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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

The 68000 Wars, Part 1: Lorraine

This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986  Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986 Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga public-domain software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

The Amiga was the damnedest computer. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, then all crammed into a plastic case; that was the Amiga. I wrote a book about the thing, and I’m still not sure I can make sense of all of its complications and contradictions.

The Amiga was a great computer when it made its debut in 1985, better by far than anything else on the market. At its heart was the wonderchip of the era, the Motorola 68000, the same CPU found in the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST. But what made the Amiga special was the stuff found around the 68000: three custom chips with the unforgettable names of Paula, Denise, and Agnus. Together they gave the Amiga the best graphics and sound in the industry by a veritable order of magnitude. And by relieving the 68000 of a huge chunk of the burden for generating graphics and sound as well as performing many other tasks, such as disk access, they let the Amiga dazzle while also running rings around the competition in real-world performance by virtually any test you cared to name. It all added up not just to incremental improvement but rather to that rarest thing in any field of endeavor: a generational leap.

Guru Meditation

The Amiga, especially in its original 1985 incarnation, was a terrible computer. The operating system that shipped with it was painfully buggy. If you could manage to use the machine for just an hour or two without it inexplicably running out of memory and crashing you were doing well. Other glitches were bizarrely entertaining if they didn’t happen to you personally, such as the mysterious “date virus” that could start to spread through all your disks, setting the timestamp on every file to sometime in the year 65,000 and slowing the system to a crawl. (No, this “virus” wasn’t actual malware, just a weird bug.) Of course, software could be and to a large extent eventually was fixed. Other problems were more intractable. There was, for instance, the machine’s use of interlaced video for its higher resolution modes, which caused those marvelous graphics to flicker horribly in most color combinations. Baffled users who felt like their swollen eyeballs were about to pop right out of their heads after a few hours of trying to work like this could expect to be greeted with a lot of technical explanations of why it was happening and suggestions for changing their onscreen color palettes to try to minimize it. Certainly anyone who picked up an Amiga expecting an experience similar to the famously easy-to-use Macintosh was in for a disappointment. Despite the Amiga’s sporting a superficially similar mouse-and-windows interface, users hoping to get serious work or play done on the Amiga would need to educate themselves on such technical minutiae as the difference between “chip” and “fast” memory and learn what a program’s “stack” was and how to set it manually. Even on a good day the Amiga always felt like a house of cards ready to be blown over by the first breath of wind. When the breeze came, the user was left staring at an inscrutable “Guru Meditation Error” and a bunch of intimidating numbers. Sometimes the Amiga could seem positively designed to confound.

The Amiga anticipated the future, marked the beginning of a new era. It pointed forward to the way we live and compute today. I titled my book on the machine The Future Was Here for a reason. That aforementioned generational leap in graphics and sound was the most significant in the history of the personal computer in that it made the Amiga not just a new computer but something qualitatively new under the sun: the world’s first multimedia PC. With an Amiga you could for the first time store and play back in an aesthetically pleasing way imagery and sound captured from the real world, and combine and manipulate and interact with it within the digital environment inside the computer. This changed everything about the way we compute, the way we play, and eventually the way we live, making possible everything from the World Wide Web to the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Almost as significantly, the Amiga pioneered multitasking on a PC, another feature enabled largely by that magnificent hardware that was able to stretch the 68000 so much farther than other computers. There is considerable psychological research today that indicates that, for better or for worse, multitasking has literally changed the way we think, changed our brains — not a bad claim to fame for any commercial gadget. When you listen to music whilst Skyping on-and-off with a friend whilst trying to get that term paper finished whilst looking for a new pair of shoes on Amazon, you are what the Amiga wrought.

The Amiga was stuck in the past way of doing things, thus marking the end of an era as well as the beginning of one. It was the punctuation mark at the end of the wild-and-wooly first decade of the American PC, the last time an American company would dare to release a brand new machine that was completely incompatible with what had come before. Its hardware design reflected the past as much as the future. Those custom chips, coupled together and to the 68000 so tightly that not a cycle was wasted, were a beautiful piece of high-wire engineering created by a bare handful of brilliant individuals. If a computer can be a work of art, the Amiga certainly qualified. Yet its design was also an evolutionary dead end; the custom chips and all the rest were all but impossible to pull apart and improve without breaking all of the software that had come before. The future would lie with modular, expandable design frameworks like those employed by the IBM PC and its clones, open hardware (and software) standards that were nowhere near as sexy or as elegant but that could grow and improve with time.

The Amiga was a great success, the last such before the Wintel hegemony expanded to dominate home computing like it already did business by the mid-1980s. Its gaming legacy is amongst the richest of any platform ever, including some fifteen years worth of titles that, especially during the first half of that period, broke boundaries at every turn and expanded the very notion of what a computer game could be. I won’t even begin to list here the groundbreaking classics that were born on the Amiga; suffice to say that they’ll be featuring in this blog for years to come. The Amiga was so popular a gaming platform in Europe that it survived many years after the death of its corporate parent Commodore, a phenomenon unprecedented in consumer computing. The last of the many glossy newsstand magazines devoted to it, Britain’s Amiga Format, didn’t cease publication until May of 2000, exactly six years after the platform became an orphan. It would prove to be just as long-lived in its other major niche of video-production workstation. Thanks to their unique ability to blend their own visuals with analog video signals — enabled, ironically, by those very same interlaced video modes that drove so many users crazy — Amigas could be found in the back rooms of small cable stations and video producers into the 2000s. Only the great changeover to digital HD broadcasting finally and definitively put an end to the Amiga’s career in this realm.

The Amiga was a bitter failure, one of the great might-have-beens of computer history. In 1985 so many expected it to become so much more than just another game machine or even “just” the pioneer of the whole new field of desktop video, forerunner of the YouTube generation. The Amiga, believed its early adopters, was so much better — not just technically better but conceptually better — than what was already out there that it was surely destined to conquer the world. After all, business-software heavy hitters like WordPerfect, Borland, Ashton-Tate, and Lotus knew a good thing when they saw it, were already porting their applications to it. And yet in the end only WordPerfect came through, for a while, and, while the Amiga did change the world in the long term, its innovations were refined and made into everyday life by Apple and Microsoft rather than the Amiga itself. The vast majority of heirs to the Amiga’s legacy today — a number which includes virtually every citizen of the developed world — have no idea a computer called the Amiga ever existed.

That’s just a sample of the contradictions awaiting any writer who tries to seriously tackle the Amiga as a subject. And there’s also another, more ironic sort of difficulty to be confronted: the sheer love the Amiga generated on the part of so many who had one. The Amiga, I must confess, was my own first computing love. Since that day in 1994 when I gave in and bought my first Wintel machine, I’ve been platform-agnostic. Linux and Apple zealots and Microsoft apologists all leave me cold, leave me wondering how people can get so passionate about any platform not called Amiga. Of course I’m smart enough to realize that none of this is really all that important, that a gadget is just that, a means to an end. I even recognize that, had the Amiga not come along when it did to pioneer a new paradigm for computing, something else would have. That’s just how history works. But still, there was something special about the Amiga for those of us who were there, something going far beyond even a hacker’s typical love for his first computer.

To say Amiga users had — still have — a reputation for zealotry hardly begins to state the case. General-computing magazines from the late 1980s until well into the 1990s learned to expect a deluge of hate mail from Amiga users every time they published an article that dared say an unfavorable word about the platform — or, worse, and as inevitably happened more and more frequently as time went on and the Amiga faded further from prominence, that didn’t mention it at all. Prominent mainstream columnist John C. Dvorak liked to say that, whereas Mac users were just arrogant and self-righteous, Amiga users were actively delusional. There are still folks out there clinging to their 25-year-old Amigas, patched together with the proverbial duct tape and bailing wire, as their primary computing platform. A disturbing number of them are still waiting for the day when the Amiga shall rise again and take over the world, even as it’s hard to understand what a modern Amiga should even be or why it should exist in a world that long since incorporated all of the platform’s best ideas into slicker, simpler gadgets.

Every good cult needs an origin myth, and the Cult of Amiga is no exception. Beginning already in the machine’s North American heyday of the late 1980s, High Priest R.J. Mical, developer of the Amiga’s Intuition library of GUI widgets as well as other critical pieces of its software infrastructure, began traveling to trade shows and conventions telling in an unabashedly sentimental way the story of those earliest days, when the Amiga was being developed by a tiny independent company, itself called simply Amiga, Incorporated.

We were trying to find people that had fire, that had spirit, that had a dream they were trying to accomplish. Carl Sassenrath, the guy that did the Exec for the machine, it was his lifelong dream to do a multitasking operating system that would be a work of art, that would be a thing of beauty. Dale Luck, the guy that did the graphics, this was his undying dream since he was in college to do this incredible graphics stuff.

We were looking for people with that kind of passion, that kind of spirit. More than anything else, the thing that we were looking for was people who were trying to make a mark on the world, not just in the industry but on the world in general. We were looking for people that really wanted to make a statement, that really wanted to do an incredibly great thing, not just someone who was looking for a job.

Yes. Well. While idealism certainly has its place in the Amiga story, the story is also a very down-to-earth tale of competition inside Silicon Valley. It begins in 1982 with an old friend of ours: Larry Kaplan, one of the Fantastic Four game programmers from Atari who founded Activision along with Jim Levy.

Activison was flying high in 1982, the Fantastic Four provided in Kaplan’s own words with “limousine service, company cars, and a private chef” on top of a base salary of $150,000. Yet Kaplan, who is often described by others as the very apotheosis of “the grass is always greener,” was restless. He had the idea to form another company, one all his own this time, to enter the booming Atari VCS market. One day in early 1982 he called up an old colleague of his from the Atari days: Jay Miner, who had designed the Atari VCS’s display chip, then gone on to design the chipset at the heart of the Atari 400 and 800 home computers. Kaplan, along with two others of the Fantastic Four, had written the operating system and BASIC language implementation for those machines. He thus knew Miner well. Knowing the vagaries of business and starting his own company somewhat less well than he knew Miner and programming, his initial query was a simple one: “I’d like to start a company. Do you know any lawyers?”

Miner, who had left Atari at around the same time as the Fantastic Four out of a similar disgust with new CEO Ray Kassar, had also left Silicon Valley to move to Freeport, Texas, where he worked for a small semiconductor company called Zymos, designing chips for pacemakers and other medical devices. Miner said that, no, he wasn’t particularly well-acquainted with any lawyers, good or otherwise, but that his boss, Zymos founder Bert Braddock, had a pretty good head for business. He made the introduction, and Kaplan and Braddock hit it off. The plan that Kaplan presented to him was to combine hardware and software in the booming home videogame space, offering hardware to improve on the Atari VCS’s decidedly limited capabilities along with game cartridges that took advantage of the additional gadgetry. Such a scheme was hardly original to him; confronted with the VCS’s enormous popularity and equally enormous limitations, others were already working the same space. For example, two other former Atari engineers, Bob Brown and Craig Nelson, had already formed Starpath to develop a “Supercharger” hardware expansion for the VCS as well as games to play with it. (Starpath would go on to merge with the newly renamed Epyx — née Automated Simulations — and write games like Summer Games.)

Nevertheless, Braddock sensed a potentially fruitful partnership in the offing for a maker of chips like his Zymos. He found Kaplan some investors in nearby oil-rich Houston to put up the first $1 million or so to get the company off the ground. He also found and recruited one Dave Morse, a vice president of marketing at Tonka Toys, to join Kaplan, believing him to be exactly the savvy business mind and shrewd negotiator the venture needed. An informal agreement was reached amongst the group: Morse would run the new company; Kaplan would write the games; Miner (working under contract, being still employed by Zymos) would design the ancillary hardware; and Zymos would manufacture the hardware and the game cartridges. Somewhere at the back of everyone’s mind was the idea that, if they were successful with their games and add-on gadgets, they might just be able to take the next step: to make a complete original game console of their own, the successor to the Atari VCS that Ray Kassar’s Atari didn’t seem all that interested in seriously pursuing.

In June of 1982, Kaplan announced to his shocked colleagues at Activision that he was moving on to do his own thing; the bridges he thus burnt have never been mended to this day. He and Morse opened a small office in Santa Clara, California, for their new company, which Kaplan named Hi-Toro. Morse and Braddock — truly a sugar daddy to die for for a fledgling corporation — beat the bushes over the months that followed for additional financing, with success to the tune of another $5 million or so. The majority were dentists and other members of the medical establishment, thanks to Braddock’s connections in that field. They knew little to nothing about computer technology, but knew very well that videogames were hot, and were eager to get in on the ground floor of another Atari.

And then the squirrely Larry Kaplan nearly undid the whole thing. He called Atari founder Nolan Bushnell that October to talk up his new company, hoping to convince him to join Hi-Toro as chairman of the board; a name like his would confer instant legitimacy. Instead the hunter became the hunted. Bushnell, who was legendary for the buckets of charm at his fingertips, convinced Kaplan to come to him, convinced him they could start a new videogame company to rival Atari together, without Zymos or Morse or Miner. Just like that, Kaplan tendered his second shocking resignation of 1982. In the end, as Kaplan later put it, “Nolan, of course, flaked out,” leaving him high and dry, if quite possibly deservedly so. He would end up completing the circle by going back to Atari before the year was up, but that gig ended when the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 hit. Widely regarded as too untrustworthy to be worth the trouble inside the industry by that point, Kaplan’s career never recovered. On the plus side, he was able to cash out his Activision stock following that company’s IPO, making him quite a wealthy man and making future work largely optional anyway — not the worst of petards for a modern-day Claudius.

