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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Leader Board

Leader Board

Like just about every other sport, golf made it to computer screens quite early. A textual version was passed around in BASIC circles even before the arrival of the trinity of 1977, and was included in the landmark 1978 book BASIC Computer Games. Two years later, Atari released their blandly if descriptively named Golf cartridge for the VCS. Yet neither of these crude efforts, nor the ones which followed over the next few years, did the sport much justice. Those that had graphics at all were all played from a disembodied overhead perspective that could make them feel more like pinball than golf, and no one came close to computerizing the mix of science, art, and exquisite terror that is the golf swing. Then, as these things so often happen, a whole field of golf games appeared in 1986 which showed their courses from an actual golfer’s perspective and put the player’s focus squarely where it belongs, on the swing itself.

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

Atari's Golf cartridge for the VCS

Atari’s Golf cartridge for the VCS

Of this suddenly crowded field the two most popular turned out to be Accolade’s Mean 18 and Access’s Leader Board. If you try them both out today, you’re likely to be more impressed, at least initially, by the former than the latter. Mean 18 is a much more complete simulation of the real game, including trees, sand traps, water hazards, varying elevations, re-creations of actual courses, even the chance to make more courses of your own with an included editor. Leader Board, on the other hand, turns you loose in a surreally minimalist environment of empty land and water and absolutely nothing else. On a bullet list of features, there’s no comparison. Yet if you play them both a bit you might just find that Leader Board, for all that it lacks, nevertheless feels better. For me anyway, it’s just somehow more fun. But even if you still prefer Mean 18, Leader Board deserves respect, as well as the chance to be graded on something of a curve. While Mean 18, you see, ran only on the bigger 16-bit machines, Leader Board was born and bred on the humble Commodore 64.

Mean 18

Mean 18

Leader Board

Leader Board

Given the technical and conceptual achievement it represents, I thought we’d do something we haven’t done in quite a while: look at Leader Board as the Carver brothers would have seen it, from the perspective of designers and programmers putting it together piece by piece. I will get just a bit technical in some of what follows, so you might want to review my earlier articles on the Commodore 64 and its capabilities, as well as the parts of my Elite history that dealt with the fraught transition from 2D to 3D graphics.

So, the Carver brothers wanted to create a golf simulation from a 3D perspective on a computer with a 1 MHz processor and 64 K of memory. Where to start? Well, the first thing to do was to simplify the bounds of the simulation brutally, out of the knowledge that anything you abstract away today represents the best kind of work, the kind that you don’t have to do at all. Any simulation is a simplification of reality. The art of the science is figuring out just how much detail is necessary. Suffice to say that the Carver brothers drew that line much farther along than anyone could get away with today. Maybe they could add some complications back in later, once they had an initial working version. In the meantime, much of what we think of when we think of the game of golf got tossed out the window, not without the occasional groan of regret: trees, sand traps, any notion of fairways as opposed to roughs, any notion of a putting green as anything other than a perfectly circular area around the hole with a radius of 64 feet, any concept of elevation when not on the green. Wind made the cut, but with the odd yet simplifying quality that it will always blow in the same direction relative to the golfer no matter which way he faces.

Despite all the editing, the Carvers still needed to map a 3D landscape, simplified though it may be, into the Commodore 64′s memory and be able to display the scenery in proper perspective from any location, facing in any direction, as the player hacked her away toward the hole. Additionally, given the success their earlier games had enjoyed in Europe it was critical to them that this one also be playable from cassette, meaning the whole program — including the four separate 18-hole courses they wanted to include — should reside in memory at once. This was hardly playing to the natural strengths of the 64, whose graphics had been designed with 2D sprite-based games in mind. The solution they arrived at was to first design and store about 30 different polygons, each of which could be used to represent an “island” on the course, which was otherwise assumed to be pure water. Each hole of each course could then be built by arranging these islands, up to seven of them per hole, in different, often overlapping configurations. Just as his tile-graphics system allowed Richard Garriott to build huge worlds by mixing and matching reusable chunks of landscape, these reusable polygons saved the Carvers gobs of precious memory. The views of the course must be drawn using the Commodore 64′s multicolor bitmap mode; they were too irregular for character graphics. Thus every bit of memory saved was doubly precious, as a multicolor bitmap display consumes a full 10 K of the 64′s 64 K. If you look at the diagrams of the holes, you can see how they’re all built from the same pile of interchangeable parts.

Leader Board course diagrams

By applying the mathematics of 3D perspective, it was now possible to display views from any arbitrary location and facing for every hole — the first necessary step for a 3D golf game. As you can see from the video clip a bit further down the page, when playing the game you can actually watch each polygon/island being drawn in outline form and then filled in with color as each new perspective of the course is generated.

Next must come the golfer himself. It was hugely important to the Carvers that he should make a correct, believable swing. Bruce therefore filmed Roger taking swings under carefully controlled conditions using a high-quality video camera. About every fourth frame of the swing was developed as a slide and projected onto a glass screen, from which Roger could trace it onto graph paper using colored pencils, to be translated from there into the grid of bits that makes up each frame of each sprite in the Commodore 64′s memory. Or rather, six different areas of the image were each individually translated: the actual golfer, club included, is built from no fewer than six of the 64′s eight available sprites, each of a single color and carefully placed in relation to its siblings; thus the golfer’s white shirt and hat are made from one sprite, his brown pants from another, his black club from yet another, etc. (Although Bruce Carver first made his reputation through his mastery of multicolor sprites, Leader Board actually makes no use of them.) As the golfer goes through his swing, each sprite steps through its own sequence of bitmaps to recreate as closely as possible the smooth swing that had been originally captured on video.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Now how to have the player actually control the swing? After much experimentation, the Carvers hit upon a system that didn’t try to duplicate the actual motions of a swing via complicated joystick jerks of the sort Epyx tended to favor in their Games series, but somehow just felt better than anything else. (The developers of Mean 18 came up with an almost identical system simultaneously but apparently independently.) This so-called “three-click” system has persisted with only modest variations for decades as the go-to control scheme for computerized golf; any new game that deviates from it always provokes intense debate, and those that opt for something other than this by now traditional approach often all but define themselves by their rejection of the golf-swing status quo.

In Leader Board, then, you first aim the shot horizontally with a small targeting cursor, then press and hold the joystick button to begin your back swing. You release it when you’re ready to end the back swing — more back swing will hit the ball farther — but must be careful not to wait too long. The golfer now begins his forward swing. Hit the button again just as the club strikes the ball to “snap” it straight, or slightly before or after to deliberately — or, more likely, accidentally — hook or slice it to the left or right. Timing being so critical in this, the very heart of the game of golf whether played in the real world or on a computer, the simulation here had to be absolutely smooth, consistent, and precise. As in many other places in Leader Board, the Carvers took advantage of the Commodore 64′s timer-interrupt system to be sure of this. (Timer interrupts work similarly to the raster interrupts I discussed in an earlier article, except that they are triggered not by the movements of the electron gun which paints the screen but rather can be set to occur at a precise interval of microseconds.)

After the ball is struck, its X, Y, and Z vectors are calculated, taking into account the swing itself, gravity and air resistance, and, if you’re playing at “Professional” level, the wind. The ball is represented by a seventh sprite, which can have a number of possible sizes depending on its distance from you. In a nice touch that adds a welcome note of verisimilitude, the eighth sprite is employed as the shadow of the ball in flight; before the ball is struck, when it’s lying on the ground before you, this sprite is used to represent the targeting cursor. The movement of the ball and its shadow are again tied to the 64′s interrupt timer to assure that they are absolutely smooth and believable. If the sprite lands in the water, you have to try again; likewise, in yet another simplification, if you send it off the screen to left or right. Otherwise another view is generated from where the ball landed, and the hole continues. It is possible to hit the ball directly into the hole from the fairway, even to score a hole in one on some of the shorter holes, but it’s very, very difficult; in the couple of dozen complete games I’ve played recently (we got a bit obsessed with Leader Board around here for a while), I’ve managed it exactly once.

More commonly, you’ll eventually end up on the putting green, defined in Leader Board as simply an arbitrary circle 64 feet in radius around the hole. With no need for the concept of a snap, the control scheme is here simplified: just aim with the targeting cursor, then hold down the button until the power meter reaches the desired level, keeping in mind that a ball that’s traveling too fast when it reaches the hole will bounce right over it.

In order to make putting any real challenge, the Carvers were forced to add back in the concept of elevation they had excised from the rest of the simulation. The problem became how to portray slope on the relatively small surface of the green given a screen resolution of just 160 X 200. The ideal method would have been to add color shading to visually indicate contour, but they already needed to keep available four colors — the maximum permitted by the Commodore 64′s VIC-II graphics chip in any 4 X 8-pixel region — for drawing the other elements of the landscape. The somewhat kludgy and not entirely intuitive solution became a visual indicator, conveniently drawn in two of the available colors, to the left of the golfer. The vertical line represents the magnitude of the slope; the other represents its direction. The same system is used to represent wind intensity and direction when not on the green.

