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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design (or, Why Ron Gilbert Hated Adventure Games)

In addition to the obvious goals of making a hit game and not getting himself fired, one of Ron Gilbert’s implicit goals in making Maniac Mansion was to force a dialog about the sorry state of the nascent art of graphic-adventure design. Sadly, his message wouldn’t be terribly well-heeded by designers other than his own colleagues at Lucasfilm Games for quite some time. Indeed, I have a theory that there have been far more really bad adventure games created than bad examples of any other gaming genre over the years since Gilbert first tried to set the world on a better path. If that is indeed the case, the causes come largely down to two factors.

The first is that it’s uniquely easy to make an unfair — i.e., a bad — adventure game. Adventures are built not from systems of rules that can clearly be whole or broken, fair or unfair to the player, but rather from reams and reams of hand-crafted content. A designer of a strategy or action game can play her own game to get a good idea of whether it works as it should. A designer of an adventure game, who knows all of the puzzles already, cannot. What separates a good puzzle from one that is too obscure? The only way to find out is to put it in front of people. Thus is adventure design, even more so than other forms of game design, hugely dependent on player feedback — the sort of feedback that’s dangerously easy to dismiss or not solicit at all when the budget starts to go into the red and the calendar starts to slip and everyone just wants to be done with a project already.

The other factor also has to do with feedback, albeit of a slightly different kind, and applies more to graphic than to text adventures. The textual interactive-fiction community, the supposed “amateurs” of the adventure genre, have over the decades developed a rich body of critical theory and best practices explaining how to do text adventures right (not that it’s always followed). The critical dialog around graphic adventures, however, has sadly failed the sub-genre. I get so frustrated when I read reviews of adventure games that tell me that, yes, you’ll probably need to play this one from a walkthrough, but it’s a good game, really it is. No. Just no. Interactivity is the point of games, the thing that sets them apart from every other medium. Why should I play a game from a walkthrough when I can just go watch a movie or read a book? Occasionally there might be a broken game that shines so brightly or innovates so wildly in some other way that it’s worth playing just to appreciate what it tries to be. Even here, though, that appreciation should be tempered with the understanding that what’s being played is still a broken game — a bad game. It’s just broken in more interesting ways than other bad games.

The failure of professional reviewers of the 1980s and 1990s to really address the many problems of the games they wrote about, regardless of the genres in question, isn’t that hard to explain. Not only were the publications they wrote for usually supported by advertisements from the companies whose games they reviewed, but the typical reviewer was harried, given precious little time to cobble together an opinion before the next deadline when the hot new games just had to be inside the magazine to drive sales. Publications that required their reviewers to actually finish the games they wrote about were few and far between. These practical realities plagued the critical dialog around all of the gaming genres, but were, once again, almost uniquely problematic in the case of adventure games. Taken in the context of the mid-1980s, games like (for instance) those in Sierra’s King’s Quest and Space Quest series looked great at first blush, colorful and lively and full of possibility. It took more time than many reviewers were willing and/or able to devote to them to divine their tendency to confound and annoy the player who is earnestly playing them to win, to discern how rotten the game-design meat hidden under all of the audiovisual garnishing really is.

When we turn away from the professionals to look at the everyday players who continued to support the genre despite the constant abuses they suffered, the question of why so few adventures games ever seemed to get called out, to get punished for their bad designs becomes more fraught. It’s honestly hard for me to imagine, but there apparently were fans of the genre who actually enjoyed what most people regarded as its most notorious pitfalls. Others were less enthused, but noted with resignation that “that’s just how adventure games are,” and were apparently more willing to lump it than to leave the genre behind. (For what it’s worth, neither group ever included me. I can remember trying to play Space Quest circa 1988, getting stuck, finally tracking down a walkthrough — no easy task back then — and learning that my problem had been that I’d been standing at the wrong angle whilst examining my space capsule. I just knew right then that that was bullshit, and didn’t play another Sierra game for years.)

The dialog amongst actual designers of graphic adventures has likewise been a historically parched one. Once again, this state of affairs is in marked contrast to the active, ever-questioning conversations that have marked practitioners of the art of text-adventure design for decades now. In the realm of the graphic adventure, bold considerations of the state of the sub-genre by its practitioners, like Ron Gilbert’s own indelible “Why Adventure Games Suck,” have always been thin on the ground. The most thoughtful critical commentary has tended to come from people who dislike conventional adventure games on principle, such as Chris Crawford.

As someone who loves a good adventure game, whether done in text or graphics, maybe I can do my modest little something to change the way we talk about the form’s graphical variant. It seems anyway that this is a good time to try, moving in this blog’s timeline as we are into the late 1980s, when graphic adventures were steadily replacing the old text games in the world of commercial software. Because a concrete example is usually worth a thousand abstract words, I’m going to use as exemplars of all the things one shouldn’t do in a graphic adventure two pieces of terrible design craft from 1986, the year before Ron Gilbert’s frustration with the state of the art led him to try to show the industry a better way with Maniac Mansion.

Space Quest

Space Quest, Chapter 1: The Sarien Encounter was one of the first graphic adventures Sierra released that did not bear the King’s Quest name. As the “Chapter 1″ attests, the series was conceived from the beginning as the science-fiction parallel to Roberta Williams’s thriving fantasy franchise. This first chapter, like those that followed, was written by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, a couple of Sierra staffers who knocked together a demo for a science-fiction comedy in their spare time that made Ken Williams laugh — always an excellent way to get him to green-light a project. Its opening all but plagiarizes its obvious source of inspiration, Infocom’s Planetfall: you play a less than motivated mop-wielding space janitor whose ship gets attacked by aliens, forcing you to rush to an escape pod to get away to the nearest planet. One rather expects a lovable robot companion to show up next, but thankfully after that it does start to go its own way a bit more. Its wit isn’t quite as sharp as that of Steve Meretzky, much less Douglas Adams, but it’s silly and good-natured in its knowing stupidity, and if the game that houses it didn’t persist in screwing you over all the time — we’ll get to that shortly — it’d be quite a fun little romp.

Uninvited

Uninvited, the second graphic adventure from ICOM Simulations, is a horror entry, a relatively underrepresented fictional genre in adventure games of its day. Its premise is as classic — not to say clichéd — as they come: you’ve wrecked your car on a deserted country road and stagger up to a creepy old mansion looking for help. Created by largely the same people who had made Déjà Vu, it mixes, sometimes rather jarringly, an unsettling Gothic atmosphere with some of the sarcastic humor of that older game. But, as with Space Quest, I’d have little to really complain about if only this game’s design wasn’t more evil than the mansion that houses it.

I want to say something very clearly: Space Quest and Uninvited are bad games. This really does need to be stated just that baldly. Yes, they have their charms in the form of humor, graphics, atmosphere, even a fair number of puzzles each that don’t suck, that could actually be fun to solve. Yet none of that matters in the face of one overriding reality: an adventure game that cannot be solved unaided, or for that matter that can be solved only through sheer doggedness and refusal to give in to tedium, is a bad game.

There’s going to be a lot of snark in what follows directed at our two victims, at least one of which, Space Quest, is actually quite a beloved title amongst nostalgics of the genre. I’m not apologizing for this. These are bad games whose designers should and could have known better; they should have taken their craft more seriously before selling these things to the public for $35 or more a pop, and they could have found plenty of examples of better game designs to emulate if they’d just looked around. I do, however, want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that the folks who worked at Sierra or ICOM are bad people. John Williams of Sierra in particular has been a great friend of this blog, passing along all kinds of insights about the business of games in the 1980s and Sierra’s place there, and I’m sure that most everyone else at both companies was just doing what seemed best to them. As always when I write criticism, it isn’t personal.

So, with that said, let the snark begin.

 

The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design


 

1. Making puzzles that aren’t solvable through logic or even intuition, only through brute force.

Bad puzzles — not hard puzzles, but bad puzzles — are deadly to a game. Even a single really bad puzzle spoils a game holistically because it means that the player can never trust the game again. Every puzzle that follows will be accompanied by the question of whether it’s worth spending time on or whether it’s just going to be something stupid again. I’m not saying that every player should always be able to solve every puzzle, but I am saying that recourse to the hints should be followed by a sigh and a nod of understanding, not a cry of “How was I supposed to figure that out?” or, even worse, “I’ve just ‘solved’ this puzzle and I still don’t know what actually happened.” An adventure game’s puzzles can never be taken in isolation from either one another or from the rest of the design as a whole, meaning that an adventure can only be as good as its worst puzzle.

Note that I’m not saying that all adventure games should be easy. A difficult game, aimed at the hardcore, is as defensible a creative choice as any other. Still, a fact that all too many designers never grasp is that it’s possible for a game to be hard as nails and yet also to be rigorously fair. (See, for instance, Infocom’s Spellbreaker in the realm of text adventures, or the Myst series in that of graphic adventures.) The conflation of difficulty with unfairness is perhaps the most persistent fallacy in adventure games. The tedious try-everything-on-everything-else mode of play to which it leads has dogged graphic adventures in particular for decades.

Uninvited is a notable offender here. There is for instance the ghost who’s inexplicably afraid of spiders.

Uninvited

Uninvited

A good adventure-game puzzle leaves the player feeling smart.  A bad puzzle, even if solved unaided, just leaves her feeling persistent. That’s a big difference.


 

2. Cluttering up the game with so much junk that the player has no idea what to do with it all.

The nonsensical puzzles in Uninvited are only compounded by the deadly combination of a limited player inventory and a huge number of takeable objects. Because so many puzzles just don’t make any sense, you have no way of knowing which seemingly useless items amongst all of the innocuous clutter might actually be useful for something. Thus solving a puzzle like the one described above means not just trying everything you’re carrying on the ghost but actually scurrying back and forth in shifts, each time with a new load of objects to try out.


 

3. Killing the player constantly and without warning.

Frequent, unforeshadowed deaths have always been such a hallmark of Sierra adventures that it almost seems pointless to discuss the subject much further in that context. It was of course this facet of the original King’s Quest that first caused Ron Gilbert to decide that he “hated adventure games” and wanted to make a better. Writing about Space Quest on his blog, an adventure-game fan who calls himself The Trickster discusses the alleged “hilarity” of all of the constant death: “It’s a credit to the developers that you not only happily restore and try again, but you do so with a big smile on your face.” I must say that I’m not sure that most of the deaths strike me as all that hilarious, but that’s as may be. You know what would really be a credit to the developers if the deaths truly are so intrinsic to their comedy vision? If they rewound the story each time you died to let you automatically continue instead of having to save every three minutes, that’s what.

It’s not often that anyone manages to out-Sierra Sierra in this department, but, astonishingly, Uninvited just about pulls it off. You encounter a ghost…

I encounter a ghost in Uninvited...

…and this happens the next turn if you don’t do the one arbitrary right thing — and no, trying to just back out of the room again won’t save you.

...and this happens the next turn if I don't do the one arbitrary right thing. You can expect to die and a restore a few dozen times here alone before you figure out how to proceed.

You can expect to die and a restore a few dozen times here alone before you figure out how to proceed, if you’re even lucky enough to be carrying the item you need in the first place. If not, hope you have a recent save handy. How is this fun again?


 

4. Locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.

This is perhaps the most problematic and arguable of these sins, in that it comes down to a question of degree and intention more so than any of the others. Many of the bad examples described elsewhere in this article can precipitate this sin as well, but it’s a notoriously hard problem to work around even when a designer makes other, better choices. Virtually all adventure games of the 1980s, including even the best designs from the textual realm of Infocom, offered plenty of opportunities to lock yourself out of victory in the course of their normal interactivity. Those designs that strain the most mightily to make the walking-dead syndrome impossible, like the later adventures of Lucasfilm Games, are often forced to use contrived means that arguably sacrifice too much of that all-important illusion of freedom.

That said, I think we should reserve a special layer of Hell for those designs whose dead ends feel not just like byproducts of their puzzles and other interactive possibilities but rather intentional traps inserted in the name of… what, exactly? Increasing the length of the experience to make the player feel she got her money’s worth? Well, I’m not sure most players will thank you. Both Space Quest and Uninvited are riddled with these sorts of pitfalls that seem to arise from sheer, egregious bloody-mindedness.

Space Quest

Midway through Space Quest, for instance, you encounter a fellow who offers to buy your skimmer (yes, the Force is strong with this game). If you accept his offer, all seems well. The 30 buckazoids he gives you is enough to do the needful, and you can continue merrily on through the plot. Until, that is, you get all the way to the climax, where you gradually discover that you seem to be missing something vital. You needed to refuse his initial offer, holding out for a toss-in jetpack that’s key to winning the game.

Uninvited

When you leave your wrecked car in Uninvited, the first scene you encounter is the “Front Yard” above. If amidst all the excitement you happen to neglect to look in the mailbox tucked away in the right side of the frame, that’s it for you. As soon as you go inside, you become a walking dead, albeit of another stripe from the mansion’s inhabitants: the front door locks behind you, rendering the front yard inaccessible forevermore. Many hours later, you might begin to realize that you missed something somewhere. Now, at first glance this may seem a relatively mild sin compared to the perverse intentionality of the Space Quest example above, a simple result of the interactive nature of adventure games. But think again. Why lock the door behind the player at all? After all, it’s not as if you can actually go anywhere else from here. I can think of two reasons, one being that the designers just wanted to be cruel, the other that they thought it would be good for the atmosphere to be trapped inside the house, and never stopped to consider how this would impact the experience of actually playing the game. Neither does them much credit.


 

5. Indulging in hunt-the-pixel.

In some ways this sin wouldn’t really come into its own until the 1990s, when screen resolutions increased enough and pixels thus became small enough that it was possible to hide that one fiddly little hotspot inside a detailed scene. Most of us with any experience at all with the sub-genre know and loathe what followed: endless bleary-eyed hours spent slowly painting the screen with the mouse, clicking everywhere, looking for that one hidden hotspot. Sierra, still working as they were with their wonky arrow-key-and-parser-driven interface and blocky screens filled with primary colors, couldn’t quite manage that delightful experience in the 1980s. But, never fear, they found other ways to make the player’s life hell that were similar in spirit if not quite in detail.