Dave Morse, meanwhile, was also left high and dry, with a company and an office and lots of financing but nobody to design his products. He asked Jay Miner to leave Zymos and join him full-time at Hi-Toro, to help fill the vacuum left by Kaplan’s departure. Miner, who had been nursing for some time now a dream of doing a game console and/or a computer based around the new Motorola 68000 and who saw Hi-Toro as just possibly his one and only chance to do that, agreed — so long as he could bring his beloved cockapoo Mitchy with him to the office every day.

One of the first things to go after Kaplan left was the company name he had come up with. Everyone Morse and Miner spoke to agreed that “Hi-Toro” was a terrible name that made one think of nothing so much as lawn mowers. Morse therefore started flipping through a dictionary one day, looking for something that would come before Apple and Atari in corporate directories. He hit upon the Spanish word for “friend”: “amigo.” That had a nice ring to it, especially with “user-friendliness” being one of the buzzwords of the era. But the feminine version of the word — “amiga” — sounded even better, friendly and elegant maybe even a little bit sexy. Miner by his own later admission was ambivalent about the new name, but everyone Morse spoke to seemed very taken with it, so he let it go. Thus did Hi-Toro become Amiga.

Of course, Morse and Miner couldn’t do all the work by themselves. Over the months that followed they assembled a team whose names would go down in hacker lore. An old colleague from Atari who had worked with Miner on the VCS as well as the 400 and 800, Joe Decuir, came in under a temporary contract to help Miner start work on a new set of custom chips. A few other young hardware engineers were hired as full-time employees. Morse hired one Bob Parasseau to put together a software team; he became essentially the equivalent of Jay Miner on that side of the house. The software people would soon grow to outnumber the hardware people. Among their ranks were now-legendary Amiga names like R.J. Mical, Dale Luck, and Carl Sassenrath.

The folks who came to work at Amiga were almost universally young and largely inexperienced. While tarring them with the clichéd “dreamers and misfits” label may be going too far, it is true that their backgrounds were more diverse than the Silicon Valley norm; Mical, for instance, was a failed English major who had recently spent nine months backpacking his way around the world. While their youthful idealism would do much to give the eventual Amiga computer its character, there was also a very practical reason that Morse had to fill his office with all these bright young sparks: what with financing getting harder and harder to come by as the videogame industry began to go distinctly soft, he simply couldn’t afford to pay for more experienced hands. Amiga’s financial difficulties provided the opportunity of a lifetime to a bunch of folks that may have struggled to get in the door in even the most junior of positions at someplace like Apple, IBM, or Microsoft.

The glaring exception to the demographic rule at Amiga was Jay Miner himself. Creative, bleeding-edge engineering is normally a young person’s game. Miner, however, was fully 50 years old when he created his masterpiece, the Amiga chipset. He’d been designing circuits already twenty years before the microprocessor even existed and well before some of his colleagues around the office were even born. Thanks perhaps to intermittent but chronic kidney problems that would eventually kill him at age 62, he looked and in some ways acted even older than his years, favoring quiet, contemplative hobbies like cultivating bonsai trees and carving model airplanes out of balsa wood. Adjectives like “fatherly” rival “soft-spoken” and “wise” in popularity when people who knew him remember him today. While the higher-strung Dave Morse became the face Amiga showed to the outside world, Miner set the internal tone, tolerating and even encouraging the cheerful insanity that was life inside the Amiga offices. Miner:

The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one I was allowed to take my dog to work, and that set the tone for the whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just companionship with Mitchy — the fact that she was there meant that the other people wouldn’t be too critical of some of those we hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair and was pretty laid-back. In fact the whole group was pretty laid-back. I wasn’t about to say anything — I knew talent when I saw it and even Parasseau who spread the word was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job gets done and that’s all that matters. I didn’t care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.

The question of just what this group was working on, and when, is a harder question to answer than you might expect. When we use the word “Amiga” to refer to this era, we could be talking about any of three possibilities. Firstly, there’s Amiga the company, which during its early months put well over half of its personnel and resources into games and add-ons for the old Atari VCS rather than revolutionary new technology. Then there’s the Amiga chipset being designed by Miner and his team. And finally there’s a completed game console and/or computer to incorporate the chipset. Making sense of this tangle is complicated by revisionist retellings, which tend to find grand plans and coherent narratives where none actually existed. So, let’s take a careful look at each of these Amigas, one at a time.

The Amiga Joyboard

The Amiga Joyboard

Kaplan’s original plan had envisioned Hi-Toro/Amiga as a maker first and foremost of cartridges and hardware add-ons for the VCS, with a whole new console possibly to follow if things went gangbusters. These plans got reprioritized somewhat when Kaplan left and Miner came aboard with his eagerness to do a console and/or computer, but they were by no means entirely discarded. Thus Amiga did indeed create a handful of original games over the course of 1983, along with joysticks and other hardware. By far the most innovative and best-remembered of these products was something called the Joyboard: a large, flat slab of plastic on which the player stood and leaned side to side and front to back to control a game in lieu of a joystick. Amiga packaged a skiing game, Mogul Maniac, with the Joyboard, and developed at least two more — a surfing game called Surf’s Up and a pattern-matching exercise called Off Your Rocker – that never saw release. The Joyboard and its companion products have been frequently characterized as little more than elaborate ruses designed to keep the real Amiga project under wraps. In reality, though, Morse had high commercial hopes for this side of his company; he was in fact depending on these products to fund the other side of the operation. He spent quite lavishly to give the Joyboard a splashy introduction at the New York Toy Fair in February of 1983, and briefly hired former Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee — better known to a generation of Americans as “Suzy Chapstick” thanks to her long-running endorsement of that brand — to serve as spokesperson. His plans were undone by the Great Videogame Crash. The peripherals and games all failed miserably, precipitating a financial crisis at Amiga to which I’ll return shortly.

The chips were always Jay Miner’s babies. Known in the early days as Portia, Daphne, and Agnus, later iterations would see Portia renamed to Paula and Daphne to Denise. Combined with a 68000, they offered unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, including a palette of 4096 colors and four-channel stereo sound. Their most innovative features were the so-called “copper” and “blitter” housed inside Agnus. The former, which could also be found in a less advanced version in Miner’s previous Atari 400 and 800, could run short programs independent of the CPU to change the display setup on the fly in response to the perpetually repainting electron gun behind the television or monitor reaching certain points in its cycle. This opened to the door to a whole universe of visual trickery. The blitter, meanwhile, could be programmed to copy blocks of memory from place to place at lightning speeds, and in the process perform transformations and combinations on the data  — once again, independent of the CPU. It was a miracle worker in the realm of fast animation. While not programmable in the same sense as the copper and the blitter, Denise autonomously handled the task of actually painting the display, while Paula could autonomously play back up to four sound samples or waveforms at a time, and also independently handle input and output to disk. (This is the briefest of technical summaries of the Amiga chipset. For a detailed description of the chipset’s internal workings as well as many important aspects of its host platform’s history that I’ll never get to in this game-focused blog, I point you again to my own book on the subject.)

Amiga’s ultimate vision for their chipset — whether in the form a game console, a computer, a standup arcade game, or all three — is the most difficult part of all their tangled skein of intentionality to unravel, and the one most subject to revisionist history. Amiga fanatics of later years, desperate to have their platform accepted as a “serious” computer like the IBM PC or Apple Macintosh, became rather ashamed of its origins in the videogame industry. This has occasionally led them to say that the Amiga was always secretly intended to be a computer, that the videogame plans were just there to fool the investors and keep the money flowing. In truth, there’s good reason to question whether there was any real long-term plan at all. Miner noted in later interviews that the company was quite split on the subject, with — ironically in light of his later status of Amiga High Priest — R.J. Mical on the “investors’ side,” pushing for a low-cost game console, while others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted an Amiga computer. Miner himself claimed to have envisioned a console that could be expanded into a real computer with the addition of an optional keyboard and disk drive. (Amiga also had similar plans for the Atari VCS in the form of something to be called the Amiga Power Module, yet another project killed by the videogame collapse.) Dave Morse, who died in 2007, is not on record at all on the subject. One suspects that he was simply in wait-and-see mode through much of 1983.

What is clear is that the first Amiga machine to be shown to the public wasn’t so much a prototype of a real or potential computer or game console as the most minimalist possible frame to show off the capabilities of the Amiga chipset. Named after Morse’s wife, the Amiga Lorraine began to come together in the dying days of 1983, in a mad scramble leading up to the Winter Consumer Electronics Show that was scheduled to begin on January 4. The contraption was worthy of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Miner and his team built their chipset, destined eventually to be miniaturized and etched into silicon, out of off-the-shelf electronics components, creating a pile of breadboards large enough to fill a kitchen table, linked together by a spaghetti-like tangle of wires, often precariously held in place with simple alligator clips. It had no keyboard or other input method; the software team wrote programs for it on a workstation-class 68000-based computer called the Sage IV, then uploaded them to the Lorraine and ran them via a cabled connection. The whole mess was a nightmare to maintain, with wires constantly falling off, pieces overheating, or circuits shorting out seemingly at random. But when it worked it provided the first tangible demonstration of Miner’s extraordinary design. Amiga accordingly packed it all up and transported it — very carefully! — to Las Vegas for its coming-out party at Winter CES.

R.J. Mical and Dale Luck, amongst others, had worked feverishly to create a handful of demos to show off in a private corner of Amiga’s CES booth, open only by invitation to hand-selected members of the press and industry. The hit of the bunch, written by Mical and Luck at the show itself in one feverish all-night hacking session fueled by “a six pack of warm beer,” was a huge, checked soccer ball that bounced up and down, prototype of one of the most famous computerized demos of all time. The bouncing soccer ball — the “boing” ball — would soon become the unofficial symbol of Amiga.

Boing and the other demos were impressive, but the hardware was obviously still in a very rough state, still a long, long way away from any sort of salable product. Many observers were frankly skeptical whether this mass of breadboards and wires even could be turned into the three chips Amiga promised, and if so whether those chips could, complicated as they must inevitably be, be cost-effectively manufactured. Two obvious applications of the chipset, to a new videogame console or to standup arcade games, were facing a gale-force headwind following the Great Videogame Crash of the previous year. Nobody wanted anything to do with that market anymore. And introducing yet another incompatible computer into the market, no matter how impressive its hardware, looked like a high-risk proposition as well. Thus most visitors were impressed but carefully noncommittal. Was there really a place for Amiga’s admittedly extraordinary technology? That was the question. Tellingly, of the glossy magazines, only Creative Computing bothered to write about Lorraine in any real detail, excitedly declaring it to have “the most amazing graphics and sound that will ever have been offered in the consumer market.” (Just to show that prescience isn’t always an either/or proposition, the same journalist, John J. Anderson, noted how important it would be to make sure any eventual Amiga computer was compatible with the IBM PCjr, which was sure to take over the industry.)

Thus Amiga’s coming-out party is best characterized as having mixed results on the whole, leading to lots of impressed observers but no new investors. And that was a big, big problem because Amiga was quickly running out of money. With the VCS products having not only failed to sell but also absorbed millions in their own right to develop, Amiga’s financial picture was getting more desperate by the week. One thing was becoming clear: there was no way they were going to be able to secure the investment needed to turn the Lorraine into a completed computer — or a completed anything else — and market it themselves. It seemed that they had three options: license the technology to someone else with deeper pockets, sell themselves outright to someone else, or go quietly out of business. As the founders mortgaged their houses to make payroll and Morse begged his creditors for loan extensions, the only company that seemed seriously interested in the Amiga chipset was the one Jay Miner would least prefer to get in bed with once again: Atari.

An Atari old-timer named Mike Albaugh had first visited Amiga well before the CES show, in November of 1983. He was given an overview of the as-yet-extant-on-paper-only chipset’s features and, knowing very well the capabilities of Jay Miner, expressed cautious interest. After their first tangible glimpse of the chipset’s capabilities at CES, Atari got serious about acquiring this incredible technology from a company that seemed all but at their mercy, desperate to make a deal that would let them stay alive a little longer. With no other realistic options on the table, Dave Morse negotiated with Atari as best he could from his position of weakness. Atari had no interest in buying a completed machine, whether of the game-console or computer variety. They just wanted that wonderful chipset. The preliminary letter of intent that Amiga and Atari signed on March 7, 1984, reflects this.

That same letter of intent, and the $500,000 that Atari transferred to Amiga as part of it, would lead to a legal imbroglio lasting years. The specifics that the letter contained, as well as — equally importantly — what it did not contain, remain persistently misunderstood to this day. Thankfully, the original agreement has been preserved and made available online by Atari historians Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. I’ve taken the time to parse this document closely, and also enlisted the aid of a couple of acquaintances with better legal and financial minds than my own. Because it’s so critical to the story of Amiga, and because it’s been so widely misunderstood and misconstrued, I think it’s worth taking a moment here to look fairly closely at its specifics.

The document outlines a proposed arrangement granting Atari exclusive license to the chipset for use in home videogame consoles and standup arcade games, in perpetuity from the time that the finalized agreement is signed. The proposal also grants Atari a nonexclusive license to use the chips in a personal computer, subject to the restriction that Atari may first offer an add-on kit to turn a game console using the chips into a full-blown computer in June of 1985, and a standalone computer using the chips only in March of 1986. Before and continuing after Atari makes their computer using the chips, Amiga may make one of their own, but may only sell it through specialized computer dealers, not mass merchandisers like Sears or Toys ‘R’ Us. Atari, conversely, will be restricted to the mass merchandisers. The obvious intention here is to target Amiga’s products to the high-end, professional market, Atari’s to gamers and casual users. Atari will pay Amiga a royalty of $2 per computer or game console containing the chipset sold, $15 per standup arcade videogame. Note that the terms I’ve just described are only a proposal pending a finalized license agreement, without legal force — unless certain things happen to automatically trigger their going into effect, which I’ll get to momentarily.

