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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Pirates!

Pirates!

Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle, the million-selling hit that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the golden age of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. She apparently decided that she could indeed accept Meier as he was; in time she would become his first wife. And yet that was only one of the two life-changing seeds planted on that trip. Meier now had pirates on the brain, and the result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented.

That said, the reality of creativity is often much messier than writers like me with our preference for tidy narratives would prefer. Old habits dying hard, Meier first conceived of the game that would become Pirates! as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Meier couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner for quite some time after his return from the Caribbean, while he went back to business as usual inside Wild Bill’s simulation-industrial complex, making military porn for the Tom Clancy generation: designing and programming a World War II submarine simulation called Silent Service, developing the “Command Series” of strategic wargames with Ed Bever, giving vital help to Arnold Hendrick’s Gunship development team.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

Meier was inspired to pick up his pirate game again by a seemingly innocuous bit of technological plumbing developed by Gregg Tavares, a MicroProse programmer who specialized in user interfaces and the decorative graphics and menus that went around the heart of their simulations. Like programmers at many other companies around this time, Tavares had developed what amounted to a very simplistic windowing engine for the Commodore 64, allowing one to wrap text messages or menus or graphics into windows and place them in arbitrary spots on the screen quickly and easily. “We had this way of bringing the game to life in a series of pictures and text, almost like a literary-ish — for the time — approach,” Meier says. It started him thinking in terms for which MicroProse was not exactly renowned: in terms of storytelling, in terms of adventure.

With the idea starting to come together at last, Meier soon declared Pirates! to be his official next project. In contrast to the large (by 1986 standards) team that was still busy with Gunship, the original Commodore 64 Pirates! would be created by a team of just 2.5: Meier as designer and sole programmer and Michael Haire as artist, with Arnold Hendrink coming aboard a bit later to do a lot of historical research and help with other design aspects of the game (thus returning a number of huge favors that Meier had done his own troubled Gunship project). Meier, never a fan of design documents or elaborate project planning, worked as he still largely works to this day, by programming iteration after iteration over the course of a year or so and putting them in front of a large pool of testers that included members of two local Commodore user groups, keeping what worked and cutting what didn’t to make room for other ideas. By project’s end, he would estimate that he had cut as much code from the game as was still present in the finished version.

Stealey was, to say the least, ambivalent about the project. “I said to Bill, ‘I’m going to work on this game about pirates,'” says Meier. “And he said, ‘Pirates? Wait a minute, there are no airplanes in pirates. Wait a minute, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be a cool game.'” Stealey’s disapproval was an obvious result of his personal fixation on all things modern military, but there were also legitimate reasons to be concerned from the standpoint of image and marketing. He had worked long and hard to establish MicroProse as the leader in military simulations, and now Meier wanted to peel away, using time and resources on this entirely new thing that risked diluting his brand. Even a less gung-ho character might have balked. But, as Stealey had had ample opportunity to learn by now, the shy, mild-mannered Meier could be astonishingly stubborn when it came to his work. If he said he was doing a pirates game next, then, well, he was going to do a pirates game. Stealey could only relish the small victories — he had only recently convinced Meier at last to give up his beloved but commercially moribund Atari 8-bit machines and start developing on the Commodore 64 — and hope for the best.

Pirates! represented more than just a shift in subject matter. It introduced an entirely new approach to game design on Meier’s part, amounting to a radical rejection of the status quo at MicroProse. Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s director of marketing at the time, described the company’s standard research-first approach to design thus in a 1987 interview:

We do nothing but research on a subject before we begin a project. We spend time in the library, with military personnel, with Major Stealey (U.S.A.F. Reserve) and his contacts to really find out what a subject is all about. We try to take all that information and digest it before we begin to design a game.

But Pirates! would be a very, very different sort of proposition. As Meier has often admitted in the years since, its design is based largely on his memories of the old Errol Flynn pirate movies he’d loved as a kid, refreshed by — and this must have really horrified Stealey — children’s picture books. Those, says Meier today with a sheepish look, “would really highlight the common currency” of the topic: “What are the cool things? That would give us some visual ideas, but also tell us what to highlight in the game.” “The player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to play,” he notes in another interview. Indeed, piracy is a classic Sid Meier topic in that everyone has some conception of the subject, some knowledge that they bring with them to the game. Far from undercutting swashbuckling fantasies with the grim realities of scurvy and the horrors of rape and pillage, Pirates! revels in a romanticized past that never actually existed. Most of its elements could be the result of a game of free-association played with the word itself in the broadest of pop-culture strokes: “There’s gotta be swordfighting, there’s gotta be ship battles, there’s gotta be traveling around the Caribbean, and the evil Spaniard guy.”

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935's Captain Blood.

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935’s Captain Blood.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Meier and his colleagues at MicroProse derisively referred to adventure games — a term which in the mid-1980s still largely meant parser-driven text adventures — as “pick up the stick” games, noting that for all their promises of fantastic adventure they were awfully fixated on the fiddly mundanities of what the player was carrying, where she was standing, and how much fuel was left in her lantern. Theirs wasn’t perhaps an entirely fair characterization of the state of the art in interactive fiction by 1985 or 1986, but it was true that even most of the much-vaunted works of Infocom didn’t ultimately offer all that much real story in comparison to a novel or a film. If Meier was going to do an adventure game, he wanted to do something much more wide-angle, something with the feel of the pirate movies he’d watched as a kid. In fact, the idea of Pirates! as an “interactive movie” became something of a bedrock for the whole project, odd as that sounds today after the term has been hopelessly debased by the many minimally interactive productions to bear the label during the 1990s. At the time, it was a handy shorthand for the way that Meier wanted Pirates! to be more dramatic than other adventure games. Instead of keeping track of your inventory and mapping a grid of rooms on graph paper he wanted you to be romancing governors’ daughters and plotting which Spanish town to raid next. You would, as he later put, be allowed to focus on the “interesting things.” You’d go “from one scene to the next quickly, and you didn’t have to walk through the maze and pick up every stick along the way.”

Allowing the player to only worry about the “interesting things” meant that the decisions the player would be making would necessarily be plot-altering ones. Therefore a typical fixed adventure-game narrative just wouldn’t do. What Meier was envisioning was nothing less than a complete inversion of a typical adventure game’s narrative structure. In an Infocom interactive fiction, the author has made the big decisions, mapping out the necessary beginning and end of the story and the high points in between, leaving the player to make the small decisions, to deal with the logistics, if you will, of navigating the pre-set plot. As the previous contents of this blog amply illustrate, I think the latter approach can be much more compelling than it sounds from the description I’ve just given it. I think the interactivity adds an experiential quality to the narrative that can makes this type of approach, done right, a far more immersive and potentially affecting experience than a traditional static narrative. However, I also think there’s something to be said for the approach that Meier opted for in Pirates!: to have the player make the big decisions about the direction the story goes, and let the game make — or abstract away — all of the small decisions. Put another way, Pirates! should let you write your own story, a story you would own after it was complete. To return to the movie metaphor, you should indeed be the star. “You could go wherever you wanted to and you were clearly the central character in the story and you could take it wherever you wanted to go,” says Meier.

What would a pirate game be without a treasure map? "X" -- or in this case a chest icon -- marks the spot!

What would a pirate story be without a treasure map? “X” — or in this case a chest icon — marks the spot!

But how to offer that freedom? One key was, paradoxically, to limit the player’s options. When one is not in one of its action-oriented sub-games, Pirates! is entirely menu-driven, resulting in an experience simultaneously more accessible and more limiting than the parser’s cryptically blinking cursor with its admittedly unfulfillable promise of limitless interactive possibility. With his menus filled only with appropriately piratey choices, Meier could fill his game, not with stories per se, but with story possibilities drawn from the rich heritage of romanticized maritime adventure. Dodgy characters who hang out in the bars will occasionally offer to sell you pieces of treasure maps; evil Spaniards have enslaved four of your family members, and it’s up to you to track them down by following a trail of clues; the Spanish Silver Train and Treasure Fleet move across the map each year carrying fortunes in gold and silver, just waiting to be pounced on and captured. There are obvious limits to Pirates!‘s approach — you certainly aren’t going to get a narrative of any real complexity or depth out of this engine — but having the freedom to write your own story, even a shallow one, can nevertheless feel exhilarating. With no deterministic victory conditions, you can become just what you like in Pirates! within the bounds of its piratey world: loyal privateer aiding your nation in its wars, bloodthirsty equal-opportunity scoundrel, peaceful trader just trying to get by and stay alive (granted, this option can be a bit boring).

Which isn’t to say that there’s no real history in Pirates!. Once the design was far along, Arnold Hendrick came aboard to become a sort of research assistant and, one senses, an advocate for including as much of reality as possible in the game. It was Hendrick who convinced Meier to go against the grain of basing his game on the legends of piracy rather than the realities in at least a few respects. For instance, Pirates! takes place in the Caribbean between, depending on the historical period chosen, 1560 and 1680, thus forgoing the possibility of meeting some of the most famous names associated with piracy in the popular imagination: names like Edward Teach (the infamous Blackbeard), William Kidd, Jean Lafitte. The eventual 80-page manual, largely the work of Hendrick and itself something of a classic of the golden age of game manuals with its extensive and fascinating descriptions of the history of Caribbean piracy, dismisses pirates like Teach as unworthy of attention.

Those men were psychotic remnants of a great age, criminals who wouldn’t give up. They were killed in battle or hung for evils no European nation condoned. There was no political intrigue or golden future to their lives, just a bullet or a short rope. We found them unattractive and uninteresting compared to the famous sea hawks and buccaneers that preceded them.

That’s perhaps laying it on a bit thick — those getting raped and pillaged by the “sea hawks” might beg to differ with the characterization of their era as a “golden age” — but the historical texture Hendrick brought added much to the game. Amongst other things, Hendrick researched the six different starting years available for free-form play, each with their own personality; designed six shorter historical scenarios based on famous expeditions and battles; researched the characteristics of the nine different vessels available to fight and sail, including the dramatic differences in the sailing characteristics of square-rigged versus fore-and-aft-rigged ships. And then there was the appropriately weathered-looking cloth map of the Caribbean that shipped in the game’s box and that was faithfully recreated in the game proper. MicroProse would hear from many a schoolchild in the years to come who had amazed her teacher with her knowledge of Caribbean geography thanks to Pirates!.

