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Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Spellcasting Series (or, How Much Ernie Eaglebeak is Too Much Ernie Eaglebeak?)

In an earlier article, I described Steve Meretzky during his peak years at Infocom as “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” But his talents encompassed more than just good puzzle design. As an Infocom Imp, he had the unique gift of taking potentially hackneyed or just plain dumb premises and making them subtly, subversively smart. Who would have expected Leather Goddesses of Phobos, his ribald low-brow sex romp, to prove so clever and joyous and downright life-affirming? Who would have expected Stationfall, on its face the most rote sequel Infocom ever made — “Bring back Floyd!” had shouted the masses, and Meretzky had obliged — to turn gradually and without any warning whatsoever into the creepiest, most oppressive game in their canon?

It’s because I know what he’s capable of at his best that I’ve always found Meretzky’s post-Infocom career a little disappointing. He did make good games after Infocom, but his track record from those years was far more mixed. During the 1990s, his dumb premises too often lacked the requisite touch of smarts to leaven the brew, and some of his design genius seemed to desert him. And sadly, his disappointments often smacked not of aiming too high, as he arguably had with his flawed would-be Infocom masterpiece A Mind Forever Voyaging, but rather from aiming too low, from being content to wallow in his established persona as a maker of wacky adventure games without adding that subversive spice that had elevated games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Stationfall to more interesting heights. Seen from this standpoint, his very first game after Infocom’s shuttering, Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, while a perfectly serviceable wacky adventure game in its own right, does rather portend the less inspiring phase of his career that was now beginning.

That said, when removed from the context of the games Meretzky was still to make, and particularly from that of the direct sequels to this game that were to follow, Spellcasting 101 is hardly a crime against adventure gaming. In fact, it was a wise if safe choice of a game to mark Legend Entertainment’s debut as a company and Meretzky’s as a freelance game designer. I already laid out the reasons for that in my last article: Steve Meretzky was well-known for his wacky comedy adventures; his Leather Goddesses of Phobos had been Infocom’s last big hit; Sex Sells in the abstract. Ergo Spellcasting 101. The first release of this very fragile new company was not the time to take too many artistic chances.

Spellcasting 101, then, finds Steve Meretzky sitting very comfortably in his wheelhouse, mixing unabashedly dumb humor — I might use the adjective “sophomoric,” but perhaps I should reserve that for the sequel Spellcasting 201 — with smart puzzles. You play Ernie Eaglebeak, the latest in adventure gaming’s long line of loser protagonists. He’s in love with a hot little number named Lola Tigerbelly, and dreams of going off to Sorcerer University to study magic, but, in a sex-reversed version of the Cinderella story, is prevented from doing either of these things (sorry!) by Joey Rottenwood, his evil stepfather. (With a name like that, I think old Joey should have been fronting a punk-rock band, but what do I know?) In the prologue, you in the role of Ernie defy your stepfather’s wishes in the matter of your education at least by sneaking off to Sorcerer University after your acceptance letter arrives in the mail.

The game’s a little more risque than Leather Goddesses of Phobos, not least in that it now has pictures, but it’s still the sort of thing that only the most hormone-addled teenager is likely to find genuinely titillating; the sex is still very much played for laughs, not for, shall we say, self-gratification. Bob Bates of Legend had a rule of thumb for deciding what was and wasn’t acceptable to portray in the pictures. It’s best described as the “Playboy cover test”: anything that might appear on the cover — not the inside pages — of a Playboy magazine was okay. Like Leather Goddesses and its own two sequels, Spellcasting 101 does let you play in “nice” or “naughty” mode. Indeed, some of the most amusing gags in the games come if you choose to become one of the approximately one percent of players who don’t immediately switch to “naughty” mode. Suddenly nights of passion are replaced by, say, a night spent playing gin rummy. (Any resemblance to my marriage after eight and a half blissful years is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.)

One could wish that Meretzky had been able to let the player play as a female, as he had in Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but the need to depict so much of what happens visually, along with a more complicated plot and a more fleshed-out protagonist, precluded that possibility. The enforced male gaze does open the games up to a charge of sexism that it’s pointless to even try to refute. (Just look at those box covers and screenshots!) I suppose one could try to argue that the Spellcasting series is really making fun of the males doing all the leering, in the style of the Leisure Suit Larry series, but the humor doesn’t even have as much edge as those games, making it hard to regard it as satire. In the Spellcasting games’ defense, however, it’s all so over the top that it’s also hard for me at least to take any of it seriously enough to work up much outrage. Certainly Legend got little to no backlash from offended consumers, leaving Steve Meretzky’s wish to author a truly controversial game, which had burned since his stridently anti-Reagan effort A Mind Forever Voyaging back in 1985, still unrealized.

The explicit political statement that opened Leather Goddesses of Phobos felt bracing in its time, but the constant back-patting and referencing of notable contemporary culture warriors in the Spellcasting games gets to be a bit much. We get it, Steve, you’re a real rebel against the Establishment with your wacky adventure games.

The humor in general is a little hit and miss. Where the first Spellcasting game in particular really shines, however, is the puzzle design — which, it must be said, is sometimes inseparable from the humor, and therein lies much of its brilliance. Many of the puzzles rely on wordplay, such as the unexpected use of a spell to “increase bust size.” In fact, there’s an entire extended sequence, “The Island of Lost Soles,” built around a premise that would have suited Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It perfectly. The inhabitants of the titular island have been entrapped within the various objects there. So, for example, “Blaize” is now trapped inside a campfire on the beach, and can be released only by casting a spell to “restore lost souls” on his true name. The usual problem with puzzles like this — and certainly the big problem with the should-have-been-a-classic Nord and Bert — is that they rely so much on the player’s native vocabulary and intuition. There are going to be some connections that even the most gifted player in both categories will simply never make, leaving her wandering hopelessly stuck. Spellcasting 101 solves that problem with a stroke of genius that’s disarmingly simple. Once you’ve wandered for a given amount of time without making further progress, a “hint fairy” will show up, saying something like “Have you seen Blaize around here?” With an actual name now to hand, you can search the island again, looking for the right object to which to apply it. Thereby does the game preserve the joy of making spontaneous intuitive connections without ever allowing you to get hopelessly hung up on those connections you can’t make. This, my friends, is what good design looks like.

Indeed, there’s a lot of attention paid in Spellcasting 101, as there would be in most of Legend’s later games to an even greater extent, to treating the player fairly. Even the combinatorial-explosion problem that made so frustrating Zork Zero, Meretzky’s final epic for Infocom, is addressed here by dividing the game into manageable chapters, each with its own discrete set of goals. Granted, some of the chapters are time-based, requiring you to plan your efforts around a constantly ticking clock. Solving these parts requires a fair amount of trial and error — i.e., figuring out what needs to be done over the course of several passes through a given chapter, then making a plan and bringing it all together via a final speed run. You will, in other words, be saving and restoring quite a lot despite the absence of more egregious design sins. Still, it should also be noted that Spellcasting 101‘s two sequels are much bigger sinners in this department. For long stretches of Spellcasting 101, the ticking clock disappears — something that most definitely can’t be said about the sequels.

So, this first Legend adventure game ever evinces a clear desire to be welcoming and accessible, if necessary at the expense of the sort of really intricate puzzles beloved by some of Infocom’s more hardcore disciples. Suffice to say that it’s a long, long way from the enormous, complicated, bafflingly non-linear Zork Zero. Kudos to Steve Meretzky, who was known to complain during Infocom’s latter days that their games were getting too easy, for recognizing the role his latest game needed to play in getting Legend off the ground, and for adjusting his design to suit the circumstances. Making due accommodation for the fact that this style of humor will never be to everyone’s taste, if there’s a holistic complaint to be leveled against the design it’s probably that the whole thing is just a little schizophrenic. What seems like it’s going to be a game about life at Sorcerer University suddenly transforms just as you’re settling into it into a series of vignettes, played on islands scattered all over the Fizzbuttle Ocean, that could have come from almost any adventure game. The Island of Lost Soles is a prime case in point: delightful as I find it on its own merits, it has nothing really to do with any other part of the game that houses it beyond yielding when all is said and done the requisite piece of the magical whatsit you’re trying to collect. The other island vignettes are less extended but equally isolated from one another and from the overarching plot of the game as a whole. Luckily, they’re all entertaining enough that the objection becomes more philosophical than impedimentary.

Call me overly sensitive if you must, but this scene from Spellcasting 201 is one of those that creeps me out just a bit. It also illustrates one of the inconsistencies in the series’s writing. Ernie Eaglebeak is the classic put-upon nerdy loser who couldn’t buy a date — until it’s time to score, whereupon all the sexy ladies suddenly have the hots for him.

Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer’s Appliance, Meretzky’s 1991 sequel, does fix this problem; the entire game now takes place inside the confines of a greatly expanded Sorcerer University. (The extended map is explained as the result of “an extensive campus renovation and expansion program.”) Now in his sophomore year, Ernie will need to save the world entirely from within the confines of the university and its immediate environs this time, in between attending classes and pledging to the fraternity Hu Delta Phart — whose name, along with those of its companion fraternities Tappa Kegga Bru, I Phelta Thi, and Gramma Eta Pi, gives a pretty good idea of the sort of humor you’ll find in these games, for anyone still in doubt.

Unfortunately, the previous game’s focus on playability and accessibly falls by the wayside. In Spellcasting 201, which is divided into chapters each representing one day, you’re the constant slave of a ticking clock that runs in increments of no less than five full minutes per turn. (Ernie, it appears, may be not just slothful but a genuine sloth.) While none of the puzzle solutions are out-of-left-field howlers, they do often require lots of trial and error. And thanks to that ticking clock, trial and error in this context means save and restore, again and again and again. As your collection of save files mounts, you also have to contend with a strict inventory limit that forces you to juggle objects in just the right way as you go about each day.

Some of the puzzles seem almost consciously engineered to be as annoying as possible, as if Meretzky has forgotten the lesson, long since taken to heart by his old peers at Infocom, that annoying the player in the name of comedy is seldom a good design strategy. Perhaps the worst offender of all is a magical musical instrument called a moodhorn, whose proper operation also serves as part of the game’s copy protection. You can play moodhorn compositions that are found in a music book that accompanies the game to affect the mood of the people around you — songs like “Happiness Interlude,” “Fear,” “Drippingtreesap’s Love Theme No. 15,” and “Winter Cold.” It sounds fun enough in theory, with, in the best tradition of the Enchanter series that did so much to inspire the Spellcasting games, lots of opportunities for Easter eggs even where puzzles solutions aren’t forthcoming. In practice, however, it’s just excruciating. Each song requires entering a series of six commands for manipulating the moodhorn, typing things like “vomp plunger,” “trib high glupp key,” and “oscilloop half burm lever” one after another in sequence. Because the moodhorn seems like it ought to be useful in many situations, you’ll likely spend much of the game wandering around trying out the twelve separate compositions listed in the music book, looking for the one place where the moodhorn actually is useful. Have I mentioned how excruciating this is? Just to add the final dollop of absurdity to the exercise, the ticking clock means that every moodhorn composition requires fully thirty precious minutes to play. (Even Yes albums don’t have songs that long!)

Legend stepped up to VGA graphics with Spellcasting 301, but the girls continue to look like they were assembled from mismatched spare parts left over after making other girls.

The series wobbled to its anticlimactic close with 1992’s Spellcasting 301: Spring Break, in which Ernie and his fraternity buddies head for the beach. The ticking clock remains and is as annoying as ever, although this time you are granted the mercy of being able to leave some tasks incomplete and still finish the game, albeit at a cost to your final score. Otherwise, the pleasures and pains are largely the same as those of the second game. The one immediately obvious difference is that the pictures, including all those babes that never seem to be put together quite the way real women are, are now in 256-color VGA rather than 16-color EGA. Given how much of a piece the Spellcasting games — particularly the last two — really are, I’d like to use the remainder of this article to try to understand what went so wrong with the series as a whole rather than to dwell on the details of Spellcasting 301‘s individual failings.

If we’re looking for someone to blame for the Spellcasting series’s problems — besides poor Steve Meretzky, that is — our first  candidate has to be Ernie Eaglebeak, the hapless loser you’re forced to play in all three games. Simply put, he’s a horrid little twerp, the sort of kid that you want to drag down to the beach just so you can personally kick some sand in his face. Worse, he’s such a thoroughly uninteresting horrid little twerp. Even as odious adventure-game losers go, he’s no Leisure Suit Larry. And as Ernie Eaglebeak goes, so goes the rest of the cast of bimbos, dirty old men, and fraternity bro-dudes. The most sympathetic character in the series, a dottering old professor by the name of Otto Tickingclock, gets cuckolded and then accidentally killed by Ernie, who cares not a whit. There’s precious little warmth or joy to be found herein. It’s baffling to think that these games were written by the man who gave us Floyd, the first character in a text adventure that we ever really cared about. The death knell for any piece of fiction, interactive or otherwise, comes with the opposite reaction, when the reader says, “I really don’t care what happens to these people.” It’s hard to imagine anyone invested enough in Ernie Eaglebeak to give a damn about him.

As fiction, then, the Spellcasting series has its problems. Ditto as comedy. Various Implementors who worked at Infocom, as well as many commentators over the decades since, have described the strict limitations imposed by Infocom’s original 128 K Z-Machine as a counter-intuitive benefit to their games in that it forced authors to hone their works down to polished jewels, excising all of the weaker bits, retaining only the very strongest material. I’ve always been and to some extent remain a little skeptical of this thesis; as I’ve stated in previous articles, I think that some of the latter-day Infocom games in particular were trying to do a little too much in too small a space, and could have really used a few more kilobytes at their disposal. That said, the Spellcasting series makes a very strong counterargument for the value of restraint, stringently enforced if need be. With a system to hand for the first time that supported effectively unlimited amounts of text, Meretzky felt free to write… and write… and write. Some of the gags go on forever, to little if any comedic payoff. At Infocom, all this material would have been ruthlessly pared down by Meretzky’s fellow Imps and the testers, leaving only the genuinely funny bits behind. In this new order, however, it all just lies there on the screen, limp and lifeless as the comatose girl Ernie crawls into bed with in one of the series’s squickier episodes.