Now let’s look at the parts of the document that do have immediate legal force. Amiga being starved for cash and still needing to do considerable work to complete the chipset, Atari will give Amiga an immediate “loan” of $500,000, albeit one which they never really expect to see paid back; again, I’ll explain why momentarily. Atari will then continue to give Amiga more loans on a milestone basis: $1 million when a finalized licensing agreement is signed; $500,000 when each of the three chips is completed and delivered to Atari ready for manufacturing. And here’s where things get tricky: once all of the chips are delivered and a licensing agreement is in place, Amiga’s outstanding loan obligations will be converted into a purchase by Atari of $3 million worth of Amiga stock. If, on the other hand, a finalized licensing agreement has not been signed by March 31 — just three weeks from the date of this preliminary agreement — Amiga will be expected to pay back the $500,000 to Atari by June 30, plus interest of 120 percent of the current Bank of America prime rate, assuming some other deal is not negotiated in the interim. If Amiga cannot or will not do so, the proposed licensing agreement outlined above will automatically go into effect as a legally binding contract, with the one change that Atari’s royalty rate will increase to $4 per chipset used in videogame consoles or computers. The Amiga chipset thus serves as collateral for the loan, its blueprints and technical specifications being held in escrow by a neutral third party (the Bank of America). Atari will be able to use their first royalty payments to pay down Amiga’s debt for them — which will of course also still be accumulating interest — before starting to cut checks directly to Amiga.

There are plenty of other technicalities — for instance, Atari will be allowed to bill Amiga for their time and other resources if Amiga fails to complete the chipset, thus forcing Atari’s engineers to finish the job — but I believe I’ve covered the salient points here. (Those deeply interested or skeptical of my conclusions may want to look at a more detailed summary I prepared, or, best of all, just have a look at the original.) Looking at the contract, what jumps out first is that it wasn’t a particularly good deal for Amiga. To pay a mere $2 per console or computer sold when the chipset being paid for must be the component that literally makes that console or computer what it is seems shabby indeed. For Atari it would have represented the steal of the century. Why would Morse sign such an awful deal?

The obvious answer must of course be that he was desperate. While it’s perhaps dangerous to ascribe too much motivation to a dead man who never publicly commented on the subject, circumstantial evidence would seem to characterize this agreement as the wind-up to a final Hail Mary, a way to secure a quick $500,000 for the here and now, to keep the lights on a little longer and hope for a miracle. Morse did not sign a final licensing agreement by March 31, a very risky move indeed, as it gave Atari the right to automatically put their ideal agreement into effect, without Atari having to pay Amiga another cent, if Morse couldn’t negotiate some other arrangement with them or find some way to pay back the $500,000 plus interest before June 30. Carl Sassenrath once described Morse as “my model for how to be cool in business.” Truly he must have had nerves of steel. And, incredibly, he would get his miracle.

Next time: the plot thickens, and Jack is back!

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall. Amiga User International of June 1988 and March 1993. Info of January/February 1987 and July/August 1988. Creative Computing of April 1984. Amazing  Computing, premiere issue. InfoWorld of July 12 1982. Commander of August 1983. Thanks also to Marty Goldberg for patiently corresponding with me and giving me Atari’s perspective, although I believe his conclusions about the Amiga/Atari negotiations and particularly his reading of the March 7 1984 agreement to be in error. And yeah, there’s my own book too…)

 
 

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MicroProse’s Simulation-Industrial Complex (or, The Ballad of Sid and Wild Bill)

Microprose

Change was in the air as the 1980s began, the drawn-out 1960s hangover that had been the 1970s giving way to the Reagan Revolution. The closing of Studio 54 and the release of Can’t Stop the Music, the movie that inspired John J.B. Wilson to start the Razzies, marked the end of disco decadence. John Lennon, whilst pontificating in interviews on the joys of baking bread, released an album milquetoast enough to play alongside Christopher Cross and Neil Diamond on Adult Contemporary stations — prior to getting shot, that is, thus providing a more definite punctuation mark on the end of 1960s radicalism. Another counterculture icon, Jerry Rubin, was left to give voice to the transformation in worldview that so many of his less famous contemporaries were also undergoing. This man who had attempted to enter a pig into the 1968 Presidential election in the name of activist “guerrilla theater” became a stockbroker on the same Wall Street where he had once led protests. “Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s,” he declared. The 1982 sitcom Family Ties gave the world Steven and Elyse Keaton, a pair of aging hippies who are raising an arch-conservative disciple of Ronald Reagan; it was thus the mirror image of 1970s comedies like All in the Family. Michael J. Fox’s perpetually tie-sporting Alex P. Keaton became a teenage heartthrob because, as Huey Lewis would soon be singing, it was now “Hip to be Square.” Yes, that was true even in the world of rock and roll, where bland-looking fellows like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins, who might very well have inhabited the cubical next to yours at an accounting firm, were improbably selling millions of records and seeing their mugs all over MTV.

No institution benefited more from this rolling back of the countercultural tide than the American military. Just prior to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the military’s morale as well as its public reputation were at their lowest ebb of the century. All four services were widely perceived as a refuge for psychopaths, deadbeats, and, increasingly, druggies. A leaked internal survey conducted by the Pentagon in 1980 found that about 27 percent of all military personnel were willing to admit to using illegal drugs at least once per month; the real numbers were almost certainly higher. Another survey found that one in twelve of American soldiers stationed in West Germany, the very front line of the Cold War, had a daily hashish habit. In the minds of many, only a comprehensively baked military could explain a colossal cock-up like the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980, which managed to lose eight soldiers, six helicopters, and a C-130 transport plane without ever even making contact with the enemy. Small wonder that this bunch had been booted out of Vietnam with their tails between their legs by a bunch of shoeless rebels in black pajamas.

The military’s public rehabilitation began immediately upon Ronald Reagan’s election. Reagan not only continued but vastly expanded the military buildup his predecessor Jimmy Carter had begun, whilst declaring at every opportunity his pride and confidence in the nation’s fighting men and women. He was also willing to use the military in ways that hadn’t been dared since the withdrawal from Vietnam. As I recounted recently in another article, the Reagan administration began probing and feinting toward the Soviet Union, testing the boundaries of its airspace as well as its resolve in ways almost unprecedented since the Cold War had begun all those decades before. On October 25, 1983, the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada to depose a Soviet-friendly junta that had seized power just days earlier. In later years this attack by a nation of 235 million on a nation of less than 100,000, a nation which was hardly in a position to harm it even had it wanted to, would be roundly mocked. But at the time the quick-and-easy victory was taken as nothing less than a validation of the American military by large swathes of the American public, as a sign that the military could actually accomplish something, could win a war, definitively and (relatively) cleanly — no matter how modest the opponent.

We need only look to popular culture to see the public’s changing attitude toward the military writ large. Vietnam veterans, previously denounced as baby killers and conscienceless automatons, were by mid-decade shown all over television as good, dutiful men betrayed and scorned by their nation. For a while there it seemed like every popular action series on the air featured one or more psychically wounded but unbowed Vietnam vets as protagonists, still loyal to the country that had been so disloyal to them: The A-Team; Magnum, P.I; Airwolf; Miami Vice. During the commercial breaks of these teenage-boy-friendly entertainments, the armed forces ran their slick new breed of recruiting commercials to attract a new generation of action heroes. The country had lost its way for a while, seduced by carping liberalism and undermined by the self-doubt it engendered, but now America — and with it the American military — were back, stronger, prouder, and better than ever. It was “morning again in America.”

Arguably the most important individual military popularizer of all inhabited, surprisingly, the more traditionally staid realm of books. Tom Clancy was a husband and father of two in his mid-thirties, an insurance agent living a comfortable middle-class existence in Baltimore, when he determined to combine his lifelong fascination with military tactics and weaponry with his lifelong desire to be a writer. Published in 1984 by, of all people, the Naval Institute Press — the first novel they had ever handled — his The Hunt for Red October tells the story of the eponymous Soviet missile submarine, whose captain has decided to defect along with his vessel to the West. A merry, extended chase ensues involving the navies of several nations — the Soviets trying to capture or sink the Red October, the West trying to aid its escape without provoking World War III. It’s a crackerjack thriller in its own right for the casual reader, but it was Clancy’s penchant for piling on layer after layer of technical detail and his unabashed celebration of military culture that earned him the love of those who were or had been military personnel, those who admired them, and many a teenage boy who dreamed of one day being among them. Clancy’s worldview was, shall we say, uncluttered by excessive nuance: “I think we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. Don’t you?” Many Americans in the 1980s, their numbers famously including President Reagan himself, did indeed agree, or at least found it comforting to enjoy a story built around that premise. I must confess that I myself am hardly immune even today to the charms of early Tom Clancy.

By 1986, the year that Clancy published his second novel Red Storm Rising, the military’s rehabilitation was complete and then some. The biggest movie of that year was Top Gun, a flashy, stylish action flick about F-14 fighter pilots that played to the new fast-cutting MTV aesthetic, its cast headlined by an impossibly good-looking young Tom Cruise and its soundtrack stuffed with hits. I turned fourteen that year. I can remember my friends, many of them toting Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising under their arms, dreaming of becoming fighter pilots and bedding women like Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis. Indeed, “fighter pilot” rivaled the teenage perennial of “rock star” for the title of coolest career in the world. The American military in general was as cool as it’s ever been.

Joining the likes of Tom Clancy and Tom Cruise as ambassadors of this idealized vision of the military life were the inimitable John William “Wild Bill” Stealey and his company MicroProse. Stealey himself was, as one couldn’t spend more than ten seconds in his presence without learning, a former Air Force pilot. Born in 1947, he graduated from the Air Force Academy, then spent six years as an active-duty pilot, first teaching others to fly in T-37 trainers and then guiding gigantic C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft all over the world. After his discharge he took an MBA from the Wharton School, then set off to make his way in the world of business whilst continuing to fly A-37s, the light attack variant of the T-37, on weekends for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. By 1982 he had become Director of Strategic Planning for General Instruments, a company in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley specializing in, as their advertisements proclaimed, “point-of-sale, state-lottery, off-track, and on-track wagering systems utilizing the most advanced mini- and microcomputer hardware and software technologies.” Also working at General Instruments, but otherwise moving in very different circles from the garrulous Wild Bill, was a Canadian immigrant named Sid Meier, a quiet but intense systems engineer in his late twenties who was well known by the nerdier denizens of Hunt Valley as the founder of the so-called Sid Meier’s Users Group, a thinly disguised piracy ring peopled with enthusiasts of the Atari 800 and its sibling models. Sid liked to say that he wasn’t actually playing the games he collected for pleasure, but rather analyzing them as technology, so what he was doing was okay.

The first real conversation between Stealey and Meier has gone down in gaming legend. In May of 1982, the two found themselves thrown together in Las Vegas for a series of boring corporate meetings. They ended up at an arcade in the basement of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, in front of a game called Red Baron. Stealey sat down and scored 75,000 points, and was quite proud of himself. Then Meier racked up 150,000, and could have kept on going if he’d wanted to. When Stealey asked him how he, the quiet nerd, had beat a hotshot pilot, Meier said the opponents in the game had been programmed to follow just a handful of patterns, which he’d memorized whilst watching Stealey play. “It’s not very good,” he said. “I could write a better game in a week.” “If you could, I could sell it,” replied Stealey.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that led to the formation of Microprose. It was discovered in storage at the MGM Grand and purchased by Microprose.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that had led to the formation of MicroProse six years earlier.

Much more than a week went by, and Stealey forget about the exchange. But then, three months later, Meier padded up to him in the halls of General Instruments and handed him a disk containing a simple World War II shoot-em-up called Hellcat Ace. Shocked that he had come through, Stealey took it home, played it, and “wrote him a four-page memo about what was wrong with the flying and combat.” Seeing the disappointment on Meier’s face when he handed him the memo, Stealey thought that would be the end of it. But a week later Meier was back again, with another disk: “I fixed all of those things you mentioned.” His bluff well and truly called, Stealey had no choice but to get started trying to sell the thing.

First, of course, they would need a name for their company. Stealey initially looked for something with an Air Force association, but couldn’t come up with anything that rang right. For a while the two mulled over the awful name of “Smuggers Software,” incorporating an acronym for “Sid Meier’s Users Group.” But eventually Meier came up with “MicroProse.” After all, he noted, his code was basically prose for microcomputers. The “prose” also served as a pun on “pros” — professionals. With no better ideas on offer, Stealey reluctantly agreed: “It’ll be hard to remember, but once they got it, nobody will forget it.”

Packaging Meier’s game in a plastic baggie with a mimeographed cover sheet, Stealey started visiting all of the computer stores around Baltimore, giving them an early version of what would soon become known inside the industry as the Wild Bill Show — a combination of the traditional hard sell with buckets of Air Force bravado and a dollop of sheer charm to make the whole thing go down easy. Meier paid a local kid 25 cents per game to copy the disks and assemble the packages. By the end of 1982 sales had already reached almost 500 per month, at $15 wholesale per piece. Not bad for a side venture that Stealey had first justified to himself as a convenient way to get a tax write-off for his Volvo.