After crashing-landing in your escape capsule in Space Quest, you dutifully examine it. Nothing of note there. Right?

Space Quest

Wrong. You have to not just examine it, but be standing at just the right position whilst doing so. Then, you get this:

Space Quest


 

6. Prioritizing the simulational over the experiential even when it spoils the game.

Adventure games are not simulations. This fact seems fairly self-evident, yet it’s amazing how many designers manage to forget it. Space Quest and Uninvited aren’t about the real experience of a marooned space janitor or a marooned car-crash victim; they’re experiential gaming in one its purest forms, ideally offering you interesting puzzles and other interactions in a highly artificial but very exciting, atmospheric environment. There’s no need for elements like the timer in Uninvited that dutifully counts down the hours of the night and kills you if you haven’t cracked the case when a certain number of them have passed. The game is perfectly capable of evoking the delicious tension of exploring a haunted house without actually needing to bring the hammer down — an event that only cheapens the atmosphere anyway in making the unseen horrors seen. Ditto the scant few real-time minutes you have to get off the spaceship at the beginning of Space Quest. One could instead escalate the tension via a narratological approach like that pioneered in Infocom’s Ballyhoo, emphasizing the player’s sense of encroaching doom via little things that occur as she crosses certain milestones in her puzzle-solving and exploring. As it is, the hard timers are just one more annoyance to deal with, forcing her to replay yet again even once she’s bypassed all the other pitfalls in order to optimize her path. It adds nothing to her experience.


 

7. Actively misleading the player about what she needs to do.

Uninvited

At one point in Uninvited you come upon the scene above, of a grinning disembodied head blocking a passage. The description more than implies that it has something to tell you: “It bounces up and down as if trying to tell you something. However, you can’t figure out what it’s trying to say.” Obviously the puzzle here must to be find a way to communicate. Obviously this creature must have some vital information for you. Right?

Well, no. It turns out that it’s simply sitting on top of an item you need, nothing more. If you happen to be carrying a bird in a cage and fling it at the creature, it becomes “utterly fascinated” and “gives chase to eat it.” Nothing anywhere indicates that it has any special fondness for birds, making this yet another example of a completely inexplicable puzzle solution (ref: Sin #1), but whatever. This puzzle destroys your experience as a player even more so than the usual crappy puzzle because, given Uninvited‘s malicious glee in locking you out of victory as subtly as possible (ref: Sin #4), you’re doomed to spend the rest of the game wondering what more you needed to do here before scaring the creature away. In reality, there’s nothing else you can do — but you can’t know that. And so that nagging worry will remain every time you come upon another puzzle, whether it be sensical or nonsensical, leaving you unable to trust that you aren’t about to beat your head against a puzzle you rendered unsolvable hours ago.

I would guess that this puzzle was not intended to be as cruel as it is. I would further guess that the original puzzle did involve communicating with the creature in some way, that it was changed at some point late in the design, but the text was never updated. Possibly no one ever even thought about it. Still, neglect is no more forgivable than malice in game design. If anything, it only goes to illustrate even more what a slipshod development process this game had. If anyone — anyone — had ever really tried to play Uninvited before its release, it’s hard to imagine how this could have gotten through.


 

8. Making dynamic events that the player may never see essential to victory.

Space Quest

In Space Quest, the wounded scientist you see above may stagger into your spaceship’s library at the very beginning of the game to deliver a vital message. I say “may” because it’s quite unpredictable when or even whether he will make an appearance. If you know he’s coming, you can be sure to meet him by moving in and out of the room a few times and waiting around therein. If you don’t, however, he’s very easy to miss. This missed connection means that through no fault of your own you will get to spend hours playing through the rest of the game, only to arrive at the climax not understanding how to win and not understanding why you don’t understand. Exactly these sorts of timing issues also made Sierra’s Time Zone from four years before virtually insoluble. I can hardly express how dismaying it is to see Sierra still making these basic design blunders.


 

9. Confusing diegetic and extra-diegetic functions.

Space Quest

For some reason — maybe because the code was already written? — Sierra loved to put little gambling minigames into their adventures. The problem here is that gambling is obviously dictated by chance, and with a built-in advantage to the house at that, and thus the sums you need to earn require either an astronomical run of good luck or an endless, tedious cycle of saving after wins and restoring after losses. If Sierra must include these minigames — and they can actually be kind of fun in limited doses — why not have the game put a thumb on the scales when necessary to make sure you can’t go bankrupt through no fault of your own and that you can always win the money you need to before the whole thing becomes unbearably boring? Far from doing you any such kindnesses, Sierra instead added a little poison pill to Space Quest just to make the experience extra ugly: if the slot machine comes up all death’s heads, guess what happens (ref: Sin #3).


 

10. Indulging in guess-the-verb.

Just as hunt-the-pixel is confined to graphic adventures, you might think that guess-the-verb applies only to text adventures. You would, alas, be wrong. Both of our suspects today found a way to implement every text-adventure player’s bête noire, each in its own way. Space Quest, like most Sierra adventures of this period, actually combines the mechanics of a graphic and a text adventure by including a primitive parser for issuing commands that leaves much to be desired, but does manage to shoehorn both hunt-the-pixel and guess-the-verb into the same game.

Uninvited

But the real star of the two in this department is Uninvited, which despite offering just eight clickable verbs to choose from still manages to confound and frustrate its player. You might think you need to “operate” the water taps in the bathroom, but, no, you have to “open” and “close” them. Later versions corrected this, proof that a) the difficulty arose from carelessness rather than malice and b) that no one had ever actually played Uninvited before it got released (I think we’ve heard both of these before).


 

11. Requiring fiddly and arbitrary text inputs without clarifying what is needed.

Again, you might think that this syndrome would be confined to text adventures. Again, you’d be wrong.

Uninvited

At one point in Uninvited you need to enter the combination to a safe. Trouble is, even once you think you’ve figured out what the combination should be you don’t know what format the game expects. (It turns out to be XX-XX-XX, for anyone unwise enough to be playing along at home.) So, you’re left to not only contend with piecing together three numbers from clues spread all over the game and then trying to guess their order, but you can never feel quite sure whether a rejected input was rejected because you actually had the wrong combination or because you didn’t type it in using the exact format the game expects. Would it have killed the designers to allow a range of possible formats? And weren’t graphic adventures supposed to get us beyond stuff like this?


 

12. Insulting your player, especially after you’re the jerk who’s just capriciously and unfairly killed her.

This is my personal pet peeve.

Space Quest

At the beginning of Space Quest, your ship is beset with marauding bands of space pirates who, if they catch up to you, shoot you down instantly. A message that “you hear footsteps” is the vital clue that you have a few seconds to seek cover, but often, if you’re caught in the middle of an open room, there’s just nowhere to go (ref: Sin #3). After it kills you, the game adds insult to injury via the charming message above. Screw you too, game. No, really. Screw you.


 

13. Not paying any attention to any of the games anyone else is making.

A quote from Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra, upon being asked about his own reaction to Lucasfilm’s Maniac Mansion:

We were fairly phobic about playing or studying competitors’ products. I refused to hire anyone who had worked at a competitor, and really didn’t want our team focused on competitors’ products. Sierra always tried to consider ourselves as leaders, and wanted to forge our own path into the world. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of watching what competitors did and then releasing a “me too” product a year later. That’s a formula for disaster.

Even leaving aside the vaguely passive-aggressive quality of these words, I’m rendered speechless. I found this attitude breathlessly wrong-headed back when Scott Adams expressed it, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Ken Williams. What kind of work could one expect from a novelist who never reads novels? From a musician who never listens to music? In the case of games, what you can except — from the companies helmed by Scott Adams and Ken Williams alike — is a stream of “products” that relentlessly continue to make the same mistakes over and over, blissfully unaware that others have demonstrated how to do it so much better. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and to imagine that being culturally aware of the very creative form that you’ve chosen to make your career equates to becoming a follower rather than a leader is, to borrow from Ken, “a formula for disaster” in terms of good game design if not the commercial market. I’ve learned again so many times whilst researching for this blog how the best designers, the makers of the best games, are characterized by an openness to the world around them, a willingness to play and study “competitors’ products” that’s just the opposite of the sentiment expressed here, all in order to meld those ideas with their own to create a better whole. See, for instance, Sid Meier, who has always been very forthright about the huge debt his masterpiece Pirates! owes to Danielle Bunten Berry’s innovative but not-quite-there-yet Seven Cities of Gold. A creative form can’t hope to develop without this sort of cultural dialog. This is simply how the culture of creativity works.

Small wonder, then, that so many Sierra games were so broken. It’s a miracle that their track record wasn’t worse. (Perhaps the cause of that seeming miracle is that, judging from Space Quest‘s obvious debt to Planetfall, not all of Ken Williams’s designers were obeying his strictures quite as strictly as he apparently believed.) One of the most frustrating things about early graphic adventures is that most of the problems from which they suffered had already been encountered, discussed, and at least to some extent solved by Infocom. After all, graphic and text adventures share enough in common that all but one or two items on this list apply equally to both. Yet here were the graphic-adventure designers starting again from square one, doomed to repeat design mistakes due to their unwillingness to consider the lessons of a closely related sub-genre.

But then, the games industry has always fetishized technological developments at the expense of the fundamentals of good game design. One can’t help but think here of Ken Williams’s longstanding “ten-foot rule” — “If someone says WOW! when they see the screen from ten feet away, you have them sold.” — a philosophy that neatly sums up everything good and bad about Sierra over the course of almost two decades as a leading light in adventure games. In an extended 2007 conversation with Warren Spector, Richard Garriott of Ultima fame described how in his opinion the industry’s obsession with the technology that goes into game-making serves as a continual reset button on the basics of game design.

Each time you get one of those major technology influxes, the quality of the graphics goes way up but the gameplay goes back to the simplest again because the bells and whistles have become so much cooler that you don’t need any depth. However, to compete with that [technologically pioneering title] you have to add depth, and to compete with that you have to add more depth, etc., until the next big technological advancement, when everything resets again back to that lowest common denominator of gameplay.

The arrival of marvelous new technologies for making graphic adventures — the ICOM engine, Sierra’s AGI, Lucasfilm’s SCUMM — served to blow away a growing library of design wisdom as if it had never existed, leading to games like Space Quest and Uninvited that tried to survive on the bells and whistles of their technological gimmicks alone. Back in the late 1980s, with the punters eager to show off the audiovisual capabilities of their new 16-bit machines, perhaps that was good enough. But in the context of today it certainly isn’t, leaving us with nothing more than — one more time, with feeling — two really bad adventures games.


 

14. Not soliciting player feedback.

Not listening to your peers is one thing, but not listening to your own players is quite another. This is the deadliest sin of all, the most surefire way to make a bad adventure game.

The adventure genre is sometimes characterized as a contest between designer and player, but that’s entirely the wrong way to look at it, for in such a contest the deck must always be hopelessly stacked in favor of the designer. It’s simplicity itself to design an unwinnable adventure game: just include some necessary interaction that’s so bizarre, so obscure that no player would ever try it. We as players are dependent on the designer’s good-faith willingness to play fair with us, her ability to pose problems that are satisfyingly challenging but reasonable and solvable. That’s a tough balance to find, one that can only be attained by putting a game in front of lots of eyes, getting lots and lots of player feedback. Testing is vital to any other form of game, but with adventures it can mean everything. A terrible adventure can become a great one following just a few weeks of testing. In no other genre is the line between success and failure so fine. Tell me whether and how much testing an adventure has received and I can generally tell you, right there and then, whether it’s an adventure that’s worth playing.

Sierra’s testing process for Space Quest can be summed up easily: there wasn’t one. No, really. It wasn’t until 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards that Sierra started putting their games through a testing period. Even afterward, testing was too often shortened or dropped when market pressures demanded. I don’t have the same specific knowledge of ICOM, but given Uninvited‘s constant crimes against its player I’d be shocked to learned that they bothered to collect any feedback at all on it.

Much as I hate to always be using Infocom as a bludgeon with which to beat Sierra and others, I have to make note of the huge contrast between Sierra on the one hand and Infocom on the other when it comes to testing. Infocom had by far the most extensive and serious testing program in the industry. By 1985 their internal testing department number around ten employees, who would spend many hours each with each new game. This would be followed by two rounds of outside testing involving a total of about fifteen to twenty loyal Infocom customers. Sierra, in contrast, did… nothing. This meant that they had no idea how people were actually experiencing the games they made. Sierra’s technology was looking pretty snazzy by the late 1980s, Infocom’s (at least at first glance) pretty moldy, but can you guess which company made better games?


 

(The first three Space Quest games — and, in another package, the last three — can be purchased from GOG.com. Feel free to download a zip from here that includes both the Macintosh and Amiga versions of Uninvited for play in your preferred emulator.)

 
 

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A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

Maniac Mansion

As part of a general rearranging of the deck chairs at Lucasfilm in late 1985, the Games Group got moved from their nondescript offices in San Rafael to nearby Skywalker Ranch, the “filmmaker’s retreat” at the very heart of George Lucas’s empire. They were housed in an ornate structure of Victorian brick called the Stable House, with crackling fireplaces in almost every room. Later, old-timers would tell newcomers stories of the Games Group’s time at Skywalker Ranch, which would last for just a few years, like legends from before the Fall: catching a sneak preview of a new David Lynch film in the company of Lynch himself in the Ranch’s beautiful 300-seat art-deco theater; hanging out on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to play everything the Games Group had in development every time he stopped by, sometimes for hours at a stretch; playing softball on the Ranch’s gorgeously manicured field with rock star Huey Lewis; hiking up to the observatory after a long day at the office to do another sort of stargazing; eating gourmet lunches every day at the Ranch’s restaurant for $5 a pop. They might not have been able to make Star Wars games, but they could surround themselves with its trappings: when first moving in, they were given a chance to rummage through an enormous warehouse full of old props and concept art for office decorations. It’s questionable whether any other game studio, ever, has worked in quite such a nerd Elysium.