Cringe-worthy meta-textual comments like this one from Spellcasting 201 were par for the course in amateur AGT text adventures of the time, but they’re a little disconcerting to see in a $40 boxed commercial game. This sort of lazy writing would never have made it out of the first round of testing at Infocom.

Having broached the subject of Infocom’s working methods versus those Meretzky would utilize as an independent designer, I’d like to continue to follow that line of thought, for I think it might just lead us to the core reason that the Spellcasting series and so much of Meretzky’s other post-Infocom work pales in comparison to his earlier classics. Even after he became Infocom’s most famous Imp, Meretzky remained just one member of a creative collective which had the willingness and ultimately the authority to restrain his more questionable design impulses. This was the well-honed Infocom process for making great adventure games in action. I think that Meretzky needed that process — or at least a process involving lots of checks and balances — in order to turn out his best work. Legend did try as much as possible to duplicate the Infocom process for making games, even going so far as getting a number of former Infocom employees to help out as testers, but, being a much smaller, decentralized operation, was never able to duplicate the spirited to-and-fro on questions of writing and design that did so much for all of the Infocom Imps’ work. For Steve Meretzky, working hundreds of miles away and accorded a certain untouchable status as Legend’s star designer, the proof of the consequences is in the Spellcasting pudding. I’d like to quote from a recent discussion I had with Bob Bates, in which I asked him his own opinion of the ticking clock and the various other retrograde elements found in the Spellcasting games.

I was never really a fan of a ticking clock. For me personally, the fun of these games comes in the exploration. It comes often not in the solution to the puzzle, but in all the things you discover while you’re trying to solve the puzzle. As a designer, I try to entertain the player during that time, and to encourage the player to try offbeat stuff. Ninety percent of what a player does in an adventure game is wrong. You have to entertain them during that ninety percent in order for them to get the joy of the ten percent that’s actual puzzle-solving. So, I’m not a fan of the time-restricted thing in the same way that I’m not a fan of limiting what the player can carry, making him have to stop and think about swapping things in and out of his inventory. It doesn’t appeal to me as a player or a designer, but other people are different. With Steve, what you’re probably seeing is a designer choice rather than a company choice.

Bob Bates confirmed that Meretzky, as Legend’s star designer, was afforded lots of freedom to make exactly “the game he wanted to make” — freedom which was not afforded to any of the in-house teams who made Legend’s other games, who were expected to hew closely to the more progressive design philosophy Bob outlines above. There’s an important lesson here — important not just in the context of Meretzky’s career, or the history of the adventure game, or even in the context of game design in general. It’s rather an important lesson for all creators, and for those who would nurture them.

I would submit that allowing Meretzky to make exactly the games he wanted to make was in the end greatly to said games’ detriment. I say this not because Steve Meretzky was an egomaniac, was unusually headstrong, or was ever anything other than a very nice, funny, personable, honest fellow who positively oozed with creativity. I say it because Steve Meretzky was human, and creative humans need other humans to push back against them from time to time. I suspect that many of you could name an author or two who used to write taut, compelling books, until they got big enough that no one felt empowered to edit them anymore. Ditto for music; how many once-great bands have tarnished their image with lazy, filler-laden latter-day albums? Game designers are no different from other creative professionals in this respect. Meretzky needed someone to tell him, “Hey, Steve, this aspect of the game is more annoying than fun,” or “Hey, Steve, this huge text dump doesn’t really say much of anything interesting or funny,” or “Hey, Steve, can’t you do something to make this Ernie twerp a bit less odious?”

If the Spellcasting games on the one hand reflect the lack of a sufficiently rigorous design process, on the other they reflect a certain failure of ambition on the part of their creator. Steve Meretzky was a very practical guy at heart, and seems to have taken a strong lesson from the commercial disappointment that had been A Mind Forever Voyaging. He continued to dream grander dreams than the likes of Ernie Eaglebeak and Sorcerer University, but he never pushed hard enough to make his dreams into actualities. The legendary lost Meretzky game, which he broached so many times that it’s become a sort of in-joke among a whole swathe of industry old-timers, was an historical epic taking place on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage. Bob Bates admits that he didn’t want Meretzky to make this game for Legend. Since, as he put it, “everyone knows how that story ends,” he believed there was little commercial appeal to the idea, an opinion which is cast in a very questionable light by the massive success of the James Cameron movie on the same subject of a few years later. What might have been had Mereztky stuck to his guns and brazened out the chance to make this grander vision? It strikes me as unlikely that anyone today would be saying, “Gee, that Titanic game was okay, but I sure would have liked some more Ernie Eaglebeak instead.”

The irony of the Spellcasting series is that these dissipated games did as much to dissipate whatever commercial momentum the newly independent Meretzky had as surely as might have a more ambitious concept. Sales of the Spellcasting games dropped off markedly after the first sold more than 50,000 copies as Legend’s very first product. The dwindling sales doubtless constitute much of the reason that a planned fourth game, Spellcasting 401: The Graduation Ball, was never made. Few regretted its absence overmuch. Between the Spellcasting games and the downright embarrassing Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, a half-assed graphic adventure he designed for the bankrupt Activision, Meretzky began his career as an independent game designer by ghettoizing himself as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” for years to come.

Ah, well… might-have-beens will always bloom eternal, won’t they? The first Spellcasting game at least can be a lot of fun, and perhaps comes off worse than is really fair here when I place it in the context of the increasingly dispiriting series as a whole. And I do want to note that I uniformly enjoy all of the other Legend text adventures much more than I do Spellcasting 201 and Spellcasting 301. I look forward to having more positive articles to write about them in the future.

The Legend games must still be played as they were originally delivered, as standalone programs running on an old MS-DOS computer or in an MS-DOS emulator, while the games of Infocom and many other earlier text-adventure publishers are much easier to get running thanks to modern interpreters for same. This relative inaccessibility has done much to keep the Legend games from being played as much as they deserve to be. While Bob Bates no longer owns the rights to the Legend games and thus cannot give official permission to host them, he has said that he doesn’t personally object if I do so. So, feel free to download Spellcasting 101Spellcasting 201, and Spellcasting 301 unless and until a scary legal person says it isn’t allowed. Included in each zip files are the associated documentation/feelies and a DOSBox configuration that should work with that particular game, along with a brief note on how to get it running on your system; whether you’re running Windows, OS X, or Linux, it’s all basically the same. I hope this will make it as painless as possible to experience these heretofore hard-to-find and hard-to-get-running pieces of interactive-fiction history.

So, by all means, have a go, starting with Spellcasting 101. Who knows, maybe you’ll find I’m just a boring old stick-in-the-mud and these games are the most hilarious and delightful things ever. Stranger things have happened.

 
 

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Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way

I’d like to bring some exciting news to your attention today. Bob Bates, author of classic games for Infocom and Legend Entertainment and a great friend of this blog, is Kickstarting a new text adventure.

I played the game last year in its alpha state. Bob is very much aware of the ways which text adventures have evolved since the days of Infocom and Legend, and has come up with a great blending of modern and classic here. It’s funny, fun, and occasionally challenging, but always in the right ways. And it’s written with TADS 3, so it’s as technically sophisticated as one could ask for.

I hope some of you will want to join me in helping him to get it polished up and out the door for a variety of platforms. You can learn more on the game’s Kickstarter page or on its home page. Welcome back, Bob!

 

A Time of Beginnings: Legend Entertainment (or, Bob and Mike’s Excellent Adventure-Game Company)

As the dust settled and the shock faded in the months that followed the shuttering of Infocom, most of the people who had worked there found they were able to convince themselves that they were happy it was finally over, relieved that a clean sharp break had been made. Sure, they had greeted the initial bombshell that the jig was finally up with plenty of disbelief, anger, and sadness, but the fact remained that the eighteen months before that fateful day, during which they had watched their company lose its old swagger, its very sense of itself, had been if anything even more heartbreaking. And yes, there would be plenty of second-guessing among them in the years to come about what might have been if Cornerstone had never existed or if Bruce Davis hadn’t taken over control of Mediagenic,1 but Infocom’s story did nevertheless feel like it had run its natural course, leaving behind something that all of the Bruce Davises in the world could never take away: that stellar 35-game catalog, unmatched by any game developer of Infocom’s era or any era since in literacy, thoughtfulness, and relentless creative experimentation. With that along with all of their fine memories of life inside Infocom’s offices to buoy them, the former employees could move on to the proverbial next chapter in life feeling pretty good about themselves, regarding their time at Infocom as, as historian Graham Nelson so memorably put it, “a summer romance” that had simply been too golden to stay any longer.

Yet there was at least one figure associated with Infocom who was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light than to go gentle into that good night. Bob Bates had come to the job of making text adventures, a job he enjoyed more than anything else he had ever done, just a little bit too late to share the sense of closure felt by the rest of Infocom. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything in the field: Bob had formed a company to challenge Infocom — a company named, appropriately enough, Challenge — that wound up joining them as the only outside developer ever allowed to copy Infocom’s in-house tools and make games for them under contract. Still, it had all happened very late in the day. When all was said and done, he had the dubious distinction of having made the last all-text Infocom game ever, followed by their very last game of all. His summer romance, in other words, had started in the last week of the season, and he’d barely gotten past first base. When he returned from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his home near Washington, D.C., on the stormy evening of May 5, 1989, having just been informed by Infocom’s head Joe Ybarra that Infocom’s Cambridge offices were being closed and Challenge’s services wouldn’t be needed anymore, his brief life in text adventures just felt so incomplete. And then, he found his roof was leaking. Of course it was.

Some of Bob’s restless dissatisfaction must have come across when, after that unhappy weekend was in the past, he called up Mike Verdu to tell him he would no longer be able to employ Mark Poesch and Duane Beck, the two programmers Mike’s company had sent out to work with Challenge. A remarkably young executive even in a field that has always favored the young, Mike was only in his mid-twenties, but already had an impressive CV.  In his second year at university, he had dropped out to form a consulting company he named Paragon Systems, which had come to employ Poesch and Beck. The two had been sent to Challenge when Bob came calling on Paragon, looking for help programming the games he had just signed a contract with Infocom to create. During the period when Challenge was making games for Infocom, Mike had sold Paragon to American Systems Corporation, a computer-integration firm that did significant business with the Department of Defense. He had stayed on thereafter with the bigger company as director of one of their departments, and Poesch and Beck had continued to work with Challenge, albeit under the auspices of ASC rather than Paragon. But now that would all be coming to an end; thus Bob’s phone call to Mike to inform him that he would have to terminate Challenge’s arrangement with ASC.

In truth, Bob and Mike didn’t know each other all that well prior to this conversation. Mike had always loved games, and had loved having a game company as a client, but Challenge had always had to remain for him as, as he puts it today, “one of many.” The call that Bob now made to Mike therefore began more as a simple transaction between customer and service provider than as a shared commiseration over the downfall of Bob’s business. Still, something that Bob said must have sparked Mike’s interest. The call continued far longer than it ought to have, and soon multiplied into many more conversations. In fairly short order, the conversations led to a suggestion from Mike: let’s start a new company to make and publish text adventures in the Infocom tradition. He even believed he could convince ASC to put up the bulk of the funding for such a company.

Set aside the fact that text adventures were allegedly dying, and the timing was oddly perfect. In 1989 the dominoes were toppling all over Eastern Europe, the four-decade Cold War coming to an end with a suddenness no one could have dreamed of just a few years before. Among the few people in the West not thoroughly delighted with recent turns of events were those at companies like ASC, who were deeply involved with the Department of Defense and thus had reason to fear the “peace dividend” that must lead to budget cuts for their main client and cancelled contracts for them. ASC was eager to diversify to replace the income the budget cuts would cost them; they were making lots of small investments in lots of different industries. In light of the current situation, an investment in a computer-game company didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have a year or two before, when the Reagan defense buildup was still booming, or, for that matter, might have just a year or two later, when the Gulf War would be demonstrating that the American military would not be idle on the post-Cold War world stage.

Though they had a very motivated potential investor, the plan Bob and Mike were contemplating might seem on the face of it counter-intuitive if not hopeless to those of you who are regular readers of this blog. As I’ve spent much time describing in previous articles, the text adventure had been in commercial decline since 1985. That very spring of 1989 when Bob and Mike were starting to talk, what seemed like it had to be the final axe had fallen on the genre when Level 9 had announced they were getting out of the text-adventure business, Magnetic Scrolls had been dropped by their publisher Rainbird, and of course Infocom had been shuttered by their corporate parent Mediagenic. Yet Bob and Mike proposed to fly in the face of that gale-force wind by starting a brand new company to make text adventures. What the hell were they thinking?

I was curious enough about the answer to that question that I made it a point to ask it to both Bob and Mike when I talked to them recently. Their answers were interesting enough, and said enough about the abiding love each had and, indeed, still has for the genre of adventures in text that I want to give each of them a chance to speak for himself here. First, Mike Verdu:

I believed that there was a very hardcore niche market that would always love this type of experience. We made a bet that that niche was large enough to support a small company dedicated to serving it. The genre was amazing; it was the closest thing to the promise of combining literature and technology. The free-form interaction a player could have with the game was a magical thing. There’s just nothing else like it. So, it didn’t seem like a dying art form to me. It just seemed that there were these bigger companies that the market couldn’t support that were collapsing, and that there was room for a smart niche player that had no illusions about the market but could serve that market directly.