Early the following year Stealey managed by the time-honored technique of buying an advertisement to get Antic magazine to review Hellcat Ace. The review was favorable if not glowing: “While the graphics are not stunning, the game plays well and holds your interest with multiple skill levels and a variety of scenarios.” On the heels of this, MicroProse’s first real exposure outside the Baltimore area, Stealey took to calling computer stores all over the country, posing as a customer looking for Hellcat Ace. When they said they didn’t carry it, he would berate them in no uncertain terms and announce that he’d be taking his business to a competitor who did carry the game. After doing this a few times to a single store, he’d call again as himself: “Hello, this is John Stealey. I’m from MicroProse. I’d like to sell you Hellcat Ace.” The hapless proprietor on the other end of the line would breathe a sign of relief, saying how “we’ve been getting all kinds of phone calls for that game.” And just like that, MicroProse would be in another shop.

While Stealey sold like a madman, Meier programmed like one, churning out new games at a staggering clip. With MicroProse not yet having self-identified as exclusively or even primarily a maker of simulations, Stealey just craved product from Meier — any sort of product. Meier delivered. He reworked the Hellcat Ace code to turn it into Spitfire Ace. He combined the arcade hit Donkey Kong with the Atari VCS hit Pitfall! to produce Floyd of the Jungle, whose most unique feature was the chance for up to four players to play simultaneously, thanks to the Atari 800’s four joystick ports. He made a top-down air-combat game called Wingman that also supported up to four players, playing in teams of leader and wingman. He made a game called Chopper Rescue that owed more than a little something to the recent Apple II smash Choplifter and supported up to eight players, taking turns. (It would later be reissued as Air Rescue I, its original name having been perhaps just a bit too close to Choplifter‘s for comfort.) He made a surprisingly intricate strategic war game called NATO Commander that anticipated the scenario of Red Storm Rising — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, with the specter of nuclear weapons conveniently hand-waved away — three years before that book’s publication. And finally there was Solo Flight, a take on civilian aviation that was more simulation-oriented than its predecessors, including a VHF navigation system and an entertaining mail-delivery challenge in addition to its free-flight mode. All of these gushed out of him in barely eighteen months, during most of which he was still working at General Instruments during the day. They found their places on the product lists with which Stealey continued to bombard shops and, soon, the big distributors as MicroProse slowly won a seat with the big boys of the industry.

Stealey and Meier had an odd relationship. Far too different in background, personality, and priorities to ever be real friends, they were nevertheless the perfect business partners, each possessing in spades what the other conspicuously lacked. Meier brought to the table technical wizardry and, as would only more gradually become apparent, a genius for game design that at the very least puts him in the conversation today for the title of greatest designer in the history of the field. Stealey brought business savvy, drive, practicality, and a genius for promotion. Alone, Stealey would probably have had an impressive but boring career in big business of one stripe or another, while Meier would have spent his life working comfortable jobs whilst war-gaming and hacking code as a quiet hobby. They were two of the luckiest people in the world to have found each other; neither would have had a chance of making his mark on history without the other.

It might seem a dangerously imbalanced relationship, this pairing of an Air Force jock who hit a room like a force of nature with a quiet, bookish computer freak. At his worst, Stealey could indeed sound like a Svengali putting the screws to his lucrative pet savant. Look closer, however, and you had to realize that Stealey genuinely respected Meier, was in awe of his sheer intellectual firepower:

One Christmas, I gave him a book detailing the days of the Civil War. Five days later, he gave it back to me. I asked if he did not like the book. He said he loved it, but had already memorized all the key dates and events in it, and thought I might like to read it too. Sid is brilliant!

And Meier wasn’t quite the pushover he might first appear to be. Retiring and shy as he was by disposition, he was also every bit or more as strong-willed as Stealey, sometimes to an infuriating degree. As conservative and risk-averse in his personal life as he was bold and innovative in his programming and design, Meier refused to give up his day job at General Instruments for an astonishingly long time. After pitching in $1500 to help found MicroProse, he also refused to invest any more of his own capital in the company to set up offices and turn it into a real business. That sort of thing, he said, was Stealey’s responsibility. So Stealey took out a $15,000 personal loan instead, putting up his car as partial collateral. Most frustratingly of all, Meier clung stubbornly to his Atari 800 with that passion typical of a hacker’s first programming love, even as the cheaper Commodore 64 exploded in popularity.

It was the need to get MicroProse’s games onto the latter platform that prompted Stealey to bring on his first programmers not named Sid Meier, a couple of Meier’s buddies from his old Users Group. Grant Irani specialized in porting Meier’s games to the 64, while Andy Hollis used Meier’s codebase to make another Atari shoot-em-up, this time set in the Korean War, called MIG Alley Ace. Showing a bit more flexibility than Meier, he then ported his own game to the Commodore 64. He would go on to become almost as important to MicroProse as Meier himself.

Unlike so many of his peers, Stealey steered clear of the venture capitalists with their easy money as he built MicroProse. This led to some dicey moments as 1983 turned into 1984, and consumers started growing much more reluctant to shell out $25 or $30 for one of MicroProse’s simple games. The low point came in July of 1984, when, what with the distribution streams already glutted with products that weren’t selling anymore, MicroProse’s total orders amounted to exactly $27. About that time HESWare, never shy about taking the venture capitalists’ money and still flying high because of it, offered Stealey a cool $250,000 to buy Solo Flight outright and publish it as their own. When he asked Meier his opinion, Meier, as usual, initially declined to get involved with business decisions. But then, as Stealey walked away, Meier deigned to offer some quiet words of wisdom: “You know what? I heard you shouldn’t sell the family jewels.” Stealey turned HESWare down. HESWare imploded before the year was out; MicroProse would continue to sell Solo Flight, never a real hit but a modest, steady moneyspinner, for years to come.

Still, it was obvious that MicroProse needed to up their game if they wished to continue to exist past the looming industry shakeout. While with NATO Commander and Solo Flight he had already begun to move away from the simple action games that had gotten MicroProse off the ground, it was Sid Meier’s next game, F-15 Strike Eagle, that would set the template for the company for years to come. Stealey had been begging Meier for an F-15 game for some time, but Meier had been uncertain how to approach it. Now, with Solo Flight under his belt, he felt he was ready. F-15 Strike Eagle was a quantum leap in sophistication compared to what had come before it, moving MicroProse definitively out of the realm of shoot-em-ups and into that of real military simulations. The flight model was dramatically more realistic; indeed, the F-15 Strike Eagle aeronautics “engine” would become the basis for years of MicroProse simulations to come. The airplane’s array of weapons and defensive countermeasures were simulated with a reasonable degree of fidelity to their real-life counterparts. And the player could choose to fly any of seven missions drawn from the F-15’s service history, a couple of them ripped from recent headlines to portray events that happened in the Middle East a bare few months before the game’s release. F-15 Strike Eagle turned into a hit on a scale that dwarfed anything MicroProse had done before, a consistent bestseller for years, the game that made the company, both financially and reputationally. It became one of the most successful and long-lived computer games of the 1980s, with worldwide sales touching 1 million by 1990 — a stunning number for its era.

The games that followed steadily grew yet more sophisticated. Andy Hollis made an air-traffic-control simulation called Kennedy Approach that was crazily addictive. A new designer, William F. Denman, Jr., created an aerobatics simulation called Acrojet. Meanwhile the prolific Sid Meier wrote Silent Service, a World War II submarine simulation, and also three more strategic war games, MicroProse’s so-called “Command Series,” in partnership with one Ed Bever, holder of a doctorate in history: Crusade in Europe, Decision in the Desert, and Conflict in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, neither the strategy games nor the civilian simulations sold on anywhere near the scale of F-15 Strike Eagle. Only Silent Service rivaled and, in its first few months of release, actually outdid F-15, rocketing past 250,000 in sales within eighteen months. Meier, who “didn’t value money too highly” in the words of Stealey, who never saw much of a reason to change his lifestyle despite his increasing income, who often left his paychecks lying on top of his refrigerator forgotten until accounting called to ask why their checks weren’t getting cashed, couldn’t have cared less about the relative sales numbers of his games or anyone else’s. Stealey, though, wasn’t so sanguine, and pushed more and more to make MicroProse exclusively a purveyor of military simulations.

It’s hard to blame him. F-15 Strike EagleSilent Service, and the MicroProse military simulations that would follow were the perfect games for their historical moment, the perfect games for Tom Clancy readers; Clancy was, not coincidentally, also blowing up big at exactly the same time. Like Clancy, MicroProse was, perverse as it may sound, all about making war fun again.

Indeed, fun was a critical component of MicroProse’s games, one overlooked by far too many of their competitors. MicroProse’s most obvious rival as a maker of simulations was SubLogic, maker of the perennial civilian Flight Simulator and a military version called simply Jet that put players in the cockpit of an F-16 or F-18. SubLogic, however, emphasized realism above all else, even when the calculations required to achieve it meant that their games chugged along at all of one or two frames per second on the hapless likes of a Commodore 64, the industry’s bread-and-butter platform. MicroProse, on the other hand, recognized that they were never really going to be able to realistically simulate an F-15 or a World War II submarine on a computer with 64 K. They settled for a much different balance of playability and fun, one that gave the player a feeling of really “being there” but that was accessible to beginners and, just as importantly, ran at a decent clip and looked reasonably attractive while doing so. Stealey himself admitted that “I can’t even land Flight Simulator, and I’ve got 3000 flying hours behind me!” Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s first marketing director, delivers another telling quote:

We’re not trying to train fighter pilots or submarine captains. What we’re trying to do is give people who will never have a chance to go inside a submarine the opportunity to get inside one and take it for a spin around the block to see what it is like. Our simulations give them that chance. They get a close-up look at simulated real life. They feel it, they experience the adventure. And at the end of the adventure, we want them to feel they got their money’s worth.

There’s an obvious kinship here with the idea of “aesthetic simulations” as described by Michael Bate, designer of Accolade hits like Ace of Aces. MicroProse, though, pushed the realism meter much further than Bate, to just before the point where the games would lose so much accessibility as to become niche products. Stealey was never interested in being niche. The peculiar genius of MicroProse, and particularly of Sid Meier, who contributed extensively even to most MicroProse games that didn’t credit him as lead designer, was to know just where that point was. This was yet another quality they shared with Tom Clancy.

That said, make no mistake: the veneer of realism, however superficial it might sometimes be, was every bit as important to MicroProse’s appeal as it was to Clancy’s. And the veneer of authenticity provided by Wild Bill Stealey, however superficial it might be — sorry, Wild Bill — was critical to achieving this impression. Stealey had started playing in earnest the role of the hotshot fighter jock by the time of F-15 Strike Eagle, the manual for which opened with an illustration of him in his flight suit and a dedication saying the game would “introduce you to the thrill of fighter-aircraft flying based on my fourteen years experience.” Under his signature is written “Fighter Pilot,” before the more apropos title of “President, MicroProse Software.” All of which probably read more impressively to those not aware that Stealey had never actually flown an F-15 or any other supersonic fighter, having spent his career flying subsonic trainers, transport aircraft, and second-string light attack planes. All, I have no doubt, are critical roles requiring a great deal of skill and bravery — but, nevertheless, the appellation of “fighter pilot” is at best a stretch.

Wild Bill Stealey

Stealey today freely admits that he was playing a character — not to say a caricature — for much of his time at MicroProse, that going to conventions and interviews wearing his flight suit, for God’s sake, wasn’t exactly an uncalculated decision. He also admits that other industry bigwigs, among them Trip Hawkins, loved to make fun of him for it. But, he says, “how do you remember a small company? It needs something special. All we had was Sid and Wild Bill.” And Sid certainly wasn’t interested in helping to sell his games.

Stealey seemed to particularly delight in doing his swaggering Right Stuff schtick for the press in Europe, where MicroProse had set up a subsidiary to sell their games already by 1986. Wild Bill in full flight was an experience that deserves a little gallery of its own. So, here are the reports of just a few mild-mannered journalists lucky or unlucky enough to be assigned to interview Stealey.

“See that,” he bawled, tapping the largest ring I’ve ever seen on my desk, waking up the technical experts in the Commodore User offices, “that’s a genuine American Air Force Fighter Pilot’s Ring. Do that in a barroom in the States and you get instant service… they know you’re a fighter pilot.”


As far as Stealey is concerned, the only real pilots are fighter pilots. “What about airline pilots?” I ask. “Bus drivers,” says Wild Bill. Alright then — what about the pilots who talk endlessly about the freedom, the solitude, and the spiritual experience of flying?

“You wanna talk spiritual? I’ll tell you what’s spiritual… flying upside down in an F-15, doing mach 1.5 high above the Rocky Mountains, with the sun behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead of you… that’s spiritual… the rest is just sightseeing.

“Whooosh,” says Wild Bill, thrusting his hand through the air to illustrate his point.


“I’m selling these games to men. If you haven’t got the right stuff, I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in the kind of guy who just wants a short thrill. If you want to spend £6 on an arcade game that you’re going to play for half an hour, I don’t want you buying my software.”


Despite MicroProse’s size, growth has been accomplished at an intentionally conservative rate. Bill Stealey attributes this to his fighter-pilot background. Wait a minute — fighter pilots as conservative? “Of course fighter pilots are conservative. We wait until we accumulate sufficient data and then we wax the bad guys.”


Bill Stealey tells you all this in his usual verbal assault mode. Being on the other end of this barrage is to feel disoriented and dazed. Gradually, your senses return. You realize that there are other software houses out there, a possibility Bill hardly admits.