With that, plus a small battery of sound effects which are often cleverly reused — for instance, the splash when a ball strikes water is always the same waveform played at one of four volumes depending on the distance of the ball — the Carvers had something quite special, if also something that was, like any game, full of sacrifices and compromises. They had always seen this minimalist world of green land and blue water as a mere jumping-off point. Now, however, their planned shipping date loomed, and Access wasn’t in a financial position to miss it. Therefore Leader Board went out the door as-is very early in 1986. When it proved a hit, the Carvers happily returned to the Leader Board well again and again: via Leader Board Tournament, a bare-bones sequel featuring four new courses but the same engine; via Executive Leader Board later in 1986, which added sand traps and trees; and finally via World Class Leader Board and three course expansion disks (Famous Courses of the World) in 1987 and 1988. By this time, the Carvers had something that approached a real game of golf, with real-world golf courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, fairways and roughs and a whole variety of trees and other hazards, and variably shaped and sized greens. They had also largely remade Access in the eyes of gamers, from the Beach-Head company to the Leader Board company. Having accomplished all they felt they could on the Commodore 64 and seeing which way the industry winds were blowing, the Carvers now turned to bigger MS-DOS machines and what would become the most successful golf franchise of all, Links — a story for another time.

Executive Leader Board

Executive Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

Before we say goodbye to Leader Board, I want to take a moment here to say just how ridiculously entertaining it is, even in its most minimalist configuration. There’s something elegant and classic about those bifurcated, abstract landscapes of the first Leader Board — enough so that, while the later Leader Boards are certainly more impressive as golfing simulations, I’m not entirely sure they’re all that much better as computer games. Leader Board is an engaging little diversion played alone against the course, trying to come in under par (there is no computer opponent available). But get some friends together and it’s absolute magic, like so many of the best Commodore 64 games and so many of my personal favorites. Find yourself an open-minded friend or two or three who are willing to overlook 8-bit-era graphics and give it a shot; I’ve prepared a download that includes the original Leader Board, Executive Leader Board, and World Class Leader Board — which I think I can without causing a great deal of controversy call the definitive 8-bit golf game — with all the course disks also included courtesy of some ingenious hackers from the days of yore. Fire up a Commodore 64 emulator and try it even if you wouldn’t be caught dead on a real golf course. Golf just works on a computer, as millions of players with no interest whatsoever in the real game have discovered over the years. A grand tradition begins in earnest right here.

(Sources this time out are the same as for the last article.)

 
 

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Access Software

Bruce and Roger Carver,  1985

Bruce and Roger Carver, 1985

The canon of Access Software is crazily varied in light of its relatively modest size. It begins with a utility and then proceeds through a series of frenetic action games of sometimes questionable taste, only to do an abrupt about-face and embrace that most staid of sports, golf. That long-line line of simulations is then joined by a series of gloriously cheesy full-motion-video adventure games. The variety is even more remarkable when you consider that the output of this modest company is largely derived from the minds of just three men: brothers Bruce and Roger Carver and one Chris Jones, instantly recognizable to adventure-game fans as the trench-coated future-noir detective Tex Murphy. The Access story begins in 1982, long before the technology that enabled Tex was more than a dream, when Bruce Carver took home one of the first Commodore 64s to be sold in Salt Lake City.

Bruce was hardly your stereotypical computer whiz kid. Reared in the conservative bosom of Mormonism, he was a settled 34-year-old family man, more than ten years into a career in industrial engineering, when he bought his 64. He’d been introduced to programming some fifteen years earlier at university, then gotten a baptism by fire in his first job after, in the San Francisco offices of the Pacific Fruit Express Company.

They had a computer that no one knew how to work. One day the boss dropped a pile of manuals on my desk and, “Learn how to work this thing — I see you’ve taken Fortran in college.”

I dug through the books until I figured out how it worked and programmed a lot of it myself. By that time, I was working in machine language, something I had never done before — I was used to working with high-level languages. At that point, I fell in love with computers.

After “talking his wife into” the idea years later, he bought a Commodore 64 system from Steve Witzel, owner of a local store called Computers Plus. Bruce found the 64 captivating, rediscovering a passion for hacking that had been lying dormant all these years. Soon he was devoting all the time he could spare to figuring out how the little machine in his basement worked.

That could be a more difficult proposition than you might think. In years to come the 64 would see its humble innards plumbed and charted and exploited to a degree matched by few other platforms in computing history. Those first machines, however, preceded the foundation for most of the vast literature to follow, Commodore’s official Programmer’s Reference Guide, by almost a year. The only source early buyers had for understanding the machine was the sketchy outline provided in the manual in the form of yet another BASIC programming primer. And the 64 was an unusually inscrutable machine at that. Its BASIC was of little use for divining or exploiting the 64′s true capabilities, given that it was the exact same BASIC that Jack Tramiel had purchased from Bill Gates for the Commodore PET back in 1977. It thus lacked any support whatsoever for most of what made the 64 special, like colors and sprites and the SID sound chip. The only way to access these capabilities in BASIC was to POKE values into memory locations and to PEEK at others to see what was inside. Problem was, you had to know what these memory locations were in the first place, for which the manual was of only limited help at best. And so thousands of early adopters like Bruce Carver set out to divine them for themselves, to construct a map of the machine and its capabilities, by methodically POKEing each of the 65,535 addresses and seeing what happened. It was madness, but it was a delightful sort of madness for the right sort of mind.

Bruce’s personal obsession became the 64′s sprite system, particularly a little-understood, semi-mythical something called a “multicolor” sprite that was mentioned in passing in two tables inside the manual but otherwise went completely unremarked. As I wrote in an earlier article about the 64′s technical capabilities, and as Bruce now discovered after a “long systematic search” just to find the video chip, a multicolored sprite let you use up to three colors rather than just one to construct it, at the expense of half the object’s horizontal detail. Bruce’s discoveries led to his first real Commodore 64 project, an editor which let him design single- or multicolor sprites interactively, then save them in a format easy to incorporate into either BASIC or assembly-language. He took it to Computers Plus to show Witzel, who told him that, if he applied just a bit more polish and wrote a manual for it, he’d have a perfectly salable product. This encouragement led to the founding of Access Software just four feverish months after Bruce had first set up his Commodore 64. Witzel, who would become a lifelong friend, knew very well how software distribution and sales worked, and was thus able to help Bruce get a foot in the door of the software industry.

Spritemaster Spritemaster

Both Access’s first product and the first 64 product of its type, Spritemaster proved to be quite successful. It also led to an unexpected windfall of another sort. Bruce:

In December of 1982, I decided to attend a small Commodore dealer show in San Francisco. It was the perfect stage to introduce my new program to the public. The Commodore representative who was running the show came over and asked me if that was multicolored sprites I was displaying on the screen. I replied, yes, it was. He was so impressed with my work that he offered me a Xerox of a Commodore folder containing 64 technical information. He also warned me not to tell anyone else that I had it. So I returned home with a valuable prize that would save me many long hours of playing around with the computer.

Neutral Zone

The first Access game, Neutral Zone, arose directly out of Bruce’s latest technical explorations. It placed the player in charge of a missile battery defending a space station from hordes of aliens. The big gimmick was the way that the player could pan her weapon — and with it the screen — horizontally through a full 360 degrees to target aliens who flew in from everywhere. This was accomplished by taking advantage of scrolling registers that were not even hinted at by the Commodore 64′s manual and whose existence was thus completely unknown to most programmers. Aided by that precious notebook, Bruce was developing a reputation as one of the machine’s programming gurus. While he himself would later admit that Neutral Zone “isn’t a terrific game,” it was one hell of a technical tour de force for early 1983. At another trade show, this time in Florida, the same Commodore representative approached Bruce again to praise it, apparently without recognizing the fellow for whom his own help had been so instrumental.

Neutral Zone did well enough that Bruce decided to quit his day job at Redd Engineering, managing the neat trick of convincing some of Redd’s owners to invest in Access in the process; he would soon set up Access’s first office on the top floor of Redd’s own building. At this point Chris Jones enters the stage, in the uniform not of a roguish detective but rather a mild-mannered accountant — specifically, the Redd Engineering colleague Bruce had hired to do Access’s taxes. In the midst of that, Chris became entranced with the work Bruce was doing. Never of a technical bent himself, Chris was full of creative ideas for the application of Bruce’s ever-growing mastery of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. The two now agreed to do a game together, the first “real game” from Access that had been “planned in depth ahead of time, before any programming.”

Beach-Head Beach-Head

Beach-Head was inspired by the pair’s love for old World War II movies of the gung-ho John Wayne stripe. It charges you with recapturing an island that has been occupied by an enemy known only as “the Dictator.” Doing so requires the successful completion of no less than five individual action games. You must guide the invasion fleet toward the island whilst avoiding mines and torpedo attacks; fend off an enemy air attack on your fleet, followed by a surface attack; and finally storm the beaches and complete the final assault on the island’s central fortress. While hardly a cerebral exercise, it’s interesting for the amount of narrative it grafts onto its action-game template, and for being more sophisticated in some ways than you might expect. Far from being just five separate games packaged together, actions and, most importantly, casualties sustained in earlier phases actually affect later ones, leaving you with a tidy, unique little story at the end about your invasion (or invasion attempt).

Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown

Soon after Beach-Head‘s late 1983 American release, opportunity walked through the door in the form of the slick and stylish Englishman Geoff Brown, a former rock musician who owned and ran a major British software distributor called Centresoft. (In an interesting coincidence, “Center Soft” was one of the names Bruce had rejected for what became Access Software.) Brown now had the idea of starting his own software line called U.S. Gold, which would, as the name would imply, license the best games from the United States, repackage them for Europe — which would generally involve adapting them to work on cassette — and promote the living hell out of them; if there was one thing Brown was good at, it was promotion. For American publishers, U.S. Gold would be a cheap, painless way to maximize their markets, while for Geoff Brown it would turn into gold of another stripe; he would soon be driving one of only twenty Ferrari Testarossas on the roads of Britain. U.S. Gold’s client list would soon include a major swathe of the American games industry: Adventure International, Microprose, Epyx, Datasoft, SSI, Accolade, Sierra On-Line. Within a year they would own 25 percent of the British games industry, while Brown collected plenty of hate from domestic publishers for his blunt claim that American software was just better than European software as well as for an advertising budget that ran to five times the size of his nearest competitor. Yet it all started when Brown convinced Bruce Carver and his tiny company Access to let him bring Beach-Head to Europe as the very first U.S. Gold game.

Beach-Head was a perfect template for Brown’s vision for U.S. Gold: flashy, fast-paced, not very dependent on text, and thanks to its modular design very playable off cassette. “I couldn’t believe how fantastic it looked, with smooth animation and very realistic graphics,” Brown would later say. “The gameplay was like nothing I had ever seen in the UK, streets ahead of the competing UK product.” With Brown’s promotional savvy behind it, it became huge in Europe, selling in the vicinity of 150,000 units in its first year there and making of Bruce Carver a programming hero for countless European kids. Brown claims that it prompted home-grown British developers to “scrap everything they were working on” and start over to try to reach the bar set by Beach-Head. He also claims today that he shipped 1 million copies of Beach-Head through U.S. Gold, but it should be said that he is a bit prone to hyperbole and this number sounds extreme. Regardless, the game went on to become not just the most successful by far of Access’s early efforts but one of the seminal Commodore 64 titles, one that absolutely every kid with a 64 knew, owned, and played, whether legally or (as was much more the norm) illegally acquired.

Raid Over Moscow Raid Over Moscow

Bruce came up with the title of Access’s next game, Raid Over Moscow, whilst driving home from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1984 with some friends. The game, another multi-stage “arcade adventure,” was designed around the name. But this time Bruce and Chris walked, by their account naively, into controversy. In place of the abstractly fictional Dictator of Beach-Head, Raid Over Moscow posits a sneak nuclear attack by the very real Soviet Union, which you must defend against using an SDI-like system. It climaxes with the eponymous assault on Moscow itself; if you succeed here you leave behind a smoking nuclear crater. In questionable taste though it was, the game attracted little concern in the United States, where its jingoism felt sadly in step with those times when Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric was reaching a peak, the real SDI program was all over the news, and the superpowers were closer to the brink of nuclear war than they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Europe, much closer to Moscow and much more aware of the horrors of war thanks to recent history, it was a different story: Raid Over Moscow caused the proverbial shitstorm upon its release through U.S. Gold. The magazine letter pages in Britain erupted with condemnations: “nuclear war is not a subject for fantasy”; “another sick episode of this American hang-up with the people of Russia”; “provocative, insulting, and harmful”; “a nasty little number”; “vicious propaganda”; “a load of American rubbish.” Others were equally strident in declaring Raid Over Moscow harmless, “just a game,” as the controversy spread from gaming circles to television newscasts, radio shows, and of course the always overheated London tabloids. In France and West Germany the game was released as simply Raid!!!, but that didn’t help in the latter country, whose government promptly banned it — and Beach-Head for good measure — from being advertised, sold to minors at all, or even displayed on store shelves. But the most extreme reaction of all happened in Finland, where the controversy made it to the halls of Parliament and prompted an official protest from the Soviet Union to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, calling the game “military propaganda” amongst other choice epithets. Naturally, Raid Over Moscow spent the several months that followed as the top-selling Commodore 64 game in Finland.

Even as he publicly dismissed the controversy by taking the “just a game” angle, Geoff Brown rubbed his hands in glee in deference to the old maxim that no press is bad press. Bruce Carver and Chris Jones, who whatever their personal politics did seem genuinely bewildered and at least somewhat bothered by it all, later claimed that Brown deliberately sparked the flames by contacting known “hawks” and “doves” in London political circles to tell them about the game and get them squawking at each other before it even came out. Later Brown supposedly stoked them by paying people to picket the Soviet Embassy in Raid Over Moscow tee-shirts, until Bruce finally told him to please just cool it.

Meanwhile back in Nevada, the last piece of the Access puzzle had fallen into place in the form of Bruce’s younger brother Roger, who had spent the last nine years in the Navy programming mainframe-based flight simulators. Intrigued by his brother’s programming exploits, he bought a Commodore 64 of his own, and quickly made a poker game that was quite playable. Impressed, Bruce convinced Roger not to reenlist but rather to come work with him instead in June of 1984; by this time Access was turning at last into a real company, with real offices and real employees. The two brothers worked along with Chris Jones on the inevitable Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back, yet another episodic military action game but one which did stretch the formula considerably by making it possible for two players to play against each other, one in the role of the Dictator and the other in that of the hero.

Beach-Head II Beach-Head II

Beach-Head II‘s other obvious innovation marked the onset of another of the Carvers’ longstanding technical obsessions. Inspired by the digitized speech snippet in Epyx’s Impossible Mission, they started looking for a way to incorporate speech into their own game. They caught up with Doug Mosser, whose company Electronic Speech Systems had been responsible for that snippet, at the January 1985 CES. Together the two companies were able to shoehorn quite a variety of spoken exclamations — all performed by Access’s package artist, Doug Vandergrift — into Beach-Head II, no mean feat given the limited speed and memory of the Commodore 64; just playing back one of these samples required about half of the 6502 CPU’s cycles, leaving precious little for everything else going on. While they didn’t come up with anything quite as indelible as Impossible Mission‘s “Stay a while! Stay forever!,” wounded soldiers in Beach-Head II scream for a “Medic!”; hostages whine, “Hey, don’t shoot me!”; the Dictator himself cackles and issues appropriate Evil Mastermindish threats. The Carvers would continue to relentlessly push the (often rudimentary) sound capabilities of the computers on which they worked, culminating in a patented system, which they dubbed RealSound, for getting, well, real sound and speech out of the IBM PC’s primitive bleeper of a speaker. It would be licensed to a number of other companies, until the arrival of ubiquitous sound cards made it moot.

Beach-Head II foreshadowed Access’s future in still another way. The opening sequence sees your forces parachuting into the Dictator’s stronghold from helicopters, then mounting an initial assault on the defensive perimeter. Trying to make the soldiers’ movements as realistic as possible, the three Access principals went out to a local park and filmed themselves running and scaling walls on a new video camera Roger had recently acquired. They then traced still frames of their figures to make the sprites in the game. This interest in the incorporation of live-action video footage — Roger and Chris were both to one degree or another frustrated filmmakers — would mark virtually every project Access would undertake for the next fifteen years.

For all its small-scale innovations, Beach-Head II, Access’s third episodic military action game, could be read as too much of a good thing. Sales certainly bore that out: Beach-Head had been a massive hit, Raid Over Moscow, despite all of the controversy and the attendant publicity, slightly less of one, while Beach-Head II sold yet worse. Access thus decided on a major change in direction: to make a multi-event sports simulation, a genre in which their developing motion-capture techniques might give them a big edge over the competition. From a commercial standpoint if nothing else, it made a lot of sense; Summer Games I and II from Epyx were absolutely huge in both North America and Europe (where they were released, naturally, under the U.S. Gold imprint).

The original conception for what would become Leader Board hewed very closely indeed to the Epyx model. Access imagined a game that consisted of four separate events: a baseball home-run derby, a soccer penalty kick, a “closest to the pin” golf challenge (meaning each player got three shots to get as close to a single hole as possible), and something else to be determined in the fullness of time. Roger being an excellent golfer, with a handicap that had been known to get as low as 3, they decided to make the golf challenge first. By the time they were done, it seemed obvious that they had something special, worthy of being expanded into a full-fledged 18-hole golf simulation. The other three events were forgotten, and Leader Board was born.

(The longest and most detailed accounts of Access’s early history are found in the July 1987 and August 1987 Commodore Magazine, the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play, and Retro Gamer #120. Geoff Brown and U.S. Gold are profiled in the June 1985 ZZap!, the July 1986 Commodore User, and the October 1986 Your Computer. A sampling of reactions to Road to Moscow can be found in the October 1984, December 1984, February 1985, and March 1985 Computer and Video Games, and the April 1985 Sinclair User. And finally, not reading Finnish, I must admit that I sourced the Raid Over Moscow controversy in Finland straight from good old Wikipedia.)