I will say that when Bob and I were looking for publishing partners, and went to some trade conferences — through Bob’s connections we were able to meet people like Ken and Roberta Williams and various other luminaries in the field at the time — everybody said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. The worst idea in the world is to start a game company. It’s the best way to take a big pile of money and turn it into a small pile of money. Stay away!” But Bob and I are both stubborn, and we didn’t listen.

Understanding your market opportunity is really key when you’re forming a company. With Legend, we were very clear-eyed about the fact that we were starting a small company to serve a small market. We didn’t think it would grow to be a thousand people or take over the world or sell a million units of entertainment software per year. We thought there was this amazing, passionate audience that we could serve with these lovingly crafted products, and that would be very fulfilling creatively. If you’re a creative person, I think you have to define how big the audience is that is going to make you feel fulfilled. Bob and I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to reach millions of people. We wanted to reach enough people that we could make our company viable, make a living, and create these products that we loved.

And Bob Bates:

We recognized the risk, but basically we just still believed in the uniqueness of the parser-driven experience — in the pleasure and the joy of the parser-driven experience. By then, there were no other major parser-driven games around, and we felt that point-and-click was a qualitatively different experience. It was fun, but it was different. It was restrictive in terms of what the player could do, and there was a sense of the game world closing in on you, that you could only do what could be shown. Brian Moriarty had a great quote that I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like “you can only implement what you can afford to show, and you can’t afford to show anything.” As a player, I loved the freedom to input whatever I wanted, and I loved the low cost of producing that [form of interaction]. If there’s an interesting input or interaction, and I can address it in a paragraph of text, that’s so much cheaper than having an artist spend a week drawing it. Text is cheap, so we felt we could create games economically. We felt that competition in that niche wasn’t there anymore, and that it was a fun experience that there was still a market for.

Reading between the lines just a bit here, we have a point of view that would paint the failure of Infocom more as the result of a growing mismatch between a company and its market than as an indication that it was genuinely impossible to still make a living selling text adventures. Until 1985, the fulcrum year of the company’s history, Infocom had been as mainstream as computer-game publishers got, often placing three, four, or even five titles in the overall industry top-ten sales lists each month. Their numbers had fallen off badly after that, but by 1987 they had stabilized to create a “20,000 Club”: most games released that year sold a little more or less than 20,000 copies. Taking into account the reality that every title would never appeal enough to every fan to prompt a purchase — especially given the pace at which Infocom was pumping out games that year — that meant there were perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 loyal Infocom fans who had never given up on the company or the genre. Even the shrunken Infocom of the company’s final eighteen months was too big to make a profit serving that market, which was in any case nothing Bruce Davis of Mediagenic, fixated on the mainstream as he was, had any real interest in trying to serve. A much smaller company, however, with far fewer people on the payroll and a willingness to lower its commercial expectations, might just survive and even modestly thrive there. And who knew, if they made their games really well, they might just collect another 30,000 or 40,000 new fans to join the Infocom old guard.

This wasn’t to say that Bob and Mike could afford to return to the pure text that had sufficed for 31 of Infocom’s 35 adventure games. To have any chance of attracting new players, and quite possibly to have any chance of retaining even the old Infocom fans, they were well aware that some concessions to the realities of the contemporary marketplace would have to be made. Their games would include an illustration for every location along with occasional additional graphics, sound effects, and music to break up their walls of text. Their games would, in other words, enhance the Infocom experience to suit the changing times rather than merely clone it.

In the same spirit of maximizing their text adventures’ contemporary commercial potential, they very early on secured the services of Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s single most well-known former Implementor, who had worked on some of the company’s most iconic and successful titles. With Meretzky’s first game for their company, Bob and Mike would try to capitalize on his reputation as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” — a reputation he enjoyed despite the fact that he had only written one naughty adventure game in his career to date. Nevertheless, Bob encouraged Meretzky to “take the gloves off,” to go much further than he had even in his previous naughty game Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Meretzky’s vision for his new game can perhaps be best described today as “Animal House meets Harry Potter” (although, it should be noted, this was many years before the latter was published). It would be the story of a loser who goes off to Sorcerer University to learn the art and science of magic, whilst trying his best to score with chicks along the way. Of course, this being an adventure game, he would eventually have to save the world as well, but the real point was the spells and the chicks. The former would let Meretzky revisit one of the most entertaining puzzle paradigms Infocom had ever devised: the Enchanter series’s spell book full of bizarre incantations that prove useful in all sorts of unexpected ways. The latter would give Bob and Mike a chance to prove one more time the timeless thesis that Sex Sells.

So, the Meretzky game seemed about as good as things could get as a commercially safe bet, given the state of text adventures in general circa 1989. Meanwhile, for those players less eager to be titillated, Bob Bates himself would make what he describes today as a “classical” adventure, a more sober-minded time-travel epic full of intricately interconnected puzzles and environments. Between the two, they would hopefully have covered most of what people had liked about the various games of Infocom. And the really hardcore Infocom fans, of course, would hopefully buy them both.

In making their pitch to ASC and other potential investors, Bob and Mike felt ethically obligated to make careful note of the seeming headwinds into which their new company would be sailing. But in the end ASC was hugely eager to diversify, and the investment that was being asked of them was relatively small in the context of ASC’s budget. Bob and Mike founded their company on about $500,000, the majority of which was provided by ASC, alongside a handful of smaller investments from friends and family. (Those with a stake in Bob’s old company Challenge also saw it rolled over into the new company.) ASC would play a huge role during this formative period, up to and including providing the office space out of which the first games would be developed.

An ASC press release dated January 8, 1990, captures the venture, called GameWorks at the time, at this embryonic stage of high hopes and high uncertainty. Bob Bates is quoted as saying that “GameWorks products combine the best of several existing technologies in an exciting new format,” while Mike Verdu, who would remain in his old role at ASC in addition to his new one as a software entrepreneur for another couple of years, says that “ASC’s interest in this venture stems from more than just making money over the short term. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining software-publishing company.” Shortly after this press release, the name of said company would be changed from GameWorks to Legend Entertainment, harking back to the pitch for an “Immortal Legends” series of games that had first won Bob a contract with Infocom.

The part of the press release that described GameWorks/Legend as a “software-publishing company” was an important stipulation. Mike Verdu:

I remember making these spreadsheets early on, trying to understand how companies made money in this business. It became very clear to me very quickly that life as an independent developer, without the publishing, was very tough. You scrambled for advances, and the royalties you got off a game would never pay for the advances unless you had a huge hit. Your destiny was so tied to the publisher, to the vagaries of the producer that might get assigned to your title, that it just was not an appealing path at all.

In a very fundamental way, Legend needed to be a publisher as well as a developer if they were to bring their vision of text adventures in the 1990s to fruition. It was highly doubtful whether any of the other publishers would be willing to bother with the niche market for text adventures at all when there were so many other genres with seemingly so much greater commercial potential. In addition, Bob and Mike knew that they needed to have complete control of their products, from the exact games they chose to make to the way those games were packaged and presented on store shelves. They recognized that another part of becoming the implicit successor to Infocom must be trying as much as possible to match the famous Infocom packaging, with the included “feelies” that added so much texture and verisimilitude to their interactive fictions. One of the most heartbreaking signs of Infocom’s slow decline, for fans and employees alike, had been the gradual degradation of their games’ physical presentation, as the cost-cutters in Mediagenic’s Silicon Valley offices took away more and more control from the folks in Cambridge. Bob and Mike couldn’t afford to have their company under a publisher’s thumb in similar fashion. At the same time, though, a tiny company like theirs was in no position to set up its own nationwide distribution from warehouse to retail.

It was for small publishers facing exactly this conundrum that Electronic Arts and Mediagenic during the mid-1980s had pioneered the concept of the “affiliated label.” An affiliated label was a small publisher that printed their own name on their boxes, but piggy-backed — for a fee, of course — on the network of a larger publisher for distribution. By the turn of the decade, the American computer-games industry as a whole had organized itself into eight or so major publishers, each with an affiliated-label program of one stripe or another of its own, with at least several dozen more minor publishers taking advantage of the programs. As we’ve seen in other articles, affiliated-label deals were massive potential minefields that many a naive small publisher blundered into and never escaped. Nevertheless, Legend had little choice but to seek one for themselves. Thanks to Mike Verdu’s research, they would at least go in with eyes open to the risk, although nothing they could do could truly immunize them from it.

In seeking a distribution deal, Legend wasn’t just evaluating potential partners; said partners were also evaluating them, trying to judge whether they could sell enough games to make a profitable arrangement for both parties. This process, like so much else, was inevitably complicated by Legend’s determination to defy all of the conventional wisdom and continue making text adventures — yes, text adventures with graphics and sound, but still text adventures at bottom. And yet as Bob and Mike made the rounds of the industry’s biggest players they generally weren’t greeted with the incredulity, much less mockery, one might initially imagine. Even many of the most pragmatic of gaming executives felt keenly at some visceral level the loss of Infocom, whose respect among their peers had never really faded in tune with their sales figures — who, one might even say, had had a certain ennobling effect on their industry as a whole. So, the big players were often surprisingly sympathetic to Legend’s cause. Whether such sentiments could lead to a signature on the bottom line of a contract was, however, a different matter entirely. Most of the people who had managed to survive in this notoriously volatile industry to this point had long since learned that idealism only gets you so far.

For some time, it looked like a deal would come together with Sierra. Ken Williams, who never lacked for ambition, was trying to position his company to own the field of interactive storytelling as a whole. Text adventures looked destined to be a very small piece of that pie at best in the future, but that piece was nevertheless quite possibly one worth scarfing up. If Sierra distributed Legend’s games and they proved unexpectedly successful, an acquisition might even be in the cards. Yet somehow a deal just never seemed to get done. Mike Verdu:

There seemed to be genuine interest [at Sierra], but it was sort of like Zeno’s Paradox: we’d get halfway to something, and then close that distance by half, and then close that distance by half, and nothing ever actually happened. It was enormously frustrating — and I never could put my finger on quite why, because there seemed to be this alignment of interests, and we all liked each other. There was always a sense of a lot of momentum at the start. Then the momentum gradually died away, and you could never actually get anything done. Now that I’ve become a little more sophisticated about business, that suggests to me that Ken was probably running around trying to make a whole bunch of things happen, and somebody inside his company was being the sort of check and balance to his wanting to do lots and lots of stuff. There were probably a lot of things that died on the vine inside that company.

Instead of Sierra, Legend wound up signing a distribution contract with MicroProse, who were moving further and further from their roots in military simulations and wargames in a bid to become a major presence in many genres of entertainment software. Still, “Wild Bill” Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant chief, had little personal interest in the types of games Legend proposed to make or the niche market they proposed to serve. Mike Verdu characterizes Sierra’s interest as “strategic,” while MicroProse’s was merely “convenient,” a way to potentially boost their revenue picture a bit and offset a venture into standup-arcade games that was starting to look like a financial disaster. MicroProse hardly made for the partner of Legend’s dreams, but needs must. Wild Bill was willing to sign where Ken Williams apparently wasn’t.

In the midst of all these efforts to set up the infrastructure for a software-publishing business, there was also the need to create the actual software they would publish. Bob Bates’s time-travel game fell onto the back-burner, a victim of the limited resources to hand and the fact that so much of its designer’s time was being monopolized by practical questions of business. But not so Steve Meretzky’s game. As was his wont, Meretzky had worked quickly and efficiently from his home in Massachusetts to crank out his design. Legend’s two-man programming team, consisting still of the Challenge veterans Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, was soon hard at work alongside contracted outside artists and composers to bring Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, now planned as Legend’s sole release of 1990, to life in all its audiovisual splendor.

Setting aside for the moment all those planned audiovisual enhancements, just creating a reasonable facsimile of the core Infocom experience presented a daunting challenge. Throughout Infocom’s lifespan, from the 1980 release of Zork I through Bob Bates’s own 1989 Infocom game Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, no other company had ever quite managed to do what Legend was now attempting to do: to create a parser as good as that of Infocom. Legend did have an advantage over most of Infocom’s earlier would-be challengers in that they were planning to target their games to relatively powerful machines with fast processors and at least 512 K of memory. The days of trying to squeeze games into 64 K or less were over, as were the complications of coding to a cross-platform virtual machine; seeing where the American market was going, Legend planned to initially release their games only for MS-DOS systems, with ports to other platforms left only as a vague possibility if one of their titles should prove really successful. Both the Legend engine and the games that would be made using it were written in MS-DOS-native C code instead of a customized adventure programming language like Infocom’s ZIL, a decision that also changed the nature of authoring a Legend game in comparison to an Infocom game. Legend’s designers would program many of the simpler parts of their games’ logic themselves using their fairly rudimentary knowledge of C, but would always rely on the “real” programmers for the heavy lifting.

But of course none of these technical differences were the sort of things that end users would notice. For precisely this reason, Bob Bates was deeply worried about the legal pitfalls that might lie in attempting to duplicate the Infocom experience so closely from their perspective. The hard fact was that he, along with his two programmers, knew an awful lot about Infocom’s technology, having authored two complete games using it, while Steve Meretzky, who had authored or coauthored no less than seven games for Infocom, knew it if anything even better. Bob worried that Mediagenic might elect to sue Legend for theft of trade secrets — a worry that, given the general litigiousness of Mediagenic’s head Bruce Davis, strikes me as eminently justified. To address the danger, Legend elected to employ the legal stratagem of the black box. Bob sat down and wrote out a complete specification for Legend’s parser-to-be. (“It was a pretty arcane, pretty strange exercise to do that,” he remembers.) Legend then gave this specification for implementation to a third-party company called Key Systems who had never seen any of Infocom’s technology. “What came back,” Bob says, “became the heart of the Legend engine. Mark and Duane then built additional functionality upon that.” The unsung creators of the Legend parser did their job remarkably well. It became the first ever not to notably fall down anywhere in comparison to the Infocom parser. Mediagenic, who had serious problems of their own monopolizing their attention around this time, never did come calling, but better safe than sorry.