As soon as finances allowed, MicroProse took the Wild Bill Show to the next level by purchasing for him an unusual sort of company plane: a Navy surplus T-28 Trojan trainer. The plane cost a small fortune to keep in service, but it was worth it to let Stealey take up queasy, knock-kneed gaming journalists — and, occasionally, the lucky MicroProse fan — and toss the T-28 through some high-performance aerobatics.

Wild Bill prepares to terroize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Wild Bill prepares to terrorize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Of course, one person’s charming fighter jock is another’s ugly American. Not all journalists, especially in Europe, were entirely taken with either Stealey’s persona or with what one Commodore User journalist pointedly described as the “militaristic and Cold War tinge of MicroProse’s products.” This undercurrent of grumbling would erupt into a real controversy in Europe upon the release of Gunship, MicroProse’s big game of 1986.

By far MicroProse’s most ambitious, expensive, extended, and problem-plagued project yet, Gunship was helmed by a new arrival, a veteran designer of board games named Arnold Hendrick, rather than Sid Meier, although Meier as well as Andy Hollis as usual contributed substantially both to the design and the technology behind it. Another helicopter game, it was originally conceived as a science-fictional “cops and robbers” scenario, playing on the odd but significant fascination the American media of the mid-1980s suddenly had with futuristic helicopters — think Blue Thunder and Airwolf. Development began on a prototype of Commodore’s new 68000-based computer, the Amiga, delivered to MicroProse early in 1985. But when the Amiga’s release was delayed, it was decided to switch to one of the platforms MicroProse knew best and the platform that consistently sold best, the Commodore 64. With the complex urban terrain planned for the original concept likely to be impossible to depict on the 64, and with Stealey increasingly eager to define MicroProse exclusively as a maker of realistic simulations, the premise of the game was overhauled as well, to become a more sober — relatively speaking — depiction of the real-world AH-64 Apache assault chopper. By the time it finally arrived on the market in late 1986, almost a year after it had first been announced, it had absorbed three times as much time and its development team had grown to four times the size originally anticipated. MicroProse had come a long way from the days of Floyd of the Jungle.

Just about everyone inside the games industry agreed that the delay had been worth it; this was MicroProse’s best game yet.  Gunship‘s most innovative feature, destined to have a major impact not only on future games from MicroProse but on future games in general, was the way it let you simulate not just an individual mission but an entire career. When you start the game, you create and name a pilot of your own, a greenhorn of a sergeant. You then take on missions of your choice in any of four regions, picking and choosing as you will among four wars that are apparently all going on at the same time: Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, or Western Europe (i.e., the Big One, a full-on Soviet invasion). If you perform well, you earn medals and promotions. If you get shot down you may or may not survive, and depending on where you crash-land may end up a prisoner of war. Either death or capture marks the definitive end to your Gunship career; this invests every moment spent in the combat zones with extra tension. The persistent career gives Gunship an element lacking from MicroProse’s previous simulations: a larger objective, larger stakes, beyond the successful completion of any given mission. It invests the game with an overarching if entirely generative plot arc of sorts as well as the addictive character-building progression of a CRPG, adding so much to the experience that career modes would quickly become a staple of simulations to come.

But some bureaucrats in West Germany were not so taken with Gunship as most gamers. There the “Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Schriften,” a list of writings and other communications that should not be sold to minors or even displayed in shops which they could enter, unexpectedly added Gunship to their rolls, to be followed shortly thereafter by F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service for good measure, for the sin of “promoting militarism” and thus being “morally corruptive and coarsening for the young user.” West Germany at the time constituted only about 1 percent of MicroProse’s business, but was likely the most rapidly expanding market for computers and computer games in the world. The blacklisting meant that these three games, which together constituted the vast majority of MicroProse’s sales in West Germany or anywhere else, could be sold only in shops offering a separate, adults-only section with its own entrance. Nor could they be advertised in magazines, or anywhere else where the teenage boys who bought MicroProse’s games in such numbers were able to see them. The games were, in other words, given the legal status of pornography: not, strictly speaking, censored, but made very difficult for people, especially young people, to acquire or even to find out about. If anything, it would now be harder for even an adult to get his hands on a MicroProse game than a porn film. There was after all a shopping infrastructure set up to support porn aficionados. There were no equivalent shops for games; certainly no computer store was likely to make a new entrance just to sell a few games. Thus the decision effectively killed MicroProse in West Germany. Stealey embarked on a long, exhausting battle with the German courts to have the decisions overturned. By the time he was able to get the Silent Service ban lifted, in 1988, that game was getting old enough that the issue was becoming irrelevant. Gunship and F-15 Strike Eagle took even longer to get stricken from the blacklist.

The debate over free speech and its limits is of course a complicated one, and one on which Germany, thanks to its horrific legacy of Nazism and its determination to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again, tends to have a somewhat different perspective than the United States. The authorities’ concerns about “militarism” also reflected a marked difference in attitude on the part of continental Western Europe from that of the anglosphere of the United States and Britain, both beneficiaries (or victims, if you prefer) of recent conservative revolutions led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Europeans found it more difficult to be so blasé about the prospect of war with the Soviet Union — a war which would almost certainly be fought on their soil, with all the civilian death, destruction, and suffering that implied. In West Germany, blithely choosing to send your fictional Gunship pilot to the Western Europe region to fight against what the manual gushingly described as the “first team” in the “big time” struck much closer to home.

MicroProse was also involved in another, more cut-and-dried sort of controversy at the time of Gunship. Long before MicroProse, there had already existed a company called “MicroPro,” maker of the very popular WordStar word processor. As soon as MicroProse grew big enough to be noticed, MicroPro had begun to call and send letters of protest. At last, in 1986, they sued for trademark infringement. MicroProse, who really didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, could only negotiate for time; the settlement stipulated that they had to choose a new name by 1988. But in the end the whole thing came to nothing when MicroPro abruptly changed their own name instead, to WordStar International, and let MicroProse off the hook.

In the big picture these were all minor hiccups. MicroProse would continue to make their accessible, entertaining, and usually bestselling military simulations for years to come after Gunship: Airborne Ranger, F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 Strike Eagle II, M1 Tank Platoon, just to begin the list. In 1988 they cemented once and for all their status as the game publisher for the Tom Clancy generation with the release of Red Storm Rising, the game of the book.

The ultimate meeting of techno-thriller minds: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (his consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario).

The ultimate meeting of the simulation-industrial complex: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (Clancy’s consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario, as well as author of the Harpoon naval board game).

By then, however, the restlessly creative Sid Meier was also finding ways to push beyond the military-simulation template to which Stealey would have happily held him in perpetuity. In doing so he would create some of the best, most important games in history. Sid Meier and MicroProse are thus destined to be featured players around here for quite some time to come.

(Lots and lots of sources this time around. Useful for the article as a whole: the book Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Computer Gaming World of November 1987, Commodore Magazine of September 1987. Tom Clancy and cultural background: the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, New York Times Magazine of May 1 1988, Computer Gaming World of July 1988. General Instruments and the Red Baron anecdote: ComputerWorld of May 16 1977, Computer Gaming World of June 1988. On MicroProse’s name and the dispute with MicroPro: Computer Gaming World of October 1987 and November 1991, A.N.A.L.O.G. of September 1987. Reviews, advertisements, and anecodtes about individual games: Antic of May 1983 and June 1984 and November 1984, Computer Gaming World of January/February 1986 and March 1987, Commodore Magazine of December 1988, C.U. Amiga of August 1990. On the “promoting militarism” controversy: Computer Gaming Forum of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Commodore User of June 1987, Computer Gaming World of May 1988, Aktueller Software Markt of May 1989. Examples of the Wild Bill Show: Commodore User of May 1985, Your Computer of May 1985 and November 1987, Commodore Disk User of November 1987, Popular Computing Weekly of May 1 1986, Games Machine of October 1988 and November 1988. This article’s “cover art” was taken from the MicroProse feature in the September 1987 Commodore Magazine. If you’d like to see a premiere Microprose simulation from this era in action, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Gunship from right here.)

 
 

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Moonmist

Moonmist

THE IMPLEMENTOR’S CREED

I create fictional worlds. I create experiences.

I am exploring a new medium for telling stories.

My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible.

I want as many people as possible to share these experiences. I want a broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of “reading levels.” I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs filling in. I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every popular taste.

In each of my works, I share a vision with the reader. Only I know exactly what the vision is, so only I can make the final decisions about content and style. But I must seriously consider comments and suggestions from any source, in the hope that they will make the sharing better.

I know what an artist means by saying, “I hope I can finish this work before I ruin it.” Each work-in-progress reaches a point of diminishing returns, where any change is as likely to make it worse as to make it better. My goal is to nurture each work to that point. And to make my best estimate of when it will reach that point.

I can’t create quality work by myself. I rely on other implementors to help me both with technical wizardry and with overcoming the limitations of the medium. I rely on testers to tell me both how to communicate my vision better and where the rough edges of the work need polishing. I rely on marketeers and salespeople to help me share my vision with more readers. I rely on others to handle administrative details so I can concentrate on the vision.

None of my goals is easy. But all are worth hard work. Let no one doubt my dedication to my art.

Stu Galley wrote the words you see above in early September of 1985, a time when Infocom was reeling through layoff after torturous layoff and looked very likely to be out of business in a matter of months. It served as a powerful affirmation of what Infocom really stood for, just as the misplaced dreams of Al Vezza and his Business Products people — grandiose in their own way but also so much more depressingly conventional — threatened to halt the dream of a new interactive literature in its tracks. “The Implementor’s Creed” is one of the most remarkable — certainly the most idealistic — texts to come out of Infocom. It’s also vintage Stu Galley, the Imp who couldn’t care less about Zork but burned with passion for the idea of interactive fiction actually worthy of its name.

Galley’s passion and its associated perfectionism could sometimes make his life very difficult. In the final analysis perhaps a better critic of interactive fiction than a writer of it — his advice was frequently sought and always highly valued by all of the other Imps for their own projects — he would be plagued throughout his years at Infocom by self-doubt and an inability to come up with the sorts of original plots and puzzles that seemed to positively ooze from the likes of Steve Meretzky. Galley’s first completed game, The Witness, was developed from an outline provided by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, while for his second, Seastalker, he collaborated with the prolific (if usually uncredited) children’s author Jim Lawrence. After finishing Seastalker, he had the idea to write a Cold War espionage thriller, tentatively called Checkpoint: “You, an innocent train traveler in a foreign country, get mixed up with spies and have to be as clever as they to survive.” He struggled for six months with Checkpoint, almost as long as it took some Imps to create a complete game, before voluntarily shelving it: “The problem there was that the storyline wasn’t sufficiently well developed to make it really interesting. I guess I had a vision of a certain kind of atmosphere in the writing that was rather hard to bring off.” Suffering from writer’s block as he was, it seemed a very good idea to everyone to pair him up again with Lawrence late in 1985.

Just as Seastalker had been a Tom Swift, Jr., story with the serial numbers not-so-subtly filed away, the new game, eventually to be called Moonmist, would be crafted in the image of an even more popular children’s book protagonist with whom Lawrence had heaps of experience: none other than the original girl detective, Nancy Drew. She was actually fresher in Lawrence’s mind than Tom: he had spent much of his time during the first half of the 1980s anonymously churning out at least seven Nancy Drew novels for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, creators and owners of both the Tom and Nancy lines. As in Seastalker, you provide Moonmist with a name and gender when the game begins. The game and its accompanying feelies, however, would really kind of prefer it if you could see your way to playing as a female. Preferably as a female named “Nancy Drew,” if it’s all the same to you.

The plot is classic Nancy, a mystery set in a romantic old house, with a hint of the supernatural for spice. You’ve received a letter from your friend Tamara, for whom a semester abroad in Britain has turned into an engagement to a Cornish lord. It seems she has need for a girl detective. She’s living with her Lord Jack now at his Tresyllian Castle — chastely, in her own bedroom, of course — and all is not well. Lord Jack’s father, Lionel, was a globetrotting adventurer who recently died of “some sort of fatal jungle disease” that he may or may not have accidentally contracted. Lord Jack’s last girlfriend, the beautiful Deirdre, became entangled with his best friend Ian as well, and then allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off some nearby cliffs after Jack broke it off with her in retaliation. Now her ghost is frequently seen haunting the castle and, Tamara claims, trying to kill her with poisonous spiders and snakes. Joining you, Lord Jack, Tamara, and Ian at the castle for a memorial dinner marking the first anniversary of Lord Lionel’s death are Vivien, a painter and sculptor and the local bohemian; Iris, a Mayfair debutante who may or may not have something going with Ian; Dr. Wendish, Lord Lionel’s old best mate; and a slick antique dealer named Montague Hyde who’s eager to buy up the castle’s contents and sell them to the highest bidder.

Labelled as an “Introductory” level game, Moonmist splits the difference between earlier Infocom games to bear its “Mystery” genre tag. It doesn’t use the innovative player-driven plot chronology of the most recent of those, Ballyhoo, opting like DeadlineThe Witness, and Suspect for a more simulationist turn-by-turn clock that gives you just a single night to solve the mystery. However, you the player don’t have to engage in the complicated, perfectly timed story interventions demanded by those earlier mysteries. After the events of the dinner party that sets the plot in motion, Moonmist is actually quite static, leaving you to your own devices to search the castle for clues and assemble a case that will reveal exactly what happened to Deirdre and who is dressing up as her ghost every night. (You didn’t think the ghost was real, did you? If so, you haven’t had much exposure to Nancy Drew or the works she spawned — like, for instance, Scooby-Doo.) You’ll also need to find a mysterious treasure brought back to Cornwall by Lord Lionel after one of his expeditions abroad. Depending on which version of Moonmist‘s mystery you’re playing, therein may also lie another nefarious plot.

