The Faery Tale Adventure. Thanks to that failure, Activision humiliatingly dropped them as an affiliated publisher barely a year after signing them up, citing the low sales of their latest games as just not making it worth anyone’s while anymore. Even an unexpected high-profile deal with Hanna-Barbara to produce games based on cartoon franchises like Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons — truly a lifeline if ever there was one — collapsed amid allegations of breached contracts and botched schedules.

One suspects that the real cause behind these failures and so many others was a nemesis of MicroIllusions’s own making that also plagued many others in the Amiga’s home-grown software industry: a simple lack of business acumen, and with it an associated tendency to place dreams before ethics. Rather than belabor the point too much more personally, I’ll deliver David Joiner’s take on Jim Steinert’s idea of running a business:

My financial relationship with MicroIllusions was long and complicated. Jim wasn’t a good businessman. That was not unusual for the software industry at the time, but there was so much wide-open opportunity that any half-competent person could start a software business and be moderately successful.

Jim and I also differed in our approach to business ethics. He imagined himself to be a sharp dealer, and once boasted to me how he “saved money” in dealing with disk-duplication companies. You see, at the time there were companies which would do all the duplication work — that is, make copies of the floppy disks, print the packaging, and assemble the boxes. And many of these companies offered ninety-day terms — that is, you didn’t have to pay for ninety days, so you could use the money you made selling the product to pay back the duplicators. This made it possible to be an entrepreneur with very little startup capital, other than the sweat equity of writing software.

Well, Jim’s idea was that when the ninety days come up you simply refuse to pay — and then, eight months later when the duplicators eventually get around to suing you, you settle out of court for like one-third of the money. This same kind of playing fast and loose with the rules is what caused him to lose the Hasbro [sic. — I believe he means Hanna-Barbera] contract, which up to that point had been an incredibly valuable asset to the company.

Many years later, I went over all the royalty statements I had gotten from MicroIllusions, and discovered that there were lots of basic arithmetic errors in them — and not always in Jim’s favor.

The story of MicroIllusions is hardly unique among the companies we’ve encountered in this history, having much in common with that of many pioneers of the immediately preceding generation of software pioneers: companies like California Pacific, Muse, and Adventure International. Enthusiasm and programming talent can only make up for a lack of basic business acumen for so long. Despite it all, MicroIllusions somehow survived, at least nominally, through 1991, when their remaining assets, including The Faery Tale Adventure, were acquired by a new company called HollyWare who used the contracts they had purchased to launch a fruitless $10 million lawsuit against a now sorely ailing Activision for allegedly mishandling that old distribution deal. As an Amazing columnist wrote as the suit went into discovery, “The really interesting thing to discover is how MicroIllusions expects to get ten megabucks out of a company with a negative net worth.” HollyWare, needless to say, didn’t last very long.

By then Joiner had long since moved on to greener pastures in games and other forms of software development, although he would never again helm quite so impactful a project as The Faery Tale Adventure. The writing had been on the wall for software Leonardos even as he was creating his masterwork. Working with a new development team who called themselves The Dreamer’s Guild, he did belatedly create Halls of the Dead: The Faery Tale Adventure II in 1997. In the tradition of its predecessor, it looked and initially seemed to play great, but showed itself over time to be half-finished and well-nigh uncompleteable.

In the end, then, the business legacy of MicroIllusions is a bit of a tawdry one, one more example of a phenomenon that would always plague the Amiga: the platform seemed to attract idealists and shysters in equal numbers — and, somehow, often in the same individual. Yet it’s because its story is both so groundbreaking and so typical that the company makes such a worthwhile case study for anyone wishing to understand the oft-dirty life and times of the Amiga in its heyday. During MicroIllusion’s brief existence they produced some visionary software that, like so much else that came out of the Amiga scene, gave the world an imperfect glimpse of its multimedia future. That’s as true of Photon Paint, the progenitor of photographic-quality visual editors like PhotoShop, as it is of Music-X, a forerunner of easy-to-use music packages like GarageBand. And, most importantly for our purposes, it’s true of The Faery Tale Adventure, a rough draft of what games might come to be in the future. It’s a game that’s perhaps best appreciated in the context of its time, as I’m so able to do thanks to all of the research — okay, playing of old games — I do for this blog. It stands out so dramatically from its contemporaries that it gave me a catch in my throat when I first saw it again that wasn’t that different from the one I felt when I saw it for the first time back in 1987. That’s a feeling that may be hard for you to entirely duplicate if you’re not a really — I mean, really — dedicated reader who’s playing all these games right along with me. But no matter. If you have an hour or two to kill, give it a download,1 fire up an Amiga emulator, and just have a little wander through Holm. Never did a bad game feel — and sound — so good.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of February 1988 and October 1991; Commodore Magazine of September 1989; Amazing Computing of August 1987, April 1988, June 1988, August 1989, October 1989, March 1990, April 1990, October 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; Info of April 1992. The home page of David Joiner (Talin) hasn’t been updated since 2000, but was nevertheless very useful. Still more useful was an interview with Joiner done by Amiga Lore.)


  1. The music at the beginning of the game is a distorted mess in this version, the only otherwise working one I could find. This is down to one of the few differences between the Amiga 1000, for which the game was originally designed, and later Amiga models — a sound pointer doesn’t get automatically set in the latter. If you just give it a moment, the music will resolve from dissonance to consonance and will play as it should henceforward. I think it’s kind of a cool effect, actually — but then I occasionally blast Sonic Youth, much to my wife’s chagrin, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Note that you will need to answer a few copy-protection questions at the beginning by using the map included in the zip.

    For those of you who are hopeless completionists, I’ve also included with this zip the Computer Gaming World review that gives much valuable guidance on how to pursue your (otherwise almost certainly futile) quest.

    By far the easiest way to get started in Amiga emulation and to play this game and the other Amiga games I’ll be featuring in this blog for quite some time to come is by purchasing Cloanto’s Amiga Forever package. It makes the whole process pretty painless. 

 
 

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