 
 

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Apple, Carmen Sandiego, and the Rise of Edutainment

If there was any one application that was the favorite amongst early boosters of personal computing, it was education. Indeed, it could sometimes be difficult to find one of those digital utopianists who was willing to prioritize anything else — unsurprisingly, given that so much early PC culture grew out of places like The People’s Computer Company, who made “knowledge is power” their de facto mantra and talked of teaching people about computers and using computers to teach with equal countercultural fervor. Creative Computing, the first monthly magazine dedicated to personal computing, grew out of that idealistic milieu, founded by an educational consultant who filled a big chunk of its pages with plans, schemes, and dreams for computers as tools for democratizing, improving, and just making schooling more fun. A few years later, when Apple started selling the II, they pushed it hard as the learning computer, making deals with the influential likes of the Minnesota Educational Consortium (MECC) of Oregon Trail fame that gave the machine a luster none of its competitors could touch. For much of the adult public, who may have had their first exposure to a PC when they visited a child’s classroom, the Apple II became synonymous with the PC, which was in turn almost synonymous with education in the days before IBM turned it into a business machine. We can still see the effect today: when journalists and advertisers look for an easy story of innovation to which to compare some new gadget, it’s always the Apple II they choose, not the TRS-80 or Commodore PET. And the iconic image of an Apple II in the public’s imagination remains a group of children gathered around it in a classroom.

For all that, though, most of the early educational software really wasn’t so compelling. The works of Edu-Ware, the first publisher to make education their main focus, were fairly typical. Most were created or co-created by Edu-Ware co-founder Sherwin Steffin, who brought with him a professional background of more than twenty years in education and education theory. He carefully outlined his philosophy of computerized instruction, backed as it was by all the latest research into the psychology of learning, in long-winded, somewhat pedantic essays for Softalk and Softline magazines, standard bearers of the burgeoning Apple II community. Steffin’s software may or may not have correctly applied the latest pedagogical research, but it mostly failed at making children want to learn with it. The programs were generally pretty boring exercises in drill and practice, lacking even proper titles. Fractions, Arithmetic Skills, or Compu-Read they said on their boxes, and fractions, arithmetic, or (compu-)reading was what you got, a series of dry drills to work through without a trace of whit, whimsy, or fun.

The other notable strand of early PC-based education was the incestuous practice of using the computer to teach kids about computers. The belief that being able to harness the power of the computer through BASIC would somehow become a force for social democratization and liberation is an old one, dating back to even before the first issues of Creative Computing — to the People’s Computer Club and, indeed, to the very researchers at Dartmouth University who created BASIC in the 1960s. As BASIC’s shortcomings became more and more evident, other instructional languages and courses based on them kept popping up in the early 1980s: PILOT, Logo, COMAL, etc. This craze for “computer literacy,” which all but insisted that every kid who didn’t learn to program was going to end up washing dishes or mowing lawns for a living, peaked along with the would-be home-computer revolution in about 1983. Advocating for programming as a universal life skill was like suggesting in 1908 that everyone needed to learn to take a car apart and put it back together to prepare for the new world that was about to arrive with the Model T — which, in an example of how some things never really change, was exactly what many people in 1908 were in fact suggesting. Joseph Weizenbaum of Eliza fame, always good for a sober corrective to the more ebullient dreams of his colleagues, offered a take on the real computerized future that was shockingly prescient by comparing the computer to the electric motor.

There are undoubtedly many more electric motors in the United States than there are people, and almost everybody owns a lot of electric motors without thinking about it. They are everywhere, in automobiles, food mixers, vacuum cleaners, even watches and pencil sharpeners. Yet, it doesn’t require any sort of electric-motor literacy to get on with the world, or, more importantly, to be able to use these gadgets.

Another important point about electric motors is that they’re invisible. If you question someone using a vacuum cleaner, of course they know that there is an electric motor inside. But nobody says, “Well, I think I’ll use an electric motor programmed to be a vacuum cleaner to vacuum the floor.”

The computer will also become largely invisible, as it already is to a large extent in the consumer market. I believe that the more pervasive the computer becomes, the more invisible it will become. We talk about it a lot now because it is new, but as we get used to the computer it will retreat into the background. How much hands-on computer experience will students need? The answer, of course, is not very much. The student and the practicing professional will operate special-purpose instruments that happen to have computers as components.

The pressure to make of every kid a programmer gradually faded as the 1980s wore on, leaving programming to those of us who found it genuinely fascinating. Today even the term “computer literacy,” always a strange linguistic choice anyway, feels more and more like a relic of history as this once-disruptive and scary new force has become as everyday as, well, the electric motor.

As for those other educational programs, they — at least some of them — got better by mid-decade. Programs like Number Munchers, Math Blaster, and Reader Rabbit added a bit more audiovisual sugar to their educational vegetables along with a more gamelike framework to their repetitive drills, and proved better able to hold children’s interest. For all the early rhetoric about computers and education, one could argue that the real golden age of the Apple II as an educational computer didn’t begin until about 1983 or 1984.

By that time a new category of educational software, partly a marketing construct but partly a genuinely new thing, was becoming more and more prominent: edutainment. Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, has often claimed to have invented the portmanteau for EA’s 1984 title Seven Cities of Gold, but this is incorrect; a company called Milliken Publishing was already using the label for their programs for the Atari 8-bit line in late 1982, and it was already passing into common usage by the end of 1983. Edutainment dispensed with the old drill-and-practice model in preference to more open, playful forms of interactions that nevertheless promised, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to teach. The skills they taught, meanwhile, were generally not the rigid, disembodied stuff of standardized tests but rather embedded organically into living virtual worlds. It’s all but impossible to name any particular game as the definitive first example of such a nebulous genre, but a good starting point might be Tom Snyder and Spinnaker Software.

Tom Snyder, 1984

Tom Snyder, 1984

Snyder had himself barely made it through high school. He came to blame his own failings as a student on his inability to relate to exactly the notions of arbitrary, contextless education that marked the early era of PC educational software: “Here, learn this set of facts. Write this paper. This is what you must know. This is what’s important.” When he became a fifth-grade teacher years later, he made it a point to ground his lessons always in the real world, to tell his students why it was useful to know the things he taught them and how it all related to the world around them. He often used self-designed games, first done with pencil and paper and cardboard and later done on computers, to let his students explore knowledge and its ramifications. In 1980 he founded a groundbreaking development company, Tom Snyder Productions, to commercialize some of those efforts. One of them became Snooper Troops, published as one of Spinnaker’s first titles in 1982; it had kids wandering around a small town trying to solve a mystery by compiling clues and using their powers of deduction. The next year’s In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, still a beloved memory of many of those who played it, combined clue-gathering with elements of economics and even diplomacy in a vast open world. Unlike so much other children’s software, Snyder’s games never talked down to their audience; children are after all just as capable of sensing when they’re being condescended to as anyone else. They differed most dramatically from the drill-and-practice software that preceded them in always making the educational elements an organic part of their worlds. One of Snyder’s favorite mantras applies to educational software as much as it does to any other creative endeavor and, indeed, to life: “Don’t be boring.” The many games of Tom Snyder Productions, most of which were not actually designed by Snyder himself, were often crude and slow, written as often as not in BASIC. But, at least at the conceptual level, they were seldom boring.

It’s of course true that a plain old game that requires a degree of thoughtfulness and a full-on work of edutainment can be very hard to disentangle from one another. Like so much else in life, the boundaries here can be nebulous at best, and often had as much to do with marketing, with the way a title was positioned by its owner, as with any intrinsic qualities of the title itself. When we go looking for those intrinsics, we can come up with only a grab bag of qualities of which any given edutainment title was likely to share a subset: being based on real history or being a simulation of some real aspect of science or technology; being relatively nonviolent; emphasizing thinking and logical problem-solving rather than fast reflexes. Like pornography, edutainment is something that many people seemed to just know when they saw it.

That said, there were plenty of titles that straddled the border between entertainment and edutainment. Spinnaker’s Telarium line of adventure games is a good example. Text-based games that were themselves based on books, published by a company that had heretofore specialized in education and edutainment… it wasn’t hard to grasp why parents might be expected to find them appealing, even if they were never explicitly marketed as anything other than games. Spinnaker’s other line of adventures, Windham Classics, blurred the lines even more by being based on acknowledged literary classics of the sort kids might be assigned to read in school rather than popular science fiction and fantasy, and by being directly pitched at adolescents of about ten to fourteen years of age. Tellingly, Tom Synder Productions wrote one of the Windham Classics games; Dale Disharoon, previously a developer of Spinnaker educational software like Alphabet Zoo, wrote two more.

A certain amount of edutational luster clung to the text adventure in general, was implicit in much of the talk about interactive fiction as a new form of literature that was so prevalent during the brief bookware boom. One could even say it clung to the home computer itself, in the form of notions about “good screens” and “bad screens.” The family television was the bad screen, locus of those passive and mindless broadcasts that have set parents and educators fretting almost from the moment the medium was invented, and now the home of videogames, the popularity of which caused a reactionary near-hysteria in some circles; they would inure children to violence (if they thought Space Invaders was bad, imagine what they’d say about the games of today!) and almost literally rot their brains, making of them mindless slack-jawed zombies. The computer monitor, on the other hand, was the good screen, home of more thoughtful and creative forms of interaction and entertainment. What parent wouldn’t prefer to see her kid playing, say, Project: Space Station rather than Space Invaders? Home-computer makers and software publishers — at least the ones who weren’t making Space Invaders clones — caught on to this dynamic early and rode it hard.