Continuing to blow through Skywalker Ranch as they had San Rafael, however, were winds of change that had been steadily altering Lucasfilm’s expectations of their little Games Group. As the middle years of the decade wore on, the company was becoming a very different place from what it had been during the free-and-easy early 1980s, when money seemed to flow like water. Lucasfilm’s financial outlook had changed almost overnight in 1983 when, even as Return of the Jedi was doing the expected huge numbers in theaters, George Lucas announced that he and his wife Marcia were getting a divorce. An accomplished film editor in her own right, Marcia had been a huge contributor to the Star Wars movies, especially the first, for which she’d won an Oscar — something her ex-husband has never managed — for her editing work. Now her divorce settlement would cost Lucasfilm big, to the tune of $50 to $100 million (precise estimates vary). Lucasfilm’s financial advisers were able to convince her to take her settlement as a series of payments spread over years rather than the lump sum the initial agreement demanded, but those payments nevertheless put a tremendous drain on the company’s finances.

And soon the other side of the ledger, that of incoming earnings, also began to diminish. George Lucas had long since declared that Star Wars was to be but a single trilogy of films, that there would be no more after Return of the Jedi. The lack of new films inevitably meant not just the loss of box-office receipts but also diminished sales of the toys and other merchandise that had always been the franchise’s biggest cash cow. Meanwhile the Indiana Jones series, which had turned into almost as successful a franchise as Star Wars, fell into a five-year hiatus after 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Filling that gap for Lucasfilm were a series of middling disappointments — Labyrinth, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Willow, some almost perversely low-stakes Star Wars television programs featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO and, God help us, the Ewoks — and at least one outright bomb big enough to have become a punchline for the ages in Howard the Duck. It seemed that Lucas, who could do no wrong in the eleven years between American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, had suddenly seen his Midas Touch desert him.

Never much of a manager and certainly not a numbers guy, Lucas hired a no-nonsense sort named Doug Norby to become Lucasfilm’s president in 1985. “Do what you have to do,” he told him, “and I’m just going to stay out of it.” Norby declared that there needed to be a culture change. Every division would now be expected to justify their existence by earning money for the company rather than costing it money. Those who couldn’t see a way to do so would get the axe. Ditto individual personnel within departments that had become too bloated; Norby orchestrated the first significant wave of layoffs ever to sweep over Lucasfilm. As the conflict-averse Lucas had likely intended, Norby was blamed for all of the pain and chaos, became for some time the most hated name at Lucasfilm, while Lucas himself was largely given a pass, as if he somehow didn’t know about the changes underway in his own namesake company.

As part of the restructuring, it was decided that Lucasfilm would now engage in only two specific lines of business: providing production services to the film industry (Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound) and making mass-market entertainments. The old Computer Graphics Group that had awkwardly spawned the Games Group still hadn’t really proved themselves to belong in the former category, while the Games Group, at least if you squinted just right, pretty much did belong in the latter. Thus, while the Games Group got to remain at Lucasfilm, the Graphics Group in February of 1986 was spun off to a collection of investors that included many of their own current personnel as well as, as ringmaster of the whole proceeding, Steve Jobs, recently exiled from Apple. The old Graphics Group was now known as Pixar, selling a $135,000 graphics workstation which they had developed during their years with Lucasfilm. Most of the rest of Lucasfilm’s computer-oriented research was either cancelled outright or similarly packaged up and sold off. (Most notably, Lucasfim’s EditDroid digital-editing project became an independent company called Droid Works).

Soon the old Games Group represented the only significant hacker presence left at Lucasfilm. It was during this period of colossal change that George Lucas took rare personal notice of Games for long enough to deliver his most oft-quoted piece of advice to Steve Arnold: “Stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money.” This commandment has often been taken to represent a sort of creative carte blanche for Arnold and his charges. Taken in the context in which it was uttered, however, it’s probably better seen as a warning. The Games Group was free to continue to trade on the Lucasfilm name and enjoy their gourmet lunches at the company cafeteria, but they’d have to start paying their own way from here on. Should they fail at that, their rope would not be a long one, for Lucas had little personal investment in their work.

Given this situation, when Lucasfilm’s brass decided to throw the Games Group a bone in the form of an actual piece of intellectual property with which to work Arnold certainly didn’t turn up his nose at the prospect. It wasn’t Star Wars or even Indiana Jones, but it was a much-anticipated film called Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure directed by Jim Henson and starring David Bowie that was to be released in the summer of 1986. Beginning in November of 1985, Arnold poured most of his resources into the project, Lucasfilm Games’s first adventure game. The Henson connection secured the involvement of Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street stalwart and all-around Renaissance man of the arts who seemed to know everyone and be involved with everything in the world of entertainment. Cerf was a good friend of Douglas Adams, a frequent guest at his legendary gala dinner parties; it had in fact been Cerf who had largely brokered the deal with Infocom that had led to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game. In January much of the Games Group flew to London for an intense week of consultation with Henson, Cerf, and their buddy Adams.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth had been conceived from the beginning as a graphic adventure, a genre that was just beginning to emerge from the primordial muck thanks largely to the work of Sierra and ICOM Simulations. It was Adams who suggested the game’s brilliant cold open: it begins as an ordinary text adventure, and not a very good one at that, until you arrive at a cinema and get sucked into the movie playing there by a pixelated David Bowie. It’s a ludic version of that iconic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly shifts from black and white to color. Some of his other subversive touches, playing as he loved to do with the artificiality of the medium itself, weren’t so easily implemented. The team particularly lamented that they wouldn’t be able to use Adams’s idea for a film-editing room found in the game. He suggested that you should be able to view the scraps of film to see snippets of your own previous adventures, maybe even forgotten tributaries down which you’d wandered before restoring the game to its current state. Alas, something like that just wasn’t going to happen on the likes of a Commodore 64.

Not really a bad game but also not quite a fully baked one, Labyrinth would prove to be something of a steppingstone on the way to a grand tradition of Lucasfilm adventure games still to come. Your character can be moved about using the joystick, but other commands must be constructed rather awkwardly, by using the arrow keys to cycle through two separate lists, one of available verbs and one of nouns. Notably, when a verb is selected the list of nouns is limited to only those which logically apply, thus making it at least theoretically impossible to construct a completely nonsensical “sentence.” Driving much of the design was a philosophy that adventure games should be friendlier, less tedious, and much less deadly than was the norm from competitors like Sierra. It is, for instance, almost impossible to get yourself killed in Labyrinth, and David Fox noted in contemporaneous interviews how he had strained to “eliminate the dead-end or ‘insoluble’ situation.” In years to come Lucasfilm Games would virtually define themselves in opposition to what they saw as the Bad Old Way of doing adventure games, as particularly personified by the games of Sierra. It’s an idea that would take some experience and some technology upgrades to reach complete fruition, but it’s interesting to note that it was present right from the beginning.

Note the "slot-machine" verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Labyrinth. Note the “slot-machine” verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Released in June of 1986, the movie version of Labyrinth thoroughly underwhelmed by the standards of an expensive would-be blockbuster, spending just one week inside the top ten in the United States and garnering mixed (at best) reviews. The odor of a flop inevitably clung to the game as well when it was released two months later. Despite lots of advertising and the usual free publicity garnered from journalists eager to come out to Skywalker Ranch and bask in the aura of Star Wars, it became on the whole a commercial disappointment. This was now becoming a depressingly common theme for the Games Group. They were perilously close to violating that last and most important of Lucas’s commandments.

Their savior would come from a much smaller, quieter project than the big Labyrinth tie-in — indeed, a project from which Steve Arnold seemed to have no real expectations at all. Its father had himself been heretofore one of the less noticeable employees of the Games Group, a friendly, unassuming fellow with a wry sense of humor and a great aptitude for programming. His name was Ron Gilbert, and he was motivated by that most compelling of all workplace impulses: he was just trying not to get fired.

Born in 1964 in the rural Oregon town of La Grande, Gilbert had been programming since 1977, when his father brought home the family’s first Texas Instruments programmable calculator. Soon after starting at his hometown Eastern Oregon State College in 1982, he bought his first Commodore 64, and immediately discovered one of that machine’s most conspicuous weaknesses: its BASIC interpreter had no support whatsoever for the very graphics and sound capabilities that made the 64 so special. Working with a buddy named Tom McFarlane, he developed a BASIC extension called Graphics BASIC to change all that, adding over a hundred new commands to the language. It was impressive enough that they were able to sell it to HESWare, one of the biggest publishers in software at the time. In fact, HESWare was so impressed with Gilbert personally that they offered him a full-time job as an in-house programmer. So, he dropped out of university to move to Brisbane, California.

It didn’t work out. HESWare turned out to be a flash in the pan that had made a ton of unwise financial decisions in their eagerness to rule the software roost. Within months of Gilbert’s arrival the company collapsed, well before releasing anything he had worked on. He was forced to return sheepishly to La Grande to contemplate re-enrolling at Eastern Oregon — luckily, his dad was the president there — and getting back to the real world of adult employment; maybe he could get a job as a programmer at a bank or something. Then, one day in October of 1984, the telephone rang just as he was leaving the house. Prompted by he wasn’t quite sure what, he decided to rush back inside and answer it. It was Steve Arnold from Lucasfilm Games. He and his colleagues had seen Graphics BASIC and heard about Gilbert’s talents through the grapevine, Arnold explained. They needed someone to help port their games, which had been originally developed for Atari 8-bit machines, to the Commodore 64. Would he be willing to come down to San Rafael to talk about a possible contract? Like most prospective employees Arnold spoke to, Gilbert didn’t have to think twice when the company behind Star Wars came calling. It was just an interview, and for a contract position at that, but he nevertheless packed all of his possessions into his 280Z and took off for California. He had no intention of coming back.

He didn’t need to; he got the job. Still, as a contractor rather than a regular employee he was left perpetually uncertain about how long he’d get to live the dream. His anxiety only increased after the Commodore 64 versions of the Games Group’s modest early catalog of four action games were all pretty much complete and nobody seemed to be giving him any clear information about what he was expected to do next. Working with a couple of the other guys, he came up with a fanciful game proposal for Arnold’s bulging ideas file: I Was a Teenage Lobot, a “science-fiction role-playing strategy adventure game.” (Better check again, guys; I think you may have missed a genre or two.) But then the big Labyrinth project came along, depriving him of his would-be partners. Ominously, Gilbert was one of the few people in the Games Group not earmarked to that game.

Whether Steve Arnold was really snubbing him or whether he saw something special in him and wanted to give him his own space to figure out for himself what that was is still an open question. What is clear is that Gilbert started toying with another idea to justify his existence there at Skywalker Ranch, involving a group of kids sent, Scooby-Doo-style, to explore a creepy old mansion.

Gilbert claims that he didn’t originally conceive of Maniac Mansion as an adventure game at all, perhaps because one of its central conceits had rarely been done in an adventure game before. From the beginning, he was determined that you should be able to control several kids rather than just one, each of whom would have her own personality and abilities. Much of the gameplay would hinge on coordinating the kids’ actions to achieve things none of them could manage on her own. And that was pretty much the whole idea; just about everything else about the design seemed to be up in the air. But then, visiting home for the Christmas of 1985, he saw his eight-year-old cousin obsessively playing Sierra’s King’s Quest. Gilbert loved the graphics, but didn’t care for Roberta Williams’s death-heavy philosophy of game design any more than he did for Sierra’s primitive parser, which made a particularly poor fit with a game that was otherwise so graphics-oriented. He decided that he wanted to do an adventure game “because I hate adventure games,” because he wanted to show the world how they could be so much better.

I hated that you died all the time. You’d be walking along and you would step somewhere and out of the blue you would die. That just seemed frustrating to me. I think a lot of designers must think that’s fun. But it’s not. It’s horrible.

And too often the game devolved into what Gilbert calls “second-guess the parser”:

You would see a bush on the screen, and you’d type, “Pick up bush,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘bush’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up plant,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘plant’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up shrubbery,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘shrubbery’ is.” Pretty soon you’d type, “Fuck you,” and it would say, “I don’t understand what ‘fuck’ is.”

So, I’m looking at this bush or plant or shrub and I cannot figure out the word that the game designer is using for it. That’s very frustrating because I can see it right on the screen. Why can’t I just click on it?

And the next logical step is: if I can just click on objects on the screen, why can’t I just click on verbs as well? Really, despite what the marketing departments and the backs of the boxes were telling us, these games only understood a very small number of verbs.

Beginning from textual lists of verbs and nouns much like the interface of Labyrinth, Maniac Mansion evolved into a much more intuitive experience: a clickable list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which can be combined with hotspots in the pictures proper to build commands. In its day it was simply the best, most elegant interface for graphical adventuring yet devised. One might call it a combination of the best traits of the two most prominent systems for graphic adventuring already extant at the time: Sierra’s AGI games that debuted with King’s Quest and the ICOM Simulations line of adventures that began with Déjà Vu. Like the former, you can see your avatar (or avatars in this case) and move them about onscreen, but like the latter you don’t have to wrestle with a parser, being able instead to simply click on verbs and objects in your inventory or in the environment proper to construct commands. It’s afflicted with neither the perpetual disconnect between textual parser and graphical worldview that can make the AGI games so frustrating nor the cluttered, cramped feel of ICOM’s overly baroque interface. Maniac Mansion would prove to be by far the most graphical graphical adventure of its time, willing to do most of its storytelling through visuals and the occasional well-chosen sound effect rather than the big text dumps that mark the Sierra and ICOM games. Tellingly, it devotes exactly one line of the screen to text messages.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal "New Kid") and the character's inventory below.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal “New Kid”) and the character’s inventory below.

Gilbert found a great supporter of his budding adventure game in Gary Winnick, the Games Group’s indefatigable visual artist. In between contributing much of the art found in both Labyrinth and Habitat, Winnick found time to brainstorm Maniac Mansion and to create heaps of sample art. Yet progress was painfully slow. Gilbert was trying to build Maniac Mansion in the same way that Labyrinth was being built, by coding it from scratch in pure assembly language. Problem was, he was trying to do it alone. As 1986’s midpoint approached, Steve Arnold was getting noticeably annoyed at his apparent lack of productivity and Gilbert was surer than ever that he would be sent back to La Grande any day now.