But wait… which version? Yes. We’ve come to the most interesting innovation in Moonmist. The identity of the guilty one(s) and the nature of the treasure change in four variations of the plot, which you choose between in-character by telling the butler your “favorite color” at the beginning of the game: green, blue, red, or yellow. (I’ve listed them in general order of complexity and difficulty, and thus in the order you might want to try them if you play Moonmist for yourself.) Infocom had tried a branching plotline once before, in Cutthroats, but not handled it terribly well. There the plot suddenly branched randomly well over halfway through the game, leading you the intrepid diver to explore one of two completely different sunken shipwrecks. If the objective was to make an Infocom game last longer, the Cutthroats approach was nonsensical; it just resulted in two unusually short experiences that added up to a standard Infocom game, not a full-length experience that could somehow be experienced afresh multiple times. And randomly choosing the story branch was just annoying, forcing the player to figure out when the branch was about to happen, save, and then keep reloading until the story went in the direction she hadn’t yet seen. The worst-case scenario would have to be the player who never even realized that the branch was happening at all, who was just left thinking she’d paid a lot of money for a really short adventure game.

While it’s not without problems of its own, Moonmist‘s approach makes a lot more sense. I do wish you were allowed to name your color a bit later; this would save you from having to play through a long sequence of identical introductions and preparations for the dinner party that kicks off the mystery in earnest. Still, Moonmist‘s decision to reuse the same stage set, as it were — rooms, objects, and characters — in the service of four different plots is a clever one, especially in light of the limitations of the 128 K Z-Machine. It’s of course an approach to ludic mystery that already had a long history by the time of Moonmist, beginning with the board game Cluedo back in 1949 and including in the realm of computer games the randomized mysteries of Electronic Arts’s not-quite-successful Murder on the Zinderneuf and the hand-crafted plots of Accolade’s stellar Killed Until Dead amongst others.

Moonmist is, alas, less successful at crafting 4 mysteries out of the same cast and stage than Killed Until Dead is at making 21. Moonmist‘s variations simply aren’t varied enough. Although the perpetrator, the treasure, and the incriminating evidence change, the process of finding them and assembling a case is the same from variation to variation. After you’ve solved one of the cases, and thus know the steps you need to follow, solving the others is fairly trivial. The process of finding Lord Lionel’s treasure is literally a scavenger hunt, a matter of following a trail of not-terribly-challenging clues in the form of written messages until you arrive at its conclusion. The guilty guest, meanwhile, is readily identifiable as the one person who leaves the dinner party and starts poking restlessly around the rest of the castle. And once the treasure is secured and the guilty one identified it’s mostly just a matter of searching that person’s room carefully to come up with the incriminating evidence you need and making an “arrest.” The changes from variation to variation amount to no more than a handful of objects placed in different rooms or swapped out and replaced with others, along with a bare few paragraphs of altered text. Although they’re not randomly generated, the cases feel unsatisfying enough that they almost just as well could have been; there’s a distinct “Colonel Mustard in the lounge with the candlestick” feel about the whole experience. Even the exact words that the guilty party says to you never change from variation to variation. Most damningly, Moonmist never even begins to succeed in giving you the feeling that you’re actually solving a mystery — the feeling that was so key to the appeal of Infocom’s original trilogy of mystery games. You’re just jumping through the hoops that will satisfy the game and cause it to spit out the full story in the form of the few bland sentences that follow your unmasking of the mastermind.

Some of these shortcomings can doubtless be laid at the feet of the aging 128 K Z-Machine, whose limitations were beginning to bite hard into Infocom’s own expectations of even a modest work like Moonmist by 1986. Even reusing most of the environment apparently didn’t give Galley and Lawrence enough room to craft four mysteries that truly felt unique. On the contrary, they were forced to save space by off-loading many of the room descriptions into a tourist’s guide to Tresyllian Castle included with the documentation. So-called “paragraph books” fleshing out stories (and providing copy protection) via text that couldn’t be packed into the game proper would soon become a staple of CRPGs of the latter half of the decade wishing to be a bit more ambitious in their storytelling than simple hack-and-slashers like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. But a CRPG is a very different sort of experience from a text adventure, and what’s tolerable or even kind of fun in the former doesn’t work at all in the latter. Having to constantly flip through a slick tourist brochure for room descriptions in Moonmist absolutely kills the atmosphere of a setting that should have fairly dripped with it. Tresyllian Castle is, after all, set on a spooky moor lifted straight out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and comes complete with everything an American tourist thinks a British castle should, including a hedge maze (thankfully not implemented as an in-game maze), a dungeon, and a network of secret passages.

The text’s scarcity is doubly disappointing because the writing, when it’s there, is… well, I’m not sure I’d label it “great” or even “good,” but it is perfectly evocative of the sort of formulaically comforting children’s literature Jim Lawrence had so much experience crafting. How you react to it may very well depend on your own childhood experiences with Nancy Drew — or, perhaps more likely if you’re male like me, with her Stratemeyer Syndicate stablemates The Hardy Boys (yet another line for which Lawrence, inevitably, wrote a number of books). Just the idea of a white-haired old man raised in the swing era trying to write from the perspective of a 1980s teenager is weird; Nancy, born a teenager in 1930, is like Barbie and Bart Simpson eternally stuck at the same age both physically and mentally. Given that Nancy is, like Barbie, largely an aspirational fantasy for those who read her, Lawrence tries to make her life everything he thinks a contemporary twelve-year-old girl — the sweet spot of the Nancy Drew demographic — wishes her life could be in a few years. And given the artificial nature of the whole concept and its means of production, Nancy, and therefore Moonmist, inhabit a sort of cartoon reality where people routinely behave in ways that we never, ever see them behaving in real life. See, for example, your first meeting with Ian and Iris, nonsensically dancing together to pass the time before dinner “to the faint sound of rock music from a portable radio on a table nearby.” I mean, really, who the hell starts dancing just to pass the time, and who dances to the “faint sound of rock music?” Once or twice the writing veers into the creepy zone, as when Lawrence declares, “My, what a fine figure of a woman!” when you take off your clothes preparatory to taking a bath. But mostly it manages to be quaint and nostalgically charming with its mixture of Girl Power and romantic teenage giddiness.

"My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian," Tamara introduces him. "Jack, this is my friend from the States, Miss Nancy Drew."

"So you're that famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Miss Sherlock!" says Lord Jack. "Tammy's told me about the mysteries you've solved -- but she never let on you looked so smashing! Welcome to Cornwall, Nancy luv!"

Before you know it, he sweeps you into his arms and kisses you warmly! Let's hope Tamara doesn't mind -- but for the moment all you can see are Lord Jack's dazzling sapphire-blue eyes.

Considered as an Infocom game rather than a Nancy Drew novel, however, Moonmist is afflicted with a terminal identity crisis. Infocom had been making a dangerous habit of conflating the idea of an introductory-level game for adults with that of a game for children for some time already by the time it appeared. Seastalker, the first game to explicitly identify itself as a kinder, gentler Infocom product, had originally been marketed upon its release in June of 1984 as a story for children, trailblazer for a whole line of “Interactive Fiction Junior” that would hopefully soon be selling madly to the same generation of kids that was snapping up Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks by the millions. Sadly, that never happened — doubtless not least because a Choose Your Own Adventure book cost $2 or so, Seastalker $30 or more. Upon the release exactly one year later of Brian Moriarty’s Wishbringer, an introductory-level game written using the same adult diction of most of Infocom’s other games, the “Junior” line was quietly dropped and Seastalker relabeled to join Wishbringer as an “Introductory” game, despite the fact that the two were quite clearly different beasts entirely. Then, in October of 1986, Moonmist was also released as simply an adult Introductory” game — but, as just about the entire article that precedes this paragraph attests, Jim Lawrence and Stu Galley apparently didn’t get a memo somewhere along the line. Moonmist the digital artifact was, in opposition to Moonmist the marketing construct, plainly children’s literature. At best — particularly if she used to read Nancy Drew — the adult player was likely to find Moonmist nostalgically charming. At worst, it could read as condescending. Any computer game released into the cutthroat industry of 1986 was facing a serious problem if it didn’t know exactly what it was and whom could be expected to buy it. Moonmist, alas, wasn’t quite sure of either.

That said, Moonmist actually did somewhat better than one might have expected given this confusion. Its final sales would end up at around 33,000 copies, worse than those of Seastalker but not dramatically so. There’s good reason for its modern status as one of Infocom’s less-remembered and less-loved games: it’s definitely one of the slighter works in the canon. Certainly only hardcore fans are likely to summon the motivation to complete all four cases. Despite its shortcomings, though, others may find it worth sampling one or two cases, and historians may be interested in experiencing this early interactive take on Nancy Drew published many years before the long-running — indeed, still ongoing — series of graphic adventures that Her Interactive began releasing in the late 1990s.

Moonmist would mark the last time that Stu Galley or Jim Lawrence would be credited as the author of an Infocom game. Lawrence returned to print fiction, where he could make a lot more money a lot more quickly than he could writing text adventures. Galley remained at Infocom until the bitter end, working on technology and on one or two more game ideas that would frustratingly never come to fruition. Given just how in love he was with the potential of interactive fiction, it does seem a shame that he never quite managed to write a game that hit it out of the park. On the other hand, his quiet enthusiasm and wisdom probably contributed more than any of us realize to many of those Infocom games that did.

(In addition to the Get Lamp interviews, this article draws from some of the internal emails and other documents that were included on the Masterpieces of Infocom CD. An interview with Galley in the June 1986 issue of Zzap! was also useful.)

 
 

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Leather Goddesses of Phobos (or, Sex Comes to the Micros — Again)

The Dirty Book

For a brief moment there circa 1981, it looked like Softporn was going to spawn a whole new genre of sexy software. Following that game’s release and its massive-by-the-standards-of-1981 commercial success, others rushed to jump on the bandwagon, and the phrase “bedroom hacker” suddenly took on a whole new meaning. The titles conveyed the programs’ contents pretty well: Bedtime Stories, Dirty Old Man, Encounter, Zesty Zodiacs. Those wanting to get right down to business could presumably buy the straightforwardly named Sex Disk, while those more into foreplay could pick up Wanna Play Footsie?. My personal favorite, which makes me laugh every time for some reason, is Pornopoly. Some ambitious entrepreneurs even formed a program-of-the-month club for adult software, The Dirty Book. Their advertisements trumpeted the microcomputer “sexplosion,” promising “bedroom programs and games geared to creative, joyful living and loving,” the “opportunity to chart your own course to greater intimacy and satisfaction in the months to come.” Virtually all of this stuff was, whatever your opinion of its subject matter, pretty low-rent in execution, managing to make Softporn, hardly a marvel of writing or programming in its own right, look downright classy. But the quality of adult software never got a chance to improve in the way of other genres because suddenly, barely a year after the sexplosion began, it was all over. It was the would-be home-computer revolution that killed it.

A near-hysteria against videogames was sweeping certain sectors of the United States at that time. This was the era when entire towns were banning videogame arcades, when the Surgeon General was claiming they “addicted children, body and soul.” Makers of home computers were eager to not only avoid being tarred with the same brush, but to capitalize on the travails of the arcades and the videogame consoles by positioning a home computer like the Commodore VIC-20 as the better, healthier family alternative to an Atari VCS. A home computer, so the ad copy claimed, was first and foremost educational, a point always backed up with glossy photos of beaming children learning math or their ABCs in front of a glowing screen. A game like Pornopoly was, to say the least, not exactly compatible with that image. Indeed, American culture as a whole was changing when it came to matters of the flesh. The Christian Right was a major force to be reckoned with in American politics following Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the major role it played in getting Ronald Reagan elected President the following year. Now public attitudes toward sex were beginning to lurch back toward the wholesome 1950s, away from the revolutionary 1960s and the free-and-easy 1970s.

And so the sexplosion petered out prematurely. Even at Sierra the dying embers of California hippie decadence that had led to that famous Softporn hot-tub cover photo were fading out as the marketers and venture capitalists rushed in. Softporn itself was pulled off the market within a couple of years of its release, despite the fact that it was still selling very well, and Roberta Williams underwent a headspinning transformation from the topless swinger on the cover of Softporn to the wholesome Great Mom behind family-friendly titles like King’s Quest, Mickey’s Space Adventure, and Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Even Electronic Arts, who dearly wanted to see software as the next big trend for with-it hipsters, were careful to stay well away from any hint of sex in their games.

But of course sex never, ever really goes away. It just goes underground. With sexy software now too hot for “legitimate” distributors or shops to handle, the latest programs were traded about for free — often via the burgeoning network of pirate bulletin-board systems — or sold via advertisements in the backs of the sorts of less-than-discerning “alternative weeklies” of which every major city seemed to have at least one specimen. The character of the programs themselves changed as well. The first generation of sexy software had been relatively staid as such things go, more akin to one of the ubiquitous soft-core couple’s manuals found in such quantity on bookstore shelves then and now than hardcore pornography. This attitude extended to intent as well as content: most of these programs were quite clearly pitched to adults who would use them to enhance a relationship or social Sexy Times. The new generation of games and programs, however, was all too obviously created by the teenage boys who were beginning to dominate amongst computer users — teenage boys who had watched their share of porn but had little to no experience with actual sex. Their audience was likewise looking for something unabashedly designed to help them get off – solo.