As toy manufacturers had realized decades before, there are essentially two ways to market children’s entertainment. One way is to appeal to the children themselves, to make them want your product and nag Mom and Dad until they relent. The other is to appeal directly to Mom and Dad, to convince them that what you’re offering will be an improving experience for their child, perhaps with a few well-placed innuendoes if you can manage them about how said child will be left behind if she doesn’t have your product. With that in mind, it can be an interesting experiment to look at the box copy from software of the early home-computer era whilst asking yourself whether it’s written for the kids who were most likely to play it or the parents who were most likely to pay for it — or whether it hedges its bets by offering a little for both. Whatever else it was, emphasizing the educational qualities of your game was just good marketing; a 1984 survey found that 46 percent of computers in homes had been purchased by parents with the primary goal of improving their children’s education. It was the perfect market for the title that would come to stand alongside The Oregon Trail as one of the two classic examples of 1980s edutainment software.

Doug, Cathy, and Gary Carlston, 1983

Doug, Cathy, and Gary Carlston, 1983

The origins of the game that would become known as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? are confused, with lots of oft-contradictory memories and claims flying around. However, the most consistent story has it beginning with an idea by Gary Carlston of Brøderbund Software in 1983. He and his brother Doug had been fascinated by their family’s almanac as children: “We used to lie there and ask each other questions out of the almanac.” This evolved into impromptu quiz games in bed after the lights went out. Gary now proposed a game or, better yet, a series of games which would have players running down a series of clues about geography and history, answerable via a trusty almanac or other reference work to be included along with the game disk right there in the box.

Brøderbund didn’t actually develop much software in-house, preferring to publish the work of outside developers on a contract basis. While they did have a small staff of programmers and even artists, they were there mainly to assist outside developers by helping with difficult technical problems, porting code to other machines, and polishing in-game art rather than working up projects from scratch. But this idea just seemed to have too much potential to ignore or outsource. Gary was therefore soon installed in Brøderbund’s “rubber room” — so-called because it was the place where people went to bounce ideas off one another — along with Lauren Elliott, the company’s only salaried game designer; Gene Portwood, Elliott’s best friend, manager of Brøderbund’s programming team, and a pretty good artist; Ed Bernstein, head of Brøderbund’s art department; and programmer Dane Bigham, who would be expected to write not so much a game as a cross-platform database-driven engine that could power many ports and sequels beyond the Apple II original.

Gary’s first idea was to name the game Six Crowns of Henry VIII, and to make it a scavenger hunt for the eponymous crowns through Britain. However, the team soon turned that into something wider-scoped and more appealing to the emerging American edutainment market. You would be chasing an international criminal ring through cities located all over the world, trying to recover a series of stolen cultural artifacts, like a jade goddess from Singapore, an Inca mask from Peru, or a gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral (wonder how the thieves managed that one). It’s not entirely clear who came up with the idea for making the leader of the ring, whose capture would become the game’s ultimate goal, a woman named Carmen Sandiego, but Elliott believes the credit most likely belongs to Portwood. Regardless, everyone immediately liked the idea. “There were enough male bad guys,” said Elliott later, and “girls [could] be just as bad.” (Later, when the character became famous, Brøderbund would take some heat from Hispanic groups who claimed that the game associated a Hispanic surname with criminality. Gary replied with a tongue-in-cheek letter explaining that “Sandiego” was actually Carmen’s married name, that her maiden name was “Sondberg” and she was actually Swedish.) When development started in earnest, the Carmen team was pared down to a core trio of Eliott, who broadly speaking put together the game’s database of clues and cities; Portwood, who drew the graphics; and Bigham, who wrote the code. But, as Eliott later said, “A lot of what we did just happened. We didn’t think much about it.”

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

To play that first Carmen Sandiego game today can be just a bit of an underwhelming experience; there’s just not that much really to it. Each of a series of crimes and the clues that lead you to the perpetrator are randomly generated from the game’s database of 10 possible suspects, 30 cities, and 1000 or so clues. Starting in the home city of the stolen treasure in question, you have about five days to track down each suspect. Assuming you’re on the right track, you’ll get clues in each city as to the suspect’s next destination among the several possibilities represented by the airline connections from that city: perhaps he “wanted to know the price of tweed” or “wanted to sail on the Severn.” (Both of these clues would point you to Britain, more specifically to London.) If you make the right deductions each step of the way you’ll apprehend the suspect in plenty of time. You’ll know you’ve made the wrong choice if you wind up at a dead-end city with no further clues on offer. Your only choice then is to backtrack, wasting precious time in the process. The tenth and final suspect to track down is always Carmen Sandiego herself, who for all of her subsequent fame is barely characterized at all in this first installment. Capture her, and you retire to the “Detective Hall of Fame.” There’s a little bit more to it, like the way that you must also compile details of the suspect’s appearance as you travel so you can eventually fill out an arrest warrant, but not a whole lot. Any modern player with Wikipedia open in an adjacent window can easily finish all ten cases and win the game in a matter of a few hours at most. By the time you do, the game’s sharply limited arsenal of clues, cities, and stolen treasures is already starting to feel repetitive.

Which is not to say that Carmen Sandiego is entirely bereft of modern appeal. When my wife and I played it over the course of a few evenings recently, we learned a few interesting things we hadn’t known before and even discovered a new country that I at least had never realized existed: the microstate of San Marino, beloved by stamp and coin collectors and both the oldest and the smallest constitutional republic in the world. My wife is now determined that we should make a holiday there.

Still, properly appreciating Carmen Sandiego‘s contemporary appeal requires of us a little more work. The logical place to start is with that huge World Almanac and Books of Facts that made the game’s box the heaviest on the shelves. It can be a bit hard even for those of us old enough to have grown up before the World Wide Web to recover the mindset of an era before we had the world in our living rooms — or, better said in this age of mobile computing, in our pockets. Back in those days when you had to go to a library to do research, when your choices of recreation of an evening were between whatever shows the dozen or so television stations were showing and whatever books you had in the house, an almanac was magic to any kid with a healthy curiosity about the world and a little imagination, what with its thousand or more pages filled with exotic lands along with records of deeds, buildings, cities, people, animals, and geography whose very lack of context only made them more alluring. The whole world — and then some; there were star charts and the like for budding astronomers — seemed to have been stuffed within its covers.

In that spirit, one could almost call the Carmen Sandiego game disk ancillary to the almanac rather than the other way around. Who knew what you delights you might stumble over while you tried to figure out, say, in which country the python made its home? The World Almanac continues to come out every year, and seems to have done surprisingly well, all things considered, surviving the forces that have killed dead typical companions on reference shelves like the encyclopedia. But of course it’s lost much of its old magic in these days of information glut. While we can still recapture a little of the old feeling by playing Carmen Sandiego with a web browser open, our search engines have just gotten too good; it’s harder to stumble across the same sorts of crazy facts and alluring diversions.

Carmen Sandiego captured so many kids because it tempted them to discover knowledge for themselves rather than attempting to drill it into them, and all whilst never talking down to them. Gary Carlston said of Brøderbund’s edutainment philosophy, “If we would’ve enjoyed it at age 12, and if we still it enjoy it now, then it’s what we want. Whether it’s pedagogically correct is not relevant.” Carmen Sandiego did indeed attract criticism from earnest educational theorists armed with studies showing how it failed to live up to the latest research on learning; this low-level drumbeat of criticism continues to this day. Some of it may very well be correct and relevant; I’m hardly qualified to judge. What I do see, though, is that Carmen Sandiego offers a remarkably progressive view of knowledge and education for its time. At a time when schools were still teaching many subjects through rote memorization of facts and dates, when math courses were largely “take this set of numbers and manipulate them to become this other set of numbers” without ever explaining why, Carmen Sandiego grasped that success in the coming world of cheap and ubiquitous data would require not a head stuffed with facts but the ability to extract relevant information from the flood of information that surrounds us, to synthesize it into conclusions, and to apply it to a problem at hand. While drill-and-practice software taught kids to perform specific tasks, Carmen Sandiego, like all the best edutainment software, taught them how to think. Just as importantly, it taught them how much fun doing so could be.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego

Brøderbund may not have been all that concerned about making Carmen Sandiego “pedagogically correct,” but they were hardly blind to the game’s educational value, nor to the marketing potential therein. The back cover alone of Carmen Sandiego is a classic example of edutainment marketing, emphasizing the adventure aspects for the kids while also giving parents a picture of children beaming over an almanac and telling how they will be “introduced to world geography” — and all whilst carefully avoiding the E-word; telling any kid that something is “educational” was and is all but guaranteed to turn her off it completely.

For all that, though, the game proved to be a slow burner rather than an out-of-the-gates hit upon its release in late 1985. It was hardly a flop; sales were strong enough that Brøderbund released the first of many sequels, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, the following year. Yet year by year the game just got more popular, especially when Brøderbund started to reach out more seriously to educators, releasing special editions for schools and sending lots of free swag to those who agreed to host “Carmen Days,” for which students and teachers dressed up as Carmen or her henchmen or the detectives on their trail, and could call in to the “Acme Detective Agency” at Brøderbund itself to talk with Portwood or Elliott playing the role of “the Chief.” The combination of official school approval, the game’s natural appeal to both parents and children, and lots of savvy marketing proved to be a potent symbiosis indeed. Total sales of Carmen Sandiego games passed 1 million in 1989, 2 million in 1991, by which time the series included not only Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? but also Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in America’s Past is Carmen Sandiego?, and the strangely specific Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?, prototype for a proposed series of state-level games that never got any further; Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? would soon go in the opposite direction, rounding out the original series of reference-work-based titles on a cosmic scale. In 1991 Carmen also became a full-fledged media star, the first to be spawned by a computer game, when Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? debuted as a children’s game show on PBS.