It was at this juncture that Chip Morningstar made the suggestion that would change the direction of Lucasfilm Games forever. Why didn’t he devise a high-level scripting language that could be compiled on the Games Group’s big Unix workstations, then run on the Commodore 64 itself via an interpreter? Morningstar even took the time to help him design the language, a sort of cut-down version of some of the tools he and Randall Farmer were using to build the virtual world of Habitat, and to write the first compiler. SCUMM — the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion — was born.

It wasn’t precisely a new idea, but it was vastly complicated by the need a graphic adventure like Maniac Mansion had to do many things concurrently, in real time. Many different “scripts” would need to run at the same time, forcing Gilbert to code what amounted to a multitasking kernel for the whole system on the little Commodore 64. Even with Morningstar’s help, it took Gilbert a full six months to get the SCUMM system up and running. Meanwhile Gary Winnick’s art continued to pile up, looking for a home, and Gilbert continued to tremble every time Steve Arnold looked his way. At last at the end of 1986 SCUMM was complete enough that he could return to the game proper. Arnold, evidently beginning to feel that his work had real potential, allowed David Fox to join him as a SCUMM scripter. Winnick as well was now working virtually full-time on the project, contributing not only all of the art but also major swathes of design and story.

Gilbert credits SCUMM and the relative ease with which it let the programmer script interactions for making the world of the finished Maniac Mansion much more interactive and alive than it could otherwise have been. Not least amongst the little gags and Easter eggs SCUMM facilitated was a certain soon-to-be-infamous hamster-in-a-microwave bit. Gilbert insists that it was actually Fox and Winnick who came up with and implemented this particular piece of tasteless humor, so angry missives should be directed their way rather than to him.


Winnick drew the kids you control and the other characters that inhabit the mansion like bobblehead dolls, heads out of all proportion to their bodies, to make sure their personalities came across despite the low screen resolution of the Commodore 64. He had already used the same technique in both Labyrinth and Habitat and would continue to do so for some time to come; it would become the most instantly recognizable graphical trait of early Lucasfilm adventure games. Gilbert’s original plan had called for the kids to literally be kids — children. Realizing, however, that no one wanted to see children endangered and potentially dispatched in gruesome ways, Gilbert and Winnick decided to make the kids teenagers, which made a better demographic fit anyway with the teenage players who were the biggest audience for computer games. They form a group of seven broad high-school archetypes, sketched with just a hint of a satirical edge, from amongst which you choose three to see you through the game. Bernard is an electronics buff, physics champion, and all-around nerd; Wendy is a prim and proper “aspiring novelist” who seems to have been born at age 40; Michael is Yearbook Guy at the school, an ace photographer; Jeff is a surfer dude who seems to have wandered into Maniac Mansion whilst looking for California Games; and, betraying perhaps a slight flagging of the creative muscles, both Sid and Razor are would-be rock stars (Sid’s a new waver, Razor a punk, for whatever that’s worth). And finally there’s Dave, a Good Kid of the sort who runs for Class President. He’s the leader of the group and the one kid you have to play with. It’s his girlfriend Sandy — a cheerleader, naturally — who’s been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, the creepy owner of the mansion, to feed to aliens. Some real people found themselves immortalized inside these archetypical shells: Razor’s look was based on Winnick’s girlfriend, Wendy on an accountant (what else?) at the office, Dave on Ron Gilbert himself. All of the kids have unique talents, some expected, some less so; clueless Jeff’s inexplicable hidden talent for fixing telephones is actually one of the funniest gags in the game. The idea was that any combination of kids should be capable of solving the game.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

It was an idea that would cause Gilbert and Winnick no small amount of angst. Neither had ever designed an adventure game before, much less a knotty tapestry like this with its combinatorial explosion of protagonists, and their design document consisted of little more than a map of the mansion and a list of objects and the puzzles to which they applied. They desperately wanted to create an adventure game that would be more friendly and forgiving than the typical Sierra effort, but, inevitably, their lack of experience and planning and time, not to mention play-testing — the Games Group’s testing department consisted of exactly one guy sitting in front of a Commodore 64 with a pad of paper — led to a game fairly riddled with potential dead ends and unwinnable situations despite its designers’ best intentions. Gilbert, a great and much-needed advocate for fairness in adventure design, still castigates himself for that to this day.

Both Gilbert and Winnick were fans of knowingly schlocky B-grade horror movies like the then-recent Re-AnimatorManiac Mansion was conceived very much as an homage to the genre. The actual plot, of the mad scientist who owns the mansion attempting to tap the power of a mysterious meteorite that fell on his property, was inspired by one of the vignettes in Creepshow, an anthology of short horror films. Other references, like the man-eating plant lifted whole cloth from Little Shop of Horrors, are even more obvious. Still, it was going to have to be a much more family-friendly affair if it was to bear the Lucasfilm name. When Arnold demanded that all traces of swearing be removed from the game, Gilbert and Winnick did so only under duress, and to the tune of plenty of grumbling about “artistic vision” and the like. If you can tell me exactly why Dave has to call Bernard a “shithead” at the outset of the night, said Arnold, you can keep it. No one could. Gilbert says that the lesson thus imparted about the pointlessness of gratuitous profanity has stuck with him to this day.

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

For the mansion itself, they a found a fecund source of inspiration very close to home indeed: the big neo-Victorian “Main House” at Skywalker Ranch. The spiral staircase inside the library in Maniac Mansion is lifted straight from the “filmmaker’s research library” in the Main House. In the game, the staircase has an “out of order” sign on it and cannot be climbed under any circumstances. This was a subtle inside joke: George Lucas’s personal office was on the balcony at the top of those stairs in the real house, and nobody was allowed to go up there without an invitation.

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

Given that it was a game inspired largely by movies that was being developed at a movie studio, Gilbert wanted to give Maniac Mansion a cinematic flavor. He imagined little episodes that would “cut away” from the player’s current actions to advance the plot and show what the captive Sally, her captor Dr. Fred, and the other creepy inhabitants of the mansion were up to. He asked Arnold if there was a filmmaking term for this technique that he could employ. Arnold said that “cut scene” sounded more than good enough to him. Thus did a new term enter the gaming lexicon. Maniac Mansion was hardly the first game to employ them — there was Jordan Mechner’s 1984 classic Karateka and Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and even the old Ms. Pac-Man game in the arcades — but it had been left to Lucasfilm to finally give them a name. The concept was baked right into the SCUMM language, with a special kind of script called simply “cut-scene” that when triggered would automatically save the player’s state, play the cut scene as a little animated movie all its own, and then restore the player to control.


One ironic consequence of the cut scenes is to make the game harder in just the ways that Gilbert would have preferred to avoid. Most of them are triggered by simple timers. While some are just there for atmosphere or to convey information, others directly affect the state of the world, such as when a postman arrives with a package. There are often things you must do to react or to prepare for these dynamic events; failing to do so can lock you out of victory. Had anyone been paying attention, Infocom’s Ballyhoo had already pioneered a better way to advance the plot inside an adventure game, by tying events to the player’s progress rather than hard-coded timers. Like many such lessons, it would be learned only slowly by game designers, and largely by a process of reinventing the wheel at that. As it is, Maniac Mansion has some of the feel of the earlier Infocom mysteries, of needing to learn how to steer events just right over the course of multiple restores.

Shortly before the release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm Games had severed their relationship with Epyx and moved on to Activision. It was thus under that company’s banner that Maniac Mansion made its public debut at the June 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, host to so much of the last great wave of Commodore 64 software. Before Maniac Mansion could actually be released, however, Arnold made the huge decision to self-publish it under Lucasfilm’s own banner. Lucasfilm Games changed from being a mere developer to being an “affiliated publisher” of Activision, a status that gave them more independence and put their own name on their boxes but still gave them access to the larger company’s distribution network and other logistical support. Even with Activision’s support, publishing entailed engaging with entire facets of the software industry from which they’d always been happily insulated before. They learned a harsh lesson about the sensitivities of some Americans when Toys ‘R’ Us, one of the biggest Commodore 64 game retailers in the country, abruptly pulled the game off their shelves in response to a customer complaint. It seemed some old biddy had seen the tongue-in-cheek copy on the back of the box, which declared Maniac Mansion to be (amongst other things) a story of “love, lust, and power,” and had objected in no uncertain terms. Lucasfilm was forced to hurriedly redesign the box in order not to lose Toy ‘R’ Us forever.

Lucasfilm Games's Maniac Mansion advertisements took aim at "most story game designers" who "seem to think people love to get clobbered." Here's looking at you, Sierra.

Lucasfilm Games’s advertisements took aim at “most story game designers” who “seem to think people love to get clobbered.” I wonder which designers they’re talking about…

But it all worked out in the end. Coming out as it did with the Lucasfilm Games logo — and only the Lucasfilm Games logo — all over its box, Maniac Mansion proved a pivotal release for this little concern that, despite brilliant personnel and a name to die for, had struggled for years now to come up with a definitive commercial identity. One of the huge advantages of the SCUMM system was that it made porting games to new platforms relatively easy, just a matter of writing a new interpreter. Thus by 1988 Maniac Mansion could be bought in versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and MS-DOS in addition to the Commodore 64 original. In time it would even make its way to the Nintendo Entertainment System. (See Doug Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion to learn of the hilarious lengths the Games Group had to go through to get it accepted by Nintendo’s censorious management regime, who made the Toys “R” Us lady look like a libertine.) While it never topped many sales charts, Maniac Mansion turned into a perennial back-catalog star, selling far more units when all was said and done than any game the Games Group had released before. Its continuing popularity was such that in 1990 it spawned a successful children’s television series, a claim to fame that very few games can boast. Such success enabled Lucasfilm Games at last to firmly plant their feet and adhere to Lucas’s dictum to “not lose any money” while they built upon the reputation it engendered for them. They were now known first and foremost as a maker of graphic adventure games, the yin to Sierra’s yang. They had traveled a long and winding road to get here, but it seemed they had finally found a calling.

Maniac Mansion’s intrinsic value as a game is often dismissed today in favor of its historical role as the urtext for the many much-loved SCUMM games that followed it. That, however, is a shame, for its charms as the best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 are real, varied, and considerable. Yes, it’s a bit of shaggy beast in contrast to those later Lucasfilm classics, but it’s also in many ways the most complex and interesting game game of any of them; no other SCUMM game boasts anything like its seven different playable characters, with all of the alternate storylines and solutions they bring with them.

Yet the most winning thing about Maniac Mansion is its personality, which is in turn a tribute to the personalities who created it. Gilbert and Winnick, one senses, want you to have a good time, want you to solve the game and then come back for more, trying on new combinations of characters for size. Thanks largely to the essential good faith and sense of fair play with which its authors approached it, Maniac Mansion is a game that’s hard to dislike, despite its occasional sins in the form of a puzzle or two that could have been clued slightly better and one really egregious example of hunt-the-hotspot (hint: check the library very carefully). Its puzzles are varied, usually logical in their wacky way, and always entertaining, and are given a wonderful added dimension by the need to coordinate two or sometimes even all three kids in far-flung corners of the mansion to solve some of the more intricate problems. (Interestingly, Level 9 in Britain was doing much the same thing during the same time period in the realm of text adventures.) One other thing that helps immeasurably is that the mansion is a relatively constrained environment, limiting the scope of possibility enough to keep things manageable. And of course it also helps that the game manages to evoke the sylvan atmosphere of a long teenage summer night so beautifully using the blunt instrument of 8-bit graphics and sound. Likeability, good faith, and good intentions will get you a long way, in games as in life, and talent doesn’t hurt one bit either. Thankfully, Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and their colleagues were possessed of all of the above in spades.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; The Transactor of July 1986; The LucasArts Adventurer of Spring 1991; Commodore Magazine of June 1987 and November 1988; Computer and Video Games of December 1986; Retro Gamer 94 and 116. Ron Gilbert has a wealth of material on his own history on his website and his “Making of Maniac Mansion” presentation was also invaluable.

Feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion from here.)

 

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A New Force in Games, Part 2: A Habitat in Cyberspace

Habitat

Shortly before the departure of Peter Langston from the Lucasfilm Games Group, he and Steve Arnold hired one Chip Morningstar as a tools programmer. The latter was coming off a stint spent working for Ted Nelson, a sort of philosopher of information management who had coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” back in the 1960s. Morningstar, who says that “few people could actually work with Ted for more than a day or two without becoming clinically insane,” was initially thrilled to just hunker down making practical tools for game development on the Games Group’s Unix workstations.

But then, on one of his final days at the office, Langston tried to interest everyone in a joint playthrough of his own old multiplayer grand-strategy classic Empire, for the purpose of, according to Morningstar, “getting us to think about alternative modalities of game design.” They all played for many hours and then, with Langston’s encouragement, picked apart what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. Morningstar found he didn’t much like the very thing that seemingly made Empire a game: the cycle of build-up, increasing conflict, and the final triumph of one player — or, more frequently, the final nuclear annihilation of all of them. He would prefer it if “the world was much bigger and the player goals more open-ended.” He wrote up a proposal for an online portal to host a “10,000-player computer game” that showed the influence of Ted Nelson’s visions of networked consciousness as well as the cyberpunk science fictions that he’d been reading a lot of lately — works like True Names by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson’s brand new, seminal Neuromancer. The poetic language he employed in his proposal rather self-consciously echoes Gibson’s own descriptions of cyberspace.

Picture, if you will, a network, an intricate web of knots and threads spanning thousands of miles. The knots are machines, made of silicon, metal, and plastic. The threads are metal wires. It is a computer network. The machines are computers, sitting in homes, schools, and offices across the continent. The wires are telephone lines, tying the hundreds upon hundreds of individual processors into a single, unified whole. At each of these machines sit people. People of all kinds and all ages… they experience the signs and sounds of that which exists only in the wholeness of the web, and in their own minds.

Steve Arnold made a habit of filing away all of the ideas that poured out of his charges, even seemingly outlandish ones like this one. After all, you never knew what might be worth considering if the right partner and/or situation came along.