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

At the same time, though, Meier held Hendrick’s appetite for historical reality on a tight leash, and therein lies much of the finished game’s timeless appeal. We can see his prioritization of fun above all other considerations, a touchstone of his long career still to come, in full flower for the first time in Pirates!. Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve described a number of examples of systems that ended up being more interesting and more fun for their programmers to tinker with than for their players: think for instance of the overextended dynamic simulationism of The Hobbit or the Magnetic Scrolls text adventures. Pirates!, whose open dynamic world made for a fascinating plaything in its own right for any programmer, could easily have gone down the same path, but Meier had the discipline to always choose player fun over realism. “We could totally overwhelm the player if we tossed everything into the game, so it’s a question of selecting,” he says. “What are the most fun aspects of this topic? How can we present it in a way that the player feels that they’re in control, they understand what’s happening?”

In a 2010 speech, Meier made a compelling argument that early flight simulators such as the ones from MicroProse on which he’d cut his teeth managed to be as relatively straightforward and entertaining as they were as an ironic byproduct of the sharply limited hardware on which they had to run. When more powerful machines started allowing designers to layer on more complexity, everything started to go awry.

One of the things we pretend as designers is that the player is good. You’re really good! That’s kind of a mantra from us. We want the player to feel good about the play experience and themselves as they’re playing.

One example of where this perhaps went off the tracks is the history of flight simulators, going back a number of years. Early on they were easy to play, very accessible. You’d shoot down a lot of planes, have a lot of fun. But then we got to where every succeeding iteration of flight simulators became a little more realistic, a little more complex, a little more of a “simulation.” Pretty soon the player went from “I’m good!” to “I’m not good! I’m confused! My plane is on fire! I’m falling out of the sky!” The fun went out of them.

We have to be aware that it’s all about the player. The player is the star of the game. Their experience is what’s key. Keeping them feeling good about themselves is an important part of the experience we provide.

Notably, Meier abandoned flight simulators just as vastly more powerful MS-DOS-based machines began to replace the humble Commodore 64 as the premier gaming computers in North America. Still more notably for our purposes, Pirates! is an astonishingly forgiving game by the standards of its time. It’s impossible to really lose at Pirates!. If you’re defeated in battle, for instance, you’re merely captured and eventually ransomed and returned to your pirating career. This, suffice to say, is one of the most ahistorical of all its aspects; historical pirates weren’t exactly known for their long life expectancies. Pirates!‘s approach of using the stuff of history to inform but not to dictate its rules, of capturing the spirit of a popular historical milieu rather than obsessing over its every detail, wasn’t precisely new even at the time of its development. There are particular parallels to be drawn with Canadian developer Artech’s work for Accolade on what designer Michael Bate called “aesthetic simulations”: games like Ace of Aces, Apollo 18, and The Train. Still, Pirates! did it ridiculously well, serving in this sense as in so many others as a template for Meier’s future career.

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time...

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time…

Pirates! in general so successfully implements Meier’s player-centric, fun-centric philosophy that the few places where it breaks down a bit can serve as the exceptions that prove the rule. He admits today that its relatively strict simulation of the prevailing air currents in the region that can often make sailing east an exercise in frustration, especially at the higher of the game’s four difficulty levels, is arguably going somewhat too far out on the limb of realism. But most disappointing is the game’s handling of women, who exist in its world as nothing more than chattel; collecting more treasure and honors gives you better chances with better looking chicks, and marrying a hotter chick gives you more points when the final tally of your career is taken at game’s end. It would have been damnably difficult given the hardware constraints of the Commodore 64, but one could still wish that Meier had seen fit to let you play a swashbuckling female pirate; it’s not as if the game doesn’t already depart from historical reality in a thousand ways. As it stands, it’s yet one more way in which the games industry of the 1980s subtly but emphatically told women that games were not for them. (Much less forgivable from this perspective is Meier’s 2004 remake, which still persists in seeing women only as potential mates and dancing partners.) Despite it all, MicroProse claimed after Pirates!‘s release that it was by far the game of theirs with the most appeal to female purchasers — not really a surprise, I suppose, given the hardcore military simulations that were their usual bread and butter.

This governor's daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me...

This governor’s daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me…

Pirates! is a famously difficult game to pigeonhole. There’s a fair amount of high-level strategic decision-making involved in managing your fleet and your alliances, choosing your next targets and objectives, planning your journeys, keeping your crew fed and happy. When the rubber meets the road, however, you’re cast into simple but entertaining action games: one-on-one fencing, ship-against-ship or ship-against-shore battling, a more infrequent — thankfully, as it’s not all that satisfying — proto-real-time-strategy game of land combat. And yet the whole experience is bound together with the first-person perspective and the you-are-there, embodied approach of an adventure game. Small wonder that MicroProse, who weren’t quite sure what to do with the game in marketing terms anyway, gave it on the back of the box the mouthful of a label of “action-adventure simulation.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

The adventure elements in particular can make Pirates! seem like something of an anomaly in the catalog of Sid Meier, generally regarded as he is as the king of turn-based grand-strategy gaming. In reality, though, he’s much less a slave to that genre than is generally acknowledged. Pirates!‘s genre-blending is very much consistent with another design philosophy he has hewed to to this day, that of prioritizing topic over genre.

“I find it dangerous to think in terms of genre first and then topic. Like, say, ‘I want to do a real-time-strategy game. Okay. What’s a cool topic?'” I think, for me at least, it’s more interesting to say, “I want to do a game about railroads. Okay, now what’s the most interesting way to bring that to life? Is it in real-time, or turn-based, or is it first-person…” To first figure out what your topic is and then find interesting ways and an appropriate genre to bring it to life as opposed to coming the other way around and saying, “Okay, I want to do a first-person shooter; what hasn’t been done yet?” If you approach it from a genre point of view, you’re basically saying, “I’m trying to fit into a mold.” And I think most of the really great games have not started from that point of view. They first started with the idea that “Here’s a really cool topic. And by the way it would probably work really well as a real-time strategy game with a little bit of this in it.”

I think a good example of this is Pirates!. The idea was to do a pirate game, and then it was “Okay, there’s not really a genre out there that fits what I think is cool about pirates. The pirate movie, with the sailing, the sword fighting, the stopping in different towns, and all that kind of stuff, really doesn’t fit into a genre.” So we picked and chose different pieces of different things like a sailing sequence in real-time and a menu-based adventuring system for going into town, and then a sword fight in an action sequence. So we picked different styles for the different parts of the game as we thought were appropriate, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to do a game that’s real-time, or turn-based, or first-person, or whatever,” and then make the pirates idea fit into that.

This approach to design was actually quite common in the 1980s. See for example the games of Cinemaware, who consistently used radically different formal approaches from game to game, choosing whatever seemed most appropriate for evoking the desired cinematic experience. As game genres and player expectations of same have calcified over the years since, this topic-first — or, perhaps better said, experience-first — approach to design has fallen sadly out of fashion, at least in the world of big-budget AAA productions. Mainstream games today are better in many ways than they were in the 1980s, but this is not one of them. Certainly it would be very difficult to get an ambitious cross-genre experience like Pirates! funded by a publisher today. Even Meier himself today seems a bit shocked at his “fearlessness” in conjuring up such a unique, uncategorizable game. In addition to sheer youthful chutzpah, he points to the limitations of the Commodore 64 as a counter-intuitive enabler of his design imagination. Because its graphics and sound were so limited in contrast to the platforms of today, it was easier to prototype ideas and then throw them away if they didn’t work, easier in general to concentrate on the game underneath the surface presentation. This is something of a wistfully recurring theme amongst working designers today who got their start in the old days.

Pirates! was not, of course, immaculately conceived from whole cloth. Its most obvious gaming influence, oft-cited by Meier himself, is Danielle Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold, a design and a designer whom he greatly admired. There’s much of Seven Cities of Gold in Pirates!, at both the conceptual level of its being an accessible, not-too-taxing take on real history and the nuts and bolts of many of its mechanical choices, like its menu-driven controls and its interface for moving around its map of the Caribbean both on ship and on foot. Perhaps the most important similarity of all is the way that both games create believable living worlds that can be altered by your own actions as well as by vagaries of politics and economy over which you have no control: territories change hands, prices fluctuate, empires wax and wane. I would argue, though, that in giving you more concrete goals to strive for and a much greater variety of experiences Pirates! manages to be a much better game than its inspiration; Seven Cities of Gold often feels to me like a great game engine looking for something to really do. Both games are all about the journey — there’s no explicitly defined way to win or lose either of them, another significant similarity — but in Pirates! that journey is somehow much more satisfying. The extra layers of story and characterization it provides, relatively minimal though they still are, make a huge difference, at least for this player.

After you retire, you're ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you've accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

After you retire, you’re ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you’ve accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

Just about all of the other elements in Pirates!, from the trading economy to the sword-fighting, had also been seen in other games before. What was unusual was to build so many of them into one game and, most importantly, to have them all somehow harmonize rather than clash with one another. Meier himself is somewhat at pains to explain exactly why Pirates! just seemed to work so well. A few years after Pirates! he attempted a similar cross-genre exercise, a spy game that combined action and strategy called Covert Action. He himself judged the end result of that effort to have been much less successful. It seemed that, while the various elements played well enough on their own, they felt disconnected in the context of the whole, like two or more games rudely crammed together: “You would have this mystery you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, ‘What was the mystery I was trying to solve?'” Pirates! was charmed in contrast; it’s various elements seem to fortuitously just work together. Meier has since theorized that this may be because all of its individual elements, taken in isolation, are quite simple — one might even say simplistic. But when blended together they turn out to be a perfect mixture of easily digestible experiences that never last long enough to lose the overall plot, a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

I’d be remiss not to also briefly mention just what a little technical marvel Pirates! is in its original Commodore 64 incarnation. It’s all too easy to overlook Sid Meier the brilliant programmer when thinking about Sid Meier the brilliant game designer. Yet it’s as much a credit to the former as the latter that the Commodore 64 Pirates! remains amazingly playable to this day. The disk loads are snappy enough to barely be noticeable; the fonts and graphics are bright and atmospheric; the occasional music stings are well-chosen; the various action games play fast and clean; the windowing system that got this whole ball rolling in the first place does its job perfectly, conveying lots of information elegantly on what is by modern standards an absurdly low-resolution display. And of course behind it all is that living world that, if not quite complex by the standards of today, certainly is by the standards of a 64 K 8-bit computer. While I’ve placed a lot of emphasis in my other recent articles on how far Commodore 64 graphics and sound had come by 1987, Pirates! is a far better game game than any I’ve talked about so far in this little series, worthy of attention for far more than its polished appearance or its important place in history, even if it is well-possessed of both. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the greatest game ever born on the little breadbox, the peak title of the Commodore 64’s peak year.