The Legend Interface in a Nutshell

A game can be played in one of three modes. This one, the default, is the most elaborate — not to say cluttered. Note the long menus of verbs — 120 (!) of them, with a commonly used subset thankfully listed first — and nouns to the left. (And don’t worry, this area from Spellcasting 101 is a “fake” maze, not a real one.)

A second mode, which I suspect was the most commonly used by real players in the wild, removes the command-entry menus in favor of allowing more space for the text window, but retains the compass rose and illustrations.

Finally, strict adherents to the ethos of text-and-only-text can indeed play the game as a text-only adventure. The existence of significant numbers of such purists was probably more theoretical than actual, but Legend accommodated them nevertheless.

By tapping the function keys, you can replace the illustration with the current room description or your current inventory without having to burn a turn on the task.

Or you can show a map where the picture usually lives.


 

Anxious to make their games as accessible as possible despite their equally abiding determination to become the implicit heir to Infocom, Legend designed for their new engine a menu-based system for inputting commands that could serve as an alternative to typing them in. Bob Bates, the mastermind behind the system:

One of the biggest barriers to text adventures at the time was that people didn’t know how to type. I knew how to type only because the principal of my high school forced me in my sophomore year to take a typing class instead of a third language. At the time, typing was for girls; men didn’t type. It was a barrier for players.

So, we said that we need an interface that will let somebody play using only the mouse. This was a huge problem. How do you do that without giving too much away? One day as I was pondering this, I realized that once you select a verb you don’t need another verb. So, the menu that contains verbs can go away. You’re looking at a list of verb/noun [combinations]: “get box,” “kick wall.” But if you want a sentence with a preposition, once you’ve clicked on the verb you don’t need another verb, so you can replace that first [verb] list with prepositions — and not only that, but prepositions that are only appropriate to that verb. That was an actual insight; that was a cool idea.

The menu on the left had the twenty or so most common verbs first, but underneath that, going down in alphabetical order, was a list of many, many more verbs. You could scroll down in that list, and it might actually suggest interactions you hadn’t thought of. Basically it preserved the openness of the interaction, but avoided the other big bugaboo of parser-driven games: when the parser will come back and say, “I don’t understand that.” With this system, that could never happen. And that was, I thought, huge. Everything was there in front of you if you could figure out what to do. [Parsing errors] became a thing of the past if you wanted to play in that mode.

Then of course we had full-screen text mode if you wanted to play that way, and we had a sort of hybrid half-and-half mode where there was parser-driven text across the bottom, but you still had graphics at the top. I thought it was important that players could play the game the way they wanted to, and I thought it added to the experience by taking away two of the big problems. One was people who didn’t like to type or couldn’t type or were two-finger typists. Number two was when you would type a whole command and there was an error in the first word; the parser says, “I don’t know that word,” and you have to type the whole command again. That interface took away that pain in the ass.

While Bob’s points are well taken, particularly with regard to the lack of typing skills among so much of the general public at the time, the Legend menu-based interface looks very much of its time today. Having the menu appear onscreen by default has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Legend games look rather cluttered and ugly in contrast to the Infocom classics, with their timeless text-only approach. That does a real disservice to the games hidden inside the Legend interface, which often stand up very well next to many of the works of Infocom.

Aesthetics aside, I remain skeptical of the real long-term utility of these sorts of interfaces in general, all the rage though they were during the twilight of the text adventure’s commercial era. Certainly there must come a point where picking through a list of dozens of verbs becomes as confusing as trying to divine the correct one from whole cloth. A better solution to the guess-the-verb problem is to create a better parser — and, to be fair, Legend games give no ground for complaint on that score; text-adventure veteran though I admittedly am, I can’t recall ever struggling to express what I was trying to do to a Legend game. The problem of correcting typos without having to type the entire command again, meanwhile, could have been efficiently addressed by including a command-history buffer that the player could navigate using the arrow keys. The omission of such a feature strikes me as rather inexplicable given that the British company Level 9 had begun to include it in their games as far back as 1986.

Although I don’t believe any serious surveys were ever made, it would surprise me if most Legend players stuck with the menu-based interface for very long once they settled down to play. “I played the game this way for fifteen minutes before deciding to bag it and type in all my commands,” wrote one contemporary Spellcasting 101 reviewer who strikes me as likely typical. “For me, this was quicker.” “Frankly, I find the menu to be of little use except to suggest possible commands in tough puzzle situations,” wrote another. Even Steve Meretzky, the author of Legend’s first game, wasn’t a fan:

The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around just by double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn’t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.

Like Meretzky, I find other aspects of the Legend engine much more useful than the menu-based command interface. In the overall baroque-text-adventure-interface sweepstakes, Magnetic Scrolls’s Magnetic Windows-based system has the edge in features and refinement, but the Legend engine does show a real awareness of how real players played these types of games, and gives some very welcome options for making that experience a little less frustrating. The automap, while perhaps not always quite enough to replace pen and paper (or, today, Trizbort), is nevertheless handy, and the ability to pull up the current room description or your current inventory without wasting a turn and scrolling a bunch of other text away is a godsend, especially given that there’s no scrollback integrated into the text window.

The graphics and music in the Legend games still hold up fairly well as well, adding that little bit of extra sizzle. (The occasional digitized sound effects, on the other hand, have aged rather less well.) Right from the beginning with Spellcasting 101, Legend proved willing to push well beyond the model of earlier, more static illustrated text adventures, adding animated opening and closing sequences, interstitial graphics in the chapter breaks, etc. It’s almost enough to make you forget at times that you’re playing a text adventure at all — which was, one has to suspect, at least partially the intention. Certainly it pushes well beyond what Infocom managed to do in their last few games. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone since Legend has ever tried quite so earnestly to make a real multimedia production out of a parser-based game. It can make for an odd fit at times, but it can be a lot of fun as well.

Spellcasting 101 was released in October of 1990, thereby bringing to a fruition the almost eighteen months of effort that had followed that fateful Cinco de Mayo when Bob Bates had learned that Infocom was going away. I plan to discuss the merits and demerits owed to Spellcasting 101 as a piece of game design in my next article. For now, it should suffice to say that the game and the company that had produced it were greeted with gushing enthusiasm by the very niche they had hoped to reach. Both were hailed as the natural heirs to the Infocom legacy, carrying the torch for a type of game most had thought had disappeared from store shelves forever. Questbusters magazine called Spellcasting 101 the “Son of Infocom” in their review’s headline; the reviewer went on to write that “what struck me most about the game is that it is exactly as I would have expected Infocom games to be if the company was still together and the veteran designers were still working in the industry. I kid you not when I say to watch Legend over the years.” “It’s such a treat to play an Infocom adventure again,” wrote the adventuring fanzine SynTax. “I know it isn’t an Infocom game as such, but I can’t help thinking of it as that.”

This late in the day for the commercial text adventure, it was these small adventure-centric publications, along with the adventure-game columnists for the bigger magazines, who were bound to be the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Spellcasting 101 succeeded in proving the thesis on which Bob Bates and Mike Verdu had founded Legend Entertainment: that there were still enough of those enthusiasts out there to support a niche company. In its first six months on the market, Spellcasting 101 sold almost 35,000 units, more than doubling Bob and Mike’s cautious prediction of 16,000 units. By the same point, the Legend hint line had fielded over 35,000 calls. For now — and it would admittedly be just for a little while longer — people were buying and, as the hint-line calls so amply demonstrated, playing a text adventure again in reasonable numbers, all thanks to the efforts of two men who loved the genre and couldn’t quite let it go.

A “Presentation to Stockholders and Directors” of Legend from May of 1991 provides, like the earlier ASC press release, another fascinating real-time glimpse of a business being born. At this point Timequest, Bob Bates’s “classical” time-travel adventure, is about to be released at last, Spellcasting 201 is already nearing completion, and a first licensed game is in the offing, to be based on Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. “MicroProse has done an outstanding job of selling and distributing the product,” notes the report, but “has been less than responsive on the financial side of the house. Our financial condition is precarious. We spent most of the Spellcasting 101 revenues in development of Timequest. We are living hand to mouth. We have come a long way and we are building a viable business, but the costs were greater than expected and the going has often been rough.”

Rough going and living hand to mouth were things that Legend would largely just have to get used to. The games industry could be a brutal place, and a tiny niche publisher like Legend was all but foreordained to exist under a perpetual cloud of existential risk. Still, in return for facing the risk they were getting to make the games they loved, and giving the commercial text adventure a coda absolutely no one had seen coming on that unhappy day back in May of 1989. “We did more things right than we did wrong,” concludes the May 1991 report. “This is a workable definition of survival.” Survival may have been about the best they could hope for — but, then again, survival is survival.

(Sources: Questbusters of March 1991; SynTax Issue 11; Computer Gaming World of November 1990 and March 1991; the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Bob Bates’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind of enough to share with me in its entirety. But the vast majority of this article is drawn my interviews with Bob Bates and Mike Verdu; the former dug up the documents mentioned in the article as well. My heartfelt thanks to both for making the time to talk with me and to answer my many nitpicky questions about events of more than 25 years ago.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 
 

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A Time of Endings, Part 4: Magnetic Scrolls

By the point in late 1988 when Magnetic Scrolls released Fish!, their fifth text adventure and arguably their best yet, a distressing pattern of diminishing returns had already been well-established when it came to sales, that most important metric of all. Anita Sinclair’s little collective had peaked early in commercial if not in design terms, with the release of the illustrated version of their first game The Pawn in 1986. Indeed, alongside Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of PhobosThe Pawn had that year become one of the last two text adventures ever to generate sales sufficient to make the games industry at large sit up and pay attention. The performance of neither game had had all that much to do with its intrinsic design merits: sales of The Pawn had been driven by the timely appeal of its pretty pictures to people looking to show off their new Atari STs and Commodore Amigas, sales of Leather Goddesses by the timeless allure of sex to the largely adolescent male audience for computer games in general. Nevertheless, while for Infocom the year had been a welcome final hurrah that may very well have staved off their inevitable endgame for a year or more, for Magnetic Scrolls it had simply been one hell of an auspicious start.

Sadly, for both companies it would all be downhill from there. Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scrolls’s follow-up to The Pawn, did quite well in its own right, but nowhere near as well as its predecessor. A pattern was soon established of each successive game selling a little less than the previous. Magnetic Scrolls’s relationship with their publisher Rainbird steadily deteriorated in cadence with their diminishing sales numbers. Anita Sinclair, whom even her most supportive colleagues acknowledged could be difficult at times, never got on very well with Paula Byrne, the woman who was now her primary contact at the label her good friend Tony Rainbird had founded and lent his name to but had left already in late 1986. In a surprisingly frank 1989 statement to the German magazine Aktueller Software Markt, Byrne admitted publicly that she “didn’t have a very good relationship with Anita. Anita had much preferred to work with Tony Rainbird.” When in May of 1989 — just after that interview — Rainbird was acquired by the American publisher MicroProse, Magnetic Scrolls was promptly cut loose. Given her poor relationship with Anita Sinclair and the declining sales of Magnetic Scrolls’s games, Byrne had little motivation to argue with her new bosses’ decision.

For most small developers, that event, described by Anita Sinclair herself as an “horrendous collapse,” would have marked the death knell. With the rights to all of their extant games tied to Rainbird, who were no longer interested in selling them, Magnetic Scrolls no longer had any income whatsoever. Nor were they in much of a position to make new hits to generate new income. All of Magnetic Scrolls’s development technology and wisdom were still tied to text adventures, a genre the conventional wisdom said was dead as a commercial proposition; both Infocom and Level 9, the other two significant remaining practitioners of adventures in English text, were getting out of that game entirely as well at the instant that Rainbird decided to wash their hands of Magnetic Scrolls. But thanks to the familial wealth that had always been Magnetic Scrolls’s secret trump card — even during its peak years of 1986 and 1987, the company had never made all that much money in relation to its considerable expenses — Anita Sinclair could elect to play on a bit longer where Infocom and Level 9, under the thumb of corporate parent Mediagenic and perpetually pinched for cash respectively, had had no choice but to fold their hands. She launched a lawsuit against Rainbird/MicroProse, alleging mishandling of her company’s games and seeking restoration of the rights to the back catalog amidst other damages. At the same time, and despite being without a publisher, she poured all the resources she had into a big development project — in fact, the biggest such project Magnetic Scrolls had ever attempted, and by a virtual order of magnitude at that. Begun well before the release of Fish! and the split with Rainbird, in the wake of recent events it would be elevated from an important initiative to a save-the-company Hail Mary.

Actually, this single grand project is better seen as three projects built on top of one another, with an actual game, the top layer of this layer cake of technology that would finally emerge as Magnetic Scrolls’s swansong, the least taxing of the lot to develop.

The most taxing of the layers, by contrast, was the one at the bottom. It had nothing intrinsically to do with games at all. Magnetic Windows was rather to be a generic system for creating and running modern GUI-based applications on MS-DOS, the Apple Macintosh, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and the Acorn Archimedes, allowing programmers to share much of the same code across these very different platforms. It will perhaps convey some sense of the sheer ambition of this undertaking to note that its most obvious analogue was nothing less than Microsoft Windows, a graphical operating environment built on top of MS-DOS which Microsoft had been pushing for years without a lot of success. Admittedly, Magnetic Windows was in some ways less ambitious than Microsoft Windows; it was envisioned as a toolkit for building and running individual GUI applications, not as a full-fledged self-contained operating environment like the Microsoft product. In other ways, however, it was more ambitious; in contrast to the cross-platform Magnetic Windows, Microsoft Windows was targeted strictly at the standard Intel architecture running MS-DOS as its underlying layer, with no support included or planned for alternative platforms.