We haven’t had much occasion to talk about it yet on this blog, but PCs had always been seen by hackers as, amongst other things, tools of communication. One might even say it was in the PC industry’s very DNA. Well before Apple, for instance, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had gotten their start as businessmen by selling “blue boxes” for purposes of “phone phreaking,” hacking the telephone system to make free long-distance calls. (The widespread application of telecommunications technology to illegal activities would also be an ongoing theme of the young industry.) The first modems were available almost as soon as the first PCs, using hardware designs adapted from bigger institutional computer systems.

To say that using a computer for telecommunications was challenging in the early days hardly begins to describe the situation. “Modem” stands for “modulator/demodulator.” It converts data into sound and transmits it over a phone line, the “modulating” part of the process. What sounds like an unholy racket to human ears can be converted — “demodulated” — back into data that a computer can understand by another modem at the other end of the line. A modem monopolized the phone line, meaning that unless you lived alone or could afford to spring for a second line, negotiations on its use with other householders were likely to be tense ones. Once made, modem connections were notoriously unstable. In many areas even the “call waiting” tone resulting from an incoming call would knock you off the line while simultaneously leaving you no way to answer the second call, a useless double whammy if ever there was one. And Modems were slow. A 300-baud modem, for many years the standard, could transmit or receive at about 35 characters per second, meaning a single line of text on an 80-column screen took well over two seconds to print, a full screen of 25 lines almost a full minute.

Assuming you were willing to put up with all these annoyances, whom should you actually call using your computer? The World Wide Web was still many years in the future, the Internet itself largely restricted to users at big universities and other research institutions, discussing esoteric subjects using specialized messaging software. Your realistic options could thus largely be divided into two categories: the so-called computerized bulletin-board systems, or BBSes, and, in time, bigger commercial dial-up services.

The typical BBS operator was a guy not that different from you who had elected to set up a little online presence with a spare computer — or a primary computer when he wasn’t actually using it — and a second phone line. Since these systems usually only had one modem and one phone line, only one user could actually be online at a time. Accessing a popular system was thus generally a matter of setting up a “war dialer,” a program to dial the BBS’s number again and again until the busy signal was replaced with a modem’s answering tone — all the while, of course, tying up your own phone line with the effort. Once online, you could read and post messages and upload and download software, within reason; you didn’t want to be That Guy staying online for hours and blocking everyone else out of the system. Indeed, popular systems often strictly limited your time to make sure that didn’t happen. Many of the BBSes were engines of software piracy. Thanks to phone phreaking, the necessary numbers and techniques for which were also widely distributed on pirate BBSes, pirates could call systems all over the country and the world, while more legitimate users unwilling to spend a fortune in long-distance fees were limited to those in their own hometowns. BBSes, even — especially! — the legitimate ones, were thus by their very nature very limited affairs, bound to a certain geographic area and, with only 24 hours in a day and only one phone line, sharply restricted in how many users they could realistically support. Many old-timers today will tell you that that was a big part of their charm.

Still, there was obvious potential for larger services that could bring more people together. In the late 1970s one Bill von Meister had an epiphany that would establish the model for such services for many years to come. When corporate America shut down for the evening, he realized, millions of processing hours on time-shared institutional computers went unused, as did much of the telecommunications infrastructure that linked all of those machines together. He founded an online service called The Source to take advantage of this excess capacity by essentially selling it to ordinary computer users at home, who could access his system via modem using local phone numbers that served as entrance ramps to normally business-focused packet-switched networks like Tymnet and Uninet. After The Source was announced at a gala event in June of 1979 — special guest/paid spokesman Isaac Asimov was there to declare it to represent nothing less than “the start of the information age” — similar online services began to spring up in considerable numbers, their user counts to climb steadily. CompuServe, the second entrant in the burgeoning field and always the largest and most lavishly promoted, had 5000 subscribers in 1980; 145,000 in 1984; 300,000 in 1986; 460,000 in 1988.

What people did on these services was in some senses mostly the same as what they do on the Internet today. By mid-decade CompuServe offered discussion forums and chat rooms on a huge variety of topics; an online encyclopedia; electronic editions of newspapers and magazines; online banks, stockbrokers, and other financial services; worldwide weather forecasts; online shopping malls, airplane tickets, and hotel reservations; and of course your very own private email address. Games were also popular; amongst the expected slate of traditional board and card games one could find the occasional standout, like CompuServe’s MegaWars, an elaborate and addictive multiplayer strategy game played on a universal scale, not all that far removed from Peter Langston’s Empire. The first accredited online university, called simply The Electronic University, already had 10,000 students by 1985, offering seven degrees from an Associates in the Arts to an MBA. The mainstream media began to publish the occasional skeptical report on a new phenomenon known as “online personals,” noting with shock that some people had supposedly ended up marrying others that they had first met online. Indeed, the amount of sharing that took place online was a constant source of surprise to the unwired. An apocryphal tale made the rounds, winding up eventually even on PBS’s Computer Chronicles program, of a woman who had announced on a chat room that she had had enough, that she was about to kill herself right there and then, only to be talked down from the brink by her interlocutors. Less positively but more inevitably, politicians began to fret about online pornography and child predation, making it an explicit crime to use a computer to traffic in child pornography — it was anyway, but that’s politics for you — with the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988.

It’s easy enough to see these services, described as I just have in the abstract, as essentially equivalent to the World Wide Web of today. That, however, would be a mistake. I really need to emphasize just how limited and primitive online services of the 1980s were by modern standards. Without the bandwidth to send pictures and with few computers capable of displaying them with any fidelity at all anyway, the online services were made of nothing but text, laboriously transmitted page by page at speeds of 300 or at best 1200 baud. There were no hyperlinks, no mouse support, no color, no sound, no fonts, no page layout, no windows or columns, just walls of slowly printing monospaced monochrome text separated by menu prompts in the form of blinking cursors. And each of these services was a world unto itself: if you signed up for CompuServe, you could only use those facilities that CompuServe offered, could only chat or send mail to other CompuServe subscribers. The interoperability and interconnectedness that define the World Wide Web of today didn’t exist, making your choice of which service to splurge for a fraught one indeed.

Finally, these services were expensive, staggeringly so by modern standards. In 1985 it cost $40 just to sign up with CompuServe, then $6 per hour at 300 baud or $12.50 per hour at 1200 baud during non-business hours. As for usage during business hours, that was so expensive that you didn’t even want to think about it — which was, after all, kind of the point. The other services charged similar rates. Small wonder that avid users devised and shared a multitude of techniques, from command shortcuts for bypassing layers of menus to ways of collecting digests of messages for reading offline, to minimize their time spent connected. And small wonder as well that, despite the services’ steadily increasing user bases, for many years relatively few computer owners had the requisite combination of financial wherewithal and patience to make use of them. At mid-decade it was estimated that less than 5 percent of active home-computer users subscribed to one of the commercial online services, while less than 40 percent of them even owned modems.

Those numbers represented opportunity. That, anyway, was how they were seen by Steve Case, marketing director for a heretofore underwhelming would-be purveyor of telecommunications services called Quantum Computer Services. Case came up with a scheme that would address some if not all of the reasons that most users still stayed away from the big online services. His QuantumLink would work only on Commodore 64s. Rather than using generic text-oriented terminal software, it would be given away as a user-friendly, colorful, point-and-click-driven application that would nevertheless interface with Quantum’s online databases via modem. And, aware that the Commodore market was the most price-conscious in computing, Case made QuantumLink dramatically cheaper than any other service: a flat fee of $10 per month, plus $3.60 per hour for certain “premium services,” whether delivered at 300 or 1200 baud. The scheme did come with its drawbacks, like the fact that major additions to the service would require the mailing of a new disk to every customer, and of course the fact that it would be limited to Commodore users, but on the whole Case believed the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages.

QuantumLink

Critically, Case was able to convince Commodore themselves to sign on as sponsor and principal investor, making QuantumLink the “official” online service for Commodore owners. QuantumLink “telecommunications starter kits” were soon being inserted into every Commodore modem package, not to mention everywhere else Case could find to stick them. He was determined to make QuantumLink the easier, friendlier online service, suitable for the non-technical. “For the average guy,” he says, “we needed to offer the market something that was a little easier and cheaper and more useful.” Case’s “average guys” would sign up with QuantumLink to the tune of about 50,000 members one year after the service made its debut in November of 1985 — not bad numbers at all for a brand new, platform-specific online service that was starting from scratch.

QuantumLink's point-and-click main menu.

QuantumLink’s point-and-click main menu.

An online chat on QuantumLink

An online chat on QuantumLink.

QuantumLink featured a fairly typical slate of offerings, including plenty of games. The Commodore 64 was after all the premier gaming computer in the country, and the QuantumLink software had actually been built from the remnants of an earlier, failed venture called PlayNet, an attempt to create an online service revolving exclusively around games. QuantumLink’s games were largely inherited from that effort, including old standbys like backgammon, chess, checkers, hangman, and Go, as well as an online casino that dealt in perks rather than money. There were also heaps of public-domain games to download and play offline, plus demo versions of commercial games. Still, right from the outset QuantumLink and Commodore looked for an online game that was newer, bigger, and more exciting, something the likes of which had never been seen before. It was this quest that brought Clive Smith, a vice president of strategic planning at Commodore, out to Lucasfilm Games one day in the summer of 1985, well before the QuantumLink service was planned to actually go live. Smelling a chance to do something unprecedented on someone else’s dime, Steve Arnold pulled Chip Morningstar’s old proposal for a networked virtual world out of his ideas folder. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Smith immediately loved it. He quickly secured for Arnold and Morningstar a chance to pitch it in person to Quantum at their headquarters in Vienna, Virginia.

For his presentation, Morningstar dropped all vestiges of an “outer space/conquer the galaxy” type of game like Empire, or for that matter CompuServe’s MegaWars, in favor of a game that “looked kind of funky and suburban,” a “game” in name only that would would ultimately be all about “the social dimension — people interacting with other people.” It was an idea so unprecedented that even its originator had difficulty describing or even completely envisioning it. The closest analogues would be MUDs — “multi-user dungeons,” essentially elaborate online text adventures in the spirit of Adventure and Zork that could be occupied by dozens of players at a time. Yet, while there was certainly a strong social element at play there, most MUDs also placed a heavy emphasis on dungeon-crawling, monster-killing, and leveling-up, whilst taking place in exactly the sorts of fantasy or science-fiction worlds that Morningstar had so definitively rejected. And of course MUDs consisted solely of text, while Morningstar’s world was imagined from the start as a richly graphical environment. Groping for the right vocabulary to describe his ideas, he found himself coining new jargon of his own, some of which has persisted to this day. Most notably, he borrowed the term “avatar” from Hinduism, where it represents a deity’s earthly incarnation. Morningstar used it to describe the onscreen figure that each player — the god in the machine, the deity pulling the strings — would control. That said, her avatar wouldn’t quite be her, at least not all the time, for Morningstar’s world would amongst other things be a space for role play, a space for trying new identities on for size.1 Whatever else you could say about “avatar,” it at least sounded more dignified than “puppet.”

The project, first dubbed Universe and then MicroCosm, was a hard sell. For some months Steve Case and the others at Quantum remained intrigued but uncertain. The contract wasn’t finalized and signed at last until December of 1985, after QuantumLink itself was already up and running. By this time the name had been changed yet again, this time to simply Habitat. Hoping to make a splash, the new partners rented the Palladium, the hottest new nightclub in New York City, to officially announce the project in mid-1986, despite the fact that there was still lots of work to be done before it could possibly go live. “It was quite an anomaly to have this essentially hip nightclub where people dressed in black… and then all these computer geeks showing off their multiplayer computer games,” admits Steve Arnold. “It was a little bit of a mismatch between PR positioning and target audience.”

Habitat

Undaunted, Quantum continued to hype Habitat quite heavily in their advertising. It was perpetually “coming soon,” first in the summer of 1986, then in the fall, then at some undetermined point in 1987. An initial spate of intrigued articles in the Commodore trade press dissipated as the months went by and the project started to look more and more like vaporware. Through it all Chip Morningstar struggled to actually build his monster with the help of a partner, another recent Lucasfilm hire named F. Randall Farmer. Only gradually did it dawn on them just what they had gotten themselves into. Making Habitat come alive was going to be hard. Really hard. Farmer has called the Habitat project the most complicated single thing ever done with a Commodore 64. While he’s hardly unbiased, it’s also difficult to think of a more ambitious rival. To help you appreciate Habitat‘s scope, I’d like to give you a description of the experience it was meant to provide for the player.

Habitat

When you signed up for Habitat, your first task must be to create your new avatar, choosing your sex, your hair color, the shape of your head and your facial features. Your avatar was then given a room of his own to live in, complete with a dresser for storing things and a cat for cuddling. (Yes, dog lovers were out of luck — and no, it wasn’t possible to kill your cat.) You commanded your avatar by moving the cursor about the screen and tapping the joystick button, which yielded a radial menu of four items: “go” (walk to where the cursor points), “do” (manipulate some object or machine to which the cursor points), “get” (pick something up), and “put” (drop something, possibly inside a container). You could, for instance, select “do” over the dresser to open a drawer and reveal its contents, which you could then manipulate via “get” and “put.” Your avatar could normally only carry one thing at a time, but you could use a container, like the handy sack seen in the screenshot above, to carry many more.

The discrete areas, called regions in Habitat terminology, were linked with one another to form a grid or map, like the individual rooms of a text adventure. This, however, was one huge adventure game. There were many thousands of public regions, plus a “Turf Sweet Turf” for every player. By “going” to the door of your home turf, you could access the grand world outside your avatar’s humble abode. It was there that you’d begin to meet others.

Habitat

Due to technical constraints, only six avatars could occupy a region at the same time, but you could communicate with all of your region-mates simply by typing whatever you liked on the keyboard. The text you typed appeared as comic-style thought bubbles over your avatar’s head for all to read.