Once Pirates! was ready in the spring of 1987 there was still the matter of trying to sell it. Director of marketing Schmidt was clearly uncertain about the game when Commodore Magazine interviewed him just before its release. Indeed, he was almost dismissive. “It takes us into territory MicroProse has never gone before,” he declared, accurately enough. “It is a combination text, graphic, simulation, action game.” (More of those pesky genre difficulties!) But then he was eager to move on to the firmer ground of Meier’s next project of Red Storm Rising, a modern-day submarine simulation based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling technothriller that was about as firmly in MicroProse’s traditional wheelhouse as it was possible for a game to be. As that project would indicate, Meier didn’t immediately abandon his old role of Wild Bill’s simulation genius to fully embrace the purer approach to game design that had marked the Pirates! project, not even after Pirates! defied all of Stealey and Schmidt’s misgivings to become MicroProse’s blockbuster of 1987, joining 1984’s F-15 Strike Eagle, 1985’s Silent Service, and 1986’s Gunship in a lineup that now constituted one of the most reliable moneyspinners in computer gaming; all four titles would continue to sell at a healthy clip for years to come. One suspects that Meier, still feeling his way a bit as a designer in spite of his successes, did Red Storm Rising and the game that would follow it, another flight simulator called F-19 Stealth Fighter, almost as comfort food, and perhaps as a thank you to Stealey for ultimately if begrudgingly supporting his vision for Pirates!. That, however, would be that for Sid Meier the military-simulation designer; too many other, bolder ideas were brewing inside that head of his.

There’s just one more part of the Pirates! story to tell, maybe the strangest part of all: the story of how the introverted, unassuming Sid Meier became a brand name, the most recognizable game designer on the planet. Ironically, it all stemmed from Stealey’s uncertainty about how to sell Pirates!. The seed of the idea was planted in Stealey by someone who had a little experience with star power himself: comedian, actor, and noted computer-game obsessive Robin Williams. Stealey was sitting at the same table as Williams at a Software Publishers Association dinner when the latter mused that it was strange that the world was full of athletic stars and movie stars and rock stars but had no software stars. A light bulb went on for Stealey: “We’ll make Sid a famous software star.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Trip Hawkins, for one, had been plugging his “electronic artists” for years by that point with somewhat mixed results — but by happenstance or aptitude or sheer right-place/right-time Stealey would pull it off with more success than just about anyone before or since. When the shy Meier was dubious, Stealey allegedly gave him a live demonstration of the power of stardom:

I had my wife, he had his girlfriend, and we’re sitting at dinner at a little restaurant. I said, “Sid, watch this. I’ll show you what marketing can do for you.” I went over to the maître d’ and I said, “Sir, my client doesn’t want to be disturbed.” He said, “Your client, who’s that?” I said, “It’s the famous Sid Meier. He’s a famous author. Please don’t let anybody bother us at dinner.” Before we got out of there, he had given 20 autographs. You know, we were a small company. You do whatever you can do to get a little attention, right?

As with many of Stealey’s more colorful anecdotes, I’m not sure whether we can take that story completely at face value. We are, however, on firmer ground in noting that when Pirates! made its public debut shortly thereafter it bore that little prefix that in later years would come to mark a veritable genre onto itself in many people’s eyes: the game’s full name was Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Gaming has generally been anything but a star-driven industry, but for some reason, just this one time, this bit of inspired star-making actually worked. Today Sid Meier’s name can be found tacked onto the beginning of a truly bewildering number of titles, including quite a few with which he had virtually nothing to do. The supreme irony is that this should have happened to one of the nicest, most unassuming, most humble souls in an industry replete with plenty of big egos that would kill for the sort of fame that just kind of walked up to Meier one day and sat down beside him while he hacked away obliviously in front of his computer. Not that it’s undeserved; if we’re to have a cult of personality, we might as well put a genius at its center.

Like Meier’s new approach to design, it wasn’t initially clear whether the “Sid Meier’s” prefix was destined to really become a long-term thing at all; Stealey judged the names and topics of Red Storm Rising and F-19 Stealth Fighter strong enough stand on their own. But then old Sid went off the military-simulation reservation and started to get crazy innovative again, and Stealey faced the same old questions about how to sell his stuff, and… but now we’re getting ahead of the story, aren’t we?

(Paper Sources: Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay; Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of November 1987; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Retro Gamer 38, 57, and 82; Game Developer of February 2002, October 2007, January 2009, November 2010, and February 2013.

Online sources: Metro’s interview with Meier; Adam Sessler’s interview with Meier; Meier playing the 2004 Pirates! on IGN; Meier’s 2010 GDC keynote; Matt Chat 78.

You can download from this site disk images of the Commodore 64 Pirates! that Meier himself still considers the “definitive” version of the original game. Note, however, that this zip doesn’t include the essential manual and map. You can get them by buying Pirates! Gold Plus from GOG.com. Trust me, it’s worth it.)

 

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A Digital Antiquarian Hall of Fame

I’ve just added a new feature to this site: a sort of canon, if you will, of really worthwhile games and other interactive works that balances historical importance with those concerns about playability and fairness that are always so important to me as well. I must admit that I’ve created this list as much for myself as for anyone else, having realized that I’ve now written about so many works that I’m in danger of losing all track of which ones I really consider to be the great ones. That said, I hope some of you may find it interesting and/or useful as well. It will of course continue to grow as we continue on our little journey through history here in the blog proper. You can always get to it by clicking the link over on the right-hand sidebar or selecting it in the sub-menu under “About Me” above. Some further justifications and explanations can be found on the page itself, so I won’t belabor the subject any more here.

Thanks so much for your continuing support, especially those of you who have been generous enough to sign on with Patreon or donate through PayPal. It’s making a big difference in the amount of time I can devote to this work, as I hope the end results show!

 

Accolade Gets Distinctive

Only a few publishers managed to build a reputation to rival that of Epyx as masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. Foremost amongst this select group by 1987 was Accolade, riding high on hits like Dam Busters and Ace of Aces. Both of those games were created by Canadian developers Artech, who in 1987 would deliver to Accolade two more of their appealing “aesthetic simulations” of history. Chosen this time were the glory days of NASA for Apollo 18 and of the French Resistance for The Train. Yet Accolade’s big hit of the year would come not from Artech but from another group of Canadians who called themselves Distinctive Software.

Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, the founders of Distinctive, were barely into their twenties in 1987, but were already has-beens in a sense, veterans of the peculiar form of celebrity the home-computer boom had briefly engendered for a lucky few. The two first met in their high school in late 1981 in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, bonding quickly over the Apple II computers that both had at home. During their summer break, Mattrick suggested to Sember that they should design their own game and try to sell it. Thus, while Mattrick worked at a local computer store to raise money for the endeavor, Sember wrote a simple little collection of action games called Evolution in all of three weeks. Its theme was an oddly popular one in 1980s gaming, a chronicle of the evolution of life through six rather arbitrary phases: amoeba, tadpole, rodent, beaver (a tribute to the duo’s home country), gorilla, and human. They took the game to the Vancouver-based Sydney Development Corporation, a finger-in-every-pie would-be mainstay of Canadian computing whom we’ve met before in connection with Artech. Sydney liked Evolution enough to buy it, giving it its public debut in October of 1982 at a Vancouver trade show. With this software thing taking off so nicely, Mattrick and Sember soon incorporated themselves under the name Distinctive Software.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC's Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC’s Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

They had arrived on the scene at the perfect zeitgeist moment, just as Canada was waking up to the supposed home-computer revolution burgeoning to its south and was beginning to ask where Canadians were to be found amongst all the excitement. These two young Vancouverites, personable, good-looking, and, according at least to Sydney, the first Canadians ever to write a popular computer game that was sold in the United States as well as its home country, were the perfect answer. They became modest media celebrities over the months that followed, working their way up from the human-interest sections of newspapers to glossy lifestyle magazines and finally to television, where they appeared before a panel of tedious old fuddy-duddies on CBC television’s game-show/journalism hybrid Front Page Challenge. The comparisons here come easily, perhaps almost too easily when we think back to the other software partnerships I’ve already chronicled. It’s particularly hard not to think of David Braben and Ian Bell, who would soon be receiving mainstream coverage of much the same character in Britain. Mattrick was the Braben of this pair, personable, ambitious, and focused on the bottom line; it was he who had gotten the ball rolling in the first place and who would largely continue to drive their business. Sember was the Bell, two years younger, quieter, more technically proficient, and more idealistic about games as a creative medium.

It’s not clear to what extent all of the hype around Mattrick and Sember translated into sales of Evolution. On the one hand, it apparently did well enough on the Apple II for Sydney to fund ports to a number of other platforms and to advertise them fairly heavily across Canada and the United States. And most of the big trade magazines, prompted to some extent no doubt by Sydney’s advertising dollars, saw it as a big enough deal to be worthy of a review. On the other hand, most of those reviews were fairly lukewarm. Typical of them was Electronic Games‘s conclusion that it was okay, but “not really one of the world’s great games.” Nor is it all that well-remembered — whether fondly or otherwise — amongst gaming nostalgics today. Certainly it’s hard to credit claims that this eminently forgettable game sold “over 400,000 copies.”

Regardless, after the hype died down Sydney ran into huge problems as the home-computer market in general took a dive. Looking to simplify things and reduce their overhead in response, they elected to get out of the notoriously volatile games-publishing business. Thus the follow-up to Evolution, promised by Mattrick and Sember in many an interview during 1983, never arrived. Their fifteen minutes now apparently passed, it seemed that they would become just one more amongst many historical footnotes to the abortive home-computer revolution.

But then in 1985 Distinctive unexpectedly resurfaced. Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, having recently founded Accolade, released their own first in-house-developed games, and begun a fruitful developer/publisher partnership with Artech, were looking for more outside developers. They were very receptive to the idea of continuing to work with Canadian developers, believing that they had begun to tap into a well of talent heretofore ignored by the other big publishers. Not the least of their considerations was the Canadian dollar, which was now reaching historic lows in comparison to the American; this meant that that talent came very cheap. When Distinctive’s old connections with Sydney and by extension Artech brought them to Accolade’s attention, they soon had a contract as well.

That said, in the beginning Distinctive was clearly the second-string team in comparison to the more established Artech, hired not to make original games but rather to port Accolade’s established catalog to new platforms. But after some months of doing good work in that capacity, Mattrick, whose sales skills had been evident even in that first summer job working at the computer store — his first boss once declared that he could “sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo” — convinced Miller and Whitehead to let his company tackle an original project of their own.

Over the course of a long career still to come in games, Mattrick would earn himself a reputation as a very mainstream sort of fellow, a fan of the proven bet who would be one of the architects of Electronic Arts’s transformation following Trip Hawkins’s departure in 1991 from a literal band of “electronic artists” to the risk-averse corporate behemoth we know today. Seen in that light, this first game for Accolade, as ambitious as it is boldly innovative, seems doubly anomalous. Given what I know of the two, I suspect that it represents more of Sember’s design sensibility than Mattrick’s, although both are co-credited as its designers and I have no hard facts to back up my suspicion. The game in question is called simply Comics — or, to make it sound a bit less generic, Accolade’s Comics. It is, the box proclaims, the “first living comic book.” “First” anything is often a problematic claim, particularly when it appears in promotional copy, but in this case the claim was justified. While a few earlier games like the licensed Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future had dabbled in a comic-book-style presentation, none had tried to actually be an interactive comic book like this one.