A Print Shop banner: an artifact as redolent of its era as Hula Hoops or bellbottoms are of theirs.

A Print Shop banner: an artifact as redolent of its era as Hula Hoops or bellbottoms are of theirs.

Through the early 1980s, Brøderbund had been a successful software publisher, but not outrageously so in comparison to their peers. At mid-decade, though, the company’s fortunes suddenly began to soar just as many of those peers were, shall we say, trending in the opposite direction. Brøderbund’s success was largely down to two breakout products which each succeeded in identifying a real, compelling use for home computers at a time when that was proving far more difficult than the boosters and venture capitalists had predicted. One was of course the Carmen Sandiego line. The other was a little something called The Print Shop, which let users design and print out signs and banners using a variety of fonts and clip art. How such a simple, straightforward application could become so beloved may seem hard to understand today, but beloved The Print Shop most definitely became. For the rest of the decade and beyond its distinctive banners, enabled by the fan-fold paper used by the dot-matrix printers of the day, could be seen everywhere that people without a budget for professional signage gathered: at church socials, at amateur sporting events, inside school hallways and classrooms. Like the first desktop-publishing programs that were appearing on the Macintosh contemporaneously, The Print Shop was one more way in which computers were beginning to democratize creative production, a process, as disruptive and fraught as it is inspiring, that’s still ongoing today.

In having struck two such chords with the public in the form of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego, Brøderbund was far ahead of virtually all of their competitors who failed to find even one. Brøderbund lived something of a charmed existence for years, defying most of the hard-won conventional wisdom about consumer software being a niche product at best and the real money being in business software. If the Carlstons hadn’t been so gosh-darn nice, one might be tempted to begrudge them their success. (Once when the Carlstons briefly considered a merger with Electronic Arts, whose internal culture was much more ruthless and competitive, a writer said it would be a case of the Walton family moving in with the Manson family.) One could almost say that for Brøderbund alone the promises of the home-computer revolution really did materialize, with consumers rushing to buy from them not just games but practical software as well. Tellingly — and assuming we agree to label Carmen Sandiego as an educational product rather than a game — Brøderbund’s top-selling title was never a game during any given year between 1985 and the arrival of the company’s juggernaut of an adventure game Myst in 1993, despite their publication of hits like the Jordan Mechner games Karateka and Prince of Persia. Carmen Sandiego averaged 25 to 30 percent of Brøderbund’s sales during those years, behind only The Print Shop. The two lines together accounted for well over half of yearly revenues that were pushing past $50 million by decade’s end — still puny by the standards of business software but very impressive indeed by that of consumer software.

For the larger software market, Carmen Sandiego — and, for that matter, The Print Shop — were signs that, if the home computer hadn’t quite taken off as expected, it also wasn’t going to disappear or be relegated strictly to the role of niche game machine either, a clear sign that there were or at least with a bit more technological ripening could be good reasons to own one. The same year that Brøderbund pushed into edutainment with Carmen Sandiego, MECC, who had reconstituted themselves as the for-profit (albeit still state-owned) publisher Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation in 1984, released the definitive, graphically enhanced version of that old chestnut The Oregon Trail, a title which shared with Carmen Sandiego an easygoing, progressive, experiential approach to learning. Together Oregon and Carmen became the twin icons of 1980s edutainment, still today an inescapable shared memory for virtually everyone who darkened a grade or middle school door in the United States between about 1985 and 1995.

The consequences of Carmen and Oregon and the many other programs they pulled along in their wake were particularly pronounced for the one remaining viable member of the old trinity of 1977: the Apple II. Lots of people both outside and inside Apple had been expecting the II market to finally collapse for several years already, but so far that had refused to happen. Apple, whose official corporate attitude toward the II had for some time now been vacillating between benevolent condescension and enlightened disinterest, did grant II loyalists some huge final favors now. One was the late 1986 release of the Apple IIGS, a radically updated version produced on a comparative shoestring by the company’s dwindling II engineering team with assistance from Steve Wozniak himself. The IIGS used a 16-bit Western Design Center 65C816 CPU that was capable of emulating the old 8-bit 6502 when necessary but was several times as powerful. Just as significantly, the older IIs’ antiquated graphics and sound were finally given a major overhaul that now made them amongst the best in the industry, just a tier or two below those of the current gold standard, Commodore’s new 68000-based Amiga. The IIGS turned out to be a significant if fairly brief-lived hit, outselling the Macintosh and all other II models by a considerable margin in its first year.

But arguably much more important for the Apple II’s long-term future was a series of special educational offers Apple made during 1986 and 1987. In January of the former year, they announced a rebate program wherein schools could send them old computers made by Apple or any of their competitors in return for substantial rebates on new Apple IIs. In April of that year, they announced major rebates for educators wishing to purchase Apple IIs for home use. Finally, in March of 1987, Apple created two somethings called the Apple Unified School System and the Apple Education Purchase Program, which together represented a major, institutionalized outreach and support effort designed to get even more Apple IIs into schools (and, not incidentally, more Macs into universities). The Apple II had been the school computer of choice virtually from the moment that schools started buying PCs at all, but these steps along with software like Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail cemented and further extended its dominance, to an extent that many schools and families simply refused to let go. The bread-and-butter Apple II model, the IIe, remained in production until November of 1993, by which time this sturdy old machine, thoroughly obsolete already by 1985, was selling almost exclusively to educators and Apple regarded its continued presence in their product catalogs like that of the faintly embarrassing old uncle who just keeps showing up for every Thanksgiving dinner.

Even after the inevitable if long-delayed passing of the Apple II as a fixture in schools, Carmen and Oregon lived on. Both received the requisite CD-ROM upgrades, although it’s perhaps debatable in both instances how much the new multimedia flash really added to the experience. The television Carmen Sandiego game shows also continued to air in various incarnation through the end of the decade. Carmen Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks, conventional young-adult novels, comic books, and a board game were also soon on offer, along with yet more computerized creations like Carmen Sandiego Word Detective. Only with the millennium did Carmen — always a bit milquetoast as a character and hardly the real source of the original games’ appeal — along with The Oregon Trail see their stars finally start to fade. Both retain a certain commercial viability today, but more as kitschy artifacts and nostalgia magnets than serious endeavors in either learning or entertainment. Educational software has finally moved on.

Perhaps not enough, though: it remains about 10 percent inspired, 10 percent acceptable in a workmanlike way, and 80 percent boredom stemming sometimes from well-meaning cluelessness and sometimes from a cynical desire to exploit parents, teachers, and children. Those looking to enter this notoriously underachieving field today could do worse than to hearken back to the simple charms of Carmen Sandiego, created as it was without guile and without reams of pedagogical research to back it up, out of the simple conviction that geography could actually be fun. All learning can be fun. You just have to do it right.

(See Engineering Play by Mizuko Ito for a fairly thorough survey of educational and edutational software from an academic perspective. Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay has an interview with Doug and Gary Carlston which dwells on Carmen Sandiego at some length. Matt Waddell wrote a superb history of Carmen Sandiego for a class at Stanford University in 2001. A piece on Brøderbund on the eve of the first Carmen Sandiego game’s release was published in the September 1985 issue of MicroTimes. A summary of the state of Brøderbund circa mid-1991 appeared in the July 9, 1991, New York Times. Joseph Weizenbaum’s comments appeared in the July 1984 issue of Byte. The first use of the term “edutainment” that I could locate appeared in a Milliken Publishing advertisement in the January 1983 issue of Creative Computing. Articles involving Spinnaker and Tom Snyder appeared in the June 1984 Ahoy! and the October 1984 and December 1985 Compute!’s Gazette. And if you got through all that and would like to experience the original Apple II Carmen Sandiego for yourself, feel free to download the disk images and manual — but no almanac I’m afraid — from right here.)

 
 

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Project: Space Station, Part 3: The Game

Project: Space Station

Stan Kent and his company AstroSpace may have exited the stage, but Avant-Garde Publishing, the new owners of HES, weren’t ready to give up on Project: Space Station. They reached out to Larry Holland to finish the game.

Holland shares with Stan Kent some impressive academic credentials, but he’s otherwise his polar opposite: a quiet just-get-the-job-done sort who has always avoided interviews and public exposure as much as possible. After earning a Bachelors in anthropology and archeaology from Cornell in 1979, he spent two years out in the field, working on digs in Africa, Europe, and India, before starting on a PhD at Berkeley. He settled there near Silicon Valley just as home computers were beginning to take off. He bought himself one of the first Commodore 64s, learned to program it, and was hired by HES in early 1983 to port action games like Super Zaxxon to it. He proved himself clever and reliable at the work, enough so that it was decided to dump Project: Space Station in his lap. It was just the chance Holland needed to show what he could really do. He pared down and refined AstroSpace’s shaggy mixture of advocacy and simulation, synthesizing a bunch of disparate pieces that looked more like engineering tools than pieces of a game into something that fit on a single disk side and was actually fun — and all without sacrificing the spirit of the original concept.