Like most GUI systems of the time, Magnetic Windows owed an awful lot to the Macintosh, as shown in this shot from the game Magnetic Scrolls eventually made using it.

Microsoft Windows, little used and less loved, had been something of a computer-industry laughingstock ever since its initial release back in 1985; it would only start rounding into a truly usable form and gaining traction with everyday users with the release of its version 3.0 in 1990. Once again, its travails only serve to illustrate what a huge technical challenge Magnetic Windows must pose for its own parent company. How could Anita Sinclair’s little staff of half a dozen or so programmers, clever though they doubtless were, hope to succeed where a company with thousands of times the resources had so conspicuously struggled for so long?

All things considered, they made a pretty good stab at it. Magnetic Windows was a genuinely impressive piece of work, especially considering the shoestring on which it was made and the fact that it had to run on five different platforms. Yet Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of someday using it to break into business and productivity software, of hopefully licensing it out to many other developers, never stood much of a chance of being realized. Magnetic Windows’s Achilles heel was the same as that which had dogged Microsoft Windows for years: it craved far more computing power than was the norm among average machines of its era. In its MS-DOS version, Magnetic Windows ran responsively only on a pricey high-end 80386-based machine, while on other platforms throwing enough hardware at it to make it a pleasant experience to use was often even more difficult. That the simple text adventure Magnetic Scrolls would eventually make using it would require such high-end hardware would strike many potential buyers, with some justification, as vaguely ridiculous. And as for Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of world domination in other types of software… well, that was always going to be one hell of a mountain to climb in the face of Microsoft’s cash reserves, and it only got that much steeper when Microsoft Windows 3.0, at long last the first really complete and usable incarnation of the operating environment, was released the same year as the first product to employ Magnetic Windows.

The middle layer in the cake that would become Magnetic Scroll’s swansong was the most ambitious expansion of the traditionally humble text-adventure interface to date — indeed, it still remains to this day the most ambitious such expansion ever attempted. Of course, Magnetic Scrolls was hardly alone at the time in working in this general direction. Infocom just before the end had made a concerted attempt to remedy as many as possible of the real or perceived failings of the genre in the eyes of modern players, incorporating  into their final run of “graphical interactive fiction” titles things like auto-maps, clickable compass roses, function-key shortcuts, and hint menus along with the now-expected illustrations. Legend Entertainment, Infocom’s implicitly anointed successor, would soon push the general idea yet further via clickable menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions for building commands without typing, whilst also adding sound and music to the formula.

Still, it was Magnetic Scrolls that pushed furthest of all. Taking full advantage of Magnetic Windows, they designed an almost infinitely customizable interface built around individually openable and closable, draggable and sizable windows. The windows could contain all the goodies of late-period Infocom and Legend plus a lot more: text (including for the first time ever an integrated scrollback buffer), graphics (including occasional animated sequences of sometimes surprising length, enough almost to qualify as little cut scenes), lists of objects in the current room and in the player’s inventory (represented as snazzy icons rather than plebeian text), an auto-map (complete with one-click navigation to any location in the game’s world), a compass rose, an extensive hint menu. Performance issues aside, it was all impressive as hell the first time you fired it up and began to discover its many little nuances. For instance, it was possible to pick up and drop objects by dragging their icons between the objects-in-inventory and objects-in-room windows, while right-clicking one of the object icons opened a menu of likely verbs for use with it — or you could double-click an object to “examine” it via text that appeared in its own separate window. Ditto all this for things depicted in the room illustrations as well. Or, if you liked, you could start with the verb rather than the object in building your command without typing, selecting a verb from a long list of same in the menu bar and then clicking on the object to use with it. Anita Sinclair:

The whole idea of the window system we’ve developed is to take adventures into the next generation. What we found was that people enjoyed the format of text adventures — it is, from a gameplay point of view, the most flexible genre there is — but the problem people had was that when you see a text adventure for the first time, it’s not too obvious where to start or what to do, and the other problem is that people seem to have a huge aversion to typing. So what we wanted to do was to design a system where you can have all the flexibility of a text-adventure game, but with neither of these problems.

The elaborations were extensive enough to qualify today as a fascinating might-have-been in the evolution of the adventure genre as a whole, a middle ground between the text adventures that were and the graphical adventures that were becoming.

At the same time, though, it’s not hard to understand why the approach became an evolutionary dead end: the fact was that almost as soon as you got over being wowed by it all you started to find most of it a little superfluous. While the new interface certainly provided many new ways to do many things, it was highly doubtful whether most of those new ways were really easier than the traditional command line. The dirty little secret of this as well as most efforts in this direction was that they did very little to truly improve the playability of text adventures. Veterans quickly reverted to the clean, efficient command line they had come to know so well, and those newcomers who found the genre interesting enough to stick with it tired almost as quickly of mousing through the fiddly point-and-click interface and learned to use the parser the way the gods of the genre — i.e., Crowther and Woods — had intended it to be used. Meanwhile those who were put off by all the reading and sought, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, a “hotter” mediated experience weren’t likely to be assuaged for long by all this gilding around a lily that remained at bottom as textual as ever. Seeking a solution to the fundamentally intractable problem of how to keep a genre with such niche appeal as the text adventure at the forefront of a games industry tilting ever more toward the mainstream, Magnetic Scrolls was grasping at straws in telling themselves that a system like this one could represent the “next generation” of adventure games in general. The true next generation in the eyes of most players must be the born-graphical point-and-click adventures of companies like Sierra and Lucasfilm Games, which were just coming into their own as companies like Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls were busily grafting bells and whistles onto their text adventures. In contrast to the games of the former, those of the latter felt like exactly what they were: lipstick on the same old textual swine.

Neat as the new interface was, players who tried to make full use of it spent a lot of time looking at messages like this one.

But what, then, of the topmost layer of our cake, the actual game being surrounded by all this new technology? That game was called Wonderland, and it was given oddly short shrift even by Magnetic Scrolls themselves. Wonderland‘s manual, for instance, spends some three-quarters of its 60-page length exhaustively describing how to use the new windowed interface in general rather than talking all that much about the game buried inside it all. (The times were still such that Magnetic Scrolls felt compelled to start at the very beginning, with chapter titles like “An Introduction to Windowing Environments” and definitions like “icons are small pictures.”) Even today, Wonderland remains among the least discussed and, one senses, least played of the Magnetic Scrolls catalog, being too often dismissed as little more than a dead-end technology demonstration. I must admit that even I never could quite work up the motivation to play it until quite recently, when I tackled it in preparation for this article. Yet what I found when I did so was a game that has a lot more going for it than its reputation would suggest. Yes, on one level it is indeed a dead-end technology demonstration — but that’s far from all it is.

Wonderland was first proposed to Anita Sinclair way back in 1987 by an outsider named David Bishop. At the time, Magnetic Scrolls was already considering the prospect of making a text adventure with a windowed interface. In fact, Sinclair had begun to experiment with that very thing in a game of her own design. “But when I saw Wonderland,” she remembers, “it became obvious that it was a much better game than the one we were working on, and so we shelved that and redefined the ideas that we had for it for Wonderland instead.” Although envisioned from the start as eventually becoming the first game to use the new Magnetic Windows-powered interface, Wonderland was developed using Magnetic Scrolls’s traditional tools while others worked on the other layers of the cake. Only when all of the new technology was completed was the game joined with the new interface that was to sit beneath it. By the time that happened, Wonderland the game had been waiting on the bench for some time, ready to go just as soon as everything else was.

David Bishop

The designer of Wonderland is one of those consummate inside players that can be found kicking around most creative industries, unknown to the public but well-known among his peers, with fingers in a bewildering number of pies. David Bishop had been working at a board-game store in London in the very early 1980s when he had first become aware of the burgeoning world of computer games. Never a programmer, he became something of a pioneer of the role of game designer as a discipline separate from that of game programmer when he formed a partnership with one Chris Palmer, who did know how to program. Together they were responsible for such mid-decade 8-bit hits as Deactivators and Golf Construction Set. His career in game design has continued right up to the present day, coming to encompass just about every popular genre. (That he’s never garnered more public recognition as a designer is perhaps down to the fact that, while he’s designed many successful games, he’s never designed any truly massive, era-defining titles.) Alongside his early efforts in design, he worked for some years as a prominent editor, reviewer, and feature writer for the popular British magazine Computer and Video Games. In years to come, he would add to his titles of game designer and game journalist those of producer, manager, and founder of multiple companies. His one adventure in text, however, has remained Wonderland.

As you may have guessed, Wonderland is based on Alice in Wonderland, that classic Victorian children’s tale by Lewis Carroll that has never lost its charm and fascination for plenty of us adults. In his initial pitch to Magnetic Scrolls, Bishop noted how almost uniquely ideal Alice in Wonderland was for adaptation to an adventure game. Carroll’s novel is as about as plot-less as something labeled a story can be; what plot it does have can be summed up as “a thinly characterized little girl named Alice stumbles into a strange magical land and wanders around therein, taking in the sights.” Despite the idealism expressed in the genre’s alternate name of “interactive fiction,” text adventures are far better equipped to deliver this sort of experience than they are to tackle the more elaborate plots typical of most novels. In place of plot, Alice in Wonderland offers an engaging setting filled with humor and intellectual play — the same recipe to which many a classic text adventure has hewed. And to all of these creative advantages must be added the very practical real-world advantage that the works of Lewis Carroll are long out of copyright.

It’s therefore a little strange, as Bishop also mused at the time he was making his proposal, how few adventure games prior to his had tackled Carroll directly. While plenty of authors, including three of the future Infocom Implementors working on the original PDP-10 Zork, had cribbed shamelessly from the master when designing puzzles, games explicitly set in Carroll’s world had been fairly few and far between. The most prominent text adventure among them was the work of one D.A. Asherman, who had written a freeware game with the long-winded title of The Adventures of Alice Who Went through the Looking-Glass and Came Back Not Much Changed that became very popular as a “door game” on many computer bulletin boards. And yet, the love of wordplay that runs through all of Carroll’s work notwithstanding, the most prominent and artistically successful of the interactive Alice in Wonderland adaptations prior to Bishop’s wasn’t a text adventure at all, but rather an action-adventure written by Dale Disharoon for Spinnaker Software’s brief-lived Windham Classics line of children’s literary adaptations — and even that winsomely charming game had been rather overshadowed by the even more winsomely charming Below the Root, also written by Disharoon using the same engine.

David Bishop’s own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland takes the obvious approach, but is none the worse for it. In other words, if Wonderland never transcends its derivative nature, it never embarrasses itself either. After an opening sequence sends you plunging down that famous rabbit hole, you’re left to wander freely through a geography of about 110 rooms, stuffed with all of the expected characters and set-pieces, from a hookah-smoking caterpillar to a grinning cat, from a mad tea party to a decidedly odd game of croquet. (Consciously excluded in the interest of preserving material for a potential sequel were any elements from Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll’s follow-up to Alice in Wonderland, even though the two books are so much of a piece that it’s difficult even for many dedicated Carroll fans to keep track of what comes from which.)

Certainly Bishop had heaps and heaps of great material to work with in turning Alice in Wonderland into a game. Countless bits from the novel are all but screaming to be made into puzzles; not for nothing have variations on the “drink me” potion that makes Alice smaller and the “eat me” cake that makes her bigger appeared in dozens if not hundreds of adventure games over the years. Bishop uses all this raw material well, giving us a big, open, non-linear game with every bit as much appeal as Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scroll’s previous best take on this classic old-school approach. As with Guild of Thieves, it’s immensely rewarding to explore Wonderland at your own pace and in your own fashion, poking and prodding, discovering its many unexpected interconnections, solving puzzles and enjoying the dopamine rush each time your score increments on its slow march from 0 to 501.

One of Wonderland‘s animations.

Best of all, Wonderland, even more so than Guild of Thieves, remains quite consistently fair throughout its considerable breadth. Straightforward puzzles to get you into the swing of things and get some points in the bank gradually give way to more challenging ones that require more careful experimentation with the workings of its world, but there never comes a point where challenge regresses into abuse. When I played it recently, I managed to finish the entire thing without once resorting to the hints.1 I have to suspect that Wonderland succeeds as it does, despite coming from a company with a very mixed record in the fairness department, because of the inordinately long time it spent in development, for long stretches of which Bishop’s game was largely just sitting around waiting for the layers of technology being built to live beneath it to be completed. The manual lists no fewer than twelve testers, plus an entire outside firm (“Top Star Computer Service”) contracted for the task. This is vastly more attention than was paid to polishing any previous Magnetic Scrolls game, and serves as further confirmation of my longstanding thesis that there is a very nearly linear relationship between the playability of any given adventure game and the amount of testing it received.

Virgin’s Nick Alexander celebrates with Anita Sinclair his company’s signing of Magnetic Scrolls.

After some uncomfortable months in limbo without a publisher, Magnetic Scrolls finally at the tail end of 1989 signed a deal with Virgin Mastertronic, a vigorous up-and-comer with the weight of Richard Branson’s transatlantic media empire behind it, to release their still work-in-progress Wonderland along with four more games to follow in the two years after it. Anita Sinclair did her best to create the impression that Magnetic Scrolls and Wonderland had been the subject of a veritable bidding war among publishers. (“You know you’ve cracked it when you’ve got publishers knocking on your door instead of you having to knock on theirs.”) In reality, though, much of the industry had decided that future success lay in getting away from text, and remained skeptical of Magnetic Scrolls’s elaborate hybrid of an adventure game, which despite all the flash still contained some 70,000 good-old-fashioned words to read. The deal with Virgin undoubtedly had much to do with the fact that David Bishop, ever the games industry’s vagabond insider, had himself just signed there as a producer.