Accolade's Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel. If you think that's so stupid it's funny, you'll probably enjoy this game. If you think it's just stupid, probably not.

Accolade’s Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel (“I got your message…”). If you think that’s so stupid it’s funny, you’ll probably enjoy this game. If you think it’s just stupid, probably not. In the same spirit: your boss runs a “Pet Alterations” shop, which is the reason for the poster of the fish with legs at top right.

At its heart, then, Comics is a choice-based narrative which is presented not in text but in comic form, an under- if not completely unexplored approach even today. You make choices every few panels for Steve Keene, a likable but not entirely competent secret-agent sort of fellow who trots the globe on the trail of a kidnapped cable-television inventor or reproducing fire hydrants — no, this isn’t a very serious game. Every once in a while the story will dump you into a little action game which you must get through successfully — you have five lives in total, which you expend by failing at the action games or making choices that result in death — to continue. Like the rest of Comics, these are fun but not too taxing. The look was retro even in its time, drawn to evoke Archie Comics during their 1960s heyday; the price of 20 cents on the virtual front cover that opens the story is a dead giveaway. There’s even a gag based on those perennial old back-of-the-comic-book advertisements for remedies for bullies kicking sand in one’s face and making off with one’s girl. Indeed, there are lots and lots of gags here, most really stupid but in a really clever sort of way. Mileages are notoriously variable when it comes to humor, but personally I find it charming as hell.

It’s very difficult to convey the real spirit of the game through words or even through still screenshots, so here’s a movie clip that shows it off to better effect. Old Steve Keene looks a bit like an orangutan in the beginning because I’ve just completed an action game that had him swinging across bars above a pool of water containing something best described as a sharktopus (don’t ask!).


There are a couple of things I’d like you to pay attention to in the clip above, starting with the high production values of the thing (by which I mean the game, sadly not the clip). Note that the music plays while the disk drive loads the next panel, a tricky feat that you simply wouldn’t have seen in an earlier Commodore 64 game. Note how the art, despite the low resolution and the limitation of 16 colors, manages to ooze personality; you’ll never mistake this game for any other. Note the aesthetic professionalism of the whole, as seen in the the way each new panel is drawn in with a transition effect rather than just popping into place, the page-flipping animation that introduces a new chapter of the story in lieu of a jarringly abrupt screen-blanking, and the way the music themes also fade out and in during transitions rather than cutting out abruptly.

And then there’s another great gag in the sequence above, one of my favorites in the game. The portrayal of the all too typical American abroad displays a lot more cultural knowingness than one might expect from a couple of sheltered Canadian kids barely out of their teens — as does, for that matter, the decision to reach back so far into comics heritage for inspiration. Comics is filled with dumb jokes, but they don’t really feel like dumb teenage jokes. As someone who’s been exposed to all too much in-game teenage humor in researching this blog over the past years, that may just be the best compliment I can give it.

By the standards of a Commodore 64 game, Comics is an absolutely massive production, spilling across six disk sides and containing almost 400 unique panel illustrations (many with spot animations), a couple of dozen different musical themes, and eight arcade games that each had to be coded from scratch. The team that made it was correspondingly huge for the times, including five artists, a composer, and four programmers in addition to Sember — quite a logistical and financial achievement for a still tiny company run by a 22- and a 20-year-old. For all that, though, Comics hardly feels epic when you play it. It is by design a casual trifle to be enjoyed over the course of just a couple of evenings — one for each of its two completely separate stories that branch off from the very first decision point in the game. That’s fair enough from the perspective of today, but, not for the first time, it was almost untenable in light of the way that commercial software was actually distributed in the 1980s. Upon its release in February of 1987, reviewers noted that Comics had lots of charm, but also noted, reasonably enough, that its price of $35 or more was awfully steep for a couple of evenings’ light entertainment. Many adventure-game purists, not always the most tolerant bunch, complained as well about the action games and the casual nature of the whole endeavor. Shay Addams of the respected Questbusters newsletter, for instance, pronounced that what it really needed was fewer action games and “more puzzles,” proof of the way that genres were already beginning to calcify to a rather depressing degree. Comics had been built with a view to turning it into a series, but, especially in light of how expensive it had been to make, it proved to be a commercial disappointment and thus a one-off in a market that just didn’t quite have a place for it. It nevertheless remains one of my favorite forgotten Commodore 64 gems, and, despite all of its silliness, an interesting experiment in interactive narrative in its own right.

With Comics having failed to set the world alight, the indefatigable Don Mattrick buckled down to try to deliver to Accolade a guaranteed, can’t-miss hit that would establish the Distinctive brand once and for all. At the same time, he began the process of easing Sember out of the company; the latter’s name begins to disappear from Distinctive’s credits at this time, and Mattrick would soon buy him out entirely to take complete control. For his part, Sember would continue to work independently for more than a decade with Accolade as a designer and programmer, most notably of their long-running Hardball series of baseball simulations, before dropping out of the industry around the millennium. As for Mattrick, his first game as a solo designer would be a blueprint for his long future career, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, extrapolating on known trends rather than leaping into the blue. While perhaps not as interesting to revisit via emulator today as its predecessor, it would prove to be much more important in the context of the commercial history of the games industry and, indeed, of Distinctive and Mattrick’s own futures. It would be called Test Drive.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

Commercially calculated as it was, Test Drive was also an oddly personal game for Mattrick, very much inspired by his own obsessions. It becomes almost uncomfortably clear on the first page of the manual that you’re living his own personal fantasy: “Your lifelong quest has been to drive one of the world’s most exotic sports cars. Now’s your chance. You just made your first million going public with your software company.”

Don Mattrick has always loved fast cars. One can practically chart the progress of his career merely by looking to what he had in his garage during any given year. He used his first royalty check from Evolution for the down payment on a Toyota Supra; the scenario of Test Drive, of driving as quickly as possible up a twisty mountain road whilst avoiding or outrunning the fuzz, was inspired by his own early adventures therein. By 1987 Distinctive’s success as an Accolade porting house had enabled him to step up to a Porsche 944. But already, as Test Drive‘s manual attests, he was dreaming of an IPO and of leaving his poor man’s Porsche behind to get behind the wheel of a real supercar. I hope I’m not spoiling the story if I reveal that he would indeed soon have a Ferrari in his garage. Decades later, when he was head of Microsoft’s Xbox division and thus one of the most powerful and well-compensated people in gaming, he would reportedly have a ten-car garage stuffed with exotic European metal. If Test Drive represents the dream of every young man, Mattrick would be one of the few to get to actually live it.

Yes, the genius of Test Drive — or, if you like, the luck of the thing — was that Don Mattrick’s personal fantasy was also an almost universal one of young men all over the world. In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that no one had done it before. Driving games of various stripes had been a staple of the arcades for years; Outrun, for instance, arguably the biggest arcade hit of the year prior to Test Drive, had prominently featured a Ferrari Testarossa. Yet virtually no one had created even an alleged simulation of driving, a state of affairs that seems doubly odd when one considers how crazily popular aircraft simulations were, with two of them of 1980s vintage, SubLogic’s Flight Simulator and MicroProse’s F-15 Strike Eagle, eventually exceeding one-million copies in sales in an era when such numbers were all but unimaginable. A car simulation was low-hanging fruit by comparison. As Mattrick himself once said, “A car still has more controls that you’ll find on a joystick, but the components of movement and your choices are fewer.” And yet it just never seemed to occur to anyone to make one.

Test Drive

Test Drive would correct that oversight, resoundingly and for all time. At the same time, however, Mattrick and his small team at Distinctive lavished at least as much attention on the lifestyle fantasy as they did on the mechanics of the game. Each of the five featured supercars — the Porsche 911 Turbo, Ferrari Testarossa, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Lamborghini Countach, and Chevrolet Corvette — gets its own loving literal and statistical portrait like the one above, while the dash and interior layouts in the game proper also change to reflect the model you’ve chosen to drive. Test Drive is pure, unabashed car porn. As such, it was tremendously appealing to the demographic that tended to buy computer games.

Still, some reviewers couldn’t help but notice that there just wasn’t really that much to the game. Despite the aspirations to simulationism, it’s hard not to notice that, say, the heavy Corvette with its big, torquey American iron in the front doesn’t drive quite as differently as one might expect from the lighter, notoriously spin-prone Porsche 911 with its buzzy little high-revving engine in the rear. In fact, all of the cars handle rather disconcertingly like they’re on rails, until they suddenly derail and you fall off the side of the mountain. And then there’s the fact that there’s just not that much to really do in Test Drive; you just get to drive up the same mountain over and over again, avoiding the same cops and presumably trying to improve your personal time, with no multiplayer options and no other challenges to add interest. And yet for hundreds of thousands of car-mad kids it just didn’t matter. Test Drive in its day was peculiarly immune to such practical complaints, proof just as much as the works of Cinemaware of just how much the experiential side of a game — the fantasy — can trump the nuts and bolts of gameplay.

Previewed at that same 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show to which we’ve been paying so much attention lately and released in plenty of time for Christmas, Test Drive became a hit. More than a hit, it spawned a franchise that is still at least ostensibly alive to this day (the last game to bear the title was released in 2012). More than a franchise, it became the urtext of an entire genre, the automotive-simulation equivalent to Adventure. After going public, buying that first Ferrari, and making his own personal Test Drive fantasy come true, Mattrick sold out to Electronic Arts in 1991, where he morphed Test Drive, whose intellectual property he had left behind with Accolade, into the even more successful Need for Speed series, another franchise that seems destined to continue eternally. At the core of Need for Speed and the several showrooms’ worth of contenders and pretenders that have joined it over the years is that same lifestyle fantasy that Test Drive first tapped into, of having access to a garage full of really sexy cars to inspect and drool over and drive really, really fast. As long as there are young and not-so-young people whose dreams are redolent of well-weathered leather, hot metal and oil, and sunlight on chrome, their continuing popularity seems assured.

(Sources: Questbusters of June 1987; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of March 1987, June/July 1987, and February 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of October 1983 and March 1989; Electronic Games of December 1983; Kilobaud of June 1983; The Montreal Gazette of December 15 1982. See also The Escapist’s online article on Mattrick and Distinctive.