Project: Space Station starts you out on July 1, 1985, with two space shuttles, $10 billion(!), and high hopes. You’ll have to plan and build your station module by module, while also, this being the new era of space exploration, earning enough from commercial satellite launches and the results of the experiments you run up there to keep the project going. From the perspective of today especially, Project: Space Station is a simulation of an alternate history in which the American space station not only got funded and built in the 1980s but all of NASA’s manned-space initiatives — most notably the shuttle — lived up to all of their plans and hopes. In this timeline shuttle launches are truly routine. You can assign a couple of astronauts to a shuttle, launch it, bring them down a few days later after having delivered their payload, then launch them again a week later like the space truckers they are. In a small concession to reality, every ten launches or so the shuttle might lose some thermal tiles, thus needing an extra ten days or so for repairs, but the thing blessedly never blows up or burns up. You even have clients asking you to hoist satellites for them for $40 million to $70 million a shot, and the shuttle is cheap enough to operate that you can turn a profit on that; pack several satellites into the cargo bay and send ‘er up before your arch-rival, the European Space Agency with their boring unmanned rockets, steals the job from you.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

The first thing you notice when you first start Project: Space Station is how friendly it strains to be. I’ve made it a point to mention in the past how the innovations of the Lisa and Macintosh trickled down to cheaper machines in a way that gave the Apple computers influence far out of proportion to their actual sales numbers. That influence is all over Project: Space Station; this program simply couldn’t have existed a couple of year earlier. Everything is presented via icons and menus, navigable with the trusty joystick, while the space-station design screen has you sketching out your station by pulling modules into place with a “mouse” pointer. There’s even a — get this — context-sensitive help system to guide you through the game along with some canned tutorials to get you started. Hardware limitations inevitably restrict all of this in practice, but Project: Space Station feels like it was looking ahead about ten years into the future of software — or just looking very carefully at what was happening on the Mac, which largely amounted to the same thing.

The other obviously extraordinary thing about Project: Space Station is the fact that it runs entirely in real time. There were plenty of grand strategy games already available for machines like the Commodore 64; SSI alone had published dozens of them by 1985. But, true to that company’s roots in cardboard wargaming, most of these felt like tabletop rules sets that had been translated to the computer. Project: Space Station, however, is undeniably a born-and-bred computer game. There are no turns here. As you navigate through its screens the clock is constantly ticking, sometimes much to your consternation, as when you find yourself with research projects that need to be tweaked, a shuttle costing you money in space that needs to be landed ASAP, a precious satellite contract about to be awarded to those pesky Europeans, and another shuttle on the launch pad about to begin its countdown. Where do you begin? This game does nothing if not teach how to prioritize and how to manage your time. It also does a great job of not making you feel like you’re just tinkering with a dry spreadsheet, a syndrome that afflicted many other contemporary strategy games, a genre not exactly known for its graphics at a time when graphics in general were, shall we say, somewhat limited in comparison to today. Project: Space Station‘s graphics are actually quite nice for the era and the machine. But more importantly, you get to do such a variety of stuff in this game that it stays fresh and interesting for a surprisingly long time. When you’re tired of budgeting, there’s a shuttle to land via a real-time action game; when you’re tired of tweaking research projects, there’s that new laboratory module to move into place via an EVA.

So, let me walk you quickly through the different sections of the game, each of which is represented by and always accessible via its icon at the top of the screen.

Project: Space Station

The Plan section is the expected spreadsheet portion of the game, where you allocate funds to your different departments; buy the actual pieces of the station which you’ll be assembling, erector-set-like, in orbit; hire and fire astronauts; and provision and schedule shuttle launches. The most interesting and surprising part of this section is the astronaut-selection process. Each of the 32 possible astronauts has not only a professional specialty but also a personality. You have to consider whom you put together, because personality clashes can and will result if you put, say, a control freak together with a more laissez-faire kind of fellow. You’ll grow attached to some of these folks, and you’ll feel awful if you kill one or more of them by stranding a shuttle in orbit or botching an EVA.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle launches are affected by the weather; you’ll want to watch it carefully, and delay the launch if conditions are too unfavorable. Occasional mechanical snafus will also cause delays. Once the candle is lit, you take control, guiding the shuttle into orbit via a little action game that doubtless would have horrified the original Project: Space Station team with its lack of realism but is nevertheless a nice, not-too-difficult break from the strategic side of the game. If you stray too far off course, the shuttle will end up parked in orbit far from your station, making any EVA operations to expand or repair it much more time consuming and hazardous.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle landings also involve a simple action game. Rough landings can result in damage to the shuttle and extra repair time before it can fly again.

Project: Space Station

The Station section is there mainly to let you transfer astronauts between a shuttle in orbit, which can hold up to six people, and the station, whose capacity depends on how many crew modules you’ve bought, flown into orbit, and linked up, along with how much additional station infrastructure you’ve built to support the crew: power modules, radiator modules to disperse heat from the power modules, emergency modules to protect the astronauts from the occasional solar flares. And of course there’s not much point in having people at the station without something for them to do — meaning research projects, which require laboratory modules, which require yet more power modules, which… you get the picture.

Project: Space Station

The EVA section is the most fanciful part of the game. You venture outside shuttle and station using worker pods that have everything to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey and nothing to do with anything NASA was likely to come up with in the mid-1980s. You use the pods to construct the station, clear occasional debris that’s made its way into the station’s orbit, and launch commercial satellites; in the screenshot above, I’ve just attached a Payload Assist Module to a satellite to boost it into geosynchronous orbit. It’s very easy to run out of fuel or damage a pod so badly that it’s no longer functional. When that happens, you’d best have a backup pod that you can use to rescue the first before oxygen runs out. Once you’ve experienced a single time the excruciation of waiting for an astronaut to die from oxygen deprivation, unable to do anything about it, you’ll make sure you always do, believe me.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

Finally there’s the real heart of the game, the R & D section; after all, it does bill itself on the box as a “science simulation in space.” You can have up to four research projects running at once, assuming you have a station that can support them. While you receive a generous initial budget which you can supplement with satellite launches, your research should eventually become the heart of your revenue stream, as it is the heart of the game’s rhetorical argument for a space station as a fundamentally practical, commercial proposition that will eventually pay for itself and then some. Some projects can also yield practical improvements that will make your station run more efficiently. There are 40 impressively specific projects to choose from, divided into 9 categories: Agriculture, Astronomy, Bio Medical, Earth Watch, Geology, Materials Science, Meteorology, Physics, and Space Technology. It’s a big thrill when one yields a major breakthrough, enough so that you’ll probably be willing to ignore questions like why it’s necessary for people in space to examine the satellite imagery used to make a crop survey.

I don’t want to overstate the case for Project: Space Station. While thoroughly entertaining in its early stages, it does have a litany of little problems that are very likely to turn you off eventually. Many involve research. If you don’t happen to be watching an R & D project when a milestone is completed, it’s very easy to miss it; once replaced by something else, each R & D notification from each project is lost forever whether you’ve actually read it or not. That’s a very bad thing because each project yields exactly three milestones, after which it continues to suck money from your budget but doesn’t earn you much of anything. You’re thus often left uncertain whether a given project has run its course or a big windfall might be just around the corner. Even more infuriating is when a project starts saying a “key scientist” is needed for research to continue, without telling you whom or even what type of scientist you should be looking for. Gameplay then devolves into a tedious — and expensive — ferrying up of shuttleloads of possibilities and swapping them in one at a time, whilst you wonder what the hell sort of a research team would just tell you they feel the need for someone else but not whom or what for.

There are a number of other areas like this where the game’s ambitions outrun the capabilities of an 8-bit 64 K computer with a blocky low-resolution screen, where you feel like the game just isn’t telling you things you really ought to be able to know. Which research projects are expected to yield the most immediate returns for the early days of your station? When can you expect the next injection of financial assistance from Congress, and how much will it be? If a research team is suffering personality clashes, who exactly is having a problem with whom? And then there’s the goal problem, in the sense that there really isn’t one. The whole affair must presumably spin down into entropy at some point, when you’ve done all of the research projects and can no longer sustain your station, although it seems that can take a very long time; on his now-defunct blog dedicated to the game, Geof F. Morris posted screenshots of a station that lasted into 2007 in game years. I would venture to guess that Larry Holland was not so much unaware of these problems as just unable to push the hardware any further to correct them. Project: Space Station‘s sensibility is so modern that it can lead us to expect more from it than a Commodore 64 can deliver even under the control of a great programmer.

The game didn’t have much commercial luck. It was released at last in late 1985, some three years after Stan Kent had first conceived it and just a few months before the Challenger, which features as one of the two shuttles in the game, blew up on its way to orbit and suddenly made Project: Space Station‘s sunny optimism about a future in space feel tragically anachronistic. Avant-Garde Publishing went under shortly thereafter, marking the final end of the HES label. Yet Project: Space Station wasn’t dead yet. It ended up in the hands of Accolade, who rereleased it in 1987 as a member of their Advantage line of budget games, with some small but important changes: the Challenger was replaced by the Discovery, and the starting date was moved up to 1987. It made no great impact then either, and faded away quietly into commercial oblivion at last.