Magnetic Scrolls had gone dark for almost the entirety of the previous year in the wake of their jilting by Rainbird, but now greeted 1990 with as much aggressive hype as they could muster, trumpeting their forthcoming return to adventuring prominence and hopefully dominance. The young men who then as now made up the vast majority of gaming journalists were as obliging as ever, jumping at any chance to spend time in the presence of the fetching Anita Sinclair. The result was a blizzard of teasers and previews in virtually every prominent British gaming magazine. Sinclair wasn’t shy about laying it on thick: Wonderland would be “mind-blowing”; Wonderland was “like no adventure you’ve ever seen”; “when you see our next product your eyes are going to pop out.” Her interviewers copied it all down and regurgitated it faithfully in their articles, along with the usual asides about what a hot number their interviewee still was. It was sexist as hell, of course, but Sinclair had the self-assurance to use it to her advantage. There was a reason that Magnetic Scrolls had always enjoyed an enormous amount of free publicity from the magazines, and I’m afraid it wasn’t down to anything intrinsic to the games themselves.

Unfortunately, gamers in general proved markedly less enthused than Anita Sinclair’s smitten interviewers when Wonderland finally shipped for MS-DOS in late 1990, followed by versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Acorn Archimedes in 1991 (a planned Macintosh version never materialized). In contrast to the latest purely point-and-click graphical adventures like Lucasfilm’s The Secret of Monkey Island and Sierra’s King’s Quest V, Wonderland struck many as an awkward anachronism. And then of course the performance issues didn’t help. The game ran like a dog on the likes of an Amiga 500, still the heart of the European computer-gaming market. After the better part of a year of constant hype prior to its release, Wonderland disappeared without a trace almost as soon as people could actually walk into a store and buy it.

Having sunk everything into this white elephant of a game, Magnetic Scrolls was now in more serious trouble than ever; there were after all limits even to Anita Sinclair’s financial resources. They would complete just one more product for Virgin. Having recently managed to reacquire their back catalog from Rainbird/MicroProse — the terms of the lawsuit’s settlement otherwise remained undisclosed — they made a Magnetic Scrolls Collection that brought together Guild of Thieves, Corruption, and Fish! under the new Magnetic Windows interface. Dropped by Virgin for their games’ poor sales shortly thereafter, they embarked on a final desperate attempt to switch genres entirely. They started on a game called The Legacy: Realm of Terror, a horror-themed CRPG reminiscent of Dungeon Master, for MicroProse — ironically the very company they had just been suing (whether the publishing deal with MicroProse was connected with the terms of the settlement remains unknown). But Magnetic Scrolls ran completely out of money at last and went out of business well before completing the game; MicroProse wound up turning the work-in-progress over to other developers, who finished it and saw it released in 1993. Most of Magnetic Scrolls’s personnel, including driving force Anita Sinclair, left the games industry for other pursuits after their company shut its doors. “Sometimes I think I would like to write another game,” admitted Sinclair in a 2001 interview which marks one of the vanishingly few times she has spoken publicly about the company since its collapse, “but there are other problems to solve that would be more rewarding.”

What, then, shall we say in closing about Magnetic Scrolls?

For all their indulgent talk about interactive fiction as a literary medium, Magnetic Scrolls was always populated first and foremost by technologists, with technologists’ priorities. Apart from Corruption — perhaps not coincidentally one of their very worst games in design terms — everything they produced hewed to tried-and-true templates, evincing little of the restless eclecticism that always marked Infocom. The innovations found in Magnetic Scrolls’s games were rather technical innovations, and ones that perhaps too often added little to the games that contained them. Because it was cool and fun to implement from a programming point of view, they built an elaborate system of weights, sizes, and strengths into their games from the beginning, even though nothing in their game designs actually required or even acknowledged the existence of such a thing. Similarly, they made a parser capable of understanding lengthy, tangled constructions that no player in the wild was ever likely to type, while forgetting to implement many of the shorter phrases that they were. It’s easy enough to see Magnetic Windows and the interface built using it as the ultimate — and ultimately fatal — manifestations of this tendency. Like FTL Games, another heavily technology-driven developer, their endless tinkering with their tools paralyzed them, kept them from finishing the actual games that were their real mission as a company.

For Magnetic Scrolls, however, the case is a little more complicated than merely that of a factory which got too focused on the component widgets at the expense of the finished product. Even had they managed to find a publisher and release the very worthy Wonderland one or one and a half years earlier as a simple illustrated text adventure, it was hardly likely to have been a success. The fact is that there was no good solution to the problem Magnetic Scrolls found themselves facing as the 1980s expired: the problem of the imploded commercial appeal of text adventures, the only sorts of games they had ever made and the only ones they really knew how to make. Faced with a marketplace that simply wasn’t buying many text adventures anymore, what was a text-adventure developer to do? Short of a complete reinvention as a maker of point-and-click graphical adventures or games in some other genre entirely — a reinvention the company did try to undertake with The Legacy, but far too late — Magnetic Scrolls’s fate feels inevitable, regardless of the details of the individual decisions that may have slowed or hastened their demise. Meanwhile the luridly anonymous, very un-Magnetic Scrolls The Legacy shows where a more comprehensive reinvention must have led them. Was it worth sacrificing their identity to save their company? For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The marketplace forces that seemed almost to actively conspire against Magnetic Scrolls’s success almost as soon as they really got going has led, understandably enough, to no small bitterness on the part of the company’s principals. Already in Magnetic Scrolls’s twilight period, Anita Sinclair became known at conferences and trade shows for her rants about the alleged infantilization of computer games, about how the latest releases all assumed that players couldn’t or wouldn’t read. “When I was in the industry we were pioneers, paving the way for the future,” she said much later in 2001. “People [today] are aiming their games at younger and less sophisticated audiences. Today’s developers are writing in their minds to ten- to twelve-year-olds.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other former text-adventure developers, as well as by developers of the graphical adventures that did so much to kill text adventures, only to suffer a commercial collapse of their own that was almost as horrendous by the end of the 1990s. Easy and self-justifying though this line of argument is, there’s doubtless some truth to be found therein. Yet it can lead one to a dangerously incomplete conclusion in that it ignores the design sins that led so many of even the older and more sophisticated players Sinclair preferred to court to give up on the genre. Certainly Magnetic Scrolls’s own design record is decidedly spotty. It’s not hard to imagine a player encountering some of the cruelest, most unfair parts of The Pawn, Jinxter, or Corruption and saying, “I’m never playing a game like this again.” Magnetic Scrolls thought they could become “the British Infocom” by matching or exceeding Infocom technically, a task which alone among their peers they accomplished in many areas. What they failed to match — failed to even try to match — was Infocom’s attention to the non-technical details of game design, their rigorous process for taking a game from idea to polished final product.

And yet, lest we be too hard on them, the fact does remain that three of the six games Magnetic Scrolls produced (or six and a half if you count the freebie mini-adventure Myth) are actually good, perfectly recommendable old-school adventure games despite it all, giving the company an overall success-to-failure ratio matched by no other text-adventure maker not named Infocom. So, clearly they were doing something right despite it all. If they never quite succeeded in their ambition of becoming the British Infocom, they did succeed in becoming the next best thing: first among the field of also-rans. And, hey, a silver medal is an achievement in its own right, isn’t it?

(Sources: The One of July 1990; Zero of February 1990, March 1990, and October 1990; Games Machine of February 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1991; Aktueller Software Markt of June/July 1989; Amstrad Action of July 1989; Computer and Video Games of December 1989; Crash of February 1990; CU Amiga of July 1990; PC Player of September 1993; PC Zone of September 2001; Compute! of January 1993; Sinclair User of December 1986. And of course see Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for a trove of information on the games of Magnetic Scrolls and the company’s history.

As a final tribute to Magnetic Scrolls’s achievements, I do highly encourage any text-adventure fans among you who haven’t played Wonderland to give it a try sometime. You don’t even need to fiddle about with emulators, unless you just want to see the Magnetic Windows-driven interface in action in all its impressive if slightly unwieldy glory. The game is perfectly playable as an ordinary text adventure, played through the standard Magnetic interpreter for Magnetic Scrolls games, which is available, along with Wonderland itself, from Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial. For that matter, you can even now play Wonderland, along with all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games, online in your browser.)


  1. The one puzzle that can perhaps be deemed questionable requires you to manipulate Alice’s own body in a way that will only yield an error message from just about every other text adventure ever made. So, know ye, prospective players, that Wonderland allows you to close and open Alice’s left and right eyes individually. 

 
 

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A Time of Endings, Part 3: Mediagenic (or, The Patent from Hell)

On August 31, 1966, a 44-year-old electrical engineer named Ralph Baer had an epiphany whilst waiting for a colleague outside a New York City bus terminal. For reasons he would never be able to explain, his thoughts turned to the potential of an interactive version of television. The next day, he sat down in his office at Sanders Associates, the defense contractor where he worked as a senior engineer, and wrote down his ideas in the form of a four-page proposal. Over the course of the next four years, amidst many other distracting priorities and much internal politicking, Baer gradually turned his proposal into the concrete reality of a “TV Game” system. Sanders, a company with no experience in marketing consumer electronics, licensed the system to Magnavox, an Indiana-based television manufacturer, in 1971. Magnavox’s engineers then turned the TV Game into the Magnavox Odyssey, which was released in September of 1972 at a price of $100. Thus was the first home videogame console in history born.

That said, the Odyssey lacked many of the things people would soon come to expect from such a beast. Technically, it wasn’t a computing device at all, as it lacked a programmable brain in the form of a CPU. Instead the Odyssey was a solid-state electrical device that was “programmed” by rewiring its innards. Game cartridges were little patch boards that connected its resistors and potentiometers together in different ways, leading to different behaviors. As you might imagine, the number of such viable configurations was decidedly limited. The Odyssey shipped with twelve games that encompassed most of what the system was realistically capable of, ranging from Simon Says to roulette to table tennis. Most of the games relied on external components like screen overlays, scoring pads, and even decks of cards to accompany their primitive onscreen graphical presentations. While Magnavox released a handful of other games for separate purchase, the Odyssey had neither the flexibility nor the sales numbers to create a real “software” market, whether consisting of games published by Magnavox or by others. Best estimates today are that Magnavox sold perhaps a few hundred thousand Odysseys over about a three-year period.

In 1974, Magnavox was acquired by the Dutch electronics giant Philips. Coincidentally or not, the Odyssey was discontinued soon after, having never been viewed as much more than a low-priority curiosity by either Magnavox’s management or the retailers who sold it. It’s since gone down into history in largely the same way — as an historical curiosity, a would-be Atari VCS that was just a little too far ahead of its time.

Or it would have, anyway, if not for a patent for which Baer applied on March 22, 1971. Granted on April 17, 1973, United States Patent 3,728,480 — one of several granted in connection with the Odyssey — would be a thorn in the side of the young videogame industry for more than twenty years. “Do [insert everyday activity here] on a computer” patents, endless debates over slide-to-unlock and rounded corners, billion-dollar judgments… all of the litigious insanity that greets us on the technology-news sites today began with what soon became known in videogame circles as simply the Baer patent — two little words which could terrify videogame executives like few others.

Before we proceed, we should take a moment to review the ostensible definition of a patent. The United States patent statutes in effect at the time of the Odyssey patents explain that they are meant to protect a person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new [emphasis mine] and useful improvement thereof.” Patents accomplish this by securing for the inventor an exclusive license to the patented technology for a period of twenty years from the patent’s application date or seventeen years from its issuance date, whichever is longer. The adjective “new” in the statute is critical; a patented process must be a genuinely new process. The existence of “prior art” — whether known or unknown to the holder of the patent when the patent was applied for, and whether said prior art was itself ever patented or not — immediately invalidates a patent as soon as it’s proved to have existed. Just as critically, a patent does not protect ideas, only implementations. One can, in other words, patent a specific type of engine installed in a car, but one cannot patent the abstract idea of a horseless carriage itself.1 Both of these qualifications were well-established well before the advent of the computer age, yet for some reason courts have often struggled markedly to apply them correctly and consistently in the realm of digital technology. In the case of the famous — some would say infamous — Baer patent, there is good reason to question the courts’ decisions on both counts.

In 1974, shortly before Philips acquired them, Magnavox instituted an intermittent hobby of suing videogame makers over the Baer patent. They alleged that Atari had infringed on the patent with their Pong videogame. Although the Atari machine still didn’t have a CPU and only played the one game, internally at least it was a much more advanced piece of technology than the Odyssey, built using integrated circuits — i.e., chips — rather than the discrete components of Baer’s gadget. For this reason, there could be little question of Pong infringing on the specific implementation of a videogame console described in the Baer patent, a point Atari initially argued with gusto. In reply, Magnavox made the audacious argument that the implementation didn’t really matter in this case. In apparent defiance of the patent statutes themselves, they claimed the Baer patent really did apply to the idea of a videogame, evoking in their defense the fuzzy legal concept of a “pioneer patent”: a process or device so genuinely new and groundbreaking that it should be afforded an unusual amount of leeway by the court when it comes to determining what is abstract idea and what is concrete implementation. The pioneer patent is that most dangerous thing in law, an amorphous abstraction rather than an absolute stipulation. No patent is stamped with a “P” for “pioneer” when it’s granted, and the law has no clear mechanism for dividing patents into “pioneering” and “non-pioneering” categories thereafter. Officially, pioneering patents barely exist at all. Instead, the court system prefers to speak of, as legal scholar Alan L. Durham puts it, “a spectrum that embraces various degrees of inventiveness,” with the pioneer patent enjoying “a potentially broader scope of equivalence because it is not hemmed in by large numbers of similar inventions in the prior art.” In such vagueness lies potential madness.