Most of the copies of Comics floating around the Internet have one or more muddy disk images. I’ve assembled a set that seems to be 100 percent correct; you’re welcome to download it. It still makes for a very unique and enjoyable experience if you can see fit to install a Commodore 64 emulator to run it. Test Drive, on the other hand, is probably best left to history. Given that, and given that it’s an entry in a still-active franchise, I’m going to leave you on your own to find that one if you want it.)

 

 
 

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The Evolution of the (Epyx) Games

The American home-computer industry entered 1987 feeling more optimistic than it had in several years. With the bloodletting of 1985 now firmly in the past, there was a sense amongst the survivors that they had proved themselves the fittest and smartest. If the ebullient a-computer-for-every-home predictions of 1983 weren’t likely to be repeated anytime soon, it was also true that the question on everybody’s lips back in 1985, of whether there would even still be a home-computer industry come 1987, felt equally passé. No, the home-computer industry wasn’t going anywhere. It was just too much an established thing now. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as mainstream as television, but it had built a base of loyal customers and a whole infrastructure to serve them. And with so many companies having dropped by the wayside, there was now again the potential to make a pretty good living there. The economic correction to a new middle way was just about complete. The industry, in other words, was beginning to grow up — and thank God for it. Even Atari and Commodore, the two most critical hardware players in the field of low-cost computing, had seemingly gotten their act together after being all but left for dead a couple of years ago; both were beginning to post modest profits again.

The mood of the industry was, as usual, reflected by the trade shows. The second of the two big shows that served as the linchpin of every year on the circuit, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in June, was a particularly exciting place to be, with more and more elaborate displays than had been seen there in a long, long time. Compute! magazine couldn’t help but compare it to “the go-go days of 1983,” but also was quick to note that “introductions are positioned to avoid any repeat of the downturn.” “Excited but wiser” could have served as the slogan of the show. But an even better slogan for entertainment-software publishers in particular might have been, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I’ve been writing quite a lot in recent articles about the new generation of 68000-based machines that were causing so much excitement. Yet the fact is that the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga were little more than aspirational dreams for the majority of the mostly young people actually buying games. The heart of that market remained the cheaper, tried-and-true 8-bit machines which continued to outsell their flashier younger brothers by factors of five or ten to one. And the most popular 8-bit machine had remained the same since 1983: the Commodore 64. A chart published in the December 1986 Compute! gives a sense of the state of the industry at the time.

U.S. Home Computer Market -- 1986

If anything, this chart undersells the importance of the Commodore 64 and its parent company to the games industry. Plenty of those IBMs and Apples, as well as the “Other” category, made up mostly of PC clones, were being used in home offices and the like, playing games if at all only as an occasional sideline. The vast majority of Commodores 64s, however, were being used primarily or exclusively as games machines. Many a publisher that dutifully ported their titles to each of the six or seven commercially viable platforms found that well over half of their sales were racked up by the Commodore 64 versions alone. No wonder so many made it their first and sometimes only target. Not all were thrilled about this state of affairs; with its antiquated BASIC, chunky 40-column text, and molasses-slow disk drives the Commodore 64 was far from a favorite of many programmers, so much so that a surprising number developed elaborate cross-compiler setups to let them write their 64 programs anywhere else but on an actual 64. Many others who had had personal dealings with Commodore, particularly in the double-crossing bad old days of Jack Tramiel, simply hated the company and by extension its products on principle. Yet you couldn’t hate them too much: fact was that the 64 was the main reason there still was any games industry to speak of in 1987.

Already the best-selling microcomputer in history well before 1987, the Commodore 64 just kept on selling, with sales hitting 7 million that year. Meanwhile sales of the newer Commodore 128 that could also play 64 games cruised past 1 million. This continued success was a tribute to the huge catalog of available games. As Bing Gordon of Electronic Arts put it, “The Commodore 64 is the IBM of home computing; no one thinks you’re dumb if you buy it.” Of course, this aberrational era when a full-fledged computer rather than a games console was the most popular way to play games in the country couldn’t last forever. Anyone sufficiently prescient could already see the writing on the wall by wandering to other areas of that Summer CES show floor, where an upstart console from Japan called the Nintendo Entertainment System was coming on strong, defying the conventional wisdom of just a year or two before that consoles were dead and buried. But for now, for just a little while longer, the Commodore 64 was still king, and Summer CES reflected also that reality with a final great flowering of games. Love it or hate it, programmers knew the 64 more intimately by 1987 than they possibly can the complex systems of today. They knew its every nook and cranny, its every quirk and glitch, and exploited all of them in the course of pushing the little breadbox to places that would have been literally unimaginable when it had made its debut five years before; plenty of games and other software stole ideas from the bigger, newer machines that simply didn’t yet exist to steal in 1982.

Starting today, I want to devote a few articles to chronicling the Commodore 64 at its peak, as represented by the games and companies on display at that 1987 Summer CES. We’ll start with Epyx, whose display was amongst the most elaborate on the show floor, an ersatz beach complete with sand, surfboards, Frisbees, and even a living palm tree. It was all in service of something called California Games, the fifth and newest entry in a series that would go down in history as the most sustainedly popular in the long life of the Commodore 64. If we were to try to name a peak moment for Epyx and their Games series, it would have to be the same as that for the platform with which they were so closely identified: Summer CES, June 1987.

You can get a pretty good sense of the advancement of Commodore 64 graphics and sound during its years as the king of North American gaming just by looking at the Games series. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re going to do today. We’re going to take a little tour of four of the five Games, hitting on just a couple of events from each that will hopefully give us a good overview of just how much Commodore 64 graphics and sound, along with gamer expectations of same, evolved during the years of the platform’s ascendency. These titles were so popular, so identified with the Commodore 64, that they strike me as the perfect choice for the purpose. And they also occupy a soft spot in my heart as games designed to be played with others; they’re really not that much fun played alone, but they can still be ridiculously entertaining today if you can gather one to seven friends in your living room. Any game that encourages you to get together in the real world with real people already has a huge leg up in my critical judgment. I just wish there were more of them.

Let’s start by taking another look at the original 1984 Summer Games, a game I already covered in considerable technical detail in an earlier article. Its graphics — particularly the fluid and realistic movements of the athletes themselves — were quite impressive in their day, but look decidedly minimalist in light of what would come later. Also notable is the complete lack of humor or whimsy or, one might even say, personality. Those qualities, allowed as they to a large extent are by better and richer audiovisuals, would arrive only in later iterations.

 
Few concepts in the history of gaming have lent themselves as well to almost endless iteration as the basic Games concept of a themed collection of sporting minigames. Thus after Summer Games turned into a huge hit more Games were inevitable, even if they wouldn’t be able to piggyback on an Olympics as Summer Games had so adroitly managed despite the lack of an official license. The first thought of Epyx’s programmers was, naturally enough, to follow Summer Games with a similar knock-off version of the Winter Olympics. By this time, however, it was late 1984, and Epyx’s marketing honcho Robert Botch said, probably correctly — he tended to be correct in most things — that a winter-sports game would be a hard sell when they finished it up in six or eight months; at that time, you see, it would be high summer. So they instead turned their attention to Summer Games II, consisting of eight more events, many of which had been proposed for the original collection but rejected for one reason or another. It proved to be if anything a better collection than its predecessor, with more variety and without the cheat of inserting two swimming events that were exactly the same but for their differing lengths. Graphics and sound were also modestly improved.

But the first really dramatic leap forward in those areas came with the next iteration, the long-awaited Winter Olympics-themed Winter Games that followed hot on the heels of Summer Games II. With Epyx’s in-house programmers and artists still busy with the latter, Winter Games was outsourced along with detailed specifications provided by Epyx’s own designers to another developer called Action Graphics. The partnership between the Silicon Valley-based Epyx and the Chicago-based Action Graphics was apparently a somewhat troubled one, with delays caused by poor communication threatening to scupper the planned Christmas 1985 launch. The project’s savior proved to be one Matt Householder, a recently arrived refugee from Atari who would play a huge role in the series going forward. Upon his hiring in July of 1985, his first role became that of Epyx’s official liaison to Action Graphics; he spent many weeks in Chicago pushing the game along to completion. A programmer himself with much experience with videogames, Householder suggested lots of extra little touches, sometimes helped out with technical problems, and, with the deadline ever looming, occasionally advanced the timetable via some artful deletion.

The bobsled was a particularly problem-plagued event. The original conception would have had the riders pushing the sled to get it started, just like in the real thing, but no one could quite figure out how to make it work. Householder made an executive decision to just excise that element entirely in favor of making the rest of the event as good as possible. Note in the video below how the clouds in the sky also move when the bobsled goes through a curve. This late Householder-prompted addition is a classic example of a little touch of the realistic whose presence might not be noticed but whose absence almost certainly would — perhaps not consciously, but only as a feeling that something is somehow “off” with the experience. Note also the music that now plays before this and all of the other Winter Games events to leaven the somewhat sterile feel of the original Summer Games.


The bobsled is actually quite graphically spare in contrast to some of the other events in Winter Games. See for example the biathlon, the most time-consuming single event to appear in any of the Games games and one of the most strategic. The speed of the targeting cursor in the shooting sections — and thus the difficulty of each shot — is determined by your heart rate when you arrive. Success is all about pacing yourself, setting up a manageable rhythm that keeps you moving along reasonably well but that also lets you make your shots. According to Householder, “It was put in there to make something completely different. It breaks up the pace of the other events, which are more tense, action/reaction type of things. You have to learn a different set of skills.” Barely a week before the deadline, Householder, bothered that the shooting just somehow didn’t feel right, suddenly suggested adding a requirement to eject the spent round and cock a new one before firing. They managed to shoehorn it in, and it does go a long way in adding verisimilitude to the experience. It’s not so important to make a game like this realistic per se, but to make the player feel like she’s really there, to capture the spirit of the event, if you will.


The original plan for the graphic depictions of this event was, as with the bobsled, somewhat more ambitious than the final version. The skier was to be shown from different angles on every screen, a scheme that Householder quickly excised in favor of a consistent if less graphically interesting side view. The lush backgrounds were inspired by photos of the actual event taken at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, recreated freehand by artist Steve Johnson. I must say that I love the winter-wonderland atmosphere this event and, indeed, much of Winter Games conjures up. Like the opening and closing ceremonies, the bobsled, and a couple of other events in Winter Games that clearly take inspiration from the Sarajevo Olympics, the biathlon is made bittersweet today by the knowledge of what was in store for so many of those sites and, more importantly, for the people who lived near them.

Having now covered most of the Olympics events that seemed practical to implement on a Commodore 64, there was some debate within Epyx on the best way to consider the series after Winter Games; it had turned into such a cash cow that no one was eager to bring it to a close. Marketing director Robert Botch suggested that Epyx effectively create their own version of the Olympics using interesting non-Olympic sports from all over the world, under the title of World Games. Householder ran with the idea, proposing turning the game into a sort of globe-trotting travelogue that would not only let the player participate in the unique sports of many nations but also get a taste of their cultures.