And that’s largely all you needed to know in order to interact with Habitat. Yet that’s enough to allow for a huge scope of social possibility, a fact of which Morningstar and Farmer were well aware and of which they were determined to take full advantage. Your room contained a telephone with a functioning telephone number other players could use to call you. Likewise, you could call them by looking them up in a virtual telephone book and dialing. If you preferred the dying art of letter-writing, every avatar had a mailbox before her domicile, with a functioning post system for delivering letters. There was a bank; every player got a stipend of 100 tokens every day she logged in, which she could spend as she would. There was a travel agency and resort destinations to which it could send you, stores to buy clothes and gadgets, bars and galleries and theaters. To facilitate large-scale events like plays, concerts, and poetry readings despite the six-avatars-per-region limit, Lucasfilm implemented something called “ghost mode,” which let you peer into a region without your avatar being actually embodied there — ideal for being a passive member of an audience. There was a “teleport” system for getting around the thousands of regions as quickly and easily as possible, and hotels for overnight trips to far-flung corners of the world. For those needing a definite external goal to work toward, an “Oracle” found in a park near the center of the world assigned adventure-game-like quests: “find the mystic orb of Xebop and return it to the Temple of Zak.” But even they were envisioned as social rather than solitary affairs, often requiring multiple avatars to pull off.


Perhaps the most amazing thing about Habitat is that it actually worked at all on a purely technical level, on client machines that Morningstar himself describes as little more than “toys,” with 1 MHz 8-bit processors, 64 K of memory, and an unstable connection running at as slow as 300 baud. The servers that housed this virtual world and managed all of the clients did have a few more resources at their disposal: QuantumLink, and thus Habitat, ran on a cluster of Motorola 68000-based computers built by a company called Stratus. Still, managing a virtual community proved to be far more expensive in both human and computer hours than anyone had anticipated. Lucasfilm’s contract with Quantum called for an environment capable of supporting 20,000 users, with the possibility of scaling it up easily to 50,000 if necessary. By the time the active user base reached 50 employees and insiders, Morningstar admits, Lucasfilm was already starting to feel “over our heads.”

We needed things for 20,000 people to do. They needed interesting places to visit — and since they can’t all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit — and things to do in those places. Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped.

Morningstar and Farmer nevertheless continued to plug away. In the first weeks of 1988 QuantumLink finally began a public beta test consisting of about 500 players who had been lucky enough to wind up with membership packets containing a special “early-access pass” for Habitat. It’s here that the Habitat story gets really fascinating, as Morningstar and Farmer bring the world’s first massively-multiplayer virtual community fully online. Many of the questions they were soon being forced to address, the situations they confronted, will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever played in Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or for that matter just read about them. Here, then, are some dispatches from the front of an 8-bit Second Life that lived for just a few months in 1988.


Addiction!

From the bureau of things that never change: some users promptly became addicted, which was a real problem for them given that this was a paid beta test, billed at the usual QuantumLink “premium” rate of $3.60 per hour. Some were soon racking up monthly bills of $200 or more, corresponding to well over 50 hours of play. One managed to hit $1000 in one month, despite warnings sent to his email address at $300 and $600 that he might want to “check out his usage in the billing section.” Horrifying as this was on one level, Lucasfilm and QuantumLink couldn’t help but note that in theory they would only need twenty more users just like him to cover all of their operating expenses and make Habitat profitable.

The One-Percenters

Seeking to make Habitat a believable place, Lucasfilm included richer and poorer areas, discount shops and luxury boutiques with largely the same goods but very different prices. Trouble began when a few players realized that they could actually pawn items in a rich area for more money than it cost to buy them new in a poor. They spent an entire night trekking back and forth, buying low and selling high. By morning they had effectively wrecked Habitat‘s economy, inflating the money supply by a factor of five and making themselves almost inconceivably rich in contrast to everyone else. This nouveau riche began to usurp power for themselves, getting others to do their bidding for trifling (to them) amounts of money, dispensing bread and circuses to the masses in the form of games and treasure hunts. With little outlet for their immense fortunes in spite of all their best efforts to spend them, the superrich ended up establishing a lucrative trade amongst themselves in what became Habitat‘s most ostentatious symbol of conspicuous consumption: custom heads for their avatars.

Robbery! Murder!

Weapons could be purchased in Habitat and player-versus-player conflict was allowed in the so-called “wilderness areas” outside of city limits, although the consequences of “death” were relatively mild: everything the dead avatar was carrying would be dumped onto the ground where she had been standing, and she would then be teleported back to her home turf, once again intact. Of course, it took about five minutes for someone to start randomly shooting people in order to take their stuff. This led to…

Law and Order Must Be Imposed!

The inhabitants decided that a police department must be established, and held elections for sheriff. Inevitably, the guy who won by a landslide was one of the one-percenters, who could afford a campaign on a scale of which the other candidates could only dream. Did someone say something about the role of money in politics?

Christianity Under Siege!

The first virtual church was opened by a Greek Orthodox minister. Those who wanted to join his flock were forbidden from stealing or engaging in any sort of violence. Unfortunately, whenever the minister and his flock weren’t around other players would march in, strip the church bare, and pawn the lot. The minister finally had to appeal directly to Lucasfilm for a special dispensation: a lock for his church.

Family Values

While there is no record of any relationships formed inside Habitat escaping into the real world, there were at least three virtual-world weddings, all taking place in that aforementioned church. Lucasfilm helpfully joined the newlyweds’ turfs together for cohabitation. The first virtual divorce followed the first virtual marriage by just two weeks.

Dangerous Bedfellows

It was possible for players to “sleep over” in other players’ turfs rather than their own, if invited inside. Soon con artists started finagling such invitations from naive players, then logging in while the victim still slept blissfully and absconding with everything in the room.

It’s About Ethics in In-Game Journalism!

A couple of enterprising players founded a newspaper, The Weekly Rant, consisting of as many as fifty pages full of news, fiction, classified advertisements, and announcements (including news of weddings and divorces). Absolutely everyone in Habitat was soon using it as an essential resource until, after a dispute about editorial content — the publisher wanted a shorter newspaper with less fiction — the editor abruptly quit. Habitat felt the loss keenly for all of its remaining days.

Arms Negotiations

For a special area they were creating called “The Dungeon of Death,” two players convinced Lucasfilm to build them special “elephant guns” that could kill another avatar in one shot instead of the usual twelve or so, on the condition that they would use them only in the person of their alter egos “Death” and “The Shadow” who lurked within the dungeon. Embarrassingly, one day while playing Death on loan Randall Farmer himself managed to get himself killed by another player, who promptly scooped up the gun. An ordinary player, unbound by any strictures whatsoever, now had this massively destabilizing weapon in her hot little hands. After threats and negotiations, a deal was struck: 10,000 tokens to buy the gun back. Echoing a thousand Hollywood thrillers, the two parties met on the grounds of Habitat‘s largest public park to make a tense exchange through a neutral intermediary; one can’t help but imagine their respective posses lurking tensely in the bushes all around in case trouble started.


The immediate transplantation of real-world societal structures and, one might say, societal woes into Habitat might be read as depressing. On another level, though, it was a sign that Habitat worked, that it had become a real community. “In a real system that is going to be used by real people,” wrote Morningstar and Farmer later, “it is a mistake to assume that the users will all undertake the sorts of noble and sublime activities which you created the system to enable. Most of them will not. Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is.”

In time, Morningstar and Farmer came to categorize the inhabitants of Habitat into five categories that perhaps apply almost equally well to the real world.

The Passive: Easily 50 percent of the number of users fall into this category, but they probably use only 20 percent of the connect time (rough estimates). They tend to show up for events ad-hoc and when the mood strikes. This group must be led by the hand to participate. They tend to want to “be entertained” with no effort, like watching TV.

The Active: This group is the next largest, and made up the bulk of the paying user-hours. The Active user participates in two to five hours of activities a week. They ALWAYS have a copy of the latest paper (and gripe if it comes out late).

The Motivators: The real heroes of Habitat. The Motivators understand that Habitat is what they make of it. They set out to change it. They throw parties, start institutions, open businesses, run for office, start moral debates, become outlaws, win contests.

The Caretakers: The Caretakers are “mature” Motivators. They tend to help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs, suggest improvements, run their own contests, officiate at functions, and in general keep things running smoothly.

The Geek Gods: The operator’s job is most important. It really is like being a Greek God from the ancient writings. The Oracle grants wishes and introduces new items/rules into the world. With one bold stroke of the keyboard, the operator can create/eliminate bank accounts, entire city blocks, or the family business. This is a difficult task as one must consider the repercussions of any “external” events to the world. Think about this: would you be mad at “God” if one day suddenly electricity didn’t work anymore? Habitat IS a world. As such, someone should run it that has experience in that area. A Geek God must understand both consistency in fictional worlds and the people who inhabit it.

In the beginning, Morningstar and Farmer tried to micromanage the world, but it quickly became clear that this would be impossible, even with just 500 players. Designing a massively-multiplayer game is a fundamentally different discipline than designing for a single player. A player in a single-player game expects and deserves to have the world revolve around her; a player in a massively-multiplayer game is but one among many would-be heroes. The reality of this difference, a difference which Morningstar and Farmer were amongst the first people in the world to confront, became clear with their first attempt at a large-scale community treasure hunt, the so-called “D’nalsi Island Adventure.” Farmer spent weeks designing and building the quest and the 100-region island that would house its goal, the lost “Amulet of Salesh,” hidden away in a remote, seldom-visited corner of the world. After announcing the quest at a special community meeting held in the county courthouse, Farmer and Morningstar sat back to watch the players go to work, anticipating it would take them some days to return with the amulet. As it turned out, someone found the island within fifteen minutes, then recovered the amulet therein within eight hours. Most players were never even aware that the quest was happening before it was all over.

Clearly, Habitat could not depend on such externally imposed quests, quests which the most knowledgeable and the most powerful were always destined to win. What happened inside Habitat would instead have to be driven by the players themselves. By the time the beta ended, Morningstar and Farmer had shifted their thinking entirely, realizing that the success of this virtual world would depend on them being able to move enough users along each step of the continuum outlined above, from curious but Passive non-participants to Geek Gods who had the competency and the interest to start to play a major role in the underlying workings of the world itself. (One might also say that this is the main goal a real-world society has for each succeeding generation.) From the standpoint of game design, this would prove to be the number-one lesson of Habitat — a sort of transcendence of game design. Morningstar and Farmer made a conscious effort to begin to think more like facilitators than game designers. When players came to them asking for an elephant gun or a church, they asked them what they planned to use it for and, if all seemed kosher, did their best to provide.

And then, just like that, it was suddenly all over. The beta ended and Habitat went dark forever, leaving a million might-have-beens in its wake.  Steve Arnold:

We found that we had pushed the C-64 to its limits, and, if we had to do it all over again — and I’m not trying to insult C-64 owners — we really would have developed the Habitat program on a different system. Once we finished Habitat and really sat down and looked at it, we realized there was a lot more technology needed to do multiplayer gaming — a lot more than we could do effectively on the C-64.

Habitat just didn’t scale well, wasn’t going to work with 20,000 or 50,000 players. In addition to the problems on the client side, Quantum noted that Habitat, even with just 500 players, had already consumed an inordinate amount of processing power on their servers during the beta period. They claimed that trying to deliver a full-scale Habitat would require a massive investment in infrastructure that they just weren’t in a position to pay for.

That said, there were doubtless other factors at play in the mutual reluctance of both Quantum and Lucasfilm to commit yet more resources to making Habitat live for real. They were now well into 1988, and it was becoming clear that the Commodore 64, a computing evergreen for so long, was beginning to fade at last. This reality left neither partner eager to commit more resources to expensive long-range projects for the platform. Lucasfilm was shifting to MS-DOS as their front-line development platform, while Quantum was now pouring most of the revenue they were earning from QuantumLink into new online services targeting other platforms rather than continuing to make major improvements to the old service.

Lucasfilm washed their hands of Habitat in mid-1988 by selling the whole technology package to Fujitsu, who used it to create Club Caribe, a stripped-down environment of a relatively compact 500 regions, on QuantumLink in 1989. It essentially functioned as an amusing chat interface, with most of the elements that made Habitat a real, functioning community stripped away. “Don’t get the idea that Club Caribe is a half-baked attempt to implement a vision that was too far ahead of its time,” wrote one magazine reviewer eager not to lose QuantumLink’s advertising dollars but also not quite willing to completely avoid the truth. That, of course, was exactly what it was, although even as Club Caribe the technology was still more than able to impress those who weren’t aware of the full scope of Chip Morningstar’s original dream. Habitat‘s technology continued to live on to one degree or another in other Fujitsu projects spanning much of the next decade, such as the Habitat Japan that was launched in 1990 and another virtual world called WorldsAway that was launched on CompuServe during that service’s twilight years of the mid-1990s. Yet it wouldn’t be until Ultima Online in 1997 that an online virtual world of quite the same scope and complexity as the original Habitat would be attempted again, and not until Second Life in 2003 that a functioning virtual community of quite the same player-driven character would be dared again. (Second Life also has a more direct connection to Habitat: F. Randall Farmer was a consultant on the later venture.) Such spans are practically millennia in the fast-paced world of computers. Habitat was perhaps doomed to fail from the beginning, but if you’re going to fail you might as well make it a failure for the ages.

QuantumLink, and the Club Caribe to be found within it, persisted as what might be most charitably described as a “legacy service” for a surprisingly long time, not finally going dark until November 1, 1994, just a few days shy of its ninth birthday and after the death of Commodore itself. By that time, however, it was little more than an afterthought for its parent company, now one of the biggest success stories of the nascent Internet boom. After some hiccups in the form of failed AppleLink and PCLink services, you see, Steve Case had finally hit paydirt with America Online, which became the new name of Quantum Computer Services itself in 1991. I’m going to guess that you might have heard of them. If not… well, stick around. We’ll get there.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985, May 1985, March 1986, January 1987, December 1987, and January 1989; Run of August 1986 and November 1989; Commodore Microcomputers of November/December 1986; Computer and Video Games of May 1987. Two episodes of the television show Computer Chronicles, “Modems and Bulletin Boards” from 1985 and “Online Services Part One” from 1987, are pertinent. The Internet Archive gives access to a now-defunct site created by Keith Elkin that was devoted to Habitat. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment’s site hosts a Lucasfilm-to-Fujitsu technology-transfer document dating from the summer of 1988 that’s full of fascinating information and insights. Finally, Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer have a website full of still more invaluable information and insights.)