Surprisingly given its (lack of) commercial performance, Project: Space Station spawned a modest, oddly specific sub-genre of space-station-building games that also included Electronic Arts’s Earth Orbit Stations as well as Space MAX from the perfectly named Final Frontier Software and the more fanciful E.S.S. Mega from Coktel Visions, which replaced American with European boosterism. Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, a management simulation of the Moon race, might also be considered something of a spiritual heir. All except that last share with the space shuttle itself today a certain melancholia. Thoroughly of their time as they are, they can be a bit disconcerting to us in ours, showing as they do ambitions never fulfilled, grand adventures never quite undertaken.

Project: Space Station is even more fascinating as a piece of history than many of the titles I write about, being a document of our sunniest expectations for a future in space prior to the Challenger explosion that changed everything. But even taken as just a game, it’s impressive and noble enough that I’d recommend you play it for a little while in spite of its issues. You can download the original Commodore 64 version from here if you like, or find its ports to the Apple II and IBM PC on other sites. Most games — even the equally-noble-in-its-own-way Ultima IV — treat life so cheaply, sending you off to slaughter in the name of becoming a hero. It’s nice to play a game that’s all about preserving the precious lives of your astronauts, that shows that a game can be absolutely without violence and still be riveting, that shows that heroism need not come with a body count. Would that ludic history had many more like it.

(Larry Holland — who in later years tended to be billed as Lawrence Holland — has generally managed to avoid talking much about his personal life and background as well as his early career. The best print source is a profile in the spring 1992 issue of LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer. While I generally try to avoid wikis or overly fannish sources, his page on Wookiepedia is also very complete and appears to collect just about everything we know about him, scanty though it may be.)

 
 

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Project: Space Station, Part 2: The Dream

A proposed NASA space station with shuttle docked

As long as there has been a space program, there have been space-program boosters. With budgets dwindling and interest waning after Apollo 11, however, NASA suddenly needed them as never before. Various people started various organizations to educate, to advocate, to lobby, sometimes even to agitate the case for space. Briefly among the more prominent of these folks during the early 1980s was Stan Kent, a precocious English rocket scientist still in his mid-twenties.

Growing up working class in the industrial city of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, Kent wrote to NASA asking for more information about the Titan rocket used to hoist the Gemini space capsules into orbit. Much to his family’s surprise, they sent it, cementing a passionate love affair with space and with NASA. (NASA was notably wonderful about this sort of thing in their 1960s heyday; many a starry-eyed kid all over the world received a similar thick envelope filled with pictures and articles for no charge but the cost to mail a letter to Houston.) At age 15, he demonstrated for the first time what would prove to be a lifelong knack for self-promotion. Determined to find a way to come to the United States to study rocket science, he entered a contest to design a functioning powered aircraft which won him national attention inside his home country and was enough to recommend him to a wealthy philanthropist in Santa Clara, California, named Austen Warburton. With Warburton’s assistance, he came to the United State to attend university at the age of 17, and graduated from Stanford with a Masters in aerospace engineering in 1978 at the age of 22, winning the prestigious Herman Oberth Gold Medal in the process for his paper on “The Space Shuttle External Tank as a Reentry Module.” He was soon working for Boeing and later Lockheed, and doing consulting jobs for NASA itself.

Kent’s public space advocacy began in 1979, when he got wind of proposals within NASA to stop monitoring the two Viking probes that had landed on Mars three years before simply because they couldn’t afford to continue to pay people to do it. He organized a Viking “charity” which presented NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch with a check for $60,000 to go toward continued monitoring on January 7, 1981. The sum would increase to over $100,000 in the months to come, then increase dramatically again when he organized with former astronaut and Moon-walker Pete Conrad to sell off recovered pieces from the old Skylab space station by way of further fundraising. (By that time Viking 2 had already gone offline due to a failed battery. Viking 1 would continue to transmit — and, yes, to be monitored — until a botched software update took it offline on November 11, 1982.)

Under the aegis of Delta Vee, the nonprofit corporation he set up with the assistance of Warburton and some aerospace colleagues, Kent stumped the country on behalf of space, appearing on television, on radio, in Omni magazine (with whom he did much of his advocacy in partnership), and in countless newspaper articles. He worked to set up a nationwide network of “neighborhood space centers” — “the McDonald’s of space” — and gave speeches to anyone who would have him. Far from your stereotypical rocket scientist, Kent made space cool in what the L.A. Times described as his “new-wave haircut, beige suit, purple shirt, and bright red tie”; he looked like “he might be a member of a rock band.” In September of 1981 he testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications at the age of just 25. His pitch emphasized a new, more pragmatic take on space very much in keeping with the dawning hyper-capitalism of the 1980s. The NASA that Kent described was fundamentally a practical enterprise whose work would bring scientific and technological breakthroughs to make life better for ordinary Americans, along with economic benefits to the country; Kent was fond of citing such dubious surveys as the one done in 1972 by Chase Econometrics, which claimed that every $1 spent on the space industry injected $10 to $15 back into the economy within five to seven years.

In that spirit, he and his partners soon set up a second, for-profit corporation they named AstroSpace. Its initial purpose was to research and hopefully to exploit a pet idea Kent called SOLARES: “Space Orbiting Light Augmentation Reflector Energy System,” a way to beam concentrated sunlight down to Earth for use as energy. In the meantime, though, the home-computer boom was happening. Soon Kent hit upon a more earthbound project for his company: to create a computer game that simulated the building and operation of the permanent space station that he and so many others felt represented the next logical steppingstone to Mars and beyond. By 1983 he had sold the idea to Jay Balakrishnan of Human Engineered Software, who loved big, high-concept edutainment titles.

Project: Space Station was certainly that. The game that Kent and Balakrishnan described (separately) to InfoWorld magazine in 1984 — it was quite obviously the HES product that the latter was most excited to discuss — filled nine disk sides. Balakrishnan:

It’s an absolute simulation. First of all, to start you have to go to Congress to requisition a budget. You have to choose your scientific team that will comprise the space mission. There’s a book, almost like a story, with different fictitious characters that you can select your team from. There’s a whole page of biographical data on each person — where they went to school, whom they married, whether they’re stable individuals or not, and so on. Then you must decide on what kind of industry you’re going to develop in space — for example, if you want to make ball bearings or crystals or whatever.

Then you design your space station. Each one is a different module. You might build a plant area, living quarters, etc. Then you run a simulation. Now the plant starts working, giving oxygen and life, and the industry starts working. You see that it’s a viable operation. Finally, after you have overseen everything, you resign your post. You were the director of a successful space industry, so you get your gold watch at the end. Of course, during the game all kinds of random things can occur. Maybe you’ve gone over budget. So you go back to Washington, D.C., and appeal for a higher requisition to keep the business going.

Together Kent and Balakrishnan organized an “advisory” board for the project that consisted of Kent’s colleagues in the aerospace industry along with the high-school students who would be the game’s most obvious target market, all “overseen” by the hapless, computer-illiterate Leonard Nimoy (who must have been wondering by this point why he’d signed on with HES at all).

I find this original conception of Project: Space Station fascinating as an early example of a computer game with an explicit real-world rhetorical goal. One could call it without hyperbole propaganda, a political advertisement for a NASA space station. The justifications it makes for such a project are the same as those Kent was making in his speeches, and, indeed, those that Ronald Reagan more obliquely referred to in his State of the Union address of 1984. In Project: Space Station, players would enjoy success not so much in the form of exploratory firsts or pure scientific breakthroughs but rather that of crop surveys that would make American agriculture more efficient, new semiconductors that would make American computers more powerful, lasers that would revolutionize American manufacturing, even the proverbial cure for cancer. If it wasn’t always entirely clear why some of these research projects had to be done by people in space, well, that was a problem Project: Space Station shared with some of Kent’s speeches.

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

This huge game being developed by a bunch of aerospace people with no experience in game development was of course all but doomed to failure. Kent and company did manage to get far enough to produce some intriguing screenshots that, as published in the April 16, 1984, issue of InfoWorld, stand today as the only tangible artifacts left to us from this version of Project: Space Station. The whole thing collapsed by the end of that year, with HES going bankrupt and being absorbed by Avant-Garde Publishing and AstroSpace coming to an abrupt end along with Kent’s time as a space advocate. He made an extreme and kind of bizarre change in life direction, opening back in Santa Clara a night club called One Step Beyond that became a regular stop on the college-rock touring circuit for some years. Today he writes erotica, hosts naughty events at a sex shop, and is something of a fixture of the Southern California nightlife scene while apparently still keeping his hand in from time to time as a rocket scientist. In 2012 he consulted on the perfect combination of all his interests: a proposed Playboy space station.

(Stan Kent’s space advocacy is chronicled in the August 3 1980 Washington Post, the January 8 1981 and November 12 1982 New York Times, and the July 22 1982 L.A. Times. The two InfoWorld articles that describe Kent’s original vision for Project: Space Station are in the April 16 1984 and September 3 1984 issues. A transcript of his testimony before Congress is contained in the government publication “Future Space Programs, 1981: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-seventh Congress, First Session, September, 21, 22, 23, 1981.” The space-advocacy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the place of a space station within are treated at length in Reaching for the High Frontier by Michael A. G. Michaud, available online from The National Space Society.)

 

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