World Games

You’ll notice in the World Games screenshot above an advertisement for Continental Airlines, perhaps the first of its kind in a game that wasn’t itself blatant ad-ware and yet another example of Botch’s prescience as a marketer. If the times were changing, though, they were still changing slowly: Continental was able to buy this exposure in a game that would end up selling hundreds of thousands of copies by providing Epyx with nothing more than a handful of free tickets to Disney World for use in contests. On the other hand, perhaps Continental paid a fair price when one starts to consider demographic realities; the young people who made up the vast majority of Epyx’s customers generally weren’t much in the market for airline tickets quite yet.

Much as the documentary tone of the travelogue-style descriptions might lead you to believe otherwise, the Epyx design team was made up of a bunch of young American males who weren’t exactly well-traveled themselves, nor much versed in global sporting culture. They chose the majority of the sports in World Games by flipping through books and magazines, looking for things that seemed interesting and implementable. They then designed the events without ever having actually seen them in real life. This led to some bizarre decisions and outright mistakes, like their choice of barrel-jumping (on ice skates!) as the supposed national sport of Germany; absolutely no one in Germany had any idea what they were on about when the game came out. Their original plan to make soccer penalty kicks Germany’s national sport would have hit closer to home, even if a love for soccer is hardly confined to that country. But it proved to be technically infeasible.

With Epyx’s in-house programming team once again too busy with other projects to take it up, World Games was again contracted to outside programmers. This time a company called K-Byte did the honors, albeit under much closer supervision, with the art and music supplied by Epyx’s own people. Freed as they were from the rigid strictures of traditional Olympic disciplines and a certain fuddy-duddy air of solemnity that always accompanies them, the designers, artists, and programmers were able to inject much more creative whimsy, even humor. See for example what happens when you screw up badly in Scotland’s caber toss.


Speaking of screwing up: Epyx’s designers managed to completely miss the point of the caber toss. Athletes participating in the real sport are judged on aesthetics, on how cleanly and straightly they toss the caber. The objective is not, as in World Games, to simply chunk the bloody thing as far as possible.

The music tries its best — if, again, only within the limits of Epyx’s international awareness —  to echo the “national music” of each country represented. The bagpipe sound is quite impressive in its way; listen for the initial “squawk” each time the instrument changes pitch, so like the real thing.

But Mexico’s cliff-diving provides perhaps the best illustration of how far Epyx had come already by the time of World Games. It’s superficially similar to the diving event from Summer Games, as seen in my very first video above, but the difference is night and day. I speak not just of the heightened drama inherit in jumping off a rocky cliffside as opposed to a diving board, although that’s certainly part of it. Look also at the improved graphics, the addition of music, all of the little juicy touches that add personality and interest: the way the diver fidgets nervously as he waits to take the plunge, the way you can send him careening off the rocks in various viscerally painful ways, the seagull at the bottom of the cliff who will turn and fly off if you wait long enough. (Rumor has it that it’s possible to hit the seagull somehow if you botch a dive badly enough, but I’ve never succeeded in doing so.)


California Games, the fifth entry in the series and the culmination of the audiovisual progression we’ve been charting, was done completely in-house at Epyx. Indeed, it was also inspired much closer to home that any of the games that had come before. Walking through Golden Gate Park one weekend, watching bicyclists and skateboarders doing tricks for the crowds, Matt Householder’s wife Candi suggested that Epyx should use those sorts of sports in their next Games game.

But there’s a bit more than that to be said about California Games‘s origins, in terms of both universals and the specific context of the mid-1980s. In the case of the former, there’s the eternal promised land of California itself that’s been a part of the collective mythical landscape of Americans and non-Americans alike almost from the moment that California itself existed as a term of geography: Hollywood, Route 66, Disneyland, the Sunset Strip, the Beach Boys, palm trees, hot rods, surfboards, and of course bikinis and the sun-kissed beach bunnies who fill them out so fetchingly. (Botch wouldn’t be shy about incorporating the latter elements in particular into his marketing campaign.) “Go west, young man!” indeed. California Games combined this eternal California with a burgeoning interest amongst the young in what would come to be called “extreme sports” that saw many a teenager picking up BMX or half-pipe skateboarding. The first proposal that Householder submitted actually skewed much more extreme than the eventual finished product, including wind-surfing, hang-gliding, and parachuting events that were all excised in favor of some more sedate pursuits like Frisbee and Hacky Sack. He also proposed for the collection the almost instantly dating appellation of Rad Games; thankfully, Botch soon settled on the timeless California Games instead.

Which is not to say that California Games itself is exactly “timeless”; this is about as clearly a product of 1987 as it’s possible for a game to be. At that time the endlessly renewable California Dream was particularly hot. Even the name California Games, timeless or no, also managed to evoke the zeitgeist of 1987, when California Coolers and the California Raisins were all the rage. The manual includes a helpful dictionary of now painfully dated surfer and valley-girl slang.

LIKE (lik) prep. Insert anywhere you like, like, in any sentence, in, like, any context. Used most effectively when upset: “it’s, like, geez…” Or the coolest way to use “like” is with “all” (for more description). “It’s, like — I’m all — duuude, you’ve got sand in your jams.”

Replacing the chance to represent a country, Olympics-style, that had persisted through World Games are a bunch of prominent 1987 brands, some of which have survived (Costa Del Mar, Kawasaki, Ocean Pacific, Casio), some of which have apparently not (Auzzie Surfboards and Ray-D-O BMX, my favorite for its sheer stupidity). All paid Epyx to feature their logos in the game, with those willing to invest a bit more getting more prominent placement. Yes, Botch was figuring out this in-game-advertising thing fast. See for instance the logos plastered behind the skateboarding half pipe.


California Games was the first title in the series for which Epyx could draw on a fair amount of direct personal experience. Enthusiasts of the various sports inside the company demonstrated their skills for the cameras, the resulting video used as models for their onscreen versions. Some of the less athletic programmers and designers also had a go by way of getting into the spirit of the thing. Householder notes that “I nearly broke my skull a couple of times” on a skateboard in the Epyx parking lot.

To see how far Commodore 64 games came in less than four years, look at the colorful-in-both-senses-of-the-word surfing video below, with its gags like the shark. (A cute dolphin also shows up from time to time, albeit not so often as the shark and never, alas, when you’re trying to make a video.) Notice how the music, a rock song this time, plays during the action now to elevate the whole experience. The bagpipes and the like may have been impressive, but rock and roll was to be the sound of California Games, with Botch even managing to officially license “Louie Louie” for the title screen. And notice how the little surfer dude is an individual with his own look and, one might even say, personality, in comparison to the faceless (literally!) papier-mâché silhouettes of Summer Games.


California Games became an even bigger international hit than the previous four games in the series, one more symbol of the power of the California Dream. Epyx now had 200 employees, and was possessed of an almost unblemished record of commercial success that made them the envy of the industry, their catalog including not only hit games but also their Fast Load cartridge that many Commodore 64 owners considered indispensable and a very popular “competition-quality” joystick. But California Games would mark the end of an era. The downfall of this company and series that had been able to do no wrong for years would happen with stunning speed.

Nor could the Commodore 64 itself keep going forever. Having reached its peak at last in mid-1987, with programmers beginning to get a sense that it just wasn’t possible to push this little machine, extraordinarily flexible as it had proved to be, much further, the downward slope loomed. We, however, will stay perched here a little longer, to appreciate in future articles some more of the most impressive outpouring of games ever to grace the platform.

(Sources: Family Computing of September 1987; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Commodore User of February 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1986; Compute! of December 1986 and August 1987; Retro Gamer 46 and 49.

Such was the popularity of the first five of the Games that the property still holds some nostalgia value to this day, seeing periodic re-releases and revivals. The latest of these is from the German publisher Magnussoft, who have versions available for Windows, Macintosh, and Android. I must say, however, that there’s little left of the original feel in such efforts. I prefer to just play them in an emulator on the old Commodore 64. An intrepid fan who calls himself “John64″ has packaged all five titles onto a cartridge image who loads and plays almost instantly in an emulator like VICE. I take the liberty of providing the cartridge here as well along with all of the manuals.)

 

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Topologika

Topologika

When Acorn Computer foundered on a financial iceberg in 1985, one of the first and saddest victims was Acornsoft, their software arm. Acornsoft was destined to go down into history first and foremost as the house that set British gaming on its head with Elite, but David Braben and Ian Bell, having already made their exodus to Firebird and taken their game with them, were hardly the ones most affected by the collapse. Those developers who didn’t have an easy escape hatch to hand had far more cause for worry. Among them were Peter Killworth and his colleagues from Cambridge University, who had over the previous few years brought a taste of the unique adventuring culture of their university’s Phoenix mainframe to the little BBC Micro by porting some of those games (Philosopher’s Quest, Kingdom of Hamil, Quondam, and Acheton) and writing new ones in their spirit (Castle of Riddles and Countdown to Doom).

Acheton

The sudden loss of a publisher must have been made even more disheartening by the fact that the Cambridge professors had only recently pulled off a technical coup for the ages. All of the Phoenix ports except the last had been just that, hand-made translations into ultra-compact BBC BASIC that were often accomplished only by making painful cuts to the original designs. That last game, however, was different. For it, John Thackray and David Seal chose the biggest whale of all, Acheton, the very first of the Phoenix games and by far the largest. They devised an interpreter to read and play the adventure’s compiled database file, written on the mainframe using their own T/SAL adventure-making programming language, on a 32 K BBC Micro equipped with a disk drive. Acheton‘s database alone was so large that it filled almost every byte of space on a disk side, forcing them to place the interpreter and boot code for the game on the other side of the disk. Showing a bit of mercy to players about to confront one of the most infamously difficult adventure games ever made, they used the extra space on the disk’s boot side for a graduated hint system that included more than 250 individual questions. That number gives some sense of the sheer scale of Acheton, as do its totals of more than 400 rooms to be mapped and more than 160 individual manipulable objects. Acheton was trumpeted by Acornsoft as the largest single adventure game ever written. It’s still amongst the leaders in that category today in terms of breadth if not depth of interaction; the ratio of rooms to objects alone illustrates what a very, very old-school game it is, containing lots of empty rooms, as often as not grouped into fiendishly elaborate mazes of one stripe or another.

Murdac got a splashy title screen on the CPC.

Murdac got a splashy title screen on the CPC.