After acquiring Magnavox, Philips continued to pursue patent-infringement cases against Atari and others. Supported enthusiastically by Ralph Baer, who now stood to gain millions from his old TV Game, Philips rode the nebulous concept of the pioneer patent hard. Baer’s own take on what his patent should cover was stunningly broad. “Our patents,” he would always insist, “dealt with the interaction between machine-controlled and manually-controlled symbols onscreen. If there was a change in the path, direction, or velocity of the machine-controlled symbol immediately after ‘contacting’ — i.e., coming into coincidence with — one of the manually-controlled symbols onscreen, then the game exhibiting these functions infringed our patents.” Not only would such a description have to encompass just about every graphical computer or videogame ever made, one could even imagine it being applied to the non-game GUI-based computer operating systems that began to appear in the 1980s, which relied on manipulating symbols on the screen through “contacting” them with the mouse cursor.

There was, however, a huge danger for Philips in claiming that essentially every videogame should be covered by the Baer patent. The painful fact was that the Magnavox Odyssey, while it was indisputably the first home videogame console, was far from the first videogame, full stop. The two most obvious and incontrovertible examples of prior art were Tennis for Two, a game built by American physicist William Higinbotham for play on an oscilloscope in 1958, and Spacewar!, a game programmed by a trio of MIT hackers for play on a DEC PDP-1 minicomputer equipped with a vector-graphics terminal in 1962. In other words, if Baer’s patent truly applied to every videogame ever then it should never have been granted at all. To head off this line of attack, Philips engaged in a careful exercise in triangulation. Having begun their argument by implying that the Baer patent should cover every videogame, regardless of the details of its technical implementation, they concluded it by stipulating that it should only apply to videogames that were played on ordinary television or monitor screens. Did they want to have their cake and eat it too? Perhaps, but they would be remarkably successful in court.

Atari elected to settle out of court before the case was decided, agreeing to pay Philips to license the patent. It’s very possible that Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder and president, may have seen the deal as counter-intuitively beneficial to his own company. Atari was established and doing very well, and could afford to pay off Philips. The many would-be competitors who were now attempting to get into the same videogame space, however, had shallower pockets and far less clout to negotiate a favorable deal of their own with Philips. And, indeed, a whole clutch of small companies which Philips elected to sue during this period were driven out of the business, unable to muster the resources to even begin to mount a defense against a company the size of Philips. Here we can already see in action one of the most nefarious effects of patent law as it too often gets applied in the modern economy: the way patents get used not, as originally intended, by the little guys to protect themselves against the rapaciousness of more powerful forces, but by said more powerful forces to keep said little guys out. From the date of Atari’s settlement forward, the only companies introducing new home-videogame consoles in the United States would be big, established one who could, like Atari, afford to reach an accommodation with Philips: companies like Coleco, Milton Bradley, and Mattel. (The last did try to fight the Baer patent in court on behalf of their Intellivision console, but legal precedent was now against them; they lost and agreed to pay up like the others.)

In September of 1982, Philips, now receiving payments from all of the makers of videogame consoles, decided to broaden the field further by suing for the first time a maker of videogame software. They chose for their first target Activision, the most famous and successful of all the third-party makers of Atari VCS cartridges. Activision conducted the most spirited and determined defense yet. Motions and counter-motions flew back and forth for years, while the industry surrounding the two warring parties changed greatly. The Great Videogame Crash of 1983 meant the end of most of Philips’s steady income from the patent licensees, leaving them more motivated than ever to wrangle as large a sum as possible out of Activision for their alleged transgressions of the boom years. At last, on March 17, 1986, the verdict came down in Phillip’s favor; case-law precedent, which was well-established by now for the Baer patent, is a difficult thing to fight. Still, in a bid to buy some more time if nothing else, Activision filed their motion to appeal the very next day.

As the case continued to grind through the courts, much change came to Activision. In January of 1987, the company’s founder Jim Levy, after struggling for years to remake his erstwhile purveyor of Atari VCS action games into a purveyor of artsy and innovative computer games, was dismissed by a board that was frustrated by years of ugly losses. Stepping into his shoes was Bruce Davis, who promised the board a return to profitability by retrenching and refocusing on proven genres in proven markets.

We’ve already had considerable opportunity to observe Davis as head of Activision, especially in the context of his troubled relationship with Infocom, the text-adventure specialist whose acquisition had been one of his predecessor’s last major moves. In the beginning, Davis delivered on his promise to Activision’s board to start the company making money again. Activision announced their first profitable quarter in four years just six months after he took over, and continued to be modestly but consistently profitable for the two years that followed. Yet he accomplished the turnaround in ways that seemed almost willfully crafted to be as uninspiring as possible. Davis took to talking about Portal, the innovative “electronic novel” that this humble writer still considers one of the most interesting things any incarnation of Activision ever released, as his number-one exemplar of the sort of product Activision wouldn’t be green-lighting in the future. My fellow historian Alex Smith characterizes Davis’s strategy as the pursuit of “a steady stream of low-level successes rather than high-quality, high-risk, high-reward software.” In terms of games, this meant a series of middling titles, as often as not licensed from whatever media properties were reasonably trendy but not too expensive, that were often competent but seldom exciting — like, one might say, Bruce Davis himself. Like too many gaming executives before and after him, he thought of games as commodities, not creative works. To be fair, he did push his company into HyperCard applications and CD-ROM early enough to count as a pioneer, but in other areas his views were consistently regressive rather than progressive. His views on games for women read as particularly unfortunate today; he said women would never be a viable market due to vaguely defined “profound” differences he claimed to exist between the sexes. In much of this, Davis, lacking any personal engagement with his company’s products, was a slave to the conventional wisdom of the stock analysts and financiers.

While few found him as personally unpleasant as his growing reputation as the most soulless of chief executives might suggest, the aspect of Davis’s character that most consistently frustrated those who worked with and for him was his tendency to make sweeping unilateral decisions without consulting them. Combined with what often seemed a somewhat shaky grasp of basic human nature, it could make for a toxic brew. For instance, there was his unilateral decision to demand hundreds of thousands in reparations from some of the most important figures still working at Infocom for allegedly misrepresenting the value of their company before its sale to Activision. Davis seemed nonplussed when it was pointed out to him that this might affect morale and thus the performance of the already troubled subsidiary.

By far the most widely mocked of Davis’s unilateral decisions was that of changing the name of Activision in May of 1988 to Mediagenic. He claimed the new name would free the company of the baggage of its storied early years, would emphasize that this latest incarnation was far removed from the one that had so successfully sold videogame cartridges to Atari VCS owners in the early 1980s. After all, the newly christened Mediagenic now sold a much wider range of entertainment software for computers as well as consoles, and was moving beyond games as well into creativity and productivity software. Of course, what Davis labeled diversification, others might label a lack of any coherent focus. Seen in this light, the name change was emblematic of a company that did indeed seem to have lost its very identity, that was trying to do a little bit of everything without doing any of it particularly well. With few to no products worth getting really excited over, Mediagenic’s catalog was a dismayingly anonymous collective. “We have a lot of legs to stand on,” said Davis. Perhaps a few too many. The name change succeeded only in making him and his company the butt of constant jokes for the rest of his tenure. William Volk, who worked at Activision/Mediagenic at the time, told me that the consensus there among everyone not named Bruce Davis was that the name change was “the stupidest decision in the world”: “We hated the name, we called it Mediumgenitals.”

But perhaps an even more damaging manifestation of Davis’s unilateral tendencies was his handling of the Philips lawsuit, which continued to hover over Mediagenic throughout his tenure like a Sword of Damocles. Stan Roach, one of those who reported directly to Davis, believes that Davis felt his background as an intellectual-property attorney qualified him to take exclusive responsibility for the management of the case. In May of 1988, just days after the name change was announced, Mediagenic’s appeal of the Baer patent case was rejected by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case moved on to the damages phase. Davis continued to play his cards so close to the vest thereafter that when the damages verdict arrived in March of 1990, everyone was shocked to discover it was more than large enough to constitute an existential threat. An atomic bomb no one had seen coming had just been dropped on them out of a clear blue sky.

The timing could hardly been much worse; at that point, Mediagenic’s bottom line was already looking pretty ugly. Although they were still roughly breaking even in terms of day-to-day sales, Mediagenic over the course of 1989 had written off a pile of Davis’s more unprofitable ventures, such as the TenPointO productivity line whose name made “Mediagenic” sound like a stroke of marketing genius. And, most damagingly, they had finally closed the Infocom subsidiary Davis had never really wanted in the first place, a move which alone carried with it a hit to the bottom line of some $5 million. It all came as part of yet another of Bruce Davis’s unilateral moves. With all of Mediagenic’s products in the field of non-gaming software and, indeed, in the field of computer software in general under-performing, he had decided to return his company to its roots as a maker primarily of cartridge games. “PCs will never have the penetration into homes that videogames do,” he said, citing the cheaper price and greater ease of use of the consoles. While he wasn’t wrong to take note of those factors, which were indeed doing much to make the Nintendo Entertainment System one of the most successful consumer-electronics products in the history of the American consumer economy, Mediagenic’s tepid stable of games had little chance of seriously competing on the Nintendo against the likes of Zelda and Mario. Nevertheless, in October of 1989 Davis said that he intended to pull entirely out of all products other than games. That this move came less than eighteen months after the name change to Mediagenic that had been made to facilitate the exact opposite strategy — to establish a new identity as a maker of a wide range of software — must be one of the more damning indictments of his overall leadership.

In executing the pivot, Mediagenic would take the initial financial hit that must result from it in a single fiscal year, then hopefully be set to grow again thereafter. For fiscal 1990, which ended on March 31, 1990, Mediagenic was therefore set to register a loss of some $13 million, about three times as much as all of the profits Davis had so far managed to realize during his tenure. And then, with just days remaining in the fiscal year, the final verdict on damages in the Philips case came down. Mediagenic was punished resoundingly for their earlier refusal to settle. They were to pay a lump sum of $6.6 million to Philips for violating the Baer patent — money they simply didn’t have.

Mediagenic’s only alternative was to negotiate with Philips for leniency on the terms of payment, but the prospects for the latter’s forbearance looked to be decidedly limited. Offered an ownership stake in Mediagenic in lieu of cash, Philips refused. By this point, Philips had launched yet another patent lawsuit, this time against Nintendo, the new 800-pound gorilla of the videogame industry. Many inside Mediagenic believed that Philips was determined to play hardball, was willing to completely destroy Mediagenic if necessary, in order to set an example for Nintendo of what happened to those who didn’t reach an out-of-court settlement.2 At any rate, the best Mediagenic’s negotiating team could manage was to get Philips to let them defer payment for two years, until 1992, whereupon they could pay in installments of $150,000 per month. Yet even that act of mercy cast a huge pall over the company’s future; $150,000 was an awful lot of money for any business — much less a moribund one like Mediagenic — to give away for no return month after month. Lenders, already made skeptical by Bruce Davis’s strategic U-turns alongside his company’s stagnant sales, refused to grant the credit he needed to complete the restructuring necessary to finish implementing his latest plan. Caught out on a limb, Mediagenic went into free fall, defaulting on creditor after creditor as product development came to a virtual standstill. With little new to sell, their sales dropped from $64.1 million in fiscal 1990 to $28.8 million for the year ending March 31, 1991, leaving them worse off than ever even as the clock continued to tick down on the fateful day when they would have to start making payments to Philips.

When a company as large and important as Mediagenic had become to their industry collapses, it never does so in isolation. Among the people Mediagenic suddenly weren’t paying was their network of so-called “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who sold their products through Mediagenic’s large, well-established distribution network. These publishers would deliver product to Mediagenic, who would then pay them for it — minus their fee, of course — after selling it on to retail stores. Amidst the chaos of 1990, the second part of that arrangement never happened. Brian Fargo of Interplay, one of Mediagenic’s affiliated labels, described to me the snowball effect that ensued for his company.

It was a double whammy. Imagine this. We ship $500,000 worth of product to Mediagenic, and they turn around and ship it to retail. Mediagenic doesn’t pay me the half a million; they may or may not have gotten paid by retail. Who knows, right? Then I go to the retailers and say, “Mediagenic’s going out of business, so we’re going to go direct now.” They say, “Great! We’ve got half a million dollars worth of your product here.” We say, “Yeah, we know, but we already didn’t get paid for that once.” They say, “Well, you’ve go to take it back from us if you want to continue to do business with us.” So I had to eat my product twice. That almost wiped us out.

Fargo says that Interplay almost certainly would have gone down as collateral damage if not for a new game called Castles, the first they released after leaving Mediagenic, which became a big hit: “Castles saved the company.” Other affiliated labels, such as the Amiga specialists MicroIllusions, weren’t so lucky, going under even as Mediagenic still straggled on, at least ostensibly alive.

Outside developers who created software for publication under Mediagenic’s own imprint were likewise caught in the undertow. When Mediagenic stiffed the Miller brothers of Cyan Software, it very nearly marked the end of their illustrious careers in game development when they had barely begun to show their potential. Thankfully, they would find a way to pull it together and make Myst, by some measures the most successful single computer game of the 1990s, for Brøderbund. Had that game come out on the Mediagenic label, it would single-handedly have solved the problem of the Philips judgment. But then, a Mediagenic Myst would have been unlikely under Bruce Davis; the Miller brothers have told of how they kept asking Mediagenic for permission to make an adult game instead of children’s titles long prior to Myst, only to be told to “stick to children’s games.”

By December of 1990, Mediagenic’s affiliated labels and outside developers were all gone along with most of the company’s other business relationships. Mediagenic was foundering in a sea of red ink, with a bottom-line loss for the year of $19.7 million, and was about to be de-listed from the stock exchange as a lost cause. Seemingly the only question remaining was when and how the inevitable liquidation would happen. It’s at this fraught point that there enters into our story an unexpected wildcard in the form of one Bobby Kotick.