Amongst the earliest and the most popular of all this lot was a little charmer of a text adventure called Farmer’s Daughter. It’s about exactly the teenage fantasy its name would imply: “She’s wearing tight denim shorts and a skimpy white halter top, her nipples just about poking right through. She looks about sixteen… and willing!!!” Originally created on a Commodore 64 by a couple of teenagers named R.W. Fisher and D.W.J. Sarhan and sold through advertisements in Playboy and National Lampoon amongst other places (Fisher claims they “sold a ton”), Farmer’s Daughter was hugely played, traded, and ported within the pirate underground, enough to make it one of the most popular text adventures of all time. This was one that every teenage hacker just had to have in his collection, and thanks to its subject matter one he was much more likely to earnestly try to play than just about any other. With a claim at least as great as that of Softporn to being the urtext of a whole genre of “adult interactive fiction” — Farmer’s Daughter is actually pornographic; Softporn, despite its name, isn’t — it’s still remembered by some with nostalgia even today. In 2001, one “Despoiler” even made a new version to run on modern interactive-fiction interpreters.

Farmer’s Daughter is actually one of the subtler specimens of its type, playing out largely like just another home-grown text adventure until you get to the big climax. A more typical example of one of these blue-balled fever dreams is Mad Party Fucker: “You have been invited to a party at a huge mansion. It is rumored that whores will be there. You come there nude and ready for action.” (You’re destined for the social faux pas of the century if those “rumors” turn out not to be true and this is just an ordinary old dinner party…) The hilarity of that tagline is unfortunately undercut by the ugliness of its other part: “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).”

By no means did the horn-dogs confine themselves to text. In addition to endless variants of strip poker — many of them inevitably featuring the era’s most popular pinup girl, Samantha Fox — there were all sorts of rhythmic action games on offer, of varying degrees of grossness. Have a look at the website Girls of ’64 sometime and marvel and shudder at the sheer quantity and variety of the offerings. Disgusting as so much of this stuff is, there’s also something quaint about it. In just another decade or so the arrival of the Internet in homes would mean that never again would teenage boys have to satisfy their lust with pixelated, sometimes almost indecipherable 8-bit graphics and text adventures, for God’s sake.

The respectable magazines of the trade press, not to mention the shop shelves, gave no hint of this hyperactive pornographic underground. Through the brief home-computer boom and bust of 1982 to 1985 commercial software was almost universally G-rated. Sexual content began to creep back into the software overground only in about 1986. By this time the home-computer revolution had, as we’ve noted in plenty of earlier articles, largely come and gone in the eyes of the mainstream media, leaving behind a core of committed hobbyists to which it no longer paid all that much attention. One of the first publishers to sidle back through the door this partially reopened was Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0: both Alter Ego and Portal deal with sex with a bracing frankness. Notably, neither is a “sex game” in the way of those that were once featured in The Dirty Book. They’re rather games with something to say about real life; they include sex simply because sex is a part of life. As such, their sexual content could, and often did, go entirely unremarked by people who didn’t actually play them.

To everyone’s surprise, the first game of the post-bust era that did happily define itself as a “sex game” came from Infocom, heretofore regarded as amongst the most literary and mature of game makers. Leather Goddesses of Phobos put its sexy content front and center in its box copy and advertisements and, most of all, in its title.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Long before Leather Goddesses of Phobos became an actual game, it was a title and a joke — or, rather, a couple of jokes. Just after their move in 1982 into their first real corporate offices on Cambridge’s Wheeler Street, Joel Berez and Marc Blank organized a little housewarming party for Infocom’s handful of staffers and board of directors as well as other intimates — among them staffers at their new G/R Copy PR agency, employees of other local software companies and distributors, even owners of nearby computer shops. Berez and Blank were, claims Steve Meretzky, “extremely hyper” about making sure it came off as the perfect coming-out event for the growing company, despite the fact that just a few dozen outsiders were actually attending. In the offices’ central room was a big chalkboard listing all of Infocom’s modest catalog of just a few adventure games and the computers for which each was available. Always the jokester, Meretzky crept over to the chalkboard just before the party started and added an entry for Leather Goddesses of Phobos — “something that would be a little embarrassing but not awful.” Berez saw it minutes later and “erased it in a panic” before any of the outsiders could see it.  (Berez and Meretzky actually had something of a history of this sort of thing. Meretzky, in the words of Mike Dornbrook, “always made fun of Joel. Mercilessly. But in a very humorous way…”)

Anticlimactic as its ending was, the story, and most of all the name, nevertheless passed into Infocom lore. Leather Goddesses of Phobos became the default name of any project that hadn’t yet been given a name of its own: “For years thereafter, when anyone needed to plug the name of a nonexistent game into a sentence, it would be Leather Goddesses of Phobos.” The name even made its way into a couple of real games: it’s a videotape the protagonist of Starcross watches, much to his disappointment when he finds out it’s actually “something about the history of the Terran Union”; and it’s the name of the only functioning machine in the video arcade in Wishbringer.

The other joke was almost as old. Whenever discussions came around to what sorts of games Infocom should do, to what genres they should cover, someone would inevitably suggest a porn game. At first the joke was just a flippant response, but as the company plunged into its disastrous 1985 and overall sales began to clearly trend downward it began to take on a decidedly more blackish tinge. At that year’s end, with A Mind Forever Voyaging behind him, Meretzky decided to actually do it: to make a real Leather Goddesses of Phobos — and to put sex in it. He wasn’t, mind you, suggesting a porn game per se, but rather a “racy” spoof of/tribute to the science-fiction serials of the 1930s. It wasn’t a hugely original idea in itself — the Barbarella comics and film of the 1960s had already worked this ground to good effect by making the sex that was implied in the old serials explicit — but it was fairly original as games went, and that was the real point. Knowing that the old dictum of Sex Sells is about as timeless as marketing wisdom gets and that Infocom could really use a hit right about now, marketing manager Mike Dornbrook as well as the other Imps agreed enthusiastically that it was a great idea. Al Vezza, still clinging by his fingernails to a fantasy of Infocom as a force in business software and always terrified of anything that might damage the company’s image in that quarter, was less enthusiastic, but allowed Meretzky to proceed. As a sop to sensibilities like his, Mereztky did agree to allow the player to select from three levels of naughtiness: “tame,” “suggestive,” and “lewd.” (I’m not certain if anyone in the history of the world has ever actually played Leather Goddesses on anything but “lewd.” That’s kind of the point of the game, isn’t it?)

Sex aside, with Leather Goddesses we’re back in Meretzky’s comfortable wheelhouse of zany science-fiction comedy, complete with all the puzzles that were so conspicuously missing from A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s thus easy enough to cast Leather Goddesses as an artistic retreat for a Meretzky who had pushed the envelope too far with his previous game. Doing so would not be entirely incorrect, but it’s not precisely the whole truth either. You see, we really can’t set the sex aside quite so easily as all that. Leather Goddesses may mark a formal retreat in many ways, but in his soul Mereztky still desperately wanted to rake some mucks, to make another political statement. And while, as a playthrough of A Mind Forever Voyaging will attest, Meretzky was genuinely passionate about and committed to his political views, he was also a young creative person who, like so many young creative persons, just wanted to cause some controversy — any controversy.

A Mind Forever Voyaging dealt with some politically sensitive topics, and I was hoping that it would stir up a lot of controversy. It didn’t. Not a single flaming froth-at-the-mouth letter. So I decided to write something with a little bit of sex in it, because nothing generates controversy like sex. I’m hoping to get the game banned from 7-Eleven stores. Finally, I get asked all the time, “When are you guys gonna do a graphic adventure?” Well, we won’t add pictures to our stories, so this was the only way to create a graphic adventure.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos begins with this:

Some material in this story may not be suitable for children, especially the parts involving sex, which no one should know anything about until reaching the age of eighteen (twenty-one in certain states). This story is also unsuitable for censors, members of the Moral Majority, and anyone else who thinks that sex is dirty rather than fun.

The attitudes expressed and language used in this story are representative only of the views of the author, and in no way represent the views of Infocom, Inc. or its employees, many of whom are children, censors, and members of the Moral Majority. (But very few of whom, based on last year's Christmas Party, think that sex is dirty.)

By now, all the folks who might be offended by LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS have whipped their disk out of their drive and, evidence in hand, are indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico. So... Hit the RETURN/ENTER key to begin!

Couched in humor as it is, this is also the most topical, baldly political statement ever to appear in an Infocom game. A Mind Forever Voyaging had at least spread a thin veneer of science-fiction worldbuilding over its political message. Not so here; Mereztky calls out the Moral Majority by name. It might perhaps be a bit hard for us today to appreciate the big stew of silliness that is Leather Goddesses of Phobos as a full-on political statement. Indeed, it can be hard not to get annoyed with the game’s intermittent tendency to pat itself on the back for an alleged edginess that strikes us today as about as transgressive as missionary sex in a private bedroom between a happily married heterosexual couple. See, for instance, this gag, obviously inspired by George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” routine.

>z
Time passes...

[A warning for any Jerry Falwell groupies who are miraculously still playing: we'll be using the word "tits" in five turns or so. Please consult the manual for the proper way to stop playing.]

>z
Time passes...

[Only a few turns until the "tits" reference! Use QUIT now if you might be offended!]

>z
Time passes...

[Last warning! The word "tits" will appear in the very next turn! This is your absolutely last chance to avoid seeing "tits" used!!!]

>z
Time passes...

A hyperdimensional traveller suddenly appears out of thin air. "My sister has tremendous breasts," says the traveller and, without further explanation, vanishes, leaving only a vague trace of interdimensional ozone.

[Oh, regarding the use of "tits," we changed our mind at the last minute. Everyone agreed it was too risque.]

We owe it to the game to take a moment to try to understand just why Leather Goddesses is so inexplicably proud of itself. In 1986, the year that Leather Goddesses was released, the culture wars of the 1980s were at their peak. The previous year had given the country Senate hearings instigated by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center and their “Filthy Fifteen” list of offending songs; the hearings would lead to a “Parental Advisory” label, the so-called “Tipper sticker,” appearing on many cassettes and CDs. Two months before Leather Goddesses‘s publication Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography published a report which claimed a direct link between violent crime and access to pornography amongst a host of other dubious assertions, and which argued for stepped-up enforcement of so-called “decency standards.” The following April the Federal Communications Commission would effectively change some of those same standards in a landmark ruling that levied stiff fines on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show; from now on it would be possible to fine radio broadcasters not just for violating a list of proscribed words but for any “language or materials that depict or describe, in terms patently offensive to community standards or the broadcast media, sexual or excretory activities or sexual organs.” Taken in the context of these events and many others, Leather Goddesses‘s self-satisfaction feels more understandable and even, in its modest way, more principled.

But what is there to say about Leather Goddesses apart from its politics? Well, Mike Dornbrook’s succinct description of the game for Infocom’s newsletter is a pretty accurate one: “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex.” You play an ordinary citizen of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in the year 1936 who gets abducted by the Leather Goddesses of Phobos. These same Leather Goddesses are also planning to invade Earth itself, to make of it their own “private pleasure world.” You’re to be an experiment to pave the way: “your unspeakably painful death will help our effort to enslave humanity” in some way that’s never elaborated, although you are told that it will involve “lots of lubricants, some plastic tubing, and a yak.” Luckily, you escape to hopscotch around a pulp-science-fiction version of the solar system with a sidekick you pick up along the way, trying to assemble the pieces of a “Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddesses of Phobos Attack Machine!”

1. a common household blender
2. six feet of rubber hose
3. a pair of cotton balls
4. an eighty-two degree angle
5. a headlight from any 1933 Ford
6. a white mouse
7. any size photo of Jean Harlow
8. a copy of the Cleveland phone book

It is, to say the least, a pretty nonsensical plot, one that ultimately boils down in tried-and-true adventure-game fashion to a big treasure hunt — something the game, which spends lots of time gleefully embracing and then subverting adventure-games clichés, is well aware of.

All of those teenage boys who doubtless dived into Leather Goddesses hoping it would get them off were in for a disappointment. If we accept the common definition of pornography as any work designed primary to sexually arouse or titillate, over and above any other artistic purpose, Leather Goddesses resoundingly fails to qualify. Its few sex scenes are purposely full of schlocky romance-novel cliches, all “hot, naked bodies,” “warm and wild feelings springing from your loins, spreading like a fiery potion through your veins” and “lustful orgasms” (is there any other kind?). The detailed play-by-play and anatomical precision that teenage boys crave is, needless to say, not to be found here. In a nod toward gender equality that you certainly wouldn’t see from the pornographic-software underground, it’s actually possible to play Leather Goddesses as either a male or a female; you select your gender at the beginning of the game by going into either the men’s or women’s restroom. The sexes of various people you encounter during the game are adjusted accordingly. The very fact that Meretzky was able to do this so seamlessly within the brutal textual constraints of the 128 K Z-Machine says a lot about just how soft-focus the sex scenes actually are.

While Meretzky gets points for making the effort to include the 30 percent or so of Infocom’s loyal customers who were females, my old Gender Studies indoctrination from university does prompt me to note that even if you choose to play as a female you’re still playing a game largely built for the male gaze. Notably, the Leather Goddesses themselves don’t change gender, and remain equally interested in you whether you play as male or female. There are a couple of obvious causes for this. One is of course that changing the Leather Goddesses to Leather Gods would have been really hard given the constraints of the Z-Machine, not to mention problematic given the name of the game. And the other is that 1980s males who were appalled by male homosexuality were often more than accepting of a bit of female-on-female action.