  1. Richard Garriott applied the same term to a game even earlier than Morningstar, during the development of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, but his usage applies specifically to the ethical quest that forms the plot of that game: the player’s goal is to become an “avatar of virtue.” The more generalized use of the term in videogames is better attributed to Morningstar, even if Garriott’s usage probably better reflects its real implications in Hinduism. 

 

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Commodore: The Amiga Years

It was some years ago that I watched The World at War, the 26-episode documentary series on World War II that first ran on British television in 1973. Despite all the revelations of the years that followed its appearance — not least the role played by computing pioneers like Alan Turing in breaking Axis codes and quite possibly saving millions of lives in the process — I still consider it the definitive film history of the war. When I was flipping through the supplementary materials on my DVD set of the series, I was struck by something one of the producers said: that 1973, thirty years after the events in question, was the perfect time to make the series. Enough time had passed that wounds had healed or at least been scarred over sufficiently to give a certain perspective to the many participants in the war who were interviewed for the series, but not so much that they were mostly dead.

I mention that today because Brian Bagnall, a great supporter of this blog, has been doing largely the same thing for the history of Commodore that The World at War did for World War II, and the same absolutely perfect number of years after the actual events in question. No, this history is not of quite the same earth-shattering importance (some of the most hardcore Amiga loyalists might argue about that), but it is important in its own way to preserve these memories now, while we still can. Brian has a Kickstarter in its final days for a book which will chronicle the later history of Commodore and the entire history of the Amiga line. He’s also working on some cool bonuses as well, like a history of Jack Tramiel’s early career and the pre-PET Commodore, including the Atlantic Acceptance Scandal that I at least am dying to know much more about. He’s doing quite well, having already earned several times his minimum goal of $15,000 Canadian. But there are still stretch goals on offer, and more is always helpful on a project like this one. So, please help him out if you happen to have the necessary combination of interest and financial wherewithal. Don’t do it for the children; do it for history! You have four days left.

 

A New Force in Games, Part 1: Fractal Dreamers

Lucasfilm Logo

There are at least two stories to tell about the way that George Lucas’s Star Wars movies changed the world. One is the tale of the impact the films themselves had on the culture of movie-making and movie-going. For better or for worse, the first Star Wars film ushered out the brief New Hollywood era of auteur-driven American film-making that had followed the collapse of the old studio system in the 1960s, whilst ushering in, with a strong assist from Lucas’s buddy Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the era of the action-packed, escapist blockbuster that still persists to this day. And of course for the nerdier culture of 1980s gaming Star Wars became nothing less than a third great holy text to join Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, which does much to explain why it keeps showing up around these parts.

Yet there’s also another Star Wars story that’s less appreciated. During the production of the first film and especially when the millions began to pour in after its release, Lucasfilm, Lucas’s production company, forever changed many of the technologies behind media creation and consumption. To say they did so “quietly” would be overstating the case. Some of the names associated with the technological side of Lucasfilm — Industrial Light and Magic, THX, Pixar, Skywalker Sound — are well known to just about everyone. But the actual nuts and bolts of the new developments, even of those pieces that hide behind one of those big names, can be difficult to appreciate for anyone who isn’t a professional working in one of the industries whose practices they revolutionized. I don’t propose to tell the full story of Lucasfilm the technology incubator here. (That’s actually already been done, and much better than I possibly could at that, in Michael Rubin’s Droidmaker.) I do, however, want to tell you about what it meant to the world of computer games. Like a surprising number of things at Lucasfilm, game development just seemed to happen of its own accord, as something the guy who made Star Wars just really ought to be involved in. It wasn’t initiated by Lucas or any of his cronies, but rather by Atari, who came for a visit in 1982, just as both companies were at the peak of their power, wealth, and influence.

That meeting would mark the beginning of Lucasfilm’s direct association with computer games, but their association with computers in general stretches back considerably farther, to the immediate aftermath of Star Wars‘s release and massive success. Made using traditional mechanical, analog techniques — scale models, stop-motion photography, blue-screening, etc. — Star Wars had been an exhausting film to shoot and edit, so much so that it had sent Lucas to the hospital on one occasion with a stress-induced panic attack. With plans already afoot to make many more films in the series, he was naturally eager to find ways of easing the burden of unglamorous, mind-numbing labor that still was film-making of any stripe — much less a special-effects-driven science-fiction epic — in the 1970s. He started collecting talented computer people to help with that process. This collecting was made much easier by the fact that Lucas, who had evinced a visceral loathing for the Hollywood machine since the days when their trade unions had denied him work as a camera operator whilst he was still a student, had chosen to center his film-making operation in Northern rather than Southern California, much closer to Silicon Valley than to Hollywood. He wasn’t much interested in computer-generated graphics in the beginning. For a guy like Lucas, who had never darkened the door of a computer-science department in his life, the notion barely existed. What he really wanted was a way to do optical printing — the overlaying of separate shots onto one piece of film — more easily and without the degradation that resulted from analog techniques; a replacement for the huge, hot, noisy machines that editors had to use in conjunction with razor blades, glue, and thousand-page notebooks to — literally in those days — cut movies; an easier way to mix sound; even a good accounting system to keep track of all his millions. The people he found to help with all that and much more would set the world on the path to a digital revolution in filmmaking, creating amongst other things the predecessors to modern digital-compositing software and video-editing programs.

More relevantly to our purposes today, however, his dragnet also scooped up some of the best pure computer-graphics minds in the country — people like Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, the eventual co-founders of Pixar. Soon joining them was one of the pioneers of fractal graphics, Loren Carpenter, whom they lured away from of all places Boeing after he brought down the house at the 1980 SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference with the short film you see below.


Brilliant as they were, the little Lucasfilm Graphics Group that coalesced around Catmull, Smith, and Carpenter didn’t often have a lot to actually do in those earliest years. The second Star Wars movie, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, made no use of computer-generated imagery. Raised on traditional film-making techniques, Lucas could see the value of other new computer-based technologies that made things like editing and compositing easier, but wasn’t quite sure what to make of images that were born inside a computer. And so, like a number of research groups at Lucasfilm, Graphics tinkered away in benign neglect, refining their techniques and waiting for their big break, showing up at the occasional conference with something amazing, which prompted a steady buzz in magazines like Byte about the groundbreaking things that were apparently happening somewhere within the secret bowels of George Lucas’s Star Wars empire.

Their big break ironically came not from Star Wars but from that other big science-fiction franchise Star Trek. Industrial Light and Magic had been hired by the producers of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to do many of the special-effects shots for that movie. This they mostly accomplished using their traditional models, composits, and stop-motion photography. But there was one big effect, an animation illustrating a terraforming “Genesis device” on an in-film computer screen, that stumped them.  The script read simply, “And then the planet transforms… EFX sequence here.” It amounted to a creative blank slate for the Graphics Group to show the world what they could do — or perhaps to show just one man. “This is a sixty-second commercial to George Lucas,” Alvy declared, “to show him what he’s got.” They threw it all in: fractals, 3D modeling, texture mapping, fluid animation. Steven Spielberg, who tended to drop by the Graphics Group far more often than Lucas, loved it, saying it was a “great time to be alive” in a world that had such wonders; Star Trek II producer Harve Bennett was elated; Lucas himself called it a “great camera shot,” which by his laconic standards was gushing praise. Released in June of 1982, Star Trek II became in a sense Pixar’s public debut, thirteen years before Toy Story. Lucas was impressed enough to give Graphics some work to do on the third Star Wars film, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, although they weren’t given the opportunity to make any showstoppers like their Genesis sequence. Undaunted, a prescient Catmull insisted, “We’re going to be making entire films this way someday. We’ll create whole worlds. We’ll generate characters, monsters, aliens. Everything but the human actors will come out of computers.”


In the meantime, there were suddenly games. It was when the Graphics Group had just finished the Genesis sequence that Atari came to their nondescript offices in San Rafael, California, for a visit. Flush with even more cash than Lucasfilm at the time, Atari had quite a variety of research projects in progress, even if they would prove remarkably awful at turning them into finished products to supersede the aged Atari VCS games console. Thus it was natural for them to want to visit another company’s cutting-edge graphics research facility and see what they were up to. The two companies were hardly strangers; Atari had just released a licensed VCS game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’s hit cinematic collaboration with Spielberg.

What Atari saw in San Rafael blew them away. The delegation bombarded the bemused Catmull, Smith, and Carpenter with a million questions about how their stuff worked and, most importantly, how it might be adapted to videogames. Only Carpenter showed any real interest at all in such an endeavor. They were used to working on big workstations and minicomputers, not primitive micros, which they viewed with a certain contempt, dubbing their programmers mere “bit twiddlers.” They had high standards for their visuals: their graphics had to be good enough not to look out of place projected on a huge movie screen surrounded by other imagery shot on pristine 35-millimeter film. Their greatest enemies were what they called the “jaggies,” visibly blocky, pixelated areas that tended to lurk at the margins of what should be smooth, flowing curves. While the jaggies could be held at bay using the state-of-the-art, processing-intensive anti-aliasing techniques that the Graphics folks had spent years developing at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, those techniques weren’t much applicable to an 8-bit games console. Catmull and Smith at least wanted no part of that action; Carpenter was intrigued but also ambivalent, certainly not willing to entirely give up his film work for a game project.

Yet Atari persisted. Even Manny Gerard, the Warner Brothers executive who had orchestrated that company’s purchase of Atari, got involved, saying that “we ought to be in business” with Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group. Finally Atari offered to flat-out give Lucasfilm $1 million to set up a Games Group, for the products of which Atari would receive “right of first refusal” as publisher. An offer like that was hard to refuse. The deal was announced at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1982. “We’ll be developing new forms of electronic entertainment,” said an excited Atari, “and the term ‘electronic entertainment’ is carefully chosen.” Don’t, in other words, just call them yet more videogames. Lucasfilm and Atari would continue to work hard to cultivate this rarefied image of Lucasfilm Games as artists of interactivity rather than mere game programmers over the months and years to come.

Had Atari not so aggressively forced their hand, one might be tempted to characterize the whole undertaking as something of a bait and switch on the part of Lucasfilm; no one currently in that Graphics Group whose work had so impressed Atari was earmarked to start working full-time on games. Still, the initial organization of an entirely new Games Group was tossed into the lap of the Graphics Group’s Ed Catmull, who found a fellow named Peter Langston at a Wall Street law firm to head it. Langston was a Unix hacker from way, way back who in 1971 had written Empire, an elaborate multiplayer strategy game played on a global scale, a forerunner to Civilization and other games of its ilk. (A later offshoot of the original game was even named Civilization.) An accomplished musician, he was very interested in the application of music theory to computers and vice versa and was, in the judgment of Catmull, just a visionary “star” in general, the perfect guy to take Games off his hands. When Langston, who was quite happy in New York, proved reluctant, Catmull continued to sweeten the deal, going so far as to offer to fly him back to New York for a couple of weeks out of every month if he liked. It was, once again, an offer that was hard to refuse. Catmull got his guy, and with a sigh of relief turned his attention back to film graphics.

Peter Langston surrounded by typically artsy trappings in his office.

Peter Langston surrounded by typically artsy trappings in his office.

Langston was an unusual choice for leader and administrator, a conceptual rather than an altogether practical thinker with a somewhat dreamy disposition. Working at the unhurried pace that would be typical of the young Games Group, he put a little team together to join him. He held the zap-em blast-em world of typical videogames in little more regard than did his colleagues in Graphics, and thus purposely avoided programmers with a lot of experience in the industry; he was after people like him, people who were “a little bit visionary.” He hired one David Fox because he admired Computer Animation Primer, a book Fox had recently written for which he had actually met and interviewed many members of the Graphics Group. It took him weeks more to settle on a very eager David Levine as a third team member. His biggest claim to fame was having designed the first add-on graphics board for the original Altair kit computer, which Langston thought was great. However, he’d also already done quite a lot of videogame programming, which maybe wasn’t so great. In the end Langston decided to give him a shot in spite of his surfeit of experience. A fourth employee, Charlie Kellner, late of the Apple Macintosh development team (another musician, he had programmed the pleasant little beep the Mac made at startup), would arrive still later. Like Graphics and many other teams benefiting from the Star Wars millions inside Lucasfilm at the time, Games walked a shadowy, largely unsupervised line somewhere on the intersection of a pure research group and a commercial proposition expected to deliver actual, tangible products. Certainly Games was nothing like the quickie projects being started by many other big companies to cash in on the videogame fad. Nor would they try to trade on the Star Wars name. In fact, they wouldn’t even be allowed to make Star Wars games.

Whilst negotiating with 20th Century Fox the deal that would lead to Star Wars, George Lucas had made perhaps the shrewdest business move of his career: he’d convinced the Fox executives to let him retain merchandising rights. He then turned around and licensed rights to make Star Wars “toys and games” to Kenner Products. At a time when videogames still largely meant Pong, everyone interpreted “games” in this context to mean board games, which would be issued by Kenner’s subsidiary Parker Brothers, whose stable already included family perennials like Monopoly, Risk, and Clue. When videogames exploded a year or two later in the wake of Space Invaders (whose popularity was itself fed by Star Wars and the craze for all things science fiction that it engendered), Parker Brothers found themselves gifted with a golden goose for the ages, as was amply proved when they released an Atari VCS cartridge based on The Empire Strikes Back that spent many months in the top ten. The Star Wars videogame-licensing rights would be a complicated tangle for years to come, involving not only Lucasfilm and Parker Brothers but also Atari, whom the partners agreed to allow to make standup arcade games and eventually console and computer games of their own under the name. (One way or another, everything involving videogames in the early 1980s always seemed to come back to Atari.) The end result was a circular tangle the likes of which only corporate America could create. Lucasfilm, the owner of Star Wars, had a games division that wasn’t allowed to make Star Wars games, while Atari had such a license thanks to kicking some money back to board-game manufacturer Parker Brothers, but had to create those games in-house, even though they’d just paid Lucasfilm $1 million to set up the aforementioned games division for the purpose of making games for them. The upshot, however, was simple: no Star Wars for Langston, Fox, and Levine, nor for that matter for any of the others that would join them over the course of the rest of the decade. Many who were at Lucasfilm Games during this period have since remarked on  what a blessing in disguise this really was, forcing the developers as it did to come up with original game concepts, original game fictions.