Olivetti, Acorn’s new owners, sold Acornsoft’s existing contracts and software to an outfit called Superior Software in 1986. Superior, however, wasn’t much interested in text adventures, so the Cambridge professors were eventually able to negotiate back ownership of the games they’d published through Acornsoft. In the meantime, they decided to bring another of the Phoenix games, Jon Thackray and Jonathan Partington’s Murdac, to the popular new Amstrad CPC line of computers. The CPC had a comparatively generous 64 K of memory, while Murdac was one of the smallest of the Phoenix games. These two facts together meant that an outside contractor named Richard Clayton, whose claim to fame was nothing less than having written the BASIC built into the CPC, was able to fit the entire Phoenix database file plus an interpreter into the memory of a cassette-based CPC. After an initial deal with Amsoft, Amstrad’s equivalent to Acornsoft, fell through, they signed a contract at last with Global Software to sell Murdac as Monsters of Murdac; the new prefix was apparently judged to give the game a bit more of that Dungeons and Dragons feel that the kids craved. Even in 1986 a Phoenix game like Murdac felt rather behind the times to many; this was after all the year that Magnetic Scrolls was knocking ’em dead with The Pawn. Amstrad Action columnist Steve Cooke, better known by his handle of “The Pilgrim” and in general one of the more thoughtful and perceptive voices in adventuring gaming, wrote a typical review, saying “it’s not hard to see why” Amsoft had ultimately decided to take a pass: “This is a text-only game of a rather old-fashioned nature where you trundle around underground solving puzzles and collecting valuable items.” He also took time like other reviewers to complain about Murdac‘s lack of an “examine” verb. This particular description, this particular complaint, and even this particular columnist would become all too familiar to the Cambridge colleagues in the years to come. For now, though, Monsters of Murdac didn’t make much impression on gamers, and the relationship with Global Software was soon severed. The third publisher would prove to be the charm.

That arrangement was born of a conversation that Peter Killworth had with a friend named Brian Kerslake about the state of British educational software. It was certainly a topic that Kerslake knew a lot about, having made it into his life’s work. He and his wife Maddy, schoolteachers both, had formed an educational-software developer and publisher called Chalksoft back in 1982. For a few years they had cranked out software covering all sorts of subjects for many age groups, from ABC and basic arithmetic drills for grade schoolers to French, German, and Spanish practice for adult tourists. Chalksoft, however, had never quite found their footing with schools’ purchasing departments, by far the best and most reliable customers for this sort of thing, and had been swept away like Acornsoft by the British computer industry’s mid-decade travails. Undaunted, Kerslake was determined to take what he had learned and try again, this time under the name of Topologika.

In that initial conversation, though, it was Killworth who did most of the talking. Specifically, he was talking — or complaining — about a hugely popular educational text adventure called L – A Mathemagical Adventure, an effort at teaching basic concepts in mathematics that had been written by the Association of Teachers of Mathematics themselves and was now a fixture in British schools. Simply put, Killworth thought he could do better. If he could, replied Kerslake, he, Kerslake, would would love to publish it. Peter Killworth seldom needed to hear a challenge like that twice. A few months later, he handed Kerslake Giant Killer.

Giant Killer

Published for the BBC Micro as Topologika’s first product in April of 1987, Giant Killer is “loosely based” on the old English fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. The choice of names (sometimes also written as Giantkiller by Topologika and others) is obvious based on the subject matter, but may also, one suspects, be a sly dig at L, the educational giant Killworth intended to slay. That said, it’s not all that noticeably different from its inspiration and nemesis in form or content. Like L, it’s a simple text adventure whose various set-piece puzzles can all be clearly seen by a trained mind like Killworth’s as mathematical “investigations” exploring various fundamental properties. For a decidedly untrained mind like mine, they’re just a pretty good collection of logic puzzles, a few of them trivial, most of them straightforward but enjoyable, one or two quite tricky even for an adult (the bottle-sorting puzzle that turns up early bogs me down every time). Surprisingly in light of the reputation of its creator, Giant Killer is if anything somewhat simpler to get through than L, certainly at least noticeably more linear. Occasional references to “Venn cubes” and the like aside, the game never beats you over the head with the ideas you’re allegedly learning, enough so as to make you wonder what really separates this game from lots of other abstractly puzzley text adventures beyond the extensive manual, meant for teachers, that carefully steps through every stage and puzzle in the game. I tend to want to say that Giant Killer teaches logical thinking more so than mathematics per se. But then I suppose some would argue that the two are one and the same.

Whatever the nature of its educational value, Giant Killer immediately became very, very popular, joining its rival L as a fixture for many years in schools across the country. Like The Oregon Trail in the United States, these games are inescapable memories for Britons who attended primary school from the late 1980s to well into the 1990s. For Brian Kerslake, Giant Killer became exactly the sort of reputation-defining title he had been unable to find as Chalksoft, paving the way to the sustained success of Topologika as an educational publisher; he and Maddy wouldn’t bring the company in for a soft landing at last until a quarter-century later. Giant Killer proved so popular that Topologika not only added to their catalog versions for many other platforms but also an add-on “support disk,” which presented the more intricate puzzles in graphical form for students to tinker with on the computer in lieu of pencil and paper before returning to the main game to enter their solutions.

Paradoxically, Giant Killer, by an order of magnitude the most widely played game to come out of the Phoenix adventuring culture, has been largely overlooked or dismissed in histories of that culture. While the original BBC Micro version of the game was done in BASIC on that machine itself, the database used in the ports was rewritten in the T/SAL adventure language on the Phoenix mainframe and run on each target machine through an interpreter. Whatever else it is, it’s very clearly an adventure in the Phoenix tradition, if also a much, much gentler experience than any of its stablemates.

With Giant Killer proving to be such a rousing debut for Topologika the educational publisher, Kerslake was more than happy to provide Killworth and his colleagues a stable home at last for their other adventure games as a sideline. In that first year of 1987 alone Topologika republished four of the old Acornsoft titles, whose rights the Cambridge professors had by now been able to secure again: Philosopher’s Quest, Kingdom of Hamil, Acheton, and Countdown to Doom. They were even able to boast that three of the four were “new and expanded” versions; the disk-based interpreter that Seal and Thackray had developed for Acheton allowed them to move the full versions of Philosopher’s Quest (known as Brand X on the mainframe) and Kingdom of Hamil onto microcomputers directly from the Phoenix mainframe, while Killworth rewrote and expanded Countdown to Doom in T/SAL for its Topologika release.

Countdown to Doom

These games with their cool intellectualism and rigorous minimalism paddled defiantly against the current of adventure games in the late 1980s, which were evolving to place ever more emphasis on story, texture, and accessibility via more and more text, better and better parsers, and better and more pictures that would soon come to replace text and parsers entirely. It’s jarring just to see a review of one of the Topologika games in a magazine filled with pictures of scantily-clad barbarian maidens, well-oiled action heroes, and explosions galore. The people excited by those things, one senses, just aren’t likely to get too excited about spending hours plotting out the mechanics of intricate spatial and mathematical puzzles described in a bare few, albeit generally well-chosen sentences. The problem of an audience being stolen away by other, shinier genres was admittedly one that most text adventures were beginning to face, but with the Phoenix games it was exacerbated to the extreme; these games could be off-putting to even the most dedicated fans of the genre. Most of the reviews hammered on the same few phrases: “old-fashioned,” “no story,” “poor parser,” “difficult puzzles,” and, most of all, “no examine,” which alone could be read as shorthand for everything most adventure-game players wanted from their games by 1987 that the Phoenix games adamantly refused to give them; I’ll try to explain why in just a moment.

One thing made the Phoenix games unique in comparison to other sketchily implemented games: their seeming sketchiness arose from — or at least was claimed to arise from — a considered design position rather than a simple lack of time, will, resources, or technical skill. That’s perhaps a bit convenient given that these games were made on a shoestring compared to the likes of Magnetic Scrolls or even Level 9, much less Infocom, but it was nevertheless a position that Killworth and even Kerslake were prepared to argue with considerable force and passion. A fascinating debate erupted between the Topologika crew and “Pilgrim” Steve Cooke after the latter gave Philosopher’s Quest and Countdown to Doom less than glowing reviews, hitting in the course of them on most of the themes listed in my previous paragraph. Turning to the December 1987 issue of Amstrad Action, I want to consider a letter Killworth wrote to Cooke in response to his reviews and some of Cooke’s own replies at some length because I think they offer much food for thought, not only in the context of the Phoenix games but of the art of interactive fiction in general.

Killworth makes some decidedly dubious assertions in his letter, such as the claim that recently developed conveniences like “ramsave,” used to quickly stash an undo point in memory, are unnecessary in Topologika games because saving is “well-nigh instant anyway, since this is a disk-based game.” To that one can only reply that: a) users of the single-drive 8-bit systems that made up so many of Topologika’s customers, forced as they were to swap disks twice and enter a filename with every save, apparently had a different definition of “instant”; and b) it’s always a dangerous practice under any circumstances as a software developer to lecture users on why they really don’t need the feature they’ve just requested.

Killworth’s assertion that better parsers don’t allow more complex and interesting puzzles also strikes me as rather transparently ridiculous.

The original mainframe Zork is a good example. It’s still around, and in cut-down micro versions, not because of its parser (which has, as do all fancy parsers, lot of infelicities — I know of only one puzzle in one adventure that needs a fancy parser); not because of its graphics (it has none); but because it’s witty, with some interesting puzzles. Well, we strive for wittiness, but that’s in the eye of the beholder; but we do achieve interesting puzzles.

I can only speculate that, if Killworth hadn’t seen more than one example of better parsers leading to better puzzles in Infocom’s games in particular, he hadn’t played very many (any?). The Phoenix games are often remarkable for how many interesting puzzles they are able to coax out of their limited parsers and world models, but this is merely a product of artful designing around the engine’s constraints, not proof that better parsers don’t allow still more varied and interesting puzzles and gameplay in general. Cooke’s very reasonable response:

I must disagree heartily on this one. I agree that the majority of games (even those claiming fancy parsers) can be satisfactorily played using simple inputs. This is, however, a point against poorly designed games, and not against complex parsers. To give a few examples of powerful parsing adding considerably to gameplay, I would cite (1) Level 9’s ability to command a character to carry out actions while you get on with something else; (2) the relative positioning in Magnetic Scrolls games, with solutions such as “smear x on y” or “look under z”; (3) for sheer convenience, the “go to,” “follow,” and “find” commands now used by some companies; and (4) as a personal favourite, the use of the “hide” command in Infocom’s Suspect.

But Killworth is on firmer ground in some senses when we come to the oddly specific topic to which the whole debate surrounding the Topologika games in general seems to continually return: their lack of an “examine” verb. Killworth:

Much of your review of my games Countdown to Doom and Philosopher’s Quest is taken up with the complaint that you expect “examine” to work in all games. My philosophy has always been — and always will be — that the computer is your senses and hands. Anything that you see should and must be passed on to the player immediately. I can’t see the point of:

There is an X here.