I find the most jarring moment in Leather Goddesses to be not one of the sex scenes but rather the first time Meretzky swears at me. His first “let’s cut the bullshit” just a few turns in feels so aggressive, so at odds with Infocom’s usual house style that it always hits me like a slap. Moreover, it somehow doesn’t feel genuine either; it feels like Meretzky is swearing at me out of a sense of obligation to the “lewd” mode, and that he’s not entirely comfortable in doing so. More successful are all of the sly double entendres that litter the text, right from the moment you walk into a restroom at the beginning of the game and find a “stool” there. They’re all about as stupid as that, but sometimes gloriously so. My favorite bit might just be the response to the standard SCORE command.

>score
[with Joe]
Unfortunately, Joe doesn't seem interested, and it takes two to tango.

When he’s not cursing or referencing sex in some way, Meretzky is giving you pretty much the game you’d expect from the guy who wrote Planetfall and co-wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: lots of broad, goofy humor, the jokes coming fast and furious, often falling flat but occasionally hitting home. The situations you get yourself into are as gloriously stupid as the puns and double entendres, and perfectly redolent of the game’s inspirations: you go wandering through the jungles of Venus; go sailing the canals of Mars; and, best of all, get into a swordfight in space where you can inexplicably talk to your opponent and where Newtonian mechanics most resoundingly don’t apply. I’d probably be a bit more excited about the humor in this and Meretzky’s other games if it hadn’t led to so many less clever imitators who held fast to the “stupid” but forgot the “glorious.” See, for example, this description of a spaceship in Leather Goddesses, which is far more anatomically explicit than anything in any of the sex scenes: “Hanging from the base of the long, potent-looking battleship are two pendulous, brimming fuel tanks.” Then compare it with its distressingly literal adaptation to graphics in the blatant but more explicit Leather Goddesses clone Sex Vixens from Space of a couple of years later.

Sex Vixens from Space

One thing that had changed about Meretzky’s work by the time of Leather Goddesses is pointed out by passages like the one just quoted: his writing has improved, subtly but significantly. Perhaps due to his enthusiasm and the sheer pace at which he turned out work, the Meretzky of Planetfall, Sorcerer, and even A Mind Forever Voyaging could be a bit slapdash, even a bit lazy in stringing his words together from time to time. Jon Palace, Infocom’s secret weapon in so many things, did much to keep that from happening in Leather Goddesses. Palace:

I would make an attempt to point out areas where the text could be a little richer. At one point Steve just gave me a big fat printout of all the words in the game. I went through it and tried to find opportunities for adjectives or verbs that could be a little more interesting.

Leather Goddesses‘s text is indeed more interesting, with more of a “you are there” feeling, with more showing and less telling. Mereztky was grateful enough to give Palace a special public thank you for “sensualizing” his text.

Still, I remain most impressed by Meretzky as a game and puzzle designer rather than as a writer. Leather Goddesses excels here. Take all the sex and all the humor away, and it’s still just a damn fine example of adventure-game craft, the best Meretzky had yet come up with. One of its puzzles in particular, the “t-removing machine,” has rightly gone down in text-adventure lore as just possibly Meretzky’s cleverest and most memorable ever. It’s also one that could never, ever be done successfully in any other medium, and another example of an increasing interest in abstract wordplay that marked many of Infocom’s later titles. The game’s most elaborate set-piece puzzle is yet another example of an Infocom maze that isn’t really a maze in the traditional sense. That said, it might just leave you longing for the days of “twisty little passages, all alike.” What with a quickly expiring light source and the cycling series of perfectly timed actions required to stay alive, it’s certainly the most polarizing of the puzzles, infuriating to a certain sort of player who considers it just tedious busywork and delightful to another type ready to pull out a pencil and paper and settle down for a nice logistical challenge. (Personally, I’m in the latter camp.) Virtually all of the other puzzles are very entertaining in less polarizing ways, logical despite the illogic of the setting and solvable, but not trivially so. It all makes for a hell of a lot of fun, even if you do mostly have to have your clothes — well, your loincloth — on.

Leather Goddesses‘s packaging became one of Infocom’s most memorable collections, arguably the last such before the company’s straitening economic circumstances began to really affect the contents of those beloved gray boxes. Meretzky always took an early and personal interest in this aspect of his games, and Leather Goddesses was no exception. He had barely begun working on the game when he had the idea of including a scratch-and-sniff card with various scents that the player would be asked to smell from time to time. Meretzky:

I got several dozen samples from the company that made the scents. Each was on its own card with the name of the scent. So one by one I had other Infocom employees come in, and I’d blindfold them and let them scratch each scent and try to identify it. That way, I was able to choose the seven most recognizable scents for the package. It was a lot of fun seeing what thoughts the various scents triggered in people, such as the person who was sniffing the mothballs and got a silly grin on his face and said, “My grandmother’s attic!”

Thus the game was designed to incorporate the seven “most recognizable” scents rather than the scents being chosen to fit the game, an unusual but not unique case of placing the feelie cart before the game horse (remember, for instance, the Wishbringer stone?). And, since you’re probably wondering: no, none of the scents were remotely sexual.

The package also included a 3-D comic complete with the requisite glasses for reading it, drawn by the same artist responsible for Trinity‘s comic, Richard Howell. (Howell would go on to have a long career in comic books.) The box cover art itself would prompt a squabble between Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department almost as heated as the great Spellbreaker/Mage controversy of the year before. Meretzky wanted to develop for the cover the concept drawing you see below, featuring a collection of elements from the game itself. (Thanks to Jason Scott for making this image available online.)

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Dornbrook’s people, however, thought the drawing was just too busy to work on store shelves. Dornbrook:

You can’t look at a cover in isolation. You’ve got to look at a cover when it’s with a hundred other covers. Does it work on a shelf that’s crowded with covers? If it blends in, doesn’t stand out, it’s a failure, no matter how great the art is. It’s got to work as a cover!

Marketing instead opted for the cleaner, simpler design you saw earlier in this article, which also had the advantage of highlighting the marvelous name around which the whole game had been designed in the first place. A very unhappy Meretzky satirically asked to include a disclaimer in the package apologizing for the lame cover art and explaining how much better it should have been.

Leather Goddesses was released in September of 1986. Obviously feeling they might just have a sorely needed commercial winner on their hands, marketing gave the game special priority. For instance, they printed tee-shirts to pass around and sell through the Infocom newsletter, featuring the Leather Goddesses logo on the front and the slogan “A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste” on the back. About half of the considerable fan mail the game generated was indeed of the “froth at the mouth” stripe Meretzky had been missing in response to A Mind Forever Voyaging. (Most of the other half, meanwhile, seemed to consist of complaints that the game was too tame.) A woman in Orange County, California, wandered into her local software store only to see the tee-shirt on display on the wall and, even worse, on the backs of some of the staff. She pitched a fit about the game’s title with its “deviant sexual overtones and references to bondage and other unnatural acts.” Her complaints forced an official policy change for the chain’s sixty or so stores: Leather Goddesses must be placed only on the highest shelves at the very back of the store, and could not be included in sales promotions, special in-store displays, or advertisements in any form of media — and of course staffers wouldn’t be allow to wear their complimentary tee-shirts anymore. At least one of the big mail-order sellers, Protecto Enterprises of Illinois, declared that they were “founded on Christian principles and ethics and will not sell any product that goes against those principles”; Leather Goddesses by their lights did just that. Still, most of the most committed culture warriors in the country just weren’t paying enough attention to the relatively tiny entertainment-software market when there was so much more mainstream material in the form of music and television and films and books to rail against. Thus Meretzky would have to be satisfied with only the occasional outraged letter rather than the pitchfork-wielding mob of his dreams.

Any sales lost for reasons of outraged morality were more than made up for by the game’s sex appeal. Leather Goddesses proved to be by a factor of at least three Infocom’s biggest seller post-Activision acquisition, selling around 130,000 copies — Infocom’s last game to break six digits, their last to qualify as a genuine hit, and their first and last to prove that Sex Sells was as true in computer games as it was in any other media. It lands just below Wishbringer on Infocom’s all-time sales chart, their sixth best-selling game overall. At least one of the fans it attracted may have horrified Meretzky: Tom Clancy, technothriller author and noted friend of the Reagan administration. “I’d like to meet whoever wrote that,” he said in an interview. “I just don’t know what asylum to go to.”

The milestones in general start to get more melancholy now as we move into the latter stages of Infocom’s history. There’s one more we should mention in the case of Leather Goddesses, over and above “last 100,000 seller” and “last hit.” It marked also the last time that Infocom would have a significant part in, for lack of a better word, the conversation inside the computer-game industry at large. Other publishers took note of Leather Goddesses‘s success. With the industry’s sexual taboo at least partially broken thanks to Infocom and (to a lesser extent) Activision, sex on the computer would begin to cautiously poke its head back up out of the underground again. We’ll see plenty of evidence of that in future articles.

Like Hitchhiker’s, Leather Goddesses advertises a sequel in its finale that the original Infocom would never deliver: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X. (A graphic adventure by that name would be designed by Meretzky and released by Activision under the Infocom label well after the original company was dissolved.) Too bad the series barely got started, because the already planned title of a third game might have really riled up some sensitive souls: Diesel Dikes of Deimos.

(As usual, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews were invaluable to this article. Steve Meretzky is also interviewed at length in Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III. Also useful: the October 1987 and July 1988 Computer Gaming World, and the Summer 1986 edition of Infocom’s Status Line newsletter. The Dirty Book advertisement is from the September 1982 Kilobaud.)

 

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Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity seemed destined to become a casualty of an industry that just wasn’t equipped to appreciate what it was trying to do. Traditional game-review metrics like “fun” or “value for money” only cheapened it, while reviewers lacked the vocabulary to even begin to really address its themes. Most were content to simply mention, in passing and often with an obvious unease, that those themes were present. In Computer Gaming World, for instance, Scorpia said that it was “not for the squeamish,” would require of the player “some unpleasant actions,” that it was “overall a serious game, not a light-hearted one,” and then on to the firmer ground of puzzle hints. And that was downright thoughtful in comparison to Shay Addams’s review for Questbusters, which tried in a weird and clunky way to be funny in all the ways that Trinity doesn’t: “It blowed up real good!” runs the review’s tagline, which goes on to ask if they’ll be eating “fission chips” in the Kensington Gardens after the missiles drop. (Okay, that one’s dumb enough to be worth a giggle…) But the review’s most important point is that Trinity is “mainly a game” again after the first Interactive Fiction Plus title, A Mind Forever Voyaging, so disappointed: “The puzzles are back!”

Even Infocom themselves weren’t entirely sure how to sell or even how to talk about Trinity. The company’s creative management had been unstintingly supportive of Brian Moriarty while he was making the game, but “marketing,” as he said later, “was a little more concerned/disturbed. They didn’t quite know what to make of it.” The matrix of genres didn’t have a slot for “Historical Tragedy.” In the end they slapped a “Fantasy” label on it, although it doesn’t take a long look at Trinity and the previous games to wear that label — the Zork and Enchanter series — to realize that one of these things is not quite like the others.

Moriarty admits to “a few tiffs” with marketing over Trinity, but he was a reasonable guy who also understood that Infocom needed to sell their games and that, while the occasional highbrow press from the likes of The New York Times Book Review had been nice and all, the traditional adventure-game market was the only place they had yet succeeded in consistently doing that. Thus in interviews and other promotions for Trinity he did an uncomfortable dance, trying to talk seriously about the game and the reasons he wrote it while also trying not to scare away people just looking for a fun text adventure. The triangulations can be a bit excruciating: “It isn’t a gloomy game, but it does have a dark undertone to it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” (Actually, it is.) Or: “It’s kind of a dark game, but it’s also, I like to think, kind of a fun game too.” (With a ringing endorsement like “I like to think it’s kind of a fun game,” how could anyone resist?)

Trinity‘s commercial saving grace proved to be a stroke of serendipity having nothing to do with any its literary qualities. The previous year Commodore had released what would prove to be their last 8-bit computer, the Commodore 128. Despite selling quite well, the machine had attracted very little software support. The cause, ironically, was also the reason it had done so well in comparison to the Plus/4, Commodore’s previous 8-bit machine. The 128, you see, came equipped with a “64 Mode” in which it was 99.9 percent compatible with the Commodore 64. Forced to choose between a modest if growing 128 user base and the massive 64 user base through which they could also rope in all those 128 users, almost all publishers, with too many incompatible machines to support already, made the obvious choice.

Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus system was, however, almost unique in the entertainment-software industry in running on the 128 in its seldom-used (at least for games) native mode. And all those new 128 owners were positively drooling for a game that actually took advantage of the capabilities of their shiny new machines. A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity arrived simultaneously on the Commodore 128 when the Interactive Fiction Plus interpreter was ported to that platform in mid-1986. But the puzzleless A Mind Forever Voyaging was a bit too outré for most gamers’ tastes. Plus it was older, and thus not getting the press or the shelf space that Trinity was. Trinity, on the other hand, fit the bill of “game I can use to show off my 128″ just well enough, even for 128 users who might otherwise have had little interest in an all-text adventure game. Infocom’s sales were normally quite evenly distributed across the large range of machines they supported, but Trinity‘s were decidedly lopsided in favor of the Commodore 128. Those users’ numbers were enough to push Trinity to the vicinity of 40,000 in sales, not a blockbuster — especially by the standards of Infocom’s glory years — but enough to handily outdo not just A Mind Forever Voyaging but even more traditional recent games like Spellbreaker. Like the Cold War Trinity chronicles, it could have been much, much worse.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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