Even if they were barred from working directly with the Star Wars intellectual property, it was a damn good gig just to work for Lucasfilm, flush with cash, with all of the best equipment, with few or no hard deadlines, and right there on the close periphery of where the movie magic happened. If George Lucas himself seldom poked his head in the door, there was every day the possibility that he would. And there were other famous faces who were a more common sight, like Steven Spielberg, who spent quite some hours in between Industrial Light and Magic effects shots for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom camped out in the Games Group’s offices playing the Star Wars standup arcade machine Atari had been kind enough to send them. One day Spielberg recruited the team to become the screams of dying bad guys in Temple of Doom. Whatever else competing games studios might offer, they couldn’t offer experiences like these.

Of course, being constantly in the shadow of Star Wars and Indiana Jones could also be exhausting in its own way. David Fox tells the story of attending an early trade convention where a showgoer, excited by the games on offer, for once failed to make the connection, asking what else Lucasfilm had made: “I said, ‘We made the Star Wars films.’ Watching the look on his face was hilarious as he made the connection. And it was nice for once to not be in the shadow of the films!”

As for what they were actually working on in those early days… well, that wasn’t always entirely clear, at least for those looking in from the outside. They had unilaterally decided quite quickly not to develop their first games for the technologically antiquated Atari VCS games console, as Atari had anticipated, but rather to target the Atari 8-bit line of home computers and the new, more advanced Atari 5200 console that had largely the same internals as those computers — this even though neither platform was selling in anything like the quantities of the old VCS. Langston pronounced himself “amazed” when his research into the ways that games were typically made for home computers revealed most developers to be working “in a basement on a system with too little memory, too few floppy disks, no reasonable way to make a backup, and few if any debugging tools.” Determined to change all that, the trio spent months on an elaborate development system which ran on their big DEC VAX minicomputer. Conceptualized largely by Langston himself, it allowed them to write code in a LISP-like script, compile it, download it to an Atari 8-bit machine, and debug it as it ran there from their terminals. Similar systems, eventually capable of compiling down to a whole range of other microcomputers, would remain the core of the Games Group’s development methodology for years to come.

Ballblazer

Ballblazer

Their efforts to create actual games slowly coalesced around two projects, both of which had started as “throwaways,” learning exercises to work the kinks out of their development system and help the team gel. (That very description says much about Peter Langston’s academic style of management, and why Lucasfilm’s own management would in time start to find it kind of infuriating.) David Levine’s baby Ballblazer was the more artsy of the pair, a surreal 3D soccer game played between opposing spacecraft, with realistic if otherworldly physics and, most impressively, jazzy generative music provided by Langston that’s sometimes been compared to that of John Coltrane. The music was created using fractal algorithms pioneered by the Graphics Group that just seemed to be in the air in those San Rafael offices. Speaking of which: David Fox’s Rebel Rescue got a huge assist from Loren Carpenter, the only real games fan in the Graphics Group, who helped him to implement an admittedly jaggies-replete fractal landscape for his more grounded game that cast the player as a futuristic search-and-rescue pilot, trying to rescue downed pilots from a planet’s surface and bring them back to the mothership whilst fighting off hordes of invading aliens that are still swarming the atmosphere. Deciding they might as well have a sense of humor about the thing, they decided to call these aliens the Jaggies. Rebel Rescue would actually have made a darn good Star Wars game; its inspirations, including not only the name itself but also the X-Wing-like spacecraft you fly and the pilots you rescue in their distinctive orange flightsuits, are pretty hard to deny.

George Lucas, for whom games held little personal appeal, sat down with his Games Group exactly once during their first couple of years of existence. And yet his single visit had a huge impact on Rebel Rescue. The little team, idealistic as they were, took pride in the fact that both of their games were basically nonviolent. In Rebel Rescue you could avoid the enemy aliens or, if you were skilled, trick them into flying into mountains, but you couldn’t shoot at them. “Where’s the fire button?” Lucas asked. Fox explained. “Is there no shooting because of gameplay reasons or philosophical reasons?” Philosophical. “Great. Put in a fire button. I want to shoot at things.” It was also Lucas who suggested what would prove to be Rebel Rescue‘s second most memorable feature after the fractal terrain itself: some of the downed pilots are aliens in disguise, whom you have a split-second to zap before they kill you. This was deliberately left out of the game’s manual, thus nearly giving many players a heart attack when it first happened a few levels in.

Even as the team tinkered away with Ballblazer and Rebel Rescue, the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 was happening outside their ivory tower. Nevertheless, at year’s end the Games Group at last delivered working prototypes of both games to an Atari who had declared themselves bloodied but determined to fight on, who were “going to reignite the consumer’s love of videogames.” Just weeks later the Games Group was horrified to see their babies spreading like wildfire across the worldwide network of pirate BBS systems. It seemed that someone at Atari hadn’t been able to resist sharing these cool new games with a friend or two, and the thing had just exploded from there. Soon copies of the games started to show up for sale in flea markets and the less scrupulous software shops, decked out in homemade packaging invented by enterprising quick-buck artists. A still buggy Rebel Rescue in particular seemed to be in the collection of every Atari 8-bit owner on the planet, one of the most popular games on the system. Lucasfilm and Atari had a hit on their hands, but it was a hit they weren’t getting paid for. It was questionable whether Langston and his idealistic cohorts were more upset about the potential purchasers it was costing them or the fact that the games everyone was playing weren’t finished yet.

Most of the Lucasfilm Games Group, mid-1984: Charlie Kellner, David Levine, Peter Langston, David Fox, Loren Carpenter (visiting from Graphics), Gary Winnick

Most of the Lucasfilm Games Group, mid-1984: Charlie Kellner, David Levine (seated), Peter Langston, David Fox, Loren Carpenter (visiting from Graphics), Gary Winnick

Lucasfilm was understandably less than thrilled at Atari’s failure to protect their games. Atari, however, was also less than thrilled with Lucasfilm. It had now been eighteen months since their $1 million investment and, especially in light of their straitening financial circumstances, they wanted to see some finished, polished games in return. They were particularly unhappy that the Games Group had failed to deliver on a promise to give them something ready to show at the 1984 Winter CES. By now Lucasfilm management as well had decided that something had to give. In January of 1984, they hired one Steve Arnold to join Peter Langston as an awkward sort of co-manager. Arnold came from Atari, where he had been responsible for the Atarisoft line of ports of standup-arcade games to home computers, one of the few financial bright spots at the company during 1983. He’d rolled out an astonishing 49 separate conversions in five months as head of Atarisoft, so he certainly knew how to ship product. But a few Lucasfilm higher-ups wryly noted that his best qualification could be his PhD in psychology, or perhaps the time he’d spent years before as program director at a boy’s camp. Hopefully he could find a way to make the unruly Games Group toe the line without spoiling what made them unique in the first place. Also coming aboard around this time were two more team members. One was Noah Falstein, an established videogame designer and programmer late of Williams Electronics, where he’d worked on standup arcade games like SinistarThe other was the Games Group’s first full-time visual artist, a veteran commercial artist named Gary Winnick.

Rescue on Fractalus

With these new, somewhat more practical-minded additions, the Games Group did indeed start making progress more quickly; the new can’t-miss-it deadline promised to a still skeptical Atari was now Summer CES in June. Rebel Rescue was renamed Rescue on Fractalus! largely for legal reasons, to make it clear that it was not (officially) a Star Wars game despite the Lucasfilm logo on its box. The folks at Industrial Light and Magic built and photographed model spacecraft for the boxes, designed and built a cockpit model for the “Valkyrie” fighter the player flew in Rescue on Fractalus!, and even made flightsuits for the entire development team to wear in a grand photo spread. David Fox got to play the starring role, as a weary pilot trying to straggle home in his battered Valkyrie on the back of the Rescue on Fractalus! box. The whole effort cost at least $30,000. Yes, working for the company that made Star Wars did have its perks.

Final versions of both games, complete with packaging, were delivered to Atari well before the latest deadline. Lucasfilm held a lavish press conference to unveil them in May, presenting the games via slick videos created with the aid of professional voice actors and Lucasfilm’s general movie-making know-how.


A beleagured Atari determined to press on (or still in denial) came to Summer CES with a new slogan: “The Day the Future Began.” The “Atari-Lucasfilm” games got a very positive response from press and public alike, and the partners put on the final touches for a July release. Yet practical questions still surrounded them. The Atari 5200 console had proved to be a flop, had already been discontinued, while Atari’s line of 8-bit home computers was still on the market but overshadowed by the cheaper Commodore 64. Meanwhile Atari themselves were still in financial free fall. And then, overnight, everything changed once again.

On July 3, 1984, Warner Communications announced that Jack Tramiel, late of Commodore, was buying Atari’s home-videogame-console and home-computer operations, surprising no one more than the people inside Atari who suddenly had their company sold out from under them. Looking on from the outside as Tramiel axed employees by the thousands in the weeks that followed, the Games Group wondered if July 3 should be called “The Day the Future Ended.” No one seemed to quite know in the midst of all the chaos where it left the Lucasfilm/Atari partnership. Tramiel himself didn’t seem to know much about their companies’ agreement and didn’t much seem to care. Atari 5200 versions of the games were released, powered by the inertia of processes that had already gotten started before the buyout, but to little promotion and predictably few sales on the already dead and buried console. And so Steve Arnold set off to try to free the games from Atari’s exclusive clutches. He returned from his one and only meeting with Tramiel with a less than positive personal impression, saying that the latter reminded him of no one so much as Jabba the Hutt of Return of the Jedi fame. Sure enough, pictures of the two were soon hanging up around the offices of a very frustrated Games Group: “The Hutt Brothers: Jabba, Jack.” (Poor Jack just couldn’t win; the common comparison inside Atari itself was to Darth Vader.) But in this one case at least Tramiel’s bark was worse than his bite. Busy with other legal battles and the travails of rebooting Atari, he let Lucasfilm move on.

Arnold settled on Epyx as publisher out of a crowded field of suitors, signing a four-game deal that was announced with considerable fanfare at Winter CES in January of 1985. Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus! became widely available for purchase at last shortly thereafter. These, the Games Group’s first actual products (give or take those half-baked Atari 5200 releases), had taken two-and-a-half years to come to fruition, an eternity in an era when most videogames were still churned out in a matter of a few months.

Thankfully for the Lucasfilm brass, it looked likely that the next games wouldn’t be so long in coming. Peter Langston had bowed out at last in the fall of 1984, taking with him his rather abstract approach to game development and freeing Arnold to continue to refine the Games Group’s operations along more practical lines. And there was suddenly plenty of practical work to do. No longer beholden to Atari, they were now free to port Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus! from the fading Atari 8-bit line, every owner of which seemed to already have them anyway thanks to the leaked demo versions, to stronger platforms like the Commodore 64, where they ended up selling far more copies. Rescue on Fractalus! in particular became a hit, not a blockbuster and certainly not enough to justify the time and money poured into it absent Atari’s initial $1 million beneficence, but a solid piece of groundwork that established Lucasfilm Games as a maker of classy but accessible action fare. If it seemed just slightly underwhelming in light of the years it had been in production and all of the flashy promotion that surrounded it — seemingly every magazine in the industry published a big Lucasfilm Games feature article around this time; such was the cachet of the house that Star Wars had built — well, just about any game realizable on an 8-bit computer would have. It didn’t help that the year that had passed between the leak of those demo versions and the arrival of the finished games on store shelves had allowed lots of other programmers to start experimenting with fractal graphics, making Rescue on Fractalus! look far less revolutionary than it otherwise would have.

The next two games were very much designed to build on the technical as well as the commercial groundwork laid by the first two; both started with the graphics engine from Rescue on Fractalus!. Designed by Charlie Kellner, a newcomer who had been hired just before Langston left, The Eidolon had the player piloting a machine through networks of underground tunnels inside the protagonist’s own mind — fractally generated, naturally — full of dangerous “guardians of the id.” Koronis Rift hewed still closer to Rescue on Fractalus!: this time you were flying above an alien-infested, fractally-generated planet trying to collect technological relics rather than downed pilots. Both were once again well-reviewed when released in late 1985 after comparatively reasonable one-year development cycles, going on to sell modestly well, if not to match the sales of Rescue on Fractalus!. In the span of 1985 the Games Group had increased their catalog from zero to four solid action games, one of them a genuine hit, and were now largely self-sustaining.

At the same time, though, a slight sense of underachievement clung to the Games Group, who had failed to completely deliver either the revolutionary gameplay experiences for which Peter Langston had been hired or the blockbuster sales figures one might expect from the company of Star Wars. They were still something of an odd duck in the industry, their huge cachet still largely based on that name on their boxes rather than the actual contents of the disks therein. Yet, even after Peter Langston’s departure, the sense of artistic idealism he’d worked so hard to engender remained alongside Steve Arnold’s determination to actually ship games on a semi-regular basis. “I think in general we’ll be moving away from the concept of games,” said Kellner shortly after the release of The Eidolon and Koronis Rift, echoing some of the verbiage Atari and Lucasfilm had used when first announcing the new venture three-and-a-half years before. “We’re trying to produce an experience that’s like being part of a film, rather than just being part of a game.” The fact that they were still having to promise to move beyond mere “game” in the future could be read as an admission that visionary software had proved to be a bit more difficult to develop than expected. On the bright side, their next project would be by far their most audacious and, yes, visionary yet.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; Byte of March 1984; A.N.A.L.O.G. of August 1984, April 1985, August 1985, March 1986; Antic of August 1984, December 1985; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1986, October/November 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of August 1985; Compute! of August 1982, November 1982; Creative Computing of March 1982; Enter of September 1984; Family Computing of August 1986; Game Developer of December 1994; K-Power of September/October 1984; Zzap! of February 1986, March 1986; Retro Gamer 27, 44, 116; the website LucasFans, now available only via the Wayback Machine; Peter Langston’s paper on the early Games Group’s development system, available from his website.)

 

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