Examine X.

You find a Y.

when

There is an X here. It has a Y attached… (or whatever)

is what you, the player, actually see when you look at the blessed thing. Another example which gets my goat is:

There is a piece of wood here.

Examine wood.

It is Y-shaped, and would make a fine catapult if it had elastic

(almost verbatim from one bestselling game). Why not:

There is a Y-shaped piece of wood here. It resembles a catapult without the elastic.

or words to that effect? So I and my colleagues have always eschewed the use of “examine” — it’s a waste of player time and furthermore is really programmer dishonesty: it creates a potential puzzle “free” because the player might forget to do an “examine.”

Cooke’s response:

I quite understand your argument and am even inclined to agree with you — there’s no point in an “examine” that simply serves to draw out the gameplay to no real purpose. However, I feel that in real life we do “examine” objects to see if there is more to them than meets the eye, and in an adventure I believe that occasionally the “examine” command is vital in enhancing the atmosphere of a game. A good example would be the books in the library in Guild of Thieves, where you can “read” (i.e., examine) a large number of objects and have fun doing so. However, there’s no doubt that some puzzles have come to depend too much on the “examine” command, like the catapult you mention. On the other hand, I feel that excluding the command altogether, as you do, is moving too far to the other extreme.

Applied to games in the Phoenix style, I find Killworth’s argument that “examine” is unnecessary convincing enough, even as I find unconvincing his argument that a storyworld without “examine” better simulates our experience of reality. The fact is that we do usually choose where to focus our attention when we enter a new space that’s not entirely or nearly empty. The important difference between Topologika games and those from others was that rooms in the former were entirely or nearly empty as an almost universal rule, but the latter were beginning by this point to simulate richer, more complex spaces. Thus the former don’t need “examine,” but the latter do. I think this is an important distinction to consider because it moves us closer to understanding what’s really going on in this debate in general.

Cooke seemed unable to keep himself from connecting the lack of “examine” to everything else he didn’t like about the Topologika games. See for example the prevalence of unclued sudden deaths, like this one in Countdown to Doom:

In one location near the start, there’s a blob-like thing that slithers across the path towards a cliff. If you just watch it, it soon disappears over the edge (presumably forever) and since you assume that it has some significance in the game you feel reluctant to let it go. You can’t “examine” it, so the only thing to do is to “get” it. This is instantly fatal.

Killworth’s reply:

On the subject of “examine” and the “dangerous blob,” fatal to get: what information would you expect “examine blob” to produce that would tell you that touching it is fatal? Tell me what there is about an earthly jellyfish (which would be long extinct by the time Doom happens) that would tell you not to touch it if you’d never come across one!

This continued fixation on what would happen in the real world is rather missing the point entirely, especially given that rigorous realism is hardly amongst the Phoenix games’ strengths. The real point is of course that this sort of sudden death is just annoying and cruel, as many other game designers had come to understand at last by 1987. Cooke:

My concern about the fatal blob was not altogether due to the absence of an “examine” command and if I gave that impression (I don’t have the review to hand) I apologise for being misleading. It’s just that I have never been enamoured of having curiosity in a game rewarded with death without some form of warning. Some software houses get round this by asking quite directly, “Do you wish to continue?” or “Are you sure you want to do that?”. Although a bit feeble, this at least gives the player cause for thought. Better by far to introduce the warning into the gameplay. For example — if there was a stick to hand I might use it to prod the blob first, whereupon seeing the stick sizzle and burst into flame would enable me to save my skin and congratulate myself on being a clever dick into the bargain!

It’s one of Killworth’s concluding statements that I find to be his most perceptive and most interesting, being as cogent an explanation as we’re likely to find of why he and Cooke so often seem to be talking past one another.

Looking back at your comments, what I think I read is that you like to “live” in the games you play as a primary motive, while solving them is secondary. For example, you like to talk to characters; I don’t. I believe that good plotting and good puzzles are what keep a game going over the years.

It’s the old conundrum of the crossword versus the narrative writ large — game as abstract puzzle or game as embodied experience. Killworth remained doctrinally, ideologically wedded to the former while Cooke was eager to see games in the latter light. Read in the light of this reality, this debate that keeps returning over and over to “examine” takes on a whole new level of meaning. Cooke complains about the lack of an “examine” command. Killworth responds, reasonably enough, that there’s really no need for an “examine” command in Topologika games. Cooke remains unsatisfied because a game so minimalist that it doesn’t need “examine” isn’t a game he wants to play. The lack of “examine,” in other words, isn’t the disease but a symptom of the deeper problem that Cooke can’t quite articulate. The reality was that most gamers shared his preference for more fictionally experiential games, that the medium in general had been moving steadily in this direction for years. And that in a nutshell is why Topologika adventure games weren’t going to set the world on fire.

Subsequent exchanges among Cooke, Killworth, and eventually also Kerslake, which continued for some eighteen months, unfortunately grew progressively more petty and less illuminating, serving mainly as an object lesson to creators that there’s little to be gained in attempting to rebut criticism. In the meantime, new Topologika adventures continued to appear. Killworth wrote and published two sequels to Countdown to DoomReturn to Doom and The Last Days of Doom, in 1988 and 1990 respectively, and in 1989 came Jonathan Partington’s Shakespeare-themed Avon, which had been available to Phoenix users for seven years. Perhaps in an effort to boost flagging sales, both Avon and The Last Days of Doom also included an additional “B-side” adventure: a republished Murdac in the case of the former, another old Phoenix game called Hezarin in that of the latter. Topologika also funded ports of the T/SAL interpreter and thus their entire adventure catalog to quite a number of disk-drive-equipped platforms beyond the BBC Micro, including the Amstrad CPC and PCW, the IBM PC, the Sinclair Spectrum, the Acorn Electron and Archimedes, and the Atari ST. The end of the line didn’t come until 1992, with the publication of Spy Snatcher, a Thackray/Partington game that had been one of the last new adventures made available to players on the Phoenix mainframe itself circa 1988. I’d be tempted to also name Spy Snatcher as the last all-text game to be sold as a conventional boxed product for store shelves, except that by 1992 the Topologika games were so poorly distributed that just about the only way to get one was to call up Topologika themselves and ask for one. All of the old adventures remained notionally available, in the sense that you wouldn’t find them in Topologika’s catalogs but they would sell you a copy from their warehouse stock if you asked them, until 1999, when Graham Nelson and Adam Atkinson convinced Kerslake and the Cambridge professors to release the whole collection as freeware. Those gentlemen and others have since done stellar work preserving not only the Topologika versions but also the Phoenix mainframe originals.

Spy Snatcher

Even in their commercial heyday, such as it was, the Topologika adventures were never more than cult titles, beloved by an enthusiastic but tiny base of players. And by “tiny” I mean really tiny; I would suspect that some later Topologika adventures may not have made it to four digits in total sales. Given this, and given that they were downright reactionary in their refusal to evolve with the times — one can’t help but think of former silent-movie stars railing against the talkies when reading some of Killworth’s comments — you might well be wondering why I’ve chosen to give them as much attention as I have. The historical argument is that T/SAL represents the first custom adventure-authoring language to be made available to the public — assuming your definition of “public” is inclusive enough to stand in for “people with access to Cambridge’s Phoenix mainframe” — and the first game made with it, the monstrous Acheton, was also the first text adventure to be made in Britain, the starting point of a whole national tradition. As such, the later history of T/SAL and the games it spawned are well worth documenting.

The aesthetic argument is more subtle but also more compelling. The Phoenix games represent the most uncompromising examples ever of a certain school of text-adventure design that would see the genre as one of the world’s ultimate tests of logic, organizational ability, and sheer dogged willpower. You don’t so much play a Phoenix game as you assault it, problem by problem, maze by maze, restarting again and again to optimize your play and, often, to save that pesky expiring light source, mapping out meter by hard-fought meter your path to victory against a game that literally wants to kill you every chance it gets. That’s not quite what most of us are looking for when we sit down to play a game. Yet there’s a certain purity, one might even say an aesthetic beauty, to the Phoenix games’ refusal to allow distractions like story texture and player convenience to obscure their diamond-hard spine. They’re like the Lloyd’s building in London, pipes and wiring exposed to see and celebrate. While they are extremely difficult and gleefully unforgiving, they also contain surprisingly little of the bullshit that normally marks such minimalist efforts: no guess the verb, no random puzzle solutions pulled out of thin air. The logic is usually there, somewhere; it’s just a matter of finding it. According to their own lights if not those of our modern times, they’re trying to play tough — very tough — but fair with you.

If that sounds like something for you, I recommend you start with Giant Killer and see how it goes. The other Phoenix games, having all been written by graduate students and PhDs, share more than a little of Giant Killer‘s intellectual — one might even say pedagogic — flavor, and Giant Killer‘s preferred type of puzzle will be very familiar to anyone who has experience with those other games: intricate set-pieces often spanning many rooms that demand pencil and paper and systematic, holistic thought as opposed to just “use this object here.” It’s just that those other games, having been written by said graduate students and PhDs in some of the most difficult disciplines in the world for their peers in one of the most demanding universities in the world, are much, much more rigorous exercises. And of course Giant Killer doesn’t kill you without warning every other turn. There is that. Still, playing it should you give a good idea of whether you want to explore further. If you’re one of the few on the right wavelength, you’ve got months or years of masochistic fun to look forward to. And if not, you can breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that no one dares make ’em like this anymore.

(Sources: 8000 Plus of June 1988, July 1988, December 1988, February 1989, April 1989, August 1989, November 1989, and January 1990; Amstrad Action of December 1985, August 1986, November 1987, December 1987, February 1988, September 1988, December 1988, February 1989, April 1989, December 1989, June 1990, November 1990; Crash of May 1988, June 1988, July 1988, and August 1988; Games Machine of September 1988 and September 1990; Your Sinclair of July 1988; Home Computing Weekly of April 12 1983, May 24 1983, September 27 1983, October 30 1984, April 2 1985, April 23 1985, and April 30 1985; Laser Bug of January 1983, June 1983, July/August 1983, and September 1983; ZX Computing of April/May 1985; Acorn Programs of August/September 1984; Acorn User of December 1984; Computer and Video Games of March 1985. See also the feature on the Phoenix games in SPAG Magazine #58.

To play Giant Killer, you can either download the original BBC Micro version from here or the MS-DOS port from Topologika’s ghost of a home page. The latter will unfortunately not run on 64-bit versions of Windows, so you’ll need to use DOSBox or something similar to get it going. The other games discussed in this article are all available on the IF Archive in one form or another.)

 

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