In later years, Kotick would become perhaps the foremost living embodiment of modern mainstream gaming, with its play-it-safe big-bucks ethos of sequels, franchises, and established genres. Kotick’s habit of saying publicly what many other gaming executives are only thinking has made him a lightning rod for people who would like to see more innovation and thematic ambition in games. One might be tempted to lump him into the same category as Bruce Davis, with whom his general philosophy of business initially seems to have a lot in common, but to do so would be to ignore a very fundamental difference: Kotick, whatever one personally thinks of the games his company releases, has shown an undeniable knack for making games that huge masses of people want to buy. He’s as celebrated by the business press as he is vilified by the artsier corners of the gaming world; he could likely wallpaper his doubtless spacious house with all of his awards from the likes of Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. How could the business press not love him? He turned a $440,000 investment into a $4.5 billion company in 25 years.

When he trod unto the scene of the slow-motion Mediagenic car crash, however, Bobby Kotick was just a fast-talking 27-year-old go-getter with outsize ambitions. Tender though he was in years, he was already a hardened veteran of the technology business. He had kicked around the home-computer industry for much of the 1980s, using glibness, persistence, and sheer force of personality to win him access to people that would never have glanced twice at him on the basis of his paltry experience and education. In 1987, in a truly audacious move for a 24-year-old, he had tried to put together a package to buy Commodore in order to market the Amiga the way it deserved. Laudable though that goal was, Irving Gould, the crusty old Canadian financier who owned most of the stock at Commodore and ultimately called all the shots, soon sent the young interloper packing. Three years later, he had been involved in lots of small deals, but was still looking for that elusive big break. In the meantime, he and a pair of partners named Brian Kelly and Howard Marks had incorporated themselves under the name of BHK, and were making investments here and there. Observing Mediagenic’s sorry state, they decided to make their biggest one yet.

BHK bought up the 25 percent of Mediagenic’s shares owned by Imasco Venture Holdings, a consortium of investors who were now all too eager to sell, for a cost of just $440,000. The price they paid was as good a measure as any of just how far Mediagenic had fallen; it meant that the entire company was now theoretically worth less than $2 million. BHK’s initial plan for their investment is a little unclear. One reader has told me of sharing a car with Bobby Kotick on the way to an E3 event many years later when the latter was apparently in an unusually candid mood, even for him. Kotick, says my reader, confessed on that evening that he originally didn’t think there was much of anything left worth saving at Mediagenic, and that BHK first bought the shares strictly as a tax write-off. According to this version of events, only after looking more closely at the company they’d bought into and observing the allure that still clung to the old Activision name among gaming veterans did he begin to think that the planned tax write-off might in fact be the shot at the big time he’d been looking for for so long.

Regardless of the original motivation for the purchase, what happened next is better understood. BHK now constituted the largest single owner of Mediagenic stock, and decided to use that leverage in what amounted to a hostile-takeover bid. They showed the other shareholders that they could secure another $5 million in cash and credit, and that they had hammered out an agreement in principle with the major lenders to exercise some forbearance in their collections efforts. BHK was willing to use these things to keep Mediagenic’s doors open, at least for now, on one condition: Bruce Davis and the rest of his management team would have to go, to be replaced by BHK’s own, with Bobby Kotick in the CEO’s chair and Brian Kelly as CFO. The shareholders quickly agreed. After all, the only alternative that remained was immediate liquidation, which would net them virtually nothing, and they had little loyalty left to Bruce Davis, the man they accused — and not without cause — of having badly mismanaged Mediagenic from well before the patent judgment that had proved the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. On February 22, 1991, Davis stepped down and Kotick stepped up. He controlled Mediagenic; now he just needed to save it. “Given the company’s bleak and deteriorating financial condition, basically this is a turnaround situation,” he said to the press in the understatement of the year.

He knew that the turnaround was dead in the water if he couldn’t work out something with Philips. His first significant act as CEO was therefore to meet with them. The only way you can possibly get paid anything at all, Kotick told them, is if you agree to accept equity in lieu of cash. Once again, Philips flatly refused, whereupon Kotick dropped his key card for Mediagenic’s offices on the table and walked. “Good luck,” he said on his way out the door, convinced he would have to liquidate Mediagenic for the tax write-off after all. Less than thirty minutes later, Philips called him to tell him they would take the equity. (Bruce Davis believes that Philips agreed to the deal because Steve Wynn, a casino mogul who had been something of a mentor to Kotick, called in some favors with friends on Philips’s board, but this remains speculative.)

Kotick slashed the employees rolls, already down to 100 at the time of the takeover from a high of 250 a couple of years before, to just 25 by the end of 1991. He negotiated a lump-sum payout to get out of Mediagenic’s lease of a large Silicon Valley office park, taking a cramped hole of a place in Los Angeles instead. But he wouldn’t be able to cost-cut his way out of the crisis; the company remained fundamentally insolvent. “As much as I’d like to think I provided some grand vision,” Kotick later said, “our first year we were pretty much blocking and tackling.” He watched parts of the company literally disappearing around him each week, as creditors showed up to reclaim equipment that hadn’t been paid for.

So, it quickly became obvious, if it hadn’t been so from the beginning, that $5 million wasn’t going to be enough to set things right. There was only one possible way out of this mess. Using all of his considerable powers of persuasion, Kotick finalized the terms of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy — i.e., a bankruptcy constituting a reorganization rather than a liquidation — with Mediagenic’s creditors in November, getting most of them, as he earlier had Philips, to accept equity stakes in lieu of cash they would never see anyway if the company was allowed to fail entirely. (As “the Bandito,” Amazing Computing‘s rumor columnist, wryly put it, “You’re doing so bad they have to let you keep going.”) The previous stockholders would be left with just 4.2 percent of the company, the rest going into the hands of the likes of Philips, Nintendo (Mediagenic owed them millions for cartridges Nintendo had manufactured but never been paid for), and Sony Pictures (Bruce Davis’s mania for licenses had come home to roost in the form of huge outstanding bills for the licensed games). The company emerged from bankruptcy the next year, leaner and humbled but ready to make a go of it again under their dynamic young CEO. Best of all, the company emerged from the bankruptcy as Activision again rather than Mediagenic. Everyone preferred to forget that the ill-advised name change had ever happened. What with plenty of lenders willing to defer but not to forget much of the rest of what had happened during the Bruce Davis years, it was still going to be an uphill climb. Yet for the first time it was starting to look like they might just have a fighting chance.

In the most literal sense, then, Activision — we too can go back to using that name again! — never died at all, which perhaps makes this story a little out of place amidst this series of articles about endings. Yet the trauma the company went through was so extreme, and the remaking it would undergo under Bobby Kotick so complete, that I trust no one will look too askance at its inclusion here. The Kotick-led version of Activision — Activision 4.0, we might say — was headquartered in a different city entirely, and would employ only a handful of the same people. We’ll take up the continuing story of Activision 4.0, that most unlikely of phoenixes, later on.

In the meantime, what shall we say in closing about the pre-Kotick Activision? Certainly the final finanical reckoning isn’t terribly kind; the company ran a loss for six of its eleven years of existence. After those first few golden years when the Atari VCS was king and Activision 1.0 made the best games for the system, bar none, Activision could never seem to settle on an identity and make it stick. The occasional interesting title aside, neither Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 nor Bruce Davis’s Activision 3.0 ever felt truly relevant in any holistic sense. Davis’s small-ball approach in particular only served to prove that you really do need to swing for the fences every once in a while.

But rather than continue to poke and prod the muddled history of Activisions 2.0 and 3.0, let’s consider one last time the patent judgment that — whilst giving due deference to all of Bruce Davis’s mistakes — ultimately did them in. It’s rather blackly amusing to consider that the lawsuit which took out Mediagenic and made collateral damage out of so many affiliated labels and outside developers should have come from Philips, who were busy at the same time screwing over another huge swathe of the American games industry with their vaporware CD-I platform. So, here we see yet more of the reasons that so many people who were around the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s lapse into a stream of curses even today at the merest mention of the name of Philips. Philips couldn’t have done a better job of sowing chaos and discord had they been a double agent hired by Nintendo to complete the destruction of the last of their console’s competition on home computers. But, sadly, the fact that Philips also sued Nintendo rather puts paid to that rather delightful conspiracy theory, doesn’t it?

In the end, the Baer patent netted some $100 million for Philips by Ralph Baer’s own estimation — not a bad financial legacy for the Magnavox Odyssey, a commercially middling (at best) product they inherited and soon cancelled. Baer himself was rewarded with a substantial piece of each settlement negotiated or lawsuit won, and remained to the end of his life unapologetic, claiming what he had received was only his just rewards. While I respect the man’s huge achievements in the field of videogames as well as other areas of electrical engineering, I must say that I don’t agree with him on this point, and must admit that the legal ugliness does somewhat taint his legacy in my eyes. None of the home-videogame systems that followed the Magnavox Odyssey bore much of anything in common with it technically, while the evidence that it directly inspired to any appreciable degree anything that followed is uncertain at best. Of course, it’s also true that Bruce Davis, who had quite a wide litigious streak of his own, doesn’t necessarily make for the most sympathetic of victims. And yet it’s still worth asking whether he deserved to see his company ruined over a videogame console that hadn’t been sold in fifteen years, just as in the bigger picture it’s worth asking what the $100 million Philips made off the Baer patent was really rewarding them for. While we’re at it, it may also be worth asking how different a place the world would be today if, say, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn had chosen to go the route of Ralph Baer and Philips, had chosen to patent and aggressively protect their TCP/IP protocol that underpins the free and open modern Internet — or if Tim Berners-Lee had done the same to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that sits atop it.

Unfortunately, questions like this these will continue to crop up with distressing frequency as we continue on this little voyage through computer history. And more’s the pity, my friends… more’s the pity.

(Sources: San Francisco Chronicle of May 18 1988, May 25 1988, October 4 1988, October 29 1988, November 14 1988, November 22 1988, January 17 1989, May 15 1989, November 2 1989, March 16 1990, May 5 1990, June 2 1990, September 29 1990, November 1 1990, January 11 1991, January 23 1991, February 27 1991, July 11 1991, October 5 1991, and December 2 1991; San Jose Mercury News of July 27 1987, January 8 1988, January 27 1988, May 14 1988, May 15 1988, May 18 1988, and October 20 1989; Sierra News Magazine of Autumn 1989; Questbusters of April 1991, July 1991, and August 1992; Compute! of January 1989; New York Times of January 25 2004; Amazing Computing of April 1989, August 1989, June 1990, July 1990, January 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; the books Patent Law Essentials: A Concise Guide by Alan L. Durham and Monopoly on Wheels: Henry Ford and the Seldon Automotive Patent by William Greenleaf. Online sources include an article on Gamasutra; the articles “By Any Other Name,” “The Baer Essentials,” and “A Magnavox Odyssey” on Alex Smith’s videogame-history blog; United States Patent 3,728,480; an archive of documents relating to the Baer patents and especially the Philips v. Magnavox suit at the University of New Hampshire School of Law; Robyn Miller’s GDC 2013 postmortem on the making of Myst. My thanks go to William Volk and Brian Fargo for very enlightening interviews about these times. My thanks to Yeechang Lee, an investment banker who told me about a very interesting conversation he had with Bobby Kotick. And my huge thanks once again go to Alex Smith, who shared the fruits of his own research in these subjects, among them Mediagenic’s 10K financial statements for fiscal 1990 and fiscal 1991, a summary of his interview with Bruce Davis, and his own valuable insights. The last notwithstanding, it should be understood that this article’s final judgments on the Ralph Baer patent, Bruce Davis, and everything and everyone else are my own alone, so don’t send your hate mail to Alex!)


  1. My choice of examples isn’t an entirely random one. There is in fact an interesting parallel to the Baer patent from the early days of the automotive industry. In 1895, one George Seldon was granted United States Patent 549,160, describing a “safe, simple, and cheap road locomotive, light in weight, easy to control, and possessing sufficient power to overcome any ordinary inclination.” He granted the rights to his patent to an organization called the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers. ALAM in turn demanded a licensing fee from anyone attempting to make a gas-powered automobile, regardless of the others details of its engineering. The organization existed solely for the purpose of litigating and accepting these fees, never manufacturing any products of their own. ALAM thus has a good claim to being the world’s first patent troll.

    When Henry Ford began making cars of his own without paying ALAM, the latter went so far as to threaten to sue anyone who bought a Ford automobile. Ford replied that “the art [of the automobile] would have been just as far advanced today if Mr. Selden had never been born.” At last, the Ford Motor Company won their case against ALAM on appeal in 1911. The patent was due to expire the following year anyway, but the case did establish an important legal precedent that would sadly be often neglected with the coming of the computer age. 

  2. The story of the lawsuit Philips launched against Nintendo is a fascinating one in its own right, if a little far afield from my usual focus on computer rather than console games. It’s fairly well established, if largely only circumstantially, that Nintendo agreed to license their Zelda character to Philips for use on the Philips CD-I — an action that was so out of character for Nintendo as to read as inexplicable by any other light — as part of a settlement. (My fellow historian Alex Smith recently asked Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America about this; Lincoln said the story does jibe with his recollection.) Even more interestingly, if also more speculatively, William Volk, formerly of Mediagenic/Activision, believes that the settlement barred Nintendo from making a CD-based product alone or in partnership with anyone other than Philips for a certain period of time. This in turn blew up a plan Nintendo and Sony had hatched to make a CD add-on for Nintendo’s consoles, leading Sony to make their standalone PlayStation console instead. It also explains why Nintendo in 1996 made the Nintendo 64 a cartridge-based console when everyone else had moved to CDs; the settlement barred them from following suit. 

 
 

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